December 1, 2011


Great pair of quotes here at Richard Beck's site:

We muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouths and say what they please?...God makes it plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life.
--John Calvin, Protestant Reformer and Father of Calvinism (1509-1564)
Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? What made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to who is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about manifest truth?...In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself.
--Sebastian Castellio, French theologian (1515-1563)

Obviously, the Bible doesn't encourage relativism. Coffee with Jesus cuts to the chase:
However, we do need to figure out what is really worth dying for ... or killing for. I don't want to hear Jesus tell me someday that I, like Saul, was really persecuting him. That those I thought were so wrong and treated so badly were actually closest to getting it right. So, humility in our disagreements is crucial. And a weighing of the consequences of being wrong before I say or do something "discerning," as they say. And the development of genuine respect for those with whom I disagree. Not a "respect" that pretends to agree with everyone, but one which says that everyone is valuable, and loved by God, and worthy of grace and kindness. No matter how badly we disagree. Something that won't have burned the bridges if one of us changes our mind later. Tough to do, but much better that than making enemies of those who may prove to be our own family.

October 21, 2011

Nostalgia for White Protestant America

What is our American religious foundation, and do we really want to go back? I have been thinking about this again recently, and share these reflections after reading John Armstrong's recent series [one, two, three] about religion in American public life.
  1. America wasn't Judeo-Christian, historically. When it was religious, it was white Protestant, and anti- most everybody else. And this is what we see, for example, all the way back in the original state constitutions that required office holders to be (white Protestant male) Christians. These, and not the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, are the actually-religious political documents from our early years. The huddled masses, Catholic, Jewish, or otherwise, were welcome to come and assimilate, or come and help build the economy, but not to share power or change the culture.
  2. This was the same white Protestant heritage that allowed centuries of slavery,  denied women equal rights (the vote, property ownership, college education, political office, equal wages, etc.), and nurtured the Ku Klux Klan. This was the reality if not totality of America's religious culture, though it was more obvious in the South, where political power wasn't shared with non-white-Protestants.
  3. Increases in Catholic and Jewish immigration (mostly in the North) in the early 20th century led eventually to a shift away from total dominance by white Protestants and forced us to take seriously our unrealized constitutional promises about religious freedom, equality, and fair treatment under the lawfirst for Jews and Catholics, and then for racial minorities. More recent rights movements for other minorities, such as homosexuals, the handicapped, and the mentally ill, are the legacy of the earlier movements.
  4. The Civil Rights movement, thus, was a revolution against white Protestant America's lock on powerthough white Protestants did take part on both sides of the movement, of course. Perhaps more of them on the anti-Rights side, sadly, considering where the Bible Belt is located.
  5. Nostalgia for or a return to our actual religious past, then, would be problematic, to say the least.
What I think we should want instead is the establishment of what our country never hadactual freedom, equality, and fair treatment for people of all religions, something only hinted at in some of the documents of the 1700s but never realized in American history. This, ultimately, will not only benefit people of other faiths, but also be for Christians' own protection and good. If our country becomes less and less moral, or Christian values become less and less popular, then we may need safeguards against "the tyranny of the majority" who disagree with us. Democracy could result in unpopular Christian decisions of conscience being declared illegal unless minority religious rights are guarded. While I agree that many or most people believe in God or want there to be a god, I still think that we Christians should view ourselves as a minority in America instead of pretending that our ways will someday (or again) become the cultural norm. Unless revival changes our nation, we may find ourselves needing strong legal protections for our minority rights, and grateful for the work that civil rights activists have done to ensure freedom for all points of view and all ways of life, even those with which we may disagree. 

White male Protestants in Thomas Jefferson's day may not have needed such protections, but all Christians should lament the fact that only that group had such privilege and opportunity. Rather than wishing to see America return to the dubious morality of that era, we should take seriously the fact that neither the church nor America either is or was white, male, and Protestant.

July 28, 2011

I Haven't Read The Shack, But Apparently It's Better Than a Tract

I still haven't read The Shack and don't plan to at any point soon. It has never piqued my interest, really. I did read a criticism of it the other day, however. Which made me feel a lot more favorable about the book. 

My brief response to the four problem areas of Tim Challies' "charitable but critical" critique of The Shack, using his own headings:
  • Subversion: Apparently this guy has no awareness of how shallow many people's experience of God and the church has been. No obvious sense of humor, either.
  • Revelation: More of the usual criticism leveled against Blackaby's Experiencing God: The Bible is the only way God speaks. Anything else is rank mysticism. Be suspicious of people who say that God ever replies when prayed to.
  • Salvation: It's Calvinism or the highway. And Universal Redemption is a heresy.
  • Trinity: This guy doesn't want to read a novel; he wants a mimeographed copy of his favorite Bible verses. He may also approve of some Taliban policies. They take the "no graven image" command more seriously.
Based on reading this critique, this Berean watchdog "exercise in discernment and critical thinking," questions that I would want answered before I started criticizing this novel would include several along these lines:
  1. What was the author trying to communicate?
  2. Who was the author's intended audience?
  3. Was the author trying to write a "4 Spiritual Laws" tract to evangelize his audience?
  4. Was the author trying to make an argument for the Bible being superior to face-to-face conversation with God?
Challies acknowledges that the book is a novel, yet reacts as though he has missed this crucial point -- that The Shack is fiction, written to his own children and for a specific reason. It is not a textbook of systematic theology or a sermon for the hell-bent. It is not a seminary thesis or a litmus test of his credentials for the ministry. The choice of fiction allows the author to speculate about details on which the Bible is either silent or unclear. Details about what God might say -- in a dialog and in understandable language -- in response to honest questions and complaints. Like the book of Job, but in the context of pseudo-Christian America, and fleshing out other aspects of God's character. Fiction allows an author to wonder out loud some of the thoughts that a Christian might have when considering how to reconcile loyalty to the loving and just God with the classic problem of suffering and the natural feelings of disappointment, confusion, or anger that the problem leads to. 

It would be ridiculous to criticize C.S. Lewis for using a talking animal as the savior and lord of Narnia. Or for having that lion let children stroke his mane. Because Lewis wasn't trying to suggest that the real Jesus is a talking animal. Or has fur. Or wants us to stroke it. Similarly, it is ridiculous to take a work of fiction about being invited to a face-to-face conversation with God, and the insights about evil and pain (theodicy, really) that would be possible in that context, and then criticize that book for not containing a suitable number of declarations that the character should leave God alone and go read his Bible for the answers to his questions, instead. Those answers that have generally left cold the people who are in real pain unless they have a loving and personal relationship with God in addition to a Bible. And maybe even then are not completely satisfying. You know, those answers about God's ways being too high to understand, for example. Or about some of us being created as objects of wrath. And what we might logically conclude about God's view of us if our miserable lives appear to be evidence that we are not among the elect.

If I read it, I would not be surprised to discover that this novel was actually an apologia on another level, arguing that belief in God's love and power is reasonable despite the reality of the fallen world we live in. Imagination in the service of worship. "Faith seeking understanding," even, in Anselm's words. Hmmm.... Maybe I will read it after all.

June 28, 2011

The Evangelical Reject List

The Pangea Blog (HT Jesus Creed) has the You Might Be an Evangelical Reject If... list.

My 10 favorites (bold and italics are in the original):
  • You’re uncomfortable calling other branches of Christianity “apostate.”
  • You have significant questions about controversial theological “hot button” issues of the day and are some-what comfortable with the subsequent cognitive dissonance.
  • You’ve been asked to leave a church leadership position for philosophical / theological reasons.
  • You read theologians from all across the spectrum.
  • You think that science and scripture both reveal God’s truth in complementary ways.
  • You know that living the truth is more important than defending it logically.
  • You don’t use the word inerrancy to describe biblical authority because its too rigid a definition and a modernist categorical imposition on the Holy Spirit inspired Scriptures.
  • You think that postmodern philosophy helps theology more than it hurts it.
  • You believe social justice is central to the gospel of the Kingdom.
  • You throw up a little in your mouth every time someone says that “the rapture is coming soon, so what’s the fuss with taking care of the planet?  Lets save souls!”

May 6, 2011

The Low Guilt Christian Checklist

Here's an excerpt from Chaplain Mike's refreshing essay in defense of Christians who are "just Christians." Thanks InternetMonk!
It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” Doesn’t make you less of a Christian.
Baptized as an infant? OK. Dunked in the creek as a young teen? OK.
Love to receive communion because you meet Jesus there, but have no idea how to explain it? In my opinion, that’s OK.
Because you trust in Jesus.
You know in your heart that you’re broken and need fixing.
That’s what you know, and that’s who you are.
You’re just a Christian.
And that’s OK.
I have many strong opinions about the Bible and Christianity -- and shelves of theological books. I also believe that, in the end, most of our knowledge won't have mattered much, and less will matter anymore. Means to an end, merely. Lenses by which we try to make better sense of our lives. The real issue is who we know, and who knows us. 

March 24, 2011

Stories from Prison

Richard Beck shares an amusing anecdote from his first night attending a Bible study at a prison:
One of the teachers was talking about the boyhood of Jesus and was commenting on how the bible says very little about the early years of Jesus. Reflecting on this, he asked the class "Why do you think the bible doesn't share much about the childhood of Jesus?"

No one answered until one man raised his hand and said, "I think it's because in the Coptic gospels Jesus appears to be a mean little boy."

Silence and a lot of confused looks followed.

I just smiled to myself and thought, "I might really like this class!"

State of the Soapbox

Well, dear readers, I now have 65 posts in "draft" stage, and it has been several moons since my last published post.

"What is going on?!" you may be asking.

Basically, I have fallen out of the pattern of sitting down to write on a regular basis. As a result, the muse still strikes, but my daily habits aren't helping me to get it down fast enough and finish -- or to begin something that I suspect may take too long to finish properly. What to do? In an effort to jump start the more serious writing again, I will attempt to start sharing with y'all more of what catches my eye in my own reading.

Eventually, and sooner than later if all goes well, I will return to some topics left on the back burner, including the final installment of my series on salvation, part 2 on prayer, and a lot more on the Bible, the church, and certainty. I've also been percolating on Christian universalism, how we know what we know, and thoughts from recent discussions at church on books by Watchman Nee, Richard Blackaby, and Andrew Murray. Finally, I may share snippets or swaths of some fun e-mail exchanges and discussion threads from recent months on topics theological. So stay tuned.