Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Yes, Virginia, Tolerance is a Christian Virtue...

Tolerance is a Christian virtue.

I would venture to say, many (if not most) of you, respond to the above statement with incredulity or even outright scorn. And, I can understand why.

In recent years, tolerance has become associated with the "secular" swing of Western society. In some ways, this has resulted in positive change. It is a good thing that our Muslim and Hindu friends (and other religious minority groups) can and should expect to be shown respect and deference in the public sphere. In other ways, the tolerance bandwagon has resulted in silliness. Concluding that a junior high student wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "John 3:16" is engaging in "intolerant" and religiously offensive behavior is more than a little exaggerated. (In fact, I think it undercuts the instances in which true intolerance is taking place.)

All this is to say, I understand why many of you would initially disagree with my opening statement. And, I would be standing alongside of you, I think, until just a few weeks ago. In my religious upbringing and theological education, while others were singing "Kumbaya" and "Give peace a chance," I was taught to spit the word tolerance like a loogie from the mouth. Tolerance was for the ACLU (grrr...) and "San Francisco liberals" (gasp!), not real Christians who aren't afraid to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in.

Today, however, I see it differently. Tolerance is for real Christians--especially for those who aren't afraid to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in. I think SBC leader, Paige Patterson's favorite descriptor for Christians like this is "green berets." I would venture to say, that tolerance, therefore, is for Christian green berets.

How did I come to this conclusion? Dr. Fisher Humphreys visited Liberty Heights Church a few weeks ago and taught on a number of spiritual life topics: virtue, prayer, forgiveness, and discerning God's will. In the first session, he spent quite a bit of time in Colossians 3 and he spoke for several minutes on the matter of tolerance. Allow me to quote verses 12-14, which contain the scripture most relevant to our present discussion:

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

The words I have bolded above translate a Greek word that appears a number of different ways in English translations. Most will translate it as the NIV has done: "bear with each other" or "bearing with one another." The CEV translates it rather bluntly, "put up with each other," while the good old King James (and Young's Literal) says is quite beautifully, "forbearing one another." Any way you read it, however, the contemporary English word for all this is tolerance. If you are bearing with someone, putting up with someone, or forbearing someone, you are tolerating them (along with their ideas, habits, etc).

If we are to understand tolerance rightly as a Christian virtue, however, there are three vitally important things we must observe from Col 3 (see also the parallel in Eph 4). First, Paul is not speaking about tolerating (forbearing with, putting up with) sin. Indeed, the basis of his admonition to "put on" Christian virtue is that his audience has already begun to "put to death" whatever belongs to their "earthly natures" (v. 5):

...sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

Do you see? Paul speaks of putting on Christian virtues, including forbearance/tolerance, only after exhorting them to put away sinful practices that are a part of their sinful nature, which is now dead in Christ.

So, from this we can address the most common objection to tolerance, "Well, tolerance is certainly not a Christian virtue because it is not acceptable for us to tolerate sin in the church." To this I say, "You are correct that we must not tolerate sin. There is a real place for correction and rebuke in the church, along with biblical directions for how to do so. But, we're not talking about that now. We're talking about your tendency to demonize those with whom you disagree. More often than not, the contemporary evangelical community errs on the side of intolerance, not indulgence. It is not necessary to embrace the former in order to avoid the latter."

The second important thing to note about Paul's promotion of tolerance is that it is grounded in five Christian virtues he lists one verse previous: "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." All of these play a role in one's ability to forbear with a brother or sister in Christ, but I think a focus on humility is the most important. Humility, rightly understood, is a matter of knowing one's place in relation to God and others. That is to say, you are aware of the fact that you are not God and live in light of this truth in relation to others. When properly situated in relation to God, one is properly situated in relation to your fellow Christians (and everyone else, for that matter): on the same level of worth.

If this is the case, and you have become the kind of person who is constantly aware of your absolute dependence upon God, then your relationship to others becomes what God intends it to be: compassionate, kind, gentle, patient....and, yes....tolerant. Not because you are a lilly-livered, yeller Christian who can't stand for anything. But, because you are a child of God who has confidence in God's ability to be God without your help.

By putting on the genuinely Christian virtue of tolerance, therefore, you are able not to bring up over and over again, that minor difference of doctrine that "just sticks in your craw," every time you speak with your pastor after church. Christian tolerance enables you to loose your grip on the volume level of the sound system in the sanctuary. And, perhaps most importantly, Christian tolerance allows you to let go of the need to assume the worst of those with whom you disagree: that they must either be ignorant (of the truth--your version of it, of course!) or evil (they're clearly not really a Christian if they believe that!).

If God is God without you, then you can trust him to deal with your brothers and sisters in Christ, just as he deals with you: with kindness, patience, love, and yes, tolerance. Your pastor may be wrong and the volume may be too loud. But, because you follow Jesus, you know you are not God. And, that means you do not have to get your way and not everyone has to agree with you. This is a beautifully simple truth that is tremendously liberating in the long run.

Finally, the third thing we must recognize about the virtue tolerance is that, in the context of Col 3 (and Eph 4), the primary place of its exercise is the Christian community of faith. This is quite an interesting truth, I think. Sadly, many Christians, and even those simply exploring Christianity, would say that the church is probably one of the least tolerant places on earth. I can bear witness to this impression. The most cruel, hateful, and soul-haunting things ever spoken to me have been spoken to me by Christian "brothers" and "sisters."

What shall we say about this? This reality is yet another reason for us to finally take seriously Paul's admonition that we "bear with one another," based upon our intentional "putting on" of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Certainly, if we cannot bear to put up with our brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we have the most in common (in terms of faith, at least), how then shall we begin to put up with (and even cultivate genuine love for), those not of our number, with whom we have so little in common? Let us learn tolerance for one another so that we may also show the world we are disciples of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

We're having a baby!

Hello, friends in the blog-world!

Many people in our lives already know the good news, but now that I'm nearing my 20th week, I thought it was appropriate to share with everyone that Ronnie and I are expecting our first child in May. In a week and a half, we'll be having an ultrasound to find out if we're expecting a little girl or boy. Of course, Ronnie's hoping for a boy, but I'll be happy either way.

Hopefully, this news will help explain to my readers why things have been quiet around here for the past few weeks. Currently, I'm working full-time for my mom's business, saving money for our new family addition. And, unfortunately, I've been participating in the typical first-pregnancy sickness, as well. Thankfully, the worst of it seems to be waning, but I remain pretty tired and mentally preoccupied, to say the least.

As things progress and the day gets closer when our baby will join us, Ronnie and I cherish your prayers. We've never done this before, but I know enough to know that everything is about to change!

Blessings to all during the Advent season,


Thursday, November 6, 2008

On the Evangelical Response to the Presidential Election

Important Disclaimer: In the following post, I am NOT offering support or defense of either presidential candidate. This means I am not supporting either candidate's character, worldview, policy preferences, or personal associations. Furthermore, I am NOT criticizing any particular presidential candidate, campaign, person, or group of persons. Any similarities between details I share here and your personal experience is purely coincidental. That is to say, I'm not picking on anyone in particular. If you think I'm talking about you, you're wrong. I have no agenda here. I'm speaking for myself and out of my own observations of American evangelicalism at large.

Also, it is important to note that I write this post from a specific context. Currently, I am the mid-20s spouse of a student minister in a relatively conservative Southern Baptist church in southwestern Ohio. Also, I maintain close friendships with people in Texas and other southern states. So, it is clear to me from the outset that my evaluation of the "evangelical response to the presidential election," is seriously limited in scope. My apologies if any generalizations that follow give offense or oversimplify what is definitely a complex group in the United States.

Around 10:30 AM on Wednesday morning, I sent the following text message to a few of my Christian friends:

What does it say about the church when her people respond in such an immature and fearful way 2 a new Pres they disagree with? I’m saddened by the state of our people’s hearts. Bitter. Angry. Hopeless. Doesn’t sound a bit like Jesus at all. I’m mourning this day for a different reason. God help us 2 grow 2 become the people of light we’re meant to be.

Now, before anyone gets defensive or misunderstands the intent of my message, let me explain. The morning following the election of Barack Obama as President, I logged on to my email account, Facebook page, and other networking tools, as I usually do. I was surprised to discover a great number of public and private statements by Christian friends and acquaintances, voicing a range of negative responses to the election results.

Here are some examples of what I read and heard:
- "I've declared this a day of mourning."
- "God has abandoned America."
- "This is the end of the sanctity of life in America."
- "I'm going to have to move my family to another country."
- "Christians better prepare for a Muslim regime to take over."
- "Now the terrorists have definitely won."

Despite my desire to understand where my friends and acquaintances are coming from--certainly, anyone can appreciate the real disappointment that is felt when someone you believe is the right and best choice for leadership does not receive the opportunity to lead--I was truly dismayed by the overall tone of the response. Indeed, I saw what I detailed in my text message--bitterness, anger, hopelessness--and then some: despair, fear, and, I believe, an underlying faithlessness.

One of the friends who received my text acknowledged that he thought he knew where I was coming from, but wanted some more explanation. Moreover, he wanted to know what my answer to my own question would be (that is, "What does it say about the church...?"). In essence, he challenged me, not only to explain in detail what I mean by my question, but also to pursue an answer.

And so, I'm responding to his challenge with this post. I hope that the following reflections offers good food for thought for my fellow followers of Christ. Maybe as I share my heart with you, we can be "iron sharpening iron" as we learn to live as Kingdom citizens in the United States of America.

My Concerns about the Evangelical Christian Response
The first thing that concerned me about the evangelical Christian response to Sen. Obama's victory (and even his entire 20-month campaign), is what I observed to be an apparent lack of concern for truth-telling, which went hand-in-hand with an apparent willingness to believe the worst about someone with whom we disagree.

Although I expect simplistic, sloganesque, and misleading responses to complex issues from partisan talking-heads and paid campaign representatives of both sides, I think Christians should aspire to something higher and better in their discussion and evaluation of important national and social issues. The wise words of a former professor, Fred Smith, who commented on a previous post on this blog, says it best: "As [Christians] we are certainly free to disagree over all kinds of questions...but such disagreement should be expressed in terms that are accurate and true, that are fair to both sides, and that are irenic--designed to bring the Body of Christ together around Him, not designed to upset and divide believers."

Here's an example of my disappointment in this matter. I have overheard more than a few Christians excoriate Sen. Obama for subscribing to "socialism," despite the fact that an honest appraisal of his economic perspective reveals that he is clearly not a socialist. He is no more a socialist than the 263 US Representatives who voted to pass the $700 billion "bailout bill," which "redistributed" taxpayer money into private banking institutions.

The truth is, there are a number of true socialist parties in the US, one of which ran a presidential candidate in the 2008 race, and all of which would strongly oppose the supposition that Sen. Obama is a socialist. Despite what may constitute a Christian's genuine disagreement with Sen. Obama's proposed tax plan, and real concern for how it will affect an already damaged economy, a commitment to an "accurate and true" discussion of the issues (which reflects our Savior's embodiment of the Truth) means Christians should not use false labels, slogans, or statements in an attempt to slander and mislead. And, this concern for truth should apply to all of Sen. Obama's policies with which Christians may disagree (i.e., abortion, the Iraq War, etc.), as well as those of Sen. McCain.

Along with this tendency to ignore and/or distort the truth among evangelicals, I have observed, as well, what appears to be a general willingness to participate in and contribute to, a mood of fear. I think it is fair to say that fear has been the prime currency of both major political parties, at least since the atrocities of 9/11. Fear of terrorists. Fear of warmongers. Fear of secret spying. Fear of illegal immigrants. Fear of Iran. Fear of same-sex marriage. Fear of anything-convenient-to-help-you-get-elected.

Sadly, in an election where the presidential candidates of both parties attempted to point us toward change, hope, and a new direction for the country, evangelicals seemed to succumb to the same worldly strategy of the past seven years to accomplish their purpose in opposing the election of Sen. Obama. (Again, note that I am not concerned that they opposed Sen. Obama's election. I'm concerned that they chose to do so using fear as a primary tactic.) Through personal conversations, email exchanges, and simply outrageous email "forwards," over and over again, I have encountered a spirit of fear and, frankly, fear-mongering emanating from my evangelical family.

While I do not deny that the heartfelt concerns of evangelicals (which are my concerns, too!), regarding issues like the sanctity of life, war, marriage, freedom of speech, etc, I cannot support the use of fear as a ploy to coerce people in their civil decision-making. Indeed, it is the New Testament affirmation that, "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love" (1 Jn 4:18). If we are to be a people of love, representing a God who is love, then it is entirely inappropriate to manipulate our fellow citizens with fear in order to accomplish what we see as "a greater good." In the Christian faith, the end does not justify the means. Jesus cares about both.

A third concern I have about the evangelical response to the presidential election is the seemingly constant pursuit of a connection between real political concerns to speculative End Times prophetic predictions. Honestly, I lost count of the number of times I have been asked, by email or in-person, whether or not Barack Obama could be the Antichrist. Now, some of my readers may consider this a legitimate question and I do not mean to take away from anyone's right to discern the times in light of Scripture. But, let me explain my frustration with this entire line of thinking.

The expectation of a literal, future person known as "antichrist," is not necessarily the best interpretation of the relevant biblical passages. Although I do not have the time or space to go into the number of ways one can choose to interpret 2 Thess. 2:1-4; 1 John 2:18-23 (see also 1 John 4:3 and 2 John 2:7); and Rev. 13-14, 17 (all of which are used to describe a future "Antichrist" figure), I can say that, historically, the view promoted by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (and many others), is the "baby" in the history of biblical interpretation.

There are a number of legitimate ways to interpret biblical references to "antichrist," and the one promoted by Left Behind (which anticipates a literal, future, world ruler who will set himself up as God and persecute believers in the seven-year "tribulation period") has only recently become popular. Sadly, in many parts of evangelicalism, premillennial dispensationalism (the technical word for the viewpoint) is already unquestioned orthodoxy. I'm not saying that those who subscribe to this viewpoint do so without merit or serious thought, but I think it is unwise to use to this relatively young view of eschatology to form the basis for accusations like those hurled at Sen. Obama.

Also, its important to realize that Christians have been speculating about the identity of the "Antichrist" for hundreds of years. Past candidates have included a litany of Roman Catholic Popes (including the latest, Pope Benedict VII), Peter the Great, Adolf Hitler, JFK, Ayatollah Khomeini, FDR, and, my personal favorite, Prince Charles. Clearly, all of these past predictions have turned out to be false. And, while there is not necessarily a correlation between past false predictions and the likelihood of future correct predictions, we should be humbled, I think, by our not-so-successful predictive past.

All this is to say, even if evangelicals choose adopt a premillennial dispensational view of Scripture, I think it is the better part of wisdom to exercise restraint and humility when it comes to making specific future predictions (a.k.a., speculations). The suggestion that Barack Obama is a legitimate candidate for the Antichrist is one such speculation, with little to no basis in reality (particularly when the argument is based upon tying him to fundamentalist Islam--another example of avoiding truthfulness and giving into fear).

It is one thing to have serious and passionate disagreements with Sen. Obama's worldview and policies, to strongly oppose his election, and seek to convince others to do so, as well. It is quite another thing to accuse him of being "the man of lawlessness...doomed to destruction" (2 Thess. 2:3), "antichrist...who denies the Father and the Son" (1 John 2:22), and "the beast, who...will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction" (Rev. 17:8).

I am not being naive. Every human being, particularly humans entrusted with immense power, like that of the US presidency, is capable of great evil and wrongdoing. But, there is no evidence of such evil yet. I think self-control, humility, and prayerfulness should be the order of the day. As the New Testament exhorts us, "God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim. 1:7).

Finally, I was deeply disturbed by evangelicals' overall uncharitable response to what is an historic moment in American history, no matter your political affiliation or religious convictions. One of our country's "original sins" was the mass enslavement of an entire race of human beings, for no other reason than their skin color and physical features. The text of the Constitution itself considers black African slaves only three-fifths of a person. This infamous blot on an otherwise ingenious founding document (called the “constitutional compromise”) is an embarrassment to all Americans, let alone Christian Americans who proclaim the equal worth of all before God.

But now, US citizens have elected the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya to be their President. Regardless of one's political leanings, this is an amazing thing and a reason to celebrate. No, the plague of racism in America is not defeated in this historic event. And, yes, there are plenty of reasons for evangelicals to be concerned about the possible future decisions of our new President and his counselors. But, for now, at this moment, evangelicals should be able to celebrate a great step forward in the cause of justice.

My Thoughts on Why Evangelicals Responded this Way
So, I have now detailed my specific concerns about what I observed in the evangelical response to the presidential election. Hopefully, I have been clear and not painted with too broad of a brush. Now, I will attempt to answer my own question from my text message this morning: "What does it say about the church when her people respond in such an immature and fearful way 2 a new Pres they disagree with?" There are a number of possible explanations, but I will offer four things that I believe have played a role in the largely negative evangelical mood surrounding this election.

First, I think the majority of evangelicals unknowingly ascribe to an unbiblical trust in the power of government to uphold Christian values. This trust in government leads to an unnecessary sense of hopelessness when the government doesn't appear to go the way of evangelicalism. I'm not going to weigh into the debate about whether or not the USA was founded as a "Christian nation." But, I am going to suggest that the trust in government to uphold Christian values ultimately stems from a misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God and its relationship to the kingdoms of the world.

Jesus made it very clear that his Kingdom is not of this world. The Gospel of Kingdom is not dependent upon the government to survive. In fact, one could make the argument that it is when the church and the State "get married" that the Gospel's progress is hampered by "civilian affairs" (2 Tim. 2:4). The Spirit of God is moving all over the planet in areas of the world where oppression, injustice, and persecution is the norm. There is no reason to despair simply because a person has been elected President whom evangelicals, in general, did not support. In the words of Martin Luther, "While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course."

Second, I think the evangelical response betrays a general lack of faith in the God who upholds all things by his Word. We know from the Bible that God has established government in order to maintain order and establish justice in societies. But, the Christian's trust must be in God. In the words of 1 Peter 2:17, "Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king." The verbs in this verse are in the right place: fear God, honor the king.

Finally, and ultimately, I think all of this goes back to a lack of real spiritual transformation taking place in the lives of the majority of American evangelical Christians. When true transformation is taking place in our hearts, followers of Jesus are able to be genuinely loving, gracious, and kind to those with whom we disagree, while showing genuine hope and peace about God's future for us. I think the difficult truth is, our hearts have not really been formed into the likeness of Jesus, so when it is time to show those hearts to the world, we tend to fail (and sometimes, miserably).

My Thoughts on What to Do about It
I've shared the reasons why I've been so disappointed with the overall evangelical response to Sen. Obama's campaign and election as President. And, I've shared some reasons why I think this response spontaneously arose from the American evangelical community. So, what shall we do now? I think there are a few important and relatively basic places to start.

1. Each of us must take responsibility for seeking personal spiritual transformation through intentional discipleship. Along with this must be a commitment to hold one another accountable in our local churches for producing the fruit of the Spirit (i.e., love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control)--the sign that we do, indeed, have a good heart in God's Kingdom.

2. We must refocus our attention on the revolution of God that comes from below (in the hearts of people who encounter the Risen Christ), rather than the revolution of the world, which comes from above (in the halls of Congress, the White House, and other "power places").

3. We must must begin to pray with genuine love and fervency for ourselves, our fellow Kingdom citizens, our fellow American citizens, and the new leaders that have been brought to power in the past few days. Our God is good, great, and always surprising. Who knows what God will do among us if we will only ask? This means we can look with hope, watching and waiting, for the future of God, who is making all things new!

With that, I can conclude my reflections and evaluation of the evangelical response to the presidential election. I apologize for the length, but I wanted to be as thorough as possible. What are your thoughts? I encourage thoughtful, irenic comments from my readers and I look forward to the conversation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Early Encounters with God's Word

The first spiritual experience I can recall with any clarity came after I was given an Explorer's Bible as a gift. Honestly, to this day, I don't know where I got it. My family was not a "church going" family. Often, we attended a church service on Christmas and Easter. And, every time we spent time with my father's family in New York, we attended their local Catholic church on Sundays. I am inclined to imagine that my Catholic grandmother gave the Bible to me. But, as I said, I don't know for sure.

As many young people do when they first approach the Bible, I made the mistake of attempting to read the Bible cover-to-cover. I began in Genesis and trudged my way through, even forcing myself to read the "begats," assuming that if they're in the Bible, it must be vitally important that I read them.

The most humorous moment in these early Bible readings was when I asked my stunned father to tell me what "circumcision" was. I can still recall the blank, uncomfortable stare I got for several seconds as he stood in the doorway of his fifth-grade daughter's bedroom, trying to come up with an answer that didn't involve saying the word, "penis."

Nevertheless, my real moment of spiritual clarity came when I reached the sacrificial laws of Leviticus. (Yes, I made it as far as Leviticus. By the time I gave up, I had gotten all the way through Numbers. The name "Emily," does mean industrious, after all!) On the one hand, I was truly appalled that God required the killing of many animals to make him happy. Yet, on the other hand, the sheer number of laws and regulations that my family was ignoring truly overwhelmed me.

When I was confronted with the requirements of the law, I did what just about every fifth-grader would do. I consulted a higher power. I went to my mom. I remember the conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey mom, I was reading in the Bible about the laws that God wants us to keep.

Mom: Oh yeah?

Me: Yeah. Did you know that we're supposed to be sacrificing animals on a gold altar?

Mom: Wow. No, I didn't know that.

Me: Well, the Bible says we are. So... I was thinking...

Mom: OK...

Me: Can I set up an altar in the backyard and burn something on it for God?

Mom: [Smiling] Um, honey, I don't think we need to do stuff like that anymore.

Me: Why not?

Mom: Well, I don't know, but things are different now.

Me: Oh...

Maybe this story isn't as funny to you as it is to me, but I find this interchange pretty hilarious. I even remember my train of thought at the time: "God wants animal sacrifices to deal with sin... We're not doing animal sacrifices, which means we're in big trouble with God... But, I don't think I could stand to kill an animal... So, maybe he'll be OK if we don't sacrifice animals... Maybe I could burn some lunch meat instead... Yeah... That will work... Lunch meat... Its an animal... Its just already dead... God will like that a lot better than doing nothing, anyway."

Looking back, I wonder what was going through my mom's head when her fifth-grade daughter proposed burning a pound of smoked turkey on a makeshift altar in the backyard. I'm not sure I would let my daughter continue to read a book that gave her thoughts like that. But, she did. And, I continued to be fascinated by the strange, supernatural stories in the Old Testament.

Interestingly, I never reached the New Testament in these early readings. The terrifying stories of God's judgment and animal sacrifices dominated my thoughts of the Bible from that time forward. Still, I wasn't repulsed, but wanted to know more. That thirst for the knowledge of God and God's Word continued from that time forward.

Later, when my family began to attend services at the local United Methodist Church, I became enamored with the Christ story. My fascination with the story of Jesus always reached its peak around the Easter season, when the Methodist minister would preach from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection morning on the Passion of Christ. All of the church's children were given small wooden crosses, where we could place symbolic stickers, each representing an aspect of the Christ story. I participated with solemnity and devotion.

Once again, though, while I was informed of the facts of the story, I never grasped their ultimate point. And, never did I make the connection between the sacrificial requirements of the Old Testament and the sacrificial death of Jesus. The dots should have led me to Jesus. But, they didn't. Not yet...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reflections on Blogging and What to Write Next

In recent days, it has been brought to my attention how easy it is to misconstrue the both the intentions and meaning of a person as they communicate through written media, particularly written media on the internet. This is particularly true in the case of a personal blog like mine.

If you think about it, personal blogs are a tricky context in which to write, particularly for a follower of Jesus. A blog is an online journal of sorts--a place to record your thoughts, reflections, and evaluations of... well... whatever you like, really. You get to determine when to write, how to write, what to write, and whether or not others can write back. In this way, it seems the personal blog is the most self-serving and, perhaps, self-promoting, media in existence today. For, not only are you writing your thoughts on various topics of your choice, but you are anticipating that your thoughts are valuable enough that others will want to read them, as well. It takes a special kind of "self-confidence" to believe that, don't you think?

Moreover, the personal blog is a "minefield" for readers, too. When one begins to evaluate and engage with the reflections of a person over the internet, one is unable to pair a "real life" story with a name, a heart with a sentence, a tone of voice with a point-of-view. In fact, all of the things that are essential parts of meaningful communication (and conversation, for that matter), are left out because of the nature of the internet. This means, of course, that misunderstanding is rampant and the tendency to assume all of the above (heart, tone, story) is a rip current for the mind. At times, this leads to an environment wherein blog-reading becomes the least edifying way to engage ideas, because true understanding is lost at sea.

I am not saying all this to announce the end of my blog. And, I am not saying all this to announce a break from my blog. Really, I am sharing this with you, my readers, so that we can, perhaps, agree together that even in the apparently simple realm of blogging, dangers lurk for both writer and reader. Recent circumstances have made this more than apparent to me and I have been pondering for a few days what I can do about it.

Sadly, I don't think there is much I can do to remove the dangers themselves. But, I am hopeful that I can offer "something that's of worth," in a way that will both bring honor to the Lord I've committed my heart and life to, and perhaps, a measure of deeper understanding to those who read what I have to say on this, my personal blog. To say what I mean more plainly: I would like to take the next few posts and attempt to offer some insight into my story and my heart. I don't know how long this series will last or whether it will accomplish what I desire (that is, an increased level of understanding between me, the writer, and you, the reader). I am hopeful. But, we shall see.

Once again, there is risk in thinking one's story is significant enough for others to want to read it. "Hey everybody! I think I'm so great I want you to read about me!" It does seem quite arrogant, doesn't it? But, I'm going to have to take the risk. The truth is, I don't believe my story is my story at all. I believe I'm a part of a much bigger story: the story of God, who, in Christ, is making all things new. Really, its that story that makes my story worth anything at all.

I hope that in the next few days and weeks, you will learn more about me. But, even more, I hope that you learn more about the goodness of the God who is continuing to call me out of darkness and into light. Stay tuned...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Review of Religulous...or Why Bill Maher is an Evangelist for Fundamentalist Agnosticism

I know that Bill Maher is not a favorite figure of the evangelical world. As the host of Politically Incorrect from 1993 to 2002, and Real Time with Bill Maher from 2003 to the present, he has been a flash-point for controversy. Maher has a gift for satire and sociopolitical commentary and the focus of his criticism typically includes right wing politics, political correctness, mass media, and religions of all kinds. He supports the legalization of cannabis and gay marriage and serves on the board of PETA. He is also an outspoken critic of religion and is an advisory board member of Sam Harris' The Reason Project, along with notable atheist Richard Dawkins.

Ronnie and I went to see his new film Religulous last night because we felt it was important to hear what this well-known social commentator and comedian is saying to the world. The basics about the movie are as follows: Religulous was released October 3; it has a run time of 101 minutes; and it is rated R by the MPAA. The R rating is for some salty language (although, I must say, I've heard much worse), violent images (mostly from news broadcasts), some crude sexual references, and a brief shot of female nudity.

Let's start with the strengths of the movie, shall we? Religulous definitely lives up to its title. Maher manages to find some of the more ridiculous (or ridiculous sounding) representatives of a variety of religions. Personally, however, I found the people he interviewed about Christianity the most laughable and cringe-worthy. For the most part, these "interviews" were entertaining, but I probably cringed and said "Oh no," as many times as I laughed out loud. The funnier moments in the film were when the film editors spliced humorous B-movie clips in the middle of conversations and/or monologues.

For the most part, Maher focuses his criticism on the "Big 3," Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with occasional interviews with cult leaders and former cult members. The interesting thing is that I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of Maher's more substantive criticisms of religion--even his criticisms of Christianity and Christians. I think history and experience reveal that religion is dangerous. And, like pastor and theologian Greg Boyd, whose review of the movie you can read here, I think its important that Christians recognize this truth. How easily we forget that it was the religious folks (not the "heathen") that crucified Jesus. And, how easily we forget our capability to allow religion to lead to violence and destruction. In this way, I think Maher is justified in pointing out the danger of religion.

Even though Maher's primary motivation is certainly not to offer "food for thought" to Christians (more on his real motivation below), I think thoughtful people will find many significant matters to ponder after viewing Religulous. I'll tease out just a few of them here. First, Maher's primary criticism of religious people is the matter of certainty. He argues that certainty is arrogant, while doubt is humble. When speaking to a group of truckers at their "Trucker Chapel," Maher pounds the pulpit and says, "I preach the Gospel of 'I don't know.'" I think its worth considering whether one can have faith without certainty and what is the role of doubt in the life of a person of faith. And, I think we could talk for a long time about Maher's claim that religion "makes a virtue out of not thinking."

Second, Maher spends a good bit of time addressing the creationist movement within American evangelicalism. Beyond the matter of whether Christians can or should believe in evolution, I think there is a larger question to be considered: What is the relationship between the Bible and science? This is something about which many Christians haven't thought deeply or carefully. My questions about this topic crystallized for me when Maher interviews a Vatican astronomer, who explains that the Bible was written somewhere between 2,000 BC and 100 AD, but the age of science in the Western world didn't dawn until the 1800s. For this reason, the Vatican official argues, the Bible and science cannot have anything in common. Is this the case? If not, why not? If so, what does this mean?

Third, towards the end of the film, Maher focuses on the apocalyptic elements of all of the major religions, but especially Christianity. He does filming in the Valley of Megiddo, stating something to the effect of, "This the place where many Christians believe the end of the world will take place." Then, as his condemnation of apocalypticism heats up, verses from the Book of Revelation are flashed on the screen, over a constant barrage of footage showing nuclear bombs, mass death, and destruction. Yes, its a cheap attempt to scare people but, it also raises a question.

What are the social and political implications of holding to the traditional dispensational view of the End Times? Does the belief in a rapture of the church and the destruction of the world at Armageddon lead to an irresponsible and "devil may care" attitude toward worldwide peacemaking and care for the environment? When dispensational preachers teach that Israel must bomb Iran in order to initiate the beginning of the End, will that not impact the way evangelical Christians view their responsibility to pursue peace with all men? I think there is an important issue. And, to "show my cards" a little bit, this is one of the practical reasons (among many biblical and theological reasons) that I have rejected the "Left Behind" view of eschatology.

Even though I found much to ponder and learn from in Religulous, I think there was much lacking, as well. I could address the details of Maher's arguments against Christianity, but I'll let Boyd take care of that for you. What follows are my general criticisms of the film. First, Maher doesn't make a distinction between religion and faith. This is a curious thing, because there are times when Maher distinguishes between the tenets of the historical Jesus and the many dogmas, traditions, and rituals added to the original message. In my personal experience and expression of Christianity, I seek not to teach religion, but to point to a person and a faith that grows from an encounter with that person. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but I see a major difference between that and the religion Maher attacks.

Of course, because Maher has the outcome "rigged"--he is making a comedy about ridiculous religion, after all--he doesn't address the best proponents of any religion. Frankly, watching many of his interviews is a bit like watching someone shoot fish in a barrel. This makes for good laughs, of course, but not for good debate. And, I can't help but wonder what he would have to say if Christians made a movie about agnosticism and/or atheism that portrayed the worst spokespersons of those viewpoints in the same manner. I have a feeling he'd be more than a little miffed.

Despite Maher's assertion that his primary problem is with certainty--more specifically, people who claim to be certain of their religious beliefs--Maher seems to miss the fact that he is himself the most certain person in the film. He is certain of the fact that no one should be certain of anything. And, he is certain of the fact that if you are certain of religious truths, you are suffering from, in his words, "a neurological disorder."

In this way, Maher cannot avoid making himself the arbiter of right and wrong, truth and lies. Although he tells creationist Ken Ham that he doesn't think he is God, in a sense, Maher becomes his own god, which is the only real position you can take when you do not acknowledge another authority apart from your own intellect. That may be a conscious decision on Maher's part. I don't know. Unfortunately, Maher doesn't feel the need to clarify the implications of this perspective in this film.

Also, I think that Maher drastically overestimates the goodness of human nature and the human intellect. At the end of the film, Maher says, "Religion must die for humankind to live." He believes that religion is holding humanity back from developing into the reasonable, peaceable people we should be. It doesn't hurt his claim, of course, that a majority of wars throughout human history have had something to do with religion, and many of them overtly so. But, I think it is naive in the extreme for Maher to suggest that without religion the world would become a peaceful, reasonable place. Puh-lease.

There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should bomb the heck out of "rogue nations" that cause us major problems and don't like us very much. There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should kill the "weak" members of society. There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should do lots of terrible things to fellow human beings, for our personal benefit or the benefit of society as a whole. Sorry, Bill. Rationalism and godlessness does not necessarily lead to peace, love, and happiness. Countless atheistic regimes have enacted violence and destruction in the world, completely devoid of any religious motivation. In the end, every human is capable of tremendous evil. The issue is not the human intellect. The issue is the human heart.

Finally, I found it the ultimate irony that even as Maher lambasts religious folks for their irrepressible desire to convert nonbelievers and "indoctrinate" converts, Maher closes Religulous with a clear evangelistic appeal. Just like your cheesiest "10 Minutes in Hell," evangelistic video, which uses the specter of burning brimstone to scare the unbeliever into "accepting Christ," Maher plays apocalyptic images over the screen for a full five minutes, making his appeal for the audience to repent of the destructive forces of religion and join him on the side of doubt, reason, and peace. Well done, Bill. I think you've done the "Turn or Burn" street preachers proud.

Bill Maher's Religulous won't win any Oscars and it won't be a bestselling DVD. But, it is entertaining and, ultimately, Maher raises some good questions for thinking religious folks. Take a peek, if you want. Avoid it, if you don't. Either way, Bill Maher, is an intelligent man with a increasingly popular view of religion. (You'll find out in the movie the "non-religious" make up a 18% minority in the US, more than African-Americans and Asians.) Christians need to know what they're saying and what are the weaknesses in their argument. In the end, though, I found nothing in the film to shake persons of thoughtful and, yes, reasonable, faith.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck

Apart from classic works like Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, and Jane Eyre, I rarely recommend books as "must-reads" to my friends. In fact, I find that many "must-reads" and "bestsellers" today are not all they're cracked up to be. Still, every once in a while, a book that is popular, is popular for a good reason. And, I think that is clearly the case with Martha Beck's Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic.

Martha Beck begins her memoir by acknowledging that the story she's about to tell is fantastic and, at times, unbelievable. In fact, she relates that many times she tried to pass the book off to editors and agents as a novel, an amazing story that happened to someone else in a fictitious world. She says, "You see, by calling it a novel, I could tell the story without putting myself in danger from skeptics, scientists, and intellectuals...Then they would all go away and leave me alone..." But, in the end, Beck cannot deny what happened to her and her husband John, after they found out they were expecting Adam.

Martha and John were a young married couple, working their tails off at a Harvard, both seeking graduate degrees, while raising a three year-old little girl. Martha was pursuing her Master's and Ph.D. in sociology (with an emphasis on women's issues), while John pursued a Ph.D. in business. She describes the cutthroat, cold, dog-eat-dog world of Harvard with ironic and laugh-out-loud humor. In the end, it becomes the unlikely stage upon which the Becks' life gets turned inside-out, when Martha becomes unexpectedly pregnant and eventually discovers she's carrying a baby with Down syndrome.

The entire book is filled with Martha's detailed re-telling of the transformation she undergoes (with John) over the nine months of her pregnancy. She is taxed to the physical extreme by non-stop nausea and dehydration, through her entire pregnancy (on average, making a trip to the ER about once a week). She's challenged spiritually by the sudden awareness of a world beyond herself--powers beyond her comprehension, which are working for her good and the good of her unborn child. And, she's forced to grapple with the values that the Harvard environment has pumped into her since she began there as a college freshman. By the time Adam is born, in Martha's words, "I had to unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught me about what is precious and what is garbage."

There are several elements of this volume that were particularly touching to me. First, there is the startling honest depiction of John and Martha's struggle to maintain the image of success and respectability on the Harvard campus. You can truly feel Martha's loneliness and sense of alienation, especially once it becomes known to the Harvard community that she's choosing to keep her Down syndrome child (something, you can imagine, that is not considered the "smart" thing to do). And, you rejoice with her when she finds true friends, who love her through her ordeal and provide support for her fragile physical condition.

Second, there is the bizarre way in which the spiritual realm invades Martha's life during her pregnancy. Although I am a skeptic by nature, Martha's descriptions of visions, out-of-body experiences, and miraculous rescues by unknown powers, were things I found I couldn't scoff at. In her drastic self-transformation, why wouldn't these stories also be true? As a professed evangelical Christian, I found myself both puzzled and encouraged at the descriptions of an admitted agnostic being forced to come to grips with spiritual realities she doesn't understand.

Third, there is the fact that Martha, a dedicated pro-choice feminist, chooses to keep her Down syndrome child, even though she and her husband had agreed long ago that they would abort in such a case. It is fascinating to observe as Martha struggles with her inability to answer the "why" question in a reasonable, Harvard-style fashion. In the end, she has no legitimate, scholarly, or moral reason why she wanted to bring Adam into the world, only that she was driven by an irrepressible compulsion to love and protect him.

I should note that Martha does not present herself as a converted "pro-lifer" after her decision to continue her pregnancy. And, from what I can tell, today she defends the right of women to do with their bodies as they see fit. But, it is clear from her writing that something within Martha compelled her to fight for the value and beauty of the child she was carrying, and that is an amazing and praiseworthy thing. And, I would imagine her experience--being forced to re-evaluate what is lovely, useful, and worthy of life--has impacted her counsel to women ever since.

It seems that I am a little late in discovering Expecting Adam. According to the title page, it was published first in 1999, with many re-printings since then, and has since become a national bestseller. Beck has gone on to launch a successful career as a "life coach," an O Magazine columnist, and an author of several more books. I haven't looked into Beck's current work, or read any of her other books, so I cannot speak to those things. But, I was deeply moved by Expecting Adam and I highly recommend it to you, my readers. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflections on Being "Born Again"

Born again. Have you ever been born again? Are you a born again Christian? Thanks to evangelical Christianity, this phrase has become a common part of American lingo. In 2005, Barna found that 45% of Americans classify themselves as "born again Christians." I'm sure that statistic has changed in recent years, but it remains quite astonishing that three years ago, almost 50% of the US population applied the phrase "born again" to their Christian faith.

So, what does "born again" mean, anyway? The Greek phrase translated "born again" is gennao anothen. It is interesting that despite its ubiquitous usage in evangelicalism as a metaphor for salvation, the phrase appears in only a few times in the New Testament and all of them in John 3:

"Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.' Jesus replied, 'I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is gennao anothen, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus said to him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, You must all be gennao anothen. The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.'" - John 3:1-8 (NET)

Gennao is a fairly common word in the New Testament for birth, fathering, or conception. It can be used in a literal sense or in a metaphorical sense, neither of which is altogether unique in the Bible. But, the addition of the word anothen, which is used only 13 times in the NT, makes the phrase something quite special. Anothen has a double meaning, either "again" or "from above," which John purposefully plays on throughout his Gospel (see 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19;11, 23). Despite the fact that most English translations choose to translate gennao anothen, "born again," it is almost certain that the meaning intended in John 3 is "born from above."

As we read in John 3, Nicodemus apparently thought Jesus was speaking of literally being born again, or a second time. This explains his incredulous reply: “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” We know from study of John's Gospel that the author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point. That is to say, Jesus says something, which is misunderstood by the hearer, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.

I bring all this up because I have had opportunity in recent weeks to think more deeply about the metaphor of being "born from above." As I said previously, despite its common usage, "born again" is truly a special idea, unique to John's Gospel. I never want to make the mistake of assuming I understand a biblical concept, especially one that Jesus declares to be so important: "I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

So, let's consider the metaphor new birth--being born from above. It may be strange at first to consider it this way, but I would submit to you that this metaphor is a very earthy and feminine metaphor for salvation. Think about it. Birth--a natural, physical female process that has been occurring in various ways and circumstances for thousands of years.

How do I know that this was on Jesus' mind when he used the birth metaphor? I think Jesus explicitly references the physical birth process in vv. 5-6, when he speaks of the necessity of being "born of water," as well as "flesh" giving birth to "flesh."

Many commentators would argue that the "water" spoken of here is the water of baptism or even the water of the Spirit. I would say, however, that the rite of baptism is never paired with "birth" anywhere else in Scripture and such a reference would introduce an alien concept to the passage. Also, a reference to the "water of the Spirit" would be redundant in the context, for that would have Jesus saying, "You must be born of Spirit and Spirit."

I think it is more likely that Jesus is making a reference to the physical "water" of birth, the amniotic fluid which is released from every woman's body at the time of delivery. The meaning of Jesus' statement in v. 5 would be that every person must be born of woman and of the Spirit in order to enter the Kingdom of God. This makes sense in light of the fact that Nicodemus brings up the physical process of birth himself, asking the question, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?"

Now, of course, Jesus' point is that this physical, human birth is not enough in order to see the Kingdom of God. But, he sets the stage for the metaphor of new birth with a reference to physical birth, a uniquely female function (the last time I checked!).

So, what's the point? I don't think we appreciate the fact that Jesus uses a very earthy, messy metaphor to describe the way human beings are birthed into the Kingdom of God. He equates being "born from above" with being "born of the Spirit" (v. 8). In this word picture, the Spirit of God is a maternal figure giving birth to new believers in God's Kingdom.

Feminine metaphors are few and far between in the Bible, so I think it is important that we pay attention when God chooses to use one to describe himself and his ways. What does it mean that we must be birthed into the Kingdom of God by the Spirit of God? If we unpack that image and compare it to the experience of physical birth, I think we can appreciate the metaphor of new birth in a fresh and exciting way.

When a baby is born, gestation has been in process for many months. Nutrients have been flowing from mother to child, growing the baby from a being the size of a blueberry to a 6-10 pound human. Then, in the best case scenario, when the time is right, the baby is brought into a bright, loud, and cold new world. As we all know, this process is not easy, sometimes dangerous, and it doesn't look pretty, either.

But, when all is done, a good mother will then become the primary means of the baby's adjustment to life in the "outside world." As new sounds, sights, and experiences assault the child, the mother will guide them through the process of growth--feeding, clothing, comforting, and caring for them until they begin tentative steps toward independence.

In a similar way, when a new believer is born of the Spirit, a sort of spiritual gestation has been occurring for some time. God's Spirit has prepared the heart, mind, and soul of the person for new birth through a variety of possible "nutrients": the word of God, the people of God, and much more. This process of growth is what brings the new believer "across the line" of unbelief to belief. Still, like physical birth, it is almost always a messy process, one that is unique for every person and fraught with spiritual dangers.

There is no doubt that, upon entering the Kingdom of God, the new believer is like a baby absorbing all the new sensations of the "real world." They see and hear things they've never seen or heard before. They learn to recognize their family's voices and to discern between things that help or harm their person. Like a baby, the new believer is entirely dependent upon its "mother," God's Spirit, for survival, and it will take the care of other humans to assist with their growth and socialization, as well. And, the Spirt, like any good mother, guides the new believer through their new life, helping to provide the spiritual nourishment, comfort, and care they desperately need.

While I don't have the time or space to say much more than this, I think there are plenty of other observations about this unique metaphor that make up good "food for thought" for all of us. For example, it appears that being "born from above," is a process, not something that happens instantaneously. Also, being "born from above," is a truly messy endeavor, one fraught with difficulties and, yes, even ugliness. Being "born from above," is something under the power of the one doing the birthing: the Spirit of God. And, being "born from above," shows that God is not "above" using earthy, feminine metaphors to describe the mysteries of the Kingdom.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When politics and theology collide

OK, everyone, this will be my last post about Republican VP nominee, Governor Sarah Palin. I prefer not to "talk politics" on this blog, but this particular matter intersects with evangelical theology. The following article by Robert Parham first appeared on Ethics Daily yesterday, Sept 9. I recommend it to my readers as good "food for thought" about theological consistency and the trickier elements of applying the complementarian viewpoint in real life. Enjoy!

Politician Palin Forces Theological Revisionism

Robert Parham

The nomination of Sarah Palin changed Southern Baptist fundamentalism quicker than Eve tempted Adam to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden, metaphorically speaking. The Republican Party's first woman caused Republican Party's first-line male clergy to revise their theology about women, while claiming they never meant what they said earlier.

Only 10 years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention thumped the Bible and announced in Salt Lake City, of all places, that the woman's place was in the home. More exactly, they added a family paragraph to the Baptist Faith & Message statement, which said that a wife had the God-given responsibility to her husband "to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation."

Their words were abundantly clear and literally interpreted. The wife had no other role, no other divine appointment, no other responsibility. No exceptions were made for women who work outside the home, either by necessity or vocational fulfillment. The woman was to be a household manager and to nurture children.

Their statement was economically unambiguous: the husband "has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family."

One of the two women on the Baptist Faith & Message committee, which wrote the family statement, said that women should never "be ashamed to be a worker in the home." She said that women were to be "helpers first of all to our husbands" and "homemakers are the backbone of our society."

The SBC president, who appointed that committee, would later say, "The wife should not be burdened with the necessity of working outside the home."

When he was chairman of the SBC's Council on Family Life in 2003, he said, "Particular attention should be given to the specific roles established in the Scripture for the husband and the wife in the areas of provision and management. The husband should be vocationally focused and able to provide for his family."

Now SBC leaders are reinterpreting their statement.

None does so more dishonestly that a seminary professor who wrote last week that "the Baptist Faith and Message does not address the question of women in secular leadership, only spiritual leadership."

Wow! Talk about mendacity.

All of a sudden their faith statement is about spiritual leadership. That's certainly not what the words say and what the leadership said. If they had meant to affirm women in the workplace, then they would have said so, which they did not, even in their interpretative document of their faith statement.

Another SBC official wrote that he saw no conflict between his denomination's statement on women and supporting Palin vice-presidential campaign. He said that men and women are "assigned different but complementary roles in the home" and "our confession of faith does not speak to the appropriateness of women serving in political office."

Well, no, the confession of faith doesn't speak literally to women running for office. But when his wife served on the committee that wrote the family statement, neither she nor he spoke up for women working outside the home.

In fact, when I said in June 1998 that Southern Baptist fundamentalists "hope to make June Cleaver the biblical model for motherhood, despite numerous biblical references to women who worked outside the home," fundamentalists responded with the claim they were only being faithful to the Bible.

Fundamentalists could have clarified that their statement was only about spiritual leadership and had nothing to do with women being employed outside the home. They could have said they valued and honored women pursuing their God-given talents in the workplace. Nope, they said their statement was all about the Bible.

So, why are SBC fundamentalists rushing towards theological revisionism?

Theological accommodation always arises in response to cultural change. Palin has changed the Republican culture, forcing SBC clergy either to say they can't support her because what she is doing counters biblical teaching or to shift their interpretation of the Bible. Their fear of being shut out of the White House, should she win, or blamed for Republican defeat in November necessitates their theological revisionism.

What the revisionist storm will wrought for Baptist women in church leadership and in family roles is unknown, except that it will not be what is was. And that's bad news for the patriarchal clergy of the Christian Right who hide behind the Bible in the pursuit of political power.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Your thoughts?

I know what I think about Voddie Baucham's recent statement that Gov. Sarah Palin is the "anti-family" Vice President pick for Sen. John McCain. What do you think? Check out the Ethics Daily article here and the original blog from Baucham here. And, please, as you make your comments, remember to "play nice."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sarah Palin, "Stay-at-Home" Moms, and Women's History: Part 2

So then, what problem do I have with the predominant evangelical idea that women are intended to be stay-at-home moms?

There are a number of ways to approach this question and if I explored all of those avenues, I would write a book instead of a blog post. Since I doubt my readers are that devoted, I won't test their patience with that sort of endeavor. What I would like to do instead, therefore, is address what I believe to be a major historical myth often used to prop-up the "stay-at-home mom" ideology. That's where the "women's history" part of my title comes into play.

Conservative evangelicals routinely communicate their viewpoint using the argument that it is only with the rise of feminism in the 20th century that women left their proper place in the home to pursue employment elsewhere. In this model, a familial "Golden Age" is posited, wherein prior to the 1950s and 60s, women knew their proper place, were honored by society for it, and "family values" were upheld throughout the nation. (Let's not talk about the absence of civil rights, women's rights, and all that, of course.)

Conservative evangelicals would argue that it is when women began to abandon their place as stay-at-home moms that Christian values in our culture began to decline. In this regard, I have even read volumes where the independence of women (that is, the choice of many women to pursue employment outside the home) is blamed for most of society’s ills, including child abuse, divorce, teen promiscuity, increases in female crime rates, and even increases in female health problems. (Sounds a bit like those who would like to blame Eve for the downfall of the entire human race.)

Nonetheless, an honest survey of women's history, even if we limit the survey to women's history in the Western world, will reveal that this supposed exemplary "Golden Age" of stay-at-home moms is grossly inaccurate on a grand scale. In reality, the time period in which some (it is important to emphasize "some") Western women had the luxury of staying at home with their children, with no outside employment, is a virtual "blip" on the vast screen of history. The majority of women, most of whom occupied what could be called a "peasant's existence," experienced a long arduous life of labor and family. Indeed, the concept of separate spheres for women and men was alien and unfathomable until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

In the two-volume work, A History of Their Own, authors Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser detail the developments, achievements, and changes in women's lives from prehistoric times to the present. It is their chapter on peasant women that I find the most helpful as we discuss the myth of the stay-at-home mom ideal. Despite the fact that the "known" women of history are the wealthy, elite noblewomen, approximately 90% of European women from the ninth to the end of the 19th century, lived in the countryside, experiencing life as a peasant.

What was the life of peasant women for a thousand years of European history? Surprisingly enough, despite differences of geography, culture, religious traditions, and language, the lives of peasant women for thousand years were fairly consistent. Anderson and Zinsser sum it up in this way:

"From the time they were small, children through maturity to old age, rural women expected to work. They knew no division of labor, no separate spheres for women and men. They worked everywhere. They performed all but the heaviest tasks having to do with the preparation of the fields and the harvest. They helped to plow, to spread manure, to weed, to reap, to thresh. They did all the work of the household. They gathered kindling, hauled water from the well, tending the fire. They gardened, they tended the animals, they also did extra jobs to make money needed for rent, for taxes, for necessaries. So they hired themselves out as day laborers or laundresses, they sold cheese and butter, they worked their spindles, knitted, made lace. And always there were children to care for, pregnancies, infants to breast-feed, all around and about the other tasks."

Does this sound like the men worked, while the women "kept house"? I don't think so. For the majority of women in the Western world, life revolved around the cycles of the harvest: harvest-time, winter, spring, and summer. There was no kissing the husband and waving goodbye as he headed off to work. In times of harvest, peasant women would follow their husbands to the fields, often with small children strapped to their backs, so that they could bind the sheaves, collect them, and pile them up. Hemp was also harvested for ropes and sacks, as well as flax for linen. Then she would do what was necessary to create flour from the harvested grain, the staple of the family diet.

Peasant mothers and their daughters prepared one main meal a day for the family. Some would rise at 2 or 3 AM on Mondays in order to prepare the breads for the entire week. She would be responsible for taking care of the family livestock and fowl, as well. The litter of piglets born every spring were her responsibility, as well as the slaughtering of the litter in the winter, being sure to use every possible aspect of the carcasses. (I will spare you the gory details!) In many instances, however, the livestock and fowl were too valuable to eat, so they were fattened and sold at market.

In the winter months, warmth and food were the obsession, for absence of both were genuine threats to family survival. Most families spent the months indoors, hovered around the hearth of the main room, fired with manure or some other cheap source of fuel. In the very poor homes, women brought the livestock indoors to promote warmth, and the family had to brave the fleas and lice that plagued them during the months they were unable to bathe.

But, most of the peasant women's time during the winter months went to providing cloth for the family. From as early as the 9th century, peasant women were responsible for all aspects of the family's clothing needs, from collecting raw wool and flax to finishing the shirt or coverlet. Indeed the primacy of the female responsibility for thread and cloth goes beyond written memory. Although peasant families were happy to have one set of clothes to be worn all year long, peasant women devoted much time and attention to the wedding clothes, bedclothes, and table linens that would be a part of their daughters' dowries.

From the end of March to the first of August, peasant women returned to the fields with their husbands to hoe, weed, and mulch the newly planted crops. And, of course, this was done in addition to their other chores. In March, the family vegetable garden was planted. In May, the women cut turf for the family's fires. In June, the women sheared the sheep. And, all of these traditions varied depending upon the region, of course.

Spring and summer months were also the time for laundry, with big washes happening about twice a year. And, in the last lean weeks before the harvest, the peasant woman used all available means to brig in extra income for the family. They cared for the new cow about to calf, the goats about to give birth, as well as the piglets, chicks, and goslings. Milk, butter, and cheeses were made and sold at market, with the same methods of production being used for centuries.

Of course, with this description of peasant life, we haven't yet touched on the major constant in the working woman's life: childbirth and child-rearing. The studies of recent demographers have shown that a peasant woman might have five to seven successful pregnancies at two and a half year intervals, if she lived a normal life span. "From the woman's perspective, she could assume that she would be pregnant or nursing a child for most of her adult life." (That is, from the age of 14 to around 45.)

I won't go into the details of peasant childbirth, but suffice it to say that the pregnancy and birthing processes were clearly defined "women's work," with the wisdom of midwives playing a major role, as well as the experience and camaraderie of sisters, aunts, neighbors, and friends. All manner of anomalies in the birthing process could bring death for mother or child, or both: transverse or breech presentations, prolonged labor (lasting over 24 hours), infection, dehydration, and malnutrition. After birth, peasant women breast-fed their infants, weaning them anywhere between one and three years of age. They would take primary responsibility for the child until around the age of five, when the older children would take over.

Beyond the work of caring for family through farming, slaughtering, weaving, sewing, and feeding, peasant women bore the responsibility for healing, that is, caring for sick and injured family members. Skills and insights into herbs and spices, incantations, and prayers were passed down generation to generation. Every symptom had an herbal remedy and "the accumulated lore of this herbal medicine gave peasant women a way to deal with the illnesses all around them."

Despite all this effort, however, death surrounded peasant women. Studies have shown that while rural women bore an average of six children in a lifetime, half of them died before they were twenty. Twenty-five percent of children died in their first year, and in bad times, this percentage could climb to 50%. The threats to peasant survival were numerous: bad weather, which made for bad harvests; scarce food supplies; cold weather illnesses (small pox, typhus, croup, diphtheria, whooping cough, asthma, rheumatic fever, TB); warm weather illnesses (dysentery, malaria, cholera, and typhoid fever); the Black Death; and the constancy of violence, warfare, and rape.

Through it all, however, the peasant woman continued to labor, maintaining as best as possible, the home, the farm, the lifestyle of her family. Even in the 1950s, after the war was over for women of the Russian countryside, one peasant woman had this to say:

And so now the war has ended,
I alone remain alive.
I'm the horse, the ox, the housewife,
And the man and the farm.

So now, after this brief synopsis of peasant women's history in the Western world (those who make up 90% of European women from the ninth to twentieth century), we are left with the question: Where are the stay-at-home moms? Where are the families where the men go out to work and the women stay home to care for the children? The truth is, in the majority of families for the last one thousand years, they are nowhere to be found. In the history of European women alone it is clear that the idealization of the stay-at-home mom is just that: an unrealistic idealization.

Also, I should point out that we haven't even discussed the realities for women of color in the Western world, most of whom have been adept "working mothers" since the first slave ship began landed in the New World hundreds of years ago. Female slaves in the Antebellum South cared for their own children, as well as the children of their white masters, in addition to the cooking, cleaning, or field work, for which they were responsible.

And, their stories have parallels to the stories of immigrant women today, who must leave their children at home or in the care of a relative to pursue multiple jobs, in addition to their jobs as household managers, to support their family and ensure survival. As with the peasant women of Europe, they do what they have to do, with industriousness, tenacity, and dignity, despite the fact that the privilege of being stay-at-home moms eludes them.

So, how were women of the early 1900s able to become the idealized stay-at-home mom that we hear so much about today? This topic is far too large to address at this time. But, the simplified answer is this: wealth. It is through technological advances and unprecedented economic growth that, for a time, the so-called "nuclear family" of the Western world was able to allocate special spheres of work to women and men. Interestingly, though, many suspect we are coming to a place in the slowing of the American economy, and that this kind of division of labor may no longer be sustainable. Yet, many evangelicals still cling to the image of the stay-at-home mom as the only right and proper (and God-given) role for women. This way of thinking seriously concerns me.

In closing, I admit that the information I have presented in this post is decidedly descriptive not prescriptive. I am not suggesting that the historical record is the only or even the deciding factor in the debate over women's "proper place." For many, much remains to be explored.

Still, as we look across a thousand years of women's history in Christendom, I think we should ask ourselves: If God's ultimate intention is for women to be stay-at-home moms, then why is it that only upper class, American, white women have been able to experience "God's best" over the past millennia? Surely God does not so favor such a relatively small group of women that only they, among all the women of Europe (and even the world), have been able to attain his "best" for them? I don't think so.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin, "Stay-at-Home" Moms, and Women's History: Part 1

It has been quite a while since I added an entry to my series on women in ministry, first introduced many months ago. You are welcome to review what I said previously, here, here, here, here, and here. A lot has happened since then and I'm not sure whether or not I will be able to finish it. But, I have found inspiration recently, so I have seized upon that in order to offer the following post. This was not "on the schedule," but hopefully it will offer some good food for thought.

Friday afternoon, after much tortured speculation in the media, Sen. John McCain announced the identity of his running mate: Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. She is a 44 year-old wife and mother of five, who has served in a number of capacities, from the PTA, to City Councilmember, to Mayor, to Governor. Recent reports show that US conservative evangelicals are enlivened and encouraged by this choice, for Palin is staunchly anti-abortion, not to mention a lifetime NRA member and opponent of same-sex marriage.

When I began to conceive of this blog post a few days ago, I didn't plan to reference Gov. Palin. And, I should clarify that I have no desire to comment on Sen. McCain's choice, nor even to discuss VP picks or politics in general. Instead, I find in Gov. Palin's appeal to evangelical voters an interesting tension that highlights a personal ideological struggle with which I have labored for some time: the overwhelmingly popular claim among evangelicals that God's ideal for women is for them to be a "stay-at-home" moms.

Now, I know that many of my evangelical brothers and sisters will protest that this is oversimplifying their position. That is to say, they would never condemn a single women who devotes her life to missions for not becoming a stay-at-home mom. Nor would they ever condemn a mother forced to work by her family's economic circumstances.

But at the end of the day, the predominant belief among evangelicals (and perhaps I should clarify, mostly white, middle-class evangelicals) is that it is the best case scenario when a woman is married to a man and caring for their children "at home." And, despite any protests, I know for a fact that many women are made to feel like incomplete women because they aren't married or because they cannot give up work for a life "at home." Books are written about it. Conferences are put together for it. And magazines obsess over it.

And that's one of the reasons I introduced this post with Gov. Palin. In my observation, the exuberant evangelical response to her is in tension with their familial ideology. On Friday, the world was introduced to Gov. Palin, she was flanked by her lovely family--husband and five children, the youngest of which was born with Down Syndrome in April. There is no doubt that it takes tremendous skill and ingenuity to manage a household of this size, let alone while she serves as the executive leader of Alaska. Gov. Palin is an accomplished woman and probably a great mother. But, in the end, she is definitely not a stay-at-home mom.

Even so, after McCain's announcement, political activist, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, released a statement praising Gov. Palin as an "outstanding" choice for vice president. Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission leader Richard Land has unashamedly admitted to recommending Gov. Palin to McCain as a VP pick. And, even the typically outspoken advocate of stay-at-home moms, Al Mohler, appeared to hedge his bets, saying, "If I were her pastor, I'd be very concerned for her and her family. But it looks as though she's found a way to integrate it all in a way that works."

[UPDATE: Since I posted this blog entry, SBC pastor Voddie Baucham has written a scathing critique of McCain's choice of Palin as VP, using a consistent view of women's roles. His conclusion is that Palin is really the "anti-family" choice. I do not agree with this assessment. But, feel free to read the original article here.]

Sen. McCain's choice of Gov. Palin has put evangelicals in an interesting position, I think. At the same time that they are thrilled with her socially conservative credentials, I think that if they stop long enough to think about it, they will realize that she poses a challenge to their commonly held belief that women are meant to inhabit the "home realm" with children, while men inhabit the social realm and lead. What will they do with someone like Gov. Palin? I don't know. I suppose we'll find out in November.

So, why am I picking on Sarah Palin? And why am I picking on stay-at-home moms? Well, let me say that I am definitely not picking on Gov. Palin. I congratulate her on her achievements and wish her well. And, I am definitely not picking on stay-at-home moms. I have no beef with women who are financially free to be the primary caregivers of their children and devote their days to working long, arduous hours, managing households and training up the next generation. I have no problem with them at all.

The issue I have in mind for this two-part post is the ideological perspective that women are intended by God to be stay-at-home moms. And, in Part 2, I will address one of the major reasons I think this ideology falls flat in the reality of God's world, the narrative of human history.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Is this it? Not at all.

I know its been a long time since my last post, but today I finally have something to share. Its nothing profound, but it is what's in my heart today and I need to say it "out loud." Thanks for reading and for praying.

Over the past two weeks, I have been filling in as a Sunday School teacher for our college group at Liberty Heights. This week, we discussed the very familiar passage in John 3 about being "born again" or "born from above." In the words of Jesus: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God, unless he is born again."

I told the class that the phrase "born again" is often used, but (I think) very little understood. So, I proposed that we discuss two things in this familiar teaching of Jesus: (1) What is the Kingdom of God? (2) What does it mean to be "born again"? After circling the matter many times, this is what I discovered...

For most in the class, being "born again" means "getting saved." And, "getting saved" means "becoming a Christian." And, becoming a Christian means believing in your heart that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for your sins, and he is the only way to get to heaven.

Then, I asked the question: "OK, if being born again--getting saved--becoming a Christian, gets you into the Kingdom of God, then what does that look like? What will a Christian in the Kingdom of God look like?"

I wrote their answers in green marker on a dry erase board:
- regularly attending church
- knowing and studying the Bible
- using good language (i.e., no cussing)
- not drinking, smoking, or doing drugs
- wearing the right clothes (i.e., modest and clean)
- giving or tithing
- being nice to people
- doing good things for people

When I saw all these things in writing, I remembered something at once very shocking and very sad: these are the sorts of things the Pharisees and religious folks of Israel were doing when they plotted to have Jesus the Lord crucified.

I told the students this and offered them this observation: Is this really what Jesus died for? Is this really what the Kingdom of God is all about? You're telling me the God of the universe became flesh so that we would be good, well-behaved, well-dressed church members? I don't think so.

I think Jesus announced something much bigger and better than this. I think the Apostles preached and lived and died for something much bigger and better than this. I think Christians all over the globe rise every morning praising and exalting God for something bigger and better than this.

If this is what our college students think the Kingdom of God is all about, then no wonder we have struggled to keep the class alive. No wonder our young people are dropping like flies once they leave our campus and set out on their own. I couldn't buy into a Gospel as small and boring and insignificant as that. Why should they?

I know there's more to it. And, hopefully, you know there's more to it. I pray God gives me (us) the wisdom and passion to communicate this to students and the many others who have been lulled into sleep while "doing church" in middle-class America.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Like a weaned child with its mother..."

Ronnie and I are dealing with some troubling circumstances. I wish had liberty to share more, but I cannot. I would cherish your prayers, if you feel so led. Above all else, we need the Spirit of God to give us good hearts and quiet, trusting souls. This is the meditation and prayer of my heart this week. May it minister to you as well, no matter what your troubles.

Psalm 131

My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.

But I have calmed myself
and quieted my soul.
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Gospel and the Apocalypse

Last night, I was a guest teacher for the Pastor's Bible Study at Liberty Heights Church. What follows is the manuscript of my lesson. You may notice quite a bit of overlap between this and some other things I've written. But, since I haven't had the time to write anything else recently, I thought I'd share anyway. I hope it provides good food for thought. I know we had some great conversation afterwards.
The Gospel and the Apocalypse
My topic for tonight is “The Gospel and the Apocalypse.” This may seem a little strange to some. First of all, the Apocalypse isn’t really about the Gospel, is it? I mean it’s about the End Times, right? It’s about when Anti-Christ loses, Jesus wins, and God finishes everyone off, right? And, second of all, why talk about the Gospel when you have so much cool stuff to work with in the Apocalypse? Just flipping through the book, you encounter a red dragon, ghoulish demons, creatures with giant horns and hundreds of eyes, not to mention a tremendous amount of violence and bloodshed. This stuff sounds more like the makings of a successful Hollywood action film, not a message of Good News.

So, why talk about the Gospel, or Good News, and the Apocalypse? I want to address this matter tonight for two interconnected reasons: (1) The Apocalypse has a message about God’s salvation that must be included in our view of the Gospel. That is to say, there is something in Revelation that we must add to our view of God’s Good News in Jesus. (2) The Apocalypse must be read in light of the full view of God’s Good News. We cannot separate the visions and prophecies of this book from the rest of the Bible’s message to us.

Now, as I layout my view of how the Gospel and the Apocalypse intersect, some of this will be new to you. So, I ask for your longsuffering and open-mindedness as we explore this together. I believe that if we can grasp the fullness of the Apocalypse’s vision of the Gospel and read it in light of the rest of God’s Word, we will have something truly remarkable to preach to the whole world.

Let’s begin by looking at several verses in the book of Revelation. I’m not going to expound at length on these verses, but I want to use them as a way to “get the juices flowing.” All of these will play a part in our lesson tonight. I’ll be using the Holman Christian Standard Bible.

Rev 4:11: “Our Lord and God, You are worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because You have created all things, and because of Your will they exist and were created.”

Rev 5:11-13: “Then I looked, and heard the voice of many angels around the throne, and also of the living creatures, and of the elders. Their number was countless thousands, plus thousands of thousands. They said with a loud voice: ‘The Lamb who was slaughtered is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’ I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them say: ‘Blessing and honor and glory and dominion to the One seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’

Rev 14:6-7: “Then I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, having the eternal gospel to announce to the inhabitants of the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people. He spoke with a loud voice: ‘Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come. Worship the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.’”

Rev 21:1, 5: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer… And, he who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’”

Rev 21:22-26: "I did not see a sanctuary in it, because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its sanctuary. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God's glory illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it."

Let’s observe a few things about these verses. First, notice the way they emphasize the all-encompassing nature of God’s role as Creator. You know this as well as I do, but it helps to be reminded. Every single thing on the earth is a product of God’s handiwork and he exercises ruler-ship over it. There’s not a speck of dust on this planet that God cannot point to and say, “That’s mine.”

Second, notice that when worship takes place, it is not just angels and humans worshipping God, but “every creature” (5:13). This includes the 5,400 mammal species roaming around our planet, from the teeny-tiny Bumble-Bee Bat to the gargantuan Blue Whale. Not to mention the 10 million different species of insects crawling all over our planet. All of these things are God’s and all of them will worship their Creator.

Third, notice what the ultimate goal of God’s plan is: “a new heavens and a new earth.” This is very different from the popular notion of heaven: ghost-like souls playing harps as they float through the sky on clouds. And, it’s different from the common Christian understanding of heaven as an eternal “worship service” in the sky. Revelation reveals that, as God restores all things, humanity will be live upon a redeemed earth in the holy city of Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven (21:2). So, we’re not headed for heaven. We’re headed for heaven on earth.

Finally, notice that at the end of Revelation, John speaks of, “the nations” and “kings” of the earth walking in the light of the Lamb and bringing “their glory and honor” into the city. This can seem to be a curious description, but the words used here speak of valuable things, or things of renown. My understanding is that this refers to all the good, beautiful, valuable aspects of every culture and people has a place in God’s city. From the Auca Indians to the Zulu warriors, what is good and pure will have a place in the light of God. This may be a new concept to some of you, but I think it will make more sense as we proceed.

God Created Everything
Now, I said at the beginning that I want us to read the Apocalypse in light of the full story of God’s plan of salvation. To do this, we need to go back to the beginning, where we learn the foundational truth of the Bible: God created everything. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Of course, as you know, when the writer of Genesis says “heavens and earth,” what he means is everything—every, single thing in the universe is made by God. And, according to later verses in Genesis, God considered his world good—very good.

Now, most of us understand that God’s creation includes all material and living things: planets, stars, comets, rivers, trees, animals, bugs, etc. But, there’s more. As human beings interact with the created world and one another, they produce language, culture, art, architecture, business, agriculture, technology, science, history, government, and many other human innovations. Because God created us and we create these things, we know that they are reflections of God’s creative nature and that each of them are infinitely valuable attempts to understand God’s world. This includes the 482 musical instruments around the world. This includes the 6,912 living human languages. God is the author of everything and everything is designed with excellence and purpose.

Sin Broke Everything
Unfortunately, as we all know, God’s good creation did not remain good for long. Sin broke everything. The testimony of the Bible reveals that sin and evil have marred God’s beautiful, orderly creation. Our first parents rejected God’s rule for their own and their choice has been and will be perpetuated in every human being to follow. As a result, rather than the harmonious, loving relationship that God intended, humanity chose a position of alienation and enmity with God and the rest of the created order became subject to the resulting chaos.

Now, personal sins are committed through willful choice by human beings to be and live contrary to the rule of God. These sins are perpetrated on God and one another: pride, idolatry, hatred, murder, envy, greed, theft, and many more. And then, arising out of this tendency for human beings to reject God and cruelly mistreat one another is systemic or structural evil, which is the active procreation and power of sin in corporate or social structures. Systemic evils include extreme poverty, misogyny, and racism, all of which infect society like viruses and work in tandem with the personal evils.

We see the evidence of this brokenness everywhere. Where God intended human government to provide order, justice, and security, the rulers of Burma deny their citizens vital relief following a deadly cyclone, causing the deaths of tens of thousands and prolonging the suffering of 2.4 million more. Where God intended marriage to be a reflection of God’s loving, interdependent relationality, today, in the US alone, every 15 seconds a woman is battered by her husband and every five years, more women are murdered by their husbands than the number of American lives lost in the Vietnam War. And, where God intended industry and business to enrich lives and create opportunity, this year Florida tomato pickers had to fight “tooth and nail” just to convince Burger King to pay them an additional one-cent per pound of tomatoes picked.

So, not only are humans broken, but human endeavors and creations are broken, too. And, not only are humans and human endeavors broken, but the entire cosmos is broken, too. We are familiar with the words of Paul, which declare the desperation of the entire creation suffering under the effects of sin:

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Jesus Restores Everything
So, let’s review the story of God so far: God created everything and sin broke everything. As you know, the rest of the story is: Jesus restores everything. Now, I want to stretch your thinking here just a bit, so bear with me. In the evangelical world, we think of Jesus’ focus being upon the forgiveness of sins and salvation of souls only. That’s why we tend to invite people to believe in Jesus to escape hell and get heaven when they die. Sadly, I think this perspective undermines the whole testimony of Scripture and is not a full understanding of the Good News. I want to submit to you tonight, that although the Good News of Jesus is at least forgiveness of sins and escape from hell, it is not only these things. In fact, there is much, much more that we must recover if we’re going to preach the Gospel faithfully and understand the Apocalypse rightly.

Colossians 1:19-20 says: “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” If you read that carefully, you’ll realize that what Paul means is that Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension brings about the redemption and restoration of all the things that were broken by the Fall. The point is not salvation from creation, but salvation of creation. Because the kingdom of darkness has been overcome in Christ, there is nothing over which Jesus doesn’t reign as rightful King. Every inch of this planet, every plant and animal, every art form and language, every academic discipline, every invention, every family, Jesus points to from his throne and says, “That’s mine.”

God is making all things new: new heavens and new earth, and everything in between. God has refused to abandon the work of his hands. Humanity, which has totally botched its original mandate and the whole creation along with it, is given another chance in Christ. We are reinstated as God’s managers on earth and the original good creation is to be restored. In the Good News of Jesus, you get to be a part of it of God’s work of restoration.

Albert Wolters describes the implications of this truth in this way:

Emotions should not be repressed, but purified. Sexuality is not to be shunned, but redeemed. Politics should not be declared off-limits, but reformed. Art ought not to be pronounced worldly, but claimed for Christ. Business must no longer be relegated to the secular world, but must be made to conform again to God-honoring standards…Wherever there is disruption of the good creation…there Christ provides the possibility of restoration. If the whole creation is affected by the fall, then the whole creation is also reclaimed in Christ.

The Gospel and the Apocalypse
So, how does this connect to the way we should interpret the Apocalypse? I believe this fuller, deeper, broader view of the Gospel will contribute to three major changes in the way we approach this most interesting of biblical books.

First, we will have a change in emphasis. Instead of emphasizing the Apocalypse as merely a frightening depiction of future events, meant to scare you straight, we can begin to portray the book as a symbolic narrative of assurance. The Apocalypse uses incredible imagery and powerful story to encourage God’s people that his redemption of all things is continuing victoriously, even when it seems that evil is winning.

Second, we will have a change in viewpoint. It is very common for Christians in our circles to speak of God’s world and everything in it as disposable and fruitless. This comes from a view of salvation that is limited to souls and doesn’t include all of creation in God’s plan. If God truly made everything and Jesus truly redeems everything, then God has a plan for the world, for every human endeavor, and every vocation. In the end, God has a place for all things in his world—remember the glory and honor of the nations being brought into the New Jerusalem?—and we should live in light of this truth now.

Finally, I think we will have a change in tone. Although they make for great books and entertaining movies, violence and bloodshed, plagues and demons, are not the end of the story in the Apocalypse. Whereas the message of the Apocalypse has typically been presented as “bad news” to people (how would you like to be “Left Behind”?), if it is read in light of God’s whole plan of redemption, it is truly good news. God is working to make all things new. This means that even his acts of judgment are carried out with the intention that repentance and restoration will take place. Yes, disasters take place. Yes, evil continues to abound. Yes, God’s people can expect martyrdom, persecution, and death. But, God’s is making all things new.

After all, listen to climactic verses of Revelation 21:1-5:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…And, he who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

So, I guess I need to wrap this up, so we can ask questions and discuss what I’ve presented. The Good News of God, which is told cover-to-cover in his Word, is that God made everything, sin broke everything, but Jesus restores everything. And this must be the framework by which we read and interpret the Apocalypse. If we do this, we find that the message of the Apocalypse is really about whole-heartedly joining God’s reconciling work before its too late.

Jim Wallis tells a story from the life of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that I think illustrates this very well. During the fight against apartheid, the notorious Security Police broke into the Cathedral of St. George during one of Bishop Tutu’s sermons at an ecumenical service. The diminutive bishop stopped preaching and stared intently at the intruders as they filled the cathedral like scurrying ants, lining the walls from back to front. Some carried guns, some carried knives, and some carried writing pads and tape recorders to document whatever he said and threaten him with imprisonment, or worse, for any audacious utterances.

Although the people gathered in the cathedral squirmed in tension and fear of more violence, Bishop Tutu met the eyes of the soldiers with his own steely gaze. In a defiant tone, with narrow eyes and wrinkled forehead, he said, “Yes, you are powerful, very powerful…but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” Then, Bishop Tutu’s countenance changed and he smiled with genuine warmth. Extending his arms to the gun-toting representatives of South African apartheid, the slight preacher offered this challenge to tyranny: “Since you have already lost, I invite you: come and join the winning side!”

The Apocalypse announces this same truth to us and to our fallen world. You have already lost. Your ways have lead to death and destruction. But, the Lamb has made the Way to make all things new. Will you join the winning side? Will you invite others to join the winning side? Will you invite all of creation to join the winning side? I hope so.