14 November 2019

When bad news is good news

Thirteen years ago, I wrote a blog post, Can evangelicals reproduce?, which was sparked by a New York Times article, "Evangelicals fear the loss of their teenagers." The downward trend that Ron Luce bemoaned seems to be continuing, along with a stream of articles about this exodus from the churches.

I mentioned a couple of these articles a few weeks ago in the links section. "Two different takes on trends in church-going attendance among younger adults: Christine Emba. Rick Snedeker." Some of the evidence suggests that demographic and sociological trends are driving this loss of attendance, but Vance Morgan, in his blog post Noah and his children: bad news for white evangelical Christians, cites recent op-ed columns by Michael Gerson in support of another major factor: the church is actually driving them away.
The younger generation of people raised in evangelicalism have “an allergic reaction to the religious right.” Imagine that. The very movement created, largely by white evangelicals, for the expressed purpose of strengthening the role of religion in the public square has managed to alienate greater and greater numbers of Americans, particularly the young, from religion.
I'm sure that some leaders, whose concern for tradition and power exceeds their desire to do actual evangelism, will say that these trends prove that this generation cannot endure the gospel, that Paul's prophecy in 2 Timothy 4:3 is coming true:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
I'm sure that this is a fair criticism some percentage of the time. But this sort of pandering has been going on forever -- Paul himself complained about it in his own time. Question: which of these is a more likely factor in this era's exodus from the churches: new waves of massive rebellion against the gracious good news of Jesus, or an unholy enmeshment of Christian celebrity culture with right-wing politics ... and now with a president who boasts openly -- and, for the most part, accurately -- that "the evangelicals love me"?

(At the risk of overinterpreting the word "the" -- it sounds to me as if Trump is referring to "the evangelicals" not as a family he himself identifies with, but as a voting bloc he has won over.)

The ones who are refusing to "put up with sound doctrine" are those who have neglected evangelism by word and deed, preferring to use the power of religious language to divide and manipulate. This is not attractive -- it is repulsive, and the statistics reflect it. It's in this sense that bad news (for the religious establishment) is good news. It is good news that these compromised versions of the Gospel, in which Jesus barely gets the time of day, are being unmasked. Let's now serve a Gospel that makes its way in the public marketplace of ideas and inspiration through its own merits, free from association with the unholy agendas that threatened its good name.

Cat update: (This is probably what you really came here for.)

It's been just over three weeks since our two little Hebron kitties joined our team, and one week since we started giving them solid-ish food. They have continued to do well. Today we switched them to dry cat food, soaked for a little while in some water to soften the food. They took to it immediately.

Both kittens are growing, but slowly. Latest development: a few days ago, the smaller kitty began purring for the first time, and began letting us hold her for more than a few short seconds.

Postmission is a book that examined generational tensions within evangelical Christianity specifically in the missionary scene, back at the beginning of this century. Go to this post and scroll down for some of the writers' diagnoses.

Helena Cobban resurrects Just World News.

The fall of the Berlin Wall: a day when way opened.

All the days ordained for me.... Life would almost seem normal, except it isn't.

I played the studio version of Derek Lamson's song this morning for our team's reflection time, as we sat under our office's memorial plaque for Tom Fox.

07 November 2019

First principles revisited

Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the U.S. presidential election that gave us Donald Trump. On that election day, Judy and I were still living in Elektrostal, Russia, and our votes had already been cast by e-mail. Around the time that we sent in our votes, back in October 2016, I wrote on this blog:
In arguing against Trump, we are not simply advocating a choice among several normal candidates. We are making a choice against authoritarianism and we should say so clearly.

I'm not advocating scare tactics. It's possible that "it can't happen here," to adopt the rose-colored title of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, given our vaunted system of checks and balances, but the very process of coping with the commands, whims, and misdeeds of a rogue president could plunge our country into constitutional crises on a weekly basis, and thereby prolong our legislative paralysis at the very point we're also destabilizing our ties with the rest of the world.
It didn't take unique prophetic insight to write this -- almost everyone I quoted in that post was saying similar things, along with many other commentators. They were simply drawing conclusions from Trump's campaign pronouncements and his uncanny hold on his core supporters.

So ... despite losing the popular vote, the authoritarian candidate emerged victorious thanks to the Electoral College. Ten weeks later came Trump's inauguration. On the eve of that day, I proposed some first principles for "shaping our discipleship" to meet the challenges of the Trump era. Here they are in all their earnest clumsiness, ready to compare with the experiences we've already had in these past months and years of a rogue presidency. What additions or improvements would you make?

January 19, 2017: I'm writing on the eve of the inauguration of the most unqualified, most thin-skinned, bullying American president in living memory, or perhaps ever. Many people I know in the evangelical community are consulting with each other on shaping our discipleship in light of this reality.

In designing a campaign, I learned from my marketing apprenticeship at Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. (who are not responsible for my politics!!) how important it is to create first principles. Here are some possible first principles: please suggest additions, deletions, improvements! (I'm slightly scared that I'm taking it all too seriously, too!)

1. Don't hide from the truth. It would be wonderful to imagine a presidential outsider finally disrupting the establishment and its conventional wisdom in favor of wildly creative ideas that could truly address the dangerous levels of income inequality in the USA, the stark challenges of global climate change, the replacement of democratic institutions by the ever-growing apparatus of the National Security State, and our imperial habits on the world stage.

In each of these areas, our actual new president shows no evidence of any such capacity -- indeed, in sector after sector of presidential stewardship, he seems to signal retreat (more moneyed people at the top), denial (who needs energy R&D and climate science?), and dangerous levels of chaotic improvisation (national security and international relations).

I see two enormous and more or less opposite dangers (please tell me how I'm wrong!!) ...
  • the era of Trump will totally enthrone the interests of those who see themselves benefiting from the marginalization of vulnerable people and elimination of the social advances associated with the sneering term "political correctness"; or
  • the era of Trump will come to an abrupt end as the top operatives of the National Security State decide that this incredibly loose cannon is too big a risk for the Empire to tolerate. 
As institutions adjust to new leadership, as different levels of government maintain their boundaries, as legislators and lawyers tug at their various ropes, and as our international allies impose their own reality checks on us, we may have better outcomes than this pessimistic summary suggests. Miracles can and do happen. But as a first principle, I want us to remain sober, clear-eyed and vigilant, drawing intelligent conclusions from the evidence.

2. Do not divide the country into pro- and anti-Trump populations. This is crucial! First of all, given the millions of potential voters who stayed home, only 27% of the eligible voting population chose him. And of that 27%, whatever their reasons for choosing Trump or rejecting his opponents, few if any were actually voting in favor of chaos, self-dealing, bankruptcy, or wholesale incompetence in high places. Part of his constituency does support an unprecedentedly authoritarian leader, but even they expect competent performance.

In any case, regardless of our various choices at (or not at) the polls, the whole country is in the same boat -- even, arguably, the super-rich, whose golden eggs might or might not survive a meltdown among the rest of us. The new president has the same job description and the same responsibilities as his predecessors, and it's up to us to hold him to these expectations on behalf of everyone. If he cannot make good on his fabulous campaign promises, it would be a terrible mistake to mock his voters and wait gloatingly for their disenchantment. Seek the good of all!

Friday PS: Part of me honestly hopes that Trump's most fanatical followers do become disenchanted. But massive disenchantment with him doesn't guarantee reconciliation with the rest of the nation. It's up to us to demand and build trustworthy institutions, recognizing that, sadly, some extremists will probably reject reconciliation on any reasonable basis.

3. Resist the degradation of civil discourse. Meryl Streep's thoughtful Golden Globe speech gave one vivid example of what that degradation looked like to her. Trump's reaction to her speech (hurling insults at Streep and her community) just proved her point. Trump's opponents, in turn, often give as good as they get, and we're off to the races ... to the bottom.

Resisting degradation of discourse requires honesty and self-examination. During the presidential campaign, Trump came in for some well-deserved criticism for his arrogant sexual vulgarity, and many of us probably assumed that socially conservative people, perhaps especially evangelical Christians, would be alienated by this behavior. But then I heard a BBC interview with a woman in the American Midwest who totally shrugged it off. Interviews like that one reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with a blue-collar worker in Richmond, Indiana, maybe twenty years ago. When he found out that I was a Quaker, he smilingly informed me that he and his circles took it for granted that Quakers (who had founded the city and who were still generally pillars of Richmond respectability) were the people in charge of making sure nobody in Richmond had any fun. He invited me to hear his favorite local band at a hotel bar. I came a bit early and heard a stand-up comedian telling a sexually explicit story that was beyond raunchy. People laughed! I didn't recognize any Quakers or Earlham College people in the audience. I was shaken by the social distance that was represented for me by that comedian's casual vulgarity and his audience's equally casual indifference.

Here's where the honesty comes in: intellectuals and self-identified sophisticated people can be equally vulgar, just not usually in the same settings. (Recent example: the chortles and puns I heard from liberal commentators discussing the raw intelligence apparently gathered by a retired British spy reporting on rumors of Trump's activities in and with Russia. Don't know what I'm referring to? Give thanks!)

Vulgarity is, among other things, a stress reliever. Different people experience different kinds of stress and have different kinds of training and upbringing to draw on in coping with it. In any case, if we are going to conduct a principled campaign of discipleship in the Trump era, we have to stay civil, whatever the provocation, refusing either to blast back in kind or to retreat into smug elitism.

4. Count the cost of protracted resistance, and organize accordingly. Some of us are Quakers in part precisely because we dislike this kind of combativeness. We will probably need to help each other learn some new skills and disciplines in the area of a dignified ferocity and persistence in engaging in needful conflict for the sake of our social values and priorities. In the division of labor that's inherent in the New Testament concept of spiritual gifts, I hope some of our pastorally-gifted Friends will stay mindful of the psychic cost of being in nearly constant conflict. How will it affect those of us who are naturally inclined to rage, or are even addicted to rage? How will it affect those of us who are totally conflict-avoidant?

If we succeed in muddling through these next years, avoiding those two worst case scenarios or other catastrophic outcomes, it might be because, in seeking to stay grounded in truth and reality, we overestimated the dangers and underestimated the nation's resilience. But it might also just be because we have been practicing love and resistance and truth-telling and prophecy and ethical evangelism and creative confrontation in season and out of season. I see no rest for the Christian community and our allies except as we care for each other and spell each other and heal each other, and extend the same care and vigilance to those who might come unexpectedly into our spheres of influence.

Another source of potential exhaustion will probably be internal conflicts in the resistance. There's no reason to panic about this; learning to conduct conflict ethically is always a useful thing, and we might as well practice among people whose concerns we share. We will probably learn that no one approach or philosophy will ever command unanimity, but that our own vigilance must include the values we see absent from the regime and which we cannot abide seeing absent from our response: not just avoiding vulgar discourse, but being stubbornly unwilling to lie, to use violence, to objectify and bear false witness, and so on. Or to put it another way, our vigilance will be fueled by our modesty and joy in our own creatureliness, as we try not to stray from the Living Water constantly offered by our Creator.

(Thank you to David Finke who read an early draft of this post and encouraged me to publish it. He bears no responsibility for its deficiencies, especially since its length has more than doubled since he read it!) 

(Original post.)

(Back to the present, November 2019.) I think and confess that, in all my bleak scenarios of this era, I underestimated the levels of routine corruption that we would encounter, even as our predictions of the more dramatic dangers of authoritarianism, abuse of power, incompetence, and bias toward wealth, all came true. And maybe in God's economy, that corruption has finally come around to bite itself -- perhaps fatally -- as the Ukraine/Giuliani/Biden scandal has finally made impeachment almost inevitable.

Update on our Hebron kittens: Today they had their first taste of (relatively) solid food. They gobbled it up, and now we anxiously wait to see whether their little systems are ready for it. They seem happy and playful and affectionate but are still gaining very little weight.

Danny Coleman on anecdotal Christianity.

A Quaker, Gretchen Castle, is the new chairperson of the Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions. (More coverage in The Friend.)

Paula White-Cain joins the White House staff -- but what does that mean? What does she think of Trump's opponents? (Somehow I don't recognize myself!) What does her leadership tell us about shifting relationships among Pentecostals and evangelicals?

A profile of Kennette Benedict, who has devoted most of her adult life to nuclear disarmament.

Never mind Trump ... what's happening to the universe?

Michele Berdy is expanding her Russian linguistic horizons.

Albert Collins in Dortmund, Germany.

31 October 2019


Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. Ephesians 6:14-15, NIV; context.
After years of reading Ephesians on the "whole armor of God" (and hearing sermons, reading commentaries, and so on), last Sunday I finally paid attention to one word that has always slipped by me: the readiness, or preparedness, that comes from the gospel of peace.

It's easy for me to see why I skipped that word. The structure of the other metaphors in Ephesians 6:12-16 are crisp two-word associations:

belt -- truth
breastplate -- righteousness
shield -- faith

... but it's not "shoes -- peace," even though my eyes tended to make that contraction.

Different translations into English vary on whether we're supposed to emphasize readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace, or the readiness that comes from that gospel, but either way I find this specific quality fascinating. For myself, I interpret this passage as a call to be alert, attentive, available, to make the connections between the evil we witness and -- more and more as we gain practice -- apply the peaceable gospel to our situation.

After all, the whole context of these "armor" metaphors is our struggle against the spiritual forces of evil -- a struggle that is not against a human enemy, according to Ephesians, even though recorded history shows how we habitually ascribe evil to our flesh-and-blood "enemies" and miss the larger struggle entirely.

Looking around at our painfully divided world, torn apart by racism, nationalism, class warfare, involuntary migration, and environmental damage (abetted by corporate indifference and popular complacency), it is amazing how directly the whole New Testament challenges our number one primordial sin: the ways we objectify each other, and over time, the ways those patterns of objectification solidify into evil structures. Early on, the letter to the Ephesians applies the gospel of peace to these old patterns:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. Ephesians 2:13-17, NIV.
What does "readiness" to apply the gospel of peace in our time and place look like for you, for me? I hope we will be less content to jump to convenient conclusions about the obvious villains our politicians or activists want us to hate. Will we be more ready to do the hard work of diagnosing the structures that provide the controls and incentives for those agents of division?

What does this "readiness" mean for our own division of labor in the church? Are there experiments in nonviolence that we need to support, or start? Are there prophets among us, who have insights into the way our structures and traditions and habits become corrupt, and whom we need to encourage -- first of all by listening to them? If you, reading this, are one of those prophets or experimenters, tell us how you are connecting the gospel of peace to the Lamb's War against bondage. How can the church as a whole become more ready to support you?

Update: Our kitties have made it another week. They are active and affectionate, but don't seem to be putting on weight. Today we took them to a veterinarian who operates a free clinic for stray cats and dogs. He confirmed that they're underweight, and sent us home with a bottle of antibiotic medicine and a set of needles. Both cats yelped mightily upon receiving their first shots, but they seem to have forgiven us.

The veterinarian also suggested that the markings on their little snouts could be fungus or some other effect of not having their faces properly groomed in their orphan days.

Last night, for the first time, the larger of the two kittens snuck into my cot while I was sleeping, and nestled against my back. Luckily the cot is so narrow that I could not have rolled over and endangered him. I never anticipated that part of my role as a Christian Peacemaker would be serving as surrogate mommy cat! Right now, as I type, they're in their usual end-of-day configuration, curled up together and enjoying the heat from an electric heater, waiting patiently for their last meal of the day.

Mike Farley: To "sit in a quiet room alone" seems not only futile, but unbearable.

Becky Ankeny is learning how to be simply human. (Also read the following post.)

Two different takes on trends in church-going attendance among younger adults: Christine Emba. Rick Snedeker.

Telegram survives in Russia -- but for how long?

Michael McFaul: There is no deep state in the United States of America. Instead, what I’ve seen is a deeply dedicated state.

U.S. House of Representatives resolution on impeachment procedures. (It passed today.)

Jackie Venson will find a way.

24 October 2019

Hebron shorts

I spend most Saturday evenings holed up in a guest room in Ramallah, decompressing from the week. (On the next day I'm able to worship with Ramallah Friends before heading back to Hebron.) Last Saturday, I finally watched the documentary film about Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Earlier that evening I watched a YouTube video of Brennan Manning preaching on his favorite theme, God's love for each of us as we are, not as we should be. One of Manning's lines has taken on a life of its own in my head. God loves you so much that God would rather die than be without you. So many of us either think this is wildly improbable or haven't even had a chance to take it in. Maybe that explains a lot of the bondages that abound in our world.

I heard Manning speak at George Fox University a couple of times. He had a rare ability to combine intellectual and emotional content to form a powerful appeal to take God's love utterly seriously. In the service of this appeal he spoke with such urgency that his style sometimes verged on confrontational.

Both Manning and Rogers were evangelists for God's unconditional love, but Fred Rogers shaped his message to fit his special audience and his channel of connection with it -- daily visits with children, whose growth, anxieties, feelings, and capacities provided the specific themes for his programs. Manning, on the other hand, mostly addressed adults, including (I'm sure) many who had never absorbed the reality of unconditional love that was the heartbeat of the Rogers neighborhood. Manning's urgency was fueled in part by the institutional church's failure to prioritize the message of God's "relentless tenderness."

I have no idea how much each knew about the other, but I think Rogers and Manning had a wonderful partnership.

When I signed up to spend three months in Hebron as a human rights observer, my number one hope and priority was to learn more about praying without ceasing. Along with countless other believers, I've been fascinated by this instruction ever since I first heard about it. I love these lines from Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion:
There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.
At times I've experienced this way of ordering my mental life, but sometimes it's hard to meet even some of the demands of external affairs, at the ordinary walking-and-chewing-gum-at-the-same-time level, never mind staying inwardly attentive.

The following is observation, not advice. The all-pervading context of occupation, and its inevitable consequences -- tension, stress, clashes, hidden and open violence -- has given me a new prayer word: WHY? On some days, my most constant form of prayer consists of keeping my eyes open and praying that question.

The shopkeepers in the Old City's souq had a deal for us: free kittens! We looked into the cardboard box next to one of the shops we pass several times a day, and, sure enough, two tiny kittens lay curled up against each other.

Of course it wasn't as simple as that. They were young -- too young, we thought, to be without a mother. Each was just the size of my hand. They had been found near the Ibrahimi mosque, no parent anywhere in sight, so one of the shopkeepers had brought them with him to his work.

The first time we saw the kitties, we were on our way somewhere, so we didn't make any promises. But the second time we passed by, the shopkeepers said to us, "We're going to be closing soon. We don't know what to do with these kittens." We agreed to take them.

Both kittens were shivering and lethargic. We said to ourselves, "Maybe we're just providing a hospice, but even so, we could make their last hours more comfortable."

We got the kittens into the Christian Peacemaker Teams office, and began assessing the situation. Some of us held the little ones, while others searched online for advice. Both kittens were still shivering, so our first task was to warm them up gently, lightly swaddling them and letting our body heat do the job. We improvised a bed from the box that they came in, and found a small electric heater to put near them. For several reasons they couldn't stay in the main room or office, so I offered my bedroom as their temporary home, with the thought that eventually (we hoped) they could live in the patio/garden just outside our door. But first things first -- would they even survive the night? We were especially concerned for the black and white kitten, who was smaller, scrawnier, and lethargic. Not having any suitable food, we mixed up a concoction of milk, egg yolks, and salad oil. The bigger kitten lapped from a dish, the smaller licked the stuff from a fingertip. And now we think we might have a line on some goats' milk.

FB Messenger screenshot
It's now the evening of their second day in our place. Both kitties are still with us. For the first 36 hours, the black and white kitten stayed within a very short distance of its bed, while the larger one began gaining weight right away, and was soon roaming my bedroom. It also seemed to assume a sort of mentorship for its younger partner, grooming its unkempt hair (it worked! -- soon they were both busy grooming) and poking it as if to say, "You gotta make an effort!" This morning, I heard the smaller cat's voice for the first time, and sometime this afternoon I saw a sight that made me so happy -- it started a wrestling match with its sibling!! This evening both kitties succeeded in clawing their way up one of my legs and up to my shoulders.

On the kitties' first evening with us, someone suggested not naming them until we were reasonably sure they had a chance. I have hopes that we're soon going to be giving them names.

Internet Monk: Evolving Faith ... and evolving conservatives.

It turns out that Quakers are a mainline church! (Check this review of The Twenty-something Soul for other startling observations.)

When Jesus comes back to fix God's two huge mistakes.

MACA: Making America crueler again.

The Russia Without BS guide to disinformation.

Playing for Change: "Walking Blues."

17 October 2019

On loving our critics

Mike Pence, U.S. vice president, gave the 2019 commencement address at Liberty University. His speech gives me a convenient peg to hang the following suggestion: let's learn how to love our critics.

By "our critics" I mean those for whom (in Pence's warning) "it’s become acceptable and even fashionable to ridicule and even discriminate against people of faith." Why should we in fact love those people?

First of all, is Pence's initial premise correct? Is it acceptable and fashionable in some circles to ridicule religious people? Serious skeptics and atheists may not think much of us, but they don't require ridicule to make their points. Generally, the weight of their message is either the intellectual weakness of belief in God, or the harm that such beliefs cause in the real world.

When this anti-religion message becomes enmeshed in a political system, then it becomes dangerous, as the Soviet Union and other communist nations have very adequately demonstrated. Other parts of the world specialize in a different distortion -- preferring one expression of religion over others. This happens in the USA's supposed allies and enemies alike (Saudi Arabia and Russia, for example). This distortion sadly reinforces one of religion's critics' main points: religion causes social harm.

Ridiculing and marginalizing faith can happen when popular culture goes in a different direction -- neither prohibiting religion nor practicing favoritism, but making faith a strictly private matter, and (in many cases in today's world) contrasting faith with science.  The implication: empirical evidence always clashes with faith, and faith always loses. Therefore, people with intelligence should prefer science to religion -- and for the lazy and incurious skeptic, religion is nothing more than superstition.

Communities of faith, confronted by this secular drift, often choose between two very different paths forward. (Of course, all explanations involving "two very different paths" are oversimplifications!) One path: a defensive isolation, within which correct answers are emphasized, and secularism is demonized and shunned. The other: adjusting the faith message so that it is as inoffensive to secular people as possible. Among the Christians I know best -- Quakers -- both options have been chosen, mostly depending on what seems most acceptable in their own local cultures.

As always, the pictures is made more complicated when politics enters in. For example, in the USA, there is no official preference of religion, but politicians play on religious sensibilities for votes. In particular parts of the country, it can be very important to emphasize one's ties to Protestant Christianity despite the Constitutional guarantee of no preference.

Given the culture of Liberty University and its immersion in the more defensive brand of Christianity, it's not surprising to read Pence's emphasis on the separation of faith communities from the surrounding culture of ridicule and discrimination. But does all such opposition always mean that the critics are determined to make you join Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the furnace? Here's my core question: shouldn't we actually engage those critics and appreciate them because sometimes they are saving us from ourselves?

Some examples from Pence's speech:
  • We need faith and forgiveness as modeled by pastor Gerald Toussaint -- "faith that unites on a foundation of grace." However, Pence doesn't have enough grace to grant that his health care opponents or the "bevy of Hollywood liberals" might have a point of view worth examining, even if disagreement remains at the end. Instead, complicated controversies are glibly dismissed, providing critics yet another example of Christianity's moral and intellectual inadequacy.
  • Next: the controversy around Mike Pence's wife's school. I wouldn't have blamed him for favoring one side over the other in that controversy, but at least describe what was at stake! Instead, I'm sure that he felt that mentioning "media and the secular Left" would stir all the right emotions, and no other work needed to be done.
  • He then ridicules the whole "Expose Christian Schools" theme in social media. This is another example where the critics who raised that banner should be thanked, not smeared, to the exact extent that real horror stories (without derisive "quotation marks") have emerged, and, as a result, healing has become more possible for many. The rhetoric of that paragraph is fascinating -- as if it were totally absurd that Christian institutions could ever hurt anyone!
  • Pence warns the graduates:
    Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture.
    He's not necessarily wrong here, but it's the perfect place for him to have said what "be ready" means -- or, for that matter, what the "idols of the popular culture" are. Evangelical Christianity correctly identifies some idols of the popular culture, but its conservative white versions worship other idols far too often -- particularly wealth, status, power, white supremacy, and the myth of redemptive violence. Can't we ask Liberty's graduates to look more carefully at what seduces white USA evangelicals away from rejecting all idols? Wouldn't a respectful engagement with critics, even a bevy or two of "Hollywood liberals" and "secular Leftists," help reveal those betrayals?
  • Finally, what do we do with the numerous truth claims in the speech that are certainly political applause lines but have little actual truth? Did the recovery and growth of the U.S. economy begin with the Trump/Pence administration, or did it begin earlier? Pence says, "Prosperity didn't just happen" and then solely credits the Trump administration's policies for that undefined prosperity. And won't those policies actually result in an ever-less-sustainable level of national debt?

    More fact gaps: Internationally, have we actually stood with our allies and stood up to our enemies? (I'm leaving aside the deeper questions of who those allies and enemies actually are. And, to be fair, Pence gave this speech before the current ghastly spectacle in Syria and the Ukraine scandal.) And what exactly is the purpose of the claim that "American stands with Israel" -- what unspoken assumptions are behind this assertion of Israel's apparently unique status in the world?
Thank God for critics! As the white celebrity stranglehold on evangelical conversations grows ever weaker, we'll find that some of those critics are already in the Church. Others are possibly not far away, if we can work honestly at eliminating all those stupid spiritual and intellectual scandals, until we have just the one essential Scandal of grace and love uniquely at the heart of the Gospel.

As one atheist friend of mine says, "Even I know that Jesus is the Dude."

Ira Rifkin suggests an important path ahead for religious journalism.

Hundreds of educators refuse to be intimidated by Trump administration's threats to censor Middle East studies.

Roger E. Olson on the rhetoric of tyranny. (Warning: another mention of Trump.)

Why Mary Pezzulo is not calling Mike Pence a fake Christian.

Goodbye to Alexei Leonov, a cosmonaut for the whole planet.

Samantha Fish ...

10 October 2019

Is God nice?

Ever noticed how, in Christian media, some variation or other of the "wrath of God" theme comes back to remind us of how lax we are, how we lower our standards of holiness beyond recognition, how we've let our standards slip ever since we stopped talking so much about sin and hell?

An old John Piper quotation has been circulating again:
God cares more about your happiness than you do. He is so serious about your joy that he threatens hell if you refuse to find it in him.
To be fair to Piper, I've not read the original book, so I don't know for sure that he didn't intend irony, but I do know the theological tradition from which this gem appears to come. I wrote about another expression of this tradition here: Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem. I'm not going over that ground again, but I'm intrigued by a sort of emotional corollary to it: If God is not feared the way some preacher demands, our religion has become fatally soft and sentimental. Or to put it even more manipulatively, God is to be loved, or else.

Speaking of avoiding overly sentimental images of God, there's no denying that God gets a mixed rap in the Scriptures. Abraham has to plead with God not to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah entirely if there are any righteous people to be found there.
Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?
(Genesis 18:25, NIV)
To eliminate idolatrous competition, God gives some apparently ruthless commands to the Israelites, instructing them at times to attack others without mercy. (On God's collateral damage, I've also written recently.) The prophets record God's wrath at the way poor people are treated, and their faces ground into the dust, but the apparent fact is that faces were ground into the dust in order for the prophets to rage about it.

Jesus confirms that God permits seemingly random tragedy -- for example, the Galileans massacred by Pilate, or "those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fellon them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!" (from Luke 13:1-5).

If I rely solely on the recorded history of our understanding of God, and on the incredible diversity of ways that we've interpreted that history, my head starts spinning. So this morning, knowing that I was being led to write about whether or not we have a God who lives up to God's own standard ("compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love" -- Exodus 34:6, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2), I decided to try asking God directly: "Are you a kind God?"

Dolphus Weary (r) and 1975
version of me.
The answer came immediately in the form of a memory: a Scripture that I learned as a children's song at Voice of Calvary in Mississippi in 1975, where I spent a summer teaching in a remedial reading program. In the default masculine language of the time ...
Brothers, let us love one another
For love is of God and he who loves is born of God
He who does not love does not know God for God is love
Beloved, let us love one another -- First John Four Seven and Eight!
(That last part shouted with enthusiasm.)

I found this answer immensely comforting. There is no ambiguity in this teaching. A few words later, in verse 12, John promises us that "if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." There is no exception based on past wars or past enemies; there is only the requirement of love ... a requirement that, having ourselves been addressed as "beloved," we are eager to keep.

Not that this learning or this eagerness hits us all at once. In verse 18, we're assured,
There is no fear in love. [Goodbye, vindictive God!] But perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. [Goodbye, hellfire manipulation!!] The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
It's very possible that we are still fearful, still not made perfect in love. But the path is there before us, with no secret password, no doctrinal asterisks, just an invitation into a love relationship. We enter into this promise by committing ourselves to learning how to love, learning how to recognize the witness of God already in us (as the early Quakers taught with joy and costly perseverence), and allowing ourselves to dare that God's very nature ("God is love") is shaping us -- however slowly we allow our grip on fear to loosen at last.

We're also not alone on this path. (The New International Version substitutes "dear friends" for "brothers.") Back to verse 11: "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." For some of us, our first task is to open up to receive love before we learn to express it and rely on it and sense God's nature in the experience.

I'll never forget the experience of getting to know J. Bartram Shields, a long-time minister of Indiana Yearly Meeting. It was my first time teaching a course for the Tri-Yearly Meeting School on the Ministry, a series of retreat-style classes for those preparing to be Friends ministers in Indiana, Western, and Wilmington Yearly Meetings. Bart Shields was teaching a Bible class, and I was teaching a class based on Urban T. Holmes's book Spirituality for Ministry. Some time after that week of classes I visited Traverse City, Michigan, where Bart and Sara Shields lived, and was able to spend time with him again. He told me, "I loved you from the first moment I met you." That may have been the first time anyone said anything like those words to me in a non-romantic context. The impact that he made on me with those simple and generous words are still part of my life. I can't claim that I've totally let go of fear, but I'd be a lot further behind were it not for the influence of people like Bart Shields.

Beloved, let us love one another. That's the best way to learn about what God is really like.

A reminder: One of the best sources for news about religion in Russia and the former Soviet Union is Paul Steeves' Russia Religion News.

Why Simply Messy is a Quaker.

Evangelicals and Holy Land tourism.

Pentecostalism as mysticism: Pete Enns interviews Jonathan Martin.

Ramallah Friends School is celebrating its 150th anniversary. One way to participate: Do you have any items, documents, or other exhibit-worthy materials relating to the school's history? Consider contributing them to its new museum.

Ruthie Foster: