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Scott Brown and (slow) change we can believe in…

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The election of Scott Brown to the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is being seen, and I believe rightly so, as at least a partial referendum on President Obama’s first year.  Obama and his PR machine have chalked up the recent setback – and dwindling approval ratings – to not getting the message across. For a President that is more media-savvy and media-beloved than any in recent memory, this seems ludicrous.  President Obama’s problem is not that people don’t *get* the message – but rather, precisely the opposite.  (How could we not get the message with THIS LEVEL of media exposure??)

Obama was elected on the promise of “hope” in some degree of “change” that he would bring to the White House.  He rode a wave of (especially) youth support to a victory (not a landslide, though) over John McCain.  The Republicans, in my view, rightly paid for many years of not living up to their own beliefs with George W. Bush, especially in fiscal matters – and of course, W’s woeful public persona.  Personally, I liked the man and still do, but his public attributes fit Texas much more than the international scene.

And so, Obama was elected to get us back “on course.”  “The world” was so happy that Americans agreed with them on the Presidency of George W. Bush, that they hurried to give Obama unearned accolades (the dynamite-prize for peace, in particular).  What change would come?

Hard to tell, so far.  The radical, anti-war left has been unhappy with his ratcheting up of the war in Afghanistan.  Many of the young supporters that were so hyped up during the campaign have retreated to their dorm rooms, back to listening to their iPods and watching ghastly excuses for entertainment like ‘Jersey Shore’.  And an attempt at hurrying through sweeping legistation that would dramatically (and permanently!) alter the entire American health care sector has gone, by any measure, less than smoothly.

And now, with Scott Brown’s election, there is chance that it may not work at all.  Why the turnabout?  I think this change in our medical system is, for better or worse, inevitable.  But I fervently believe that the Obama administration has attempted too much, too fast (not unlike W trying to get Social Security “fixed” immediately after his reelection).  Winning roughly 60% of voters to your cause does not give you the mandate, whoever you are, to rush through such major changes.

Obama’s election has woken up a sleeping Right.  Conservatives, unfortunately, tend to criticize better than they govern.  Yes, there are extremes, and they are sometimes deplorable (on both sides).  I believe, though, that we are seeing that Americans are, as is often said, a center-right country.  Being by and large moderately conservative, though, does not mean we are opposed to all change.  Conservatives seek to do precisely that – conserve – not cement.  We believe that a government does its best work when it goes slow.  Incidentally, this is why the Constitution was set up with so many checks and balances, and such flexibility.  Ours is a great system because it is highly adaptable but not in short periods of time.  So, President Obama, perhaps we want your change. It is hard to tell at the moment.  But you can be sure of this: we are in no hurry.  If your program is indeed what’s best for us, take your time with it.  I am not one of your supporters, but I hope that those who are will insist on this: take it slow.

A historical aside:

Why do conservatives prefer slow change? Quite frankly, because we generally trust what is, what is known, what has been practiced and found true, more than what might be preferable around the corner.  Edmund Burke, writing just as the French Revolution was entering its darkest days, wrote the following:

…we think that no discoveries are to be made, in morality; nor many in the great principles of government, nor in the ideas of liberty, which were understood long before we were born, altogether as well as they will be after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity.

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Blessed Are the Peacemakers? [Advent 2]

by Drew 1 Comment

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The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time where we reflect on the coming Christ as the Prince of Peace, as the founder of a kingdom in which the lion will lay down with the lamb (and not eat him).  This was reflected in this week’s (alternative) Gospel lection, in which the Benedictus promises us that the One to come will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk. 1:79).  But what does that mean?  What does a life bent towards the peace of Christ look like as the world waits for the kingdom to be fulfilled?

Christians have traditionally argued over this.  Some, like Tertullian and later the Anabaptists and their descendants, advocated a nonviolent witness as the only option for Christians everywhere and at every time.  More recently, inspired by Ghandi and later King, Christians have taken up the nonviolent banner as a means of achieving peace.  (Same means, but different ends.  The former are concerned primarily with fidelity and witness, while the latter practice nonviolence for larger purposes, usually the overturning of a particular injustice).

Since Ambrose and Augustine, the mainstream position has been some variant of the ‘just war’ position.  This holds that war may be right/necessary/just/justifiable under certain conditions.  This was the position held by such luminaries as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth.  But the consensus, particularly among evangelical Christians, seems to be shifting.

A generation of young people raised by parents who lived through Vietnam, themselves disillusioned with campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and without the historical acumen to place these in any kind of perspective, are being drawn to the pacifist position with alarming regularity.  This has a lot to do with authors such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, who have given the Christian pacifist stance renewed legitimacy and intellectual firepower over the last decades.

Obviously these issues are too big to handle here, but I’d like to point out a problem that no pacifist has offered a legitimate solution to: the police function of the state.  In my experience, even the most strident pacifists will say that the state still has a legitimate police function, that criminals must be brought to justice and restrained from doing further harm.  Presumably, this means Christians can participate in these functions without fear of apostasy.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” indeed.  But if the police function is viable, how is it nonviolent?  Violence is essentially force, and police can and must force wrongdoers, restraining their evil and sometimes stopping them fatally.  As good as things like stun guns and pepper spray are (and they are not non-violent, just non-bloody), it is likely like cops will be carrying guns and nightsticks for the foreseeable future.  How, then, can one support the police function and still claim nonviolence?

Furthermore, if these peacemakers are legitimate and blessed, then why not soldiers?  The difference is one of scale and direction of force.  Bad guys externally need to be restrained as much as bad guys internally.

This is why, last Sunday, in prayer time I remembered the soldiers of our congregation and around the world, and asked God’s blessing on them as peacemakers.  Peace is not a simple achievement, not something we gain by acting peacefully: as Donald Kagan points out in his On the Origins of War and Preservation of Peace, peace must be fought for and actively maintained.   That is why the service of peacemakers is blessed.  Their work is hard, bloody, and until Christ comes in final victory, it will be violent.  It will be a wonderful day when their service is not needed, but that day is not today.  Come, Lord Jesus – but until that day, raise up men and women of courage and justice who will work for the gift of peace – fleeting and incomplete as it will be – here and abroad.

P.S. Theological brownie points for anyone who can tell me why I posted the picture above.

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What’s wrong with marriage (weddings) today

by Drew 1 Comment

The worst part is the preacher’s de-facto blessing….

P.S. This could also be subtitled “Why it sucks being Protestant,” because we know that no Catholic or Orthodox priest would tolerate this kind of activity at a holy ceremony.  Ugh.  If marriage is now undervalued and abused, which I believe it is, surely this is related to the fact that the marriage ceremony is itself undervalued and abused.  Give me a  funeral any day of the week.

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Oprah Retiring – Who Cares?

by Drew 0 Comments

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I don’t have much of a problem with Oprah, other than unwarranted admiration that the public has for her.  From what little I have seen of her shows, she is more a reflection of our culture than a shaper of it.  Her guests include anyone in the news, celebrities, or people with interesting, inspiring, or tragic stories.  She has spawned spin-off shows like Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Rachel Ray.  I respect her for being open about her challenges with weight loss.  I’m not sure why it should matter that she endorsed Barack Obama this past election cycle (other than showing what Hilary should have known: minority women would chose a minority man over a white woman).  I don’t like that people would pick up any book just because Oprah told them to; I dislike even more that Oprah could rediscover classics we all should have read in high school anyway.

But we do have strange sages these days.  That so many women find direction from Oprah is indicative of how deep and how desperate our search for wisdom, truth, and goodness (all of which come only from God) really is.  Our culture is in trouble precisely insofar as news of Oprah’s retirement is met with legitimate mourning.  Daytime TV is abysmal.  It is junk food geared towards a very specific demographic.

But perhaps I am being too hard.  I suspect Oprah is for a generation of women what Jon Stewart is for my own: the best source of wisdom, humor, and guidance they can find.

Oprah is not a bad person, but there is no reason she should be worth two billion dollars.  Why are we up in arms over corporate CEO’s making this kind of money, and not offended at Oprah’s wealth?  A double standard indeed.
Side note: Oprah’s name comes from a Biblical name, Orpah.  I wish her guidance were as biblical as her name suggests.  As it is, she is a real, live, American Idol.  Watch, these last two years, for worship.  It will not be unlike when Princess Di passed away: the sadness with which it is met will indicate just how much we are hurting for real meaning, wisdom, truth, and beauty.  These, however, are not to be found in our cultural icons.

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday.  A more stark contrast to the Queen of daytime TV I could not imagine.

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“The Beast in Me”: Johnny Cash on Sin and Human Frailty

by Drew 5 Comments

The beast in me,
Is caged by frail and fragile bars.
Restless by day and by night,
Rants and rages at the stars.
God help the beast in me.

The beast in me,
Has had to learn to live with pain.
And how to shelter from the rain.
And in the twinkling of an eye,
Might have to be restrained.
God help the beast in me.

Sometimes it tries to kid me,
That it’s just a teddy bear.
And even somehow manage to vanish in the air.
And that is when I must beware,
Of the beast in me.

-Johnny Cash

 

No, I’m not suggesting that Christians are werewolves.  There is something to this concept, though; earlier spiritual writers spoke of “the shadow side” (like St. John of the Cross).  We have the capacity to be angels or beasts.  Judging by everything around us in contemporary North America, most of us are choosing the beast over what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

This sense – a Christian sense – that something in us must be restrained, caged, is profoundly unpopular these days.  We have mistaken license for liberty, and we’ve traded the freedom to be children of God for slavery to our basest whims.  Modern culture, psychology in particular, would deny that this “beast” is real.  They say don’t “repress,” don’t “hold back,” “be real.”  Surely we are spiralling downward so rapidly that we can’t help but soon realize that the world’s definition of “real” is a facade, a complete fraud.

To be who God has called us to be, there is some necessary trimming, some things that must be left behind, rejected, forsaken.  Christians call this freedom.  But, contra many of the evangelicals in our midst, the turn to Christ is not accomplished in one glorious moment.  It’s a daily affair.  Daily we die to self, we live into our baptism and must be born a new.  The beast is caged, but he still roars.  May God help the beast in all of us.

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Tea with Bunyan: A Pilgrim’s Life

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Over my hot tea this evening, I found myself flipping back through a  well-worn copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  This is simply one of the greats in the Christian (and otherwise!) literary canon.  Yes, the language is difficult, but it is entirely worth the effort.  As much as I enjoyed The Shack, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement was a bit too strong: it does not compare to Bunyan’s masterpiece.

Consider this jewel, with All Saint’s Day coming up:

Good Christian, come a little way with me, and I will teach thee about the way thou must go.  Look before thee; dost thou see this narrow way?  That is the way thou must go.  It was cast up by the patriarchs, prophets, Christ, and his apostles, and it is as straight as a rule can make it.  This is the way thou must go.

Magnificent.  These were the words with which Good Will (*not* Hunting) sent Christian on his journey to the Celestial City.  Ours is the age of “Yes we can!” and “Do not follow where the path may lead…” and “Follow your heart.”  Does anyone else hear Penn and (not so much) Teller yelling, “BULLSHIT”?  In this age of revenge against all norms, traditions, and paths, Bunyan reminds us that the path God calls us to is not one of our choosing.  We are called to a path we do not find on our own; we are defined by a story of which we are not the author.  We are not “the captains of our soul,” we are simply run down by the Hound of Heaven, captured by Amazing Grace.

And in an age where we perpetually confuse wants with needs, and have lost the practices necessary to sustain even a modicum of Christian self-discipline, Bunyan’s Christian reminds us,

I walk by the rule of my master, you walk by the rude working of your fancies.  You are counted theives already by the Lord of the way, therefore I doubt you will not be found true men at the end of the way.  You come in by yourselves without his direction, and shall go out by yourselves without his mercy.

A little harsh, perhaps.  But all-in-all, good medicine for mainline Christians who, in despising their evangelical brothers and sisters, have lost all concept of discipline and the consequences attendant to its failure.  If you’ve not read Bunyan, put down your John Shelby Spong or John Piper or Joel Osteen – please, for the love of God – pick up The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Bunyan’s allegory will, I can promise, guide your own pilgrimage toward the heart of God.

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Clergy In a Hypersexualized Culture

From a new study by Baylor University:

In any given congregation with 400 adult members, seven women on average have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct since they turned 18, a new national study reveals.

“… we were surprised it is so prevalent across all denominations, all religions, all faith groups, all across the country,” said lead researcher Diana Garland… “Clergy sexual misconduct is no respecter of denominations.”

The study revealed that more than 3 percent of adult women who had attended a church in the past month reported that a religious leader had made sexual advances to them. Research found that 92 percent of those sexual advances were made in secret, and 67 percent of the offenders were married to someone else.

The full study has not been published yet, but I’m curious how “sexual advance” was  defined for the purposes of the study.  The study also mentions the “culture of niceness” prevalent in churches.  One wonders if a number of the perceived advances were indeed so cut and dry.  Of course, we often don’t know our own motivations.  A scientific study can’t reveal the complexities of such interactions.  How often could a simple compliment be construed as an advance?  It is not difficult to imagine legitimate pastoral concern being (intentionally or otherwise) perverted into a flirtatious encounter.  I don’t mean to be overly apologetic.  This study just makes all clergy, across the board, come off a little too predatory.

Of course, it is fascinating that this holds across all denominations and religions.  I don’t know if this should take wind out of the sails of those who insist that Catholic clergy abuse is due to the celibate lifestyle.  It seems that we’re all sexually out of control.  As persons and clergy, we have been so formed (read: malformed) by a hyper-sexualized culture that we cannot even control ourselves among those whose spiritual care we are to direct.

Just this week I was at a local gas station, and realized that the $.75 machine in the men’s bathroom, in addition to the usual assortment of contraceptives, was also advertising XXX photos for sale.  I know this is not moral, and I’m not even sure it’s legal.  But unfortunately, it is no longer surprising.

The Fathers of the Church would be horrified at our distorted notion of freedom.  What we call freedom, they would rightly call slavery to our basest impulses.

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Translation or Catechesis?

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry

I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:

Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem.  One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)

The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine.  Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies.  The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:

Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation

 

The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples?  Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term).  The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics.  The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.”  The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.

I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings.  But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above.  It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to.  Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle.  And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist.    Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ?  Surely it is the latter.  But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.?  Perhaps it is merely less popular.

But it seems a fine line.  I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now.  The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation.  Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc.  But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology.  It is a fine line, indeed.

Thoughts?

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Kanye: A symptom, not a disease

The outrage over Kanye’s recent antics at the MTV movie awards are largely an exercise in missing the point: the problem is not Kanye, the problem is us.  We; you; me; us; our kids; our brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews…we all allow people of Kanye’s caliber to amass millions of dollars and have a profound impact on the lives of our young people.

Contra the President, who self-reverently called us “the ones we have been waiting for,” we should be pointing the fingers at ourselves.  This is simply further evidence of a sick culture.  Many artists have problems, but traditionally even artists with problems can show a modicum of class.

Sadly, Christians are a part of all this.  Our kids buy these albums.  I’ve danced to him.  All further evidence that we are entrenched in a world of sin that we cannot extricate ourselves from entirely.  That is why the “Armor of God” is a daily excercise in humility and vigilance.  We must remember who we are – and whose we are – every day.  When we forget, we allow ourselves to fall victim to the most base aspects of our existence.  Our art, and our artists, are merely a reflection of this.

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