Friday, September 30, 2005

Mr. Bennett's Virtue

Over the last twenty-five years, conservative politicians have successfully waged a campaign to demonize the word "liberal," as representing a political/philosophical position which is anti-family, anti-life, and which promotes vice, immorality, and the tolerance of crime. This has been an effective political strategem, attracting large numbers of evangelical Christians to the Republican party, and is viewed by many as the reason George W. Bush was elected twice (or perhaps more accurately, elected one and a half times). The downside to painting oneself virtuous and your opponent an immoral snake, comes when the paragons of virtue are caught doing things that seem, well, immoral.

Since I have recently written about both abortion and racism, I found these two subjects perfectly wed in today's news. William Bennett, former Education Secretary under Reagan, Drug Czar under Poppy Bush, and more recently a self-appointed moral guardian of our nation's youth through his Book of Virtues, fell headlong into a hornet's nest of outrage over comments he made Wednesday on his radio program. Here are his comments:

BENNETT: I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.
(For an audio clip of this statement in its context you can go to Media Matters)

Mr. Bennett is now trying to "spin" these comments, but he will have a difficult time explaining the words I placed in italics, "but your crime rate would go down." I have no doubt that Mr. Bennett abhors abortion, and was engaging in a thought experiment, but his statement reveals the underlying racist assumptions of many (if not most) white Americans. It is definitely racist to say that crime would be reduced if blacks were aborted, imprisoned, deported, etc. The moral of this story, and one which Mr. Bennett might include in a revision of his Book of Virtues, is that we are all sinners, and sin affects our mind, our presuppositions, and our politics. The danger in positioning yourself or your organization as virtuous and your opposition as immoral, is that one day those words will come back to haunt you as you tumble from your "high ground" to become an object of ridicule for your hubris and hypocrisy.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Christian Hate Speech

Yesterday morning I had to clean up some graffiti. It was not spray-painted on a building, but rather on this website. Some disturbed person, who says he regularly reads this blog, left a hate-filled comment that was shocking in its vehemence and bilious anger. It made me feel, in a personal way, a tiny fraction of what others have experienced when confronted by the phenomenon of Christian hate speech. This person was upset that I did not conform to a right-wing, Bush-adoring version of Christianity, and instead of engaging in dialogue, left a pile of linguistic manure. We see this kind of behavior all too often when certain kinds of Christians, mostly evangelical fundamentalists, decide to confront some social evil they believe is spawned by the devil and abetted by the forces of liberalism. This hatred for the "other," that is, for someone or some institution which threatens their worldview, inspires them to construct signs and banners for protests like in this image.

We see Christian hate speech in obvious places, like the rhetoric of white supremacists, but hate is a subtle and insidious creature, which finds its way into our everday lives. Prejudicial jokes, epithets, and characterizations are forms of hate speech which almost all of us engage in. What pains me the most is the presence of hate speech in the church. I hear it in vile gossip or the cutting remark. I see its effects in a near-empty sanctuary, many of its members having been driven away by the "church police" for not conforming to expected dress codes, middle class behavior and values, or for simply being different. Such a congregation usually remains older, white, inward-looking, and abusive to newcomers.

The hardest place to find hate speech is on my tongue. The log of sin which hinders true self-observation, leads me to overlook all the times when I allow hell to take control over my mouth (cf. James 3). The antidote to this, of course, is to remember Jesus' words: "I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37). You would think that this verse alone would put a stop to most Christian hate speech, but the tide of religious filth flows on unabated, as our world becomes an increasingly polarized and violent place. For the final outcome of hate speech is violence. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, lynching, bombings, and war are all the demonic children of language used as a weapon against the enemy. But who is the enemy? More importantly, who is our neighbor upon whom we spew such words?

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Day at the Strand

I spent a good share of today in a claustrophobic paradise only bibliophiles could love. I speak of the Strand bookstore (12th St. and Broadway). Their motto - "18 Miles of Books." I walked nearly all of them. I went looking for some hard to find titles, which remain hard to find. I still can't get my hands on a collection of poems by Allen Tate. Anyway, the Strand is a wonderful mess of books, which I can't wait to get back to. They have a so-so religion section, and disappointing poetry offerings, but if you like art books, rare old leathers, and fiction, you will be in hog heaven. I found an Everyman's edition of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, 2 vols, new, for $7.95 each. They now have a nice home here in Fairfield. I also picked up poems by Donald Hall, The Painted Bed (which completes my volumes on Jane Kenyon), and W.G. Sebald's first published work, After Nature. I carried them home in a Strand Satchel. I felt quite bohemian trudging up to Union Square to catch the N train to the Port Authority. Thanks to my dear friend Howard, who suggested we go. I think I'll visit more often. It was good to be back in my native city, even if every other person seems to smoke, and every third person was covered in tattoos. I thought about stopping at Ray's for a slice, but I always feel like I am about to choke on the mozzarella. So does anyone know where to get a copy of poems by Allen Tate?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

My Thirty-Nine Articles of Irritation

A popular sport in the blogosphere is to make a list of things which make you angry. It's a way of letting off steam. For some reason I enjoy these lists, just like I enjoy the silly tests at Quizilla, and Lewis Black. So here's my September '05 list of things which annoy the heck out of me.
{Note: this has absolutely 0% nutritional content}.

1. New Jersey drivers (come here and experience the magic).
2. People who put toilet tissue on backwards - you know who you are.
3. People who say to me, "Gee you're short." Really now, never noticed.
4. Trucks that airbrake in front of my house.
5. ITunes 5.0, which kept shutting down the power to my logic board. Thanks for the upgrade...not!
6. Being cut off or passed by people with the fish symbol on their cars. Would Jesus drive like that?
7. People who want me to marry or bury their apostate relatives who hated church and never came to worship and were scoundrels.
8. People who want me to bury their scoundrel relatives and then renumerate me with $20.
9. Marriage ceremonies with "special music" sung by a friend of the bride, who, let us be charitable, sings well when hidden in the choir.
10. Praise Choruses.
11. Praise Chorus leaders who feel we need to sing said praise chorus more than 3 times.
12. Inclusive language concerning the Deity. For example: using the word "Godself."
13. Hyphenated surnames. Look, just pick the best one.
14. Prayers which include the phrase "We just want to..." over and over again.
15. Prayers where the phrase, "Father God," is used as a comma.
16. Pictures of Jesus which make him look like a girly man.

Our new Reformed Church logo, aka "The Martini Glass."

18. The sound of coins in the collection plate. I mean please people, coins?
19. Phone calls which begin, "I know it's your day off pastor, but...."
20. Folks who think being a committed Christian means worshipping once a month or so.
21. Sunday morning public school soccer [insert other sport] practice/games.
22. Rita Crosby's voice.
23. Bleeping out the "f" word on broadcast tv. You're not hiding anything, so stop it.
24. C.S.I. anywhere. (Law and Order ad nauseum is a close second)
25. Nine consecutive minutes of commercials on the Imus in the Morning radio program.
26. 20th century classical music on WQXR - sounds like animal cruelty tapes.
27. Ticket prices for decent seats at the Opera.
28. Paying $20 to enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
29. Paperback books with lousy glue - are you listening Eerdmans?
30. My Mercury Mountaineer.
31. People who bring infants/toddlers to movie theaters - get a sitter.
32. People who talk during the movie, explaining things...
33. Waiters/waitresses who disappear for 20 minutes at a time. No tip for you!
34. Smoking sections. Let's get with the program NJ, smoke causes cancer. Thanks.
35. People smoking outside of hospital entrances. Especially nurses, patients, and docs.
36. White people talking "Gangsta." It's beyond sad.
37. Christian telemarketers who call the church - "Hey Pastor this is Dwayne from Dallas. I have a video series..."
38. CCLI (Christian music license). Give me a break. We'll sing from old hymnals, thank you very much.
39. Tailgaiting me in the right hand lane while you're talking on the cell phone in a Mercedes.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Completely Pro-Life, or Why I Sometimes Think I'm Partly Mennonite

As I take a moment and meditate on the millions of unborn children who were "evacuated" from their mother's womb, I am filled with heart-breaking sadness. How many of those children would have been a Mozart, an Einstein, a Jonas Salk, a Rembrandt, or a Mother Theresa? When I consider the deaths of the millions killed by war, whether soldiers or civilians, I wonder which one of those who died might have discovered the cure for cancer? When I hear that 40,000 children die daily of malnutrition in developing countries, I ask which one of them would grow up to be a Gandhi or an Aung San Suu Kyi? We have slaughtered ourselves into impoverishment - a poverty not of things, but of possibility.

Here's a confession: I never know who to vote for, so I usually don't vote. I consider myself "completely pro-life" (to borrow a Ron Sider title, from an important book), which means I consider abortion a heinous evil, the destruction of a human life. It also means that I object to the death penalty, euthanasia, nuclear fuel and weaponry, war as a policy option, and the neglect of the poor, which results in starvation (and death by drowning in New Orleans). It means that I believe that God is a God of life, who commands us to keep good stewardship over the earth and its creatures - even creatures without economic value. Being pro-life means more than being anti-death, it means adopting a position that advocates for quality of life for all people, and a meticulous, vigilant care over creation.

I deliberately avoided saying that I am consistently pro-life, because I am not. I fail miserably to live up to my rhetoric. I remain a dedicated consumer who purchases things he doesn't need, and I often fail to speak prophetically for those without power or voice. I daily contribute to the mountains of trash we collect. I recycle, but sometimes not as thoroughly as I should, and I don't consistently practice peace-making. I allow ego, anger, and selfishness to guide my behavior all too many times.

This is why I so thoroughly respect the "peace churches," especially the Mennonites. I don't plan on becoming one (I like my IPod and Xbox waaaay too much), but I do love their prophetic resolutions. The Mennonite social witness offers an alternative vision between liberalism and conservatism, and between Democrat and Republican. Check out the Third Way Cafe for more on this. Mennonites show a lot of courage by their completely pro-life positions, a courage that comes from taking seriously Jesus' call to radical discipleship. When I read Mennonite literature, I begin to see just how much I have accommodated myself to the world. I see just how much material things mean to me, and how complicit I am in participating in systems of oppression and neglect. I don't look or act all that differently from my unchurched neighbor - do you?

{Here's a link to Mennonite Resolutions}

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Fiscal Priorities

NASA announced the other day that they were going to initiate a $100 billion program to return to the moon. This comes on top of an enormously expensive foray into Iraq (hundreds of billions and counting), along with the clean-up of the mess Katrina left in the Gulf states (who even knows what that will cost). It seems we are deficit-spending our way into serious economic trouble, while 40 million Americans have no health care insurance. Why are we returning to the moon when there are a billion people in developing countries on the verge of starvation? Why we are proposing another expensive space project when we have all been recently made aware of the appalling poverty millions of Americans live in? Reading NASA's press release, it was difficult to discern any real justification for another moon landing. This will be just "Apollo II: The Search for Bigger Rocks." This seems to me to be yet another waste of taxpayer dollars, and reflects the lack of commonsense programing at NASA and the White House. Instead of enormously expensive publicity stunts like returning to the moon, NASA should justify its $16.2 billion yearly budget by advancing scientific knowledge. One of the few unqualified success of the space program since the end of the Apollo mission, was the placement in orbit of space telescopes such as the Hubble (which, ironically, is being sacrificed for this proposed moon shot!).

We do need an Apollo program, we do need a Manhattan Project, but not to drive golf balls in zero-g or build more bombs. We need to shift our fiscal priorities towards cleaning up the toxic mess we have made down here (I live in New Jersey, the mother of all superfund states), and taking care of the least among us. Certain folks like to remind us that America is a Christian nation, founded upon Christian principles. I think both assertions are dubious at best, but let's just say that's true for a moment. If we are a Christian nation, then ought we to be mindful of Jesus' description of those who are welcomed into the kingdom in Matthew 25:34, "Then the King will say to those on his right hand, `Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me." Our fiscal priorities seem out of step with the New Testament, geared as they are to safe-guarding large corporations, the wealthiest and healthiest among us, and the military-industrial-aeronautic complex which has new plans for our money.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Deeper Darkness of Idolatry

In Ingmar Bergman's film, The Seventh Seal, a character struggling to make sense of life, says, "We make an idol of our fear, and call it God." This movie quote is how Oxford scholar David Atkinson begins his particularly fine commentary on the book of Ruth. In a dark world, full of violence and oppression, beset by disaster and human indifference, we shudder in the shadows and pray for God's help, and in our moments of anger, we dare to berate God for his shoddy ways, for his silence. This is the idol of pride: for we know that if given a chance, we could do a better job. Why is this idolatry? Because it is a forsaking of providence, and the establishment of a rival to Jehovah - ourselves. It is the idolatry of establishing a religion where "god" is a cosmic butler, and woe unto Him if he fail to answer our bell. This is the deepest darkness we can create for ourselves, darker than the world's evil, for this god is not the true God, but rather an illusion, a fabrication which ultimately fails to deliver on its promises, and then the wailing begins: "How could "god" allow this to happen?" The end result is a bitter rejection of religion and the life of communion with God in Christ, which is the outer darkness, the weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It is not hard to hear these cries in the media at this moment. There are a lot of religious "spokespersons" doing the hard work of theodicy (justifying God's ways to man) with varying degrees of success. If you listen carefully, however, many are still trying to defend this idol of the Butler. Why didn't the Butler come? Why did the Butler allow this hurricane? Where was the Butler when the church van crashed on the highway? Much of what is being said is nothing more than a defense of why the idol didn't save us this time.

I recently heard God described as "an invisible friend for adults." In other words, an unreal person we create to pacify us when we are afraid, and keep us company when we are lonely. Let us add another quality: someone who always meets our felt needs. This form of idolatry, the worship of a God divorced from biblical revelation, and created by our minds and hearts for our service, has had a devastating affect upon the church. It worms its way into sermons: we must be positive and never doctrinal. It changes worship: from adoring the Most High God, to a shallow form of spiritual entertainment. It changes theology: from thinking God's thoughts after Him in a noble science of biblical and systematic exploration, to a Christian publishing/media industry which churns out Family Bookstore loads of pop-psychology in Christian clothing.

John Calvin wrote that the human heart is a "factory of idols." How easily we forget that, and how easily we slip into idolatry ourselves. The beast must be fed, and the beast is the idol of our felt needs, and so we summon the Butler. The factory of idols is on triple shifts, and at 100% capacity. It always has been.

{the painting above is Nicholas Poussin's, "The Adoration of the Golden Calf" circa 1633}

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Elder Brother

At a recent ministers' luncheon, a fellow clergyman read us a passage from an old booklet, it was falling apart but of great value. It was about Samuel Zwemer, pioneer RCA missionary to Arabia, entitled The Flaming Prophet, by J. Christy Wilson. In 1911, a conference on missions to Islam was held in Lucknow, India. Here is the quote:

A Lutheran missionary who attended the conference said of the opening session, "Sunday evening we were privileged to hear Dr. S.M. Zwemer of Arabia preach on the duties of the church as elder brother to the Prodigal Son of Islam. The thought was new and startling to many of us, but we were soon convinced and condemned after hearing the preacher's heart and soul-piercing message...This Sunday evening service was the key to the conference, as during the solemn hours of the following week the thought came home to our hearts that Islam is our brother that can only be won by the love of the church, that needs to be like that of the Father in the touching parable of the Prodigal Son."

It was new and startling in 1911, and seems so today. Instead of assuming a posture of theological/cultural superiority or triumphalism, Zwemer humbly believed Islam needed to be loved as a brother, and not condemned, if it were to be introduced to Christ. How much of the Islamic world today is lashing out in anger over the cultural and religious paternalism practiced by the West and the church? In an editorial in The Guardian, Karen Armstrong advocates paying close attention to the message of Islamic fundamentalism, especially its anxiety over modernism. In other words, we can take a position of enmity against Islam and endure the cost and losses, or we can engage it as a brother/sister and hear how it has come to feel ill-treated and threatened in a world dominated by secularism, depravity, and violence against women and children. Do we have the ears to hear? Do we have the commitment to αγαπη to make Zwemer's dream a reality? O God, I hope so.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

More Amazing Comments On New Orleans

Just when you thought no one could say anything dumber, more racist, or just plain scarier than what has already been reported, along comes Jimmy Reiss, who according to Wonkette, is the head of the New Orleans Business Council, as reported in the Wall Street Journal Online (subscription only folks), "The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. 'Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,' he says. 'I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out" (emphasis mine).

It isn't hard to get the subtext of Mr. Reiss' comments. Poor blacks will not be welcomed back to New Orleans, and if they are, people like Mr. Reiss will leave...which will no doubt raise the I.Q. level of the city substantially. Seriously, how do you ensure a new demographic in a rebuilt city? Will Mr. Reiss and others lobby for legislation outlawing poor black people from returning to New Orleans? Will there be litmus tests for re-entry? The naked racism and class hatred exhibited by such civic leaders is alarming.

Then there's the fun folks over at Repent America, who place the blame for Katrina on homosexuals. Specifically on the 125,000 men and women who were set to attend a gay celebration called "Southern Decadence" on August 31. Repent America director Michael Marcavage said, "Although the loss of life is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city." This is the language of the "smiting God" of fundamentalism. A few years back, Pat Robertson took credit for praying a hurricane away from godly Virginia Beach, directing it instead to sinful Fire Island, where it damaged Calvin Klein's home. Once I heard Reformed theologian John Gerstner say that God was so angry at Jonathan Edwards for leaving the ministry to assume the presidency of Princeton University, that he smote him (his words!) with smallpox, which took his life. That showed him!

Is this the kind of God we want to teach our children to worship? I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with attributing catastrophe of any kind, large or small, to God's wrathful vengeance. I'm not saying God cannot exercise judgment, but where do you draw the line? What is the criteria for such smiting? Why didn't God smite Hitler, Mao, Stalin, etal? Why doesn't God smite Disney World for permitting "gay days" at its theme parks? Was God smiting me when I was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago? I think we need to be careful with this kind of language, and the theology which lies behind it. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).

Let us pray that wiser and more compassionate heads prevail in the reconstruction of the gulf region, and in the religious discourse of our society. I know I certainly have much to repent of in this matter, and pray that God forgives the ugly rhetoric of my past.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Giving Credit Where It's Due

I came down hard on old Babs Bush the other day, and I still think she deserved it, but her son, our President, the man I regularly pray for (if not vote for), reminded me today that there is always an opportunity to learn a lesson and get something right. What did the president do? He called for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for September 16th. That is a remarkable action given the secularism of this age, and the disdain for prayer and religion shown by most of the leaders and citizens of other industrialized countries. It is also the action of a man who recognizes the need for humility and dependence upon God in dire circumstances. I may not always agree with the president's policies, but I refuse to be cynical about his faith. I believe that he believes, and that opens a window of opportunity for something good to happen. There is hope for a nation which still calls itself to prayer. May it be a time of reflection, repentance, and re-commitment to caring for the least among us and the world around us.

My friend over at Random Responses also deserves credit for reminding us of the larger picture sin plays in the catastrophes which plague our world. The sins of environmental neglect, racism, classism, and consumerism all find their root and sustenance in the greater fallenness of the sin nature of humanity. "For we know that the whole creation groans and labors" (Romans 8:12). We are all responsible for the sins of the world, just as we are all responsible for the death of Christ.

My friend over at Hemmeke Blog also deserves credit for not writing me off as a left-wing kook, and sharing our exchange of comments over my last post with his readers. It's nice to have discourse that doesn't devolve into nasty rhetoric. My Republican friends keep me honest politically, and I hope to return the favor. In my first post on this site, I reserved the right to foam at the mouth on occasion, which I did the other day, so I'll try and calm down now. Thanks Steve!

Let's be in prayer for one another, for those devastated by Katrina, our nation, our president, and especially for Stacey, who is still shouting at herself to do something over at First Year Minister. ;)

A picture from last Sunday's worship from St Mark's Episcopal in Gulfport.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Being Black Means It's All Right to Suffer

Barbara Bush, the president's mother, remarked yesterday from her palatial home in Houston, or was she hobnobbing with Poppy Bush at Kennebunkport?, that since the people (meaning black people) in the Astro and Superdomes were poor, their situation could be seen as an improvement in their condition (don't believe me? click here). She also thought the prospect of all those black people coming to Houston "scary." This certainly takes the heat off of W., who astoundingly praised the head of FEMA, and told the rest of America not to use too much gas and that everything will be okay. It also takes the heat off of Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House, who said that New Orleans could be bulldozed (God I love compassionate conservatism in action). Perhaps a subsidiary of Haliburton could receive a no-bid contract to do the dozing.

Apart from the appalling stupidity and callousness of Barb's comment, it highlights the fact that if you are a black American, or worse, an black African, suffering is considered to be your normal life experience. This view is not merely held by those like Barb, who wear triple strands of pearls to the country club (the almost all-white club), but is in fact the unexamined position of nearly everyone, including, sinfully, myself. Consider our news reporting. Did you know that 13 million southern Africans, especially in Malawi, are in danger of starvation at this very moment? I didn't, until doing a little internet research I came across the Irish Red Cross appeal for aid (link and also here). Some of us have heard about the suffering of Darfur, but it hardly rises to the level of say, Jennifer Anniston's feelings about Brad Pitt. Some of us may know that in Swaziland, 40% of the population has AIDS, but Brian Williams won't tell you that, and if he did we would just shrug and say, well those Africans don't really know how to govern themselves anyway, and that they don't mind suffering since they don't actually own much. We may not verbalize that statement, but it flits through our heads as we change the channel. In effect, most of us are subconsciously channeling Barbara Bush right now.

If Katrina had struck Palm Beach Florida, I wonder if I would be writing this post? I somehow doubt it. I somehow think that a massive airlift of food and water would have reached the friends of Barb and Poppy Bush the day after the storm ended. It would be Evian water, of course, and the "refugees" would be relocated to a Hyatt Regency.

Let' summarize Fox News and our government's counsel: "All you good black folks in Louisiana, Niger, Malawi, Ivory Coast, and other places of even less strategic value, hang in there, for perhaps suffering will make you stronger - unless of course you're dead - but then that's your fault for not having the resources to get out of such hellish places. Let's get together and stop blaming FEMA, stop blaming Western apathy, and start blaming the victims: it's always much easier, and even fun at cocktail parties and fundraisers."

P.S. We interrupt this Katrina coverage to bring you the news that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, no friend to people of color, has passed away. He now lies in state at the Supreme Court, feted by the media as a man of great dignity. For a somewhat different view of his life click here. Let's hope Judge Roberts, a devoted Rehnquist clerk, proves to be truly a compassionate conservative for people of all colors.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

A Generous Orthodoxy

Nietzsche once wrote, "Supposing truth is a woman - what then?" I believe he meant that truth may not be masculine, i.e., logical, objective, hard, and cold, but rather it may be more feminine - indirect, personal, emotional, subjective. Now granted these descriptions of masculinity and femininity are clichéd and simplistic, but Nietzsche's query is nonetheless provocative, and in this day of "post-everything," even helpful. It certainly seems to be helping Brian McLaren, whose latest book, A Generous Orthodoxy, is making quite a stir in the church. So I decided to give it a read, and found it maddening, charming, fascinating, enlightening, optimistic, childlike, naive, hopeful, and in the end an uneven, but therapeutic experience.

First let me say that there are so many blog-reviews of this book, pro and con, that I am limiting myself to only a couple of points. D.A. Carson, a conservative evangelical, has actually written a book in response to McLaren and the Emerging Church movement. If you want to read his initial assessment, you can go there from this link. McLaren is quite open to criticism, and you can find one of the best critiques from the conservative Reformed writer Michael Horton, on McLaren's own website! Such transparency and willingness to engage in dialogue is quite refreshing in this age of angry polemics - that is, people who merely talk past each other.

Some chapters of this book are so interesting and helpful that they justified its purchase. I especially liked his chapters on catholicism, environmentalism, and anabaptism. So let me begin by saying some good things about this book, and why it deserves the attention it is getting. First, McLaren is an eclectic Christian, rather than a denominational or systematic believer. He likes to collect good things from different Christian traditions and cook up a nourishing goulash of spiritual lessons and practices. As the old proverb says, "Gold in the hands of thieves is still gold."

I also appreciate his ongoing attempt at moving past the liberal/conservative and protestant/catholic logjams. This is the key to his "Third Way" or Emergent Village approach. He calls this simply the "Way of Jesus," which is about integrating "what has gone before so something new can emerge" (p.287). Another strength of this book is the criticism it levels at how propositional, creedal, and fundamentalist theologies focus on who is "in" and who is "out." This focus needs to be replaced with Jesus' focus on moving outward to the world in a missional posture, embracing those of other faiths not as enemies but as fellow pilgrims, who will benefit from learning the way of Jesus, without having to necessarily become "Christianized."

There are some obvious problems and pitfalls to this postmodern, emerging church vision. The Jesus McLaren speaks of seems a bit "made over," made more presentable for the 21st century, than the man we encounter in the gospels. McLaren seems to have a canon within the canon concerning the New Testament, emphasizing carefully selected portions of Matthew and John, while ignoring the many politically incorrect and exclusive statements of Jesus, along with Jesus' inconvenient tendency toward propositional statements, such as, "I am the way..."

Then there is the whole postmodern, relativistic structure of the emerging church vision. Truth is always a lower case "t", and that means certainty goes quickly out the window. Indeed, McLaren's friend Leonard Sweet speaks about "entering the mystery." This can be unsettling for conservatives, but also helpful to those who can't seem to reconcile biblical truth with scientific discoveries, or those who find the whole institutionalized evangelical world a bit too arrogant in its methods and message. In the end, McLaren's vision of the church is definitely a liberal one, yet clothed in conservative dress and open to the historical and magesterial traditions of two thousand years of Christian history.

I found this approach therapeutic because of McLaren's openness, lack of guile, willingness to poke fun at himself, and his courage in taking on some sacred cows and church abuses. I suspect this is merely the beginning of a process, one that shows promise, but faces grave dangers. In the end, being kind to people and being generous, are good things, and a shrill, angry, self-righteous orthodoxy is of no help to anyone.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Thoughts On Katrina

As I went from blog to blog this morning, almost every one had some comment on Katrina. Most of the sites seemed angry at Bush for cutting natural disaster preparedness funding, and for sending most of the needed National Guard troops to fight the war in Iraq. Some blogs also made note of the ecological degradation of the delta swampland, the "straightening" of the Mississippi River to flow faster, and increasing development of coastal regions as factors which made the devastation worse. Not being politically savvy, nor a scientist, I cannot say if these comments are correct, but they seem sensible.

What is not sensible is the behavior of people. When a Category 5 hurricane is bearing down on your below-sea-level city, and your local government orders you to leave, and you stay...well, you either likely die, suffer enormously, or put someone else (a rescue professional) at risk to save you from your dire straits.

What is not sensible is the behavior of people who take this opportunity to loot, set fires, and shoot bullets at each other. Contrast the behavior of those in New Orleans with the tsunami victims of last December. I don't remember seeing hordes of looters, but memory is fickle. I'm not proud to be an American today.

What troubles me most at this moment, apart from the appalling loss of life and the prospect of months of suffering for tens of thousands, is my own rascist thoughts as I watched the television coverage. The only explanation which makes sense to explain all these irrational and sinful events is the doctrine of total depravity, which sits on the foundation of original sin. That is, we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God, and it is our nature, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, "to hate God and our neighbor" (Q.5). So why then am I always shocked at displays of human wickedness and stupidity? Why do I blithely assume that I am exempt from the same wickedness and stupidity?