Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Book of Revelation Made Clear by Timothy E Parker and Tim Lahaye

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

So, I was tricked by the puzzles. I've got a pretty good understanding of how Tim Lahaye views scripture - Revelation in particular - and I know full well we don't agree. In fact, I'd characterize my perception of his theology prior to reading this book as "dangerous" and "tragically comical."

So, you may ask, why did you agree to review the book you knew you were going to hate? The answer, of course, is the puzzles. I saw that USA Today puzzle master, Timothy Parker was a co-author and the online summary I saw specifically mentioned "puzzles." I like puzzles, even ones involving crack-pot theology, so I figured it was worth a try - at the very least the puzzles would be fun.

However, when the book came, I realized I'd been duped. I'm sure it was unintentional, but instead of puzzles, there were quizzes - 77 sets of multiple choice questions attempting to implant all of Lahaye's wild ramblings into a reader's brain with no real thought or challenge. Nothing puzzle-like at all.

So, I made myself slog through the book (it's only fair if I'm to review it) and I found it sloppy, to say the least. The content of the book is extremely sparse - besides the quizzes before and after each section, the text of Revelation is recorded in small chunks (but including the entirety of the book) followed by Lahaye's explanation of each section. It is clearly a play to sell books by repackaging things he's previously written. The formatting is occasionally in error - in one section they keep the font used for scripture quotation for an entire section of interpretation (in what may be a Freudian slip). Even if I thought there was any worthwhile scholarship in this book, I'd still consider it a rip-off to anyone but Lahaye completists (and I'm sure they do exist out there somewhere).

The interpretation section seems entirely disconnected from the canon of scripture, only using the text itself to re-enforce some mystical armageddon plan existing in the ether somewhere. Antichrist and tribulation feature prominently, as well as Russia, Iran, and a host of odd topical connections. The interpretation is dizzingly hard to follow, even for someone trained in biblical studies and theology, it skips key references, passages, and "symbols" in places where they appear inconvenient to the narrative. He raises far more questions than he answers, making the title of the book a cruel joke, if not an outright lie.

There are plenty of scholarly works dealing with Revelation, ones that include cultural and social references pertinent to the original hearers, rather than creating speculative futuristic predictions with no basis in reality. I was impressed how often Lahaye picked up on and noted references to other parts of scripture, even if he butchered their interpretations even more egregiously than those of Revelation itself.

Revelation is often thought to be "coming true" in each generation specifically because it was written to mark out the real struggle to live the gospel in the midst of the world. Each Christian and congregation can recognize itself within this book specifically because that is the intention. It is not a book of fear and prediction as Lahaye would argue, but one of hope and faith, affirming the faith and perseverance of the Church despite any obstacles that can and do arise.

If a reader wants a decent treatment of the topics in Revelation on an easily readable scale, I'd recommend Answers for Chicken Little by Dan Boone - for a deeper treatment of heaven, hell, and the end times, perhaps NT Wright's Surprised by Hope would be an option.

If you extend the theology inherent in this book out to its logical conclusion, Lahaye seems to believe that salvation is not ultimately won until the end of days. For him, it appears, Jesus' work on the cross was solely atonement and that salvation is yet to come. There's a good chance this puts him outside historic, orthodox faith, if not grounded distinctly in heretical teaching.

The Book of Revelation Made Clear is a true travesty. While many people lap up this drivel, it is a sure sign of a publisher willing to sell out for profit over the exercise of sound judgment and moral or theological clarity. Lahaye simply makes no sense; even those who share his perspective on the predictive powers of Revelation deserve a better, more thorough treatment than this book provides. It's truly shameful. Don't buy it. I've already recycled my free copy so no one can claim it from the one dollar bin at Goodwill.

Also, there were no puzzles. I was promised puzzles.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Church Growth and American Imperialism

I read this book a few weeks back - The Unkingdom of God by Mark Van Steenwyk (I reviewed it, in part). The book deals a lot with the notion of Empire - not just its political manifestations, but the way the Spirit of Empire infuses itself into culture, economics, religion, etc. At its core, Empire is the belief in one's right to control others; an empire is a nation committed to influencing the affairs of nations and people outside its own borders.

I think about the historical example of medieval China. The Chinese had a bigger, stronger, more capable fleet of sailing ships than anything in Europe. They regularly traded as far as the eastern coast of Africa before Columbus was even born. At some point, though, Chinese leadership decided it was better to focus domestically and gave up sailing the seas with the same intensity.

If things had gone differently - if China had continued to expand its empire - likely it would have been Chinese vessels rounding the Cape of Good Hope rather than Vasco Da Gama coming the other way. The Chinese might have established trading hubs in Lisbon or Portsmouth rather than the Portuguese and British in Macao and Hong Kong. History would have been quite different.

Empire is not strictly about size, but the way in which we leverage that size or even the pursuit of size (and accompanying power) itself.

While reading Van Steenwyk's book, I couldn't help but think of the evangelical church of the past thirty years. My tribe, specifically, was caught up in what's known as the Church Growth Movement, in fact, for a while our motto was, "Our Church Can Be Your Home." We had incentive to bring in as many people as possible - and pretty free rein to do it in any way that produced results.

This lead to worship services as entertainment, professional staff pastors catering to different interest groups and filling the social calendar. It led to a more passive membership (nothing too serious, then people might leave). It also led to huge attendance increases and greater influence.

It really is the Spirit of Empire. Bigger is better. More people, more attention, more influence. What's the harm when we're influencing for good?

What we didn't learn too well in the 70's is that the medium is the message - the way we bring people in is the ethic to which we're converting them. Church Growth strategies worked really well because they tapped into the natural inclination of American culture - a culture already steeped in Empire.

The US has been essentially running the world since the 1940's. Our empire isn't geographic like the British Empire of yore, but it's political and economic. Our size produced influence, expansion, growth. Our consumerism feeds the beast, as it were, pushing the notion of empire.

Our congregations played right into this. The political power of the Religious Right gave voice to people who always thought themselves a silent majority. TV brought exposure for preachers with charisma and media savvy. Sunday worship became a competition for the eyes and ears of people. It was only natural.

That doesn't make it good.

Our desire to conquer is a cultural desire, it's bred into us from the moment we're born. We need to recognize it, name it, and renounce it. As Christ's people, we're not conquerors - at least not in the way of Empire. On the cross, Jesus conquered by losing, by confusion, by demanding so much of his followers they all ran away.

Every opportunity Jesus had to take hold of power or force, he ran from. Empire is not the way of the Kingdom. There's nothing wrong with a large congregation, but beware our attempts to become one.

China never ceased to be influential. They lost the power of position they might otherwise have held. Those nations which embraced the Spirit of Empire came and conquered, carrying off riches and knowledge that China might otherwise have capitalized on. Choosing against Empire was a choice away from self-determination (whether they knew it or not).

Empire is a great way to retain control. Of course, human control of anything has never really worked out well; it's certainly never been part of God's ideal plan for life on this planet. Superintendency, service, yes - God gave us a lead role to play - but always one in service of the other.

Empire is a spirit of self-promotion. We often fool ourselves into thinking our aims are pure - freedom, justice, democracy, evangelism, morality - but in the end, what speaks louder than our motives are our actions.

The medium is the message. Not great size and strength, but humility and service.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How to Change the World

Don't try.

Seriously, stop trying to change the world. It doesn't work that way. People are people and they're pretty tired of do-gooders telling them how to live their lives. This isn't a joke; I'm not being sarcastic. It isn't a satire. I'm not trying to prove a point. If you really want the world to be different, stop trying to change it.

If you want to change the world, love people. Love them - treat them fairly, do nice things for people, even when you're not obligated. Care for people, even if they repay you with hate and violence. Yes, yes - by all means throw birthday parties for prostitutes and eat lunch with homeless drunks - but you could also make dinner for the single mom next door so she's got one less thing on her plate. Stop and talk with that annoying neighborhood kid instead of just yelling for him to get out of your way.

You're never going to lecture or harangue bad actions out of people. Either they know what they're doing is wrong and lack the support to stop or they're perfectly happy with whatever it is that bugs you - and telling them its wrong is only going to harden their resolve.

For the most part, people do what they think is best in the world. They'll change if they think something else works out better for them.

If you want to change the world, just live differently. Give people an example of some alternative way of life working out really well - and don't throw it in their faces. If you're living well to spite someone else, you're not living well.

Sadly, as a pastor, the worst people at doing this sort of thing seem to be Christians. We like to lecture, harass, wield guilt trips, and all sort of other nefarious nonsense to get people to "behave." We like to play morality police - which is ultimately just a power trip.

The gospel - this "good news" we're supposed to be all about - it doesn't say anything about doing the right things, thinking the right thing, or even being a generally decent person. The good news that Christians are supposed to be sharing with the world is simply that each and every one of us is loved unconditionally. Everyone is good enough, honorable, dignified, worthy of respect. The whole point of God dying in a gruesome, humiliating way was to prove how deep God's love is for each and every person - not after they clean up their act or in the innocence of youth, but at their worst, lowest, weakest, most hate-filled selves.

What's more, there is no prerequisite for change.

There's no condition (that's sort of what the word "unconditional" means). There is no fine print, no underlying agreement - if I accept this love, then I'm obligated to do ______________________. That's not how it works.

God loves you.

That's it.

You don't have to change a thing.

Now, my experience has been - both personally and in observance of others - when someone really internalizes that reality - not just intellectually understands the concept, but really comes to accept, deep inside them, that this love is indeed real and indeed unconditional - that people do change.

We cannot be loved unconditionally and remain the same.

This is why I believe love can change the world - not because I am persuasive or any more correct in my morality than anyone else, but because I believe this kind of love is world changing and I don't feel any obligation to change anyone else.

I happen to believe in a loving, compassionate, present God - one who works in the world in real, tangible ways. I believe this is the who not only professes, but lives the kind of outrageous, radical, no-strings-attached kind of love I mention here.

I happen to believe that when people experience this love, they're different. Change happens. It may not always happen in the ways I expect or even the ways I think is best - which is, well, probably a very good thing.

I have no problem talking to people about my choices, my morality, and why I do the things I do. I enjoy it greatly. But I don't expect those reasons to apply to anyone, but me. Don't get me wrong, I love it when people agree with me. I really, really, really enjoy being called "right" by other people. I have a strong desire for reassurance and praise - but I certainly don't expect anyone to agree with me.

I do what I think is right because I think it's right. I sure hope everyone else does the same. Man, I would feel really terrible if people did things I told them to do, simply because I told them to do it. I don't need that kind of power. I don't deserve that kind of power. I'm not sure why so many people in this world seem to think they do.

I might ask you why you do something you do - why you think it best. I've been told (and I'll admit) I often do this in ways that sound accusatory or judgmental. I promise, I don't mean it that way and I'm trying to get better. Usually, I am genuinely curious as to why people choose what they choose and what it says about underlying beliefs. I'm very curious about why people come to different conclusions than me and, specifically, if they've found some rationale or argument I missed along the way.

It's a wonderful thing for people to talk about why they do what they do, about how we decided what is the best way to live in the world. That excites me to no end.

I just can't fathom how people move from that genuine inquiry to the notion that they know the right answer.

I guess, even in saying that unconditional love is the right answer, I'm violating this rule. That might be true. I'd be happy to talk to people about why it seems best to me (hint: it's mostly because the other options, even if they're more believable, are sad and boring to me). Ultimately, though, there's one thing I do know (but feel free to disagree):

You don't change the world by telling people what to do. No one likes that. Live out what you believe - give people an example - and see if that is convincing enough to affect change. If it's not, well, maybe you're not living out exactly what you thought you were.

The world is a great mirror. Sometimes the things we most dislike out there are the things we most need to change in us.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The War Prayer

This short story by Mark Twain popped up in two books I read last week; both found it important enough to quote large sections of it verbatim. It is a timeless and difficult piece of writing. It seems fitting to share:

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fulttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came — next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams — visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory —

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside — which the startled minister did — and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think. “God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer — the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it — that part which the pastor — and also you in your hearts — fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory — must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

The entirety of the piece can be found on its own, dedicated website.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Power and Accountability

Dorian Johnson, who was with Michael Brown when he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, gave his account of the events of the day. He said the two were walking in the middle of the street when a cop told them to move to the sidewalk. They talked back a bit and things got ugly. Then deadly.

I don't know if that story is true, half true, or completely made up. I wasn't there and, thankfully, since I don't have cable, I've not been inundated with every last detail and opinion on the matter.

I do find the story immanently believable though, because it so fits with the kind of thing I've seen over and over again.

I know a few police officers. I met and spoken with many on various occasions, almost always off-duty. They seems like normal, committed, sensible people. When I've encountered police officers "in the real world," however, it's almost always been a negative experience. My experience with cops has been of the power-trip, hair-trigger temper, angry for no reason variety. Perhaps it's the company I keep?

I've been screamed at by police officers for having a conversation with a homeless man. I've seen teenagers thrown up against cars for little more than being black. I've seen the intimidation first hand.

I won't go so far as to say these particular police officers are normative or even numerous - but they exist. I've heard plenty of cops talk about co-workers who are jerks or take the job too seriously. I imagine the police officers who are calm and committed to upstanding service simply avoid the kind of activities that give their profession a bad name.

The problem comes, though, when a particular class of people - namely the urban (largely black) poor - have only experiences with the worst examples of policing. When you only know angry, power-tripping cops (or the nameless, faceless others who frequently patrol your neighborhood), it's difficult to get a sense of justice and fair play.

Someone asked me the other day what the point of looting was. I don't condone it and, deep down, its simply a way of getting stuff for free. But, when your perception of the world is, "it doesn't matter if I follow the rules or not, the Man is coming for me," there's little motivation to actually follow the rules. It's a silly, wasteful type of protest - one that almost always misses the mark - but it is protest nonetheless.

I was raised in middle-class white society. I was one of those kids taught that the police are your friends and they'll always help you out of a jam. I was taught that I have nothing to fear if I've done nothing wrong and I have the right to stand up for myself.

As an adult, having spent time in places where police presence is something other than inconspicuous, I have trouble believing, deep-down, that those lessons are true. I certainly know a lot of people who grow up being taught to avoid the police at all costs; if you find yourself in an unfamiliar place - don't go to the cops, they'll blame the nearest crime on you; even if you've done nothing wrong, being black is often enough to get you hauled downtown.

These are, of course, anything but absolute truths. However, they are reality for a lot of people. Unfortunately, those people are disproportionately black. Black people do not have the best history of relations with law and justice in this country. While great strides have been made over the years to raise the ceiling of opportunity for African-Americans (at least one can be elected President), this incident (and many others) illustrate that the floor of treatment remains solidly in the basement. Scenes from Ferguson this week (outside of modern riot gear and armored vehicles) could be mistaken for the Deep South in 1962.

When I've been party or witness to police over-stepping bounds, I've spoken up, talked back. I've done so with almost no fear of reprisal. I recognize the angry guy I'm speaking with is armed, but I'm fairly confident he won't do anything to me. I'm right and I'm white. That's just not the truth for everyone.

To me, though, the real failure in all of this is the response. It's the position of leadership. Sadly, there are innocent people killed every day in this country - more often than we'd like, they're killed by police officers. In most cases, there is an investigation, consequences, results. It's only those few times when action is avoided or delayed or ignored, that it becomes news.

Human nature is towards defensiveness. That's natural. But we have the ability to recognize our nature and override it; it's literally what separates us from the animals (except maybe whales and dolphins - those guys are smart!). Problems arise when people given power refuse to accept accountability. Police officers command public trust - therefore they must be willing to submit to a higher, more invasive, possibly unfair level of suspicion. It just comes with the territory. People in power just have a higher standard, whether we like it or not.

It gets tricky for police, because they're also the ones charged with upholding those standards - essentially, they're policing themselves. A quick, defensive response (whether its correct or not) just doesn't communicate the kind of accountability required of those charged with upholding the law.

My wife is a teacher; it's the world in which our family lives. It's painful to see that those people who most probably deserve to be in a different position are the ones most strenuously defended by teachers' unions. It's like police policing themselves. Too often these units become exclusive clubs, designed to benefit lifetime members, rather than defenders of their own profession.

I recognize the value of brotherhood and family and unconditional support, especially in an occupation so fraught with danger. I get what that's pushed so strenuously. At the same time, police officers must know that for every bad decision that gets defended, every mediocre cop who keeps their job after a screw up, the reputation of the whole profession takes a hit.

With cops, like with teachers (or really any profession) if they themselves are not the ones upholding the standard, the standard is not long for this world.

Positions of power attract abuse of power. I'm not simply talking about how people with power issues are attracted to positions of power (which is true), but that the positions themselves breed abuse of power when lacking accountability.

You can go back to the oft-cited Stanford study - where a group of undergraduates was split into prisoners and guards and left alone. With 24 hours, those with power had descended into dehumanizing acts of violence and torture against classmates who had been their equals not a day before.

I have great sympathy for the cop who says, "I'm gonna tell these kids to get out of the street, because I can and they have to listen." I've been in similar positions of authority that have similarly gone to my head. It happens without conscious awareness. Power just takes over.

When those who are supposed to listen and obey don't, well then, it's a short step to increased pressure, force, and violence. It's not an outrageous leap to make - especially for those who've been trained to respond that way - especially when you know deep down there's no way anyone with any power will accept the word of a poor, black teenager over that of a cop.

The Ferguson Police Department has proven to be anything, but a bastion of calm, considered, response - or even really community awareness. The whole week has been a lesson in how to do PR poorly. Whether you think the office is telling the truth or not, they've bungled everything that came after.

It's no real stretch to think perhaps the atmosphere and subconscious training could have lead to a lack of awareness, judgment or discipline. When we make it easy to abuse power, we can't be surprised when it happens. It doesn't have to be malicious to be evil. We haven't heard from the office in question - while its entirely possible he's as resolute and unfeeling as his department seems to be, my guess is he's as broken up about the whole thing as anyone. My indefensible bouts of anger have never resulted in consequences quite so dire, but they just continue to devastate my soul. I can't imagine what Darren Wilson's life is like right now.

Then again, despite all the furor and anger, these kids could be cunning con artists. They could have concocted the story knowing that public opinion would be on the side of unarmed minorities over the big, bad white cop. I doubt it, but I'm not ruling it out. Lord knows I've witnessed some terribly disrespectful behavior from arrogant teenagers in my neighborhood and thought they could really use someone to shake them up a bit.

I doubt the reality of this situation is comfortable to anyone, no matter what angle your experience and bias leads you to believe.

But even if this incident isn't everything most people think it to be, it looks enough like other, real, verifiable abuses of power (disproportionately correlated with race), that it can be representative of the larger problem.

We have a race problem in this country, but we also have a real issue with power and accountability. We (and by that I mean just about every organized group - from Catholic bishops to drug-running street gangs) have an affinity for "looking out for our own." We tend to rally around our own - both when they deserve it and when they deserve the strong corrective force only "we" can give.

Ultimately, none of these issue will be solved until we come to one profound realization: there is no "them;" there is only us. We are all in this together.

I follow that crazy radical Jesus Christ (or, at least, I attempt to), and one of the most profound lessons I've tried to learn from him is that our place is always on the side of the outcast the minority, the downtrodden, the forgotten. I try (and I think I do a better job than most of my friends and acquaintances would like me to do), whenever a "them" emerges (from molesters, to immigrants, to teenage "thugs"), to put myself on their side, in their shoes.

I do this in part to remind myself and others that we're all human; any division we create is arbitrary at best, but also because it's only from inside the "us" that any real change can occur. No one is taking heed of "them" telling me what to do. No one is changing their life because "they" told me to do it. Change comes when we stand up to ourselves and call ourselves to something better.

If there is going to be a "them," whoever it is, count me among them. That's where I'll make my stand, because that's where, time and again, I find my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And when this particular "them" becomes strong enough and powerful enough to become an "us," I'll cross over again.

The only "us" that matters is the "us" of all humanity. Only when we recognize that we're responsible both for and to each other - when there is nothing fruitful to be gained from creating a "them," can we really begin to address the problems that plague us.

Playing "us" and "them" games is all about power. A wise man I know once said, "the only legitimate use of power is to share it," or give it away. That's called accountability - a recognition that we all (every one of us) have a part to play. No one can or should do more than their share. We're all in this together. There is no "them," only us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


It's a wonder of the internet that random stories from months or years prior could end up trending because some new regurgitator happened on the right headline. It cropped up again last week, when ChristianPost, which sort of sounds reputable, recycled an old story with a new headline to grab page views.

They hit on a blog post from the "Christian" music group Gungor about their perspective on historicity in Genesis. The post itself was a reflection of a radio interview given eighteen months before and expressed an opinion that was not revelatory for them or new to the world - namely that the biblical book of Genesis is not intended to answer specific historical questions, perhaps Adam and Eve were not the names of the first people, the great flood probably didn't cover the whole of the Earth, and that perhaps it took longer than seven days to get the world to the state it was in when humans showed up.

By using words like "unorthodox" the viral piece made something controversial out of something mundane. Yes, a few fundamentalist baptists cancelled concerts or wrote angry letters, but no one was really shocked.

The things the band said might be considered on the liberal side of evangelicalism (although maybe not even there anymore), but certainly are well within the confines of Christian orthodoxy. What's more, they align with nearly all scholarly research and investigation into the subject. In other words: this is not news.

I have seen a lot of interesting responses, though - the one most interesting is this idea that "you must believe all scripture is literally true or none of it is trustworthy."

Beyond the egregious abuse of logic in that statement, it sort of skips over the more important issue: how does one know what the Bible "literally" says? The most common answer: "It's pretty clear if you read it," leaves much to be desired.

I'm coming out here today. I can admit to you, publicly (I'm pretty sure I covered this in a previous post, but I couldn't find it, so here it is) - I believe the Bible is literally true. I do.

The word literally literally means to take seriously the author or speaker's meaning when interpreting said communication. There's been a lot of controversy lately because the dictionary definition of literally has been amended. So many people now use the word to place emphasis on something, rather than to define anything specifically (that new Taylor Swift song is literally the pinnacle of human creativity). We get fooled when we think literally means "exactly what most people hear when they hear the next few words." It's not an interpretation by democracy. Literally means whatever the speaker/writer means. It's up to the interpreter to notice body language, inflection, context, past interaction, etc to parse the exact intention of the word.

It's always meant that, but the dictionary has traditionally relied on people meaning the same things when they speak. Now there are literally no rules. People can use the word any way they choose and its up to us to figure out what they mean. Sad, I guess, but helpful in this context.

When I say I believe the Bible is literally true, I mean exactly that. I mean I believe it says exactly what it's authors and compilers and editors intended it to mean when they put it together.

That's different than just "what is says if you read it," often called the "plain sense" interpretation. It's a popular one, but, again, interpretation by democracy is not always the best way to find out what something literally means.

When I say I take scripture seriously as a literally true document, I am committing myself to a lifelong process. I have to become knowledgeable about the various genres of literature found in the Bible, how they're constructed and the ways they're intended to be used. I have to parse out historical context - what was happening in the world when people first read these stories in these ways? How does that history change the meaning and purpose of the text? I have to look into the history of the passages themselves - were these oral histories, later written down - how does the process of transmission and the various contexts in which this was received over time shape the story?

In short, I have to ask a lot of questions - questions that can be answered, but never completely. Scripture itself is called the living, active word of God (although at the time those words were written, they themselves were not included in scripture, so one has to speculate about the author's intentions for his - and it's almost assuredly always his, which adds its own layer of bias and investigation to the process - own words should be viewed, and also brings into our discussion the subject of cannonization and the process by which God's people chose which writings would be scripture and which would not - another layer of investigation), which means it's an ongoing process.

All of this speaks to the notion of inspiration. Christians of most sorts confess that scripture is inspired by God - how that happens is a topic of some debate, but ultimately what it means is we think it's a true, reliable source of information upon which to base our understanding of the universe and our actions within it. During the trial of Jesus, scripture recounts Jesus' interaction with the Roman authorities who ultimately allowed his execution. One of the most famous questions posed to him is, "what is truth?" That's ultimately at the bottom of this whole thing.

I confess that Jesus Christ is truth. He claimed as much (if the scripture is to be believed). The only problem with that claim is that it's so squishy. Confining truth to a person brings into the equation relationship - something that changes over time, even if the people involved are the same people throughout.

Just another wrinkle in the process of discerning "literal" truth.

A lot of Christian believe the Bible says the universe was created in seven "literal" days." Unfortunately, that's not even an historic position. It's relatively new. As far back as the scholars of Alexandria in the second and third centuries or the great theologian (who practically defined orthodoxy for a thousand years) Augustine in the fourth and fifth, Christians (leading, important, influential Christians - and many more beyond these) were calling that particular belief silly and a menace to the spreading of faith - pretty much everything that's been said about Gungor the last week.

In the end, I do have an opinion. I can talk you through the "literal" truth of Genesis as I see it, provide the historical, theological, and contextual discoveries that have led to my conclusions, and present the ways this "literal" reading has changed over time as I've grown in knowledge and experience.

What hasn't changed, though, is my commitment to the literal truth of scripture.

That doesn't depend on how many days it took for humans to show up on the Earth, or how massive Noah's flood was, or whether Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even existed at all. The modern study of history as we know it has only been around for a couple hundred years - it's pretty new as academic fields go. The questions of history we so often ask of ancient texts (like the bible) are completely anachronistic to their interpretation.

if we're going to take anything literally, especially something so old, diverse, and complex, we're going to have to ask deeper questions, spend more time studying, and perhaps admit we don't always know everything so concretely - even as we know more things, more thoroughly than we did before.

That's just the nature of literal truth and, I believe, what makes life exciting.

[Edited to add: Here's a great link with a brief interview with Michael Gungor, but, more importantly, lots of links to other things I only referenced in passing in the post above.]

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Happy Anniversary

So, ten years ago today we were married, before God and some head-shaking witnesses. Yes, we were too young and probably rushing into things. If we had known then what we know, I suspect we'd both choose to do things differently.

But of course we didn't know then what we know now and we're certainly not the same people we were back then (those people seem unbearably thinner).

When I reflect back on who I was and who I am there is the unmistakable marks of your life all over mine. I think I was happier then - mostly because I was meeting the vast majority of my selfish desires just fine. My life was small and simple. It was much easier.

When I look at myself in the mirror today, I find a lot more to respect. I am more patient, although not patient enough. I am more compassionate and caring. I am more responsible and work harder. I am likely just as neurotic and frustrating, but hopefully about fewer things.

I am a more mature, well-rounded person and that is, largely, because of you.

We've talked about this a bit. I think we've both come to see marriage as a cooperative endeavor on its own terms, rather than just a relationship between two people. It's something bigger than ourselves - even bigger than the beautiful family we've become. I know they call it co-dependent when you've grown too thoroughly connected to someone else for emotional stability, identity, and well-being. Maybe it's unhealthy. I don't know.

What I do know, is that despite the difficulties we have understanding each other, and all the times we've tried and failed to communicate properly, through all the frustrated nights when we've tried to envision a better life elsewhere, at this point, today, ten years in with another fifty to go (now that your heart's fixed I think we can make it), there's not a single other person on this planet I'd rather be facing the future with.

I love you. Happy Anniversary!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma and The Unkingdom of God by Mark van Steenwyk

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review (I bought my own copy of The Unkingdom of God). My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I did not intend to read two books about the same thing at the same time; it just happened that way. I agreed to review Ken Wytsma's Pursuing Justice and Mark Van Steenwyk's The Unkingdom of God just happened to be the next book on my "to read" shelf. Both deal deeply with justice and Christian life. Both derive from a biography of radical change.

I expected the books to be quite different. Wytsma is an evangelical pastor and teacher, famous for founding the Justice Conference; his book is published by one of the big names in Christian media. Van Steenwyk is a Mennonite most people have never heard of, who lives in communal housing, hosts a podcast, can often be found at protests, and promotes Christian anarchy.

I expected to resonate profoundly with the challenge of The Unkingdom of God and generally shrug at Pursuing Justice. I found them profoundly similar and equally important - which is why I've included both in this review.

I appreciated Van Steenwyk's overt admission of struggle and hypocrisy. He presents a strong challenge to the empire (read: American) dominance in our culture - not just public culture, but Christian culture as well. It's the kind of theological approach most often seen from hippies and radicals and hardcore followers of Christ. Can Steenwyk presents all of those things, but with the humility and honesty to say, "yeah, but I buy my kid a Happy Meal from time to time, too." There's a real value in recognizing that life isn't an either/or; the reality of the world in which we live is complicated and precludes perfection in any form.

I found Wytsma's book to be profoundly deep. He begins with the assumption his readers have no concept of biblical justice and meets people there. The book does proceed rather quickly to some real theological depth, especially challenging the stereotypical, generic evangelicalism I was expecting from a Thomas Nelson imprint. Perhaps it is the clout of his Justice Conference or the real need for such a book to be published, but there is just as much revolutionary, radical, in-your-face truth as is found in The Unkingdom of God. The eighth chapter alone, on consumerism, is worth whatever you pay for the book.

Both books are rooted in the concept of shalom - more than just peace, but a sense of rightness, fulfillment, a flourishing of all creation. This is the Kingdom of God so often spoken of by Jesus, it is the goal of the Church, and the end result of justice. While the specifics of the illustrations and the implications of each author may vary, the point of each is to connect God's people to God's mission of restoring shalom.

I spent some time reflecting on what exactly makes these books so different and yet so the same. I've arrived at this:

Wytsma's challenge is to get beyond your mostly just, comfortable world and give your life in pursuit of God's restorative shalom. It is, in essence, to expand your sphere of concern. Van Steenwyk's challenge is to look around you and see your mostly just, comfortable world as neither just nor comfortable, and thus to live into the dream of a better way.

In both cases this involves a deep dive into the margins - a sacrifice of comfort and cultural expectancy in exchange for life as it was created to be lived. Pursuing Justice helps the reader wade into the pool of injustice, whilst The Unkingdom of God pushes you, unexpectedly, right into the deep end.

I hope it's not too cliched to say both are important. Each book will appeal to certain audiences who will likely ignore the other outright. I'd say there are some chapters which work less well than others in each book; at 300 pages, Wytsma's is certainly longer than it has to be. Neither one is a home run, but they're valuable, worthwhile additions to the library.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”