Archive for January, 2011

A God of Hate

January 28, 2011

In a discussion with a friend, he took exception to my description of God as ‘hating’ sin.  It’s not uncommon for people to be confused about human descriptions of God.  Particularly to people who are prone to thinking of God as nothing but a wish-fulfillment of a bunch of people, the use of human emotions and actions to describe God seems only to support the idea that God is something we made up, not the other way around.  

God describes himself using human terminology.  Being human and not divine, it makes sense that God would attempt to communicate truths about himself in ways that we can understand and relate to – albeit imperfectly.  And so it is that God ‘hates’.  Deuteronomy 12:31.  Deuteronomy 16:22.  Psalm 5:5.  Psalm 11:5.  Proverbs 6:16-19.  Isaiah 1:13-15.  Isaiah 61:8.  Jeremiah 12:8.  Jeremiah 44:4.  Hosea 9:15.  Amos 5:21.  Zechariah 8:17.  Malachi 1:2-4.  
The running thread through each of these assertions of God’s hatred is that He hates things that are contrary to His holiness and righteousness.  He hates the lies we tell ourselves and each other and attempt to tell God.  He hates the lies that enslave us to false ideas, false beliefs, false promises.  He hates the things that separate us from Him and from one another.  
I think about our friend who committed suicide last week.  I think about the pain that consumed him.  The anger.  I think about the blindness that must envelop someone to the point that they can’t see any other option, any other avenue than death.  I think about the ghosts and demons that must have whispered and goaded and encouraged the madness that leads to self destruction.  I think of the wife and child he has left behind.  I think of others like us who knew him and ache for him, wishing we had known what to do or say that might have changed the course of events.  
And I understand God’s hate a little better.  
I understand how God could hate the evil and lies and deception that ravage our world.  I understand a little bit how God could hate the cruelty and injustice and oppression and hypocrisy.  As a father who loves my children, I can imagine the hatred that could easily consume me for anyone or anything that actively seeks to harm them, to wound them, to drag them down to the grave.  
I don’t think I could respect a God who doesn’t hate that sort of evil.  I don’t think I could respect a God who would not do everything possible to rescue His creation from that kind of evil.  And I know people who rail at God as cruel and oppressive don’t understand these things in the same way.  They look at the suffering of individuals and the world and claim that this is God’s fault, God’s responsibility to prevent.  But that requires that we first excuse ourselves, deny our own culpability and the ways that we fail to make the world and ourselves a little better every day.  
I’m glad that God hates these things.  I hate them.  And I hate the parts of me that perpetuate them, and look forward eagerly to the time when I am delivered of them by the love and grace and mercy of God.  
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This Could Take a While

January 28, 2011

Thanks to another newer reader, Lois, for sending me the link to this short essay.  It was published a few years ago, but it remains dead-on in it’s assessment of our current philosophical and ideological climate.  I’m a big fan of Francis Shaeffer’s  thinking, even if I find his actual writing to be more or less atrocious.  

I’m currently teaching an upper division Intro to Ethics course.  One of the six students began class in his introduction by asserting that “nothing in this course could cause him to change his mind or thinking about anything”.  Wow.  How nice it must be to have so completely learned everything that you need to learn that you are no longer open to learning anything or changing your opinion about anything.  How incredibly frustrating it must be to pay hundreds of dollars to take the class and get your degree, when you have avowed not to learn anything in the process!
I’m in arguments with other students in the class already over their insistence on asserting that morals, ethics, and values are all individually determined.  There is no broader platform from which these things derive.  Every person must decide for themselves on these things.  It sounds interesting, so long as you don’t ever get out of bed or think about anything or do anything for your entire life.  It falls apart completely the instant you begin interacting with the world around you, and particularly when you take the time to think through the ramifications of your assertions.
When I ask for them to provide examples that back up their assertions on this matter, they simply reiterate their assertion.  They have no basis for their assertion, and no examples of why their assertion is true.  I provide several examples of what are widely considered universal moral principles that exist in all peoples, cultures, lands, and times (it is wrong to kill an innocent person, it is wrong to be dishonest, etc.).  So far, no intellectual effort to defend their position – but they are convinced that they are right.
This is the condition of our culture today.  It’s what is being drilled into children in school, on television, from every conceivable angle.  Truth is completely relative.  You are the center of the universe.  Nobody has the right to question anything about you or what you think or do.  What are the ramifications of this?  What are the ramifications of a young person who asserts that it’s insulting and offensive to claim that an action can be deemed morally right or morally wrong in any absolute sense, since it might be determined to be just the opposite at some point in the future?  How does a society sustain itself when there is no ability or even desire to act and think with certainty – and to go through the hard work of constantly trying to make sure that you are acting consistently with what you believe to be true?  
Teaching people how to think in absolute terms is absolutely what needs to be done.  But it’s going to take a long time.  I pray I have the patience for it, and that you do as well.

The Social Bible

January 27, 2011

Thanks to recent reader Christina for pointing out this article yesterday!  The headline is “Rethinking the Bible as a Social Book”.  But that’s pretty misleading.  The Bible has *always* been a social book.  It has always (or at least until the last 150 years or so) been a book that was intended to be shared and read socially.  

Consider that when literacy rates were low, those who were able to read and write and therefore transmit the material in the Bible were also required to make sure that all the people had the content of the Bible read to them (for example, Exodus 24:7, Exodus 17:18-20, Deuteronomy 31:10-23).  The books of the New Testament were circulated around to the various Christian congregations, and there were read aloud so that people could hear what they said.  
All of this is built on a deeper and richer tradition of Scripture as a ‘social book’ in Judaism.  In the Jewish tradition, hundreds of years of commentary (in the Mishnah and Gemara) on the Scriptures are recorded right alongside the Scripture passages.  One of my favorite authors, Chaim Potok, fascinated me as a younger person with his depiction of this long tradition of rabbis and scholars arguing with one another across the centuries via their commentaries.   
So the assertion (however glibly made) that the Bible needs to be rethought as a social book is another fairly typical example of the sort of modern thinking that seems to feel as though we are the first people or generation who are really capable of thinking, or who really understand what social networks are all about.  We’re not.  We’re late comers to the game, and what we bring to the table is a technological twist that extends the sociality – it does not create it.  
This looks like a fascinating app, and I’m sure the developers will find partners to help them bring it to market.  But something in me also yearns for the traditional methods of doing exactly what these gentlemen are proposing.  Book clubs and reading circles and author circles and lectures.  The scope of these other social network functions is limited by time and space, but there’s the added benefit of actually being able to talk face to face with someone, without the technological buffer or translator.  
Would you guys use an app like this?  Pros & cons?

Ugh.

January 26, 2011

Motivation is low.  It’s been a rough few weeks.  Two memorial services for members of my congregation.  A dear friend from our last parish had his appendix burst and underwent emergency surgery Saturday.  At the age of 89.  He’s doing well, but recovery is never a fun thing to experience or watch.  The spouse of my wife’s good friend committed suicide last week leaving his wife and 5-year old child to cope with this loss for the rest of their lives, not to mention his mother.  I continue slogging through discussions with people I care deeply about but who can’t (or won’t) come to grips with the possibility (let alone the reality) of the Biblical God, or even stay engaged in the conversation long enough to make progress (whatever that means).  I’m just about through two books – one a historical overview of the film industry & its relationship to religious groups in America and the other an annoying diatribe against the film industry by conservative pundits with a nasty habit of contradicting themselves every few pages.  Not exactly inspiring.

So when I ran across this article this morning, I figured I could find inspiration.  
Sigh.
Not that I expect anything more substantive than this from oprah.com, but come on.  I think that the opening line of #8 is really the most telling thing on this list.  It’s certainly the most honest, and because of that, it casts pretty much all the rest into serious doubt in terms of their usefulness and accuracy.  If you can’t trust your own mind, then how do you know it’s ok to break the rules in order to accomplish something great?   How can you trust what your own mind has told you in the majority of these questions? 
Note the emphasis here.  It’s all on me – everything is an I statement.  It’s as though the rest of the world doesn’t exist.  Not your spouse or your kids or your best friend or your boss or your pastor or anyone.  Nobody but you, and you have all the answers, if you can figure out how to outsmart that brain of yours that you admit can’t be trusted.  What a huge load.  In more ways than one.
Some of the ideas here are worthwhile.  Asking Big Questions is a good thing.  But saddling yourself with the sole and ultimate responsibility for answering all of them?  Well, I guess that ensures one thing.  You’ll be coming back to oprah.com looking for more self-help resources and motivational tips pretty quickly.  I’m certainly not feeling any more motivated than before!

Mark Your Calendars…

January 24, 2011

…because they aren’t premarked.  At least if you’re interested in knowing when Christmas or Easter is.

A school-age calendar produced for European Union countries omits Christmas and Easter from the calendar while including Jewish and Muslim holidays.  It’s an oversight of course, according to those responsible for putting together the calendar.  Just sort of a strange one, in my opinion.

Lost in Translation

January 19, 2011

An old acquaintance posted a link to this story on Facebook.  The newly installed governor of Alabama was addressing a “church crowd” and made the comment that other Christians share a special relationship to him.  They are his “brothers and sisters”, whereas those who are not Christian don’t share this relationship, and he wishes that they did.  The acquaintance who posted the link was disturbed by it, and understandably so.  She’s not a Christian (by her own admission).  And it pains me when people who may be open to Christianity but not necessarily familiar with it read these sorts of stories and become upset by them.  

First off, these statements by Governor Bentley are completely unnecessary.  If he’s speaking to a church crowd, presumably they have some understanding that Christians share a special bond through Jesus Christ.  We are knit into a family that ignores genetics, culture, gender, and pretty much any other aspect by which we traditionally divide and separate ourselves.  I’m assuming that Governor Bentley has been equally vocal about his Christian faith previously.  As such, there’s no point in making this sort of statement.  It’s preaching to the proverbial choir.  It doesn’t accomplish anything.  Worse still, it causes more problems by far than if he had never said it.  Christians need to be aware of the cultural context in which we speak and act, particularly as elected officials.
Why?  Because – particularly as an elected official – you’re never off the record.  You’re never sure that what you’re saying will remain in the proper context.  The comments of Governor Bentley reflect his Christian faith, and while those sentiments are commonly expressed in various fashions amongst Christians, they don’t make sense to non-Christians, and we need to express ourselves in this knowledge.  Governor Bentley is finding out the hard way – if anyone could avoid this conclusion by now – that what we say travels these days.  Around the world and back, literally.  What was intended (I presume) as a confession of faith amongst fellow Christians is now evaluated in terms of his potential lack of impartiality as an elected public official.  What he said will be heard completely out of context far more than it will be heard in context.  This should give those in the public eye cause to pause before they open their mouths.  If you’re on a platform with a microphone in front of you, think before you speak.  Think while you speak.  This is part of your job.
This story highlights the degree to which Christian parlance is no longer well understood among the general population – or the extent to which the press is willing to play dumb for the sake of a juicy sounding headline.  Biblical parlance talks about believers in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters.  Many denominations make use of these titles in addressing one another (Brother Bob, Sister Susan, etc.).  The implications are clear – we who were not family by our own blood have been made family by the blood of Jesus Christ.  We have become a part of God’s family by adoption through faith.  
This is without a doubt a wonderful and beautiful thing!  By Biblical standards there is nothing more valuable, more important, and more honorable than to be part of the family of Christ, brothers and sisters through Him.  The implications are universally positive for anyone who has been brought into this family.  There is no higher honor the world can convey, no greater title, no gift of greater or longer-lasting value.  Quite literally, the Bible teaches that there is nothing more important on earth in a person’s life than whether or not they are part of the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
To non-Christians, this is not apparent.  To those who are actively part of another faith (as the article cites), this is clearly not a shared perspective.  A public, generic, non-relational invitation by speech to all non-Christians to become Christians by an elected public official in a public speech is going to be viewed as intolerant.  It is intolerant.  It is audacious.  It is offensive to those who do not believe.  The Bible tells us this will be the case, and experience bears it out.  We need to not be surprised at this and craft our speech accordingly.  The days when public sentiment and the press choose to be indulgent of such expressions appears to be over.  Get used to it.  It shouldn’t be a surprise if you read your Bible.
Finally, the nature of the statement is itself problematic in it’s brevity.  I think it highlights the confusion that is often present in Christian minds regarding the relationship of Christians to the world and to non-Christians.  There is no singularly accurate way of expressing this relationship.  I think it is best expressed in two modes – our relationship to one another simply by being part of creation, and then our relationship to one another in Jesus Christ.  
We are quite literally brothers and sisters with everyone on this planet.  We share the common ancestry of Adam and Eve.  We share a common creatureliness with one another.  This is Biblical, and this is good.  We ought to view one another in this light, because it helps to inform our treatment of one another.  We’re less likely to start shooting blindly at people we consider our brothers and sisters rather than our enemies.  We’re less likely to struggle with issues of forgiveness and praying for those who strive against us when we see them as brothers and sisters.  We are less likely to pass by someone in need if we see them as a brother or sister.  
So in this sense, Governor Bentley’s statement is inaccurate.  Every person is his brother or sister.  But that’s not what he was referring to.
He was (I presume) referring to the special status of brother & sister in Christ that is shared only by those who profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.  And in this sense, no, not everyone is part of the family.  What gets overlooked or ignored by those on the outside of the family is that the priority laid on every member of the family is to be in prayer for those who aren’t yet in the family.  To be praying earnestly and living our lives in ways so that the message of Jesus Christ might be made as clear and attractive as possible.  It’s not an issue of threatening others to convert to the faith (though historically some Christians have clearly made this error).  It is a very real distinction, but one that will not be made fully clear (and that we are not responsible for making fully clear) until Jesus returns.  
Clearly, if you disagree theologically with this stance (as a Muslim will), or believe religion of any kind to be inappropriate (as an atheist will), these statements will come across as offensive or insulting or perhaps even threatening.  This requires at least a certain level of refusing to attempt to understand the context of Governor Bentley’s words, which is not very reasonable or entirely fair.  But again, the words need never have been spoken in the first place, and then we wouldn’t have this spectacle.
Finally, I find hugely ironic the quoting of the Muslim president of the Birmingham Islamic Society on the appropriate conduct for Governor Bentley.  Considering the BIS is dedicated to the propagation of the Islamic faith amongst  “Muslims and non-Muslims“.  What are the odds that Mr. Taufique would object to Governor Bentley’s belief that people should be Christian, since Mr. Taufique’s organization is dedicated to the belief that people should be Muslim?  Talk about shooting fish in a barrel – that reporter really had to stretch to get that sort of response, didn’t he?  
As for the veiled threat that the governor’s remarks were close to violating the First Amendment, I would suggest that reflecting one’s personal faith – even as a public official – is nowhere close to utilizing a public office to somehow coerce or require conversion to one’s faith.  The popular notion that a Christian should never mention that they are a Christian if they are a public official is a ridiculous and completely illogical attempt to muffle the fact that many (though certainly not all!) public officials do have a very vibrant faith life.  
Other thoughts?

What We Like

January 18, 2011

No real commentary, just an article in Time that I thought was interesting.  It reports on a study of young adults that revealed that many young adults prefer self-image boosts of one form or another over other types of pleasurable options.  It’s also to see the experts wrangle over what these results mean, both positively and negatively.

Update

January 18, 2011

I posted last month about a family in Indiana with a baby that needed a massive operation in order to live.  Just as an update, the family has been able to secure coverage for the costs of the operation.  Apparently, they received quite a bit of donations – over $150,000 in the first three days the story broke.  All the donated monies received are being funneled to an institution dedicated to getting the baby’s particular condition ruled ‘non-experimental’ so that other families in similar situations should have an easier time getting insurance to cover it.  

What’s a Governor to Do?

January 15, 2011

Our elected officials probably spend a frightening amount of their time attending special events as guests of honor and speakers.  Their presence at various functions offers a form of legitimization for a group, a cause, or what-have-you.  But should we be surprised – or disappointed – if our elected officials fail to attend certain functions?

The governor of Maine is in some hot water because he’s not attending the NAACP’s state celebrations for Martin Luther King Jr. over the weekend.  Governor LePage is not personally attending, nor does he appear to be sending anyone from his office to represent him.  When people began to complain about this rather noticeable absence, the governor responded with all of the diplomacy and political astuteness that great politicians are known for. 
He told the complainers to “kiss my butt”.  Once I quit laughing, I started thinking.  
The story goes to pains (no doubt at the request of Governor LePage’s office) to offer evidence of his sensitivity to MLK, and to stress that his non-attendance is a matter of scheduling issues rather than a commentary on MLK.  Of course, the hope that this could be taken at face value is pretty naive these days.  Particularly when a minority group is involved.  
Must a governor personally endorse everything that the voters in that state have affirmed?  Is there no room to expect that as a human being, an elected official is not compelled to personally agree with every holiday or celebration, and that disagreement does not render the official incompetent or unworthy to govern and represent?
Mind you, the article in no way implies that Governor LePage is not attending because of any sort of personal issues with MLK or the NAACP.  But clearly those who are unhappy with his decision not to attend are taking it this way.  Given his flippant response to initial concerns, this is not entirely without merit.
Or is it?
One person is quoted as lamenting that the governor has “thrown down the gauntlet when this was just an invitation to come together”.  Of course, if it’s “just” an invitation, then why were people beginning to complain that the governor wasn’t able to make it?  Clearly it was more than just an invitation – it was an invitation with an expectation, and when the expectation wasn’t met, the governor was seen as being at fault and open to criticism.  
NAACP president Todd Jealous accuses the governor of inflaming the situation and “out of touch with our nation’s deep yearning for increased civility and racial healing.”  I’m assuming that this is in response to the “kiss my butt” comment.  Otherwise, why would failing to attend the events in question be any less civil than those who chose to complain and criticize the governor?  Wouldn’t the issue of civility have first come into play when the governor indicated that he was unable to attend?
I don’t know anything about Governor LePage or his issues privately or politically.  But this story leaves a lot of questions, and paints a clear picture that some invitations are not to be turned down because they aren’t really invitations.  They’re demands.  And demands are rarely “civil”, and probably not very often forms of “healing”, racial or otherwise.  
* * * * * 
So I went looking for other articles on this situation.
I found this rather biased editorial that takes the governor to task for being rude to his citizens.  Of course, the governor wasn’t being rude to his citizens, as near as I can tell.  He was being rude to a national level organization that was beginning to try to pressure him to change his plans by questioning and drawing attention to the issue.  This article also has further quotes from Governor LePage arguing that, basically, he has to make calls like this all the time because he can’t attend everything that everyone would like him to.  It seems like a valid point.  Except that, once again, certain invitations aren’t invitations, they’re expectations.
I have no interest in defending bigotry or racism, but I do question – based on these articles – whether that must be what is at play here, as certainly is now being insinuated to greater degrees.   I have no idea what Governor LePage’s other commitments are.  Frankly, as long as his motives are not racist, I don’t care.  He’s a human being who has to make choices.  Or more accurately, who seems to be challenging the facade that these sorts of things are actually choices rather than expectations.  Perhaps he’s just pointing to the man behind the curtain, and letting us draw our own conclusions.  
What are yours?

Raised from the Dead?

January 14, 2011

This ought to start a flurry of howls from certain quarters.  It is very possible in Illinois that the moment of silence that was done away with years ago might be reinstituted in public schools. 

The practice was eliminated after a law suit that evolved into a class action suit, started by one atheist family claiming that a moment of silence at the start of the school day was a violation of the Constitution’s separation of church and state amounting effectively to the promotion of religion.  Never mind that there was nothing in the law that stipulated what the moment of silence was for.  Apparently everyone knows that the only thing you can do with a moment of silence is pray, and we can’t have that.   
Each school district will need to interpret what this means, if it actually happens.  That includes determining the logistics of when the moment of silence occurs and how long it is.  The article notes varying attitudes towards the law, and therefore towards the length of the silence if it indeed becomes mandated again.
This article notes that the ban on the moment of silence was not universal – during moments of mourning or crisis it was observed.  This article provides a brief overview of the practice of holding a moment of silence – particularly in the wake of tragic events.  I wonder that the opponents of a moment of silence in schools are not filing lawsuits or lobbying for the elimination of the practice by our President.  Surely just as a school is not allowed to push for anything vaguely resembling a religious practice, our President would be held to just as high a standard?
But if there has been an outcry against the practice as being too religious, or not rational enough, it isn’t making the press.  It seems clear that a great majority of people – both religious and non-religious – find that a moment of silence is appropriate under certain conditions, and can engage in it without feeling as though they have been brow-beaten into a belief system they otherwise condemn.  I find it ironic then – or more saddeningly not ironic – that schools are expected to beat this idea out of people’s heads by banning it under penalty of law.