Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Homeless Evangelicals

Here is a story that seems to have been flying under the radar in the blogosphere but really touches on issues raised here at the Culture Dove corner of that world. It seems that the Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida was elected to head the Christian Coalition, but has since stepped down before taking office. The reason is that he wanted to expand the agenda of that organization. He wanted to address environmental and poverty issues, stating that "These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about." Apparently the board of the Christian Coalition disagreed. Hunter went on to say, "To tell you the truth, I feel like there are literally millions of evangelical Christians that don't have a home right now." Here is the Associated Press story from the Gainsville Sun.

In a more recent story in the New York Times, Hunter, author of Right Wing, Wrong Bird: Why the Tactics of the Religious Right Won’t Fly With Most Conservative Christians, asserts that many evangelical leaders hewed to narrow moral issues because they were “deathly afraid of being labeled a liberal by other Christians, the media, talk radio.” This rift has already caused a split in the states of Georgia, Ohio, Alabama, and Iowa.

I take no joy in seeing "the opposition" splinter. Just the opposite, I am saddened that a move toward some common ground has faltered. There is plenty of room for Christians to find agreement on social issues. Together we could make more progress than by wasting energy bickering over just the issues that divide. It is sadly ironic to consider some Christian looking to find a home during the season when we remember the story of Mary and Joseph struggling to find a place for Jesus to be born. May we all seek to offer Christ a home in our own lives by honoring those things that would concern him if he were to walk the mean streets of America today.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Map for the Way

So, what can be done with this complicated human creation, the Bible? Is it inspired? Is it the word of God? I would say “yes” and “yes.” Is it the only way that God has communicated with humanity, or ever will? To these I say “no” and “no.” How do I know these things? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else, we only have our beliefs. Even those who say that the Bible is the only true, complete record of God’s instructions to the human race that is free from any and all errors in relation to any and all doctrines necessary for salvation, only do so out of a belief that that is true. I can’t put that amount of faith into a human creation. The facts that the books of the Bible were written by dozens of people over centuries; that a good portion of the earlier books were first passed on through oral tradition; that original texts are not extant; and that different groups of believers believe that different texts belong and others don’t all lead me to the conclusion that the Bible can’t live up to the extremely high expectations of those who claim it is inerrant. On top of that, there is the circular reasoning of arguing that the scripture is inerrant because it says it is. I could say that this blog is the word of God, filled with true doctrine that is free from error. If someone were to post a comment pointing out reasons not to believe that, all I would need to do is point to the fact that the blog itself stated that it was inerrant to prove the inerrancy of the blog. Doesn’t make too much sense does it?

On the other hand, the fact that the Bible even exists today as an intact, generally agreed upon text considered holy by a vast number of people is reason to believe that it is one of the greatest efforts in all of human history to attempt to speak about the relationship between the human and the divine. This is a grand story telling marvelous truths. Read as a whole, the Bible speaks of a divine plan in which God shows exceptional love to some rather unlovely sorts (i.e. people just like you and me). It also clearly shows that this God chooses underdogs and consistently makes a preferential option for the poor (you can hardly turn a page without reading about caring for the widow, orphan and/or sojourner). Some of the stories are riveting and awe-inspiring; what greater liberation story is there than the Exodus? It is in the details where things fall apart; not so much because of the details themselves but because of our tendency to nit-pick and lord over one another.

Jews have always had a wonderful tradition of struggling with the holy texts. They interpret and re-interpret and listen to each other’s sides, living with the differences in interpretation (this is the Talmudic tradition). Christians have not typically followed suit. We have a long tradition of excommunication (and even executing) heretics. But when we read the Gospels, we see Jesus move away from the law as restrictive, replacing it with the grace to live life abundantly. He calls for the giving of the full measure of our lives. If we are serious in our discipleship, following Jesus as revealed in the scriptures, then we won’t have much time at all for finding specks in the eyes of our brothers and sisters since we will have to pay to much attention to being lumberjacks getting the logs out of our own eyes.

The Bible may be only a human creation, but it is the creation of humans just like you and me, who longed to know God and to be godly in their living. It is a book that I can relate to. It is a book that inspires me to be better than I can imagine being on my own. It is also complicated enough that I am forced to use my God-given rational mind to understand it. It is also challenging enough that I know that I need to be among the gathered faithful to live out the life it calls me to. To follow Jesus is to follow “the way.” I need the Bible as the map, my mind to make choices, the wisdom of those who have gone this way before, and the company of fellow travelers to share the burden of the journey. All the pieces are necessary and the most important one is the one that is missing at the time.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The B-I-B-L-E

My theological journey has taken me from solid Calvinism and complete Evangelicalism including a belief in the inerrancy of scripture to someplace left of center influenced by Liberation Theology and the Social Gospel. The journey pivots on my relationship to the Bible. I suppose that nearly all Christians define themselves (knowingly or unwittingly) by their relationship to this collection of writings. The Bible is also clearly one of the most critical documents in the current culture wars, so I think it behooves me at the outset of this blog to attempt an explanation of my understanding of this vital document.

I have realized that a sometimes intractable obstacle to right-left dialogue is the often intransigence of the right on their understanding of scripture. I don't want to debate the issue of inerrancy as much as I want to explain my own position and how I got to it. My intent is to demonstrate that many of us who reject the principle of inerrancy still hold the Bible in high regard and use it as a guide for living. The implication for the culture wars is that there may be a number of valid Christian positions in the public square. I don't want to shout down the voices to the right of me, I just want my voice to be heard and validated as genuinely Christian.

Let me start with my reason for rejecting inerrancy. I had found myself "jumping through hoops" in sorting the cultural influences out of scripture (you know, things like seeing Paul not so much as a sexist but a product of his time) when I finally came up against something I couldn't find anyway to excuse within the confines of a belief in the divine authorship of scripture: cherem. For those of you not knowledgeable in Hebrew, that is the word used to describe the style of warfare used in the conquest of the Promised Land. Simply put, the principle is if you win victory over an enemy by your own power you are entitled to the booty (e.g. the land, the cattle, the gold, the people...) BUT if you are outnumbered or out-gunned and you pray to your god for victory and receive it then the booty belongs to the deity. The way that the god claims the spoil was typically through burnt sacrifice. I describe this generically since it was the prevalent form of warfare on all sides during that time. But that means that we read of a number of massacres (at least a half-dozen) in the Bible that are directly ordered by God. There is even a verse that I mercifully can never seem to re-locate that says that YHWH was pleased by the aroma of the burnt human offering.

Now I could have responded by saying "that was then, this is now" but that would fly in the face of the equally biblical principle that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow (actually, there is a good evidence in the biblical story that God does change, but that is clearly not part of Evangelical theology). I found myself faced with a choice between obedience to a bloodthirsty god, a slippery slope of a potentially ever-changing god, or an acceptance of the Bible as a human document in which the victors write the history. I chose the last position as the most viable way to retain the reality of the personal relationship I had with God. That left me with the danger of "throwing out the baby with the bath water." It also meant that I could now read the Bible as our human attempt to understand what we can never fully understand instead of as God attempting to explain the inexplicable to mere mortals. The change in perspective is liberating, frustrating, exciting and frightening all rolled into one.

The good news is that I'm not alone in this journey. Many, many Christians today (as well as in the past) take this approach. In my next blog entry I'll address the way that other elements strengthen my faith and mold my theology. If you want a preview, consider the Wesleyan quadrilateral.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Voting Our Principles

Here is a fascinating observation from Tom Perriello of Senior Advisor and Co-Founder of the Catholic Alliance for the Common Good.

One of the things people are saying that I think is incorrect is that the Democrats won this election by running a bunch of conservatives and by running a bunch of moderates. If you actually look at who it was that was swinging in this vote, it was actually that there was massive turnout of a lot of people who were motivated by some of the deepest principles of progressive thinking, even in the red states.

What you had was, for example, people like Ted Strickland and Sherrod Brown essentially ran as what one person called “ethical populists.” You had people who were not running to the middle, but actually running to their principles. And what we found with religious voters is that they care much more about right and wrong than about right and left, which means that you can have some centrist candidates who do well, but you can also have some very progressive candidates that, by sticking to their values, they actually gain more than they would by running to the middle. Tim Cain won as governor in Virginia last year, which is my home state, by opposing the death penalty in a pro-death penalty state, because people cared a lot more about him standing for his principles than they cared about the issue.

So, I think when you look at the groups that really helped swing this vote, we’ve got to be -- the Democrats should be very wary of understanding who delivered this. So when they set the agenda for Congress, issues like the minimum wage, issues like healthcare and a new direction for Iraq are going to be key, if they want to lock in and sustain some of the victories they saw this year.

- from Democracy Now on Friday 11/10

Friday, November 10, 2006

No Monopoly on Morality

I heard a report that polling indicated that 47% of those who voted last Tuesday were self-described moderates (sorry I can't cite the reference with a link but it certainly sounds reasonable). Assuming that is correct, I believe that the important issue in this, or any recent election, is "the vast middle." Clinton was elected because a group of Democrats formed the Democratic Leadership Council and intentionally targeted the center. This frustrated liberals, politically it worked. Clinton remained true to his centrist "leanings" (I suppose that is an oxymoron) and won reelection. Bush and the neocons seemed to have visited the center to get elected and then moved back to the right. They had the war to campaign on for reelection. With the war no longer a selling point it would appear that Rove's mojo has run out.

While we have been shown maps of red states and blue states indicating a divided electorate, I think all the recent elections point to a very balanced electorate. So many elections have been very close so the "swing" voters make the difference. This election it seems that a lot of them swung blue. That is, assuming that one can draw such conclusions. The number of issues influencing voters and the personal characteristics of candidates make deconstructing the mind of the voter nigh impossible if you ask me.

Still, I think that these are days in which we would be wise to listen to one another. If we only view issues through the lens of polarization (would that be a polarized lens? :-) ) then we will miss the point that all of us, left, right and middle, as well as religious and secular, are making ethical decisions when we vote. Jim Wallis (whose father died suddenly this week, please remember him in your prayers if you are so inclined) has said "religion has no monopoly on morality." As a theological conservative with a liberal social agenda, he is in a prime position to speak to the current political climate. He is doing just that at God's Politics Blog

One interesting statistic about Christianity in America is that liberal Christians outnumber Evangelicals, although you wouldn't know it from the influence of the "talking heads" in the media. Here is a report from the United Church News:

A Pew Research Center poll, released on Aug. 24, shows 32 percent of Americans think of themselves as “liberal or progressive Christians,” while 24 percent self-identify as evangelical Christians.
Yet, when asked to identify religious-political leanings, only 7 percent said they were part of the “religious left,” compared to 11 percent who identified as being part of the “religious right.”
Evangelicals remain more cohesive, pollsters said, because members “share core religious beliefs as well as crystalized and consistently conservative political attitudes.”

The amount of influence for any group often has more to do with agitation than with the actual size of the group. Too often there is more heat than light. Fear has also too often been the quickest way to victory. Democracy is a tricky business, there is no distinction between winning with 50% plus one and winning on a unanimous vote. All of us would be happier to have those with whom we agree have all the power, but in this country we typically only have two candidates from whom to choose, so our vote often requires compromise...or choosing the "lesser evil." Unless we were to change our representative democracy to a parliamentary system, we won't have all voices heard. This will mean that voters who choose (as I do) third parties to represent their principles will be told they are wasting their votes.

Is it possible to find common ground instead of just accepting compromises? I would hope so. What I'm suggesting is taking divisive issues and work on whatever it is that all sides can agree on. A prime example is the abortion issue. Pro-choice groups don't call for an increase in abortions and Pro-life politicians have not been able to reduce abortions or to get them outlawed. In the midst of the deadlock over this wedge issue, much could be done to change the conditions that lead to abortions. Providing financial, psychological and other types of support to pregnant women and single mothers would be a good start. Making adoption easier would be another. Aren't these issues that both sides could support?

Owning Up

Before too many news cycles carry away the buzz about recent controversies (no doubt replacing them with new ones) I want to comment on two recent apologies, those of John Kerry and Ted Haggard.

Politics and the culture war will always bring the bright light of public scrutiny, and at times integrity takes a back seat to image. This was seen in Kerry's reluctance to apologize one week and then Haggard's initial apparent lies to cover up his indiscretions the following week. In the end, each man apologized publicly. While I don't want to compare the actions for which they apologized, I am interested in the nature of the two apologies themselves. You can read the full text of Kerry's apology here and the Haggard apology here.

Kerry's apology was brief. He seemed to say enough, but he qualified the apology somewhat. While he did say that he apologized to any who were offended, that followed his saying that he was sorry to be misunderstood. His were carefully crafted words, leaving open the question about the depth of his sincerity.

Thus was not the case with Haggard's apology. He didn't go into detail about his behavior, so the apology left open the question about what he was sorry for. But while he was not clear in his admission, his mea culpa was lengthy enough to leave no doubt about the depth of his sincerity.

The vivid differences between these two men's words says something about the state of public confession and contrition today. I can't help but sense the fingerprint of Kerry's handlers on his statement, but sense a real sorrow over his behavior in Haggard's.

It strikes me that the more sincerely one says "I'm sorry," the more likely the public will forgive and perhaps ultimately forget. Personally, even though Haggard's behavior was clearly far more heinous than Kerry's poorly chosen words, I feel sadness for Haggard and yet have some suspicion of Kerry. What is odd for me is that in general I agree far more with positions espoused by Kerry than those of Haggard. In all out culture warfare, I would be expected to be with those who defend Kerry and attack Haggard. But I refuse to succumb to knee-jerk judgment. But that doesn't mean that I don't feel empathy for the pain Haggard is obviously suffering at the moment. And I guess that is the problem I have with Kerry at the moment; he just doesn't seem to be genuinely concerned about the pain he caused.

And that is my concern regarding this episode in the culture wars. I want to see more people, whether Christian Right, secular fundamentalist, or anything in between, owning up to their behavior and the ways their behaviors impact others. Is it really so hard to achieve that level of maturity in the public square? Sure, there can be dire consequences to one's image and thus influence by admitting one's mistakes. But do we no longer believe that confession is good for the soul? Or could it be that we no longer really value the souls of those who dare to be public leaders?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Color me purple

While I'd be considered "blue" in the red state/blue state definitions (truth be told I'm not even blue since I'm a member of the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party)I love the concept of Purple Churches as explained by Diana Butler Bass.

Into the Fray

I've been reading with great delight David Plotz's Blogging the Bible at I've been motivated to enter the Fray, the readers' discussion boards.

Too much of that discussion ends up being offended Christians resorting to proselytizing and raging atheists calling Bible believers stupid. Actually, it isn't a large portion of the discussion, but any bit of that is too much for my tastes.

In a discussion about actual warfare (i.e. not simply the culture wars) I posted the following:

I have always been more interested in common ground than winning the high ground. I agree that too much war is either religiously motivated or at least religion is used to serve politically or economically motivated warmongering. If we could learn to get along as people of faith, war may indeed cease to be.

I remember about 20 years ago when a group suggested that a modest proposal for peace would be for the Christians of the world to agree not to kill each other. That would be a good start, but, of course, we need to see the truths taught by other faith traditions as well and extend that peace effort.

What btD calls cynicism, I might consider open-mindedness - at least in relation to my own search for truth. Once a religious practitioner (and I am one) accepts that he/she may not have a corner on the truth a wonderful world of other truth stories (myths in the best sense as Joseph Campbell would remind us) opens up to instruct the seeker. What I continually find is how the truth in other stories points to the same truth taught in my own tradition. Often, I find that what I see in another myth is simply less obvious in my own paradigm.

Once I took Campbell seriously and decided to avoid "getting stuck in the metaphor" I was able to engage in these kind of enlightening discussions.

I'm sorry for this being out of context, but it is an example of what I am striving to accomplish with this blog. You can read the thread that my response started here.

Getting Started

It has now been six weeks since I created the template for this blog. As you can see, I have been very tentative in stepping into these waters.

The reason for my caution is that I want to stay in the tension of the middle of the current culture wars. All around the blogosphere I see fierce dichotomy. It is difficult to offer an opinion without be characterized as belonging to the opposite camp. In the culture wars the dichotomies are regligious/secular, conservative/liberal, Christian/atheist. I find myself on the continuum, not either end. I'm a liberal Christian. I have passionate beliefs about social justice that come out of my faith. I also respect the intellect that I believe God has placed in humans, so I think that science is not at odds with religion. I hold that since America is a representative democracy that I have a duty to add my voice to the public forum and a right to be heard and proportionately represented (albeit within a system where the winner takes all).

While I always want my side to prevail, I also value the system that can make that happen. Dirty tricks and "working the system" may be effective ways of advancing a cause, but they also work to destoy the system that makes it all possible. I want this blog to be a place for culture war pacifists; a place where there is a cease fire in place regarding name-calling, finger-pointing and partisanship-for-the-sake-of-partisanship.

I may not always be able to live up to my own standards, but at least that is my intent.