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What Do I Really Care About?

Selfish What would you spend your top dollar on?

I'd like to treat this as a meta-question--which is to say, a question about something larger than a single thing . . . like a BMW or a jet ski or a bag of Doritos. Or perhaps the whole "top dollar" thing is a metaphor for the way I spend anything of value, like time and attention. In other words, I'd prefer to treat this question as a question about what I really care about.

Actually, put that way, as a question about what I value, I'm not sure I want to answer it anymore. Why? Because I'm aware that what I "say" I value doesn't always map onto the way I spend my real time and attention (or my "top dollars" for that matter). You see, because if you ask me in an offhanded way about what I really care about, I'll say something perfectly honorable--something about my family, or God, or pursuing justice. And I'll mean it. I really do love my family, and God, and justice. If, on the other hand, you ask me (sort of looking me in the eye and expecting a totally honest answer) what do you spend the bulk of your time on, if you want to know to what I devote the greatest portion of my attention, and if I'm honest, I'll say, "Myself."

When I was in high school, my younger brother and I shared a room. He generally kept his half of it in better shape than I did. Even for a teenager, he was extraordinarily conscientious. I, on the other hand, was pretty self-involved. I had places to go, people to impress. We had a conversation one day, the subject of which escapes my memory. But he said one thing that I'll never forget--and it pains me to think of it, since vestiges of it are still apparent to me in those moments when I'm most honest with myself. He said in this earnest fifteen year-old way that, in my experience, only my brother could muster up without rancor or irony, "You're a selfish person, Derek. You know that, don't you?"

I was, and am, a selfish person. I'm better now at masking it, perhaps. But it's still there. I know where my "top dollar" time and attention go.

On the other hand, tomorrow I will be celebrating 24 years of marriage to the same wonderful woman. Somehow or another, I've been blessed to have someone patient enough with me to love me in my smallness, as well as someone with enough psychic wherewithal to be impatient enough with my self-absorption not to be satisfied to let it go at that. She reminds me that my high-sounding ideals at some point need to inform and shape the way I spend my actual time and attention in order to be real, and not just self-congratulatory illusions.

I'm not enough of a romantic to believe in epiphanies, which result in grand pronouncements that change everything in some magical moment of insight and resolve. However, if by saying it publicly, I set up in you (dear reader) expectations that I am aware of and plan actively to work on realigning my ideals with the reality of the way I spend my time and attention, then perhaps I actually will begin paying "top dollar" for something worthwhile, something I really do care about.

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Searching for Common Ground: Another Response to "Mark"

"Mark," Once again, thanks for your thoughtful response.  I appreciate your willingness to continue the conversation.  I suppose the way for me to proceed is to offer my thoughts and questions about what you’ve offered.

I’m not sure I know what a “cohesive approach to interpretation” means.  Do you mean an “approach to interpretation” that you and I could agree upon, so as not to “be debating past each other due to wildly different presuppositions?”  If so, I fear we might both be disappointed, inasmuch as I see our “approaches to interpretation” to be the issue.   You say, for instance, that you “see Scriptures as the Word of God and understand the law, as expressed in the Torah, to be perfect and true….yet somewhat arbitrary.”  It is not clear to me what you mean by “perfect.”  Do you mean Torah is “perfect” in some universal sense (i.e., for all times and all places)?  Because I too could say I find it “perfect”—by which I mean suited to the time and context in which it was given.  That difference, it seems to me, is crucial.  Our “approaches,” if I am right about what you mean, are largely incommensurable—meaning, there’s not a lot of middle ground (at least that I’m aware of) in which one could say, “Torah in all its detailed legislative application is perfect both universally and particularly” (i.e., in this case, not universally).

Moreover, I run into the same problem when I read that laws about “conduct and sexuality . . . are correct and even good.”  Correct in what sense?  Good as ends in themselves?  Or as expressions of some larger good?

I want to make sure I get this right.  Because you could be saying that the truth behind what appears to be “arbitrary” in the law—to use your example, men with crushed gonads being prohibited from serving before God—is universal, while its application is particular.  That is to say, you could be asserting that the reason behind the law is universal (e.g., God deserves only the best), without attaching to a particular instantiation of that principle (e.g., men with crushed gonads) universal force, since an instantiation of a universal principle is a contextually time and culture-bound affair.  In other words, 21st century Westerners would largely be horrified to claim that men with this particular characteristic are imperfect, and therefore, aren’t acceptable as consecrated servants of God.  That doesn’t mean, however, that 21st century Westerners don’t think God deserves only the best; it’s not God who’s changed, but our understanding of  “best” that is provisional.

If the latter view of interpretation were the case rather than the former, we would have some grounds to compare our respective “approaches to interpretation.”  If however, it is the former, we will always be in danger of talking past each other, since although we could both agree that scripture is “true,” we may not come to terms on the particularly sticky issues of “true in what sense?” or “correct in which situation?” or “good as ultimate or provisional?”

You are correct to observe that Jesus mentioned judgment.  However, what you fail to point out is that Jesus’ judgment most regularly falls on those religious folks who are convinced that they have sufficiently divined the mind of God, are prepared to enforce their understandings of what they know to be true, and will brook no opposition from those who come to different conclusions.  Since you treat it as an aside, I won’t dwell on it either, except to note that 1) Jesus never addresses homosexuality (or, with few exceptions, even sexuality at all), and 2) his most extended treatment of judgment comes in Matthew 25 (i.e., the sheep and the goats), which once again deals with God’s judgment of those who understand themselves to be on the inside religiously, but who fail to extend God’s mercy to those who’ve been forgotten (at best) or left outside on purpose (at worst).  But, as you say, all of us depend on grace, so I’ll leave it there.

Whether or not the proscriptions in Leviticus 18 have the worship of idols as their aim is one argument, I fear, no matter what I offer will be acceptable to you as “reasonable” on “hermeneutical grounds,” since it is the very ground of hermeneutics that is being contested.  Let me just reiterate a broader principle, which takes precedence in my view—though, I suspect you will find it unsatisfactory.  Whatever sleeping arrangements are prohibited by Leviticus or Paul are largely beside the point, inasmuch as the same sex relationships being argued for by LGBTQ folks and their allies (i.e., long term loving relationships between two people of the same gender based on love and mutuality) are not arrangements that could even have been conceived of until recently.  It would be as if laws dealing with the treatment and use of horses in the warfare of Mongols were to be ripped from their context and reintroduced as a way of regulating the production of Ford Mustangs or Chevy Broncos—though some of the words seem to correspond, they’re talking about different things.

As for your “absolute” conviction that “the prohibition against homosexuality is true and firm and still applies to us today,” while your passionate certainty is perhaps commendable, it fails to persuade.  I should be clear that my own passionate certainties are probably neither closer to persuading someone who begins with the same assumptions with which you begin—but not because either of us thinks the bible is untrue.  Rather, I don’t know you well enough to know whether your positions are made intelligible by the life you live in trying to follow Jesus; and you could say the same thing of me.  I suspect that our lives are the ultimate argument for our theological positions.  At least I think the way we live our lives in one another’s presence will ultimately be more persuasive than our abilities to out-argue one another.

To the question of how you conduct your sex life during your wife’s menstruation, I will leave that alone entirely.

I appreciate your readiness to think through these things with me, "Mark."  I’m a Disciple of Christ, which means, at least according to my old professor, Michael Kinnamon, that having these conversations (whether they ever persuade anyone) are worth having.   It seems to me that having conversations like these goes a long way toward cultivating the virtue of hospitality—which I believe to be a Christian virtue worth cultivating.

How Not to Have a Conversation: A Response to the Kentucky Family Foundation

The Kentucky Family Foundation posted a commentary yesterday on its blog, taking Douglass Boulevard Christian Church to task for what the KFF considers an attempt by the church to curry favor with the "intellectual elites."  And while I have indicated my belief that the most importat part of this issue centers on embodying Christ's justice rather than on arguing about it, I find it necessary to clarify certain matters of contention raised by the author at the KFF.

The Family Foundation will comment only briefly on the relative insignificance of this act since the church itself is comprised of only 80-120 members and caters to an explicitly liberal social agenda.

As I read this portion of the KFF commentary, a couple of things occur to me.  First, I am struck once again by the dismissive nature of the comments about DBCC's size.  The reference to the church's size serves no substantive purpose in support of the author's argument, other than to draw attention to the superior position of influence from which s/he speaks.  I feel certain that everyone who reads the article realizes the cultural prominence of KFF relative to the modest community at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church.  Naming this disparity in size and influence, however, fails to advance the discussion, but serves merely as a form of rhetorical jockeying for advantage.

Second, it seems important to me to address the charge of catering "to an explicitly liberal social agenda"--as if the author has opted out of the "social agenda" catering business, and is seeking only to speak from some neutral ground beholden to no "social agenda."  I enter into this conversation with the assumption that KFF, while occupying its own particular set of theological and political positions, makes its case from a set of convictions that rise above pure approval-seeking from a constituency with a decidedly different "social agenda" from the one to which DBCC is supposedly indebted.  In other words--and though I strongly disagree with many of their conclusions--I think they believe they are doing what God would have them do to be faithful.  Consequently, it seems somehow troubling to me that the work undertaken by Douglass Boulevard Christian Church fails to receive the same good faith respect from the author.

The fact remains, however, that actions taken by Douglass Boulevard and others like it, represent a diminishing voice in Christianity. Liberal churches—those that reject biblical authority—eventually wither because the very essence of their existence—Christ and obedience to his commands—becomes sidelined for what are perceived to be more important social agendas.

Whether liberal Christianity is a "diminishing voice in Christianity" is, as I have said in the past, an observation of correlation, not an argument about causation.  Notwithstanding that questionable contention, however, I want to challenge the assertion the author makes that Liberal churches "reject biblical authority" and "eventually whither because" they place "Christ and obedience to his commands" on the sidelines, in favor of "what are perceived to be more important social agendas."  First, and most obviously, let me ask what commandment of Christ that Douglass Boulevard is supposed to have disobeyed by our recent action?  Since Jesus never explicitly addresses homosexuality, I'm not sure I see the way the author is connecting the dots.  (In a side note, let me be quick to mention that Jesus had a lot more to say about how the politically and theologically powerful use their resources at the expense of the powerless than he ever had to say about sexuality--in any form.)

Which assertion leads me to my next thought: What DBCC set out to do by its action in favor of treating LGBTQ people and heterosexual people the same--far from trying to figure out a way to circumvent the difficult demands placed upon the followers of Jesus--was, in fact, an attempt faithfully to emulate the kind of lovingkindness and commitment to equitable social arrangements Jesus himself displayed.  That is to say, since Jesus did not give us explicit instructions about this issue (and neither, I would argue, did the epistles), we have tried to envision how the love of Jesus might be embodied by our community in our current cultural context.  Our purpose, therefore, was not to disobey Jesus, but to find radically expansive new ways of living that honor the Jesus we find in the Gospels.  So, whatever "social agenda" we pursue, whether it correlates to some other "social agenda" or not, is unintelligible to us apart from Jesus.   Consequently, the allegation that Douglass Boulevard Christian Church displays "ecclesial hostility towards [sic] Scripture" misses the point entirely from our perspective.  We do what we do because we think it is the most faithful rendering of scripture for the world in which we live--not a denial of it.

In recent days, the pastor of Douglass Boulevard has offered a theological and personal justification for the position adopted by the church. But the justification offered reduces to facile explanations aimed at jettisoning Christian teaching on human sexuality. His rebuttals to Christian teaching against homosexuality are built upon straw-man arguments and lack serious exegesis. In addition, his arguments are unoriginal and are not respected by serious biblical scholars. But exegesis and rebuttal will not matter when personal volition and Maslow’s self-actualization become more important than Christ and his commands.

As to my "theological and personal justifications for the position adopted by the church," they were an attempt on my part to enter into conversation with people who approached me because either they did not agree or did not understand why I believe what I believe about LGBTQ people and their acceptance by God.  My essay was more narrative than exegesis, because my intent was not to hammer my interlocutor into intellectual and spiritual submission, but to extend a serious conversation.  That my "arguments are unoriginal" and "not respected by serious scholars" --which, I think, is another assertion in search of an argument--I'll leave to someone else to decide.  I will make this observation, though, that the post by KFF seemed less like a conversation between brothers and sisters who disagree than like the combat waged against a mortal enemy.  Some clarification on that front would be I think, helpful.

The truth is that the actions taken by Douglass Boulevard are not prophetic, but a testament to the capitulating spirit that follows from abandoning the clear instruction and teaching of Scripture. In championing liberal theology, Douglass Boulevard is allying itself with a rogue strand of Christian theology that retains neither orthodoxy nor longevity.

Admittedly, it would be an enviable accomplishment for the folks at KFF if they were to be in possession of "the truth" about "the actions taken by Douglass Boulevard."  However, according to the Christian tradition DBCC is supposed to have abandoned, the discernment of truth is a communal achievement, drawing upon the often uncomfortable diversity of the broader church--much of which it appears sadly, in this case, has been written off before a conversation has even begun.

It's About More Than Just the Words: A Response to Albert Mohler

This morning Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—a seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention—posted a commentary on a recent action taken by the church where I am the senior minister, Douglass Boulevard Christian ChurchWe voted without dissent as a congregation on Sunday, April 17 to speak a positive word to the LGBTQ people in our congregation about our commitment to treating all of our members equally, by refraining from signing civil marriage licenses until the state extends the rights and privileges of marriage to everyone—without regard to sexual orientation.  The implications of our disagreement concerns more than just words, but I'll offer a few words of my own as an initial response. The tone of Dr. Mohler's commentary, while generally fair, veers into dismissiveness when taking an apparent shot at the size of DBCC's membership.

For many years, I have driven by this church in its present location. The congregation was once much larger, with many families attending. This article indicates that the congregation has followed the trajectory of liberal Protestantism right down to the dwindling numbers of both worshipers and weddings from within the congregation.

Two thoughts struck me as I read this paragraph:

  1. Dr. Mohler's linking of liberal and decline conveniently ignores a particularly important statistic concerning his own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has experienced a consistent decline of its own since 2007.  I raise this issue not necessarily to denigrate the efforts of my brothers and sisters who happen to be Southern Baptist, but to draw attention to, what I take to be, the faulty premise of drawing a bright line of cause and effect between liberal and decline.  As the membership decline among the traditionally conservative Southern Baptists indicates, there's more to decline than liberal theology.
  2. I also think that a linkage between faithfulness and the size of one's community is a presumption that fails the most basic of hermeneutical tests--that is, the life of Jesus.  Since the size of Jesus' community dwindled considerably the closer he got to the ultimate act of faithfulness--which is to say, his crucifixion--it seems an idiosyncratic interpretative twist to equate the crowd size of the approving with the doing of God's will.
I also had a few thoughts about his commentary as it related to my own thoughts on the subject.  Mohler writes:
To his credit, Rev. Penwell does not deny that the Bible condemns all homosexual behaviors as sin. Instead, he employs a trajectory hermeneutic that argues that new contexts require fundamentally different ways of understanding even what the Bible clearly addresses.
And whether I deserve any credit or not, Dr. Mohler is correct that I do not explicitly "deny that the Bible condemns all homosexual behaviors as sin."  What this observation fails to take into account, however, is that the homosexuality of which he disapproves as a modern arrangement (a mutually loving relationship between two people of the same gender, with a potential for lifelong commitment) bears little resemblance to the kinds of non-mutual sexual acts proscribed by scripture.   That defense is beyond the scope of this post.  But suffice it to say that it is possible to read scripture in ways that take into consideration the differences between temporal and socio-historical location as important for understanding "what the Bible clearly addresses."
Which assertion leads me to another thought: the issue of "understanding . . . what the Bible clearly addresses" is question-begging of a whole different magnitude.  The question of what the Bible addresses, as Dr. Mohler is aware, is never quite as "clear" as he leads his readers to believe.  If the Bible were as "clearly" self-evident as Dr. Mohler suggests, there would be no need for hermeneutics of any sort--his, mine, or anyone else's.  If interpreting scripture  were as simple as attending to "what the Bible clearly addresses."  Neither would there be a need for schools of theology in seminaries, like his own, since all one would need to do would be to open up the Bible and read it to get a clear, uncontroversial understanding of what the authors intended.
So, his argument is that the Holy Spirit may now be “revealing to us God’s true vision of the ways things ought to be with respect to homosexuality” — a vision very different from that actually found in the Bible.
Dr. Mohler also takes as significant to his critique of me to remark upon the fact that my argument about homosexuality is "a vision very different from that actually found in the Bible."  I take this not to be a particularly devestating criticisim, since it is the whole point of my article; which is to say, it is the point that the discontinuity between what the Bible proscribes and the modern practice of homosexuality is so large as to be actually talking about two different things.  Moreover, that the Bible reveals a vision of the world, parts of which we no longer recognize as relevant to us (insert your favorite stoning passage here), is a commonplace recognized in greater or lesser ways by everyone who seeks to interpret scripture.  The question is not whether we have to interpret the Bible in ways unanticipated by first centry Christians (we do), but which parts of the Bible make sense of our contemporary world in ways that reveal God's ongoing pursuit of those whom God loves.
Consequently, Mohler is right when he says:
And thus, the fundamental divide over biblical authority and interpretation is laid bare for all to see. The real issue is not same-sex marriage or even sexuality. The fundamental issue is the authority and interpretation of the Bible.
However, to keep it as a controversy over hermeneutics rather than as an issue of justice is to argue over jots and tittles at the expense those who are being kicked to the margins, all while being denied the loving hospitality of God's people.  I'm pretty confident that Dr. Mohler and I will not come soon to a meeting of the minds on how this issue ought to be settled, but it is important to say that Dr. Mohler represents but one way of seeking to interpret scripture faithully--a proud one his apparent dismissiveness betrays.

See How Crazy We Are?

Do you see why maybe we can't get this whole gun thing straight?  Here's a screen shot from the Huffington Post about fifteen minutes ago.  Notice the circled advertisement at the bottom--underneath all of the handwringing about the shooting in Arizona.  We'll never get it right at this rate.

There's No Backing into Adulthood

I guess I realized I was an adult when I found myself in East Tennessee with a new wife and no job. I had graduated from college four weeks earlier, and then got married just two weeks prior to loading up my grandfather’s Chevy pickup and launching out into the great unknown of, what I took to be, adulthood. We moved to Tennessee so I could go to graduate school. There was a little money left over from the honeymoon, which I thought would last us a month or so, providing we could eat on fifty dollars a week. I figured a month would be plenty of time for us both to find jobs and start living like grown-ups.

It occurs to me now that foresight was not a virtue I possessed at twenty-two, because I did not, as I had anticipated, find a job. My wife, at nineteen, already much more readily employable than I, found a part time job as a hostess at the restaurant in the Holiday Inn. Her income, it will not surprise you to know, didn’t turn out to be enough to sustain us. And so, with a nearly empty refrigerator and no prospects for employment on the horizon, we packed up the truck and headed back to Detroit to live with my in-laws.

We didn’t stay too long—though her parents could not have been nicer. After four months we’d both found jobs making sufficient money to move to a small apartment—her working in a doctor’s office, and me in a Speedway.

One might reasonably inquire as to why a situation that resulted in me moving back in with my in-laws made me aware of my status as an adult. Generally speaking, such a move, at least psychologically, means a failure to live up to the standards set for grown-up living. However, it strikes me that though we had folks helping us take care of our basic needs, no one was going to parachute in to right our listing financial ship. A little assistance here and there to help us keep our heads above water, but nobody offered to buy us a boat. It felt lonely at first (and still does sometimes).

But what I finally realized about our predicament was that nobody was going to live our lives for us. Being an adult takes courage and some intentionality, a commitment to hanging on when hanging on seems impossible.

But lest this degenerate into some kind of morally edifying self-help anecdote, it also occurs to me that it’s critical to point out that we were kept afloat. We had people who loved us, who wouldn’t let us fall through the cracks. It is a hard thing to realize that not everyone is so fortunate—and that we could very easily, if just a few things were different, be the people we read about living under viaducts in cardboard boxes. So while living can’t be done by proxy, it can’t be done in isolation either.

Faith, it seems to me, works along the same lines. On the one hand, the spiritual lone wolf is a non-starter; on the other hand, walking through a crowd of people on a journey you happen not to be taking doesn’t make you a pilgrim either. You can neither go it alone nor rely entirely on others to do your work for you. Somewhere in the mysterious middle lies maturity—both as a human being and as a seeker of God.

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The Constraints of Freedom

“And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of the tree of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.  That is the sacred principle woven into the very fabric of consumerism.  The trick of advertising is that when you’ve reached the point where you’ve consumed all that’s necessary to sustain life, you need to be convinced that you won’t sleep well, your breath won’t smell right, your dishes won’t sparkle, your relationships will be shallow, your bread will go stale, your image in the neighborhood will be irrevocably tarnished, and your dog won’t love you unless you consume more.

The thing market economies are good at is multiplying choice.  We’ve evolved, for instance, from that primitive era in which we only had three T.V. channels from which to choose.  Now we have dozens of channels, receiving literally hundreds of choices about what we ought to consume and how we ought to spend our time.

Market economies are unquestionably good at multiplying choice.  What they are incapable of, however, is helping you decide when enough is too much, or even when enough is enough.  And apart from your personal taste, they’re unable to provide you with a compelling moral account of why it would be better to make this choice as opposed to that one.  Market economies care less about the choices you make than about ensuring that you’ll always believe that making some kind of choice is unqualifiedly good and that it is the height of human vocation.

But is the multiplication of choices, by definition, good?  Are merely having more options from which to choose automatically morally preferable?  It could be argued that, having three television channels and finding nothing on, it’s conceivably possible to get up and go do something else, something perhaps even more constructive, say, than watching television.  But if there are 500 hundred channels laid out in front of you, it becomes almost impossible to say “There’s nothing on television right now worth watching” because the assumption is that with 500 hundred channels, surely there must be something on.  I only have to look harder for it.  So that, not only am I not spending my time on something arguably more constructive than watching television, I’m not even spending my time watching television.  I’m spending your time, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, looking for “what else” is on television.

In this account of God’s dealings with Adam and Even, God does something to which we are almost innately opposed: God limits our freedom.  God sets up a wall.  But perhaps, we, who are so used to seeing walls as an encroachment upon the pursuit of our unrestrained freedoms, miss the point here.  Apparently, what God is doing here has less to do with keeping Adam, and his soon to be partner Eve, from getting to the greener grass on the other side, than from keeping what is toxic in the green grass on the other side from getting to them.

Thomas Merton, upon becoming a monk, made an interesting observation.  He reported that the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani served as “the four walls of my new freedom.”

What a paradox.  We serve a God who sees what we cannot see, blinded as we are by our obsequious devotion to the consumerist principle of choice, that a new situation isn’t necessarily the answer to our prayers.  We serve a God who knows what we cannot know, given our expectation that we ought to be able to do what we want to do for no other reason than that we want to do it—that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.  In fact, the grass that seems greenest may already be dead and merely painted brightly.  We serve a God who understands what we cannot understand, enthralled as we are by this world’s visions of liberty—that it’s possible to be caught in the vicious grip of the constraints of freedom.

And it’s only when we give ourselves fully into the hands of the one whom we formerly thought meant only to constrain us, that we can begin to see that the walls God builds provide shelter from the stones thrown by a hostile world, that the "chains" God uses to bind the world are the ones that give it its greatest liberation, that the nails used to bind one man to a tree are the keys God uses to set the whole world free.

I'm Coming out of the Closet

Remembering Ronald Reagan

I'm coming out of the closet--in 1984, I voted for Ronald Reagan. Why, you may wonder, would that qualify as my favorite mistake? As it turns out, in the aftermath of the Reagan Revolution, I was so disgusted with politics that I didn't vote again until the 2000 election,when I voted for Ralph Nader--which, given how things unfolded, proved to be one of my least favorite mistakes. I call my vote for Reagan one of my favorite mistakes because it gives me a backdrop against which I now view the moral failure of the resurgence of the uncritically pro-capitalist, pro-business, pro-screw-poor-people, libertarianism that drives a certain tea loving constituency in politics today.

Critics will rightly point out here that Reagan might well have found the Tea-baggers unsavory as well. I'm not arguing that he would have been running around with Rand Paul and Sarah Palin, ginning up support by patronizing Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, screaming for Obama's birth certificate and channeling Cassandra on the issue of death panels. As much as it might pain Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer to admit, Reagan would most likely be considered a nasty moderate if he showed up on the scene today. Nevertheless, what he did do was provide political cover for people whose primary motivation has to do with accumulating more at the expense of those who already have less. The primary message of those who oppose healthcare reform, who support the throw-out-the-immigrants-and-let-me-pick-tomatoes impulse to xenophobia, who believe BP and Goldman-Sachs et al. are getting a bum-rap, who made a constitutional ban on same sex marriage (and not an ill-conceived war) the fundamental issue in the 2004 election is . . . I've got mine; and if you don't have yours, that signals a defect in you. Not, mind you, a defect in the system, but in the individual--who, it is believed, is inherently lazy, venal, and short-sighted with respect to self-interest.

Again, critics will take delight in observing that there clearly are poor people who are lazy, venal, and short-sighted (e.g., Reagan's tone-deaf reference to "welfare queens"). To which I would respond that those character flaws are not merely reserved to the poor (e.g., Tony Hayward's tone deaf reference to getting back his life on the yacht). Moreover, there are plenty of poor people who are industrious, honest, and who take the long view, but who have been hemmed in by a system that stacks the deck in favor of smart aleck white guys like me.

So, there you go. I was a contributor to the current cultural grabfest. Admitting it is the first step on the path to recovery. The real test of recovery, however, isn't confession, but making amends. I continue to hope that that includes for me a lifetime of seeking justice. One thing's for sure, though, it wouldn't have been possible for me without a big mistake. So now you know my dirty little secret. Let history deal fairly with me.

Technology and the Stories We Tell

“Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

“This is still another way of defining Technopoly.  The term is aptly used for a culture whose available theories do not offer guidance about what is acceptable information in the moral domain”  (Neil Postman, Technopoly, 79).

We live in a world in which technology is generally viewed as unqualifiedly good.  There is no problem so great, we think, that if the right minds are applied to it, cannot be solved through innovation.  Life presented humanity with a problem: everybody keeps dying off.  “How can we keep that from happening?” we wondered.  So we put some folks on it who came back with all sorts of machines and medicines and therapies capable of substantially extending life.  As a result, now even if we can’t cheat death finally, we can at least hold out for awhile thanks to technology.  Only, what technology cannot provide is a coherent account as to why it is better for a person to live than to die.

Currently, we live in the “information age.”  The thing we have yet to come to terms with, though, is whether or not it is possible to have too much information or whether the information we have is of any value.  Technology may be able to solve the problem of building a better wicket, but it is incapable of telling us why our lives would be enriched (or devalued) by access to new and improved wickets.  Technology cannot tell us how our use of wickets will impact our children’s development as moral agents.  Technology cannot give us any help in determining whether these new wickets will make us better people or merely people more reliant on emerging wicket technology to make it through the day.

We’ve been seduced by the idea that technology is always our friend—which, since, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, ought to be problematic.  The assumption we cling to as a culture is one derived from a system of morality, however, which states that if we can do something, invent something, create something through technological means, we should.  What we often fail to take into consideration is that each new technology, each advance in existing technology comes to us with a price.  There is a cost that accompanies every benefit; and technology by itself is incapable of helping us to tell the difference.  In order to do that, you need a narrative that purports to tell you what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.

Paul writes to the folks in Thessolonica that the church relies on a greater story than the technological one to help people know what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong.  He tells them that they learn how to discern good from bad, right from wrong by learning a different account of reality, embodied in the lives of those who, through their proximity to Jesus Christ, know a little something about reality.  One cannot learn to be a good person apart from a story that claims to produce good people.  One cannot even learn what a good person is apart from a story that claims to know what one looks like.

Technology is just as likely to destroy the world as save it; and, in fact, it couldn’t tell you why one would be preferable to the other.  No.  If you want to be able to make moral decisions in this world, then you need a better story.

Christians, not coincidentally, tell a story about the destruction and salvation of the world, and it just happens to be embodied in a Jewish carpenter who was destroyed by the technology of his day as a way of saving the world.  If you learn “how you ought to live and to please God” from him, you won’t have many problems finding “acceptable information in the moral domain.”

The War We Lost

“For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).

Looking about the tattered landscape of our modern world, we find ourselves at a loss to explain the unexplainable horrors about us.  Terrorism, hunger, violence, gangs, drugs all threaten to bleed into our living rooms.  It feels like we live in a war zone.

And that’s how we like to speak about it—as a war.  We figure that if we call it a war, that means that we’re serious about it.  Whatever problems we face, we imagine the most committed response we can make is to declare war.  So back in the 60s the country declared a war on poverty.  Then in the 80s the country turned its martial attentions to the drug problem, and it was no time before the U.S. had a war on drugs.  After 9/11, we’ve waged a war on another abstraction—terrorism.

As consumers we are constantly being asked to wage war on those unwanted pounds and on those unsightly gray hairs.  There used to be a commercial that showed an adolescent's face, called it a war zone, and sought to persuade pubescents horrified by acne that if they were serious about getting rid of pimples, they needed to “oxycute ‘em.”

We like the imagery, don’t we?  If we declare war on something, we feel committed to the prospect of defeating whatever nefarious element it is we’ve declared war on.  It occurs to me that the reason we declare war on everything from zits to fleas and ticks to other human beings is because we feel out of control and war is a way of feeling like we’re taking back the reins of power, restoring an order we’re comfortable with.  We get scared, we feel like we’re losing control, so we declare war.

In the garden God says, “Do what you want, but stay away from that tree over there.”  The serpent whispers in our ear, “Who’s God to tell you what to do?  Who’s God to control your lives?  This is a free country, and God’s trying to take away your freedom.  You better take back control of your life.”

So we wage a covert war against the God who would dare ask for control of our lives.  And we feel justified, because we've convinced ourselves that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever we think will bring us gratification.  And if God doesn’t like it, so much the worse for God.  We have put ourselves at odds with the God who created us.  The way Paul puts it is that we were enemies with God.

The amazing thing, though, is that, according to Paul, God was not satisfied with our little war.  We were anxious to seize control of our lives, but God wasn’t content to let it go at that.  God wasn’t pleased to be our enemy in this unilateral skirmish we declared.  In fact, in a unilateral move of his own, God declared war on the sin and death that separated us from him.  Without ever asking our opinion, without considering what we wanted, without regard to our claims of self-government, God sent his son to meet us in our rebellion, and God surrendered.  Into the thick of our obsession with ourselves, God surrendered his son into our hands.  And having declared war on anything or anyone that would presume to limit our control of our lives, we executed him.

Therein lies the great irony of course: In delivering Jesus into our hands, God committed the ultimate act of surrender.  And it was in that surrender that God won the war.

We were determined to own ourselves, determined to be enemies with God, determined to wage war on God, and in sending his son to die at our hands, we lost the war.  We wanted so badly to have life on our own terms, loving only ourselves, “But God proves his love for us,” Paul says, “in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us . . . For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:8, 10).

The goal of war is to win.  We declared war on God, but by the grace of God, that was the war we lost.  And in winning the war God set the terms of peace. The terms of peace dictated to us . . . total and unconditional surrender to the one who first surrendered to us.

The goal of war may be to win, but in the economy of the reign of God, the war we lost might save our lives.

The Living God

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

“We die and we die and we die, not only physicallyBwithin seven years every cell in our body is renewed—but emotionally and spiritually as change seizes us by the scruff of the neck and drags us forward into another life.  We are not here simply to exist.  We are here in order to become” (Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths).

The writer of Hebrews writes a letter to a community that was apparently on the verge of reconsidering its commitment to Christ.  The author uses an extended argument to demonstrate to the reader that living as a Christian, as painful as it might be because of institutionalized persecution, is superior to their former lives.  Commitment to Jesus surpasses all other attempts at worshiping God.  Apparently, however, the readers of the letter to the Hebrews were having second thoughts, and were beginning to abandon their faith in Christ in favor of their former attachments.

The Hebrews’ writer writes: “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of Grace?” (Heb. 10:29).  In effect, the Hebrews= writer says, “You can't go back.”

Let’s be honest: there are times when each of us wishes our faith didn’t ask as much from us.  We wind up organizing church events for people who don’t come.  We have to get out of bed on our only day off.  We can’t do all the things that television causes to look so appetizing.  Then we start to think that our faith is certainly cumbersome, not allowing us to do all the things we’d like.  And we wonder what life would be like if we didn’t have God telling us what to do all the time, which we guiltily admit to ourselves sounds pretty good.

Prayer starts to come harder.  Reading scripture seems increasingly like a burden we shouldn’t have to endure.  We begin to think of places where we can get a greater return on our hard earned money.  Lies come easier.  We find an unlimited number of excuses for being away from the Lord’s Table.

God, this whole faith thing is costing an awful lot more than I expected.  Can’t we just tone it down some?  No sense being fanatical about it, is there?  I thought faith was supposed to help me fine-tune my self-image.

All of a sudden, we hear the echoes of the Hebrew writer saying, “You can’t turn back.  You can’t return to the security of your former life, because you died and your life is hidden now in Christ.  You must stay the course.  You must grow.”

“But it asks so much of me.”

“We are not here simply to exist.  We are here in order to become.”

“I don't know if I’ll survive the changes God requires of me.”

“One thing’s for sure: you won’t survive not changing—because not changing is, by definition, death.”

“But, I’m afraid.”

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.”