Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Brian McLaren's Self-Confessed Uncertainty has a blog where today Brian McLaren comments on homosexuality. McLaren’s comments are introduced by the words, “Brian shares a story that reveals the complexity of the homosexual question—a question where theology, truth, sin, grace, culture, politics, and pastoral wisdom collide.” Brian writes,” Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.”
Now minimally, I am confused. First, I think a case can be made that the biblical and theological understanding of the homosexual question is not that complex. Yes there are differing interpretations, but "complexity" is not the issue. I think they are fairly easy to understand. What's needed is choice. Thus I am a pastor who believes I know a lot about what I should think about this because I have made a hermeneutical choice. I do not feel confused. Nor do I think I should feel confused. But what does now confuse me is that the proposition “There may be a legitimate context for some homosexual relations” may be true. Please show me how the “biblical arguments are [so] nuanced and multilayered” that I should entertain the possible truth of this statement? And, of course, liberal theologians have already made this claim in varying degrees of strength for a long time now.
Are the “pastoral ramifications” “staggeringly complex?” Not in my estimation. A lot of pastoral work is very hard. I worked in campus ministry for eleven years and met with homosexually oriented students. A few of these were long-term situations. For example, I met for two years straight, usually every week, with a young man who was homosexually oriented. I can tell you that I loved him then and love him now while at the same time holding to the view that homosexual orientation, on the biblical view, is sin. This did not seem to offend him. Nor was I ever perceived to be some kind of great offense to anyone I met with in this regard. There’s no strictly logical incompatibility between holding to such a biblical view and loving anybody. Personally, I see my own sins and failures past and present so clearly at times that I feel a capacity to love anybody (not that I always do, and that failure itself I see as sin). Personally I did not feel some kind of "staggering" complexity about these encounters. I find a lot of interpersonal situations very complex.And some of these situations have caused me to struggle with the scriptures too.
I think Brian has a kind of false trichotomy at work here. It’s either conservatives or liberals, both of whom “seem to know exactly how we should think.” So, there’s conservatives who know what “we” should think. Then there are liberals who know what “we” should think. And finally there’s “we.” But I don’t want to be associated with any of these three groups. I want to be a person who knows – as far as this is possible – what to think (as I believe Christ knew who he was, unless we have a confused Willem-Dafoe type Kazantzakis Christ who really is a pretty confused Christ), and in that thinking be humble, and also be a person who loves all others as Christ loves all others. I’d also like to be loved even though I am not in any of the three McLaren groupings. And finally, I want mostly I give thanks to Brian for the work that God is doing through him to draw people to Jesus.
[NOTE: McLaren's original post has generated a lot of heat and some light. These posts appear on's "Out of Ur" blog. McLaren's newest post includes some confession re. unclarity and some clarification re. issues. While Brian calls for pastoral compassion he chooses not to give his own theological position on the h-issue. I wish he would do this. Why? I commented on the blog that I believe theological position informs pastoral application. Then, a dialectic begins between theological position and pastoral application. But I think both are needed. So Brian, if you want to help someone like me on an issue like this, please give me both theological position and pastoral application. Because you ask, “if you are certain without a shadow of doubt that homosexual behavior is always wrong, where do you draw the line?” This is a good question. But if I, the reader, am uncertain where a writer is on a position, how do I make any sense of pastoral application? Different theological positions raise different questions as to where to “draw the line.”
I’ll add this: State a position on anything and an “us/them” situation will be there. I don’t see how this can be avoided. I do see how hating and mocking and ridiculing “them” can be avoided. But I say again, using Brian’s language, ”we” always “deteriorates” into “us/them.” I think it did for Jesus. The issue for me then becomes how we speak both love and truth at that point. And a toughie for me then becomes the real application of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his children would "all be one, as he and the Father are one." I'm going to begin asking for God's help to empower me to apply this in my own marriage and with my sons.]

Dennett & religion as a function of biology

The atheist Daniel Dennett believes that religious belief is a function of biology. In an interview in Sunday’s Dennett says, “belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can. I think the time has come to shed our taboo that says, "Oh, let's just tiptoe by this, we don't have to study this." People think they know a lot about religion. But they don't know.” Dennett is asked, “So what can you tell us about God?” He replies, “Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world - that's a hopeless idea. There is no such thing.”
My problem with this kind of response remains as follows. If religious belief is a function of biology, are there any beliefs that are not a function of biology? Are, for example, Dennett’s beliefs a function of biology? If they are, then why accept them? Why accept Dennett’s idea that religious beliefs are a function of biology if his idea is itself a function of biology?
If Dennett’s own ideas about religion are themselves a function of biology, then does that make them suspect? If not, then religious beliefs are also not suspect simply because they are a function of biology. And if religious idas and even all ideas are in part or entirely a function of biology to say that this renders them suspect is to commit the genetic fallacy.
If Dennett claims that his particular beliefs/theories/ideas about religious beliefs are not themselves a function of biology, what makes them so? How are his ideas not a function of biology when my religious ideas are? Last year I read Dennett’s book Freedom Evolves and had the same problems when he began talking like this. I find such talk incoherent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Kanye West as Jesus?

On the new cover of Rolling Stone Magazine is a picture of rapper Kanye West with a crown of thorns on his head posing as Jesus Christ. Words fail to describe the lack of an analogy between West-as-suffering-Messiah to the Real Jesus. Is West making some kind of statement? If so it is only a personal statement, since West’s life has little evidence of a life that sacrifices itself for others and atones for the sins of others through suffering. The "passion" of Kanye West? As in "The Passion of the Christ?" Please... give me a huge break! True, West has suffered. But he, unlike Christ, has deserved a lot of it. He caught grief when he said "George Bush doesn't care about black people" during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims.” Which, in my opinion, was nonsense because false. While Jesus was the God-man Kanye West is, like all of us, human, all too human. Kanye West as some kind of Isaianic "suffering servant" is phenomenally ridiculous.
If West does have a Messiah complex it’s both sad and laughable. I must underscore this: just look at the serious, pained face of West with the thorns on his head and don't you feel like busting out in laughter because of the total inanity of this image? And don't you also feel a righteous anger at the phenomenal devaluing of Jesus down to Kanye West? Here analogies do fail. You could call a Stradivarius a ukelele if you wanted to. You could call an Outback steak a White Castle "burger." One could link, in a simile, a visit to the Louvre with a trip to K-Mart, or standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon with staring at a pothole. One could describe the words of Barney as Shakespearean. But for West to intimate any personal likeness to Jesus stretches even the greatest of imaginations to their limit. All one can do in the face of such absurdity is stare, open-mouthed, at once laughing at the silliness of the thing, on the other hand feeling ticked off at the arrogance. And it is selfish, because West will probably make even more money off of imitating Jesus because of how "radical" he (i.e. West) is. The only good news in all of this is that the current, limited fame of West will soon pass while Jesus, as always, will remain.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Why are some healed and others not?

As I am preaching through the life of Jesus we are now in the early parts of the gospels where Jesus is healing people and casting out demons. Why is he doing this? Because Jesus’ basic, central message is: “The kingdom of God is near.” Which means, Jesus shows that the Real King is here by demonstrating his authority over diseases and the demonic.
For this coming Sunday I will preach out of Mark 1:40-45, where a leper comes up and begs Jesus to heal him. The leper says to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Yes says “I am willing.”
I will probably address, in this coming message, the question of the willingness of Jesus to heal. If someone comes this Sunday to be healed, is Jesus willing to do it? We have and are seeing healings take place in our church. But why is not everyone being healed? For one response to this, see Francis MacNutt’s article here. Francis and Judith were with us at a conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin a few years ago. I admire their gentle approach to healing that understands the issue of authority in a right, biblical way.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The "Prosperity Gospel" in Black Churches and Martin Luther King Day

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Last week it was my great privilege to personally and individually meet with several black Christian pastors and leaders. Through being with them I was given a lot of understanding about relevant situations in today’s black church. One of these leaders is doing a project and writing a book on the loss of the prophetic voice in the black church today because it has acquiesced to the god of money and now preaches the “prosperity gospel.” The sad truth is that many black churches have left the real Gospel and preach the false “prosperity gospel.” (As have, of course, many white and Latino and Asian churches.)
These black churches have no right to celebrate Martin Luther King Day because their prosperity gospel teachings are the near antithesis of the teachings of King, which were far closer to the real Gospel than their teachings are.
Consider this quote that King wrote while in Birmingham Jail: “There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinions; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a “colony of heaven” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is being consoled by the church’s silent – and often even vocal – sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic? Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and world?”
Those churches that proclaim the “prosperity gospel” are archdefenders of the status quo. In their prosperity teachings they are but the echo of our materialistic consumer culture. Some of these churches are very big in numbers. The size of these churches sadly attests to the number of Christians who have been seduced by these unbiblical teachings. And Martin Luther King would be saddened, too.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Banality of the "Prosperity Gospel"

In today’s New York Times we read, sadly, that the “prosperity gospel” is establishing “a foothold in New York City.” It’s sad because it is a false and misleading so-called “gospel.” And, it is a non-empowering, banal and trivial gospel.
The word “gospel” means, literally, “good news.” The real “good news” of the actual 4 Gospels is NOT about getting rich. It has never been about this. The prosperity “gospel” makes the mistake of selectively quoting certain Old Testament texts and ignoring the teachings of Jesus. Jesus speaks a lot about money and possessions, and his words are not favorably disposed towards them. In fact, money is viewed by Jesus as a “god” (“Mammon”) that will compete with him for ultimate allegiance.
Since September I have been reading, for my own devotional times, the 4 Gospels. I challenge anyone to read these essential Jesus documents and come up with a prosperity gospel. It is not only not there, it is spoken against.
"Prosperity gospel" teachers have acquiesced to American materialism. This is precisely the sort of thing that will cause us, for example, to lose opportunities to win Muslims for Christ. Muslim leaders who equate Christianity with Western materialistic values will only be more convinced that Christianity is really about this. This should cause all followers of the Real Jesus to be outraged as our Lord is misrepresented to the world.
I am currently working with a black scholar who is writing a book I consider to be prophetic. Her thesis is that the Black Church has lost its prophetic voice and sunk into the banality of prosperity teaching. In the 50’s and 60’s the Black Church was a true prophetic voice to a racist culture. Now, a lot of Black Churches have simply become that culture in the sense of being conformed to the standards of this world (Romans 12:1-2). By this I don’t mean that they are necessarily racist, but that the same spirit of world conformity that caused a lot of Christians to be passively racist now causes some Christians to passively conform to the money god.
Read the 4 Gospels for yourself. Discover the truth about the Real Jesus, who was radical and revolutionary and truly world-changing. Jesus is the Son of Man who said “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Why would one of his followers want to be rich if Jesus himself didn’t even have a place to lay his head?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Westernization of Islam

As Muslim nations are exposed to Western culture Islam is diminished. Muslim clerics and scholars know this. Thus, for them, the great threat to Islam is not Christianity but Western culture. Or, it is Christianity-as-equivalent-to-Western culture. This is what we see happening in Istanbul. And by “Islam” I do not mean “nominal Islam” but the real thing, which in religion always includes passion, devotion, and belief. This places the world in the weird situation of Europe becoming Islamified and some Muslim countries becoming westernized. The advance of Islamic culture in Western Europe is real and, unless Europeans start becoming fruitful and seriously multiplying, this advance seems inexorable. On the other hand the advance of Western culture in certain Islamic nations is real and, unless these nations tighten their grip on this and begin banning the artifacts and music and trinkets of Western values, this advance seems inexorable. What does this mean for serious Christians (as opposed to nominal ones)? I think it means these two things: 1) Serious European Christians have an opportunity to reach immigrant Muslims for Christ by their love and witness; and 2) the doors are opening in those Muslim nations that allow Western stuff to get in. The basic problem will be dis-identifying Christianity with Western culture.

The Islamification of Western Civilization

Western civilization as we have known it is at risk. Why? Because Western civilizations are being “Islamified.” Mark Steyn, writing in The New Criterion, puts it this way: “The design flaw of the secular social-democratic state is that it requires a religious-society birth rate to sustain it. Post-Christian hyper-rationalism is, in the objective sense, a lot less rational than Catholicism or Mormonism. Indeed, in its reliance on immigration to ensure its future, the European Union has adopted a twenty-first-century variation on the strategy of the Shakers, who were forbidden from reproducing and thus could only increase their numbers by conversion. The problem is that secondary- impulse societies mistake their weaknesses for strengths—or, at any rate, virtues—and that’s why they’re proving so feeble at dealing with a primal force like Islam.”
Steyn says that when Islamic jihadists try to go toe-to-toe against Western military might they lose. But as they are moving into Europe and America and having more babies than European types, over time they will win the war. Muslims “know they can never win on the battlefield, but they figure there’s an excellent chance they can drag things out until western civilization collapses in on itself and Islam inherits by default.”
Steyn writes: “We’re pretty much awash in resources, but we’re running out of people—the one truly indispensable resource, without which none of the others matter. Russia’s the most obvious example: it’s the largest country on earth, it’s full of natural resources, and yet it’s dying—its population is falling calamitously.”
“The hard data on babies around the western world is that they’re running out a lot faster than the oil is. “Replacement” fertility rate—i.e., the number you need for merely a stable population, not getting any bigger, not getting any smaller—is 2.1 babies per woman. Some countries are well above that: the global fertility leader, Somalia, is 6.91, Niger 6.83, Afghanistan 6.78, Yemen 6.75. Notice what those nations have in common?” The answer is: they are all Muslim countries.
“The world’s people are a lot more Islamic than they were back then and a lot less “western.” Europe is significantly more Islamic, having taken in during that period some 20 million Muslims (officially)—or the equivalents of the populations of four European Union countries (Ireland, Belgium, Denmark, and Estonia). Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the west: in the UK, more Muslims than Christians attend religious services each week.”
“Can these trends continue for another thirty years without having consequences? Europe by the end of this century will be a continent after the neutron bomb: the grand buildings will still be standing but the people who built them will be gone. We are living through a remarkable period: the self-extinction of the races who, for good or ill, shaped the modern world.”
“What will London—or Paris, or Amsterdam—be like in the mid-Thirties? If European politicians make no serious attempt this decade to wean the populace off their unsustainable thirty-five-hour weeks, retirement at sixty, etc., then to keep the present level of pensions and health benefits the EU will need to import so many workers from North Africa and the Middle East that it will be well on its way to majority Muslim by 2035. As things stand, Muslims are already the primary source of population growth in English cities. Can a society become increasingly Islamic in its demographic character without becoming increasingly Islamic in its political character?”

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Islam in Istanbul

Istanbul is a sprawling city of 15 million people. It also has 2200 Islamic mosques. Five times a day the call to prayer sounds forth from the countless minarets. People assemble in the mosque courtyards to kneel, bow, and pray. But the young people of Istanbul are not among them. In talking with Dan and his team, their observation is that Turkish teens and young adults are not much interested in Islam. My brief 8-day observations are the same. Young Turks are interested in Western European and American things. Consumerism and style are the new religion. Look at the entrance to a mosque when prayer time is over and you’ll see mostly a bunch of old men exiting. In lieu of a dissipating Islamic spiritual presence in Istanbul there appears a dark spiritual vacuum, which will never be satisfied by Western materialism. Thus it is a time of great opportunity for the message of Christ to be available to the masses of youth who will eventually begin to seek out the deeper answers to life.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Istanbul & Philadelphia

I'm in Philadelphia this week working as Project Director for 13 doctoral students at Palmer Theological Seminary. I have 13 3-hour meetings where I meet with the students and evaluate their doctoral projects.

Linda, Josh and I returned last Thursday from 8 days in Istanbul, Turkey where we got to be with Dan. What an incredible trip, an incredible city! Great eating, saw ancient and modern things, shopped, the weather was warm (50s & 60s), did a lot of thinking, had several eye-opening moments, got a greater global perspective, finally read The Da Vinci Code (aarghh!!), road boats across the Straits of Bosphous, drank coffee in the best Starbuck's I've ever been in, ate real Turkish Delight, walked everywhere, rode in a taxi at 90+ mph, shopped at the enormous (3000+ stores under one roof) Grand Bazaar, stood in awe inside the Hagia Sophia, loved being with Dan's friend Allie, met the great members of his team, ate lunch with Jake & Katie Baker, watched sumo wrestling on Turkish tv, saw mosques everywhere, read a bio of Nietzsche & a bio of Wittgenstein, bought Linda perfume in Paris (at the airport), loved being with my family...