Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Legacy of John Calvin : His Influence on the Modern World

2009 is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth and just as Calvin was a prolific publisher in his day, there has been a resurgence of publishing about Calvin in our day. This is a good thing because to not know about Calvin is to either be ignorant of the foundations of your own culture or to believe a broad characterization of him that is unlikely to do him justice and in some cases so patently false as to be silly. David Hall does a terrific book in that he sums up the lasting contributions of Calvin as they touch us today and gives us a concise and accurate biography in a very short space. Hall does not dwell on the theological intricacies of Calvin but does show us glimpses of his genius as a reformer of the Church and as a leader of men. Although there are many contributions Hall lingers on The Academy of Geneva because Calvin was singular as a protestant reformer in starting a school of higher learning to continue training and education from the protestant worldview beyond his lifetime. What makes this important is that students were trained in Geneva and deployed worldwide which in the end made this form of Protestantism far more influential. Calvin is also presented as a man who has a political mind and taught republicanism and democracy in nascent form. That men are ideally ruled not by a monarch but a group of men who are elected with the consent of the governed seems pretty natural today but in Calvin’s day these were far the norm. Hall also debunks the idea of Calvin being a total laissez-faire capitalist or that wealth was a proof one one’s election. Calvin’s teaching certainly did result in economic development but this was largely because he held all professions done honestly brought glory to God as opposed to the previously held view that only religious vocations did. But Calvin did believe honest gain was to be shared with the poor and saved for a “rainy day” rather than spending it on luxury items as we would today in a consumer economy. Calvin’s views on governance and industry make me wonder if Wall Street and Obama’s Washington might benefit from a read through The Institutes. For anyone who knows about Calvin already, this book is worth a skim. But for the totally uninitiated, Hall’s Legacy of John Calvin makes for a solid primer.

Friday, December 11, 2009

God's Batallions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

A starkly different and yet eerily familiar picture of the Crusades emerges in Rodney Stark’s new offering God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. The “case” that Stark makes in the book is that after centuries of continual aggression against the West, the Crusades were launched against the Muslims when fresh new provocations were made against Christian pilgrims and holy sites in Jerusalem. Stark also finds in his research that far from being a brutal and opportunistic war and land grab, the European crusaders had little to no gain financially and many actually bankrupted themselves in order to go. This was for them a war of ideals, religious ones in particular, and though it was brutal, it was fought according to the prevailing codes of decency and fair play that ruled in their day. Stark also reveals in the book that much has been made of the decency and enlightened attitudes of the Muslims that simply doesn’t bear out under scrutiny. Merciless slaughter and slavery were tactics they used any time they could against the crusader settlements. What is eerily familiar about the Crusades is that they were popular when they were successful and only the wealthy of Europe had to support them. When there was stalemate or failure and the financial drain was too much, they lost their public support. The case was made it was impossible to sustain the mission and there were just too many enemies to keep at bay with too few troops, er knights on the ground. I think a strong case is made that the Crusades were morally right as a political/social phenomenon. After all, European crusaders were merely conquering from Muslims lands connected to their religious faith that the Muslims had conquered from Jews and Christians just centuries before. At least in the Medieval world, taking and possessing conquered land was considered honest and normal by all the involved parties. As I read the book I couldn’t help but think of our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defensive, just, distant, and increasingly unpopular at home. It would be nice if they just ended due to lack of interest, but I fear the Islamic penchant for Jihad may require our attention until “kingdom come.”

Sunday, November 29, 2009

God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis by Philip Jenkins

It is the year 2074. Silver Jubilee celebrations are planned for the month of Ramadan to the delight of the citizens in Londonistan. In Paris-al-Alwah, the Sharia law courts continue their long docket of cases against homosexuals, while Christians gather in front of the mosque of Notre Dame to pray and silently protest the loss of their church. Meanwhile, Rome continues to stand as an empty ruin as the city was rendered uninhabitable by a powerful dirty bomb that was set off in the Vatican several years ago. These, and other dire ‘what-if?’ scenarios often crowd the pages and talking points of people concerned about Europe’s future in the 21st century. But then Philip Jenkins has to come along with another one of his well-researched and thoughtful books and ruin the apocalyptic party. In God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, Jenkins doesn’t say any of this couldn’t happen or even that it shouldn’t. In point of fact, Europe is wealthy, increasingly secular, and so hedonistic, that it is committing suicide by demography. On top of this, the nations of Europe identify more racially than nationally which means for the most part they are adrift as far as having any core values or things they would fight and die for as a people. Given these factors, should we be surprised that the large and vocal Muslim immigrant population of Europe is slowly and inexorably moving in to take over in the coming decades? And if Europe is so culturally sick, wouldn’t it be best that she live by her own value system and be euthanized? But this is only part of the story of God’s Continent. According to Jenkins there are some other factors that need to be considered. First, Muslim immigration is relatively new (since the 1950’s). Families most likely to immigrate are younger and more energetic, and are likely to have children that fill local schools which makes people feel like they are being overrun. In reality, immigrant communities generally have a dropping birthrate the longer they live in a host culture especially if the cost of living is extremely expensive. Another factor ignored by many is that Europe has a lot of other immigrants also coming in from Asia and Africa and these are not Muslim but vibrant Christian believers. The empty state-run Churches of Europe belie the fact that immigrant churches are growing by leaps and bounds and are evangelizing and revitalizing the ancient faith that came to them from European missionaries in the 19th century. Quite apart from this are spontaneous revival movements occurring within the more traditional Anglican, Protestant, and Catholic denominations. Certainly another dimension to this is Muslim demands are making European leaders and people wake up to the reality that if they are doing cartwheels to accommodate this one group, why aren’t they doing more to protect the future of their majority population? The irony of all this is that Europe for decades has been almost prideful of her secularism and toleration of amorality, and yet despite their best efforts to remove God from the continent, their most consuming problem in the coming decades will be religious. Apparently Europe may be done with God but God is certainly not done with Europe.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Next Evangelicalism : Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-Chan Rah

If you are a white, middle-aged, raised-in-the-suburbs evangelical Christian who is socially and politically conservative and either active in the church or in vocational ministry, this book is going to offend you a few times and possibly even hurt your feelings, but you need to read it anyway especially if you care about the future of the Church in America. The author, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, has a message of hope for the American Church but one that is going to require an adjustment in our heads and hearts. That American demographics are on a trajectory of great change is not a news flash for most people. Since the 1960’s birth rates, immigration patterns, and intercultural marriages have led to what some have called the “browning of America” and now it is estimated that by 2050 there will no longer be a majority culture in America. While many are heralding this as a tragic loss, Rah defends the thesis that de-Europeanization is not tantamount to de-Christianizing our country. In fact, the author asserts a preponderance of the new immigrants coming to America are Christian by faith and socially conservative with strong family values. His point: the Church in America will experience this shift long before the general culture does and if embraced properly will stem the tide of decline most churches and denominations are experiencing today. But for this to happen there is a cost and that is to reexamine our notions of ‘doing church’ which make sense for a predominantly white industrialized culture, but may not be as Biblical or Christian as we suppose although certainly comfortable. The other and more painful point the author makes is how deeply embedded racism is in our culture and especially in the church. What makes us so profoundly blind to it is that most Americans have no sense of corporate sin and thus we see ourselves as innocent. And when you feel innocent, it’s hard to want to change your ways and racism must be addressed if our churches are going to reflect our new reality. That said, I felt the author might have said a little something about the fact that while white Americans have their own share of guilt they don’t have a corner on the market with racism. Racism has no boundaries and I know too much about world history and other cultures to ever buy in to the idea that we need to do all the repenting. I also wonder if the author is not a bit overly idealist in his multicultural vs. homogenous church model. Having some experience in missions, I have seen the church in other countries quite apart from any missionary input organize along ethnic lines. Is there then a brown cultural captivity as well or do things just tend to shake out that way no matter what country you are in? It was God’s idea in the first place to separate nations by languages and this too has purpose. Put another way, it might just be simple economy of effort that makes people of like culture and language gather their own churches. Put yet another way, perhaps the church will naturally become more multicultural as the American landscape becomes so in the years ahead. Overall, I think The Next Evangelicalism is an insightful and helpful book and even if you don’t agree with all his conclusions, in the wake of political hysteria about immigration, it is a reminder to American evangelicals that ‘welcoming the stranger’ may be the form of our next Great Awakening.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage

One of the great values of studying history is tracing the seeds of the past which have grown up to become our present. Probably of more value is the lesson taught so long ago to us by King Solomon: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet is both a celebration of progress as well as a caution to those of today who tend to be overly enthusiastic about technology’s potential to eliminate all our problems. The Victorian “Internet” was the telegraph and while the telegraph office and all those “dots and dashes” seem so simple and quaint today, telegraphy literally did create the first world wide web. People didn’t have Tweets, Twitter, and Texting, but did follow one another in real time communication and made up short abbreviations to save time and money all the same. People did commerce and shopping via the telegraph, forwarded jokes, found true love and even committed bank fraud and stock trades in ways eerily similar to the present day. What’s more, the Victorian telegraphy pioneers knew they were making the world smaller with implications for instant news, waging war, and a belief that world peace would at last be possible. People in the Victorian era even complained of “information overload” as big city newspapers would print 4 editions a day to keep up with the flow of news coming in via the telegraph. Of course the telegraph went into decline with the invention of the telephone (which was discovered in the process of trying to improve the telegraph) but then telephony linked with the digital made possible a world linked with personal telegraphs in the form of a computer or hand-held mobile device. In other words, the idea of telegraphy remained but has transmogrified into a digital form. Standage writes a very crisp book here that chronicles the invention and spread of the telegraph in western culture in a very entertaining way. And once again it reminds the reader that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

And Justice For All.......

Well, it’s almost that time of year again. No, not Independence Day or Thanksgiving, but Susan Atkins parole hearing. Susan Atkins is not as well known as her partner in crime Charles Manson but she was just as deadly and brutal as she stabbed to death then pregnant actress Sharon Tate nearly 40 years ago. Since her incarceration, Atkins has on average applied for parole every 2.5 years. If you’ve ever seen her on a television interview, you know she is extremely remorseful for her crime and says the regrets and images she carries in her mind of committing that murder are pure torture. She is also a model prisoner and now has brain cancer and is paralyzed. This September she will go before the parole board and apply for a compassionate release based on the reality that as a terminally ill person she is no threat to society. This may sound cold and merciless but I hope she gets turned down and dies in prison. When she was convicted she was sentenced to death but California overturned the sentence for life imprisonment when the State Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. I have long opposed the death penalty for a host of reasons but mainly because I find it inconsistent to be Pro-Life on the one hand, but supportive of killing people under other circumstances. I do know that the Old and New Testaments affirm the state having the right to execute evil doers, but a right to do so doesn’t obligate us as a society to exercise that right in the face of other more compassionate alternatives. Beside the moral argument is the economics of the death penalty. The cost of a life-without-parole sentence is far lower than the cost of executing a death row inmate. When governments are broke because of a faltering economy it seems extremely goofy to be finding money for executions and of course the funding of overseas abortion clinics (why can’t they pay for their own?), but that’s another issue. The bigger issue with Susan Atkins is one of justice. There is no doubt in my mind that she is sorry and not a threat to society anymore, but she wasn’t put in prison to be rehabilitated. True justice means the punishment fits the crime and just as a human being was deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a cold and merciless act so long ago, Susan Atkins should remain deprived of the same until she faces a higher court in another world.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Lost History of Christianity : The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia----and How It Died

Philip Jenkins has been writing about World Christianity for some time now and his message is both grim and encouraging. The Western “heartland” of Christianity (Europe and North America) is fading and dying while at the same time the faith of Jesus Christ is exploding in the Southern Hemisphere and East Asia. In his newest offering Jenkins chronicles the forgotten history of Christianity in what we call today the Middle-East. The History of Eastern Christianity is not so much forgotten as it has just been neglected in favor of the Western spiritual history which was built on the ruins of the Roman Empire and transformed a bunch of barbarian tribes into the Christendom which became the nations of Europe. But concurrent with the Western story is the equally interesting story of how Christianity flourished in places like Persia, Iraq, Armenia, Georgia, Syria, Turkey, Arabia, Egypt and North Africa. These groups sent missionaries to places like China and India, long before the Jesuits and other western missionaries arrived. In terms of Bible translation and monasteries, the East was far ahead of Europe by every metric. It was a golden age of the Church where Christianity flourished in terms of numbers, influence, and architecture. Which begs the question, if things were so good, why has Christianity all but vanished in the Middle East in favor of Islam? There were a multitude of factors all related to the rise of Islam, but equally so there were demographic and political factors that also played into the long decline of the Christian community. In the case of North Africa, Christianity largely disappeared because it was the religion of expatriot Romans who fled when the region came under Muslim control. In many cases people converted to Islam not by force, but because they saw it as a new revelation from God and in its early years Muslim doctrine had a greater kinship to Judeo-Christian thought. I think the most sobering lesson Jenkins brings out in the book is that the Church of the East relied too heavily on its political alliances and married its liturgical forms to a prosperous economy that fell out underneath them. As most of us know friends and money can disappear in a night, but the mistake the Eastern church made was not acknowledging this and adjusting to the new reality they found themselves in. This is something we in the Western church of today would be wise to consider. Our reality has changed but to change with it seems to be a task we may be putting off for a day when it is too late.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Americans Really Believe by Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark is known for sacrificing a lot of sacred cows when it comes to beliefs about religion and especially Christianity. In his previous books he has used reasoned statistical analysis to make a case that Christianity didn’t become huge because of Constantine’s conversion and subsequent legalization, but rather through normal evangelism through urban social networks in the Near East and Mediterranean, it grew to a formidable size all on its own and became the dominant religion of the people. He has also offered a strong case apart from supernaturalism that Monotheism and Christianity in particular are the true forces behind the rise of Western Civilization because they both led to a rationally progressive mindset coupled with values such as industry and justice. In What Americans Really Believe, Stark derives his insights from the Baylor University Survey of Religion, the last serious study (2005) that has been done in decades. And as in his other books, Rodney Stark once again ‘debunks’ some widely held beliefs about the Church and Christianity in America. Here’s a quick survey:

  1. Churches are not declining just liberal ones.
  2. More people attend Church today than they ever did at any point in American history.
  3. Americans find churches that require high levels of commitment in their membership the most attractive.
  4. Atheism is not really growing in America just media attention to Atheist authors.
  5. Megachurches do foster high commitment and personal relationships.
  6. Church attendance and religious commitment give women and particularly their daughters far more options in society than feminism does.
  7. College educated skeptics are statistically more inclined to believe in UFO’s and the Lochness monster than those who attend church.
  8. Evangelicals are not on the move to take over America politically. They are less likely to be involved in political activities than liberals or even non-religious people.

Obviously much more is covered in the book and some issues are completely neglected, but all in all some much needed and helpful information. In a period of waning economic fortune, it’s good to see the outlook for the church as an American institution is in much better shape than we previously thought.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Lesson from American Idol

I used to be mildly embarrassed to admit it, but now that American Idol’s fastest growing viewing demographic is people my age, I guess it is safe to come out of the closet and say I like the show. Come to think of it, it was my generation that cut it’s teeth on Ed Sullivan and The Gong Show and so perhaps it is a more natural fit than I realized. I like American Idol for a lot of reasons, but more than anything else I love the show because of judge Simon Cowell. I know that Simon is the producer of the program and partly famous for being the caustic and smug brit that we expect him to be, but he is extremely nuanced in his understanding and feel for performance and the music business and usually tells the truth we overly nice Americans won’t say. Remember, we’re the people who tells little Johnny “he can be anything he wants to be if he works hard at it” or “everyone is a winner at our grade school”. Or you’ve got the public school teacher telling the parents “Johnny is showing real promise in this area” because they’ve already done 13 parent-teacher conferences today and they don’t have the energy to tell his parents he should probably join the Navy and learn a trade because he’s not university material. I find Simon’s unvarnished truth at times very refreshing. If a performance was bad, he will call it an unmitigated disaster or not worthy of a karaoke night at a low-end club in Reno. The three other judges in the competition will criticize but usually with too much tact and generosity and hence the performer is not moved to tears like they are when they get Simon’s approval which is obviously more meaningful because it means something. I think there is something from American Idol we all ought to learn and that is our young people need to be told the truth with regards to their talents and aptitudes. Life is way too precious to waste pursuing that for which we have no talent and it is an act of love to steer a young person in the way he/she should go. It’s okay to have a childhood dream but if every boy in my neighborhood had lived out his dreams there would have been hundreds of baseball players and no doctors, teachers, musicians, or even baseball watchers to fill the bleachers. It takes all of us to make the world go around. God makes all of us for a certain purpose and destiny. Your destiny will be confirmed by your abilities and affirmed by people other than yourself. Listen to them and be glad even if they sound a bit like Simon at the time.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Influence: The Church or Hollywood?

This may come as a shock to you but Hollywood has far less influence on our culture than does religion. Yes they have prominence in what you see on TV, but then again Hollywood virtually controls the medium. But prominent visibility doesn’t necessarily equate influence. As a nation, 120 million of us attend Church on a regular basis which is far more than the number who attend movies in a given week. When you consider that less than 25% of Americans read one book a year, and only 1% of them are in college, it is a safe assumption that listening to the weekly sermon is still the most widely practiced form of intellectual activity in America. If one were to look just at expenditures, Americans give 25 times more money to their houses of worship than they do to their local movie houses. So if the Church is so influential in our culture, why is it so seemingly invisible? The late news anchor Peter Jennings, himself a Canadian, was baffled by this. He thought it was odd that America was so deeply religious and yet it was nearly invisible to the news media. I have a couple of theories as to why this is so. First of all, unless you do something exceptionally weird, good, or flashy at your church, it’s of no value to the media. Every Sunday the vast majority of us come together and pray, worship, hear God’s Word, and fellowship with one another. It’s a good thing, but doesn’t create the kind excitement that plays well on film or television. Secondly, Americans consider their freedom to worship almost as sacred as their actual religion. In the name of respecting the freedom of others that we enjoy ourselves, we don’t make this an overt part of our personal or national discourse. It doesn’t mean our faith has no influence on America, it simply comes in through the back door of personal relationships which once again is hardly a media event. Perhaps a better gauge of understanding the Church’s influence in America would be to imagine if it didn’t exist or were suddenly removed (which would be a dream-come-true for militant homosexuals and radical atheists). Not to be over celebratory here, but the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches of this country were huge partners in the building of our civilization and to this day provide countless hours of community services and emergency food and relief without any government help or incentive. The only real motivation is Christ’s great law: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. If this great influence were removed from our society, America would be less like itself and more like the Hollywood Babylon that some think we should be.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

There is a God by Anthony Flew

Several years ago Anthony Flew shook things up in the world of philosophy and religion by changing his mind about the non-existence of God. In other words Flew is a theist now and not an a-theist. This should not be taken to mean that Dr. Flew is now a Bible believing evangelical Christian though. He came from a Christian home and his father was a preacher and expert Biblicist, but Flew was unconvinced then and now as an octogenarian is still so. But as someone who has made his life’s work philosophy, he has done something quite daring; when confronted with additional information he changed his mind and did so publicly. Some of his fellow atheists have accused him of hedging his bets ala’ Pascal’s Wager, but in reality Flew is very clear he doesn’t even believe in an afterlife much less a final judgment. Flew merely believes there is a Creator, omnipotent and omniscient, who has made all that we see and know in the universe. So some philosopher changes his mind and is no longer an atheist but is not a Christian; why would this book be important to read? First of all Flew gives a relatively nuanced breakdown on his change of mind about atheism that is very enlightening. Much of it has to do further scientific discovery which makes the idea of evolution occurring without an incredible mind behind it fairly untenable. An example that is given is the breakthrough work in understanding DNA , the basic building block of all living things. The idea that its highly sophisticated unfolding program would develop spontaneously by some mechanistic force seems more likely explained by a Creator. Perhaps of greater value to the Christian is the fact that the so-called traditional arguments for the existence of God which were articulated by theologians and philosophers in the Medieval era are not as unsophisticated and discredited as we’ve been lead to believe (for more information “google” the arguments for the existence of God). As Flew looks back to the classical Greek philosophers idea of God, he concedes their idea seems to most closely parallel the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, but for Flew to connect with that fact is going to be more a matter of relationship than philosophy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

On Medford 97501

“The sad part of living in the same town so long is you start to resemble your (very dilapidated) neighborhood…”

---Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky Balboa”

Although I wasn’t born there, I have lived in Medford Oregon for 41 years. Statistically I am like 50% of Americans who live fairly close to where they grew up. I’ve often wondered about what it would be like to be like the other half who have lived more transitory lives. I suppose they know something I don’t, but I suspect that goes both ways. I have met many people through the years who have visited my hometown on their vacation and really liked the beauty of the area. I usually take it for granted until I go away for a few weeks and then fly home. When I see the blue mountains and tall trees again I just know I’m home and for some reason I’m strangely enchanted. I honestly can’t say whether Medford is a better or worse place to live than it was growing up. It has improved in many ways with size and worsened in some ways too. And it has certainly changed. If you would have told me when I was a teenager that Medco would be put out of business, that vineyards would be the chief source of agricultural income in the Applegate and the Britt Festival would largely feature nostalgic rock acts, I would have figured you had lost your mind. Time does move on and to quote the Bible, everything has its “time and season”. No matter where you find yourself living today may God give you the ability to see change with both grace and wonder!

I was thinking about the Medford I grew up in and 10 things I miss from the past in no particular order:

1. Jack’s Burger Haus, Dell’s Hamburgers, Stu’s Burger Bar

2. Sister Ray Records and The Tape Shoppe

3. The Starlite Drive-In

4. The smell of Flueher’s Bakery in the afternoon

5. Kim’s Restaurant

6. The Big “Y”

7. Bob Kennedy’s “House of Guns” and all the other cool stuff

8. Trowbridge’s Store

9. KYJC #1 Radio and KSHA with all the cool clocks saying what time it was around

the country.

10. Golf-o-Rama

Friday, February 27, 2009

Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants by Dennis Okholm

One of the bright spots in present-day evangelicalism is that the long impoverishment of it’s tradition of spiritual formation seems to be coming to an end. Witness the proliferation of books in the last two decades on the spiritual disciplines. When Richard Foster came out with Celebration of Discipline in the early eighties it was a bit of a radical book. Today, it is a classic of discipleship quoted by everyone else. Dennis Okholm has made an excellent offering in this field with his book which successfully makes the broadest principles of Benedictine spirituality accessible to Protestant laypersons. He makes a good point that St. Benedict actually preceded the existence of the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today and thus the tradition is actually more universally Christian belonging to neither Catholics or Protestants alone. That aside, Okholm invites the reader to consider the practices of listening, poverty, obedience, humility, hospitality, stability, and balance which are practiced to this day by those with a religious vocation. As an example, Okholm points out that the vow of poverty does not mean a monk has no resources. He actually has all he needs to do live his life and do his work. He or she just owns it communally instead of individually. A protestant can practice the same by generously sharing his possessions with others and creatively networking to pool things that are only used occasionally. Hospitality for Benedictines meant taking in and ministering to the needs of a stranger as if he were Christ in disguise. Protestants may not have a retreat house like a monastery does, but they might have a spare bedroom. Just treating the many strangers that cross our path in a given day as if they were Jesus Himself would be a form practicing Benedictine hospitality. The book does a good job explaining how all of these practices are directly connected with scripture and how they enable us to be more available to Christ that we might become more fully transformed. I would recommend this book to be read first and then follow it up with Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Keeping Up With the "Competition"

As a minister I frequently receive magazines which I would have to classify as “trade publications.” These are not about how to pray better or understand theology, but how to be a successful or more successful pastor. I guess this is good. Jesus was successful wasn’t he? Success is naturally tied in to buying this product or that which will make your church building and services really pop! And after all, with so many churches competing for souls, you have got to make your operation really stand out. With a better building or mailout campaign you might even be able to smash the competition. Another big issue I keep reading about in these magazines is how as an institution Churches have got to start being on the cutting edge of change. Apparently we are losing ground in the culture because we are not relevant enough or are out of touch with generational values. Perhaps I’m missing the obvious but our society is in a constant state of flux and to try to keep up with these changes seems like a fool’s errand. By the time you get in lock-step (or goose step) with the changed culture, it has already changed and you’re passe’ again. I guess going out of your way to be out of step with culture (like the Amish and other groups) is hardly a virtue either. Consider the great loss of life recently when an Amish Airlines jet crashed at the end of the runway when the horses pulling it didn’t get enough speed up! But I digress. It just seems to me that those within and without the Church really don’t know that much about what they really want in life which is why there is the constant tyranny of the latest and greatest fad always running in the background. Jesus Christ and the Gospel are the same yesterday, today, and forever. Maybe those of us who are clergy should take note of this once again and not be afraid that our story, our product really, is very old. But the surprising thing is that after 2000 years, the Gospel alone still has more power to save than any of the new and improved enhancements and techniques we employ to jazz things up a bit. There is just something about Jesus that is always so relevant!

Friday, February 13, 2009

On Saibarites and Gyrovagues Pt.1

“Saibarites” and “Gyrovagues” are words used by St. Benedict of Nursia to describe two kinds of Christians that are still alive and with us 1400 years after he wrote his famous Rule. A Saibarite, according to Benedict, is someone who determines right and wrong, spiritual or unspiritual according to their own personal taste. If they happen to like something or agree with it, it must be true and spiritual and worthy of pursuit. If they find something disagreeable or offensive to their sensibilities, then it must be wrong or unspiritual and be dismissed immediately. This is not to say that sometimes the very reason we dislike something is because it really is wrong and unspiritual. Many years ago I had a friend in Bible college that made racial slurs about black people. I find bigotry in bad taste but also quite sinful according to the teachings of Christ. But there are some people who tend to think that anything in conflict with their personal point of view is wrong and dismiss it quite uncritically. What is wrong with this line of thinking is that as Christians our truth comes from outside of ourselves. Man is a fallen creature in need of rescue not only from the flames of hell but also his own stupidity. Our minds and capacity to discern truth apart from the assistance God’s Holy Spirit, the Bible, and the community of the faithful is almost nil. We alone with unaided human reason as our guide consistently make the wrong choice (consider your investment history or how many unhappy married people there are). King Solomon wisely noted that there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22) precisely because we need perspective outside of ourselves in order to discern the truth. Sometimes there’s an even darker motivation behind a Saibarite: pure, unmitigated, intellectual laziness. It is astounding how many of us suffer from an insatiable lack of curiosity about why things are the way they are. It’s like the bumper sticker I saw on a car recently that read “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”. Although I can appreciate the well meaning sentiment about loyalty to God’s Word, I have a nagging suspicion the reality is more like “don’t bother me with any hard questions, because I don’t want my faith or assumptions about life disturbed!” The prescription for the Saibarite is really quite simple: take time when you hear a point of view that you don’t readily agree with and explore the reasons others might hold it. You may come to the same conclusion anyway, but at least you will have an understanding and perhaps even a greater toleration of people different from yourself. In some cases you might even have your mind changed completely which I would contend is truly one of life’s little miracles.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Man of Blessing: A Life of St. Benedict by Carmen Acevedo Butcher

Probably no man save Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul has done more to shape both Western Civilization and Western Spirituality than Benedict of Nursia. Benedict is the fountain head of the Benedictine order and developed his Rule which guided every aspect of monastic life at his monastery (Monte Cassino) but also became the blueprint for living which was adopted by many other religious orders at least in part. The genius, the very contribution of Benedict was a humane and ordered existence which sought to fuse worship, prayer, and the ordinary tasks of daily living into a whole where one was living every day to the glory of God and there was no separation of the sacred and secular spheres of life. Washing dishes, hoeing manure into the vegetable patch was as holy a task as was chanting the Psalms in Latin at the appointed times of worship. Even the western orientation of time/event can be traced back to the canonical hours which was a type of holy dayrunner where monks slept, ate, worshipped, read the scriptures, did their chores, and celebrated communion on a set daily and hourly schedule. That said, author Carmen Butcher has also made a wonderful contribution to this world with Man of Blessing. Unfortunately, the earliest biographies we have on Benedict are hagiographies or books about saints. They are wonderful devotional reading but frequently are a bit overdrawn for modern readers because of their emphasis on the saint’s other-worldliness and performance of miracles. They also tend to be quite formulaic as well which makes the reader wonder if the facts aren’t bent a wee bit to make the saint conform to a particular standard of sainthood. Butcher’s work sources many of the ancient and medieval sources for Benedict’s life and weaves other aspects of what we know from the period into the story. The result is a warmer, and frankly more believeable Life of Benedict that does emphasize spiritual example all along. This was a delightful book to page through and a potent reminder that what makes a true saint of God is not so much the miraculous, but the ordinary human life lived well.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On Fuel Economy and National Freedom

A colleague and dear friend of mine and I, let’s call her DC to conceal her real identity, were having a spirited discussion about whether the government has any right to dictate the size and mpg of our personal family cars. Her contention is that America is a free country with free citizens and that includes the right to drive any car of any size that tickles our fancy. And that right, though not in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, is so sacrosanct it ought to be. If this were 1969 instead of 2009, I think I would be compelled to agree with her. But in the intervening years the United States has gone through two oil embargos, two wars over oil security, and two crestings of peak oil. The first crest occurred in the 1960’s when domestic oil supplies no longer could keep pace with demand thus requiring imported oil and the second was in 2005 when world demand was pressurizing the supply and price environment of oil because of the rising prosperity of countries such as China and India. As the world economy has collapsed since 2005 that pressure has been released somewhat but don’t worry it WILL be back. The developing nations desire for cars and industrial wealth has slowed but will never stop. So what’s my contention? I maintain that American oil consumption is an issue of freedom and national security that is so great, the government (which is all of us represented by our lawfully elected officials) has a compelling interest to impinge on some of our freedom in this area. First of all, at current rates of consumption we must import 70% of our oil to maintain our standard of living. This is not just our cars, but our industry, infrastructure, really our whole fabric of life. To have such a dependence is the worst kind of vulnerability. Not only can our way of life be taken away by OPEC without warning, but our dependence compels and drives our national policy to be one of compromise for the sake of oil. There are some countries and world leaders for whom we should be giving a collective national bird (and I’m not talking about the American Eagle!) but when you need their resources to live you really can’t take too strong of a stand on anything. I harbor no fantasies that America is ever going to be a clean, green autotopia filled with all-electric or hydrogen cars zipping the kids to ball practice with zero tailpipe emissions. At current prices and with the current economy most of us can’t afford them anyway. On the other hand I think the freedom to buy the biggest gas guzzling car you can afford to drive pushes us as a nation in the wrong direction. Given the reality that oil is a finite resource, just because a person can afford to burn more of it than others can is not a compelling reason to let them do so especially in light of our national security. Once upon a time, gas rationing and conservation, were imposed from above for the same reason and people felt patriotic for cooperating. While such draconian measures are not yet necessary, required fuel economy, lowered vehicle weights, and lower speed limits are hardly impositions against our freedom. In fact, these and thousand other steps we could take to conserve and disengage from oil might actually return America to a greater form of freedom we haven’t experienced in a while: true independence.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

God in the White House: A History by Randall Balmer

If you’ve read any of Randall Balmer’s other works you know he is a challenging author. He is very readable but he is often piercing in his observations. God in the White House is actually as disturbing as it is enlightening about the relationship of politics, Christian faith, and the men we have elected to the Presidency. Balmer only covers the presidency since JFK and so the work is not about all presidents, but certainly those of the television age and the ones of recent memory. It is an interesting characteristic of America that constitutionally we do not have a religious test for office nor are we uniformly Christian, but we have never yet elected a President who wasn’t a Christian even if their commitment was largely in name only. John F. Kennedy was a watershed president because he was the very first Catholic ever elected and because he asked Americans to set religious affiliation aside and make his platform and leadership the only criteria for their vote. Obviously this was taken to heart in 1960 and actually the religion of a president didn’t become an issue until 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected and the phrase “Born-Again” became part of our national conversation. Although Carter’s term in high office has been widely considered a failure by many, Balmer considers him to be one of the few modern presidents whose faith really did guide his thinking and policies on a daily basis. Balmer is less generous with Reagan and Bush I who were quite adept at mobilizing the religious right for the purpose of winning elections but in reality did little to nothing to restore the declining morality in America that was the basis of their campaign. Our most recent president Balmer compared to Jimmy Carter as being quite outspoken about his commitment to Christ but felt many of his policies and viewpoints were very much out of step with the King of Kings. I tend to think Balmer is a bit harsh on Bush given that the examples he cites were related to the extraordinary decisions he was faced with in dealing with terrorism. We all look back with horror on the Japanese-American internment camps of WWII, but those too were extraordinary times and such periods are hardly the time to expect complete ethical consistency. This leaves Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford all three of which were church members but were extremely quiet about their faith. In each of their cases Balmer finds many instances where their decisions and policies were actually more reflective of Christ’s teaching than those who were vocal about their faith. Even Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam war was based on the principle that the strong must stand up for the weak if they are being oppressed. In the end, Balmer notes the pattern that our Presidents who have been the most vocal about faith, are the most unbiblical in their policies and are frequently questioned the least by the public for them. This according to Balmer is more a reflection of us and not them. We are more willing to give our vote to those who talk a good game and harder on those who don’t. The answer he proposes is that we go back to Kennedy’s idea that we don’t blindly make our choice based on the religious affiliations of our candidates but on their records and proposed policies and whether we see them as in line with our Christian faith. Another issue Balmer raises is Christian ministers being involved in politics. Many pastors have done a good job of speaking truth to power precisely because they were on the periphery but when they were brought into the counsels of power, they tended to become more political and less Christian. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are prime examples of this phenomena. This should remind and warn us again that the wall of separation between Church and State is a healthy ideal if for no other reason than it keeps the corrosive effects of power politics from corrupting the Church at large.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stop the Madness of Self-Serv Gas

As a lifelong Oregonian, I am one of the few people in the United States today who daily lives with the privilege of having other people pump gasoline for them. In Oregon it is not an option to pump your own gas. By law I am required to sit in my car and let the professionals handle this important and hazardous job. To tell you the truth I don’t mind this one bit. People I know who have moved in from out of state despise this law. They feel they have lost their freedom and some have even said they feel socially castrated having to sit and let someone else do this job for them. Oregon is well-known for weeks of rain in the winter and if it’s not raining it’s either foggy and cold or sunny and cold. In either scenario I feel it’s nice to sit inside my car and stay warm and dry when I stop for fuel. Recently I took a road trip across the southwest and had to get out and pump my own gas. California is the most inane of all the states. You have this spring loaded cover over the nozzle that acts like some sort of technological foreskin that makes the whole process of insertion an absolute nightmare. By the time you’re done following all the steps of hitting this button and that and learning the delicate balance of not pumping too fast as to avoid shutting the system down you are pretty emotionally drained. Then you’ve got to hike in to the convenience store to pay someone of Asian or Persian descent who doesn’t even say thank-you. I felt so dirty afterwards. Arizona and New Mexico get mixed reviews in my book as well. The further east you move, the nozzles are at least circumcised and you don’t have to go inside to pay unless you are using cash. The best self-serve experience I had was in Oklahoma. It was in and out with a simple nozzle and the best part was the price was reflective of the fact I did all the work. It was like someone said “look little buddy, I know its cold outside, the wind is whipping in your face, you’re going to get gasoline all over your hands and have to wash your own windshield, but hey, we’re dropping the price by 50 cents a gallon to say a big hearty thank-you for all your hard work!” Well it’s been several weeks since I’ve been back from my trip and though I did develop a modicum of skill at the gas station, I don’t miss self-serve gasoline at all. I will admit that at times it was a lot quicker than having someone else in the equation, and in some cases it was significantly cheaper. But most of the time self-serve was the same price or even higher and you were totally alone in the process. Here in Oregon, a fill-up is more than getting gasoline. It’s about a relationship with a trained professional whose willing to get gasoline on his or her fingers so you don’t. It’s about someone you can talk to outside your car window and ask for directions or gripe about the weather and to my thinking that’s worth almost any price.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Strange Tale of Oofty Goofty : A Heartwarming Reflection

I probably should never admit this publicly but I have always been delighted by the flamboyance and absurdity of freak shows. Although I’ve suffered the chronological misfortune of having been born long after their hey-day, they have long been in my field of awareness through history books and photo compilations on the 18th and 19th centuries. Who in their right mind could resist the opportunity to take a peak at a fully bearded lady or a cow with 5 legs? I’m pretty certain the inability to resist such spectacles is related to that same inner drive that makes us stare at car accidents. We know it’s rude and wrong to look, but hey, what do you do? My favorite freak show personality by a mile was a performer named Oofty Goofty, the wild man of Borneo. Oofty really wasn’t from East Malaysia but he did a great job of living up to people’s Darwinian expectations of what a man from Borneo would be like if he were caught and caged by sailors traveling to San Francisco. Oofty wore a bunch of fur stuck to his body by tar which made him black and hairy and he would just pace back and forth in his cage in front of viewers muttering loudly “oooffty goooofty…..ooofty gooofty”. To my thinking, old Oofty could go head to head with Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton as an entertainer any day. Sadly Oofty had to give up his gig because the tar and fur weren’t allowing him to perspire correctly and his health was being impaired. While one door closed in the entertainment industry another opened for Oofty. After getting thrown out of a bar, Oofty Goofty noticed that he felt no pain when he hit the ground. This he quickly parlayed into a new career. Oofty would allow people to hit him and kick the tar out of him for money (this is the definition par excellence of a good freak entertainer because they use their physical oddities to entertain not their talent per se). This actually lasted a bit longer than the wild man from Borneo phase, but eventually Oofty Goofty was hit so hard by someone that it broke two of his vertebrae and from that point forward he felt so much pain he couldn’t work again and so ended his illustrious career. I think there are great lessons we can all learn from Oofty’s tale: first and foremost, know your audience and deliver what they want. No matter what field of work you’re in, you do have an audience and they have certain expectations. The only time expectations should be shattered is if you plan to go above and beyond them with excellence. Oofty also offers us a lesson in flexibility and pliability in life. When your health requires you to make changes, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have to give up doing what you love, but rather you adjust to doing it differently. And finally beware of over confidence in what you do. St. Paul warns us “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Cor. 10:12).” Obviously a slightly different context than Oofty’s story, but still too much self-confidence in our own abilities and gifts is a set up for complacency and pride and that just invites being humbled in a painful way. Put another way, if you want living proofty about how not to be a goofty, consider the strange tale of Oofty!