We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, December 20, 2014

God's Ways

Sometimes we do dumb things, sometimes they are done to us.  Sometimes we are insenitive, sometimes we are collatoral damage of insensitivity.  Things are said that should not be said or left unsaid when they should be said.  Some things we get over in a day or two, others linger interminably.  Things happen to us that can leave deep scars, and we do things that can leave others deeply hurt.

There is usually no good way out of the situations we get ourselves into.  At least, it seems that way.  In hindsight, however, sometimes the dumb things we do and are done to us turn out to have had something more than a silver lining.  They had unintended good consequences, if we have the wit to see them.  And sometimes a prayer uttered in hurt or embarrassment or confusion is answered, and the clinging fog of life clears for a time.  Things weren't what they seemed to be.  And on occasion we have the wisdom to do or say something that brings healing into the dumb situations we find ourselves trapped within.

Without being naive about it, there are paths through the Valley of the Shadow, the Valley of the Fog.  The wrongs we do and the ones done to us—there are healing ways through them.  Unintended consequences themselves have unintended consequences, which don't exactly make things easier but do eventually bring us out of the fog into the light of day.  Embedded even in our worst are other ways, what those of us who hold a theist's faith might call God's Ways.  Our prayer is, "Lord, help me to find one of your  Ways."  Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wondering About the Facts

In our world, something is not real if it is not factual—not true if it doesn't accord with the facts.  This is so obvious that it is just plain common sense, beyond any the need to question.  We believe in facts.  They are our portal into reality.

Fair enough.  Fair enough, that is, until one starts to think about the meaning of the word, "fact."  The Free Dictionary definition of "fact" seems to be both representative of and somewhat more precise than other online definitions; and what it boils down to is that a fact is a fact because it states or describes something that is real.  It is a fact because it really happened.  It is factual because it really is the case.  It is a fact because it describes a piece of what is really real. By that same token, a scientific fact is "an observation that has been confirmed repeatedly and is accepted as true (although its truth is never final)" and, more simply, "facts learned by observing."

We normally consider facts to be transparent.  We can see through them to subsequent facts leading to the confirmation of hypotheses.  We are less often aware of factuality as a mindset, a set of values, and a prejudice.  How we define reality determines our conception of factuality, and there is no value-free, neutral, unprejudiced definition of reality, not even in the sciences.  Equally important is what we define as unreal.  In science, divine causation is considered to be not real scientifically, and the Holy Spirit  considered outside the realm of scientific reality.

Our definitions of reality by which we determine factuality are all human definitions based on what we think is real.  When theists absolutize their definitions, we are justly criticized for doing so.  Scientists often escapes criticism for absolutizing their definitions because they supposedly have a handle on what is really, really real.  The trouble is, of course, that they don't.  All human definitions of reality are limited ones, incomplete and open to criticism—all of them.  Facts are ultimately human creations.  Vast numbers of what people take to be "facts" do not in fact accord with actual realities.  Scientific "facts" turn out not to be factual.

The point is a simple one: we put too much trust in factuality.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jerry Kill as Big Ten Coach of the Year?

Minnesota Gophers head football coach, Jerry Kill, has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year.  Those of us who are Gopher's fans are quite happy with his selection.  It seems warranted.  Some folks in Ohio, however, are not happy.  Urban Meyer, head coach at Ohio State, seems to them a much worthier choice.  Their case has two points.  First, in spite of Ohio State's continued football success over the last twenty years (one losing season, numerous ten win seasons), no head coach has won the coach of the year award.  It is incredible to them that this should be the case.

Second, OSU's record this year is in every sense superior to Minnesota's.  OSU won their head to head clash in Minneapolis.  OSU has defeated several highly considered opponents including Michigan State.  The Buckeyes regularly recruit at a higher level than Minnesota.  Meyer has had to contend with a number of serious problems including losing one of the best quarterbacks in the country for the season.  (It turned out that the replacement QB is arguably even better).  In every regard, these arguments are compelling.

Yet, there is a compelling argument for Kill as well.  Looking at the Gopher's record over the twenty years tells the story: one ten win season, few winning seasons—in short a marked lack of success and prominence most of the time esp. when compared to Ohio State.  That is, Urban Meyer's unarguable success continues the long-standing success of OSU football.  Kill's putting together back-to-back eight win seasons in Minnesota, on the other hand, stands in marked contrast to the team's past when that has happened only once.  Indeed, going back to 1960, Minnesota has had eight-win seasons only seven times including the two under Coach Kill.  Going back just to 1994, OSU has had 17 eight-win seasons or better.

Meyer's accomplishments represent an admirable continuation of the OSU winning tradition built on a superior football culture.  Not every coach can come into a winning situation and keep it going.  Kill's seemingly more modest accomplishments in Minnesota, on the other hand, stand in marked contrast to what has gone before.  He inherited a mess, and he has thus far turned things around in a remarkable fashion.

The question is, in sum, what is the measure of coaching success that would lead to being named coach of the year in the Big Ten?  Is it superior success continuing a tradition of superior success?  Is it measurably improved success turning around a tradition of mediocrity?  Honestly, a case could be made in either direction, but making that choice requires deciding on the measure of coaching success.  The judges this year chose the return of Minnesota to relevance in the Big Ten after two generations largely of irrelevance their standard for 2014.  Gopher fans are glad they did.  We're still not used to winning things like this.

Monday, December 1, 2014

It's the Culture, Stupid

While many mainline churches are healthy, most are not.  They are in decline.  They share in a culture of decline that is marked not only by statistical decline but also by avoiding talking about their decline.  In a strange sort of way, they are acquiescing to their own decline and eventual demise.  Pastors play a large contributing role in all of this, but it is the churches themselves that play the major role.

Hold that thought.  When recently asked (here) why he has been so successful in turning around the football program at the University of Minnesota, head coach Jerry Kill answered, "I guess the No. 1 thing is the culture, trying to get everybody on the same page...That was difficult. It always is, by the way, when you take a new job.”  Football success wasn't possible without a change in culture.  That change didn't guarantee that the Golden Gophers would suddenly become a relevant program, but without the change in culture there was also no possibility that it would becoming a winning team.  One key cultural change Kill identified, for example, was improving the players' grades.

Returning to the church, it is clear that declining local mainline churches require a change in culture.  It is, unfortunately, far more difficult to sell that need to congregations than it is to young football players who want to win football games.  Churches are prone to actively resist such change.  They are frequently committed to the proposition that they can overcome decline by continuing to do what they are doing, but only better.  There is a reason.  Change might accelerate decline.  Better the devil you know than the one you don't.

Nonetheless, it is all about changing the culture of decline.  The problem with all of the how-to manuals and books and audio cassettes and websites dedicated to that change is that culture is a profoundly local thing, even the culture of decline.  What works in one place may well not work at all in another.  The one constant is the need to change the local church's culture of decline.  And one crucial place to begin is to talk about it.  Not talking means not changing.  Changing a church's culture also requires finding leverage points, which are easier to change and will promote changes in other places—such as introducing a small group ministry into the church.

In any event, it is all about the culture.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Turning the World on Its Head

"Inversion" is a key biblical motif: it is the way God works in the world.  For Christians, it represents the way we are called to respond to the good news of Jesus.  The biblical model for inversion is the Exodus where God liberated a slave people, transforming their future.  God values that which the world despises, sees weakness as strength, and finds wisdom in places the world ignores.  In the Kingdom, God will stand the world on its head: the great will become the least and the last will become the first.

Inversion is also when an NFL star offensive lineman walks away from a multi-million dollar contract to become a farmer in North Carolina—because of his faith, which calls him to a life of service to those in need.  Jason Brown is the man, and what he did was to buy a thousand acre farm near Louisburg, NC, learn farming, and begin to raise crops to give away to food pantries.  His motivation is his Christian faith, which inspires him to value service over the prestige and the wealth that comes from being a top-level pro-football player.  Read his story (here) and see a video clip of an interview with him (here).  Inversion.  A powerful biblical theme.  Amen.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Book of Samuel as Feminist Literature

Tiarini's Amnon et Tamar
II Samuel 13 is an awful chapter.  It contains the story of the rape of David's beautiful daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother and David's son, Amnon—and its aftermath.  As the story goes, Amnon "loved" Tamar, tricked her into his bedroom with the unwitting help of his father, and raped her.  His love then turned to loathing, and he forced her to leave him in the face of her pleas that he not double her disgrace.  After two years, Tamar's brother and David's son, Absalom kills Amnon and then flees in fear of his life.  David was left in grief with a chaotic family situation filled with tragedy.  It is clear from the larger story that the ultimate source of all of this was his lust for Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah (II Samuel 11-12).

In both the stories of Bathsheba and Tamar, it is clear that women are treated as the objects of male lust.  In both cases, the consequences of that lust are dire—destructive of the women affected as well as the male perpetrators.  And in both cases, there was no legal recourse in ancient times to protect Bathsheba from David or Tamar from Amnon.  If a man was powerful enough he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with a woman he desired irrespective of her feelings or wishes.  This was apparently especially the case with beautiful women, which adds the further insight that feminine beauty in the stories is at best a two-edged sword—not without its own dangers to the attractive woman.

All of this is fodder for feminist reflection.  In his commentary on I and II Samuel, The David Story (Norton, 1999), furthermore, Robert Alter comments at the beginning of II Samuel 14 (p. 275) that at several critical moments in the David story enterprising, resourceful women intervene to take the story in new directions.  This in a book otherwise dominated by "powerful martial men."  Women, that is, are a central part of the David story but exercise their influence in a way clearly different from men.  In sum, the stories of women in the Book of Samuel describe both the weakness and the power of women's place in ancient Israelite society and inspire reflection on their place in ours.

Whether or not the ancient writer and redactors of the Book of Samuel intended it to be a commentary on the place of women in society is not really the point.  In our context, it is possible to read it that way.  One of the core concerns of the Old Testament is justice.  Yahweh was a God of justice.  When Nathan confronted David (II Samuel 12) that was precisely the point that he made, and it is clear that Bathsheba as well as Uriah were the victims of lustful injustice.  Tamar suffered a double injustice (raped and then rejected).  While it is important to understand the original intention of the author and the subsidiary intentions of the redactors of this story, it is also important for us to read it with 21st century eyes.

The Book of Samuel, in sum, is inescapably a source for reflection on feminist issues and concerns.  Perhaps, unexpectedly.  Generally, overlooked.  But there it is.  Amen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Walking Away Without Rancor or Regret

The Barna Group has recently published a study entitled, Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Tyndale Momentum, 2014), which draws on data collected over the last two decades to examine trends in American attitudes towards church involvement.  In a summary piece, "Five Trends Among the Unchurched," the major findings of the study are summarized as follows:

  • Secularization Is on the Rise
  • People Are Less Open to the Idea of Church
  • Church going is no longer mainstream
  • There is less interest in worship and less loyalty to a single church
  • There Is Skepticism about Churches' Contributions to Society
In a sense, there is nothing new here.  We all know these trends are taking place and have generated a vast literature, which has had no visible influence on reversing them.  Meanwhile, our young people continue to walk away from the church without rancor and without regret.
What I suspect is not happening is that mainline churches that still have a degree of strength make any serious effort to address these issues themselves.  I suspect that the data and reflections contained in the vast literature on church decline are being little studied or discussed in local congregations.  And I suspect that there is a disinclination to do so.  This may be because the decline feels so overpowering that there seems little reason for even talking about it.  It is almost certain that there is little discussion because in many (most?) churches members seldom share with each other on a deeper level.  Church consists largely of a set of activities that they carry out.  Any deeper study or discussions is confined to a few, if that.  Institutional inertia, moreover, is a powerful force and creates conditions where it is all but impossible to deal with the quiet, slow-moving but seemingly inevitable crisis of decline.

We just keep on walking without talking.  Since we don't want to be accused of "talking the talk but not walking the walk," we just don't talk.  Meanwhile the challenge remains and the books and studies and articles on decline pile up.  And churches keep on declining and dying.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bridging the Gulf: David, Goliath, & Us

One of the most pressing challenges facing mainline churches and pastors is to bridge the gap between scripture and our modern world.  The story of Goliath in I Samuel 17, for example, can be easily dismissed as at best irrelevant to our modern world and at worst as an example of the violent God of the Old Testament.  Thoughtful Jewish and Christian readers will have trouble discovering a spiritual message in the story, which seems to highlight David's prowess as a warrior—and his cleverness.  There are obvious discrepancies between chapters 16 and 17, which to a modern reader are jarring.  The ancient writer seems not have been even a good story teller.  Now, a close study of the chapter relying on commentaries and other scholarly aids, will clear up some of these issues, but for the average reader of the Bible such academic helps do not offer a satisfying means for understanding the modern day relevance of the story of David and Goliath.

One obvious response, of course, is that there are relatively few "average readers" of the Bible in mainline churches, esp. of books like I Samuel.  Even then, a number of those readers would see the story of David and Goliath as being historical and therefore not necessarily in need of theological parsing.  Many others would simply shrug their shoulders thinking that if it is in the Bible then it must be OK.  So, why sweat it?

Well, for one thing the story offers an important example of "inversion," the idea that God turns things upside down for the sake of justice and the furthering of the divine will.  The paradigmatic story of inversion is the Exodus, a motif and paradigm that is repeated in other places in scripture.  More generally, the story of David and Goliath challenges us to appreciate the ways in which our religious fore bearers struggled to understand God's place in their world and lives.  We don't necessarily have to agree with their conclusions or feel comfortable with the blood and guts of the killing of Goliath, but their stories force us to rethink our understanding.  Brueggemann at least gets us started in our rethinking with his observation that, "The story [of David and Goliath] is also set as a paradigm of bold faith in an arena of fear, threat, and defiance."

Short of chucking the Bible, including David and Goliath, entirely, mainline churches need to make a priority of recovering for the whole church the meaning of even the obscure corners of the Bible.  As importantly, mainline congregations need to work overtime at reclaiming a concern for understanding the Bible as a living document.  This is not an easy task in our multi-focused, multi-tasking world where anything "old" is treated with suspicion.  A daunting task - but an exciting one as well for those who take it on.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Avatar & Incarnation

Quite a bit has been written in the blogosphere about the theological implications and message of the 2009 movie, Avatar.  From a sample supplied for me by a Google search on the subject, "avatar and theology," there is obviously the usual range of responses from appreciation to deprecation.  A couple of the ones I looked at, however, caught my attention because they wrestle with the nature of Jake Sully's incarnation in a Na'vi avatar designed by human exobiologists.

One is a post entitled, "Scalp Locks, Gaia, and the Incarnation: History and Theology in James Cameron’s Avatar," by Wen Reagan, which comments on the manner in which a human is put into a Na'vi body. Reagan points out the obvious parallel between the movie's version of incarnation and the Christian understanding of the Incarnation of God in Christ.  He esp. highlights the way in which by the end of the movie the human Jake Sully has become a Na'vi, actually leaving his human body entirely.  Reagan observes, "But in the end, we don’t get a glimpse of Vishnu, safe to retreat from his current avatar and come again in another one. Instead, we get a glimpse of Christ, as Jake takes on the risk of fully embracing the Na’vi by becoming one of them, forever." Garrett East in a post entitled, "James Cameron's Avatar and the Critical Response: An Alternative Perspective," picks up on this same theme of the transformation of a human into another species by arguing that the central theme of the whole movie is the conversion of Jake Sully. He writes, "In essence, I think Avatar could be described as a conversion story," and goes on to observe that this conversion,
requires not only a change of mind and intellectual assent, but a whole new embodied way of life. It requires new eyes, new ears, a new language, and a new heart. It is a relearning of what is right and what is wrong. It is a transfer of allegiance from one people to another (the Na'vi), from one God to another (Eywa). It requires that Jake become nothing less than a new creature in a new creation...We are watching the story of a man who moves from despair, death, hate, and disbelief to hope, life, love, and even faith. When we watch Jake Sully’s story, we are watching a story about conversion.
All of which is to say a central dual theme of the story of Avatar is incarnation and conversion.

Most practicing Christians for most of the last two thousand years have held a view of incarnation not very different from that described in Avatar.  In Jesus of Nazareth, the essence of God was transferred into a human body.  God was in Christ just as Jake was in a Na'vi body.  Now, if we start to think about it, there are differences; but most of the time we don't think about it.  God was in Jesus; Jake was in a Na'vi body.  The movie makes a very important observation, however.  You can't place a person into another body and expect that there won't be any change.

One of the themes of the Book of Genesis is that God does indeed change.  In the story of the Flood, God set a rainbow in the sky as a promise that God would never again use violence against the human race and the rest of creation (Genesis 9:1-17).  Did, then, becoming incarnate in Jesus change God?  If so, how so?  If not, then how can we claim that Jesus was at one and the same time fully God and fully human?  Is it not change an essential element of our nature?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cane Toads & God

Source: animals.nationalgeographic.com
Cane toads are a large, poisonous species of toad that originates in South America that has spread widely throughout northeastern Australia.  A recent ABC Science article entitled, "Toad personalities key to territorial takeover," cites scientific evidence that suggests that the key to the cane toads ability to expand its territory in Australia has to do with "personality".  Some toads are more adventerous than others—bolder, more likely to head off into new feeding territory on their own.  Other toads are more timid and unlikely to go into new feeding territory.  The article concludes that the mix of bold and timid toads is a factor in the cane toads success in Australia.

Who would have thought that cane toads even have personality, let alone that it is apparently important to the species ability to adapt?  Such a possibility causes one to consider the potential role that personality plays in the larger, evolutionary scheme of things.  We know from experience that many other species have personality and that personality is of crucial importance in human social interactions.

The concept of personality is also important theologically.  Christian theology across the board assumes and asserts that God is a person and has the marks of personality (loving, compassionate, cares about justice, is "slow to anger") exemplified for us in Christ.  Trinitarian Christians believe that God is actually three persons (persona), Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  While professional theologians understand that the Latin term persona does not mean "person" in our English sense, the vast majority of English-speaking Christians translate the "personhood of God" as meaning God has personality.  It can be argued that this idea that God is a person who has personality is but another case of us creating God in our own image, which has pretty much been my own personal view for a long time.  It seems ludicrous on the face of it that the Divine Creator Beyond could in any sense have something as human and mundane as personality.

Still, it is worth considering that personality as a tool of our evolutionary development reflects a predisposition of the Creator, perhaps even an aspect of divine reality.  It remains entirely speculative to assert the personality of God, but it is less speculative to claim that personality is somehow within the "providence of God" and again somehow compatible with "God's will for humanity."  At the very least, it would seem that our having personalities is not a barrier that stand between us and God as such.  Certainly, the way we express personality can be a barrier, but it is not inherently so.

If, then, we apply the English-language conception of person to God as a metaphor we are not asserting something necessarily illogical or out of sorts with modern science—so long as we remember that we are using personhood metaphorically.  It functions thus as a helpful "mask" (the original Latin meaning of persona) of the Divine Beyond, which remains unknown to us directly.  It is not wrong to think of God in personal terms including the ides of having a personal relationship with God.  Whether or not God is a person or has personality, we can legitimately experience God in these terms—and think of God in this way.  It is, we might say, in our God-given nature to do so.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Religion and Power

In his preface to the "Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition" of The Rise of Western Christendom, Princeton historian Peter Brown observes that the actual physical and cultural boundary between the Roman Empire and the "barbarians" of northern Europe was not nearly as absolute as the Romans themselves claimed.  The world on either side of the boundary, that is, was strikingly similar in many significant ways.  Drawing on the work of another historian, John Drinkwater, Brown argues that, "the emperor, military, and civilian populations alike needed the idea of a 'barbarian threat' to justify their own existence." (p. xiv)  He goes on to state that, "Altogether the Roman government had a way of rendering absolute boundaries that were, in reality, extremely permeable." He refers to those boundaries as "an ideological Iron Curtain." (p. xv)  The boundaries we draw on a map, in sum, are about power and control, which are fundamental factors in human social organization.  Boundaries are artifacts of our minds that are "socially constructed realities."

And many of the boundaries that we "draw" have nothing to do with maps at all.  They invariably do have a great deal to do with power and control.  Religious doctrines comprise often function as boundary markers.  Believers in a particular set of doctrines stand on one side of a boundary and unbelievers and doubters on the other side.  The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been suffering through a prolonged debate over the boundaries between those who consider homosexuality a sin and those who do not.  We have fought other fights, notably over the nature of the Bible.  In these battles, we engage a very human practice, the describing of boundaries between us, which boundaries are as much about power and control as anything else.  If that were not the case, the constant ecclesiastical splits that have taken place among Protestants since the earliest days of the Reformation make no sense at all.  Once we reach a crucial boundary such as the redefinition of marriage, we refuse to be bound by the authority of those on the other side of the boundary.  We migrate to new institutions and loyalties.

This is all well and good.  It is the way we humans do things.  What is worth noting, however, is the ways in which all of us seek to fit God into our boundaries and make Jesus the lord of our territory alone.  All of us do this.  And it is right here that our human instinct for social control and power fails us for what we call "God" is rendered merely a god of our own making, and we turn our search for the ultimate into a debate over who is right, who is wrong, and who has power and authority.  We erect Roman boundaries to divide a territory that actually isn't all that different on either side of the line however much we convince ourselves otherwise.  It's worth a thought.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Somehow Present & Beyond

There lies in our understanding of One, Creator, Personal God a fundamental tension for us between the Creator and Personal faces of God.  How can this One God be both creator of the whole of the cosmos and all that is in it and yet also a presence that we can somehow sense in a personal way?  Our conception of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ mirrors that tension.  How could a man be at once human and divine?  How can God be somehow like us and yet completely and incomprehensibly unlike us?  And in our understanding of the Bible we are faced again with this fundamental tension.  How can a clearly fallible, human collection of words still somehow reveal to us the Word that connects us to the divine Beyond?  We call the church, the "body of Christ," and yet again how is it that this depressingly human institution can be a vessel somehow of the Spirit?

This tension between realities lies within us as well.  We discover it most painfully in the question of evil and good.  In our experience, these are not two separate categories that can be neatly divided from each other.  Out of one so often emerges the other.  Even in the darkest storm, we say, there is a silver lining.  We are at one and the same time good and not, evil and not.

How can God be both Beyond and Personal is a question that resonates across our human experience.  Maybe someday we will have an answer.  In the meantime, we live in faith.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Yankee Doodle Dandy" & the "Historical Jesus"

Among the classic patriotic films shown over this Fourth of July weekend, the broadcast on TCM of "Yankee Doodle Dandy,"the movie biography of George M. Cohen staring James Cagney, caught my eye.  In his comments on the film, Robert Osborne noted that the movie took "liberties" with Cohen's life such as having him married only once to a woman named Mary.  In real life, he had two wives neither of them named Mary.  Osborne concluded, however, that if the details were sometimes wrong the overall portrait given by the movie is accurate.

Suppose for a moment that the screenplay for "Yankee Doodle Dandy" survives for a thousand years, long after Cohen is forgotten, and future historians have only it to work with in recapturing his life.  How would they treat the script?  How much of the actual life of the real Cohen would they be able to reconstruct?  Would they be able to figure out that he had two wives instead of one?  Would they be skeptical of the rosy portrayal of his personality?  How many nuances obvious to us would they miss completely?  How accurate would their portrayal of the "ancient" world be if based on this lone screenplay?

If we turn to the long "quest for the historical Jesus" with all of this in mind, we get some sense of how difficult it is to reconstruct the real Jesus from the biblical screenplay, which was never intended to be a history of Jesus in the first place—even less so than YDD was supposed to be a biography of Cohen.  Indeed, the gospels were intended to be tributes to Jesus the Messiah in a way somewhat similar to the musical, which is a tribute to Cohen.  YDD is not biography anymore than the gospels are.  As a tribute, however, YDD still approximates "the truth" about George M. Cohen (in Osborne's view, at least) even if it plays footloose with the biographical details of his life.  Can we say the same about the gospels?  Are they faithful to the truth about Jesus of Nazareth if not the biographical details?  That is our impression—our faith, actually.  Amen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Reflections on Competition

The creation stories contained in Genesis 1-2 affirm a number of things including the goodness of creation including humanity and the idea that the Earth was created to be a garden in which we live in peace with all of life and each other.  The story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3 affirms a less happy fact: it was humanity's competitive spirit, its desire to be equal with God that led to expulsion.  Humanity "had it all" and wanted more.  The story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) confirms this ancient analysis of the human condition: our desire to be better than someone else, to have more than they have lies at the root of our tragic failings as a race.

If we weren't so competitive, we would still be in the Garden.  Jesus made much the same point when it came to the Kingdom of God: those who want to be "first" there must be slaves and servants who are not interested in what they attain but in how they serve (see Mark 10:35-45).  The lesson of the Bible is that we cannot go home to the Kingdom, which is the Garden, until we stop being destructively, greedily competitive.

As an evolutionary tool, competition is important to our race.  We determine leadership through competition.  Our very survival required that we compete with our species and with other human groups for scarce resources.  We obtain and keep territory through competition.  Our young learned the skills they needed to survive (and even thrive) through competitive play, and we continue to take great pleasure in competition.  Placed in this context, the biblical message can be understood to make at least two important points: first, the problem is not competition itself.  We obviously were created with a competitive spirit in the Garden as a part of God's good creation of us.  The problem in Genesis is that we started competing in ways that are counterproductive.  Second, the road back to the Garden (the Kingdom, if you will) takes us away from competition.  It means unlearning the competitive spirit that gets us into so much trouble, causes so much pain.

Just as we abuse God's good gift of a loving spirit by turning it into lust, so we abuse the good gift of competition by turning it into greed.  The antidote for love gone bad is asking and giving forgiveness; the antidote for competition gone bad is seeking to serve.  We are created to be competitive.  The issue is how we compete, which takes us ultimately into the realm of the uses and abuses of power.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Intolerance is its own reward.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On the Boundaries of the Spirit

We are not only living in the postmodern age, but we are also entering the post-religion age as well, which is to say that spirituality and religion are still generally identified with each other.  Christianity and Islam still provide the standard models for what it means to be spiritual.  But, as we dip our toe into a new era where spirituality is expressed in different, less classically religious ways, we are finding that the boundaries between what is spiritual and what is not are shifting.  The Spirit is encountering us in unexpected places and non-traditional ways.

A sports news posting entitled, "Strike a pose: Gophers embrace yoga" provides a striking case in point.  It reports that University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football head coach Jerry Kill and Gopher strength coach Eric Klein have introduced a regular course of yoga exercises into the football team's training program.  The rationale is that yoga restores the players physically and mentally, helping them to recuperate from the stresses of playing big time, Big Ten football.  It also helps them became more flexible, which will reduce injuries.  Gopher yoga instructor, Christine Ojala, explains that she is teaching the players to, "access the breath in a more informed and intelligent way." She observes that, "Yoga is one of the best methods for restoring the mind, body and spirit to their essential, balanced and strong states of being."

In Protestant Christian circles, prayer is generally understood to be talking to God. It is, to quote the website All About Prayer, "our direct line with heaven. Prayer is a communication process that allows us to talk to God!...To many people, prayer seems complicated, but it is simply talking to God." Asian spirituality, an increasingly important post-religious spiritual tool, is more about listening than it is about talking.  It often invites practitioners to learn to be still, to allow healing to take place.  In Western prayer we speak to God; in Asian meditation technologies the Spirit talks back.  Even when said before football games, prayer is mostly about religion and church.  For most westerners, yoga and other forms of meditation are spiritual practices that do not carry those same associations.  In them, the Spirit crosses the traditional boundaries, makes new connections, and finds new ways to entice us forward toward the full bloom of the Kingdom.  Amen.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Pastoral Visitation

By all accounts, most American Protestant pastors do little home visitation any more even in smaller congregations.  What was once widely seen as one of the basic tasks of pastoral ministry has largely fallen by the wayside.  It is a shame that this is the case, and it is likely one cause of why so many pastorates end sooner rather than later and badly rather than well.  Home visitation of parishioners by their pastor, if done in a friendly and caring manner, contributes to the over all health of a pastor's relationship with her congregation in several ways.

Regular visitation is in and of itself a statement by the pastor that he cares.  The word gets out quickly that she devotes time each week reaching out to members of the church.  It is not just those who receive visits that appreciate the gesture of care embodied in regular calling.  Pastors will use different standards to determine who requires regular visitation (e.g. everyone over the age of 80 as  one criterion) and different churches will have their own unique set of considerations.  The important thing is that pastoral calling visibly, regularly takes place.

Visitation provides a foundation for pastoral care in times of crisis and need.  The time spent socializing with parishioners in their homes, which often enough involves real sharing of each other's lives and concerns, helps a pastor to know how to minister to her parishioners more effectively when they have a real need for pastoral help.

Visitation also sets a tone for the whole congregation.  It communicates the importance of fellowship and mutual care in a church.  It is better to practice the mutual love we expect of the people of God than preach it.

In general, regular visitation provides a pastor with insights into the relationships of people within the church—who are friendly with each other, who are not.  When a pastor visits the people on a regular basis, he plain and simply knows them better.  Visitation has a positive influence on preaching, worship, and administration.  It helps a pastor better navigate the politics of a congregation.

For pastors themselves calling on parishioners sets a tone that becomes a habit.  The pastor has to work at relationships and always remember that the health of the church-pastor relationship (and thus of the church itself) depends on that work.  Visitation also encourages a pastor to find other ways to care for those relationships including having lunch at the local diner with some and inviting others to dinner in the pastor's home.

In the course of a pastorate, there will be times (for months sometimes) when a pastor genuinely has little time for calling; but the fact that it has been done and will again get done is not lost on her parishioners.  Their appreciation of a pastor who goes out of his way to minster to them in this way remains—as long as the visits are friendly, kindly, and obviously caring.  And I should add that most of the time visitation is one of the more enjoyable aspects of pastoral ministry.  In how many jobs, are people paid "just" to sit and chat with friends?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Beyond the Newtonian Jesus

Christian orthodoxy across all denominations and traditions affirms the dual nature of Christ as both human and divine, man and God.  In the Age of Science, the European branches of the faith have largely treated the Doctrine of the Incarnation as if it is a fact on the order of scientific factuality.  Gravity attracts, Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and Jesus was human and is divine.  These three "facts," however, exist in three different realms of their own.  Gravity is an observable physical phenomenon.  It requires research to explain it, but explain it or not it is.  The discovery of the Americas is a historical fact, which itself is not observable.  It does not even exist because it lies in the past, which by definition no longer exists in the present.  It is over and done.  We require research to know that it even took place.

The doctrine of the incarnation takes us into a third realm.  All spiritual experiences do.  In and of itself the dual nature of Jesus of Nazareth was not observable, even after his resurrection.  It took the early church centuries of controversy and debate to develop the doctrine.  It cannot be established by observation or by research.  It is a matter of faith that is both experiential and philosophical.  It is philosophical in the sense that it had to be thought through using the powers of reflection and reason.  It is experiential in the sense that on reflection the earliest church saw in their experience of Jesus an experience with God and succeeding generations of Christians have affirmed that we too see in our experience with Christ an experience with God.  None of this fits the profile of a physical phenomenon or historical event.  Jesus did not have a special God organ.  According to the biblical accounts, he was observably human.  And while the doctrine of the incarnation and its development is historical as a doctrine, the purported divinity of Christ is not itself a historical fact.  All that historians can establish is that there was and is a belief in Christ's divinity, not the divinity itself.  Historians are not equipped to deal with spiritual events any more than carpenters are equipped to drill teeth.

For those of us living on the postmodern bridge between the Newtonian world (a.k.a. "modernity") and whatever is coming next, it is excruciatingly difficult to separate divinity from factuality.  For us, God is not a physical phenomenon.  There is no science that deals with God or has the tools to establish the factuality of God in any way that makes scientific sense.  I am personally convinced that one day future science (or whatever comes after science) will discover God, but I don't have a clue what that even means.  Future science will rely on technologies and ways of thinking that have yet to be developed.  In the meantime, we must rely on spiritual sensitivities and the insights we draw from them to discern the Beyondness and the Presence of God.  And we have to unlearn our worshipful respect for facts.  We have to move beyond the doctrine that only what is factual is real.  We have to stop thinking that science is the last stop in our cognitive evolution.

We have to live in faith.

This does not mean we stop thinking critically but precisely the opposite.  It means that when we sense the divine in a sunset and find peace in meditation we accept that we are participating in a different realm of reality—one where Christ is human and divine for those of us who put our faith in him and where the logic of science is flawed, open to criticism.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Price of Justice

As has been widely reported both in the U.S. and overseas, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in Detroit, has just approved two motions that take a large step toward finally resolving the decades long brawl over homosexuality.  First, it voted to change the wording of the Book of Order, our constitution, to read that, “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”  The vote was 429 (71%) in favor and 175 opposed, a surprisingly large margin given the tumultuous history of the issue—and apparently an artifact of the continuing departure of the losers.  This decision must now be ratified by the presbyteries, and there is a widespread sense that the requisite majority will do so.  The General Assembly also voted to allow pastors residing in states where same-sex marriage is legal to conduct such marriages at their discretion and with the permission of the session (governing board) of the congregation they serve.

The reaction from the right has been as predictable as it is swift (see here and here for examples).  Inevitably, PC(USA) is going to lose still more congregations as those who oppose simple justice for the LGBT community hasten into their ghetto for an illusive safety from the swelling currents of our age.  They or their heirs only postpone the inevitable as the whole issue will follow them into that ghetto where over time some will have a change of heart and begin again to challenge the ghetto's values and interpretations of scripture.

For liberal evangelicals the best and most faithful interpretation of scripture is always the one that affirms the principle that God acts, "with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth" and "takes delight" in these things (Jeremiah 9:23-25).  Three generations ago, the Spirit of God inflamed us with a desire for racial justice; two generations ago it was gender justice; and in this generation it is sexual justice.   The rapidity with which the nation is embracing equality for the LGBT community is heartening and even suggests that there is a certain momentum that has been gained in the struggle for justice and equality for all.  It would be na├»ve, of course, to think that this is the last battle that is going to have to be fought in the churches or in the nation, but it is good to see that justice does tend to prevail even if it has its price. The turmoil, the heated debates and anger, and the loss of more and more conservative evangelical churches and members are a part of that price.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A New Book Review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews

I have just posted a review of Joel Baden's The Historical David at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  It has to be one of the least flattering reviews I've done.  You may want to check it out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Preaching and Local Theology

In a posting back in September 2012 entitled, "All Theology is Local," I suggested that our geographical and social locales play a role in how we understand God.  Different cultures also play a powerful role in our perception of the divine, as does the language we speak.  As a rule, preachers and local churches, however, devote little thought to the particular nature of their local theology and its spirituality.  The truth is, most preachers most of the time call on a mixture of personal experience, the Bible, personal theology, and pop culture to shape their preaching.  Some will draw on literature or the arts from time to time.  And preachers will more-or-less naturally draw on local images and stories for their sermons, especially if they have been in the same locale for a longer period of time.

There is less evidence of preachers consciously reflecting with the church they serve on the ways in which they experience God in their setting including their natural environment and local culture.  In Lewis County, New York, for example, many people continue to reside here because of its proximity to the northern wilderness.  Many hunt and/or fish.  Others are hikers or ride horses or engage in other outdoors activities.  Many live in the forest as a conscious choice, and in all of this there is often enough a spiritual component to their decision to live in or near the wilderness.  It is quite possible to speak of a "north country spirituality," which spirituality should inform the content of preaching in north country churches and from time to time be addressed directly.

In many locales, there would be a combination of local theologies and spiritualities, such as a farm country spirituality that combines with a Great Plains theology or a hillbilly theology.  An urban theology could well also encompass black theology or hispanic spirituality perhaps in tandem with a North Atlantic costal theology.  The larger point here is that we always experience God through our culture, local history, and natural environment and that fact should be incorporated into local preaching in a conscious way.  Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Chaos & Creation: the Bible

In a guest opinion piece entitled, "Recent Gallup Poll On American's View of Bible Reveals Utter Chaos Regarding Nature and Authority of Scripture," John MacArthur reflects on the relationship of modern American culture to the Bible based on the findings of a recent Gallup poll (here).  As one can guess from the title of the piece, he finds little good in that relationship.  One can sense the anguish and alarm he feels concerning the way postmodern society treats scripture, at the debasing relativism to which the Bible is subjected.  The reader also senses MacArthur's alienation from our increasingly non-dualistic culture, which seems to him to have lost its spiritual center. Postmodern Americans including the majority of American Christians, that is, think that the Bible is open to interpretations from different perspectives.  In MacArthur's understanding, these Christians have replaced the authority of the scriptures with "the authority of self."

Early in the piece, he writes, "Clearly, the prevailing belief in our culture is that while the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, it doesn't mean what it says."  From a liberal/progressive perspective, this is a useful observation that helps clarify our view of the scriptures as being both authoritative and open to interpretation—or, again, both inspired and fallible.  At the heart of it all, lies the basic question of how we experience the divine, which leads us to our understanding of the incarnation as not so much as a doctrine as a matter of God's Presence in our lives.  We are touched by that Presence in different ways including through scripture, emotion, in nature, in relationships, in the fellowship of the church, and paradigmatically in the person of Christ to name a few.  In all cases including Christ and the Bible, God speaks to us within the framework of our humanity.  God is present with us incarnationally.

That is to say, God participates with us in our humanity and in the guise of the Spirit finds multiple ways to touch our lives and bend the arc of our habitually hostile fallibility in the direction of the Kingdom.  God, as best as we can make any sense of this, inspires us from within the human experience.  That is the whole point of our trust in God in Christ: Jesus was clearly human and shared the limitations of physical existence that all of us share.  The Bible, which speaks of God out of many generations of experience with the divine, as clearly exhibits the limitations of any human document.  Both in spite of and because of his humanity, Christ grabbed our attention.  So it is with the Bible.

Returning to the idea that, "...prevailing belief in our culture is that while the Bible may be the inspired Word of God, it doesn't mean what it says," the point that must be made is that the authors of the Bible did mean what they wrote.  They wrote, however, in a very different context than the one we live in today.  We are constrained to understand as best we can that context so that we can have some sense of the original intent of the authors.  The process of discovering that intent, however, requires a specialist training and even then is a tricky, murky exercise at best.  Thus, we do best to also read the Bible seeking to hear contemporary meanings as well trusting that God does communicate with us in that search.

The real difference in all of this, of course, is that "modern" or "Newtonian" Christians believe in absolutes and "postmodern" Christians don't.  Moderns believe that words written in one language two thousand years ago retain their meaning today.  Postmoderns believe that words and their meanings are constantly shifting even today and all the more so when dealing with ancient writings like the Bible.  Moderns are convinced that Christ had to be perfect and the Bible infallible in order for God to speak meaningfully to us, and postmoderns are convinced that God can't possibly speak to us through perfection and infallibility because such things are outside the realm of the human experience.

Apparently, humanity is created in such a way that we need both those who lunge forward in the direction of new ways of thinking and doing and following the path God sets for us in Christ and those who hang back wanting to be sure that we're still on the path.  I guess I understand why the hangers back worry so much about the plungers ahead.  A lot is at stake.  But, that is exactly why we who rush in where angels won't feel we must rush on ahead.  The future is waiting!  And somewhere in it is the Kingdom.

Monday, June 9, 2014

PC(USA) in 20 Years - A Scenario

As reported in my  recent post, "Reconfiguring the Mainline?," there is a recent trend in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which its traditional congregations are continuing to decline in numbers but it is adding an impressive number of affiliated new worshipping communities (NWCs).  Working from the numbers given there, we can assume that the PC(USA) might well continue to lose traditional congregations at a rate of 50-100 a year over the next twenty years, leaving it with perhaps some like 8,000 old-style churches by the year 2034.  Given historical trends, it might even be optimistic to guesstimate the denomination still having 8,000 churches in twenty years.

At the same time, we might suppose that the denomination continues to add NWCs at a rate of about 25 to 50 or so a year.  In order to maintain that rate, many more will have to be actually formed because we can safely assume that individual NWCs will come and go at a fairly fast rate, many of them lasting less than five years and not so many lasting a decade or more.  By 2034 according to this scenario there would be as many as 2,000 NWCs affiliated with the denomination.  That also may be too optimistic, but no one can really say with any certainty one way or the other.  In any event, it is possible that PC(USA) still will have 10,000 or so "congregations" in twenty years but in a new configuration that includes a good number of non-traditional NWCs.

One other thing to consider is that some of the NWCs may "evolve" toward a more traditional congregational structure if they survive their first few years—become, that is, hybrids of different sorts, partly unconventional and partly conventional.  It is also entirely possible that some existing churches will reinvent themselves in innovative ways that will make them hybrids as well.  So, by 2034, there could be three broad categories of Presbyterian churches, old-style, new-style, and hybrid.  the whole denomination could thus conceivably take on the dual aspects of being an innovative, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants movement and a more stable institutional organization.

If something like this happens, how will it work?  Will presbyteries embrace the NWCs or will they ignore them?  Will the denomination have to redefine the office of teaching elder (clergy) to include individuals who have unconventional theological training but function has pastors in NWCs?  Who will get to vote in presbyteries and in General Assembly?  Will it matter?  How will theological education be structured and provided?  These are only a few of the institutional questions that will have to be faced if the NWC movement really does begin to take hold.

More generally, will the NWCs have become the wave of the future by 2034, or will they remain merely an auxiliary curiosity?  Or will they already be a distant memory, a might-have-been that never came to fruition?  My own sense is that the future of PC(USA) lies in its ability to transition from predominantly old-style congregations to encompassing a wide variety of innovative worshipping communities stimulating the denomination with new ideas, approaches, and styles.  The old-style churches will provide stability.  The new-style ones will give it life.  The hybrids will combine the best (and worst?) of the two in interesting and hopeful ways.  And the Spirit will continue to move.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

We Have Found Life on Mars?

The science journal, Nature, website reports in an article entitled, "Microbial stowaways to Mars identified," that the Mars rover Curiosity carried with it "Dozens of microbial species," which may contaminate samples that it collects.  This is not certain because scientists are not yet sure that the microbes can survive on Mars let alone the ride there through space.  The thing is that, according to investigators, they apparently did survive attempts to sterilize them before the rover left Earth.  The article states, "Planetary scientists worry that hitchhiking microbes could, in principle, contaminate Mars soil, or possibly taint rock samples collected as part of future missions — hence providing false signs of life on the red planet."

One has the feeling of, "Here we go again."  Virtually every time explorers or colonists here on Earth land on a new island or continent, they take with them other species that came along for the ride.  This includes infectious diseases that can wipe out indigenous populations.  So, perhaps we are at it again, assuming that the hostile environments we are crossing and discovering allow our microbial stowaways to survive the trip.  And wouldn't it be at least ironic if there wasn't any life on Mars until we put it there?  One reason we invest so much effort and resources to go to Mars is to discover new, alien life, but just maybe what we will discover is us.  At least, as the article points out, we will eventually discover whether or not life on Earth is hardy enough to survive interplanetary travel, and that in and of itself will be worth learning.

And if those microbes do survive the trip and are able to live on Mars, what we may be witnessing is the beginning of what could be the greatest engineering project in human history, the terraforming of Mars.  Eventually, we are going to leave Earth and learn to live in space, which means taking life on Earth with us to the stars.  This sounds like science fiction, but maybe the very beginnings of our migration into the universe are already happening.  Or not.  But the possibility is intriguing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reconfiguring the Mainline?

According to a Christian Post news posting entitled, "PCUSA Decline in Churches, Members Continued in 2013," Presbyterian Church (USA) denominational statistics continue to look grim. The generations long decline of mainline Presbyterianism seems to be continuing unabated.  A second look, however, hints that things may not be quite as dire as the numbers suggest and that something very interesting could be happening.  The article notes that the denomination lost some 224 churches of which148 left PC(USA) and the remaining 76 were dissolved.  It also notes, however, that some 200 "new worshipping communities" (NWCs) have been formed in the last two years under the denomination's 1001 Worshipping Communities initiative.  These communities and those participating in them were not counted in the official statistics for 2013.

If we do a little guesstimating of our own, it seems at least possible, maybe likely, that a transformation of sorts is taking place.  Setting aside the churches that left for other pastures, the actual loss of congregations to decline was only 76, which loss seems to be more than offset by the rate of growth of NWCs certainly in numbers of members as well as congregations.  What may be happening is that PC(USA) is trading in small, dying organized (old-fashioned) churches for innovative, experimental (new-fangled) communities that are more about creativity than Book of Order propriety.  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  The 1001 initiative could be a flash in the pan, a trendy fad of the moment.  It may, on the other hand, mark a new direction for at least part of the the Presbyterian Church, transforming it from an institution back into a movement. The bottom line is that whether or not something of a reconfiguration of PC(USA) churches is taking place this is the sort of thing that needs to happen—must happen.  And it looks like there is the potential for it actually happening.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

No Way Out But Democracy

Ongoing events in Thailand point to one incontrovertible fact concerning modern societies around the world: the best way, often the only way, to achieve a measure of social peace and justice in any given nation is through a democratic political process.  This is proving to be true in the nations of northern Africa and western Asia, however painful the process itself is.  In the United States, the influence of tea party movement is apparently receding because it is losing its power at the ballot box.  However one might view the tea party's agenda, it has been important in getting past its influence to give that movement all of the voice it could muster in the public arena.  Whenever a military takeover silences popular voices, it only postpones the democratic resolution of political divisions; winners at the ballot box must be allowed to rule, so long as the rights of the losers to keep talking and keep trying to turn things in their direction is protected.

It has become commonplace to quote Winston Churchill's famous observation in 1947 that,"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."  The fact that his epigram is commonplace, however, does not make it wrong.  Democracy is a sloppy way to do things.  It is always open to manipulation and corruption.  The return of big-money politics in the U.S. is but one example of how apparently fragile the process can be at times.  Even so, it remains the one way we have to ensure long-term political and social stability however chaotic it can seem at times.  Whether it was Abraham Lincoln or someone else who first voiced the thought, it does remain true that politicians can fool us all some times and fool some of us all the time, but they are hard-pressed to fool all of us all the time.

Each time the military intervenes in Thailand, the nation is denied the chance to work out its differences in the only way that will ultimately resolve them—open public debate leading to free and fair democratic elections.  Here is one more epigram: you can't win if you aren't willing to lose.  As in all competitive sports, so in politics losing is in fact an important part of winning.  Losing is a teacher.  It is a test.  It is a foundation, usually indispensable, to eventually coming out on top.  Until the yellow shirts in Thailand learn this lesson, they cannot win however often they are able to frustrate the will of the majority.  Winning by forcing the other team off the playing field is not winning.  Amen.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Meanings of Biblical Authority

In a Religious News Service (NRS) posting entitled, "Conservative United Methodists say split over sexuality is ‘irreconcilable’," the author makes passing reference to the fact that one of the issues being debated between among Methodists is "the authority of Scripture."  The fundamental issue, of course, is the place of the LGBT community in the denomination, but the nature and message of the Bible is certainly intimately involved.  That is not incorrect, but we need to be precise in the nature of the debate.  Mainline progressives will generally acknowledge that the Bible is authoritative, but they also will insist that the issue is that the Bible can be read in a variety of ways from a variety of perspectives.

Thus, for progressives the fact that a wing of the church reads certain passages in the Bible as supporting the idea that homosexuality in all of its forms is a sin does not bind us to read them in that same way.  Read in historical context, they are open to interpretation, and we choose not to interpret them in a way that contradicts the God in Christ revealed otherwise in scripture.  The point is that the one side generally holds that there is only one way to interpret the Bible while the other believes that the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations.  It is for both, however, authoritative.  As seems to be almost invariably the case, both sides in this sad, sad debate can utter the same words while meaning very different things by them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Historically Reliable?

As reported in the Washington Post (here) and elsewhere online, Mr. Steve Green has developed a high school course for the study of the Bible, which will be tested next school year at a high school in Oklahoma.  In an editorial entitled, "Is the Hobby Lobby Bible elective objective?" commentator Stephen Prothero raises two objections to the curriculum.  First, he argues, it betrays a Christian bias; it is not secular and objective.  Second, in various, subtle ways the authors uncritically promote the idea that the Bible provides reliable historical data.  He particularly points to a summary box in the text that reads, “We can conclude that the Bible, especially when viewed alongside other historical information, is a reliable historical source.”

Understanding the point Prothero is making, still one can argue that the assertion in the summary box is a correct one if properly understood.  The condition that the Bible is a reliable historical source when viewed along other historical information is crucial depending on how we understand the meaning of "other historical information."  If it includes the mountains of research and commentary devoted to the Bible by reputable biblical scholars then I would have to agree that the Bible, read critically, is indeed a reliable historical sources.  This does not mean that every event asserted in its text happened as described in its pages.  It does mean that the text of the Bible opens important doors for our understanding of the past.  It beautifully describes an ancient cosmology.  It hints at the emergence of monotheism from polytheism.  It describes among other things political developments in Western Asia over many centuries.  It provides insights into the person of Jesus and of Paul as well as data useful for understanding the emergence of the Jesus Movement in the first century AD (or CE, take your pick).

One has to read the text critically, consult other sources, and immerse oneself in the relevant scholarly literature.  And one has to be circumspect in claiming what information is available through careful readings of the text.  Still, given these conditions, the Bible is a reliable historical source—recognizing that some biblical texts are more reliable than others.

Before I returned to pastoral ministry, I devoted 16 years to the study of church history in Thailand.  I have spent a good deal of time with Protestant missionary sources.  There are scholars who refuse to use those sources for the study of Thai history generally "because they are biased."  My response is, "Yes, of course, they are biased.  But they also contain a wealth of information on subjects other than Protestantism in Thailand if one read them critically and knowledgeably."  The bias is generally clear, indeed so obviously apparent that it is not that difficult to sift it out just as if one were panning for gold.

By the same token the biblical texts are important sources for the study of the ancient world.  Yes, the authors of the curriculum mean something different by the phrase "reliable historical source," but they are still right that it is reliable—even if for the wrong reason.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bliss Point & Worship

As far back as the post-World War II years, food researchers have experimented with what is now called the "bliss point." Stated simply, the bliss point is that point where a consumer is most happy with a product.  In the food industry, it is the point at which a particular food item is most desirable in terms of taste—assuming cost is not an issue.  For an insightful, fascinating, if trouble article on the concept of the bliss point and its relationship to junk food, see the New York Times article by Michael Moss entitled, "The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food."

The consequence of mountains of data accumulated in the study of the bliss point of a wide variety of foods is that the food industry has learned how much salt, sugar, and fat in combination with each other to inject into foods to make them attractive to consumers.  Look no further for a primary cause of the obesity epidemic sweeping the nation.  We're human.  We like salt, sugar, and fat.  So we eat foods that optimize these ingredients, the key word being "optimize".  Too much of them in a given food is as undesirable as too little.

I suspect that we could very easily apply the concept of the bliss point (which turns out to be a range rather an a single point) to Christian worship.  A key pillar of the megachurch movement is the lively, upbeat tempo of megachurch worship, which often is conducted by virtually professional musicians, choreographers, and planners.  People are less and less willing to go to worship just because it is worship.  They seek stimulation.  They want a certain level of entertainment, although we never use the word with worship.  They want a return on their investment in time and effort.  Most churchgoers these days consume worship, and if that truly is the case then the concept of a liturgical bliss point is one worth considering.

On the one hand, apply the concept of a bliss point to worship sounds theologically crude, wrong somehow.  Worship should not be about entertainment.  Seeking to discover its "bliss point" feels sacrilegious, irreverent, or whatever other word we might apply.  On the other hand, if we are going to reach audiences in a consumer oriented capitalist culture we had better consider what it is that attracts them.  The answer in the food industry is, "Bliss attracts them."  What then about worship?  Is bliss also what worshippers are seeking on a Sunday morning?  It seems very likely that the answer is, "Yes."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

More Opportunities, More Distractions

It has become commonplace to observe that life today, even in a small town like Lowville, NY, is different in various ways from the way it was even two or three decades ago.  It is faster paced, more connected to the "outside" world, and brimming with opportunities and distractions.  We are constantly on the move, and the direction of society at large seems to be toward multitasking, a society where being engaged, engaged, and engaged is what is most highly valued.  One can almost feel the internal pressures that come as a part of modern living.

All of this is having a major negative impact on the place that people allow faith to have in their lives.  Faith, at heart, is about slowing down, listening, and to an extent disengaging.  It offers and invites us to live in a different reality from that of our hurry up, engaged, multi-tasking, do, do, do world.  We sit hunched over life, but faith calls on us to loosen up and to even get up and gently walk away for a bit from the hurry and get-it-done lifestyle we live.

Our interconnected world offers us more opportunities to discover such things as meditation, but we are so distracted by "reality" that we feel we don't take the time for those things.  More opportunities, but less time.  The paradox in it all is that giving a bit of our lives over to the things of faith actually does not rob us of time but allows us to live a little less frenetically, which means that we have more quality time not less.

The challenge we face in the early 21st century, then, is to "take time to be holy."  That challenge is an age-old one, but today it is filled with greater opportunities than ever yet frustrated by more distractions than ever.  We live, in sum, in a tense and distracted age, which age keeps us from embracing the spiritual opportunities more available to us than ever.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Searching for Christian Meditation in the Age of Thich Nhat Hanh

In the West, we associate meditation with the East generally and Buddhism in particular even while church historians assure us that we have a rich meditation heritage of our own.  We Protestants are especially ignorant of that heritage because it is associated with monastic Catholicism, something we "put aside" long ago—to our loss, to be sure.  The face of meditation for us is Thich Nhat Hanh, the medium is his impressive literature on its methods and spirituality.

As helpful as he is, there is for us a piece of the spiritual life that is missing, which is a connection with God—the source, the direction, and the inspiration of our personal spirituality.  Christian spirituality is a reaching Out and Up with longing as well as a reaching down in peace, rest, and quiet.  Hence an adjustment is for us helpful in meditation:

The mantra:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in;
Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
Breathing in, Lord, I know that I am breathing in;
Breathing out, Lord, I know that I am breathing out.
And the mantra:
Breathing in, I embrace being peaceful, calm, and at rest;
Breathing out, I embrace being peaceful, calm, and at rest.
Breathing in, Lord, you inspire me to be peaceful, calm, and at rest;
Breathing out, Lord, I welcome being peaceful, calm, and at rest.
Buddhist insight meditation is an invitation to dialogue with oneself in order to come to rest in the non-self that is the true self.  Christian insight meditation is a divine invitation to dialogue with oneself in the Presence of God in order to come to rest in the Beyond-self that is the true self.  Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mark's Resurrection

As we enter Holy Week again, the Gospel of Mark's version of the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection is worth lingering over.  That version, recorded in Mark 16, raises serious questions about the way in which Jesus' followers received the news of his resurrection.  In particular, when the three women who went to the tomb to anoint the corpse heard from a "young man dressed in a white robe" that Jesus was raised from the dead, they, "fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8)

If we follow the rule concerning historical documents that a thing is more likely to be true if it is inconvenient to the larger purpose of the author, this account  seems quite credible.  The women didn't see Jesus.  They weren't inspired or fell at his knees.  This was no Pentecost with flames of holy fire.  The empty tomb and the young man scared them out of their wits.  They fled an evident display of God's holy power, and unlike Moses at the burning bush they did not bow down in worship.  They ran.  And in their terror, they told no one.

According to scholars, Mark 16:8 is the end of the original version of the gospel, so far as we know.  If that is the case, it means that Jesus' followers initially greeted his resurrection with fear and silence.  The accounts of the resurrection in the other gospels are much more inspiring, but this one seems more likely.  It is consistent with a tendency found in the gospels to highlight the spiritual ignorance of Jesus' followers—an inconvenient truth that rings true down through the long years since.  It is also consistent with how people of a time when there was a holy terror of things divine would react.  It is also consistent with how three women might react in a male dominated society where they were used to being treated as "just women."  Why risk ridicule?  Finally, the reaction of the three women as Mark describes it is just plain typically human.  Most of us most of the time prefer the known to the unknown, the safe way to the dangerous one; and it makes perfect sense that we do.

This is not the resurrection that the Easter crowd wants to hear about.  It is not the resurrection preached from pulpits on that "glorious and wonderful morn."  This is an account shorn of piety.  In that sense, it may be taken as a call to a faith shorn of piety and the pretensions of religiosity.  We run, we tremble, we keep quiet, but eventually we stop to catch our breath, calm down, and find our voice—eventually.  Amen.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sabbath Rest

The decline of the church in the U.S., has any number of ramifications, some obvious and others less so.  One of the "less so" ramifications is the continuing loss of the biblical understanding of the Sabbath as time off from the cares of daily life, time for refocusing on the deeper things underlying the grind.  In times gone by in our nation, the rhythm of life was six days of labor and a seventh day for putting aside that labor, dressing up, going to worship (which was a source of entertainment and intellectual stimulation), and slowing down.  Today, committed church folks don't slow down on the weekend; they cram in, rather, an alternative set of hectic activities.  On retirement, they get busier with as much or more busy-ness as beforehand.  It is not just that there is less space for church even among the committed.  There is less time for rest.  And more than that, our modern, multitasking society is losing its capacity for rest, esp. for Sabbath rest.

Sabbath rest is partly time for prayer, reading "spiritual literature" unhurriedly, and reflection.  It is time for meditation.  It is partly time for sitting quietly, taking a walk, sharing an unhurried meal with a friend, and smelling the roses.  It is a time for not doing, not accomplishing.  It is not goal oriented time but rather time for being lazy.  It is, as one happy example, time spent sitting around a fire in the evening with the forest gone quiet, watching the dancing flames, seeing the shadows they cast on the surrounding trees, hearing the long trilling call of a loon, and simply being at rest.  A cup of hot chocolate or coffee or tea—or not. Sabbath rest is the stillness of the night forest discovered in other places in our lives where for a moment we hear the echoes of peace quieting for that moment the busyness of our busyness.

The decline of the church and the decline of Sabbath rest are not unrelated.  Renewal of the latter is not unrelated to the renewal of the former, if by the church we mean the community of faith rather than the religious institution.  Amen.