Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Difference between Heaven and Hell (on earth)

The Holy Man and the Lord

A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day
and said, "Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like."
The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and
the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round

In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew which smelled
delicious and made the holy man's mouth water. The people sitting
round the table were thin and sickly.

They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with
very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it
possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful, but
because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the
spoons back into their mouths. The holy man shuddered at the sight of their
misery and suffering.

The Lord said, "You have seen Hell."

They went to the next room and opened the door. It was
exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with
the large pot of stew which made the holy man's mouth water.

The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons,
but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The holy man said, "I don't understand." "It is simple" said the Lord,
"it requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves."

Friday, September 29, 2006

Hoodoo the Voodoo like You do?

James Coleman is professor of African American literature at my alma mater UNC-Chapel Hill (go Tar Heels!). He is a thought provoking writer and speaker and one of his central subjects is the sacred and the spiritual in the African American community. His recent work "Faithful Vision" Treatments of the Sacred, Spiritual, and Supernatural in Twentieth Century African American Fiction (LSU University Press, 2006) is just out. One of the subjects he explores is the intertwining of African religion, specifically hoodoo, the African American manifestation of voodoo with Christianity. It makes for fascinating reading.

Coleman grew up in a devoutly Christian (Baptist) community in Virginia, but there were also elements of hoodoo in the culture. If you've ever seen the movie "Green Mile" you will know what I am talking about. The African American figure in that movie with supernatural gifts is a practioner of hoodoo. Like voodoo, hoodoo involves various sorts of superstitions about curses and the like. For example someone might bury something under your front doorstep to 'conjure you' and put a spell on you. Perhaps you will remember the old blues classic "I Put a Spell on You" which comes out of this cultural background.

Coleman points out that not only is Christianity prominent in African American novels, whereas it tends not to be in novels written by whites (John Updike would be one notable exception) which are in some cases highly critical of it (see the works of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin) and sometimes draw on it positively (see some of the poetry of Maya Angelou), African American novels also reflect on hoodoo as an influence in the black community. In quest to recover some of the African heritage lost by African Americans (see the Kwanza movement) hoodoo has become a hot topic again.

Coleman's own story as an African American academic is a poignant one. He reflects honestly on the effect of going to overwhelmingly white secular universities. His experience is that they are soul numbing if not soul stealing. I understand this concern, but it all depends on how vital your faith is. I found it stimulating and challenging but not really threatening. In fact, I found especially the English literature courses wonderfully broadening and helpful in making me a more whole person altogether and therefore a more Christian person.

As Coleman says, literary critics in general don't put much stock in either superstition or in organized religion either. Absorbing all of this criticism, Coleman found himself adrift, alienated from his own faith background. Here is a telling quote from him: "I think that academia tends not to take religion seriously. I grew up in a community where not only the black people, but the white people too, were really serious about religion. Even the drunks and the reprobates. And people still are. As I moved further into academia, I moved further and further away from that whole spiritual and religious focus."

And yet clearly it still haunts him, as his new book shows. His book reveals, among other things that African American writers, even those critical of Christianity tend to take the subject very seriously because it is such a crucial part of African American heritage and current life, whereas white academics and writers often critique without taking it seriously or having a personal stake in it from their past or present. There is a difference. Coleman seems to classify himself in what appears to be an ever growing group-- the estranged black intellectual.

Coleman recognizes that faith is the main thing that got slaves through slavery in the old south, and interestingly he does not see the religious influence waining on African Americans or other students today. He says "In talking to my students, who have all kinds of contemporary influences, including hip hop, I find that particularly African American students are if anything more religious right now that they've ever been....It doesn't seem to me that the world is becoming any less challenging for anybody. The challenges are just different. Religion is just the fundamental way that many African Americans address the challenge."

One of the fundamental questions that the story of James Coleman himself raises is the issue of social location, especially in a dominantly Eurocentric culture like ours. America may see itself as a melting pot but it is really more like a salad bowl, and the largest ingredient in the bowl is European white culture. For those of us who are white Christians who grew up in that cultural stream it may not even be apparent that there is a difference between western European culture and Christianity-- which after all in its Biblical form is a Middle Eastern religion which does not presuppose many things that we would call western values (e.g. you will have a hard time finding free market capitalism in the Bible).

To African Americans the alien elements in white culture which seem non-Christian are sometimes more obvious to them than they would be to Eurocentric folk like myself. It of course raises the whole question about the relationship of Christianity and American culture in general, and more particularly white culture. Why is it, that Christianity so often seems to be more of a surface phenomena or cultural veneer in white culture but a soul phenomena in black culture? That's a question worth pondering. In the meantime it would be good if we thought about the effect of white educational institutions on gifted blacks coming out of devoutly Christian contexts. The story of James Coleman is not an isolated one, but it is a disturbing one which requires reflection.

[I have excerpted the quoted material from Professor Coleman for this blog from a fine article in my alumni magazine by Margarite Nathe entitled "A Culture Shaped by Faith" Endeavors Vol. 23 No. 1 Fall 2006 issue p.27. The quotes from Dr. Coleman are taken verbatim from this article, but the perspective, point of view and reflections in this blog are my own]

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Pastors and Pornography-- A Dirty Little Secret

These are troubling times. Chaucer once queried "If gold rusts, what then will iron do?" and he was worred about ministers. So am I. I train them and deal with them day in and day out.

Its not just that pornography has over 400,000 of its own websites, the number one subject matter available on the Internet!!! Its not even that lots of people in the church struggle with pornography, and a large percentage of sexual misbehavior can be linked to pornography. In fact one survey says that senior citizens are the fastest growing porn market and increasingly women are viewing porn on the net. One statistic says it was up 33% among women just in the last year. These are serious problems in themselves. Those same stastics show that one in three women in the church have been sexually abused on their way to adulthood. All these are serious problems that deserve to be addressed,but what I am concerned about in this posting is pastors themselves and pornography.

One recent poll shows that 51% of all ministers admit to having at least occasionally looked at pornography on the net, and some 37% admit to having a problem with this matter. If you don't believe me, you should pay a little visit to the website We were fortunate enough to have Craig Gross (an appropriately named minister when it comes to this subject) visit our campus this week. He and a fellow youth minister run this website and have a bold ministry to people who struggle with pornography, even going to porn conventions, setting up a booth, handing out Bibles and talking to people about the help the Lord can bring into these situations. They have come up with some frisk software for computers that will alert you, and also your chosen accountability partners when pornography has shown up on your computer and been viewed. You can download it for free, and they provide other resources as well to cope with this pandemic. Frighteningly enough, there are not many churches talking about this whole problem, at least not in public. There are reasons for this.

One reason is that since many pastors themselves struggle with this issue, they also are frightened to talk about it to anyone, much less from the pulpit. Let's be clear, being a minister can be one of the most lonely professions on earth in various ways, not least because it is hard for a minister to have a private life of any kind. Since so many ministers are on duty 24/7 and have little time to nurture there own private and personal family relationships they are in some ways as susceptible if not more susceptible to the temptations of pornography. Ministers have emotional needs, and too often they are being met in immoral ways.

Secondly another reason this is not much being discussed in church is of course, one can get fired on the spot if you are a minister and have this problem. In other words, most ministers know there is 0 tolerance for this in the church, and hence the code of silence. Instead of leading to more accountability this leads to cover up. And accountability, not just to God but to other believers is crucial with this problem because it is a dengenerative disease and it is addictive-- very addictive. In fact a case can be made that it is more addictive than alcohol or tobacco.

Thirdly, pornography, even today is overwhelmingly a male problem, and overwhelmingly it is males who are pastors, unfortunately. Few have thought about the fact that this in turn means that we might well expect a higher incidence of pornography use by pastors than by the majority of other church members, for that majority tends to be female in almost every church! Yikes.

In my own tradition there is a fourth problem. Wesleyan Christians believe they can and should be 'going on to perfection' or at least making progress towards entire sanctification. I once counseled a Nazarene couple who could not admit to themselves they had marital problems of any sort because they were both 'entirely sanctified'. Alas, it was not so. Perhaps especially in my tradition coming clean about and from pornography is very difficult.

And then too the problems which are linked to pornography are equally huge-- child abuse, spouse abuse, adultery, promiscious sex of all sorts, sexual harassment of women, rape, sodomy, even beastiality and we could go on. Pornography simply feeds the lust for these sorts of activities, imprinting images on the brain that are often 'unforgettable' according to the psychology experts.

And of course times have changed. We used to have something of an honor and shame culture in America, but we do not much have that any more. There is no taboo in the general culture about any sort of adult porn, and even within the church there is much less shame associated with this activity than there used to be. Pornography destroys marriages and ministries right left and center. It is not simply a problem of theological liberals.

I remember being horrified when an elementary school teacher told me that she had had a class where she asked the children to be prepared to come in and tell the class about their heroes. One little girl came up before the class and began telling her fellow 4th graders about various people whose name rang no bells for the teacher. The teacher quickly Googled them. She discovered they were porn stars, and that the little girls parents had been watching XXX stuff together with their children as a family entertainment venture!!! Craig Gross today told us about a man he drove to the peniteniary in Boston recently. This man was a devout Christian and a person who worked with children and was in the process of adopting a child. Unfortunately he was caught with child pornography and is now serving five and half years in jail. He lost his marriage, his job, and he lost most of his Christian friends and support network. There are so many of these sorts of tragic tales out there.

What can be done about this problem vis a vis pastors? Here are several starter suggestions: 1) download the software from the above mentioned website; 2) find one or hopefully more accountability partners who will keep the matter confidential but will hold your feet to the fire. 3) Disclose to them the full extent of the problem. These partners should not primarily be members of your family; 4) there are organizational meetings like Pornographers Anonymous one can attend; 5) Remove anything from your house that triggers your use of pornography-- even if you have to do something drastic like getting rid of your TV or computer. "Tis better to cut off your hand and enter the kingdom maimed than......" 6) If necessary, have someone else control your discretionary income, and monitor your time. If you don't have the money and the time and the means, you have eliminated some of the major things that allow one to develop this addiction; 7) Nurture your Christian spiritual life by being so involved in deeds of piety and charity that you have no time for such nonsense. 8) Work on nurturing your healthy Christian relationships, especially healthy sexual relationships with your spouse. A lot of what sets someone down the road to pornography is an emotional sexual void or gap in one's life.

Pastors, consider this your wake up call. Jesus is watching to see how you will respond.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hilary Rodham Clinton more Dangerous than Lucifer?

Conservative Christian organizers are getting together again, led by James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame. They are worried. They sense a lot of disaffection at the grassroots level amongst those who voted Republican two years ago. Here is a link to the article by David Kilpatrick---

They should indeed be worried. The war in Iraq is going poorly, and many Christians are fed up with it. In fact, many Americans in general are fed up with it, as it seems to be getting a lot of our troops killed and accomplishing nothing much. They can't even seem to get the trial of Saddam Hussein over and done with, which in itself is ominous.

Interestingly, what no one was suggesting at the conservative Christian organizers meeting was that maybe, just maybe it was grossly inconsistent when it comes to being 'pro-life' to be campaigning so vigorously against abortion, while supporting the war in Iraq equally vigorously. Indeed, by some polls it appears Evangelical Christians are still some of the most staunch supporters of the war in Iraq. What's up with that?

The worries about the midterm elections however pale in comparison to the worries about the 2008 Presidential election. Leave it to Jerry Falwell to suggest that Hilary Clinton's candidacy in that election would raise more Evangelical opposition than Lucifer's!!! Wow. Who knew we were preparing to have a female anti-Christ? But that busts the Dispensational paradigms so something must be wrong here.

Lost in the shuffle was the fact that in Massachusetts, the only state that currently allows same sex marriages to have legal recognition, Catholic adoption agencies have stopped offering children for adoption altogether, because they would have to offer them to all comers, including same sex couples. What have we come to?

Also lost in the shuffle was one Christian organizer who suggested that a Christian group should use deceptive practices to take a poll for this fall's election in order to see which way the wind was blowing. This was quite properly condemned by others at the meeting, but it shows the level of anxiety about the upcoming election. It also shows how much Evangelicals are prepared to compromise their ethics to achieve certain political goals. What would Jesus say?

What was M.I.A. at this meeting was a recognition that war is just as destructive of life in general and Christian values in particular as abortion or same sex marriage. I suspect that until it dawns on these Christian organizers that they need to be articulating a more consistent and clear life ethic that not only affects personal Christian values but our larger witness to the whole world, that most non-Christians are not going to pay much attention to us. And demonizing Hilary Clinton or her husband isn't going to help. That's just Christians behaving badly. If this is the best moral leadership for the future that Evangelical figureheads can muster--- then heaven help us.

Not that I am hearing anything dramatically different or better from the Democratic side of the ledger. As the article says, for Christians it seems increasingly to be a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils.

Maybe we ought to consider doing something drastic-- like starting our own Christian political party that isn't beholden to any of the current powers that be, including the huge pac/lobbyist money that steers politics from behind the scenes. What a concept! Imagine Christians mostly being on the same page when it comes to what 'family values' are and what sort of direction we want to see our country go in. But alas this is almost as much of a fairy tale as some of the recent Dispensational pronouncements about the end of the world.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Madonna Crucified; Veggie Tales Maimed

O.K. let me see if I understand this.

NBC has standards. It will broadcast 'universal' religious values, but nothing sectarian, nothing that supports or promotes a particular denomination or religion. (And what precisely would those values be?) On this basis, NBC is busily editing and then broadcasting Veggie Tales, perhaps one of the most creative Christian children's shows in years. One of the original creators and producers of the show, Phil Vischer has publicly protested the denuding of Veggie Tales of some of its more overt Christian material-- to no avail. Here is the link from the NY Times so you can read all about it.

And then there is Madonna. She has been busily touring the world and producing all sorts of protests by Christians all over the place for a particular scene in her performance in which mounts a cross and sings from the cross.

Of course Madonna herself thinks Jesus would have no problem with this. The article says "Madonna also issued a statement on Thursday saying that the performance was “neither anti-Christian, sacrilegious or blasphemous.” “Rather,” it went on to say, “it is my plea to the audience to encourage mankind to help one another and see the world as a unified whole. I believe in my heart that if Jesus were alive today, he would be doing the same thing.”

NBC still hasn 't decided whether to air this part of the concert, which it will be airing at least some of during November sweeps week. No problem and no debate about editing Veggie Tales, but they're still debating about that crucifixion scene involving Madonna.

Now I know a lot of very conservative Christians who would love to see Madonna crucified, and if it was on national TV, all the better, but let's just imagine the debate in the NBC editing room for a moment:

Editor One:
" We'll you have to admit the crucifixion scene is known world wide, and there are millions who find religious value in it. I suppose that makes it a universal religious value."

Editor Two:

"Yeah, and Madonna has personally told us it passed the WWJD test! That ought to count for something."

Editor One:

"On the other hand, a cross is a symbol of Christianity, which is a particular religion, I'm thinking we had better edit this scene out of the concert."

Editor Two:

"Yeah but, Madonna on the cross is not the same as Jesus on the cross, and there is no religion that believes Madonna died for our sins--- is there??? I'm just asking..."

Editor One:

"O.K. you've got a point there. But I'm holding firm on that Veggie Tales decision. We can't be having Christianity leaking into our children's programming."

Editor Two:

"Certainly not!"

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Worship of the Christian Emperor Constantine

In the wake of the 'revisionist history' nonsense about Constantine being the great establisher of Christian orthodoxy and suppressor of heterodoxy (which it is a stretch to even call a half truth), it is refreshing to read the works of scholars who actually know the primary sources when it comes to Constantine.

One such person is Edwin Judge, the fine social historian, now retired from MacQuarrie University in Sydney Austrailia. I have been working through the papyri of the early Christian era with the help of "New Documents which Illustrate Early Christianity" These volumes are invaluable, and Judge was a regularly contributor to them in the early days of the serial (which now has thankfully been picked up and published by Eerdmans).

The inscription I am interested in was found not in the east (e.g. Asia Minor), where Emperors were more frequently worshipped, but in Umbria no less in Italy itself. Its date is 336 A.D. in the very midst of Constantine's reign and well after he declared his allegiance to Christianity, at least nominally, and removed the Christian faith from the list of 'superstitio' ending the Christian persecutions which had reaced new heights under Diocletian. The inscription in question reads "The council of Plestia to the deified Flavius Valerius Constantinus Augustus".

Judge (New Docs II, p. 192) commenting says that this inscription "pinpoints the fact that the establishment of Christendom had by no means done away with the Imperial cult; rather it had clarified some of its ambiguities. The Caesars had mostly insisted on their own humanity, at the same time as they accepted or encouraged the cult as an expression of gratitude and loyalty....The conversion of Constantine helped define the difference [between Emperors who made explicit claims to deity like Gaius, and Emperors like Constantine who saw it as a sort of hyperbolic loyalty statement]. He promoted his own family's temple and cult 'provided it is not polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition.' But as one chosen by God he could both revive traditional disclaimers of divinity and anticipate his own apotheosis in the form of a personal reception into heaven at death.... Paradoxically the Christianization of the [Emperor] cult may actually have open the way for people seriously to pray to their rulers for the first time. Their divine calling and sanctity ranked them with the saints in this respect....."

Thus far Edwin Judge. I would add that when we closely examine the historical records about Constantine, we discover that he continued to be a patron of various pagan priests and cults until his death. Here is an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia (online) on Constantine:

"In the dedication of Constantinople in 330 a ceremonial half pagan, half Christian was used. The chariot of the sun-god was set in the market-place, and over its head was placed the Cross of Christ, while the Kyrie Eleison was sung. Shortly before his death Constantine confirmed the privileges of the priests of the ancient gods. Many other actions of his have also the appearance of half-measures, as if he himself had wavered and had always held in reality to some form of syncretistic religion. Thus he commanded the heathen troops to make use of a prayer in which any monotheist could join, and which ran thus: "We acknowledge thee alone as god and king, we call upon thee as our helper. From thee have we received the victory, by thee have we overcome the foe. To thee we owe that good which we have received up to now, from thee do we hope for it in the future. To thee we offer our entreaties and implore thee that thou wilt preserve to us our emperor Constantine and his god-fearing sons for many years uninjured and victorious." The emperor went at least one step further when he withdrew his statue from the pagan temples, forbade the repair of temples that had fallen into decay, and suppressed offensive forms of worship. But these measures did not go beyond the syncretistic tendency which Constantine had shown for a long time. Yet he must have perceived more and more clearly that syncretism was impossible."

What this all makes abundantly clear is that while Constantine's conversion may have been real, nonetheless he was a shrewd politician who did not simply repudiate the practices of Rome's past, but rather operated in a pluralistic fashion. The manner in which he helped Christianity was by taking it off the list of superstitions or banned religions. He certainly did not impose orthodoxy on the Empire or draw and quarter all the Gnostics nor eliminate their texts. Sorry Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Marvin Meyer. It will not do to paint Constantine as the watershed, or big bad guy who supressed your texts of interest.

Pope's Protest Against Islamic Violence produces Violence

Pope Benedict is an intelligent man. As the previous guardian of doctrine for the Catholic Church he is well aware of the intellectual and political ebb and flow of world religions of various sorts. And now of course we have his apology for hurting Moslem's feelings, which is actually in itself an historic thing--- Pope's do not apologize, never have, which of course seems odd for someone who is the Vicar of Christ, and is supposed to be the paradigm of Christ-like behavior. Note in the article below however that the Pope did not per se apologize for the content of his speech! It was fascinating as well to see an American Moslem woman who calls herself a feminist speak-out on the 'Free Speech' segment of CBS Evening News earlier this week saying the Pope had every right to his opinion on these matters, and was just seeking dialogue to promote more understanding between world religions, which of course is a good thing. I am wondering how Katie Couric found one of the two remaining Moslem feminists in the world to make such a statement (just kidding Katie).

The following article was sent to me by a friend, and it comes from a private subscriber's newsletter. Since there is full attribution of authorship, I am posting it here, as it is a good jumping off point for a discussion of what in the world the Pope was up to in his lecture considered the tense state of affairs in the world in general and in Europe and America in particular these days over militant Islamic fundamentalism. I do find it highly ironic that some Moslems found it right to protest the Pope's remarks about jihad with violence, which would just seem to prove his point. Read the article below and see what you think.


Faith, Reason and Politics: Parsing the Pope's Remarks
By George Friedman

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on "Faith, Reason and the University" at the University of Regensburg. In his discussion (full text available on the [ ]Vatican Web site) the pope appeared to be trying to define a course between dogmatic faith and cultural relativism -- making his personal contribution to the old debate about faith and reason. In the course of the lecture, he made reference to a "part of the dialogue carried on -- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara -- by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both."

Benedict went on to say -- and it is important to read a long passage to understand his point -- that:

"In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Sura 2,256 reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.' According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels,' he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. 'God,' he says, 'is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats ... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death ...'

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: 'For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent.'"

The reaction of the Muslim world -- outrage -- came swift and sharp over the passage citing Manuel II: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Obviously, this passage is a quote from a previous text -- but equally obviously, the pope was making a critical point that has little to do with this passage.

The essence of this passage is about forced conversion. It begins by pointing out that Mohammed spoke of faith without compulsion when he lacked political power, but that when he became strong, his perspective changed. Benedict goes on to make the argument that violent conversion -- from the standpoint of a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, and therefore shaped by the priority of reason -- is unacceptable. For someone who believes that God is absolutely transcendent and beyond reason, the argument goes, it is acceptable.

Clearly, Benedict knows that Christians also practiced forced conversion in their history. He also knows that the Aristotelian tendency is not unique to Christianity. In fact, that same tendency exists in the Muslim tradition, through thinkers such as al-Farabi or Avicenna. These stand in relation to Islam as Thomas Aquinas does to Christianity or Maimonides to Judaism. And all three religions struggle not only with the problem of God versus science, but with the more complex and interesting tripolar relationship of religion as revelation, reason and dogmatism. There is always that scriptural scholar, the philosopher troubled by faith and the local clergyman who claims to speak for God personally.

Benedict's thoughtful discussion of this problem needs to be considered. Also to be considered is why the pope chose to throw a hand grenade into a powder keg, and why he chose to do it at this moment in history. The other discussion might well be more worthy of the ages, but this question -- what did Benedict do, and why did he do it -- is of more immediate concern, for he could have no doubt what the response, in today's politically charged environment, was going to be.

A Deliberate Move

Let's begin with the obvious: Benedict's words were purposely chosen. The quotation of Manuel II was not a one-liner, accidentally blurted out. The pope was giving a prepared lecture that he may have written himself -- and if it was written for him, it was one that he carefully read. Moreover, each of the pope's public utterances are thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and there is no question that anyone who read this speech before it was delivered would recognize the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate. There is not one war going on in the world today, but a series of wars, some of them placing Catholics at risk.

It is true that Benedict was making reference to an obscure text, but that makes the remark all the more striking; even the pope had to work hard to come up with this dialogue. There are many other fine examples of the problem of reason and faith that he could have drawn from that did not involve Muslims, let alone one involving such an incendiary quote. But he chose this citation and, contrary to some media reports, it was not a short passage in the speech. It was about 15 percent of the full text and was the entry point to the rest of the lecture. Thus, this was a deliberate choice, not a slip of the tongue.

As a deliberate choice, the effect of these remarks could be anticipated. Even apart from the particular phrase, the text of the speech is a criticism of the practice of conversion by violence, with a particular emphasis on Islam. Clearly, the pope intended to make the point that Islam is currently engaged in violence on behalf of religion, and that it is driven by a view of God that engenders such belief. Given Muslims' protests (including some violent reactions) over [ ]cartoons that were printed in a Danish newspaper, the pope and his advisers certainly must have been aware that the Muslim world would go ballistic over this. Benedict said what he said intentionally, and he was aware of the consequences. Subsequently, he has not apologized for what he said -- only for any offense he might have caused. He has not retracted his statement.

So, why this, and why now?

Political Readings

Consider the fact that the pope is not only a scholar but a politician -- and a good one, or he wouldn't have become the pope. He is not only a head of state, but the head of a global church with a billion members. The church is no stranger to geopolitics. Muslims claim that they brought down communism in Afghanistan. That may be true, but there certainly is something to be said also for the efforts of the Catholic Church, which helped to undermine the communism in Poland and to break the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe. Popes know how to play power politics.

Thus, there are at least two ways to view Benedict's speech politically.

One view derives from the fact that the pope is watching the U.S.-jihadist war. He can see it is going badly for the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He witnessed the recent success of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas' political victory among the Palestinians. Islamists may not have the fundamental strength to threaten the West at this point, but they are certainly on a roll. Also, it should be remembered that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was clearly not happy about the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, but it does not follow that his successor is eager to see a U.S. defeat there.

The statement that Benedict made certainly did not hurt U.S. President George W. Bush in American politics. Bush has been trying to portray the war against Islamist militants as a clash of civilizations, one that will last for generations and will determine the future of mankind. Benedict, whether he accepts Bush's view or not, offered an intellectual foundation for Bush's position. He drew a sharp distinction between Islam and Christianity and then tied Christianity to rationality -- a move to overcome the tension between religion and science in the West. But he did not include Islam in that matrix. Given that there is a war on and that the pope recognizes Bush is on the defensive, not only in the war but also in domestic American politics, Benedict very likely weighed the impact of his words on the scale of war and U.S. politics. What he said certainly could be read as words of comfort for Bush. We cannot read Benedict's mind on this, of course, but he seemed to provide some backing for Bush's position.

It is not entirely clear that Pope Benedict intended an intellectual intervention in the war. The church obviously did not support the invasion of Iraq, having criticized it at the time. On the other hand, it would not be in the church's interests to see the United States simply routed. The Catholic Church has substantial membership throughout the region, and a wave of Islamist self-confidence could put those members and the church at risk. From the Vatican's perspective, the ideal outcome of the war would be for the United States to succeed -- or at least not fail -- but for the church to remain free to criticize Washington's policies and to serve as conciliator and peacemaker. Given the events of the past months, Benedict may have felt the need for a relatively gentle intervention -- in a way that warned the Muslim world that the church's willingness to endure vilification as a Crusader has its limits, and that he is prepared, at least rhetorically, to strike back. Again, we cannot read his mind, but neither can we believe that he was oblivious to events in the region and that, in making his remarks, he was simply engaged in an academic exercise.

This perspective would explain the timing of the pope's statement, but the general thrust of his remarks has more to do with Europe.

There is an intensifying [ ]tension in Europe over the powerful wave of Muslim immigration. Frictions are high on both sides. Europeans fear that the Muslim immigrants will overwhelm their native culture or form an unassimilated and destabilizing mass. Muslims feel unwelcome, and some extreme groups have threatened to work for the conversion of Europe. In general, the Vatican's position has ranged from quiet to calls for tolerance. As a result, the Vatican was becoming increasingly estranged from the church body -- particularly working and middle-class Catholics -- and its fears.

As has been established, the pope knew that his remarks at Regensburg would come under heavy criticism from Muslims. He also knew that this criticism would continue despite any gestures of contrition. Thus, with his remarks, he moved toward closer alignment with those who are uneasy about Europe's Muslim community -- without adopting their own, more extreme, sentiments. That move increases his political strength among these groups and could cause them to rally around the church. At the same time, the pope has not locked himself into any particular position. And he has delivered his own warning to Europe's Muslims about the limits of tolerance.

It is obvious that Benedict delivered a well-thought-out statement. It is also obvious that the Vatican had no illusions as to how the Muslim world would respond. The statement contained a verbal blast, crafted in a way that allowed Benedict to maintain plausible deniability. Indeed, the pope already has taken the exit, noting that these were not his thoughts but those of another scholar. The pope and his staff were certainly aware that this would make no difference in the grand scheme of things, save for giving Benedict the means for distancing himself from the statement when the inevitable backlash occurred. Indeed, the anger in the Muslim world remained intense, and there also have been emerging pockets of anger among Catholics over the Muslim world's reaction to the pope, considering the history of Islamic attacks against Christianity. Because he reads the newspapers -- not to mention the fact that the Vatican maintains a highly capable intelligence service of its own -- Benedict also had to have known how the war was going, and that his statement likely would aid Bush politically, at least indirectly. Finally, he would be aware of the political dynamics in Europe and that the statement would strengthen his position with the church's base there.

The question is how far Benedict is going to go with this. His predecessor took on the Soviet Union and then, after the collapse of communism, started sniping at the United States over its materialism and foreign policy. Benedict may have decided that the time has come to throw the weight of the church against radical Islamists. In fact, there is a logic here: If the Muslims reject Benedict's statement, they have to acknowledge the rationalist aspects of Islam. The burden is on the Ummah to lift the religion out of the hands of radicals and extremist scholars by demonstrating that Muslims can adhere to reason.

From an intellectual and political standpoint, therefore, Benedict's statement was an elegant move. He has strengthened his political base and perhaps legitimized a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric in the Muslim world. And he has done it with superb misdirection. His options are open: He now can move away from the statement and let nature take its course, repudiate it and challenge Muslim leaders to do the same with regard to anti-Catholic statements or extend and expand the criticism of Islam that was implicit in the dialogue.

The pope has thrown a hand grenade and is now observing the response. We are assuming that he knew what he was doing; in fact, we find it impossible to imagine that he did not. He is too careful not to have known. Therefore, he must have anticipated the response and planned his partial retreat.

It will be interesting to see if he has a next move. The answer to that may be something he doesn't know himself yet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

'Just in Time'-- 'God Wants You Wealthy'

The cover photo in the most recent issue of Time Magazine says it all. It shows a Rolls Royce, only instead of the normal hood ornament there is a cross. What would Jesus say? David Van Bema's and Jeff Chu's article is absolutely worth the read. It is one of his best, and it tries hard to be balanced and fair, although the general tenor of the article makes reasonably clear that Van Bema thinks 'Prosperity Lite' is also theology lite, whether it comes from Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer or others. Here is the link,9171,1533448,00.html.

Since I am quoted in there twice, and my name is not taken in vain, it may be worth a few further remarks.

The health and wealth Gospel is a profoundly American Gospel, especially connected to blue collar Protestant religion, that thrives on the rags to riches mythology of our culture in general. The message is one form of the general message of 'success' or 'progress' and hence prosperity. It really does not preach well in impoverished countries like Zimbabwe where I go to teach and preach from time to time. Why not? Because there are not the social networks or mechanisms to even create the possibility of wealth. If your whole nation's economy is on tilt, your personal one is likely to be the same.

The Osteen or Dollar or Meyer Gospel plays well in places where there is a glimmer of hope of improving one's lot in life, coupled with considerable inequities between the uber-wealthy and the poor. If one see people getting rich quick (or apparently so) then it is natural to think--- "Hey, it could happen to me. This is America, the land of 'opportunity'."

But wait a minute. If it was God's plan and desire for his people in general to be wealthy, why wasn't Jesus himself wealthy? Why did he say "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" and why did he teach us to pray only for necessities like 'daily bread'? Why exactly is the first beatitude in Luke 6.20-21 "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God." And then the second one is "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied." Jesus, as it turns out, couldn't even pay for his own funeral. He was buried by a fringe disciple who had space in the family tomb. Did Jesus just miss out on the blessing during his earthly life? Maybe he didn't have enough faith??? Hmmmm.

Why exactly was it that the apostle Paul had to work his fingers to the bone making tents (cf. 1 Thess. 2.9 for example) while doing his missionary work? The disparity between the way Paul lived and describes his own life, when compared to the likes of Osteen Dollar or others is striking-- "I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, been exposed to death again and again...Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea...I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked." (2 Cor. 11. 23-27).

Not only so, but Paul in this same 2 Corinthians letter says plainly that he asked God to take a source of suffering away from him, a stake in the flesh, and God said NO! (2 Cor. 12.7-9). Paul is of course engaged in mock boasting, and ridiculing those who make the facile assumption that if they are living large it must be God's blessing and will for their lives!!! Did Paul just not get the memo about the prosperity and health God had in mind for him and about the Gospel of conspicuous consumption?

There are in other words, so many problems with the prosperity Gospel just from examining the teaching and lives of Jesus and Paul, that we don't even need to get into James and other diatribes on the dangers of wealth. So perhaps its about time we had a list of ten good reasons why God doesn't want you wealthy!!


1) Wealth is a false god. As Jesus said. You cannot serve both God and Mammon. Each involve all consuming loyalities and allegiance. A person should never measure themselves, or the blessing of God on their lives by the abundance of their possessions.

2) We are all fallen human beings with an infinite capacity to rationalize our behavior, including especially our spending behavior. Having wealth leads to rationalizing like that of Joel Osteen, who in the Time article says "well its all relative isn't it?" In fact its not relative-- its absolute. And its a case of our taking care of our poor relatives, neighbors, even strangers, and enemies. This is what it means to love neighbor and even enemy as ourselves. The Bible does not say love your neighbor ten percent as much as you love yourself!

3) As the psalmist says--- "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness there of." It follows from this that we are only stewards, not owners of any property! This being the case we have to justify keeping things, not giving them away. Or as John Wesley put it--- other people's necessities, especially the poor, should be taken care of before we even think about our luxuries.

4) Greed is a serious sin, and the desire for wealth often leads to greed. Try reading the story of Silas Marner, or the even sadder story of King Midas.

5) Having wealth gives the false impression that one can secure one's own life. One then begins to trust in one's wealth as a safety net, rather than in God. "Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart".

6) "The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil." The desire to get rich, especially the desire to get rich quick, at whatever cost, often causes the abandonment of various essential Christian virtues such as HONESTY, loyalty, self-sacrificial love for example. The question is--- can you handle wealth? Many Christians cannot handle the temptations of wealth. They compromise their trust in God, and so their very faith, justifying an accelerated rate of conspicuous consumption.

7) The desire to be wealthy is a form of narcissism. It is essentially very self-centered, self-seeking behavior. And the most primal sin of all is 'the heart turned in upon itself.'

8) The Bible is very clear that God will hold us accountable for what we do, with what we have in this life. To whom more is given, more is required. See the parable of the talents. Conspicuous consumption in essence results in taking food out of the mouths of the starving, taking dollars away from missionary work, taking resources away from worthy charities. In other words, sins of omission are just as serious as sins of commission. Its also what you are not doing with your resources that God will hold you accountable for. See for example the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Lk. 16. But even more devastating is the fact that Jesus takes it as a personal affront if we do not visit those in prison, feeed the hungry, and care for the sick and needy. Jesus identifies with the poor and their plight (see Mt. 25.34-40). And just because you may do this once and a while on a mission trip does not give you permission to avoid living a simple life style most of the time.

9) Wealth does not very often make you happy. I used to live in the furniture capital of America-- High Point N.C. Some of those furniture millionares were some of the most miserable, frightened, paranoid people I have ever met. Here's a clue. The more you have-- the more you have to lose, and the more things you fear losing in life when it comes to property. Living in a simple manner obviates these problems altogether.

10) Jesus extols the poor not the rich! Why would Jesus extol the widow who gave her whole 'living' into the temple treasury (Mk. 12.41-44) if Jesus had really believed the prosperity Gospel? Shouldn't he have chided this poor woman for making herself even more indigent and not going for happiness and the gusto in life? Didn't Jesus say he came that we might have an abundant life? Here's a clue-- the abundant life has nothing to do with abundant possessions. It has to do with having the gift of everlasting life, and having God's loving presence in your midst forever.

There is more, but this is enough for now. Read Gordon Fee's The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel (available on the Regent College in Vancouver website).

Sunday, September 10, 2006

"Hollywoodland"-- Magic!

It is one of the great ironies of modern American life that Superman died twice under tragic circumstances, showing that the man of steel, was somewhat less than that. I am of course referring to the sad story of George Reeves, and the equally sad story of Christopher Reeve, one who played Superman on TV in the 50s setting the standard and model for all subsequent portrayals, and one who portrayed him effectively and affectively on film much more recently. The former I grew up with as a child, and latter I watched as an adult. This is a story that I care about.

Focus Features is known for taking some risks and giving new directors, new writers, new actors a chance, but the film "Hollywoodland" is hardly a calculated risk with the cast it has-- Oscar winning Adrien Brody, a radiant Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Ben Affleck and numerous others. I take back everything I said in the past about Affleck's acting abilities. This movie, in which he plays George Reeves, shows that he can really act--- who knew? But Brody is the real star of this movie as he plays the detective hired by George Reeves mother to find out the truth about what happened to him. The problem is-- this detective does not know when to quit, and it lands him in dangerous waters. The seamy underbelly of Hollywood is exposed, and it is not a pretty picture.

The movie is goregeously filmed as a period piece, and its soundtrack is superbly brooding and jazzy in tone, complete with a Coltrane number to really set the mood. Brody has never looked so trouble and brooding, and Lane is just as beautiful as a brunette as she was in her Italian adventure in Tuscany and much earlier as a blond in 'Lonesome Dove'. Bob Hoskins as studio mogul Eddie Mannix is perfectly cast as the cynical, money-grubbing powerful type of head of a studio. Of course this movie is a murder mystery-- did Reeves, as the police report said, commit suicide (as his father had before him)? Was he killed by Mannix because he was the lover of Mannix's wife? Did Mrs. Mannix kill him because he got engaged to another woman? It was then, and is still now, a mystery.

George Reeves was an Illni who went west, and began his acting career with some promise-- he had a boy's part in "Gone with the Wind". Eventually he did some B films like Sir Gallahad because he was indeed tall and handsome. But when a low budget filmmaker of TV shows cast him in Superman, he was an almost overnight sensation. Ah the sweet smell of success. But unfortunately such notoriety comes at a price, and the price in Hollywood was that one becomes so identified with a particular role that one can never do something much different than that role-- the public won't accept it. Such was the story of Reeves. He got a part in "From Here to Eternity" opposite Burt Lancaster, but in the screenings all the people could talk about was --'What is Superman doing playing an ordinary Joe?'

Reeves aspired to be a serious actor, but he was never really much given the chance, and frankly it does not appear that he had the sort of talent that is exhibited in this very compelling drama. The movie raises some interesting and powerful questions and here is one of them-- Suppose you have a dream of doing something, but then you discover you are not good enough to actually do it well? Of course there are plenty of people, full of hubris who think they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, when in fact they can't. They are self-deceived. What if you can appear to be Superman in an image is everything culture, but you aren't as advertised? What if you're really just Clark Kent? Then there are those who think that 'the man has been holding them down' and they could have been a contender but just were never given a chance. This of course happens at times as well.

But what of the person who is honest with herself or himself? What happens when you have a reality check, look yourself in the mirror, and discover you are not all you'd hoped you would be, because you simply haven't been blessed with the talent to do what you so badly would like to do? One might almost say-- blessed are those who know their limitations. And yet this blessing can also be a curse, because while you may be right that you can't do A, this doesn't not mean you can't do anything well. Maybe you've just missed your calling in life. This movie raises these sorts of profound introspective questions, and for this alone it would be worth watching. This movie is bound to get some Oscar nominations, and it certainly does not portray Hollywood in any sort of favorable light. It appears to be a cutthroat place which chews up naive but ambitious people.

But how in the end should Christians view the matter of self-assessment and talent? Is there another dimension to things that this film entirely misses? My answer to this is yes. By the grace of God people can change. By the grace of God they can become bigger, better persons than they were before. By the grace of God they can be given new gifts, spiritual and personal gifts. They can learn to hone some hidden talents or develop a new one as well.

And there is something about trusting and having confidence in God that helps one both know one's limits and yet have confidence that many things are possible in Christ. Confidence in Christ never leads to cockiness, because one knows 'from whence one's help has come'. Yes, there is another dimension to life this movie entirely misses-- that by God's grace we can even become Christ-like, and that in the end is far more than being like Superman. It has been said-- We become what we admire. So whom do we admire? I hope it is not Superman. I hope it is the real superman--- the Son of Man.

P.S. There is a difference between being His fan or admirer from afar, and being His disciple.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Origen, and the Nature of God's Sovereignty

Sometimes it is assumed by Evangelicals that Augustine represents the views of the majority of the Church Fathers when it comes to the issue of divine determinism of all things vs. human beings having some choice about their own fate and destiny. Historically speaking this is not so.

Indeed, Augustine who so profoundly influenced both Luther and Calvin represents only one opinion amongst the Church Fathers on this matter, and so far as I can tell it is a minority opinion. I mention this because it is often assumed or argued that an Augustinian reading of terms like election, foreknowledge, and the like in the NT was either the only way those ideas (especially Pauline ones) were read in church history, or are even the only valid way those terms were and should be understood. This is simply false. It is of no little importance that prior to Augustine, and during the time of the dominance of the Greek Fathers, for whom the Greek NT was still a living language, the Augustinian approach is not how such ideas were understood by the two foremost exegetes of the third-sixth centuries A.D.-- Origen and Chrysostom. Here is a brief excerpt from one of Origen's Commentaries, in which he discusses this mattter.

. “God does not tyrannize but rules, and when he rules, he does not coerce but encourages and he wishes that those under him yield themselves willingly to his direction so that the good of someone may not be according to compulsion but according to his free will. This is what Paul with understanding was saying to Philemon in the letter to Philemon... Thus the God of the universe hypothetically might have produced a supposed good in us so that we give alms from ‘compulsion’ and we would be temperate from ‘compulsion’ but he has not wished to do so.” (Hom. On Jer 20.2). Let's be clear about what Origen is saying. He is not just saying that humans do not feel compulsed to do X or Y. He is saying that they are not predetermined to do X or Y by God.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Riding the 'Trane

A very long time ago, 80 years, an African American was born in Hamlet North Carolina, but he was raised and learned the joy of music in High Point N.C., my home town. That town, sadly has never done enough to honor him and his remarkable legacy, but I want to pay tribute to him today as we approach the anniversary of his birth. His name is John Coltrane, the great jazz saxaphone player of all time, hands down. If you ask the great players of today like Michael Brecker or Branford Marsalis or James Carter who has influenced them the most, there is no question who they will mention. Most modern saxaphonists regularly do hommages to Coltrane by playing one or more of his famous numbers in their concerts. I remember well the time Michael Brecker came to town and played Coltrane's love song for his first wife--- Naima. It was magical. Though High Point will probably not be celebrating Coltrane's legacy this year, this week begins a substantial tribute to this musical giant courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Here is a somewhat whimiscal primer on what is coming up in the next few days. I wish I could be there.

Coltrane grew up in High Point and learned to play the clarinet first, playing in the William Penn Marching Band in high school. He was raised by devout Baptist relatives (one a minister), and this was to affect his writing and playing for years to come. He has always been seen as the most spiritual of all the players. In many of his songs, especially the album length classic A Love Supreme, he explores the character of God and his relationship with God. It is not a surprise to me that there is a church in San Francisco which has a hymn book full of tunes written by Coltrane! Jazz Gospel anyone??

John grew up in turbulent times in the South and came to musical prominence in the late 50s and early 60s when be bop was king. He moved from High Point to Philadelphia to have more freedom to play and develop his art, and eventually came to the attention of people like Dizzy Gillespie. He was fortunate enough to be picked by Miles Davis to be in his band for the recording "Kind of Blue" which is the all time best selling jazz album, and still is a classic. The synergy between the young Coltrane, Miles Davis just reaching the top of his form, and the incredibly brilliant pianist Bill Evans is very hard to match. Indeed some would say there has never been a better jazz album. It is a great shame these three did not make much more music together.

Coltrane was a perfectionist, always working on his craft, and besides being a master of every type of saxaphone there is (soprano, tenor, alto etc.) he was always striving for new sounds-- for example we hear him playing two notes at once on several pieces, or a note and its harmonic. No one else could do this, and it wasn't because he had a forked tongue! Trane was a master of every musical form he played-- blues, be bop, ballads, show tunes, and spirituals. He would frequently mix and match them on one album. He was famous for his unmatchable speed, which caused one critic who heard him to call Coltrane's sound--- 'sheets of sound' cascading over the audience. Oddly enough, his most popular tunes were not his own creations but his improvs of show tunes or old ballads like My Favorite Things, or Greensleeves.

Jazz, of course, at it essence involves musical improvisation and Coltrane stretched the limits of its potential again and again. Jazz of course, like Gospel and blues, became the vehicle for African Americans and others to protest, plead, pray, and play about their troubles. It is to this day, the only indigenous form of American music. Yes, even country music goes back to folk music in other lands. But jazz is an American original, and it is an odd irony that it is far more popular in Europe and the Orient than it is here in the U.S. where jazz records provide less than 5% of all record sales in an average year. Yet it is a measure of its creative life that it has been able to spawn a more popular spin off in our own era--- so-called smooth jazz, which is basically melodic pop of various sorts with some jazz chops and riffs.

Coltrane was in fact born and raised in an epicenter of good blues, jazz, Gospel, namely in North Carolina. Apart from New Orleans, there is no other place in the South that has produced so many giants. For example, Theolonius Monk, John Coltrane, Nina Simone and we could go on, all come from North Carolina and learned their music there. And of course they came forth from the experience of black culture in those places. Listen sometime to Coltrane's classic tune "Alabama" which he wrote in protest of the burning down of a black Baptist church in that state during the civil rights turmoil of the 60s.

Coltrane unfortunately was to leave us much too soon, dying in 1967 of liver cancer when he was bearly in his 40s. But he left us an enormous legacy. In my study in my house I have a jazz tree-- its a little spinning carousel which has about 40 Coltrane CDs on it. I am so very grateful he was so often recorded between the early 50s and 1967.

For those wanting to break into the spiritual and moving music of Coltrane I would recommend starting with 'Kind of Blue" and then trying the best selling of Coltrane's solo albums "Ballads" now wonderfully remixed and digitized. There are a series of important albums which show his range, from his only Blue Note record Blue Train, to Coltrane's Sound, to Giant Steps, to A Love Supreme, and many more. The Greatest Hits collections of which there are many are useful points of entry as well-- try The Best of John Coltrane (Universal, a two CD set). Jazz is not fast food throw music. It requires concentrated listening, and like a stew slowly cooking it needs to be given time to marinate in order to become edible, and then tasty, and then finally something you are addicted to-- one of your 'Favorite Things'. I personally love a lot of the CDs Trane recorded on Prestige (his earlier stuff) and also on Impulse (his later stuff), but I myself have not been able to really get into his very late stuff from Stellar Regions on. It is simply too free form a jazz for me. So my advice is stick to the earlier and middle period stuff, at least for a while.

Here's to you John Coltrane. Thank you for nourishing my soul for a long time, and for many years to come. "Johnny we hardly knew ye" and you left us too soon. But we still see your footprints, and continue to follow in your path.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Thus Spake Zarathustra--- the Dying Out of a Monotheistic Religion

There is a very interesting article in this morning's N.Y. Times which talks about the dwindling numbers of members of the religion known as Zoroastrianism (Zoroaster being the Greek version of the name Zarathustra). This is a religion which may go back almost a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, and originated in Persia, modern day Iran, but its devotees largely immigrated to Bombay (Mumbai) in India when they were persecuted and executed during the original Islamic revolution at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Yes, there are some adherents in the U.S. and the U.K. and Australia, but only a few.

What is especially interesting about this religion is that it is monotheistic and involves a belief in free will. Here is a brief excerpt from the article--- "The very tenets of Zoroastrianism could be feeding its demise, many adherents said in interviews. Zoroastrians believe in free will, so in matters of religion they do not believe in compulsion. They do not proselytize. They can pray at home instead of going to a temple. While there are priests, there is no hierarchy to set policy. And their basic doctrine is a universal ethical precept: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” One might have thought that a non-violent monotheistic religion that believes in free will might attract more Americans in particular.

Here is the link for the full article---

What is of interest to me is that some scholars have been suggesting for well over a hundred years that some of the beliefs of Judaism and Christianity may well derive from Zoroastrianism. Perhaps you will know Friedrich Nietzsche famous and influential book "Thus Spake Zarathustra". For all the hype however, the connections between Zoroastrianism and either Judaism or early Christianity are very tenuous at best, and don't really explain much. What is however very interesting is that this religion has all along believed women were equal with men and should be able to be fully educated and fully participate in their own religion. In other words, this religion gives the lie to the myth that monotheistic religion is always necessarily patriarchal in the sense that it sets up hierarchies that end up marginalizing women and denying them various roles in society and in their own religion. Certainly, this religion could not be accused of being secular, modern, liberal, or a host of other epithets. It is clearly an ancient religion and yet women have been allowed to play vital roles in the faith including as its priests.

For my purposes what I would like to say is four things: 1) unfortunately we do not have really ancient source documents about this religion, only those which date from after the NT era, so we are not certain what the original forms of this belief system and religion were actually like; 2) it is just possible that when exilic Jews were in Persia during the beginnings of the Persian empire they came in contact with this religion. If so, it is hard to see in what way it influenced Judaism, if at all; 3) it is quite clear that earliest Christianity, being an offshoot of early Judaism in Israel and then elsewhere in the Roman Empire owes no debt to this religion, including not in its celebration of the Lord's Supper or baptism, which are rituals which derive in part from Passover and water rituals in early Judaism; 4) monotheism was not the exclusive belief of early Jews before the turn of the era. Not only was their Zoroastrianism, there was also a period in Egyptian history when Akenaton was Pharoah that there was a belief in an abstract form of monotheism (the belief in the sun disk being the one and only deity or force ruling all)

What this suggests to me is this--- all humans are created in the image of God. It is not surprising then that various humans in various different places without influence from one another, would independently come up with the idea that there is only one God.

Think on these things.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Top Rated Seminaries-- From the Devils to the Irish

There is now an article in First Things, that conservative periodical, about the rating of seminaries. It is an interesting article, even though it only reflects one person's opinion. Here is the link--

What is especially interesting about this article is that the author thinks Duke Divinity School is at the top of the orthodox heap even ahead of Notre Dame-- and provides a list of their faculty which are all, including the Dean, John Wesley Fellows with one exception. John Wesley Fellows are Evangelical United Methodists who were funded in their doctoral work by A Fund for Theological Education and now are making a big impact on the UM Church and its educational institutions.

What is also interesting is that the only free-standing Evangelical seminary mentioned is Trinity Evangelical, apparently mainly because of Kevin Vanhoozer-- who is indeed a fine scholar (see his Is There a Meaning in this Text?). While this is not a scientific sampling of opinions about seminaries, what it does give clear witness to is the rebirth and resurgence of orthodoxy in the United Methodist Church in various places, ways, and venues. As one who once taught at Duke, I have to say I pleased to see that someone outside of my Methodist circles has finally noticed.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Patriot's Protest the Patriot Act

Oh those New England Patriots. No, not the football team, I mean the one's who run the gift shop next to the Old North Church in Boston. Seems they are a little ticked off at the Patriot Act which nullified various parts of a slightly earlier and more righteous document--- the Bill of Rights, all in the name of that phantom called 'national security'.

Well while I was doing a shoot for a series called Deeper Connections for Zondervan this week, I paid a visit to the gift shop next to the Old North Church, but only after climbing to the top of the steeple where Sexton Newman hung the lanterns (no it was not Paul Revere who hung the lanterns) signaling one if by land and two if by sea-- the Red Coats are coming (next stop Lexington Green and Concord Green). I wanted to do my patriotic duty, and besides my founding fathers would have been pleased-- Old North Church is also a church where the Rev. Charles Wesley preached in 1736 and 1737.

Sitting there in the gift shop was a wide assortment of coffee mugs and other sorts of the usual brickabrack and trinkets. But one thing stood out-- it was the coffee mug which had the complete Bill of Rights engraved all around its outside edge--- in disappearing ink! You see, when you pour hot coffee in this cup, the various numbered rights begin to disappear from sight one by one.

Its a little parable you see-- thank's to the Patriot Act, when things get hot around here, we can watch our rights disappear one after another. So you can see now why I say-- Oh those Boston Patriots! What'll they think of next to protest infringements on their rights and freedoms? I'm thinking maybe use another potent potable in some sort of protest in Boston--- tea anyone?

What is the Character of God?

The chaplain ran to help the man lying on the beach of a South Pacific island, who had been hit by a shell. The young man was dying, and as the chaplain administered the morphine to him, the young many looked into the chaplain's eyes and asked "Surely you must know--- what is God like?" The chaplain, my former college Bible Professor Bernard Boyd said-- "God is suffering love, he is just like the Jesus who died for you. And at this very moment he is with you in this pain for he said-- "inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me." (for more on this see the poem by Geoffrey-Studdert Kennedy "The Sorrow of God").

When the question arises about the character of God, it is hard to know where to start, since there are so many facets and dimensions to the God of the Bible, but the writers of the NT were rather clear on this matter--- God's character, is most fully, completely and accurately revealed in the Jesus who came, self-sacrificially served, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again, and sent the Holy Spirit to illumine, empower, guard, and guide us. God, in other words, is the most self-giving, self-sacrificing being in the universe, and so it is no surprise that the author of 1 John will say things like "God is love. Those who live in love live in God, and God in them." (1 John 4.16). To be sure, this love is a holy love, a purifying fire, a sanctifying grace. It is not pure indulgence, or forgiveness without a cost or a price. Holy love, best describes the character of God.

If you begin your portrait of God at such a juncture, and take seriously what Jesus says in Mk. 10.45 about his self-sacrificial ministry of love for the sake of others, and also take seriously Jn. 3.16-17 then you know that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world for he desires that none should perish, but rather all come to a saving knowledge of Christ. 1 Tim. 2.3-6 neatly sums these things up: "God our Savior...wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all."

Now if you begin with these profound deep hued colors as you paint the portrait of God, attempting to reveal God's character, then you will realize that God, who is most certainly portrayed as all knowing and also all powerful in the Bible, exercises his power, his lordship, his sovereignty if you will, in order to save a lost world.

God's power and might is not exercised in a self-centered, self-seeking or narcissistic way. God, is not a glory grabber, nor is he like a child constantly seeking our undivided attention, and demanding we glorify Him and thank him for everything that ever happens to us in life. To be sure we are to give thanks and praise God in all circumstances, but nowhere are we required to praise him for all circumstances. And why not?

The answer is simple--- God has not predetermined all circumstances in the universe in advance, and so many of our circumstances in life are in fact evil and sinful and God wants no credit for them nor should we thank him for them. God wants no part of being credited with being the author of sin or evil. Angels and humans can be thanked for those facets of life. God can, as Rom. 8.28 promises, weave all things together for good, for God is the most powerful of all beings in the universe, but God in his wisdom has in fact empowered other beings in the universe, and they have wills and minds of their own and they are not always in compliance with what God wants.

Why am I saying these things? Because of late it has become popular to suggest that God indeed has chosen to exercise his sovereignty in such a fashion that not only has he rigged all things in advance, he has done it all for his own praise and glory!!! In short, God is being portrayed as a narcissist. Now this view of God certainly may play well in some parts of our narcissistic culture-- we know all too well the cry "It's all about me."

However, when we look at Jesus, it is perfectly clear that here is the last person who walked the earth to have suggested--- "I'm here for my own glory, I'm here because it's all about me." To the contrary he was so other-directed that in his view it was all about saving others, not himself, and all about glorifying another, namely his Father, not primarily himself.

But there is more. Jesus came so that we might share in the divine glory, indeed have the very divine presence within us. It seems in fact that God is a glory sharer, not one who jealously guards all the power, all the credit, even all the praise for himself. Listen to what Paul says. He tells his converts in Thessalonike that Jesus will come back to be glorified 'in his people', not merely by his people, but 'in his people' (2 Thess. 1.10). He tells them that he is praying that Christ will be glorified in them and they will be glorified in him as well (vs. 12), an amazing statement. In fact Paul goes so far as to say that he prays that "by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith." (vs. 11). How amazing. God honors and participates and empowers and helps fulfill our purposes when they are godly. I guess its not just all about his purpose, his power, his plan, and his glory. God it appears, loves, honors, and empowers us so that we by his grace may freely respond to his purposes, plans, overtures, wooing, guidance, and the like.

Now doubtless God could have exercised his sovereighty in another way. Doubtless he could have predetermined all of world history in advance. Doubtless he could have decided that there would be no freedom of choice for human beings. He could have predetermined things in advance and set thing up so that humans thought they had freedom, thought they were not being manipulated or coerced, never 'felt' compelled, but in fact the game was rigged. And worst of all, it was rigged so that the majority of human beings would be predetermined to be lost, now and forever-- say what they would, do what they will, come what may.

I can't speak for others, only for myself. If I was a loving parent who had planned to have a lot of children created in my image, children that I claimed and promised to love, I have to ask-- Would I predetermine in advance that some would be good children and others wicked? Would I be happy with the notion that some would be irrevocably saved and others eternally lost before they even drew a breath? Could I even remotely conceive that this would be what a loving parent would plan in advance for their children? Well no. That would be like those parents we have heard about of late who decide to have children so they can sell them off as sex slaves in due course and better gratify and help themselves to live a good life. Fortunately, the Bible doesn't say that we have a God like that. It does not claim that God has predetermined in advance all of what life will involve and there is a good reason why not.

Had God predetermined in advance everything about us, we would never have been able on a lesser scale to be like the God who is free and loving and fulfill the great commandment-- namely to love God freely and fully with all of our beings, and love neighbor as self. You see love, as defined in the Bible cannot be pre-programmed or rigged. It cannot be coerced though it can be courted. It must be freely given, and freely received. There is a reason why the dominant image of the relationship of Christ and his church in the NT is that of the bridegroom and the bride, the Lover and the Beloved, not the Scientist and the Robot, or the Dictator and his yes men. The reason is this-- though God could have done otherwise, he chose to relate to us in a personal way, and desires that we freely respond to his love, his grace, his saving purposes.

There is hardly any more audacious portrait of God's character in the OT than the one we find in Hosea. God draws an analogy between his relationship to Israel, and that of the prophet to his prostitute wife. Needless to say, it has not gone well. Will God then abandon his people whom he called and chose, and who responded to the call at least initially? Will he wipe the slate clean and start over with another crop of children? Will he consign these to Hades and find some others? Well, God could have done this of course. He could have acted on the basis of divine fiat, even after the fact. He could have said, "Well I've tried this giving them some freedom and room to manuever and freely respond thing, but its not working out, so from now on we're going with plan B-- fatalism, pure determinism, the sort of thing that some of Mohammed's followers often believe about God."

But in fact, God does not choose to act that way--- listen to the very voice of God as recorded by Hosea in Hosea 11.1-11 (excerpts)-- "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to Baals and they burned incense to images. But it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them....My people are determined to turn from me, Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them. But how can I give you up, Ephraiam? How can I hand you over, Israel?...My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim, for I am God and not a human being-- the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the LOrd; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west."

Notice carefully what God says-- he has treated his children like a good and loving parent. He led them with cords of kindnesss, with ties of love. Not with iron rods. Precisely because God is God, and not a fickle human, he has decided to go on calling to his people in love and wooing them. He cannot hand them over to destruction and still be the loving God he is depicted to be in this passage.

Of course he could execute his fierce anger. Goodness knows we have all sinned and fallen short of God's glory. But he has chosen not to let his wrath overrule his love, his power overrule his compassion. Rather he has chosen the harder route of calling, leading, guiding, goading, loving, sacrificing, so we may respond freely and love him with all that we are. You see humans at their highest and best were meant to reveal the image of God to the world. And when we love God and others we are at our highest and best, and we do indeed reveal the divine character in the deepest crevices of what God is like.

My old Bible teacher was right-- God revealed his deepest character in the person of his Son who came and died that we might have life and have it abundantly. God is suffering love-- just like Aslan. And yes indeed, he roars with a mighty roar so we will come trembling back to Him. But when we do, he treats us just like this picture of a parent and a child in Hos. 11. God as it turns out is not a narcissist or a manipulator or a dictator. God is the greatest sacrificer that one could imagine, who leaves all other generous, kind, loving, self-giving creatures an indelible example to try and live up to, hence the great commandment.

When you think of God, don't think of an armchair general who has rigged the game all in advance so things all go exactly as he has planned. Think of him as being like Aslan, or better yet like Christ on the cross. Doubtless in uncertain times like ours we like to be told-- "don't worry, all things have been determined in advance when it comes to salvation and it will all work out for God's glory." We like to hear about eternal security.

What we forget is that the price of such ideas is we must give up on love, the real Biblical character of love, because love involves both freedom and risk. Loving relationships involve freedom and risk-- this is the essence of what it means to be personal, to be loving, to be created in God's image. Hos. 11 makes it oh so clear--- God has risked all, even his only son, in order to love us. And though he could have simply played his powerball game, his trump card, though he could have exercised his sovereignty in a way that he avoided all this heartache, he did not do so. Why? He did it all for love, so the world would be full of people set free indeed by the love of Christ, and loving him right back.