Monday, July 31, 2006

Mere (?) Christianity

As an addendum to my last post, I know there are many Christians who would disagree with even the short list of beliefs spelled out in the creeds that I identified as the essentials of Christianity. Rather than declare the question settled, I'd like to hear from those who disagree with my definition (in either direction). What beliefs and/or other qualities do you believe define what a Christian is, and why? Or should it be left completely undefined?

Note: I'm not looking for a list of recommended books; my "to read" pile already takes up the better part of a bookshelf, and it will undoubtedly be even larger by the time I finish Terry Goodkind's latest novel (I read at least one work of fiction for every nonfiction book I pick up). I might add another book or two to that stack if any look particularly compelling, but no promises.

Rather, answer the question in your own words, either here in the comments section or on your own blog. I'm not looking to start a debate (though others in the blogosphere might be), but I am interested in better understanding why some might dispute the basic tenets that have traditionally formed the core of orthodox Christianity, or why some would consider that short list to be insufficient.

Extra points given for those who have made the effort to critically examine and take ownership of their beliefs, as opposed to simply repeating what they've been told they must believe...

Friday, July 28, 2006


An ad I heard on the radio (for a Christian dating service, no less) got me thinking about the question: What does it mean to be a Christian? It's one of those things that's easy to take for granted, yet the term "Christian" has to mean something - certainly something more than being an American who occasionally darkens the doors of a church or having a vaguely-defined belief in some sort of higher power.

On the other hand, Christians have fought among themselves repeatedly over that definition, sometimes to the point of killing each other - and that doesn't seem right either. Some groups go so far as to declare that anyone who doesn't attend one of their churches and hold exactly to their interpretation of every last verse in the Bible is going to hell. If God really is that capricious and nitpicky, he sure did a poor job of communicating that given the Bible's incessant talk about love.

And, ultimately, only God is in a position to say for certain who his true followers are. I tend to suspect that heaven isn't going to be as sparsely populated as a lot of Christians seem to anticipate - in fact, some of the more dogmatic types may find themselves reevaluating whether they really want to stay in heaven when it means spending eternity with some of the individuals they spent a lifetime looking down upon. But I digress.

First and foremost, a Christian is a follower of Christ. Of course, that takes us back to our original problem of defining what it means to follow Christ, but certainly it involves striving to follow his example. Christ cared deeply for the poor, the sick, the outcast, the sinner and so on. He spent a lot of time talking about caring for "the least of these," and a lot more time putting that talk into action. In that regard I haven't always been a very good follower of Christ, but I'm trying to change that.

A few things that don't automatically make a person a Christian, despite popular perception:

-It's not about how often a person goes to church, though being in community with other followers of Christ is important to one's spiritual life.

-It's not about how well a person follows a list of rules, though a commitment to loving God and loving others will inevitably involve curtailing certain behaviors.

-It's not about having all the right theological positions, though one will have a hard time being a follower of Christ if they don't know who he is.

-It's certainly not about a political agenda or any set of cultural trappings, though one might get a very different impression from a lot of churches.

For my part, I can affirm the doctrinal positions articulated in the Nicene and Apostles' creeds. Beyond that short list of essentials, I see significant room for disagreement on any and every other issue of doctrine. It seems to me that the church would be a much healthier place if everyone truly lived by the following guideline:

In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.

It sounds simple enough, but I'm not holding my breath for the day when the church actually takes it seriously.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Watching recent events unfold in the Middle East has led me to ponder the question: How do you live alongside an opponent who wants to exterminate you? How do you reason with a group of people who believe your very existence is an abomination in God's eyes that the righteous must actively oppose with every ounce of their strength? That is the dilemma that Israel faces.

It's also a dilemma that the gay community in the United States faces. I'll add a disclaimer up front that I'm not trying to equate the two situations; obviously both conflicts are very complex and nuanced in very different ways, and it would do both of them injustice to try to claim that they are equivalent. But they are in some ways parallel.

One difference that is apparent up front is that conservative Christians (with a few extreme exceptions) don't seek the literal death of gay people, whereas many radical Muslims would quite gleefully kill any Jew who failed to evacuate the Holy Land in advance of their arrival.

But those same Christians do, for the most part, seek the total eradication of gay culture and anything resembling a public gay identity, and the complete silencing of any gay voices in the public discourse. If conservative Christians had their way, the individuals who populate the gay subculture would be forced either to go into deep hiding or to abandon their loved ones and convert to heterosexuality. Those who failed to change their orientation would still have the option of celibacy, of course, though in practice most conservative churches regard such individuals with suspicion, if they don't actually see them as inferior human beings.

To be fair there are more moderate Christians who, while holding to the belief that all gay relationships are sinful, nonetheless respect the right of gay couples to live in peace with at least some of the same legal protections that others take for granted, just as there are more moderate Muslims who are ultimately willing to coexist with the nation of Israel. Unfortunately the moderates in both cases seem destined to remain a minority whose voices are consistently drowned out by those who live and die by loud proclamations of "Thus Saith The LORD."

Conservatives might argue that to coexist with the gay community would be to coexist with a parasite or a hostile invader, since in their philosophy there is nothing natural about homosexuality and no good that could ever possibly come from it. But homosexuals have always coexisted with heterosexuals; they simply didn't have a voice in most times and places throughout history. They may have kept a low profile, maintaining a terrified silence, but they were always there, just as there have always been Jews in the Holy Land.

Of course, the Muslims who once ruled Palestine were relatively tolerant of the Jewish minority (as long as the Jews among them remained largely powerless) when compared to the church's historical treatment of homosexuals, so the parallel weakens at this point, but in both cases it was after the minorities in question found their voices that the holy wars we face today were launched.

Not that the gay community has remained above reproach in its fight for equal treatment, any more than Israel has in its fight for survival. Gay activists have been as guilty of stereotyping and caricaturing their opponents as conservative Christians are of doing the same to gays. And when gay activists lash back at the Christians who wounded them, those Christians turn around and scream "Persecution!" and redouble their own efforts to make gay relationships illegal again - and so the cycle repeats itself as tensions escalate ever higher.

(And since I know that it needs to be said again, let me repeat my disclaimer that I am not in any way equating Israel with the gay community, merely pointing out common themes in their respective experiences.)

Yet the simple fact is that both sides are here, and neither one is likely to go away in the foreseeable future. Fundamentalist Muslims are not going to suddenly stop hating Israel any more than the Israelis are suddenly going to abandon their ancestral homeland en masse. Likewise, conservative Christians are not going to suddenly abandon their deep-seated convictions any more than gays are all going to suddenly will themselves into heterosexuality (even assuming such a thing were possible). Which brings us back to the original question:

How do you live alongside people who believe that the mere fact of your existence is an evil that must be destroyed at any cost? The obvious answer is that you can't; the problem with that answer is that you must. I wish I had a better answer.

Monday, July 17, 2006


As I mentioned previously, I’ve been wanting to quote from Gregory Boyd's book, The Myth of a Christian Nation. The entire book is quoteworthy, but that much text would completely overwhelm the blog. For any Evangelicals who wonder why there are so few gay people in our churches, I think this sums it up pretty well.

[W]hen the church sets itself up as the moral police of the culture, we earn the reputation of being self-righteous judgers rather than loving, self-sacrificial servants – the one reputation we are called to have. While tax collectors and prostitutes gravitated to Jesus because of his magnetic kingdom love, these sorts of sinners steer clear of the church, just as they did the Pharisees, and for the exact same reasons: they do not experience unconditional love and acceptance in our midst - they experience judgment.

The brutal fact is that we Christians are not generally known for our love – for the simple reason that we, like the Pharisees of old, generally judge more than we love. Ask any random sampling of pagans in America what first comes to their mind when you say the words evangelical or born again Christian, and chances are close to zero that anything like "outrageous, sacrificial love" will be the first thing out of their mouths. Ask them to list the first ten things that come into their mind, and chances are still close to zero that "outrageous, sacrificial love" will be on any of their lists. Indeed, a recent survey demonstrated that, when asked to rank people groups in terms of their respectability, "evangelical Christians" were ranked one notch above the bottom, just above prostitutes. (pgs. 133-134)

Unfortunately, "tough love" is far easier to dispense than true love (just as it's far easier to destroy than it is to build), and it grates far less on our sense of justice and our desire to see those we view as sinners fall on their knees in front of us in abject repentance. It's all for their own good, after all.

Despite our widespread reputation, of course, we evangelical Christians often insist that we are loving; it’s just that the world is so sinful that they can’t see it – or so we tell ourselves. They don’t understand what "true love" is. That attitude is frankly as arrogant as it is tragic. People in the first century were not less sinful than people in the twenty-first, yet God expected to win first-century people by the sheer beauty of Christ’s love shining on Calvary and radiating through his corporate body. Why think anything has changed? If contemporary people don’t see in us what ancient people saw in Christ, it can only be because the love that was present in Christ isn’t present in us. And if they see in us what they saw in ancient Pharisees, it can only be because the self-righteousness found in the Pharisees is found in us.

Our comical insistence that we are loving, despite our reputation, is a bit like a man insisting he’s a perfectly loving husband when his wife, kids, and all who know him insist he’s an unloving, self-righteous jerk. If he persists in his self-serving opinion of himself, insisting that his wife, kids and all who know him don’t understand what "true love" is, it simply confirms the perspective these others have of him. This, I submit, is precisely the position much of the evangelical church of America is in. Until the culture at large instinctively identifies us as loving, humble servants, and until the tax collectors and prostitutes of our day are beating down our doors to hang out with us as they did with Jesus, we have every reason to accept our culture’s judgment of us as correct. We are indeed more pharisaic than we are Christlike. (pgs. 134-135)

The same Bible that we employ as a weapon against "sinners" tells us to first attend to our own sinfulness and to leave the job of convicting others of their sin to the Holy Spirit. Legalists like to point to the example of Christ telling the adulterous woman to "go and sin no more," but in doing so they overlook one very salient point: Christ could tell her that because he was, in fact, without sin. And when did he tell her that? After all of her accusers had left. The legalists who were prepared to stone her never did get to hear what he said to her; as far as they knew, he may have just let her go without another word.

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (1 John 1:8, NIV) And if we're not without sin, what are we doing issuing ultimatums to others about their sins? Our job is to love the widow, the orphan, the traveler, the leper, the prostitute, the tax collector, the Samaritan, the Roman soldier - and everyone else - with the same self-sacrificial love that Christ showed to us. Not just the 'repentant' ones, not just the ones we think we can convert, not just the ones who agree with our interpretation of Romans 1:26-27. All of them, without exception.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Echoes of Sodom

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in conservative Christian circles has, in all likelihood, been exposed to the claim that acceptance of homosexuality heralds the downfall of a civilization. At its core, this assertion is founded on the belief that God destroyed Sodom because of homosexuality, a notion I've addressed before.

Having reached their conclusion, proponents then project that premise onto other historical situations, tailoring the facts as needed to make it fit. But do their assertions hold up? Given that anti-gay activists can't point to more than a handful of the many noteworthy civilizations that have existed throughout recorded history, their claims are already on shaky ground.

My own credentials as a historical commentator don't extend beyond a few college-level history classes and the several dozen history-related books that I've read over the years, so my own investigations into this topic don't necessarily represent the last word on anything, but in my experience even most conservative historians don't take the notion that failure to persecute homosexuals signals the imminent collapse of a society very seriously.

And what of the civilizations that activists use to support their case?

Ancient Greece is one of the first societies that come to mind, and it is true that Greek society was more tolerant of homosexuality than many. But why did the Greek city-states ultimately succumb to invaders?

Sparta was a totalitarian regime that encouraged homosexual relationships among its soldiers as a way of boosting combat effectiveness. But pushing men into same-sex relationships regardless of their orientation is a far cry from tolerating same-sex relationships among those who are naturally inclined toward them, and so it's little wonder that Sparta's population was in decline for decades leading up to its fall.

In contrast to Sparta, Athens was the freest society the world had known at that time in history, and the source of much of the philosophy and literature that we associate with ancient Greece. But to suggest that Athens fell due to its relatively tolerant attitude toward certain homosexual behaviors is to grossly oversimplify the situation that the city-state and its allies (and rivals) found themselves in.

More to the point, it's a stretch to imagine that a civilization that was crumbling due to moral laxity, as some Christians might claim, could have successfully repelled the most powerful empire in the world (Persia), against almost astronomical odds. Our history books still teach us of the incredible acts of heroism that made the Greek victory possible. That Macedonia was able to sweep in afterward and overrun the exhausted city-states (and ultimately Persia, too) can hardly be attributed to decadence on the part of the Greeks.

Judah is another potential candidate for the list, due to the several mentions that the qadesh (or male "holy ones") receive in the Old Testament. But the King James Version's substitution of "sodomites" for qadesh is a gross mistranslation; the qadesh were pagan priests who performed sexual acts with male patrons as part of their fertility rites. They were, first and foremost, idol worshipers - and idolatry was the primary reason that God sent his people into exile. Outside of these passing references to the qadesh, none of the Old Testament authors ever mention any homosexual activity that may or may not have been going on in Israel or Judah.

Rome is perhaps the empire most commonly cited in this context, but again it's a poor example. In fact, it's highly questionable whether acceptance of homosexuality could be considered widespread at the time of Rome's fall, given that Rome officially became a "Christian" nation late in the fourth century (nearly 150 years before its fall), and that laws were passed after that time that outlawed homosexual activity. A stronger case can be built for the notion that Christianity was responsible for Rome's fall, though that, too, would be untrue.

If any one factor can be cited as causing the fall of the Roman empire, it was the decision to allow several large barbarian tribes (seeking refuge from the Huns) to settle in Roman territory. These tribes never assimilated into Roman society, which eventually led to open conflict between Rome's citizens and the foreigners who now lived among them, at a time when the empire was already struggling economically.

And it must not be forgotten that the eastern (Byzantine) empire survived for another nine centuries after the fall of Rome. East and west had not had that much time to grow apart culturally by 530 AD, yet their respective ends lay nearly a millennium apart.

Weimar Germany is an interesting example of a nation that was highly tolerant of homosexuality in its final years, but even here there are extenuating circumstances to challenge whether this correlation points toward any actual relationship between the two.

Germany and its allies had recently fought Britain and France and their allies to a stalemate in one of the most devastating wars the world had ever seen. After agreeing to a cease-fire and withdrawing its troops from the front lines, Germany was betrayed by Britain and France, who broke the terms of the cease-fire in order to blackmail the Germans into a surrender. The heavy reparations Germany was forced to agree to left the German economy in a shambles, which in turn created widespread civil unrest.

It was in that atmosphere that the Nazi party was able to rise within a relatively short period of time from fringe group to major political party. If acceptance of homosexuality played any noteworthy role in the rapid decline of the (short-lived) German republic following World War One, it was in Hitler's use of politically unpopular minorities (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists and so on) as scapegoats on which the majority could focus their ire, which in turn kept the general populace distracted while those in power pursued an agenda that would lead to one of history's greatest bloodbaths.

I've also heard that Venice is sometimes cited alongside these other civilizations. Being somewhat less familiar with the history of that city-state, I can't comment on the Venetians' reported acceptance of homosexuality or how it might correlate with their decline. But given how weak the other (more popular) examples are, I wouldn't say it leaves much to bolster the anti-gay position in any case.

Advocates of this position could still argue that an accepting attitude toward at least a few forms of homosexual behavior existed at some point in the history of each of these civilizations (and, no doubt, in some others that are no longer around), but the evidence does little to suggest that this apparent correlation is a cause (or even symptom) of societal decline. By implication, intolerance of homosexuality should be a sign of a robust civilization, yet regimes that were hostile toward homosexuals litter the graveyard of history alongside those thought to be too 'tolerant.'

Human history is a subject as complex as the billions of individuals that have been a part of it. Empires rise and fall for a multiplicity of reasons, and while patterns can sometimes be discerned between them, responsible historians are careful not to overstate the significance of every correlation they observe.

If one thing can be consistently gleaned from the lessons of history, it's that the pursuit of power represents the greatest and most pervasive threat to human freedom, no matter how noble the intentions of the power seekers. Those who would use their power to impose "God's will" on others are no exception to this, nor are those who would bolster their power base by framing a minority group as scapegoats for all of society's ills.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Journey In Verse

I went to see my sister
She was staying with a friend
Who had turned into a preacher
To save the world from sin
He said "First deny your body
Then learn to submit
Pray to be made worthy
And tithe your ten percent"
I said "Is this all there is
Just the letter of the law?"
Something's wrong

(Amy Grant, "What About the Love")

I don't buy this game
It's the same old lie
We're just changing the name

We're still running into the wind
And leading a life of crime
Though we deny it
We show our colors under the gun
We're still running into the wind
And living on borrowed time
Don't try to hide it
We can't undo the things that are done

(AD, "Life of Crime")

Hey baby are you listening
I've battened all the hatches down
I've taken all of your prescriptions
But no remedy I've found

Counting the days
Until some freedom can scream my name
Counting the days
Until the gods break these chains

(Collective Soul, "Counting the Days")

This is your life
Are you who you want to be?
This is your life
Are you who you want to be?
This is your life
Is it everything you dreamed that it would be
When the world was younger
And you had everything to lose?

(Switchfoot, "This Is Your Life")

So what, so I've got a smile on
It's hiding the quiet superstitions in my head
Don't believe me, don't believe me
When I say I've got it down

Everybody is just a stranger, but
That's the danger in going my own way
I guess it's the price I have to pay
Still "everything happens for a reason"
Is no reason not to ask myself

If I'm living it right
Am I living it right?
Am I living it right?
Why, Georgia, why?

(John Mayer, "Why Georgia")

Questions fall like showers of endless rain
Into oceans of the unexplained
Someday it all will be made known
I can give no rationale or words of wisdom
Just a cloudy paraphrase
God works in mysterious ways

State of wonder, state of grace
Pieces falling into place
It's more than just an old cliché
God works in mysterious ways

(Kim Hill, "Mysterious Ways")

And I don't know much but I found you here
And I cannot wait another year
Don't know where you're coming from but you're coming soon

To a kid from Oregon by way of California
All of this is more than I’ve ever known or seen

Come on and we'll sing, like we were free
Push the pedal down, watch the world around fly by us
Come on and we'll try, one last time
I'm off of the floor one more time to find you

And here we go, there's nothing left to choose
And here we go, there's nothing left to lose

(Mat Kearney, "Nothing Left To Lose")

Monday, July 03, 2006

Love Languages

What's your love language? Take the test here. Your results may vary with this version of the test, but it's a good starting point if you're not already familiar with the system.

Love languages are the different ways that people express their affection for others. It's possible to appreciate all five, but most people have one or two primary 'languages' that make them feel loved and appreciated. The five languages are:

Acts of Service
Gift Giving
Quality Time
Words of Affirmation

My primary love languages are quality time and touch, with words of affirmation at the very bottom. Not that I don't appreciate compliments, but for me, personally, talk is cheap, especially if it isn't backed up by a person's actions. In general, giving verbal affirmation is very difficult for me, because I always feel like I'm being insincere. It just feels unnatural, even when I know it's what the other person needs from me. I'd much rather hang out with them, or give them a hug.

If I care about somebody I'll instinctively make it a priority to make time for them. Touch comes naturally as well, though I'm far less likely to offer it (which can make me seem far more stand-offish than I really am, which is both a concern about crossing other people's boundaries and the result of years of internalized homophobia - but that's another issue entirely).

Of course, both of these love languages can place a person out of sync with modern society. People (at least in the United States) tend to be so busy with a million different things that they just don't have a lot of time to offer to their friends and loved ones. Although I understand that it's nothing personal for someone who speaks a different love language to be too busy to give more than the occasional verbal warm fuzzy, it still leaves me feeling unloved and unappreciated more often than not. I've always avoided letting myself get too busy precisely so that I can make time for my friends, but I can see how someone who receives affirmation in different ways wouldn't necessarily interpret that as "I love you."

Touch has also been undervalued in modern American culture, at least among men. Although it is acceptable for male friends to hug or otherwise make physical contact in certain ways and under certain circumstances, there are still strict boundaries to be respected, lest the gesture be misinterpreted by anyone who might possibly be watching. And yet for some, an arm placed around the shoulder (and not immediately removed) is worth more than a thousand words.

Some people might find touch invasive, or see gift giving as bribery, or take an act of service for granted. It's not that what was being offered wasn't valuable, simply that the recipient didn't recognize what it represented. Understanding that we all speak different languages, and that what a person most readily offers is most likely what they want in return, can forestall countless unnecessary conflicts. It's amazing what we can accomplish when we overcome the language barrier.