Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas



Not very politically correct in this day and age, but a nonetheless very funny scene from a classic movie. Have a joyous holiday.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Imagination

Three quotes of interest, from unrelated sources:
"[T]here are no higher moments in the scriptures than when we stand up to God. Like Abraham arguing with God about Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants us to develop our own moral sense. God wants us to stand on our own ethical legs, even to challenge him. He loves it when his children grow."
-Rabbi Yonah, via Real Live Preacher
"Tara" smirked at me. "Why don't you just color things the way you're supposed to?" she hissed as the teacher went away. "It's easier. It doesn't look so stupid."

Oh, I was pissed. I didn't want to color at all, and I loved coloring. I had been quite pleased with the previous paper; now I wanted to tear this one up. Just color things the way I'm supposed to. Why were there blank spaces for me to fill, like those windows, if I couldn't fill them sometimes? Why did she want us all to waste our time on this, if all she wanted was a bunch of papers that looked the same?
-Crackerlilo

Why should be be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

-Thomas Merton, via Henri Nouwen (The Genesee Diary)

To the fundamentalist, no value is greater than conformity. Most of them wouldn't state it that way, of course - they would couch it in terms like "holiness" or "righteousness" or "obedience," based on the assumption that the main purpose of this existence is to test how well we stay within "God's" boundaries. It's a way of thinking that's more inherently Muslim than Christian, though its roots can be traced far enough back in Christian thought that few are conscious of the distinction.

One of the consequences of this mindset is that creativity is seen as a suspect trait at best. Even when we recognize human creativity as an aspect of the image of God within us, we believe it to be so heavily tainted by sin that it must always be kept under tight rein. Incidentally, this is an attitude that would have been right at home in any Communist state. The Soviet Union and its allies did not try to eliminate all art, music and literature - simply those creations that could not be channeled to properly glorify the state.

Similarly, Christian fundamentalists have no problem with the arts when they explicitly (and aggressively) promote the right doctrines, but if a song is too subtle in its lyrics or a story not suitably heavy-handed in its moral, it's too "worldly" to be of any real value. And while many within the evangelical church have begun moving away from this mindset, the tendency to place a creative endeavor's evangelistic value ahead of its artistic merits persists in many quarters.

Our capacity for moral judgment, like our creativity, is an aspect of the image of God within us. Again, as with creativity, all fundamentalist belief systems (Christian, Muslim, Marxist or otherwise) view this trait as so hopelessly corrupted that it must be strictly regulated by the exacting (and one-size-fits-all) dictates of an external authority. Any dialogue with God (or God's equivalent) is necessarily one-sided, because any objections we might raise to what we are told God has decreed cannot be anything more than the evil stirrings of our thoroughly sinful nature.

But what if conformity is not the main purpose of this life? What if God made each of us unique precisely so that we could, through our differences, learn far more about him than we ever could through our sameness? What would happen if we ever truly focused on what we could see of the image of God in others without trying to beat them down for being "wrong"?

Not that everyone will fulfill their potential, and not that society can exist without any rules at all, but those are separate issues. Even given what human imperfection can cost us, how much more do we lose when we allow our pride to convince us that we can know enough to tell another person what God's will is for their life? How much beauty do we destroy in our crusade to prevent the sins and errors of others?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Lights



As per my annual tradition, here is a Christmas light display set to the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (in this case A Mad Russian's Christmas). Enjoy...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Reformulation

I recently finished reading Doug Pagitt's latest book, A Christianity Worth Believing. Like most books by leaders in the emergent church (Brian McLaren, Spencer Burke, etc.), Pagitt challenges his audience to reimagine what the church needs to look like to remain relevant in 21st century society.

Also like his peers, Pagitt never directly answers the questions that he raises, settling instead for sharing stories that illustrate his ideas. While some may find that lack of concrete instructions frustrating, it does have the virtue of encouraging the reader to think without dictating what conclusions one is supposed to reach.

Perhaps most valuably, Burke goes into greater depth than his colleagues have in highlighting the Greek worldview that has underpinned the majority of Christian theology for nearly 2,000 years. So many of the things we assume about God and the universe are based less on what the biblical authors actually said and more on how the Gentile believers of the early church interpreted the Bible in a way that made sense within the worldview they brought with them into the church.

One example of this is our notion of a static and unchanging God who exists outside of time. Though most Christians today regard this idea (which originated with Aristotle) as sacrosanct and any other viewpoint as heretical, the Bible repeatedly portrays God as being far more relational, experiencing the flow of time and even capable of changing his mind.

We have also inherited (from Plato) the dualistic notion that everything physical (the "flesh") is inherently corrupt and that everything spiritual is perfect. Plato is also where we get the idea that Eden was perfect prior to Adam and Eve's sin, when in Genesis 1 God merely refers to his creation as "good." By viewing the world around us as hopelessly bad, we have developed a theology that sees this life merely as something to be endured while we wait for the next life. Meeting the temporal needs of others becomes important only when it serves as a means to a more 'spiritual' end, and taking care of the rest of God's creation matters even less.

In terms of how we understand the physical universe the church has progressed slightly beyond Aristotle, but the propensity within some strains of Christian thought to view everything in strict black-and-white terms bears more resemblance to Isaac Newton's clockwork universe (and Aristotle's static, non-relational God) than it does to the far more complex universe that physicists and astronomers have uncovered since Newton's time.

That's not to suggest that science should trump all other considerations in our theology, but if we are so blind to our own presuppositions that new information is not allowed to inform our understanding of God and how he relates to us, we risk becoming a historical footnote, like medieval doctors who treated their patients with leeches and animal dung.

The "liberal" label is often hurled as an epithet at those who strive to separate their own cultural presuppositions from their interpretation of the Bible. Those doing the name calling insist that the Bible must transcend human culture altogether, or it will be completely irrelevant. Yet the Bible never comes truly alive until we set aside such false dichotomies and stop treating it as though it were a rulebook.

That discovery, however, can only come when we are willing to make an effort to view the Bible through the lenses of those it was originally written for, and then do the hard work of integrating that understanding with our current knowledge of the world around us and with what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us through other means.

The wisdom we gain may not seem as satisfying at first, since it doesn't give us the list of concrete instructions that we crave (both to take control over our own lives and to dictate to those around us). It can even make our lives harder in some ways, as it humbles us by opening our eyes to how little we really know. But it's only through such humility that God can speak to us in ways that are relevant to situations that the authors of the Bible couldn't have imagined.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Love

Cross-posted from Ex-Gay Watch.

As a young gay man steeped in the evangelical subculture, Patrick Chapman grew up feeling deeply conflicted about his sexual orientation. As so many individuals in his situation do, he poured much of his time and energy (and a decade of his life) into attempting to become heterosexual, first through pastoral counseling and later through an ex-gay ministry. And as with most who pursue that path, he was forced to rethink the assumptions he had been taught when it became apparent that the change he was promised was never going to happen.

Although Dr. Chapman’s life experiences are not the primary focus of Thou Shalt Not Love: What Evangelicals Really Say to Gays, his firsthand understanding of ex-gay ministries - and the evangelical subculture that spawned them - helps to make his book a vital resource for anybody hoping to better understand why the gay and evangelical communities are so sharply at odds, and why the term “gay Christian” isn’t the oxymoron that so many evangelicals insist it must be.
Chapman briefly shares about his experiences growing up in the evangelical church before launching into an analysis of the evangelical worldview, and how biblical literalism has led many Christians to view science with skepticism and hostility. The spectrum of thought within evangelicalism is much broader than it sometimes appears from the outside, and Chapman does take time to highlight evangelical leaders like Tony Campolo and Philip Yancey who take a softer stance when it comes to dealing with gays and other sexual minorities.

Even so, some evangelicals may feel overlooked by Chapman’s focus on the more conservative strains of biblical literalism in this section of the book. Given that nearly all of the most vocal anti-gay activists come from the schools of thought that Chapman does address, however, it’s understandable that he does not sidetrack the book with a more comprehensive survey of evangelicalism. It’s also worth pointing out how even many moderate evangelicals become strict literalists when it comes to this one particular issue.

Chapman’s expertise as an anthropologist comes into play in the chapters that follow as he examines the cultural contexts of the various biblical passages used to condemn same-sex relationships, and again as he looks at how cultures around the world have addressed the issue of homosexuality throughout history. He also surveys the latest scientific studies into the biological causes of homosexuality before turning back to address some of the more common assertions put forward by anti-gay activists, including their own use (and misuse) of the available research.

In the end, no one book is ever going to represent the final word on an issue as heated and divisive as this one. But Chapman’s thorough research and dispassionate tone raise the bar for future authors (evangelical or otherwise) wishing to address this subject.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Beware people who talk like some other group of people deserves any less dignity than anyone else."
-David Morgan-Mar

That warning certainly applies to the way some people talk about Christians (evangelical, Catholic, Mormon or otherwise), but it applies just as much to the way that many evangelicals (and Catholics and Mormons) talk about gay people as if they were all members of some evil conspiracy set on destroying all that is good in the world.

It's certainly easier to hate one's opponents after we've dehumanized them, but nothing good lies down that path. And Christians are just as susceptible as anyone else to the temptation to demonize (and dehumanize) others...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Appeal



Although it's already appeared on thousands of other blogs by now, Keith Olbermann's response to the passage of Prop 8 in California is worth repeating as many times at it takes for his point to sink in...

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Dissent

"If all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that person than he, if he had the power, would be in silencing mankind... If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

-John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

Friday, October 31, 2008

Afterlife III

Real Live Preacher has finished posting the results of his survey on what the Bible has to say about hell, in the form of a four-part video series. No doubt his conclusions will displease a lot of conservative Christians, but his commitment to sticking to what the biblical record actually says places the burden of proof back on them.

I highly recommend taking the time to listen to all four parts, especially for those who have been steeped in any Christian tradition that uses fear of hell as a bludgeon to motivate proper belief and/or behavior.

Part 1 - Introductory thoughts

Part 2 - A survey of relevant New Testament verses

Part 3 - RLP's beliefs about hell

Part 4 - What really matters

In (very brief) summary:

-The Bible gives few details about what happens after the end of this life.

-Whenever Jesus talks about hell, it is always religious believers who lack compassion who get sent there, not unbelievers.

-Nowhere in the Gospels or Acts do we find Jesus or the Apostles worrying about the eternal destiny of the people they ministered to.

In other words, whether the evidence leads one to a universalistic position or some strain of inclusivism, it's clear that our primary mission as followers of Christ is to spread God's love by building relationships with others and giving sacrificially, not to obsess over who's going to end up where in the next life.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Doomsaying

Win or lose, the Prop 8 battle in California has accomplished one thing, namely exposing just how weak a foundation opponents of gay marriage have to base their arguments on. Sure, it was easy enough for them to sound authoritative when most people still agreed with them out of reflex, but now that the majority is starting to shift in the other direction it's becoming increasingly clear that reason was never truly on their side.

This blogger's encounter with a pair of Prop 8 supporters sums it up pretty well. And given the increasingly irrational tone of the Yes on 8 campaign, both sides seem to realize which side has the better arguments. Box Turtle Bulletin has been working overtime to keep up with all of the lies and scare tactics coming out of that campaign.

Even Focus on the Family, which usually tries to project a veneer of respectability, has pulled out all the stops with its dystopian Letter From 2012. But then, if anyone on the religious right is in a position to gain from a Prop 8 loss, it's Focus. As the religious right shifts into a bunker mentality, Focus' Love Won Out conferences will no doubt continue to draw crowds from conservative Christians looking for hope in the midst of what they see as the end of the world.

On an unrelated note, here's another take on the most recent partisan update of the story of the ant and the grasshopper.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Afterlife II

Contrary to appearances, I've been meaning to get back to wrapping up my series on Jacques' Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity. Although I still haven't gotten myself into gear to do so, I did just come across this interesting essay, taken from another of his books (What I Believe).

Ellul is a universalist (a fact that he touches on in Subversion), and in the linked post he makes a well-reasoned case for his position. I'm not quite there myself; I see salvation for all as an outcome to be hoped for, but I'm not fully convinced of it. The bits and pieces that we find in the Bible regarding what happens after this life just don't give us a complete picture of what to expect.

The thrust of Ellul's logic goes like this:

If God is, he is all in all. There is no more place for nothingness. The word is an empty one. For Christians it is just as empty as what it is supposed to denote. Philosophers speak in vain about something that they can only imagine or use as a building block, but which has no reality of any kind.

The second and equally essential factor is that after Jesus Christ we know that God is love. This is the central revelation. How can we conceive of him who is love ceasing to love one of his creatures? How can we think that God can cease to love the creation that he has made in his own image? This would be a contradiction in terms. God cannot cease to be love.

If we combine the two theses we see at once that nothing can exist outside God’s love, for God is all in all. It is unthinkable that there should exist a place of suffering, of torment, of the domination of evil, of beings that merely hate since their only function is to torture. It is astounding that Christian theology should not have seen at a glance how impossible this idea is. Being love, God cannot send to hell the creation which he so loved that he gave his only Son for it. He cannot reject it because it is his creation. This would be to cut off himself.


Of course, Ellul's appeal here to human reasoning runs contrary to his arguments in other cases that human reasoning is insufficient to the task of understanding God, but in my experience virtually every theological position (including my own) runs aground on that contradiction at some point. Those that don't either reduce God to an overpowered human or spiral off into irrationality. To his credit, Ellul is careful in this essay to clarify that he does not assert his belief as dogma.

Ellul also argues against the idea that an individual's free will extends to the ability to reject salvation. I find his arguments on this point less convincing - which may be a sign of my own biases, since I still lean strongly toward the idea that love and free will are deeply intertwined.

Along the way he does, however, reinforce the point that rejection of the church is not necessarily rejection of God:

Without question we all know of innumerable cases in which people reject revelation. Swarms are doing so today. But have they any real knowledge of revelation? If I look at countless presentations of the Word of God by the churches, I can say that the churches have presented many ideas and commandments that have nothing whatever to do with God’s revelation. Rejecting these things, human commandments, is not the same as rejecting the truth.

I don't have the time or energy right now to examine the essay point by point; it's there for anyone interested in digging into it themselves. Regardless of whether eternal separation from God is a possible outcome for some, there is one thing I'm convinced of, and I suspect that Ellul would agree with me on this:

God did not intend for us to live our lives in a state of fear. Any church that uses fear of damnation to motivate its congregation - ever - has missed the point of the gospel.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Life Soundtrack 10



Rain Song, by Day of Fire

I don't get into praise music as much as I once did, but every now and then a song still comes along that strikes a chord with me. I don't know if this one gets sung in many churches or not, but it sure beats a lot of what does...

Friday, October 03, 2008

Some Links

A few items of interest around the blogosphere...

1. A clever ad that uses 1 Cor. 13 as a statement against Proposition 8.

2. The rather obvious and extremely relevant question nobody seems to be asking about the bailout plan.

3. Peterson's on the radio again. How much longer must we wait before he's finally crowned King (or should that be Queen) of all Media?

4. Finally, don't forget to pick sides in the great debate of our time...

Friday, September 26, 2008

Impasse

An irreconcilable rift exists in American society today. It's commonly seen as a clash between opposing value systems, though underneath there is also a fundamental difference in how each side perceives the very nature of reality. That much is common knowledge.

It's also no secret that conservative Christians are seen by much of the rest of the world (including other Christians) as exceedingly arrogant and prideful, with their claims to have the only correct answers to everything (or at least everything of importance). From their own vantage point, however, it would be arrogant for them to claim otherwise, since in their minds they are merely conveying the words and ideas of God himself.

That conflation of personal and divine perspective is hardly unique to conservative Christianity; every belief system has its fundamentalists who believe that what seems obvious to them must be the sole valid definition of reality. To an individual with a Stage Three faith, everything in life can (and must) be boiled down into black and white terms, and only someone trying to rationalize evil behavior would dare to claim that any other colors exist.

Attempting to dialogue with such individuals can be a frustrating endeavor, to say the least. It would be easy to write them off as narrow-minded and unreasonable, but the simple fact is that they cannot conceive of the complexities that Stage Four and Stage Five individuals have come to take for granted. There's no way to state that without sounding at least slightly condescending, but it is not an issue of superiority, merely one of growth.

At the same time it can be a challenge to not look down on Stage Three individuals, when one looks at the mess so many of them have made of the world. How many wars have been fought because one group of people took offense at another group's refusal to acknowledge their 'superior' beliefs? How many inquisitions and purges and witch hunts have whipped entire nations into violent frenzies? We may have a more civilized way of disagreeing at this point of time in the Western world, but that same hostility toward those who refuse to see things our way still burns just as intensely below the surface. Just look at the flame wars that rage across internet discussion boards on a daily basis.

Unfortunately there's no way to force a Stage Three individual to "grow up". If you do manage to convert one to your side, he will simply take up his new cause with the same simplistic fervor he applied to his old set of beliefs. And those of us in Stage Four are often still too disillusioned with whatever system we came out of to serve as bridge builders.

Not that those who do make it all the way to Stage Five are automatic candidates for sainthood. But true humility can only take root when one begins to understand just how large and complex the universe really is, and just how little one can genuinely be certain of in this lifetime. With more of such individuals the world just might eventually become a slightly more peaceful place; without them, we can be certain that it never will.

How do we raise up such people? I wish I knew; I'm still trying to get there myself. Such cultivation isn't happening in very many places. Our political system actively cultivates an "us vs. them" mentality, and unfortunately many of our churches do as well. Even so, there's always room for hope.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Perspective

"Do you ever read the Sunday comics? ... Well, when I was a little kid, I use to put my nose right up to them. And I was just amazed because it looked like this mass of dots, and none of it made sense until I pulled back. Life looks like that mass of dots to me sometimes. None of it makes any sense, but I like to think that, from God's perspective, life, everything - even this - make sense. It's not just dots. Instead we're all connected, and it's beautiful and funny and good. This close we can't expect it to make sense, not right now."

-Aaron Davis (Steve Sandvoss), Latter Days

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Doom

Will the world end in 2012? That, of course, is the last year in the Mayan calendar, as anyone who watched the X-Files ought to remember.

Until recently I hadn't realized just how much hype there is these days about 2012 - everything from polar shifts to aliens landing to comet strikes and other various catastrophes have been predicted; it sounds like we're in for a very busy year.

Fortunately, cooler minds have examined all the claims. So just in case you are losing sleep over our impending doom, here's some info to put your mind at ease.

Having said that, the world could end in 2012. But then, it could end tomorrow, or next month, or in April of 31673. We simply don't know - and if by some chance the Mayans did, it's not like any of them are still around to say "I told you so"...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Life Soundtrack 9


Wake Me Up When September Ends, by Green Day

I've lived just long enough that it's easy to get caught up in reflection over how much time has passed. I don't let myself dwell on it too much, but it still seems like the years have disappeared far too quickly.

And I have wasted more of my life than I care to think about doing little more than hiding from life. It's hard not to wonder what I could have done with all the time I spent living in fear - fear of what might have happened if I'd allowed myself to be who and what I am, and fear of a God that I was convinced was poised, lightning bolt in hand, to strike me down the second I made a wrong move.

Now that I no longer hate myself, I'm making a greater effort to make the most of whatever time I have left in this life, but it can be hard to break those old habits. If only September could slow down just a little bit...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Innate

Cross-posted from Ex-Gay Watch.

As a child I was atypical. I didn’t begin speaking until months after other kids my age had said their first words - but when I did finally talk, it was in complete sentences. What no doubt appeared at first to be a developmental problem turned out to simply be a different way of doing things. It’s a pattern that has followed me into adulthood; I tend to hold back, watching and learning, and then leap in at hit the ground running once I understand how to do something.

I try to temper this characteristic when the situation dictates, since there are times when something is better learned through the trial and error of doing, but it’s an instinct that has to be consciously overridden at the cost of significant discomfort; it’s simply what comes naturally for me, and no amount of behavioral conditioning can genuinely eliminate the underlying trait.

How did I turn out this way? Some thinkers (as far back as Aristotle) have argued that personality is entirely learned, and that we are all born as blank slates. Research in modern times has demonstrated that some personality traits are in fact innate (whether genetic or otherwise established before birth), and as such the blank slate is a notion that few take seriously anymore. Of course, even the most thoroughly discredited ideas have a way of persisting long after their credibility has been undermined.

Ex-gay theories of sexuality avoid invoking the blank slate (a concept heavily at odds with most strains of Christian thought), but they nonetheless view sexuality as being only slightly less malleable than a blank slate proponent might suggest. A homosexual orientation may not be consciously chosen, but it is nonetheless viewed to be the result of choices made by an individual during childhood.

It may seem odd that something as seemingly important to God as heterosexuality would be so fragile that it could be completely undone by a simple perception on the part of a child who’s too young to have more than the most rudimentary understanding of right and wrong (much less of sexuality). God, however, gets off the hook for this glaring design flaw since it can be summarily dismissed as a byproduct of Adam’s Fall - a catchall that gets invoked to close off further discussion on any subject that makes people too uncomfortable.

Of course, if everything that Christians have ever tried to trace back to the Fall were truly its byproduct, it would require that Adam’s singular act of disobedience triggered a fundamental restructuring of the entire physical universe down to the molecular level, which in and of itself would either call God’s judgment back into question or suggest that we have gravely underestimated the amount of power that Satan and his minions wield (or both). But I digress.

An apt parallel to the "nature vs. nurture" debate over homosexuality is the strongly negative attitude that has existed throughout much of recorded history toward left-handedness. It would be easy enough for modern observers who don't share that bias to scoff at the similarities, but such an attitude would only betray an ignorance of history.

Prejudice against left-handedness has historically been so pervasive that it was embedded into most of the world's major languages. Negative terms like "sinister" and "gauche" derive from words for the left hand, while the right hand is associated with concepts like competence and justice. The authors of the Bible shared this mindset, as evidenced in Gen. 48:13-14, Ecc. 10:2, Matt. 25:31-46 and other passages.

Even in modern times, well-meaning parents and teachers sometimes try to force left-handed children to write with their right hands. The children in question may learn to do so competently, but there never comes a time when it doesn't feel unnatural to them. And the process of suppressing their natural left-handedness can in some cases lead to a lifetime of cognitive problems.

The consequences of trying to change one's sexual orientation may be harder to quantify, but a growing number of former ex-gays are coming forward to testify to the emotional and relational fallout from their attempts. Many ex-gay advocates prefer to dismiss such claims by declaring that those who experienced harm merely went about it wrong, or didn’t have enough faith, or didn’t try hard enough (or tried too hard) - but then, “you just did it wrong” was a popular refrain in fundamentalist circles long before the advent of the ex-gay movement.

The parallels to homosexuality seem evident, even without a chart*. The instinctive bias that many right-handed individuals have toward the left-handed may be more easily overcome than the bias heterosexuals often have toward homosexuals, but both stem from an assumption about the way things should be based on what feels natural to the individual. When sacred texts can be interpreted as reinforcing that assumption, bias becomes dogma.

Society does seem to be gradually becoming more accepting of those who are "different," introverts, the left-handed and gays alike. One can only pray that future generations will value the unique gifts that such individuals have to share rather than trying to treat them like blank slates.

*The research on this chart is several years out of date, but the basic parallels still appear to be valid.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Thoughts During Convention Season

Quote of the week:

I don’t take politics very seriously; I see little point. Politicians always win elections, which means the rest of us lose.
-Mary Q. Contrarian, via Positive Liberty.


Joke of the week:
While walking down the street a US Senator is tragically hit by a truck and dies. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

'Welcome to heaven,' says St. Peter. 'Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we're not sure what to do with you.'

'No problem, just let me in,' says the man.

'Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.'

'Really, I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,' says the senator.

'I'm sorry, but we have our rules.'

And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell. The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.

Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him. 'Now it's time to visit heaven.'

So, 24 hours pass with the senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

'Well, then you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now you choose your eternity.'

The senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: 'Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.'

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell. Now the doors of the elevator open and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above.

The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder. 'I don't understand,' stammers the senator. 'Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?'

The devil looks at him, smiles and says, 'Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted.'

Note: the above isn't meant as a partisan jibe against anyone in particular, despite the timing of my post. I find both parties to be equally corrupt and equally worthy of criticism.

On a slightly related note, Timothy Kincaid's piece on political intolerance is worth reading. It's difficult to claim the moral high ground if you can't extend the same respect to those who disagree with you that you expect from others.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jaded

The other day as I was walking through downtown, I saw a man holding a "Jesus Saves" sign. It's not as common a sight as it was just a couple of decades ago, but apparently street evangelism lives on. What made me pause, though, was wondering whether it was a sign of creeping cynicism that the first thing that came to my mind upon seeing his placard was a picture of Jesus backing up his hard drive.

Then again, maybe it says more about the inevitable consequences of reducing the gospel to catchy slogans and soundbites. How many people have we immunized against the message of Jesus by giving it the same treatment that Madison Avenue gives to toothpaste?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Afterlife

Real Live Preacher has posted a challenge on his blog to those who believe in a literal Hell: prove its existence, using only biblical (especially New Testament) passages. It's a tougher request than one might think, given how saturated most Christian traditions are in imagery of the afterlife, and how adamant most are about the necessity of some sort of outward confession of faith if one wants to avoid eternal torment.

In reality, the Bible offers only limited support for any theory one cares to put forward about what happens after the end of this life. Those who believe that an elect few will live in bliss with God while the vast majority burn forever may actually have a weaker case than those who believe that everyone will be saved in the end, but ultimately neither side seems to have a decisive biblical mandate.

My own belief that some alternative to heaven must exist for free will to properly function is based as much on reason (and the writings of CS Lewis) as it is on any specific biblical passage, but I have yet to see a counter argument that doesn't rely just as heavily on human reasoning and extrabiblical sources once the proof texts have all been trotted out. If anything, it seems that God isn't deeply concerned with our knowing specifics about what happens after death. He wants us to draw closer to him in this lifetime, but the "carrot and stick" approach seems to be primarily an invention of human religion.

Whatever that ultimately means for our theology, I look forward to reading the results of RLP's challenge.

A few more links of interest:

-Anita at Sisterfriends Together has posted an interesting piece on the Song of Solomon and its ramifications for Christian arguments about premarital sex. (This is a follow-up to a previous post).

-Peterson has another good piece up on the Shame and Blame game that many ex-gay programs play.

-Finally, Pomoprophet is back in the blogosphere, and he could use your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

On Being an Introvert

A friend pointed me toward this article on introversion, and what extroverts need to understand about it. Leaning toward the extreme "I" end of the scale in Myers-Briggs terms, I found myself agreeing with the author numerous times, both in terms of what we introverts need to do to better relate to extroverts, and ways that extroverts can be more understanding.

I remember one time when a student intern came along with a group of coworkers that I regularly went to lunch with. She was a nice person, but she literally could not stop talking from the moment we met up at the office until God only knows how many decades later. Even as she ate her food, her chatter was nonstop. I'm now a bit more sympathetic to the fact that, as an extreme extrovert only a year or two out of high school, she probably couldn't help it. Hopefully she's cultivated more self-control in the years since then, but it's the kind of discipline that takes a long time and a lot of work to develop.

What irked me, though, was a comment she made in passing at the restaurant. In between several other thoughts, she looked at a guy reading a book by himself at a nearby table and exclaimed, "Look at that poor man! He must be so lonely!" For her, I'm sure that eating alone would have been a painful and traumatic experience. But to presume that everyone else thinks and feels exactly the same way is an insult to those who don't, no matter how innocent the assumption may be. It's a very fundamentalistic way of viewing the world, even if one isn't dogmatic in other ways.

So to those reading this who may meet me at some point (at a GCN event or otherwise), you're far more likely to get to know me if you talk to me one-on-one. Chances are it's never going to happen in a group setting, especially if I have to battle with one or more attention magnets to get a word in edgewise. And it is a battle for me; the natural rhythms of such exchanges elude me, and more often than not somebody else will start talking over me in mid-sentence whenever I do try to insert myself into the conversation.

I realize that's just how group dynamics work among extroverts, and I really do try harder than I get credit for to participate in such situations, but if you're going to dominate the conversation, don't turn to me afterward and say "you sure haven't said much" and expect it to somehow enhance our relationship.

Now I'm just getting cranky, so I'll stop while I'm still ahead. But seriously, if you're an extrovert, please don't forget to consider the introverts around you.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Life Soundtrack 8

Wherever You Will Go, by The Calling

Another love song I've always really liked, fittingly paired here with clips from Brokeback Mountain. The official music video (which isn't available for embedding) can be viewed here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Messy Spirituality

Cross-posted from Ex-Gay Watch

The late Mike Yaconelli spent much of his life worried that he wasn’t spiritual enough. Despite his many efforts to be a better Christian, the best he ever seemed to manage was “a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following.” Spirituality remained an eternally elusive state of being that was always just out of grasp.

Most churches reinforce this perfectionistic line of thinking, setting high standards for how their members should look and act and offering countless formulas for “godly” living that never quite work as well as advertised. The end result is pews full of people with smiles permanently in place who know all the right things to say to hide the disarray and dysfunction that lie just below the surface.

Yaconelli’s epiphany came when he realized that spirituality wasn’t a matter of having one’s life perfectly sorted out or of fitting into the mold of what a “good Christian” is supposed to look like.

Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test. It is a relationship. Spirituality is not about competency; it is about intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection; it is about connection. The way of the spiritual life begins where we are now in the mess of our lives. Accepting the reality of our broken, flawed lives is the beginning of spirituality not because the spiritual life will remove our flaws but because we let go of seeking perfection and, instead, seek God, the one who is present in the tangledness of our lives. Spirituality is not about being fixed; it is about God’s being present in the mess of our unfixedness.

Messy Spirituality (recently re-released by Zondervan Publishing) is Yaconelli’s challenge to a church that values conformity over authenticity, perfection over compassion and formula over relationship. Most evangelical churches would argue that they uphold a vision similar to Yaconelli’s, yet in practice few allow people the freedom to be where they’re at without pushing them to strive toward some fixed standard of perfection. Uniqueness is sometimes praised but more often condemned.

Similarly, many ex-gay ministries teach what appears to be a grace-filled message that encourages participants to share openly about their struggles while growing at their own pace according to God’s timing. In practice, however, only a handful of these ministries genuinely leave room for individuals to engage directly with God; the end result of that engagement has been predetermined according to a particular interpretation of a select set of biblical passages, and anyone who reaches different conclusions is automatically deemed unworthy of membership in the body of Christ.

Yaconelli (perhaps wisely) does not address the issue of homosexuality in his book, aside from including GLBT individuals in a list of various groups that churches commonly ostracize (to his credit he uses the term “gay or lesbian” rather than the various euphemisms that evangelicals typically substitute). As a result, readers will bring their own conclusions with them as to how homosexuality should be addressed by the church.

Yaconelli’s vision of “messy spirituality” does, nonetheless, suggest a framework that we can use to live with fellow Christians who disagree with us on this (or any other) issue. Having been granted the freedom to be where we’re at as individuals, we can in turn extend that same grace to others, encouraging them to pursue God (and to be pursued by him) without the need to dictate to them what that must look like, or what conclusions they have to reach.

It’s an imperfect solution, but then again, it’s an imperfect world.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Life Soundtrack 7



Little Bird, by Annie Lennox

Every gay man is supposed to have his diva, and I guess I can't buck all of the stereotypes. Most of the usual divas (Cher, Madonna, Bette Midler, etc.) don't do anything in particular for me; I can enjoy their music, but on the whole I'm more likely to listen to Lifehouse or Matchbox Twenty.

But then there's Annie Lennox. Walking on Broken Glass was a revelation, and the aptly named Diva has spent a good deal of time in my CD player over the years. What a voice...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sites to See

-First up, Peterson Toscano's thoughtful response to a guy struggling with his sexuality. Key insight: "Where is the joy in the journey?"

-Conservative Republican Ward Connerly follows in Barry Goldwater's steps and endorses gay marriage.

-Professor Miguel de la Torre challenges James Dobson's version of the gospel.

-And, not to make this a complete Dobson bashfest, but it's nonetheless true that James Dobson Doesn’t Speak For Me.

-Finally, five words nobody ever expected to see together in the same sentence: Jar Jar, You’re a Genius...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Paralysis

The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes, that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them because our main concern is not to make music but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch.

-Robert Capon

Friday, July 04, 2008

Security

Continuing with Ellul's thoughts on submission, we're left with the question of what freedom is. In the United States there is no greater virtue, and our churches reflect that priority, at least in rhetoric. The celebrations we held across our country today bear witness to our devotion. But do we truly value freedom, or are we just enamored with the concept?

There is another element that is intolerable for different reasons, namely, freedom. It is true that people claim to want freedom. In good faith attempts are made to set up political freedom. People also proclaim metaphysical freedom. They struggle to free slaves. They make liberty a supreme value. The loss of freedom by imprisonment is a punishment that is hard to bear. Liberty is cherished. How many crimes, too, are committed in its name? ...

But this fervor, passion, desire, and teaching are all false. It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom. Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it.

But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. It brings breaks and conflicts. It yields to no constraint and exercises no constraint. For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor.

Love presupposes freedom and freedom expands only in love. This is why de Sade is the supreme liar of the ages. What he showed and taught others is the way of slavery under the banner of freedom. Freedom can never exert power. There is full coincidence between weakness and freedom. Similarly, freedom can never mean possession. There is exact coincidence between freedom and nonpossession.

Freedom, then, is not merely a merry childish romp in a garden of flowers. It is this too, for it generates great waves of joy, but these cannot be separated from severe asceticism, conflict, and the absence of arms and conquests. This is why those who suddenly find themselves in a situation of freedom lose their heads or soon want to return to bondage. (pages 166-167)

It may be politically incorrect to say so in this day and age, but in some cases people who have been liberated from slavery long to return to their captivity. They do so not because the institution of slavery is morally good, but because of the security it provides. A slave is (in all but the worst situations) free from having to worry about where he will sleep or what he will eat; his only responsibility in life is to obey his masters, and all else will be taken care of for him.

So it is, all too often, in Christianity as well. The responsibility that accompanies freedom is such a great burden that we happily adopt Muslim concepts of submission and fate so that we can avoid having to take Paul seriously when he tells us that all things are lawful. After all, he also says that not all things are profitable, so surely God must have spelled out for us exactly what is unprofitable. The alternative would require us to evaluate our every action on its own merits, never completely certain whether we might be about to make a mistake.

For all our talk about freedom, freedom is not what most of us actually want. In many churches, Christian liberty is defined as a negative: freedom to not sin. It may be worded positively as freedom to choose God, but in practice it's an ultimatum with no real choice: follow our rules or go to hell.

We don't call it slavery since our master in this case is (allegedly) God, but the only freedom we truly desire is freedom from responsibility. If God has spelled out our every choice for us, we no longer have to worry about the consequences of our actions so long as we're obedient; any action that God commands can only have a positive result, even if it seems to our worldly eyes to be causing more harm than good.

Freedom is actually a rather frightening thing; it requires a high level of accountability from us and promises no security. It tests whether we truly love others or simply hope that things will turn out well for them. Freedom in no way guarantees that things will turn out well for us.

We see this in the political realm, where we surrender a huge portion of our economic freedom (in the form of taxes) in exchange for the government's promise to provide for those in need. In this way we are released from having to genuinely love the poor, the widowed, the elderly and the unfortunate (except, perhaps, for members of our own family - and sometimes even then); they are now the government's responsibility instead of ours. We now have the luxury of retreating into our own little worlds, until even our next door neighbors and fellow churchgoers are merely background noise.

I'll admit that I prefer the safety of the familiar and the comfort of letting others take care of the world's problems; I'll even donate generously to those willing to act compassionately on my behalf so that I don't have to leave my comfort zone. Such giving is not without merit, but neither is it an adequate substitute for genuine compassion if I never go any further than writing a few checks.

It may seem like I've just wandered off on a tangent, but in reality compassion is inextricably connected to freedom. God values our freedom, but he won't force us to claim it. Slavery can be freely chosen as well, however we come to that decision.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Arrival

He who thinks that he is finished is finished. How true.
Those who think that they have arrived, have lost their way.
Those who think they have reached their goal, have missed it.
Those who think they are saints, are demons.

-Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fatalism

Getting back to my study of Jacques Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity, one point of his that I found very interesting was his discussion of the ways that Christian thought has been influenced by Islam. Ellul never blames Islam for any of the ways that the church has departed from its biblical roots, but he does demonstrate how interactions between the two religions inspired Christian theologians to incorporate certain Islamic concepts into their thinking.

The most obvious of these ideas is the concept of "holy war," an idea that had previously been foreign to Christian thought. Prior to the Crusades, the church had used its influence to discourage armed conflict. Forced conversions may not have been unheard of before Christianity's first contact with Islam, but they weren't as common as they became.

Another concept that's less obviously a product of Islamic thought is that of submission. It's important to note that there is a distinction between obedience and submission; submission goes much further than obedience and leads to a fatalistic mindset within which freedom exists only as something to be surrendered in favor of being saved from eternal torment.

While some Christian traditions have a looser definition of submission than others, most agree that God has a plan for every step that a person takes through life, and that this perfect plan can be fully discerned from the unchanging, universal commands that the Bible exists to provide us. Only in "liberal" circles does the Holy Spirit's guidance serve any real purpose other than to steer us (or to help us steer others) back to that set of all-encompassing rules.

Islam means submission (to God's will). Just as mystics negate themselves to give place to God, so Muslims have the same religious orientation. Not just obedience but submission is involved. At a first glance this seems to be in full conformity with the biblical revelation. We know how important a role is played in current piety by the formula mektoub, it was written. We have to submit to the sovereign, preexistent, eternal, and immutable will of God. All history, all the events of history, all the things that come to pass in each individual life have already been decreed and fixed in advance and written by God.

In reality this is the very reverse of what we are told about the biblical God, who opens up freedom for us, who lets us make our own history, who goes with us on the more or less unheard-of adventures that we concoct. This God is not "providence" (which is never a biblical word). He is never a determinative cause or an irreducible conductor of events.

The biblical God is he who unceasingly reestablishes our human liberty when we keep falling into bondage. He unceasingly enters into dialogue with us, but only so as to warn us about what is good, to set us on guard, to associate us with his will; never to force us. Here again the tendency to believe in a God who because he is omnipotent is also omniscient (which presupposes that everything is already said) was already present in Christian thinking when it was invaded by certain elements in Greek thought. Yet at first the themes of salvation and love were always dominant. I believe that it was the strictness of Muslim piety that really led Christians along this path.

If we make God's omnipotence dominant over his love and autonomy, his transcendence over the incarnation and liberation, then we think of his omniscience as an inscribing of history and events in a nexus of events that has already been established, that is unchangeable and immutable, and that all takes place at a stroke. Then we do not have to enter into a dialogue with God, or into a monologue that, like Job's, demands a response from God, but simply have to submit to the unchanging and, in a true sense, inhuman will of God.

The whole Bible, whether in the Old Testament or the Gospels, tells us that there is no such thing as destiny or fate. All this is replaced by love, and hence the joyful freedom that the first Christians experienced. But gradually, and insidiously, fate stages a comeback. (pgs. 107-108)
Ellul's arguments here tie into the concept of Open Theism, in which the future is unwritten, even by God. Many Christians still view Open Theism as heresy, even though it's arguably more biblical than the idea of a God who transcends time. If everything that will ever happen has already been witnessed by God, then how can free will be anything other than an illusion? And without free will, how can we ever truly love God or those around us?

From now on destiny and divine omniscience are conjoined. Believers can live in perfect peace because they know that everything was written in advance and they can change nothing. The very formula "It was written" could come only from a religion of the book. Yet the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels never use such a formula.

Thanks to it, the idea of predestination that was already haunting philosophical and Christian thinking received confirmation, forcibly established itself, and came to include double predestination (in Calvin), which, whether we want it or not, transforms the biblical God into destiny, Ananke, etc. And this derives from Muslim thinking. For it is not just historical events that were written in advance; it is also eternal salvation (or rejection). Ultimately this conviction came to dominate a good part of Christendom, and paganism rejoins it with its belief in the god of fate. (pg. 108)
One can see these concepts at work in the ex-gay movement, where the only options presented to anyone with a homosexual orientation are change or death. Once again, free will exists only in the form of a single binary choice: one either submits fully to one's predetermined fate, or spends eternity being endlessly punished for choosing incorrectly. If that's truly the freedom that the Apostle Paul speaks of, then perhaps we're not taking enough of our cues from Islam.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Life Soundtrack 6




Who I Am Hates Who I've Been (acoustic version), by Relient K. As I said when I printed the lyrics, this makes a good "coming out of the closet" song even though that's probably not what Relient K intended. Even viewed as an anthem of repentance (as they most likely did intend), it worked well for me as a theme song when I was in the process of disentangling myself from the ex-gay mindset.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Consequences

In the midst of the church's eternal quest for theological purity, it's not uncommon for the people the church supposedly consists of to get lost in the shuffle. We get so caught up in debates over Greek words and various -ologies that we forget to pause to consider what effects our doctrines and dogmas have on individuals in the real world. Surely, we think, if our stance is "biblical" then it can only produce good results in the lives of those around us.

So what do we do when our theology passes all the criteria of orthodoxy, yet causes more harm than good in practice? There's a balance to be maintained here, to be certain; it would be irresponsible to toss a doctrine out the window simply because somebody registers a complaint against it. But we must also take care to avoid falling into the habit of playing "blame the victim" as so many fundamentalists do.

As a case in point, consider the exclusivist view of salvation. According to many Christian traditions, the vast majority of those who have ever lived will spend eternity in hell. The exact nature of hell is open to debate, but the size of its population is less frequently questioned. Even some inclusivist viewpoints expect a large percentage to end up eternally separated from God.

But what are the fruits of such a belief? How does this idea play out in real life? In my observation the predominant effect is to instill two emotions in believers that one wouldn't expect to stem from a God-inspired doctrine:

1. Pride. It's a subtle thing (as pride often is), but many Christians seem to take pride in the fact that they're part of an exclusive, privileged group. This is especially prevalent in churches that have adopted a separatist mentality, but even outside of such enclaves one hears stories of Christians whose attitude toward outsiders (and even members of other denominations) is one of disdain and condescension.

2. Fear - specifically fear of Hell. This can be both fear for one's own salvation and fear for loved ones. It's entirely understandable that many Christians become consumed with fear for the eternal souls of those they care about (I certainly don't wish an eternity of gruesome torment even on those who wish me harm), but fear causes us to act in irrational ways. Legalism is rooted in such fear, as are "tough love" and a host of abusive behaviors.

If the fruits of the Spirit are love, peace, joy and the like, it seems reasonable to expect that any God-inspired doctrine will tend to nurture an increase in those positive traits in those who worship him. What, then, can we say about a doctrine that consistently cultivates negative traits like pride and fear? No doubt some will choose to defend the doctrine at any cost; admitting that we may be wrong about what we so sincerely and fervently believed to be God's plainly spoken truth can be a humiliating experience.

But what if God never meant for us to become so wrapped up in worrying about our (and others') eternal destiny? What if being one of the "chosen few" has less to do with being heaven-bound than it does with being set aside by God to be a blessing to the world around us? Note that such an idea doesn't require adopting a universalistic view of salvation; one can accept that some people might freely choose eternal separation from God (whatever that may look like) even after meeting him face to face, without having to spend this life consumed by fear for the eternal souls of one's family and friends. The "good news" of the gospel can be worth sharing with others even if it doesn't contain an underlying threat of endless torture.

But I digress. At the end of the day, it's worth asking whether the things we believe help to nurture and increase our love for God and for others, or whether they weigh us down by cultivating traits like pride, fear and self-absorption. Such an evalutation can't be our only guidepost, but it's one we ignore at our own peril.

Friday, May 30, 2008

More Linkage

Because my inability to get a post together this week doesn't mean there aren't other things out there worth reading...

-Joe Moderate shares why he left the ex-gay movement.

-David (formerly of Resolving Realities) talks about some of his current skepticism toward his Christian faith. At the end of the day I'm not sure any religious belief is possible without a leap of faith of some sort, but that doesn't mean we should turn off our brains and pretend we can ever have perfect answers to much of anything.

-Box Turtle Bulletin analyzes the "death or change" message that some Exodus spokespersons present as the only two choices for GLBT individuals.

-Finally, a fun and informative geography lesson.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Forgiving the Church

When we have been wounded by the Church, our temptation is to reject it. But when we reject the Church it becomes very hard for us to keep in touch with the living Christ. When we say, "I love Jesus, but I hate the Church," we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the Church seldom asks us for forgiveness, at least not officially. But the Church as an often fallible human organization needs our forgiveness, while the Church as the living Christ among us continues to offer us forgiveness.

It is important to think about the Church not as "over there" but as a community of struggling, weak people of whom we are part and in whom we meet our Lord and Redeemer.

-Henry Nouwen, Bread For the Journey, October 27 entry

Monday, May 19, 2008

Linkage

Because there's always plenty going on in the blogosphere...

1. Noe Gutierrez shares his story and his insights into the ex-gay world with Ex-Gay Watch.

2. Tobias Haller has written a well thought out series on the Bible and homosexuality. Part 1 is here.

3. My friend Eric has taken another step out of the closet. Someday maybe I'll be in a position to do likewise.

4. Since you can already read about the California marriage decision on about a billion other sites, I'm not feeling too inclined to discuss it in-depth. Misty Irons' take on it is worth reading, if you haven't already seen it. For my part, I'm cautiously optimistic. This is only going to make the religious right fight twice as hard, and even if their day in the sun truly is coming to a close there's still a lot of damage they can do on their way down.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mental Health Break



(to steal a post title from Andrew Sullivan)

A little Flight of the Conchords to brighten your week. This may not be 100% safe for workplace viewing, depending on where you work...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Absolutism

Even though I agree with much of what Ellul says in it, The Subversion of Christianity is a challenging book. His premise that true Christianity stands apart from - and even in opposition to - morality is difficult to grasp, even after one has done the hard work of filtering all forms of legalism out of one's faith.

A clarification of terms helps somewhat. What Ellul refers to as "morality" coincides to a great degree with what I would call "legalism" - a system of concrete rules that allows for very few exceptions and tolerates no dissent. Although I would argue for disentangling our concept of morality from its legalistic implications without discarding the term entirely, Ellul goes even further than that.

Few Christians would dispute that something can only be good if God calls it good, but to assert that while simultaneously discarding our traditional conceptions of morality is to paint a picture of an arbitrary and potentially unreliable God. In our finite minds, a just God must not only have absolute, unchanging standards but he must fully explain them to us.

To argue so, however, is to expose the limits of our own perspective. "God works in mysterious ways," we agree, even as we demand a framework that we can use to predict everything that God will ever do. Without a list of absolutes that our minds can fully grasp (and thereby use to maintain control over our own lives), our fleshly nature insists that all will dissolve into chaos.

But just because God sometimes appears inconsistent to us does not mean that he truly is inconsistent. God's perspective necessarily encompasses knowledge that we couldn't possibly be aware of, including things which are completely beyond our comprehension. If he were to therefore limit himself to acting in ways that we could fully understand (i.e. according to a known set of "moral absolutes"), he would no longer be free to accomplish any greater good.

If we truly desire a relationship with the Creator of the universe, we must accept that our demands for security and certainty serve only to undermine our ability to have such a relationship. We must be willing to live a life guided by the Holy Spirit, and only by the Holy Spirit.
As Genesis shows us, the origin of sin in the world is not knowledge, as is often said (as though God were interdicting our intellectual development, which would be absurd); it is the knowledge of good and evil. In this context knowledge means decision. What is not acceptable to God is that we should decide on our own what is good and what is evil. Biblically, the good is in fact the will of God. That is all. What God decides, whatever it may be, is the good.

If, then, we decide what the good is, we substitute our own will for God's. We construct a morality when we say (and do) what is good, and it is then that we are radically sinners. To elaborate a moral system is to show oneself to be a sinner before God, not because the conduct is bad, but because, even if it is good, another good is substituted for the will of God.

This is why Jesus attacks the Pharisees so severely even though they are the most moral of people, live the best lives, and are perfectly obedient and virtuous. They have progressively substituted their own morality for the living and actual Word of God that can never be fixed in commandments.

In the Gospels Jesus constantly breaks religious precepts and moral rules. He gives as his own commandment "Follow me," not a list of things to do or not to do. He shows us fully what it means to be a free person with no morality, but simply obeying the ever-new Word of God as it flashes forth.

Similarly, Paul attacks what might seem to be morality in Judaism, rules and precepts laid down by men and not coming from God at all. The great mutation is that we have been freed in Jesus Christ. The primary characteristic of free people is that they are not bound to moral commandments.

"All things are lawful," Paul twice proclaims. "Nothing is impure," he teaches. We find the same message in Acts. We are as free as the Holy Spirit, who comes and goes as he wills. This freedom does not mean doing anything at all. It is the freedom of love. Love, which cannot be regulated, categorized, or analyzed into principles or commandments, takes the place of law. The relationship with others is not one of duty but of love.

When I say that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is against morality, I am not trying to say that it replaces one form of morality with another. (How many times, alas, we read that Christian morality is superior to all others. This is not even true. We find honest and virtuous people, good husbands, fathers, and children, scrupulous and truthful people outside Christianity, and more perhaps than there are Christians.)

Revelation is an attack on all morality, as is wonderfully shown by the parables of the kingdom of heaven, that of the prodigal son, that of the talents, that of the eleventh-hour laborers, that of the unfaithful steward, and many others. In all the parables the person who serves as an example has not lived a moral life. The one who is rejected is the one who has lived a moral life. Naturally, this does not mean that we are counseled to become robbers, murderers, adulterers, etc. On the contrary, the behavior to which we are summoned surpasses morality, all morality, which is shown to be an obstacle to encounter with God.

Love obeys no morality and gives birth to no morality. None of the great categories of revealed truth is relative to morality or can give birth to it; freedom, truth, light, Word, and holiness do not belong at all to the order of morality. What they evoke is a mode of being, a model of life that is very free, that involves constant risks, that is constantly renewed. The Christian life is contrary to morality because it is not repetitive. No fixed duty has to be done no matter what course life may take. Morality always interdicts this mode of being. It is an obstacle to it and implicitly condemns it, just as Jesus is inevitably condemned by moral people.

(pages 70-71)

To live outside of any man-made system of morality ("biblical" or otherwise) is to open oneself up to risk and uncertainty. It invites contempt from others, even (perhaps especially) from other Christians. Yet true relationship cannot develop until we abandon our "right" to the security of absolute certainty and take that first step into the unknown.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Returning Home

Recently I reconnected with two old high school friends online. I hadn't seen either one in two decades, so I was a little apprehensive at first about meeting them again after all that time. I didn't have many close friends in high school, and even though I knew both of these guys from numerous classes and school activities going all the way back to junior high and considered them friends, I didn't really know them all that well.

So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that I am remembered in a generally positive light, at least by a few people. Last weekend we caught up over drinks, talking about former classmates and how each of us has spent the last 20 years of our lives. It was also fun to see how much was still familiar, despite all of the changes that inevitably take place over that much time.

When I graduated from high school I lost no time getting away from home; I enrolled in a college a thousand miles away and never looked back. Aside from flying back home for Christmas every year, I only kept in touch with one old friend; it would be 14 years before I finally moved back to my home state. High school wasn't a completely bad time for me - our school had strong academics and a vibrant music program - but it was nonetheless a largely unhappy period of my life, and high school as an institution stood out in my mind as a symbol of that unhappiness.

Getting away from all of that was the goal I spent my last two years of high school working toward, as I literally counted the days until I could leave for college. College was my big opportunity to get on with my life, to establish my own identity, to get away from a home where I was anything but happy.

In retrospect I was also running away, hoping that all of my problems would stay behind. I wanted to magically cease to be that socially inept, painfully insecure kid with way too much deeply-buried anger, whose desperate attempts to be a good Christian by trying to apply all of those "biblical" formulas that sounded so simple on Sunday morning seldom accomplished anything beyond feeding a growing well of self-hatred.

And college was a great time for me, even if the theology I was taught there was only incrementally less dogmatic than what I had grown up with. I learned a lot (both in and out of the classroom), built some great friendships and did a lot of growing in those four years - but I still had to deal with all of the issues I'd hoped to leave dead and buried with my high school years. Overcoming them has taken a lifetime of work, and I can't say I'm finished yet.

Had information about my high school reunions reached me, I probably wouldn't have gone. I definitely would have avoided my ten-year reunion because I wasn't ready to unpack all of those memories, and may well have stayed home from my 20-year reunion out of apprehension for how people remembered me.

It came as a moment of grace, then, to be reassured that at least a few of the people who knew me back then remember me in a positive light. Perhaps it shouldn't have been any great revelation that my classmates were too busy getting through their own days and dealing with the challenges of adolescence to be zeroed in on my problems and shortcomings. Yet I still found myself in need of a little external validation to show me that it's safe now to revisit that period in my life, and that I can spend at least as much time remembering the positive as I do the negative.

Not that there's enough money in the world to talk me into going back in time to relive those years, mind you. But I'll hang onto the memories, the good as well as the bad.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Life Soundtrack 5



"Our Mystery" by Bebo Norman, probably my all-time favorite love song (give or take the video). On the off chance that I ever get married (or the equivalent), this is the song I'd want for our first dance.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Glorious Disarray

I face my demons, wrestling these angels to the ground
And all that I could find was a thin line between all the saints
And villains - it was crossed
In my own mind

Some day I'm gonna find it, wish I knew what I was looking for
Inside the disarray
I woke up this morning, don't know where I'm going
But it's alright
I wouldn't have it any other way

-Lifehouse, Disarray

Making a statement like the above is a risky thing to do in some Christian circles. Jesus is the Answer, after all, so once you've found him you should have it all figured out. Sooner or later we have to adapt to the fact that, however valuable a companion Jesus may be on our life journey, "finding" him doesn't give us the answers to all of life's questions or wipe away all (or even most) of our issues.

In some churches that means pasting on a happy smile and pretending that everything is hunky dory while the pastor gives yet another "evangelistic" sermon about how perfect the Christian life is. In others it might mean paying lip service to life's challenges while treating the Bible as an "answer book" with surefire step-by-step formulas for whatever ails you.

Even in many churches that rise above such thinking, the focus remains on the end of the journey. We get so caught up in anticipation of heaven (and/or Jesus' imminent return) that we fail to see this life as much more than a speed bump along our way there. The beauty that exists all around us gets scant notice, since it's just part of a fallen world that God's going to wad up and throw away any day now.

This life may be far from perfect - and even downright miserable at times - but there are wonders to be discovered, sometimes in the most unexpected places. There is joy to be found in the midst of uncertainty, but it's easy to miss if we become too focused on "arriving."

Chaos is woven into the very fabric of the universe we inhabit. We're quick to label chaos as "evil," yet scientists are continually discovering how much the order we value is dependent on the existence of chaos. Perhaps chaos, as we define it, is merely a level of order beyond what we currently comprehend. In any case such knowledge, once taken to heart, can only serve to humble us.

Once humbled, we are released from the burden of having to know all the answers. We are free to experience the joy of discovery as our journey continues to unfold. To borrow a line from a popular sitcom, "Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You're going to love it."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Reduction

Recently I've been reading The Subversion of Christianity, by Jacques Ellul. It's a challenging book, both because Ellul leaves the reader with so much to process and unpack, and because he turns our traditional understanding of what Christianity is upside down.

We intuitively understand that the nature of our relationship with God sets Christianity apart from other faiths. We have a direct line of connection to the Creator of the universe, whose Spirit guides us in all things. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work in theory; in practice Christianity has overwhelmingly been a religion that differs from other religions only in its details.

The law is routinely laid down for us by our spiritual leaders, who emphasize doctrines and codes of conduct over getting to know the God who wants to connect with us directly. There are rituals to observe (even in non-liturgical churches), things to be held sacred at all costs, and a particular language to be employed.

But is that what Christianity is supposed to be? Ellul argues otherwise. Over the course of his book he examines a multitude of trends that have steered the church away from biblical Christianity - everything from Greek philosophy and Roman (and barbarian) paganism to the inevitable dilemma created by the influx of large numbers of converts into a community distinguished by its intimacy.

Ellul provides more material for discussion than I'm likely to ever get around to addressing (I have at least a few posts in mind already, and I'm only halfway through the book). By way of introduction, here are a few of Ellul's thoughts about the church's tendency toward looking like whatever culture it finds itself in.

But what has been the result? A Christianity that is itself a religion. The best, it might be said, the peak of religious history. (The bothersome thing is that Islam comes after it!) A religion classed as monotheistic. A religion marked by all the traits of religion: myths, legends, rites, holy things, beliefs, clergy, etc.

A Christianity that has fashioned a morality - and what a morality! - the most strict, the most moralistic, the most debilitating, the one that most reduces adherents to infants and renders them irresponsible, or, if I were to be malicious, I should say the one that makes of them happy imbeciles, who are sure of their salvation if they obey this morality, a morality that consists of chastity, absolute obedience (which in unheard-of fashion ends up as the supreme value in Christianity), sacrifice, etc.

A Christianity that has become totally conservative in every domain - political, economic, social, etc. - which nothing can budge or change. Political power, that is good. Whatever challenges or criticizes it, that is evil.

... Christianity has become a constant force of antisubversion. It has been put in the service of the state, for example, by Louis XIV or Napoleon. It has been put in the service of capitalism by the nineteenth-century middle class. It champions the moral order.

We find exactly the same inversion in the cultural sphere. Christianity imbibes cultures like a sponge. Dominated by Greco-Roman culture, it became territorial and feudal (benefices) in the feudal world with all the beliefs... that back it. It then became bourgeois, urban, and argentiferous with the capitalist system. It is now becoming socialist with the diffusion of socialism. It helped to spread Western culture throughout the world when the West was conquering and subjugating the world. Today it is letting itself be permeated by the values of African, Oriental, and American Indian cultures.

Always quick to justify itself, it claims to be on the side of the weak. Tomorrow we might have adjustment to Islam as today we have adjustment to Marxism. We now have a rationalist or liberal Christianity as we used to have an Aristotelian or Platonic Christianity in a mockery of being "all things to all men." (pages 17-18)

Many Christian thinkers have expounded on what they see as threats to the faith. Where Ellul differs from the rest is that he does not do so in moralistic terms. Where others might rail against perceived heresy or warn of impending doom in the light of society's moral decline, Ellul merely points out where the church has departed from the direction set by the biblical authors. Where others have been quick to expose and declare war on those they see as enemies of the faith, Ellul sympathetically seeks to understand how and why events unfolded in the manner that they did.

I'm not far enough along in the book to be able to say what (if any) solutions Ellul offers for the church. In any case, I am enjoying reading the thoughts of somebody who came to many of the same conclusions I have via a different path.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Life Soundtrack 4



First Time by Lifehouse, another of my favorite groups. This song would make a good sequel to my recent reflections on intimacy:

We're both looking for something we've been afraid to find
It's easier to be broken, it's easier to hide

Looking at you, holding my breath
For once in my life, I'm scared to death
I'm taking a chance letting you inside

Feeling alive all over again
As deep as the sky under my skin
Like being in love, she says for the first time

Maybe I'm wrong, I'm feeling right
Where I belong with you tonight
Like being in love, to feel for the first time


...or so I imagine.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Quotable

"What are the moral convictions most fondly held by barbarous and semi-barbarous people? They are the convictions that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and skepticism is a sin."
-Thomas Henry Huxley, On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge

"It is indeed probable that more harm and misery have been caused by men determined to use coercion to stamp out a moral evil than by men intent on doing evil."
-Friedrich von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

"Morality cannot exist one minute without freedom... Only a free man can possibly be moral. Unless a good deed is voluntary, it has no moral significance."
-Everett Dean Martin, Liberty

"I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects.

Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated.

In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme--whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence--the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication."

-C.S. Lewis, A Reply to Professor Haldane

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Friday, March 21, 2008

Noteworthy

1. I rarely put much stock in political candidates from either party, given that all they tend to disagree on is which aspects of our lives the government should run for us (and/or to what extent), but I will admit to being impressed by Barack Obama's recent speech in response to the controversy over his pastor's racist sermon. It's rare to hear a politician say something that nuanced. Transcript here, YouTube video here.

2. David from Resolving Realities has a very good essay up that underlines the problem with the "Bible as rulebook" approach to life while addressing the dilemma of how we reconcile the horrors of life with a loving God.

3. The ever-graceful Pam shares her perspective as an educator on how the issue of homosexuality is addressed in public schools. Something tells me she won't be getting invited to any Focus on the Family shindigs in the near future.

4. Finally, it's back. After an entire year of waiting, the best show on television returns two weeks from today...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bridging the Gap

To become neighbors is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look into one another's eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed at will.

Only when we have the courage to cross the road and look in one another's eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.

Henri Nouwen, Bread For the Journey, July 22 entry