Thursday, November 30, 2006


As I've explored a number of times on this blog, we are all unique individuals who differ from each other in countless ways - everything from temperament to hobbies, talents, family, culture, education level, work history, life experiences, environment, nutrition and medical history, to name a few, all of which work together to shape each of us in ways that no other individual in history (even an identical twin) can claim.

We all acknowledge this, at least on an intellectual level, but we still tend to fall back on the assumption that others share our basic perspective, and nowhere is this more evident than within the church.

Just as the majority of people never progress beyond a Stage Three mentality in their spiritual lives, so most of our churches have developed a culture and a theology that corresponds with the needs and attitudes of its members. Thus Christianity so frequently becomes perceived as a system of laws and expectations; even those who speak of it as a relationship with a living God almost inevitably conceptualize that relationship in terms of dos and don'ts and how well one conforms to the commands of one's spiritual leaders.

When an individual does reach Stage Four, he quickly discovers that the community that once sheltered him from the outside world is no longer a safe haven. Stage Three individuals are simply not ready to accept the existence of a world that's larger and more complex than the rules system they perceive as encompassing all Truth, and thus they view anyone who raises dissent as a traitor or an agent of the devil, or at the very least as a troublemaker.

Not that everyone in Stage Three fits the stereotype of the narrow-minded fundamentalist, of course. But even the more ecumenically-minded ones see the world in terms of simple, all-encompassing truths and strict boundaries, and view doubt as a shortcoming to be confessed and routinely expunged through application of Bible verses, sermons and devotional readings.

Even in the best Stage Three churches, the Stage Four individual is regarded as a lost or backslidden soul in need of 'fixing.' Questions are tolerated only as long as the individual ultimately accepts the answers given (no matter how unsatisfactory they may be) as articles of faith. When the complexities of life play out in ways that contradict "the Truth", it is reality that must be reevaluated to conform to doctrine; the doctrine itself may only be questioned as part of an academic exercise with a predetermined outcome.

Church doesn't have to be this way, though. The early Baptists gave individuals room to follow their conscience, even if doing so put them in conflict with church teaching. Other Christian traditions over the centuries have made similar allowances, acknowledging that life is never as clear-cut as it may appear in the theologian's study.

The authors of the New Testament advocate just such a policy, boiling down all of the Law to two simple rules: love God and love others. Many evangelical theologians recognize this and acknowledge that one who wholeheartedly strives to follow those two commands will have no need for lists of rules and restrictions. Somewhere over the years, however, it became an accepted assumption that the dos and don'ts scattered throughout the Bible could be combined to form a clear and complete picture of what it means to love God and others, and that therefore one could still judge another's righteousness by how well they conformed to all of those regulations.

By way of analogy, they have effectively dictated that one can judge another's bicycle riding skills by how well the rider's movements fit within the narrow range of actions that would be possible if training wheels were attached to the bike. That training wheels quickly become a hindrance and even a danger once one leaves the safety of the neighborhood sidewalk is irrelevant, since the existence of training wheels proves that there can only be one correct way to ride a bike under any circumstances.

It's a point that can only be pressed so far in any church led by Stage Three individuals, since such leaders would see such an elevation of individual conscience as the beginning of a rapid and unstoppable slide into total moral depravity, but it's one that nonetheless needs to be made for the sake of those who have outgrown their training wheels.

Whether or not it's within the realm of possibility for any one church to meet everyone where they're at, there's still plenty of room for improvement even within the bounds of what's realistic. If nothing else, it might be helpful to remember that the early church was able to expand rapidly across the known world, not because of its rules and regulations, not because of its rigid and concise doctrines, but because of its love.

Genuine, self-sacrificial love transcends all differences and requires no explanation. Stage Three, Stage Four or otherwise, there's room there for all of us to find common ground.

Monday, November 27, 2006


And now, to draw your attention away from the fact that I did absolutely no writing over the holiday weekend, here are a couple of links for you.

-A still-relevant quote from Barry Goldwater regarding the dangers of involving the church as an institution in politics.

-Jim Burroway on one of the unintended consequences of refusing to grant any sort of legal recognition to same-sex relationships.

-Peterson Toscano on some of the ways that we inadvertently slander God.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Everyone has different needs when it comes to ordering one's life. Some could literally not get through the day without having everything planned out and scheduled in advance, while others feel suffocated by even the slightest constraint on their ability to be spontaneous. Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes, and a person's inclinations can shift over the years.

Similar principles apply in other areas of life as well. I took piano lessons all the way through my elementary and high school years and became a reasonably good musician as a result, but I stuck almost exclusively to classical music. I could master relatively advanced piano sonatas, but would have been hard pressed to improvise so much as a grace note to save my life. With the proper training and a strong dose of determination I no doubt could have become competent at more free-form styles of music like jazz, but it most likely never would have been my forte.

Along the same lines, I get no enjoyment from the types of dancing that go on at most dance clubs. I know full well that it's just a matter of "letting loose" and going with the flow and not worrying about what I look like, but I still find it tedious at best; my mind just doesn't work like that. Teach me a dance with actual steps, on the other hand, and I can have fun with it for hours. Hence I can enjoy line dancing even though I've never been much of a country music fan.

Such a structured approach doesn't work as well for me when it comes to writing, however. An outline can be a useful starting point for longer pieces, and even for shorter essays like the ones on this blog I'll begin with a mental picture of where I want to go, but the end result often looks very different from my original plan. More often than not whatever I'm writing takes on a life of its own and heads in directions I hadn't even thought of at the start, and somehow the finished piece still works - usually better than what I'd first envisioned.

Within the church, different people prefer different worship styles. For some, the rich structure and imagery of a liturgical service is a source of meaning and life that draws them closer to God, while for others the experience quickly becomes a deadening routine. For my part, while I can appreciate the meaning in liturgical readings, I fall into the latter category; I'm much more likely to encounter God within the looser structure found in most evangelical and emergent churches.

Simply put, each of us is unique in thousands of different ways, and the systems that best account for those differences when addressing our various needs enable the greatest number of people to thrive. Many highly intelligent individuals do poorly in school and even drop out entirely, not because of any real deficiency on their part but because their learning style was incompatible with the methods employed by the schools they attended.

Where the church is concerned, that extends beyond the way services are organized to the different ways we relate to God and to each other. Some people feel lost if they don't have rules to follow and authority figures to tell them what to believe, while others see such a system as oppressive and even overtly abusive.

In truth there is room within Christianity for both approaches, though it may often seem otherwise as churches - and even entire denominations - heap condemnation on those who simply have different spiritual needs. But now I'm getting into differences that are largely developmental as opposed to temperamental, so I'll save the rest of that line of thought for a separate post. I know, I know, I hate seeing the words "to be continued" too...

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Communication is something we often take for granted. We tend to assume that the meaning of what we say will be conveyed accurately to the recipient - and indeed, without such an assumption it would be virtually impossible for us to hold even a simple conversation with another person.

The modern world, however, has taught us that it's never quite that simple. Even among those who share a common language, culture and history there can sometimes be a signficant disconnect between individuals over their understanding of different words and phrases. The further separated those individuals are in their life experiences, the greater that gap becomes.

On the internet we see examples every day of such miscommunications, where an idiom used by, say, an American from Texas might be misconstrued by a reader from Canada (not to mention those from even further away).

The church learned this lesson a long time ago, at least as far as foreign missions goes. Early missionaries who tried to superimpose Western assumptions onto potential converts in Africa, India, China and elsewhere met with limited success, while those who took the time to really get to know the culture in question all the way down to its nuances, and who adapted their message to a context that their audience could connect with, were able to make much deeper inroads.

Unfortunately, while missionary organizations have come to understand how people groups with similar languages can nonetheless be light years apart in what they will respond to, the church has largely failed to apply that concept to what it considers its home turf. The American Evangelical church has developed a subculture that is imitative of the broader culture around it, yet sharply distinct from it. Value differences aside, evangelicals speak their own language with a complex array of idioms and theological terms that mean next to nothing to those outside of the subculture (and even to some within it).

Despite this rift, most evangelicals continue to engage with the outside world the way they did 100 years ago, back when they still spoke largely the same language as the rest of American culture. They have become more savvy about employing popular forms of media and even using current slang terms, but they continue to make the error of assuming that, because both they and the culture around them speak English, a 1:1 correlation still exists between what they are trying to communicate and what the outside world is hearing them say.

That is beginning to change as the emerging church seeks to define Christianity within the context of a postmodern culture, but many in the larger evangelical community look on their efforts as heresy and stubbornly insist on trying to make the rest of the world come back to them on their terms.

We see a similar language gap within the ex-gay movement, which has its own set of terminology ("freedom from homosexuality," "change is possible," "ex-gay," etc.) which is very internally consistent, but which communicates something very different in meaning to those on the outside. To those who are adequately steeped in the evangelical subculture, it makes perfect sense that an exclusively same-sex-attracted individual might identify as a "former homosexual" or even as "straight" while admitting to still experiencing "temptations," due to the unique (if not necessarily biblical) way evangelicals define identity. That the rest of the world (and even some evangelicals) interpret those catchphrases as a claim that the individual has actually shifted his or her attractions from the same sex to the opposite sex is irrelevant, since the ex-gays' use of those terms is the correct one and everyone else is just playing word games around what they naturally understand deep down inside to be "the Truth."

But it's not word games, and it's not rebellion - it's a different language altogether. And so ex-gays get accused of dishonesty, a charge that's difficult to avoid when political activists use ex-gay testimonies as "proof" that gays don't really exist and therefore need no legal recognition, but one that merely exacerbates the situation, since what those ex-gays say about themselves is true within the context of the language they speak. Those accused of dishonesty feel persecuted and lash back at their accusers, who in turn see the retaliation as proof that their suspicions were correct.

Of course, the debate over homosexuality runs far deeper than misunderstandings over word usage, but speaking a common language would be a step in the right direction. The evangelical church may feel that it's the rest of the world that needs to accept their definitions, but the simple fact is that the rest of the world feels - and in truth bears - no such obligation.

If the leaders of Exodus believe they have a positive, redemptive message to communicate, and don't want to be seen as cynical shills for a political agenda, it's up to them to translate that message into terms that clearly convey the correct meaning to their intended audience. Just as the burden lies on the advertiser to make sure they don't inadvertently tell their audience to bite the wax tadpole, so Exodus - and evangelicals in general - cannot expect others to do their job for them.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Once, in a session at the ministry I was attending when I first began asking questions, I shared about a testimony I'd read online of an ex-ex-gay, and the joy he discovered when he came to a place of self-acceptance. The response I received from our group leader was (to paraphrase) "I'm sure my life would be a lot easier too if I stopped working on my major life issue."

Even at the time his response seemed overly dismissive to me, even though it was technically consistent with the Christian doctrine of self-sacrifice and wrestling against sin. But are we necessarily correct in making the assumption that condoning gay relationships is the equivalent of giving anyone a free ride through life? It is true that some who are supportive of gay relationships have made assumptions based on an inadequate understanding of traditional Christian teachings about the role hardship plays in our spiritual lives, but it's no less shallow to dismiss all gay-positive theology on the grounds that it would supposedly make life too easy.

The conservative position is, of course, far more nuanced than that, but it is interesting how easy it is to fall back on the assumption that making corrections to our understanding of what constitutes sin necessarily lets anyone off the hook. I struggle no less than anyone else with pride, lust, greed, general self-centeredness and a host of other sinful inclinations. It's true that I experience more peace in my life now that I'm not trying to name and claim my 'natural heterosexuality', but last time I checked peace was still listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit.

It's interesting to watch the verbal gymnastics that conservatives will engage in when describing gay individuals. On the one hand, all gays are miserable and dysfunctional because of their lack of repentance; on the other hand, if a gay person appears to be happy and well-adjusted it's because they've surrendered to their sin. Any unhappiness or self-destructive behavior observed in a gay individual's life is directly caused by their homosexuality, even though many heterosexuals deal with exactly the same issues (perhaps they're all gay and they just don't know it?). Any doubt that a gay Christian experiences is the conviction of the Holy Spirit, while any doubt that an ex-gay Christian experiences is the whispered lies of the devil.

Christians who in one breath acknowledge the dangers of legalism will lose no time imposing legalistic rules on those whose behaviors they disapprove of with their very next breath. Real-life experience must conform to 'biblical' rules that confirm the sentiments of the majority, no matter how many details have to be ignored or whitewashed to make those rules appear to work.

I say this without pointing any fingers at that small group leader; he is one of those rare individuals who consistently and faithfully practices what he preaches, and he makes considerably less noise about it than your average religious right activist. For that matter, it's both interesting and telling that those who shout the loudest about the 'selfishness' of gay couples are in most cases married (sometimes more than once) and enjoying the comforts of a middle-class American lifestyle. It's quite easy to preach about the hardship God's path requires when the preachers consider themselves exempt from the hardship part.

It's also quite telling that those who truly model a lifestyle of hardship and self-sacrifice tend to be the last to heap demands and ultimatums on others. While the Christianists are busy practicing the "do as I say, not as I do" approach to world conversion, those truly committed to following the example of Christ preach first and foremost through their actions, which speak louder than any rhetoric ever could.

Celibacy can be a rewarding vocation for those who voluntarily choose to commit themselves to God in that fashion - for homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. But God calls each of us to a path that's uniquely tailored to our individual needs, and no human authority can ever be wise enough to chart that course for us. When God requires a sacrifice from a person, the end result of submitting to God's command is greater joy and peace. When the church, claiming to speak on God's behalf, demands identical sacrifices from everyone in apparently similar circumstances, the result for many is a loss of joy and peace, and even the destruction of their faith.

Such a demand for conformity is in fact a double standard since it does not take into account the unique needs, experiences and characteristics of each individual. Defenders of the conformist approach will level charges of relativism at anyone who challenges their rules-based 'one size fits all' version of Christianity, while rationalizing away those parts of the Bible that contradict their methodology. At the same time, they place their greatest focus on those rules that affect them the least. In so doing, they become like those denounced by Jesus in Matthew 23:4:

They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Righteousness is manifested through the love that we show to our neighbors, not through the demands we place on them.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


I've held back from the trend of posting videos on my blog, but this one is pretty awe-inspiring. What an amazing universe we live in.

Friday, November 03, 2006


Given that the whole Ted Haggard scandal is still breaking news, it's far too early to reach definite conclusions about what did and didn't happen. If there is truth to the allegations, Haggard's former followers are likely to eat him alive, but that only leads to the one point I do want to make.

Namely, if the church were truly the safe haven it was intended to be, if people could be totally honest about their lives there and still find unconditional love, grace and acceptance, scandals like this would be far rarer, and would be far easier to resolve.

When the church becomes a political power, when it treats some people as worse sinners than others, when it becomes image-conscious and numbers-driven, then the church becomes a breeding ground for dishonesty where people are encouraged to live double lives.

The closet kills...

Update: I like Andrew Sullivan's take on this.