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Friday, September 30, 2011

I Feel Your Pain. Period.

There's a clever lyric by Stephen Sondheim in his masterwork (and my favorite musical) Into the Woods in which Little Red Riding Hood, right after her close encounter with the Wolf, recounts what she learned from the experience.  She concludes, "Nice is different than good."

This op-ed piece by David Brooks, "The Limits of Empathy," makes a related point.  Empathy, he says, is a valuable skill in social relationships, but it is neither a substitute for nor a motivator to actual good deeds for other people.  In terms of Christian development, it is a reminder that the goal of discipleship isn't niceness but Christlikeness.  It's also a reminder that there is more (though not less) to being a good church than being nice.  There's also being godly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Age of Insecurity: A Meditation on College Football Realignment (and Stuff)

I'm a Syracuse University Orange fan.  You may know that as of yesterday my school is partly responsible for blowing up Division I Football Bowl Subdivision conference affiliations (and goodness knows what else). I say "partly" not only because they were joined by the University of Pittsburgh in their move from the Big East Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and not only because the ACC accepted them, and not only because Texas A&M started the latest round of tremors by seeking to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, and not only because last year the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 while Nebraska made the Big 11 (I mean, 10) into the Big 12 (I still mean 10, or do I mean the B1G, however you pronounce that?), etc.

I also say "partly" because media giants, most prominently The Worldwide Sports Leader, ESPN, will not stop fidgeting until they find the most lucrative way to present college football to the consuming public, which is to say never.  And I say "partly" because such media giants looking to sell more "news" to an already supersaturated public will report any speculation via unnamed sources or outright opinion to get another view, listen, or click until such speculation comes true.  And I say "partly" because I'm one of the people who keeps clicking.

(Incidentally, I think conference realignment should be reclassified as a metasport, that is to say, a sport about a sport.  It is its own competition with its own fan base and definition of winners and losers.  It actually could gain enough of a following to make it attractive to keep going year after year [I mean, season after season].  One could even imagine a fan who cheers on his favorite school in the metasport without ever watching a game in the actual sport.  The games on the field would really just be practice for the real thing of jockeying for position to be the school with the best affiliations.)

The weird relationship between the desires of the schools and the desires of the media that broadcast and promote the schools seems to me to represent perfectly the overall life of our civilization, probably in more ways than I know.  Simply stated, perception is reality: confidence produces the conditions that confidence should be based on, and lack of confidence does the same.  In this case, the administrations of Syracuse and Pittsburgh believed their conference to be unstable.  As a result of their belief, the conference became unstable.  I don't mean by this that they had no sound reason to believe that their conference was unstable, but I do mean that if they had drawn the opposite conclusion from the data at their disposal, they might have changed their environment by making it more secure rather than less.  In the same way, they believed that the ACC was more stable, and now, thanks in part to their action, it is.  Prophecy fulfilled, wish granted.

Our entire communal life is dominated by the same principle at work.  If actors in financial markets believe the economy to be stable, their consequent actions cause it to be stable.  If they believe it to be unstable, their actions destabilize it.  If businesses believe that there is rising demand for their products and services, they will hire more people, which puts more money in their pockets, which creates more demand.  If they believe that demand is stagnant or declining, they will make hiring decisions accordingly with similar results.  If workers believe they are going to lose their jobs, they will save their money, which, because it isn't transferred to businesses by purchases, causes workers to lose their jobs.

It's not always economic either.  If people in a neighborhood believe that it is safe to walk at night, then they will walk at night, see each other, and keep each other safe.  Otherwise they will stay inside with the shades down, and those few who do walk will be exposed to danger.  If people believe that they will be attacked imminently by terrorists, then they are terrorized.  It even happens in churches.  If people believe that a church is on the rise, it will grow.  If they believe that a church is in decline, it will.

When FDR proclaimed that the only thing to fear is fear itself, he was on to something.

What fascinates me about the seismic shifts in college athletics is that the insecurity there exemplifies the insecurity that is reaching its way into almost every area of our lives.  It has been quite some time since individuals and institutions had so little confidence in and among each other.  Just as colleges feel insecure and lack trust that their conferences will be able to meet their needs, so also is businesses' lack of trust that the market will sustain increased hiring.  So also is people's lack of trust that governments can govern, that banks won't trigger another catastrophe, that employers will retain one's job, that one will have the money to pay for college (for self or children) or retire or care for an aging loved one, that a severe illness can be treated and won't thrust one into poverty, that society won't devolve into moral disaster, that churches won't collapse amid an emerging generation with scant relationship to religious institutions.  Pessimism has become the assumption—and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh's move stimulated a small but significant burst of (ironic) commentaries denouncing the immorality of the colleges' decision and college sports in general in very strong terms.  It got me thinking about what the biblical, Christian evaluation of conference realignment ought to be.  There is definitely immorality about it, but I'm not sure that blunt accusations of greed, hypocrisy, and so forth form the place to start.  I mean, without a doubt, sheer ego in certain colleges and their leaders has a lot to do with why this school does this and that school does that.  And ego breeds hypocrisy real quick.  But I'm not sure that greed is quite the thing to accuse college presidents of.  These are, after all, nonprofit institutions.  The money they get from sports isn't lining owners' pockets but funding all manner of things that the universities are trying not to gouge students for any more than they already have to.  If there is greed in this it belongs with the for-profit enterprises that cover, distribute, and promote the games on the field.  But I also hesitate before railing too hard against the avaracious ways of Big Media.  The executives of ESPN/ABC, Fox, CBS, and the like have to satisfy shareholders or else they (and a whole lot of people working for them) lose their jobs.  And the shareholders just happen to include anyone who owns a slice of a mutual fund directly or through a pension board.  In other words, anyone who wants to retire someday.  You know, like us.

Where I see the immorality the most is not so much in individual institutions' individual decisions—in most cases the complexity of those decisions puts them beyond my capacity (and responsibility!) to judge.  But I see immorality in the overall environment in college sports (and, again, our society as a whole) in which the relational qualities that God displays and requires are fast disappearing.

"The conference" as a concept is a web of mutual relationships.  (Consider other meanings of its synonym "league.")  At root, at any level of competition, it is a shared agreement that greatly reduces the headache for teams of figuring out and scheduling who we're going play this year.  Obviously, as it so often does, money complicates, distorts, and even perverts that web of relationships.  Painfully often, the result is a breach of what Israel called hesed—faithful kindness in covenant, which God never fails to show to us, even to his own hurt.  The more hesed fails to appear, the less there is to go around and the less it's even expected.  A world without hesed is a world without justice, and a world without justice is a world without shalom.  And shalom—peace, wholeness, perfection—is what God created the world and humanity especially to exhibit as a reflection of its Creator.  In sum, whether any of us can accurately fix blame to individual actors in the world of college sports (we can't, God can), the shredding and shedding of relationships amid this tectonic shift tells us that something is profoundly wrong.

And that, ironically, is where I see moral good in college sports realignment.  Because despite my assertion that perception is reality, that's not entirely true.  There is always reality that persists underneath whether it is perceived or not.  Despite the perception a few years ago that investment in real estate was a sure thing and that home prices would never stop going up, there was the uncomfortable reality that not everyone pays back their loans all the time.  No web of relationships in this world—private or public, personal or business, between individuals or between institutions or between each—is as stable as it seems.  "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."  When one web unravels suddenly and shockingly, when there is the ever-present fear that all the others will unspin themselves, it is a disturbing reminder of the impermanence of this sin-infected age, a slap across our face.  Meanwhile, the only reality that does persist, constantly chafing against the Babels erected against it, is that God's kingdom is forever.  We only achieve the security and the stability we long for if we give up our hopes to find it in any "conference" but his.

"The God of heaven will raise up an everlasting kingdom that will not be destroyed and a kingdom that will not be left to another people.  It will break in pieces and bring about the demise of all the other kingdoms.  But it will stand forever" (Dan. 2:44).  Hallelujah.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Spectrum of Scripture Skeptics

I had a really good theological education from high school to college to seminary.  But one thing that was not so good about it was a tendency of my theologically conservative teachers to paint all theological liberals with the same brush.  A notable example was that during my college days the Jesus Seminar had recently wrapped up and was still big news.  For those unfamiliar with this, the Jesus Seminar was a colloquium of highly skeptical scholars who met together to assess the five Gospels (yes, five—they included the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas) and give their collective opinion of what in the Gospels genuinely happened or Jesus said, what definitely didn't, and a couple gradations in between.  (Their published report can be found here.)  Unfortunately, I was left with the mistaken impression that all theological liberals—and by extension all clergy (though not necessarily scholars) trained by theological liberals, and by further extension all members of churches pastored by those clergy—took the same skeptical, anti-supernatural approach to the Bible as the Jesus Seminar.

Now my impression wasn't entirely without merit.  Once I went to a Mainline church that acquaintances of mine occasionally attended.  The semi-retired parson started his sermon by reading Romans 3:27-30 (we're justified by faith, not works) and James 2:24-26 (we're justified by works, not faith alone) and concluding from this, which any halfway-decent seminary student could explain, that the Bible is a useless mass of contradictions.  His conclusion was that the Bible doesn't matter as much as "the Bible you are writing."  I know—gag.  (By the way, I'll give you the halfway-decent seminarian's answer another time.)

Nevertheless, that experience doesn't reflect all Liberal Protestantism.  My opinion was corrected in a remarkable class I took during seminary at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University called Religion, Politics, and Public Policy in the U.S.  The student makeup of the class was very religiously diverse, and my bigotry against Liberal Protestants was thoroughly challenged (particularly by the Liberal professor).  I found that it's as unfair to assume that all Liberals disbelieve that Jesus rose bodily from the dead as for Liberals to assume that all Evangelicals hate gays.  It's never good to take the extreme edge of a movement as a reliable sample of the bulk of that movement.

I learned that just as there are different ways that believers under the conservative umbrella regard Scripture, there are different ways that people in the liberal camp do too.  There is a broad and diverse spectrum from the Jesus Seminar on the left to those who believe that God audibly dictated the Scriptures word-for-word (in the King James Version), every sentence of which is to be interpreted literally (including, "The trees of the field will clap their hands" [Isa. 55:12]?) on the right.

I'm currently leading my church's youth group through a curriculum developed by a publishing house of a liberal Mainline Protestant denomination.  So far it's great stuff (I hope to review it on the blog at the end of the school year), but sometimes I cut or reframe lessons because I don't agree.  A couple of these have to do with the Bible, and I want to quote from them here as examples of a Liberal take on Scripture that is a lot more respectful than the Jesus Seminar but still raises some concerns.

A lesson that examines how the Bible is true contrasts biblical stories that enjoy significant scholarly support on extrabiblical grounds with those that don't.  Then it concludes,
For the very first people who heard these Bible stories, the difference between a factual historical account and a really powerful story didn't really exist.  For them a Bible story could be very true indeed whether or not anybody could prove that it actually happened.  The important thing for them was the meaning behind the story, that it demonstrated the character of God, the God they knew was active in their everyday lives and throughout history.  You see, their faith was never in the story at all or in the storyteller or even in the pages of a book.  Their faith was in God.
The lesson raises a good point that we easily overlook about the difference between the ancient writers and readers and ourselves, because the differences are significant.  The ancients tended to be less precise in their accounts than we would be.  They often don't have a high regard for putting things in chronological order but rather tell, flash back, jump ahead, and retell in confusing ways if it gets a point across better than retaining the actual order of events.  (Think of the last time you recounted a conversation you had with someone else for an example of this.)  They never intend to report "objective" history—every story they tell is to prove a point and is intentionally shaped according to that bias, so fact and opinion (which may in fact be a true opinion) are always blended.  And for all we know, some biblical authors may have intentionally employed fiction to get points across like novelists do today, but back in those days their works weren't published with "NOVEL" stamped on the back cover, so it's harder for us to tell which in the canon is which.

But to say that ancient readers didn't distinguish between fact and fiction at all or care about the difference is a big stretch.  The ancient Israelites and early Christians couldn't have faith in God detached from faith in at least some (I would say nearly all) stories about him.  In fact, that's exactly what sets the religion of the ancient Israelites and Christianity apart from every other religion we know of.  You could totally discredit the existence of Buddha and still have Buddhism.  You can't eliminate Jesus and have Christianity.  Mohammed's revelation was witnessed by no one but Mohammed and was detached from any historical events.  Part of God's revelation to Moses was witnessed by the entire Israelite nation, and all of it rested on the claim that Yahweh historically brought Israel out of Egypt, the land of slavery.

In fact, it was this very feature of the ancient Israelite religion and Christianity that won new adherents.  Rahab of Jericho shifted her allegiance to Yahweh and the people of Yahweh not because of a powerful story that expressed truth detached from fact but because all of Jericho had heard the report of what he had actually done in Egypt and across the Jordan.  Likewise, time and again the apostles insisted that "we are witnesses of these things" (e.g., Acts 3:15)—factual events that led to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus is Lord and Christ.  And in these cases people did indeed believe the story because they believed the storytellers were credible.  (How else would one come to believe it?)  Even if one were to argue that these stories in Joshua and Acts are themselves fictional (I don't), at the very least they reveal the point of view of the ancient Israelites and early Christians that their claims about God rest on historical fact, which sounds more "modern" than many today would like to admit.  (In fact, one could argue that biblical religion is where the modern obsession with fact sprang from.)

Another lesson in this curriculum examines how on occasion the Bible contradicts itself.  It doesn't examine foolish, so-called contradictions like between Paul and James that I mentioned previously but rather blunt, literal, factual details that anyone who looks at them can see don't line up.  For example, the lesson points out that in his resurrection account Matthew (also Mark) says that there was one angel; Luke (also John) says there were two.  (If you add Mark and John in the mix you run into other problems, like whether the angels appeared inside or outside the tomb and whether they were present before or after the women showed up, plus other weird issues that I think can in fact be reconciled.)

The lesson does a good job of pointing out this fact about the Bible that conservatives prefer to avoid, and it rightly points out that God's inspired Word was written to direct people to him, not to itself, that God is God, not the Bible.  However, it concludes by saying, "It doesn't matter if there was an earthquake at Jesus' tomb or whether the tomb was open before or after they got there or if there were guards or if it was an angel or two men or a tree that told Mary and Mary that Jesus was risen.  What's important about the story is that Jesus had risen."

Really?  Those recorded details, even conflicting details, aren't important?  That's a strange claim to make in light of a previous lesson in the curriculum that did such a great job of explaining how the Bible and its authors were inspired by God.  It's a strange claim given Jesus' own opinion of Scripture (in his day the Old Testament) that it couldn't be broken (John 10:35) and that neither the tiniest letter ("jot") nor serif that distinguished one letter from another ("tittle") would disappear from it until everything had been accomplished (Matt. 5:18).  It does matter whether there was one angel or two—not in the sense that the resurrection of Jesus rests on it, but because no matter how many angels were actually there, God wanted Matthew and Mark to say that there was one and he wanted Luke and John to say that there were two.  I can't tell you why in this particular case, because I don't know.  But I believe that it's intentional, because every word of Scripture is inspired by God, and everything that God does is intentional, and everything that God does matters.

Liberals who are relatively close to the center of Christian thought about Scripture have some important things to teach Evangelicals, because they are willing to look squarely at some things that we would rather ignore.  We owe it to the God who inspired Scripture to grapple with the relationship between truth and fact in his Word from the perspective of original authors and readers.  And we don't love the Bible as fervently as we claim to if we refuse to get close enough to it to see and acknowledge its relatively few direct, factual self-contradictions.  But examining these things gives us no excuse to conclude that occurrences that we think are unlikely are therefore fictitious or that the only thing that matters is the big picture while the details are irrelevant.  God is still the God of all Scripture—even the incredible, even the details.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

If Parkour Were a Central Tenet of Evangelicalism

You have to read this, because it's just plain silly.  Thank you, Ted Kluck.  (Note: Check out the comments on his post also, including the one by Yours Truly.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Christlikeness and the End

According to the Bible, what has to happen before Jesus comes back?  World War III?  The rebuilding of the Jewish Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands?  Jews flocking to faith in Jesus?  Global evangelization?  An earthquake big enough to detach California from the continental United States?  A one-world government?  Worldwide mass-imprisonment and -murder of Christians?

(Answers: Some yes, others no.)

How about the Church purified into mature Christlikeness?


Read this great article by Francis Frangipane.  No view of the end times is complete without the concept he discusses there.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Back to the Future?

What would you do when you saw an e-mail in your inbox with the subject, "FW: LET'S PUT CHURCH FIRST AGAIN"?

Please check out this great post by Zach Bartels at Dispatches from the Heart of the 42 Months.  Zach found this e-mail forward unusually thought-provoking, and I agree with him.  Fortunately though, Zach's response is even more thought-provoking.  It's a great reminder to me to be a bit less critical of others than I might be, but it's even better as a meditation on the "GODS" that "the Good Old DayS" can become.  Check it out.