Sunday, December 31, 2006

Best of the Blogroll: 2006

I've decided to ring out the old year by noting my favorite post of 2006 for each blog on my blogroll.

With my thanks to all of you for being bloggers.

Take care & God bless

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Thank-You Notes

As you may have gathered from my entry in the Posada blog chain, this Christmas has been one where I struggle to find time, struggle to find room, struggle to get my heart and mind prepared, to make straight a path for the Lord. More on all that after the New Year. But for today I'd like to send out a few thank-you notes to people whose Christmas posts were a blessing to me.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas: blog-break

I'm taking a blog-break so that I can better enjoy and appreciate Christmas without keeping up a writing schedule. I plan to be back for New Year's.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The First Christmas: Historical Background

Dr. Pursiful has been running a satisfyingly in-depth series on the historical background of Jesus' birth such as the censuses, star of Bethlehem, when Zechariah's rotation would have come up to serve in the Temple, and so forth. Stop by and give him a read. Well worth the time.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Messiah! God's Salvation In Songs of Praise

Handel's Messiah is a well-loved full-length concert of songs in praise of the Messiah. But that style of music is not for every age or every culture. I started by planning to make a set list for a concert of Messiah with songs that were more familiar. I finished by making three separate set lists in different styles. Some of these are more complete than others, and as always my own song preferences are showing:

Traditional Hymns
Holiness of God: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
Nativity: What Child Is This?
Nativity: Joy to the World
Passion: Go to Dark Gethsemane
Resurrection: Jesus Christ is Risen Today
In Praise of Redemption: At the Lamb's High Feast
Holy Communion: Bread of the World in Mercy Broken
Holy Communion: This is the Feast of Victory for Our God
Holy Communion: Just As I Am (Lamb of God, I Come)
Christ the King: All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
Christ the King: Crown Him With Many Crowns
Praise and Faith: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
Ascension: A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing
Father, Son, and Spirit: Holy, Holy, Holy

African-American Spirituals
Praise and Faith: He's Got the Whole World In His Hands
Nativity: Go, Tell it on the Mountain!
Ministry: Man from Galilee (Put your hand in the hand ...)
Passion: Were You There? (When they Crucified My Lord)
In Praise of Redemption: O Happy Day
Great Commission: Children, Go Where I Send Thee!
Holy Communion: Let us Break Bread Together On Our Knees
Christian Walk: Day by Day (Three Things I Pray)

Contemporary Spiritual Songs
Praise and Faith: This is My Father's World
Praise the Name: Jesus, Name Above All Names
Praise for Deliverance: El Shaddai
Holy Spirit: Breath of the Living God (Soplo de Dios)
Christ the King: King of Kings
Christ the King: Majesty
Christian Walk: They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

My "Contemporary Spiritual Songs" list is short on songs about Christ's earthly life, death, and resurrection, and about Holy Communion. I'm not sure whether that's my own limited familiarity with this set of songs, or whether there's a genuine lack of songs there. The African-American Spirituals list is better-rounded but I'm sure I'm missing some good ones. Write-in suggestions are welcome!

(I did leave out one of my favorite African-American Spirituals -- Ezekiel Cried, "Them Dry Bones!" -- because it didn't fit very well with the overall set list.)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Posada: Mary and Joseph's Journey

The posada is a centuries-old New World Christmas tradition with figurines of the holy family being housed in a new home in the community each night. Traditionally done as a novena starting on December 16th, it has been been expanded and adapted for on-line use. Tonight I am hosting the holy couple on their way.

"No room, no room. Sorry, try somewhere else." God has been hearing that from the dawn of humanity. So have all kinds of strangers in need. Tonight, let me be glad that God takes time for us, and welcomes us. May we all have the heart of God and the Spirit of God.

Take care & God bless

Mary and Joseph's hosts
Yesterday Anne Gogh
Tomorrow Dave

Whole Chain:
Mon 04 Dec Chris Munroe aka Desert Pastor
Tue 05 Dec Jem Clines
Wed 06 Dec Alistair
Thu 07 Dec Lydia
Fri 08 Dec Jennie Swanson
Sat 09 Dec Psalmist
Sun 10 Dec Dr Platypus
Mon 11 Dec Sally Coleman
Tue 12 Dec Jim Palmer
Wed 13 Dec Anne Gogh
Thu 14 Dec Weekend Fisher
Fri 15 Dec Dave
Sat 16 Dec John Cooper
Sun 17 Dec Sue Wallace at Abbess of Visions
Mon 18 Dec Lucas
Tue 19 Dec Joanna at Keeping Feet
Wed 20 Dec Adrian at Emerging Church info.
Thu 21 Dec Ian Mobsy at Mootblog
Fri 22 Dec Bob Carlton
Sat 23 Dec Chelley at Chelley's Teapot
Sun 24 Dec Abbey Nous

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Ghost of Christmas Present: On wrongs done in the name of Christ

"Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family," said Scrooge.

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, The Second of the Three Spirits

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Evangelism and the witness of beauty

We began by considering beauty's ability to communicate the message, "this is good." Beauty is a witness to the goodness of the one who caused it. Now we've come nearly full circle, considering how God's Word transforms us again into a Christlike spiritual beauty. I'd like to close with this thought: to the extent that our lives have been transformed into things of beauty -- of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control -- that is the extent to which we have some spiritual beauty. And that beauty created within us also communicates -- to the extent we permit it -- that God is good, that Christ is good. Our lives -- to the extent we permit it -- are witness to the goodness of the one who redeems us and loves us.

One of my old friends is fond of discussing Transcendental Signifiers, by which he means something like "things you can look at and know there is a God." It's a Sign of something that Transcends, a natural witness, a signpost to God. This is our call: to make our lives Transcendental Signifiers, a natural witness, a signpost to God, a testimony of his humility and love by way of our own. When we live the way Christ taught us, people can look at us and know that God is good.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Beauty, the Word of God, and the nature of morality

Confucius spoke of the ideal man, one whose thoughts were moved only by the Odes, whose actions were moved only by the Odes, whose words were moved only by the Odes. The Odes can be thought of in an idealized way as an ancient poetry of primal beauty that reveals the right order of the world; this poetry, once planted in our hearts, would cause the actions to be of similarly pure beauty. Many of the Israelites considered the Torah in a similar way as a thing of exceptional beauty, and that likewise someone whose life was holy would be ordered around the Torah, moved when it moved, silent when it was silent, spoke what it spoke. As Confucius may have conceived of the Odes as a kind of Natural Law, so the Israelites thought of the Torah as an expression of Natural Law, which is to say an expression of God's character, as the beautiful law which could not be otherwise without lessening the world.

Christians recognize that archetypal Word of God as the power by which God made the world, the creative beauty which gave it shape. We recognize the same loving and creative force, the same Word of God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth; we recognize him by his embodiment as the one who was moved by the Torah, who spoke when it spoke and was silent when it was silent, who lived that life of beauty, holiness, peace, and power whose possibility was promised by the existence of the Word.

This archetype -- the Word of God which transforms us and makes us holy -- arouses great desire and longing in humanity. But so long as the Word of God was a book, or a half-forgotten Ode of surpassing beauty, it could do little more than arouse in us holy frustration. When the Word of God was embodied before our eyes as Jesus of Nazareth, we saw more clearly, remembered more completely, the hints of the things of God, things that had been half-known or half-forgotten, half-suspected or half-doubted. Beyond Jesus showing us the Word clearly, he also spoke that Word of God to us again. The Sermon on the Mount from the Blessings to the end, the sheep and the goats, the law of love, the greatest commands -- these are the ancient Word of God which set the world in order. These are the words that the listening poets have strained to catch. From creation, this is the Word of God that was spoken over the dust as we were made.

The true nature of morality, as the Living Word, the Christ, made clear, is a joyful and loving thing, reserving anger for those things that dam the River of Life and profane the Holy Name. The true essence of morality is a thing that naturally attracts us to itself. The tedium of laws was given because of our need, broken humanity's need to be confronted about all the selfish and spiteful ways in which we mistreat and demean each other and cheapen each others' lives. Life by the Spirit of God is not like this.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Beauty and the nature of spiritual development

What is spiritual development? In Christian terms, it is a soul becoming more Christlike: fully in the image of God, but humble and fully human. Christ's life continuously showed to humanity the signs of both the transcendence and the humble love of God. He lived a life where his words and actions were full of beauty of every type, from compassion to judgment to mercy to love.

Christ is the template that transforms our lives. To develop spiritually is to become more Christlike. The beauty of Christ's life reshapes our own.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Knowing the beauty of creation, knowing the character of God

How knowing the world and ourselves leads us to know the character of God and to anticipate the possibility of God's incarnation.
I am convinced that he asks us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength because that is how he loves us. I am convinced that he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves because he loves us as himself.

To see the beauty in creation is to know that creation is good. But what does this tell us about the Creator? We can can only create what we can first imagine. If creation is good, then it follows that the Creator must be good in each of those ways, as great as the sum total of all of the different kinds of goodness we see. If creation is great, God must be greater, not because he left anything of himself unexpressed, but because he is the cause of the greatness, the source and origin of it all. The different kinds of goodness we see in creation must reflect the different kinds of goodness in the Creator: vastness and intricacy, precision and wisdom, power and gentleness, vibrant overflowing aliveness.

In this creation there is a type of creature, ourselves, who see the creation and experience gladness. Knowing creation causes gladness in us because of the good we see there. Our natural reactions to this goodness in creation are peacefulness, kindness, joyfulness, and love for what we see. It follows that knowing the Creator would cause more gladness in his presence because of his greater goodness: it would cause us greater peacefulness, kindness, joyfulness, and love. The glory of creation is cause for awe and wonder; the glory of God is cause for greater awe and wonder. These things are spiritual beauties: beauties that come from knowing and reflecting on the physical goodness that communicates the heart of God, the mind and soul and strength of God. I am convinced that he asks us to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength because that is how he loves us. I am convinced that he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves because he loves us as himself.

How can we know this? We can know it from Christ, and the same message is also communicated to the whole world from God's creation. If all the beauties of the world reflect God in some small measure, then what about these things of spiritual beauty, such as love? If the vastness of the stars explains the fact of God's vastness to us, then does our own love communicate to us the fact of God's own love? When we see these spiritual beauties in ourselves or others, are we seeing part of God's essential character? Would it even be possible for the creature to have a good trait (such as love) which the Creator did not have first and bring into being? So we know that awe and wonder belong to God, glory and honor belong to God, but also peacefulness belongs to God, kindness belongs to God, joyfulness belongs to God, and love belongs to God. The world could not be as it is if God lacked any of these things. We expect that the kindness and love that belong to God are greater than ours, and that his good will eclipses our own. This is cause for peace in us, and for hope. The hope is not only for his kindness; we also have cause for hope that his love may turn towards us as towards all he has made. Such a hope leads to joy.

Creation's declaration of God's goodness raises some questions. If God's goodness is reflected in some way in all the good things here, how much could God make himself present in the world, not only by proxy as it were in the things of creation, but as Himself? Would God's love cause him to be present in the world, and if so, how?

Humankind's reflection of spiritual beauties -- our capacity for love and kindness, for joy and creativity, for deliberation and benevolence -- these similarities to God -- these raise more pointed questions: why has God made a creature with that much of his image? Does he intend a higher kind of love than is possible towards rocks and trees, oceans and stars? If God is loving, does God intend fellowship with those he has made? Would he have made that possibility of fellowship, created creatures suitable to it, unless he had intended to fulfill that possibility? What if God made himself present in the world not only as creator and designer and soul whose greatness is communicated by it, but also as a participant in the life of the world? Would God ever take the form of a creature? Is there any creature more suited to house God's life in the world than humanity?

So the approach of knowing God through creation alone causes us to wonder: is God's incarnation possible? And if it were -- if God lived among us -- would we understand the mind of God that much better?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Experience of Beauty and Awe, and the Existence of God

When discussing reasons that people believe in God, it seems that beauty and awe are often neglected. I suspect this is because the reasons for believing in God are often drawn up as rationalistic arguments. This approach, while rational, often supposes that reason is the highest of our faculties and that the other human faculties are lesser and "irrational". While reason is undoubtedly useful -- and can even lead to knowledge and wisdom if rightly applied -- I'm skeptical whether reason is the highest of our faculties. I also dispute the idea that the other human faculties are "irrational" simply because they are not pure reason. Here I'd like to sketch out a claim (rather than an argument) from beauty and awe.

Let "beauty" be that which communicates goodness.

Let "awe" be that which communicates transcendence.

Then to experience beauty and awe is to know there is a God (a good which transcends the material).

When I say that beauty "communicates goodness," that is to say that beauty is a name we give when we see the quality of goodness. This quality, when we perceive it, shows itself to our minds as the thought, "This is good."

When I say that awe "communicates transcendence," that is to say that awe is the sense that reality goes far beyond what we see directly, that there is a meaning far beyond the material or formal limits that present themselves to us.

This is at the heart of much of the intuitive sense that there is a God. It is one of the simplest and most commonly felt of the natural reasons for the existence of God. Such topics are barely able to be articulated because words are not their native language. And by itself, it is an incomplete claim for the existence of God. There is not enough concreteness to fend off an attack by pure naturalism, other than by the deep and abiding sense that pure naturalism is missing what is greater. For concreteness, we rely (rightly, in my opinion) on other approaches.

But this primitive sense of beauty and awe is still vital, and is often neglected in current theology so shaped by the naturalistic worldview and by naturalistic assumptions about what topics are permitted. Over the next few posts I will consider various ways in which the primitive sense of beauty and wonder are at home in Christianity, and ways in which we can rightly incorporate them into our knowledge of God, our worship, our views of spiritual growth, and our witness.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Science's Debt to Paradise, Imagination, and Love

Bede the Venerable Blogger (not to be confused with the Venerable Bede) has made somewhat of a specialty of examining the progress of science in the Middle Ages, particularly noting that science flourished in Christian lands, and that Christianity's view of an orderly and stable creation was among Christianity's helpful contributions to the rise of science. I suppose it's easier to develop science when believing the world is orderly and stable, as opposed to believing it is an illusion, or is subject to capricious whims. But I think a few more things can be added to the list of things Christianity has contributed towards the rise of science, namely: the encouragement of a creative imagination and the benevolent or loving direction of human endeavor.

The field of theoretical science does not advance in large steps solely by collecting or processing data. The earliest steps of the scientific process -- theorizing, speculating, hypothesizing -- are the ground of the human imagination. In the case of theory, we try to form a model in our mind of what is true. When reality proves to be different from previous concepts, forming a new working model requires a substantial amount of imaginative thinking. The scientific method does not generate new thoughts or models, but asks that these be brought to it from the outside as a starting point for testing. The formation of a hypothesis or the steady building of a theory depends on the imagination. Science, as naturalistic and observational methodology, is not capable of the intuitive leaps that its development has depended on for its reputation.

The field of applied science -- that is, technology -- is even more indebted to the creative imagination. The body of knowledge accumulated by science can make some small advances with simple observation, even in a complete absence of imaginative new theories. But the application of science to the real world is a different matter. Without imagination there would be no inventions. While some naturalists have been quick to claim all of technology as the realm of pure naturalism, still technological advances depend heavily on the creative and imaginative aspects of humanity, and on a choice of how to apply the advances made. Science, as a method, is not capable of desiring to be good and beneficial to people, despite that is one of its major boasts. Science, in isolation, pursues knowledge and is not particular about its uses. The benevolent, useful applications that have made science a blessing more often than a curse owe themselves to people applying themselves with their own personal or cultural, religious-steeped agendas of being blessings to other people, to act in love and service for humanity rather than for power or self-gratification.

Christian culture has taken criticism from various fronts for its love of imagination and fantasy. Christianity, however, sees the imaginative and creative spirit as part of humanity's role in creation, part of the image of God. To be creative, it is necessary to first imagine what you create. The Christian lands first excelled in imagination, which in turn led to the more outwardly noticeable excellences not only in visual art, drama, and music, but also in science and technology. Without imagination, there would have been no airplane, no telephone, no radio, no television, no lightbulb. Without imagination there would have been few advances in medicine or in mechanical and electrical technology.

Without "moral imagination" -- I wonder if it would be close to say "without pondering how to act on love" -- would the human mind direct itself to benevolent ends?

Certain outspoken scientists have decried religion for its supposed separation from reality. But it is only a certain separation from our current reality that allows any progress to be made towards another reality. The Christian embrace of the vision of paradise -- and of the potential for paradise within creation -- is one thing that enables progress towards something more closely resembling paradise. Christ's teaching of the primacy of love has given us the direction that drives us to find technologies that are widely, benevolently useful. Without imagination and love, science has no method of achieving progress and no reason to pursue benevolent advances that are a blessing to the world as a whole.

If naturalists wish a steady supply of creative minds that find useful rather than selfish applications for our knowledge, it would be worthwhile to consider the extent to which creative minds are generated through a culture that is fertile ground for imagination, is well-directed towards paradise, and expresses itself benevolently in love. It would be worthwhile to recognize the debt to religion in creating minds of a certain outlook and habit, and cultures that embrace imagination, creativity, benevolence, and progress towards paradise. If naturalism completely overtakes culture with a reductionist point of view, it will find it has reduced the reserves of cultural creativity needed for science to hypothesize, theorize, and flourish. In an excessively naturalistic culture, science may find itself with a shortage of creative minds directed towards useful pursuits.

I do not consider this to be an argument for Christianity's mere usefulness as much as for Christianity's firmer grasp of reality -- ultimate reality -- towards which progress can be made, however imperfectly.

Note on religions in general: Parallel arguments can be made on some level for any benevolent teaching and any paradise-oriented teaching to provide a fertile cultural background for science and technology. In this respect, most religions have some teaching of benevolence, though Christianity has a far stronger emphasis on the primacy of love than the other religions, emphasizing benevolent actions even above self-improvement, self-actualization, self-purification, or a goal of pursuing one's own personal enlightenment. Christiantiy sees those other things as only attainable through the pursuit of love, not as things attainable in themselves. Likewise, a number of other religions have some recognition of paradise, though Christianity has a far stronger teaching and vision of paradise than many other religions which acknowledge some form of paradise. More could also be said of Christianity's insistence that all poor people deserve compassion and help (it is never the fact that they were evil in a previous life that makes them somehow deserve a lower status in this life) and that sickness is best viewed as an occasion for compassion rather than a judgment from God. Christ's own actions were driven by love and focused on healing, feeding, teaching, forgiving, restoring dignity, restoring love, and restoring peace; therefore Christ's followers see these as the main aims of useful human action.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Knowing God -- good theology and bad theology

Knowing God causes wonder and awe, wisdom and fear, joy and humility, and above all love. The best theology causes the reader to lapse into praise, or be overcome with shame if warranted, or fall into quiet meditation, or turn our hearts to renew our love of family and neighbor. This is not from any crafty or dishonest manipulation. Instead, the best theology re-speaks the Word of God and again puts us in the presence of God, the same as when the Bible is read rightly.

When theology is seen in this light, much of what is considered theology shows itself as inadequate, like a drink that promises to refresh us but turns out to be sand in our mouths. Some theology prides itself on being logically rigorous. This is good, but it is like taking pride in being grammatically correct. It is good to be grammatically correct, but it is not enough. It is good to be logically rigorous, but it is not enough. The Word of God, rightly spoken, gives life. It quickens the soul, reveals the mind of God, and imprints on us the image of God.

I think much bad theology comes from bad Bible study. The Bible is not, primarily, meant to give us an encyclopedia of facts -- not even an encyclopedia of religious facts. It's meant to communicate God to us. This does not mean that the Bible communicates mere facts about God, but that it communicates the Spirit of God himself. Reading it rightly causes the thoughts of God and the Spirit of God to become part of us. Studying it is a prelude to something better, just like learning the notes of a musical instrument is a prelude to true music.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Celebrating Christ the King

Today, the festival of Christ the King, is my favorite day of the church year from a standpoint of music. Some of the most beautiful and powerful hymns of praise ever written are sung only on the festival of Christ the King. Here are some well-loved songs suited to the day, some of these almost guaranteed never to be heard on any other day of the church year:
  • Crown Him With Many Crowns
  • All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
  • Rejoice, the Lord is King
  • King of Kings
  • Majesty

My favorite of these, "Crown Him With Many Crowns," is among the many hymns now in the public domain. Here is my favorite verse of my favorite hymn for Christ the King Sunday. Feel free to hum along as you read ... it will be as if we were all singing. ;)

Crown him the Lord of Love
Behold his hands and side.
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.

Our congregation is blessed that we do have some sopranos who can actually hit the spine-tingling and majestic descant that goes with that song. Nevermind the descant or even the soprano part for me, I'm down on the alto part.

But not to neglect the beauties of those other songs, here is my favorite section of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name":
Sinners, whose love can never forget
The wormwood and the gall
Go spread your trophies at his feet
And crown him Lord of all.
Go spread your trophies at his feet
And crown him Lord of all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Teenage Sunday School Considers Uses of the Law

This is last week's lesson. It introduced them to the idea that the Ten Commandments and the Law in general have a purpose. The week previous, we had reviewed the benefits of the Law and the praise heaped on the Law by Paul and even by Christ. This week, moving on, it may come as a surprise that obedience is not the only purpose of the Law, according to the Bible.

  • Ask them where in the Bible they can read the Ten Commandments. (Since we haven't gotten to Deuteronomy yet, they're supposed to say Exodus 20 at this point.)
  • Ask them to remember the Ten Commandments as best they can and get them on the board. Allowed to open to Exodus 20 and look if memory fails. Have the students take turns with the board, each writing a few of the commandments as their their classmates recall them.
  • Have someone draw our split-personality person on the board with the face showing half good and half evil to represent the part of us that is receptive toward God and the part of us that is hostile toward God.

Purpose of the Law: Restraining Sin and Its Damage
Read 1 Timothy 1:8-11.
  1. According to this passage, who is the Law for? Lawbreakers and rebels.
  2. (Indicate drawing of ourselves with our two natures.) If the Law is for the immoral, then which part of us is the Law for, according to this passage? The part that's opposed to God.
  3. What is the main message of the Law about all these things listed? "Stop it."

Purpose of the Law: Consciousness of Sin
Read Romans 3:19-20. List the purposes of the law that Paul names here.
  1. The Law silences us before God.
  2. The Law holds us accountable to God.
  3. The Law makes us conscious of our sin.
(It takes them some practice to actually focus on what the text says instead of inventing answers out of what they think they ought to be saying. They're still learning how to get answers from the text. It takes some concentrated work of guiding them to stick with the text before they get there.)

Introduce the illustration of the Law as a mirror. Ask them when and how they use a mirror. Examples they offered: when they first get up, when they think there's something stuck in their teeth, maybe after being in a strong wind. The point: the mirror shows them where they need to clean up.

Purpose of The Law: A Tutor that Schools Us in Our Need for Christ
Read Galatians 3:23-25.
Introduces the idea of the Law as a prison ... and time us up. Will pick up there next week.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Christian Biology Professor Responds to Scientific American

Normally I do not take up bandwidth on this blog by discussing the debates over origins. However, the latest claim by one Michael Shermer in the current Scientific American makes a badly overstated claim for science. Shermer calls ideas which cannot be tested and falsified -- such as creation -- not simply wrong, but "wronger than wrong." Shermer's overstated claim -- than any knowledge not subject to independent testing is not only false but not even allowed a place at the table -- is destructive to far more things than his likely intended target of religion. Philosophy, history, literature, art, and even unique personal experience would likewise find a place in the "wronger than wrong" boat according to whether they can be empirically tested. A biology professor at a Lutheran college replies:

In 'Wronger than Wrong' (November, 2006) Michael Shermer is correct in the prescriptive sense that ideas that cannot be falsified (string theory) are outside of science. Furthermore, then creation is also outside of science. Even though some think otherwise, the ultimate character of our origin, supernatural or natural, cannot be scientifically tested.

However, creation ought not be placed into a sinking reality boat labeled 'wronger than wrong.' If mathematical elegance interestingly causes some to hold on to string theory, I would suggest that the heart and the mind also cause many to seek a Creator. The truth scale needs to be expanded in the other direction. We have to remain open to ideas that lie beyond our limited science, that may be righter than right.

Paul Boehlke
Life Science Dept, WLC

Professor Boehlke's letter wasreprinted with his permission.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thankful ... "eucatastrophes" this year

Rumor has it that J.R.R. Tolkien coined the word "eucatastrophe" to refer to a backwards catastrophe, the opposite of a catastrophe. It refers to when everything has gone wrong but somehow, beyond belief, an unexpected good causes things to become better than had ever been hoped for. The resurrection of Christ from the dead was the ultimate "eucatastrophe", a reversal of bad fortune beyond expectation, beyond hope.

There are a number of posts I'd written this year about my mother's health. I've filed them under the sin and brokenness of the world since a large part of the health trouble was related to her own self-destructive behavior. She has also been hostile towards God since my father died nearly six years ago now. This year, she looked like she was nearly ready to die herself. She was increasingly weak and was dropping weight at a frightening pace. When we finally got her to the doctor, the medical people confirmed the immediate and serious risk to her life. My brother and I thought there had been too much delay getting medical attention, and there was not much hope. The sad thing was, as miserable as she had been, and as little as she had gotten out of the house since Dad died, watching her come so close to death by self-inflicted bad lifestyle felt almost like just respecting her wishes. Almost. Except that it meant her ending her life in defeat, almost never having lived it.

And then. And then. What a year. I lost track of how long she stayed in the hospital, and how long she stayed with us here under my roof, and a couple of surgeries, and a series of close calls. All very wrenching. But now? Her self-destructive behavior has stopped and so far she has not gone back to it. She's glad to be alive. She works out. She is beginning to make friends. She asks people how they are doing. She accepts invitations over for dinner. She asks the sacker at the grocery store how she is doing. She's even considering becoming a volunteer at the hospital where she had her heart surgery. And for the first time I can remember, she is happy.

Thank God that he never gave up on her.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving: Pass along the blessings

Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. has become a season not only of Thanksgiving, but also (unfortunately) a season of collective shame and regret over what our forefathers did to the Native Americans. I'd encourage Christians to take the lead in being clear-headed and constructive on this front, not by sweeping the shame and regret under the rug, but by acting with deliberate generosity towards the Native Nations.

Do we share the blame for the wrongs committed by our ancestors? I'd expect we only share in the blame if we see the continuing injustice and take no action. The Native Americans welcomed us; they did not begin by thinking we should go back to Europe or that we should have nowhere to live in the land. But they did seem to think they would be treated with justice and treated as friends, and they did seem to think they would have a better outcome than we have since given them.

Many churches already have outreaches and ministries to the Native Americans, but despite that extreme poverty is still rampant. I'd encourage you to consider beginning your Christmas shopping at a Native American-owned shop. If you don't know one near you, several links are available below. Cool jewelry? Check. Nifty pottery? Check. Beautiful weavings? Check.

Southwest Indian Foundation
Eagle Dancer Gallery

Monday, November 20, 2006

The God of the Old Testament

It has become a commonplace in religious discussions to hear how the God of the Old Testament was wicked, mean, petty, cruel, vindictive, belligerent, selfish, and egotistical, or that the God of the Old Testament was "too harsh". This charge is rarely contested. The more time I spend studying the Old Testament, the more I come to see these charges as not merely unjust, but as hatefully distorted.

The entire case against God in the Old Testament seems to rest on a handful of battles, the flood, and the fact that slavery was permitted under the Torah's legal system1. At best, this is special pleading where a few passages are conveniently selected and then pitted against the whole. This approach makes a habit of pointedly ignoring the context of justified jugdment or protection.2 It may make effective rhetoric, and that may be all that's wanted. But it lacks an intellectually honest assessment of how the Old Testament actually portrays God.

The Old Testament shows God as emphasizing:
  • Justice - One of the overriding concerns of the Law of Moses is whether justice is done.
  • Beauty - Both the beauty of creation and the emphasis on beauty in the tabernacle and Temple show God's love for beauty.
  • Purity - Moses' Law covered spiritual purity, emphasizing the worth of the person and praiseworthy aspects of redeemed humanity. It also covered physical purity to the extent that the Law of Moses is one of the earliest instances of modern infection control on record, far ahead of its time.
  • Holiness - the Law of Moses emphasizes not only God's holiness, but God's transforming effect on his people to make them holy as well.
  • Blessings - God's emphasis included physical blessings such as rest and spiritual blessings of his favor and goodwill.
  • Forgiveness - The Law emphasized forgiveness by making regular provision for it by way of daily rituals, annual festivals, and regular cycles of additional forgiveness where debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and all various economic inequities were restored. Again, the ancient code has the advantage on our modern codes in the regular cycle of forgiving long-term debt so that people are not haunted by debt for their whole lives.
  • Wisdom - The Old Testament has wisdom literature in the book of Proverbs, but also elsewhere portrays wisdom as an attribute of God and one of the spiritual blessings evident in the faithful, even the simple.
  • Compassion - One of God's most defining aspects was held to be his compassion, part of God's own self-identification as he revealed himself to Moses.
  • Mercy - God likewise singled out mercy as one of his identifying attributes when he revealed himself to Moses. God's mercy is seen time and again in his laws, his promise of redemption, and in his patient interactions with sinful people.

In the Old Testament, God's character is shown as faithful, merciful and just. His disposition is shown as loving towards mankind.

None of this is to disclaim any of the passages that make modernists squirm, or that are used as debate-fodder by anti-Christians. It is just to mention that, on a fair reading of the Old Testament, God is portrayed very differently than the commonplace portrayal of a petty vindictive tyrant. He is portrayed as the one bringing justice, mercy, and restoration.

1 - Yes, I'm aware that the slave trade as we knew it from American history was outlawed in the Torah (Exodus 21:16). The type of slavery where someone was forcibly kidnapped and sold carried the death penalty for the slave trader. However, there were other types of slavery permitted. Some of the permitted forms of slavery still seem objectionable to us today, regardless of the fact that the whole evil framework of mass kidnapping behind slavery in the Americas was a capital offense under the Law of Moses.
2 - "Justified judgment" applies not only to the flood or to battles, but also to thieves who could be made slaves temporarily if it was the only way they could repay their debt to those they robbed (Exodus 22:3). This is one of the respects in which I believe the ancient Biblical law was more enlightened than our modern Western-style law where there is no requirement that the victim's loss be made good by the thief.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Feminist theology: the most pressing question

After I read Ben Myers' interview with Meehyung Chung in which she said that feminist theology has neglected the everyday voice of women in the church, I wanted to address some of the ways I had seen that to be true. As I wrap up the series with this post, there are other topics that could possibly be considered, but won't be covered in depth. For example, there seems to be a need for Christian feminism to find a role for dignity in service, to break the worldly pattern of always equating service with oppression, to reclaim service as a Christian vocation and humility as a Christian virtue, with lowliness as an honored path. These and other such things are implied in what has gone before, and it would be tedious to pursue every angle, and besides merciless to catalog every fault. I would like to close with what is, in my mind, the most pressing question.

Meehyun Chung commented that feminist theology had neglected the everyday voice of women in the church. While I believe this to be true, there is something which concerns me more, and I expect concerns the everyday women in the church more, than whether feminist theology is neglecting our voice. Is feminist theology -- at least in some strains -- neglecting God's priorities in favor of their own agenda?

That brings us to the question, what is theology supposed to do? If the purpose of theology is to know God, to bring the knowledge and presence of God to our lives and to our world in a redemptive and creative way, if we see this active presence and knowledge of God as the crowning blessing among all possible blessings, that is one vision of theology. It will necessarily lead to all kinds of redemptive and creative work in the world, wherever the presence of God and knowledge of God are treasured by his children and incarnated in our lives. This redemptive and creative work will include women, and will see people especially called to serve women, just as it will see people especially called to serve men, or serve children, or serve certain cities, or serve the homeless. It will also see theologians called to consider justice for women just as surely as all matters of justice are matters for God's people.

But there is a concern here that feminist theology is not always about the things God. There is a concern whether feminist theology has at times been divisive and partisan, whether pride and competitiveness and self-centeredness have crept into the conversation, whether the cause of women has been given higher place than the cause of Christ. When feminism becomes an end in itself, God becomes a pawn in a political argument. When God is a pawn, then God is no longer the source of blessing; without a source of blessing, such theology is stripped of its power to redeem or transform. Anything which exalts itself above God eventually defeats itself for that reason. For feminist theology to maintain its perspective -- and its promise of being a redemptive power in the world -- it must remember that it is part of the larger framework of God's transforming presence in the world.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Feminist theology and social justice priorities

This continues a series on what I hope is constructive criticism for feminist theology. By now I'm eager to move along to more edifying subjects, and have only two posts remaining (this and one more, as I start typing the current post).

I think one of the more obvious ways in which feminist theology has neglected the concerns of average women has been in the area of priorities. Given that social justice is a concern, is the ordination and promotion of women really the highest priority among theological issues? I'm not saying that to discourage conversation on that subject; it's a topic of the day and let's have the conversation. Instead, I mention priorities by way of a perspective-check.

Social Justice Top Priority: Commitment to Marriage
Let's talk about social justice. One of the leading causes of poverty in this nation -- surely a social justice issue -- is single motherhood. I expect that working marriages would do far more to reduce poverty than increasing the minimum wage. Yet people see the minimum wage as a worthwhile social justice issue, but do not see strengthening the family as a social justice issue. However, it is a social justice issue.

I think we sweep problems like that under the rug because they are messy and embarrassing. It sounds much nicer to talk about whether we have enough women who are pastors and bishops. But in the meantime we have too many women who are living in poverty because their boyfriends pressured them into sex and then abandoned them when they wouldn't have an abortion, or whose husbands walked out rather than invest the work needed to sustain a marriage. The good we do in the average woman's life -- and child's life -- by creating a two-parent, stable, just and merciful Christian home far outweighs the good done to that same woman by having a woman bishop who won't address those concerns either. Home life is sometimes dirty and ugly; Christianity is at its strongest with love, redemption, justice, and mercy. But these things don't happen by themselves. What happens by itself, in our hearts and lives, is increasing sin, dismay, and disorder. The spiritual neglect of a home long-untended makes itself felt in too many lives. The leaders have to lead and make points of these things with their people.

Social Justice Priority: No Pressure to Abort
How many pastors use abortion as an example of evil in our culture? Now, how many of those pastors actually say, from the pulpit, that a man should never ask his wife or girlfriend to abort their child? They also say that, these days, one of the leading causes of death in pregnant women is being attacked by the father of the child. Have we mentioned to our people that these are horrific things, that a man should never attack his wife or girlfriend with the intent to induce a miscarriage? A friend of mine from church is raising a profoundly retarded and disabled child because her husband attacked her while she was pregnant. Rather than inducing a miscarriage, he induced a very premature delivery. It may seem too horrific to say or consider, but it happens around us, and even in our churches, because we are sinners too. Just as "do not murder" and "do not commit adultery" are obvious but are written in the Ten Commandments all the same, we need church leaders who are willing to address the obvious and ugly problems around us.

Social Justice Priority: Justice and Mercy in Courtship
Dating is often an exercise in the man trying to press the woman as far as she will go towards sexual intercourse. I'll take the traditional women's complaints against the men first, then look at the other side of the coin.

When it comes to pre-marital sex, even men who are Christians often show no signs of self-restraint, placing the burden of guilt or pressure of rejection on the woman. Teaching men to be self-controlled, to hold themselves accountable for how far they go, would greatly ease the burden on women. When was the last time anyone heard church leaders address that it is wrong to use high-pressure tactics, to use emotional blackmail, or to take advantage of emotional insecurity in order to gain sexual concessions? The next generation approaching puberty includes my own daughter. I can explain all this to her, but it would help if I had the church's support. For a Christian man it should be unconscionable to make an inappropriate advance in the first place. We need to re-set our expectations there.

Enough picking on the men, though. Women also must be taught those same standards of accountability, responsibility, kindness and justice. Not only are women perfectly capable of pressuring men unduly, there is also the temptation to blame it on the man, which may seem plausible because of traditional expectations. Christian women should know that it is ungodly to take advantage of men, and that it is especially repugnant to blame men for our own moral shortcomings. Blaming other people for our own faults is the height of injustice. It kills love, rejects mercy, and ignores kindness. It stunts spiritual growth, cutting us off from repentance and forgiveness. I hope it doesn't seem strange to you that I hold women accountable and hope other women will take the lead in holding ourselves accountable. Both egalitarians and complementarians will notice that Paul's instructions to Titus to have older women teaching younger women about the realitiies of building loving families. It seems odd, if not worse, that the one area on which complementarians and egalitarians should have full agreement is the one thing that I can't see either camp doing.

Quality of Life and Quality of Culture: Peace with Men
Strife between men and women is nothing new. Peace between men and women, and goodwill, is a worthy goal. But a certain strain of feminism tries to score political points by grievance-mongering. I'm not saying there are never grievances, I'm saying the approach being used is sometimes more likely to aggravate the grievances than resolve them. In this way, the feminist movement has at times had a negative effect on male/female relations. If the Christian feminists or Christian feminist theologians are to have a positive impact on this, some more constructive approaches would be welcome.

The Point?
Our Lord called down blessings for the peacemakers, for the merciful, for those who longed for righteousness, and for the pure in heart. All of Christ's brothers and sisters are called to be channels of blessing in the world. When feminist theology is genuinely Christ-like, it promises to be a blessing to the world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Women's Liberation and Love of Family

This continues the series about whether feminist theology is neglecting the voice of the woman in the pews. First, Christian feminism must reclaim Christ's priority of love for our lives, contrary to secular feminism's disdain of family. Second, social justice must be applied to our own homes and workplaces; in a Christian sense this includes bringing justice, love, mercy, blessing, and rest into the equation.

Bricks without Straw: Feminism and the Workload Problem
You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don't reduce the quota. (Exodus 5:7-8)
Women's liberation has been both a blessing and a curse to the average woman. While many women have taken on work outside the home, the workload at home was not reduced. Exhaustion and frantic schedules are among the most common complaints, along with less time for the family.

Feminists v. Family and the Priority of Love
When someone speaks dismissively of "women's jobs" and "women's roles", much less "making sacrifices for the family," it's a safe bet that the one voicing disdain is a feminist. The feminist has often insisted that family life is at worst demeaning, at best unnecessary, and at any rate undesirable. The liberal women's movements can give the impression that staying at home and raising children is a benighted throwback to an unenlightened age, an oppressive condition from which someone could only wish to be liberated as from a prison, something that amounts to embracing a second-class subservient status. Here the feminist has not only failed to understand the voice of the average woman, but has considered it unworthy of consideration.

As long as feminism is antagonistic towards family life, it will be opposed to large numbers of women who enjoy family life at least as much as their careers. A healthier and more mature feminism must make room for women's dignity to include a love of family. Feminism, as it comes of age, must become comfortable with the other members of a family: it must become comfortable with children, and it must become comfortable with men. The assessment of children must be expanded beyond "expense" and "career distraction." The assessment of men must be expanded beyond "oppressor" and "competitor." The feminist assessment of life must also expand to include love as a legitimate part of life in addition to accomplishment and status. Failing to do so handicaps feminism's applicability to real life, and handicaps the lives of those who embrace feminism above love. Christian feminism -- especially in the form of Christian feminist theology -- could easily elevate itself above secular feminism by embracing a solid family model. It is difficult to see how a view based on Christ's teachings can avoid the priority of love for very long; one of Christ's most prominent and distinctive teachings is the priority of love.

What can the leadership do?
Back to the day-to-day issues of exhaustion and frantic schedules. There are some practical contributions that the church leadership -- whether pastors or theologians -- can make in this situation. We can follow the Bible's lead of including family and household concerns among the pastoral and social justice concerns of the church:
  • Encourage employers and managers to be compassionate about family time, not to set obstacles for parents caring for children, not to begrudge adequate leave to workers who have children.
  • Encourage Christian employers to seek out ways to make their family policies a blessing to their workers. For example, employers could make arrangements for part-time workers still to have health insurance coverage under employer-based group plans, or could grant an automatic half-holiday for a child's birthday or an anniversary. I wouldn't want to limit the conversation to ideas that suggest themselves to me based on my own situation. As Christian employers, not only justice and hard work but also kindness and grace should be evident. We should make our management policies such that all people wish they had a Christian manager, CEO, or HR Director.
  • Make justice in the home a priority. Encourage parishioners to review home workloads whenever exhaustion is a problem for anyone in the family. Have each household make sure that the workload is distributed fairly and that unnecessary work is eliminated.
  • Encourage realistic measures of how fairly household chores are distributed. Here is one possible test for whether work is distributed fairly: if one person is often still doing chores after the rest have sat down to rest, then that person is likely doing more than their share of the work, and the others less than their share.
  • Make mercy in the home a priority. Encourage people to take notice of tiredness, to take seriously the need for rest, for sleep, and for peace and quiet.
  • Making blessing in the home a priority. While not descending to a legalistic view of the Sabbath, be the good shepherd who makes the sheep lie down in green pastures and leads them by still waters. It restores their souls. If the sheep look harassed and helpless, that's the shepherd's cue to do something about it.
These themes have roots that go deep in Scriptures. It is time we take note of them until they take root in our lives. Justice, mercy, blessing, and rest are not optional in our homes or our workplaces. We need to receive these for our own well-being; we need to embody these in a useful ministry of love and mercy to the world.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Teenage Sunday School Starts the Ten Commandments

In the past few weeks we've made it all the way over to Exodus, hitting the highlights such as the Passover along the way. This week the students met the Ten Commandments for the first time since they were outright children. I hope to build in them both an appreciation for the law, a sense of its place in salvation history and in Christian life, and an immunization against legalism. All that will take a few weeks. Here's the first installment.

Read Exodus 20:1-17.
  • Have the class list the commandments on the board.
  • Discuss different numbering schemes used for the commandments, the fact that they didn't come numbered so different opinions are ok on the numbering system, and not to be shocked if they see another group number the commandments differently at times.
  • Made sure everyone knew what adultery and coveting were. Everybody understood that adultery involved mating with someone when you shouldn't, and that coveting meant wanting something that was someone else's.

  1. What would the world be like if people followed this? Much better.
  2. Does anyone remember where the Ten Commandments were kept? (Which wasn't a fair question since we hadn't covered it, but I was fairly sure someone would know.) In the Ark of the Covenant. (Short discussion of Raiders of the Lost Ark is inevitable at this point, so I give it a minute or two.)
  3. Does anyone remember what the Ark of the Covenant looked like and what it was made of? It was a box covered with gold and it had angels on the top facing each other.
  4. When I taught the Ten Commandments to the preschoolers a couple of years ago, I brought in a jewelry box. They swarmed it. What do you know about a jewelry box? It has something cool inside.
  5. My jewelry box is wood with some mother-of-pearl inlays ... is it a safe bet that whatever's inside a jewelry box is worth more than the box? Yep.
  6. What does it say about the Ten Commandments that the box they made for it was covered in gold? (Mostly raised eyebrows and hey/wow type comments, but they got the point: the Ten Commandments were considered to be worth more than gold.)
  7. Is this the first time we've seen laws or commands in the Bible, where God says that we must or must not do something? No, we also saw them in Genesis, "You must not eat of the tree."
  8. How did we do with that previous command? Not very well.
  9. How do we do with this set of commands? Not very well.

At this point we stopped and reviewed the idea of our being divided within ourselves, with a side drawn towards God and a side still resentful and distrustful towards God. Had a volunteer draw someone on the board with a split face to show a good side and an evil side, representing us as we are. With reference to the picture, a few more questions:
  1. What does the good side of us think about the commandments? "Yep, sure, I'll do that."
  2. What does the bad side of us think about the commandments? "Forget that!"

Start a section on the board for good reactions to the commandments. Have the class listen for these during the next readings.

Read Matthew 5:17-19
Read Romans 2:17-20

Make list on board of good things said about the commandments in these passages.
Our list included
  • keeping the commandments and teaching others to keep them is counted praiseworthy by Christ
  • relationship to God
  • know God's will
  • approve of what is good
  • being instructed
  • being guided
  • being able to instruct and guide others
  • having the embodiment of knowledge and truth

Referring back to the two-faced drawing of ourselves, explain how the good things about the commandments interest the better side of us. Then point out that the bad side of us reacts differently. Have the class listen for these during the next reading.
Read Romans 7:7-8 and 7:11.
Start a section on the board for bad reactions to the commandments. Our list included
  • Rules are meant to be broken
  • So that's what God wants me to do? I'll do the opposite.

And that'll do for this week. Final exam for today's work: in what chapter of the Bible did we read the Ten Commandments? Exodus 20.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

When Christ is de-emphasized for his maleness ...

This continues a short series on whether feminist theology is neglecting the everyday voice of women in the church.

If traditional theology has been accused of a discomfort with women, it seems that some feminist theology has a discomfort with men. The discomfort can range from neglect and disinterest to blatant antagonism. If feminist theology makes the argument that the man's discomfort with women is a theological shortcoming and possibly moral shortcoming, the same must apply to instances of women's discomfort with men. Feminist theology does remind us that women bear the image of God just as surely as men do, drawing attention to something the Bible has always affirmed. However, a certain strain of feminist theology aims to portray God almost solely in female terms, with the results (as we have seen) that are sometimes embarrassing, which is not necessarily a strong first showing in theology. Simple embarrassment is not a cause for excess concern; many male theologians have embarrassed themselves over the centuries and foolishness is no novelty in theological studies. But there is a more serious consequence of a theology that tries, as one of its goals, to be scrupulously female-oriented instead of simply Christian with our own voice. That more serious consequence is the neglect of Christ. The feminist may see God the Father as God the Mother, or may see the Holy Spirit as female, and there is probably relatively small harm to their theology (other than ethics, generosity, and charity towards men) from so studiously ignoring the masculine. But among the ways in which we know God, Christ in particular is intractably male. So Christ, as an adult male -- which is to say Christ in his ministry -- is seldom encountered in his full humanity in feminist theology. Women in position of church authority have been known to speak of "mother Jesus"; this is better than discarding Jesus entirely but still comes across as a willful distortion.

Attempts to feminize Christ, neuter Christ, or ignore Christ do irreparable harm to the knowledge of God. Some branches of feminist theology are more comfortable with Christ as child (neuter) than with Christ as son (male). This risks losing sight of Christ's adult life; it risks marginalizing the miracles, the compassion, the teachings, the crucifixion and resurrection that occurred in Jesus' adult (human male) life. Christianity with a missing or half-hearted Christology is devastatingly handicapped. It is flatly impossible for any full-fledged theology to come from a perspective which is so narrowly feminine that it avoids the full realities of Christ's incarnation.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When feminist theology re-invents the Trinity ...

This continues a short series on whether feminist theology is neglecting the everyday voice of women in the church.

It is common for the egalitarian camp to offer assurances that placing women in key roles does not amount to throwing out historic Christianity wholesale, but instead is simply correcting some misunderstandings and misapplications. Some noteworthy public examples have not been very reassuring. The PC-USA recently approved referring to the Trinity as "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb." Let's begin, here, with the Life-giving Womb. I can only imagine what the feminists would say if the Trinity were ever referred to as "Father, Son, and Live-giving Testicles" or something along those lines. To put it more plainly, this seems to be an example of over-stretching the study of the Holy Spirit beyond reasonable bounds, with an aim to make a merely human point. In theology -- particularly incarnational theology as we Christians practice -- there's always the careful distinction whether we sinners are remade in God's image (restoration) or whether God is remade in our image (idolatry or blasphemy on the extreme end, or petty presumptuousness and rank silliness on the low end). I don't see that referring to the Holy Spirit as a womb has any Scriptural merit, but instead it seems a fairly transparent effort to thrust our self-image onto God. I don't think it can be taken so seriously as to amount to blasphemy, but I expect it does amount to rank silliness. That an early, conspicuous contribution of the new leadership to church life is something both misguided and frivolous comes as something of an embarrassment to the average woman in the pews, possibly to women in theology in general. It comes across as a nearly childish form of the "me too!" argument, and the focus comes across as less on God and more on women seeking to call attention to themselves at a moment in the worship service when the focus ought to be on God.

It's very likely that "me too!" needs to be said. It is always reassuring of our shared human dignity that the Bible names both men and women as being made in the image of God. Still, I would be less embarrassed if this point was made with a little more tact than that, and if the image of God did not seem to be used as a pawn in the gender wars. The image of God should be one thing men and women have in common; when we use it in a divisive or narrowly sexist way (as in "Life-giving Womb"), that's an improper use of the doctrine. It is not for us to remake God after the image of only one sex.1 If the image of God bestowed on us is to be a heartening and life-giving teaching, then it is to be seen as a gift of God to us, the hope of glory, and the dignity of humanity, both men and women in common.

Which leads fairly directly to my next post on the subject ...

1 - It is likely enough that some of the people recommending "Life-giving Womb" for use in the Trinitarian formula recognize it as narrowly sexist, and see the narrow sexism (let's be charitable) as corrective, rather than such a low thing as payback or liturgical revenge. But I'm skeptical that language of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost was ever meant as narrowly sexist; adding something to the mix that is hard to interpret otherwise than narrowly sexist in its reference to reproductive organs introduces a pointed narrowness and explicit divisiveness that was not there before and is not helpful to introduce.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Is feminist theology neglecting the women in the pews?

I'd like to recognize Ben Myers for his part in my next series, particularly an interview he conducted with Meehyun Chung, a woman who recently received recognition for her theological work. In response to an insightful question of Ben's, she answered (in part):
Feminist theology has achieved various things in the academic sphere, but the voice of women in the church has not actually been accepted – or rather, feminist theology has neglected the everyday voice of women in the church.
That very well sums up many of my objections to feminist theology. What is meant to be a representative voice in the academic halls can actually be a misrepresenting voice. I set out to type up a single post reviewing the points where I think feminist theology often misrepresents the everyday voice of women in the church. It soon became clear that I was looking at a series. Here is the first installment.

Priesthood of all believers
The egalitarian camp has spent a certain amount of time and energy making a case that women belong in the higher echelons of church leadership. For just a moment, let's set aside the question of whether this is good or Biblical. Instead, let's suppose that the egalitarian efforts towards ordination and promotion of women were instantly, completely, uncontestedly successful in their aims, and ask ourselves: how much good would this accomplish for the average woman? To put it another way: To what extent is the average man elevated by the fact that his pastor or priest is male? How does this compare to the extent to which we are lifted up by forgiveness when we are humbled, or the extent to which we are lifted up by being a member of the priesthood -- not the priesthood of the elite, but the priesthood of all believers? Did feminist theology take a wrong turn in aiming for membership in the elite rather than restoring full membership in the body of Christ to all believers?

In some sense this is an unjust criticism in that the pastoral role is a legitimate role within the church. All the same, I'd submit that when women looked around and saw ourselves marginalized, it was too small a thing to notice our own marginalization, and not also notice the marginalization of all the laity together. Neither will breaking into the elites, even with complete success, be enough to change the fact that most of the women -- and men -- are still marginalized within the church.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Next Big Church Scandal

This was originally written back when I was group-blogging over at CADRE Comments. But since there's another church scandal brewing, it seemed like a good time to dust it off and re-post it.

What's the next big church scandal? Money-hungry televangelists taking advantage of the devotion of the poor? Pedophile priests taking advantage of the young? The apocalypse industry? Its syndication in the tabloids? Another big-name preacher succumbs to sexual temptation or to egotism? Christian factions involved in name-calling melee? In-house church politics alienating God-loving members?

Even if they sound familiar, I suspect that none of those will become the next big church scandal. I think there are two huge scandals that we do not see clearly enough. First, that we are not tending our own houses well enough to stop many of these others before they become scandals. We see them coming; where is our outcry? Second, we are not living lives of such active mercy and compassion as to completely dwarf the scandals in comparison.

Wait, but aren't there Christians living lives of mercy and compassion? Sure, and there many of them. Are they notable? Sure, all of them. I don't for a minute want to downplay the vast numbers of those devoted to following Christ. Is that enough? Not yet.

"It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men." (1 Peter 2:15) We're not quite there yet. "Live such good lives among the pagans that, even though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." (1 Peter 2:12) "If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." (from 1 Peter 3:1-2) A humble Christian with a pure and reverent life may do more good than any number of evangelists and apologists.

Letting people know that there is true reason for hope -- that is our great calling. Right now, the strength of our answers is belied by the weakness of our lives. When Christian devotion to God becomes more obvious to the casual observer than the transgressions of high-profile and low-profile Christians alike, only then is their confidence likely to be restored enough to trust the answers we give.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Community and Love of Neighbor

If loving our neighbor is our #2 priority in Christian service, how are we doing? Dan over at Cerulean Sanctum has been blogging about community. Because I think it's a worthwhile topic, I'll pick up on it here. My main focus is on how our choices of where to live affect our efforts to love our neighbors and our families, and what message we send if we do not know our neighbors.

Why Move?
Have you ever moved from one town to another? People do it all the time. Sometimes we move for family, sometimes for job or money, sometimes for education or other reasons. But if we move for job and money, that says something about our priorities in life. Are friends expendable? What about family? Sometimes we've done so badly at healing old wounds that we'd almost like to get away. Is moving a polite excuse to abandon a messy cleanup job in the family? How close is that to abandonment?

I am not saying that moving is always bad; but on some occasions it is bad, ordering our lives around money or prestige, and we shy away from facing that honestly. Whether moving is good or bad in a certain situation, it is always a disruption to our lives and the lives of everyone who cares about us where we are. That should be weighed as a legitimate consideration. "I can make new friends" is fairly dismissive of the old ones and whether they really mattered to us. Some moves come uncomfortably close to saying "My career is more important than the people I know." It doesn't always mean that, of course; but sometimes it does. As Christians, we say love of money or prestige doesn't call the shots in our lives ... but does it?

Have you ever read about places where everybody knows everybody, and the families have known each other for generations? It's because they stayed put for generations. I hear from people who have lived in those places that they are definitely not a cure-all for society's problems, so don't take me wrong there. But there is a depth of caring, of knowing when your neighbor is distressed, that is much easier in a community where people know each other.

Try a thought experiment: imagine that your children grow up and start families and live within walking distance of where they grew up. Imagine you stay in the same neighborhood. Imagine that everyone in the neighborhood has children who, when grown, make their own home in the same neighborhood, and encourage their children to do the same. Fifty years from now, there would be a real community in that neighborhood. Everybody would know everybody, and would have known each other from time immemorial as far as the youngest generation was aware. Putting down roots means to stop moving. Belonging in a place means to have been there and made it home. Loving your neighbor involves knowing your neighbor. That's easier with time and continuity.

Of Gnats and Camels
I think, in trying to transform our lives, renewing our minds in the image of Christ, we generally start small. Sensing our lives' brokenness, a certain percentage of people become obsessive about rooting out sins, and typically this seems to be obsessive about rooting out little sins, or things that may not be sins in the first place. Smoking, cardplaying, gambling, makeup -- I would compare this fixation on small things to someone who buys a home that's a fixer-upper, and begins by vacuuming and dusting. There's nothing wrong with vacuuming and dusting; nothing wrong with chasing after small problems ... unless it's keeping us from taking care of bigger problems.

Sooner or later, bigger problems come to light. Unkindness to various relatives, impatience, resentment, arrogance, coldness, bad self-control, apathy, short-temperedness, even an unwarranted or aloof distance from those who might hope for our kindness, these are the next things that often catch our eye as needing our attention. After we have the small things in our lives in order and we're casting around for more we can do, there is a nasty temptation to overlook the deeper problems in our own lives and settle on fixing someone else's sins instead. We easily recognize Jesus' comments about the person with a log in one eye trying to take a mote out of someone else's eye. We are told to first take the log out of our own eye, first reconcile with our brother, and remember God's desire for our mercy towards each other.

Loving our neighbors is our #2 priority in service, right behind love of God -- and it's a necessary extension of loving God. I'd like to make love of neighbor higher on my own priority list. I think the New Testament writers were correct to put hospitality as one of the signs of a true community leader and a true servant of Christ. We have to create the occasions where we're going to get a chance to know our neighbor. And it's good to remember that we're called to love and serve them as much as we are to let them know about Christ; in fact serving and honestly caring are probably the best "show me" evangelism.

For some innovative ideas along those lines, if you're not familiar with Dawn Treader's Pigfests, those are worth a read.

The Point
I'm only saying one obvious thing here: Our love for our families and neighbors includes remaining (or becoming) a part of their lives. Our choice of where to live matters for that. Of course we're called to make all people our family and treat all people as neighbors. But that's no excuse for us to treat the ones we know as if they did not matter. Just the opposite: it's reason for us to treat the ones we know that much better.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Special 2: Horror Stories and Evil

Our horror stories say something about the areas of evil that still awaken deep disgust and fear. It shows, in some sense, that we are still aware of good and evil on some level. This Halloween, I'd like to visit the legend of the Cauldron Born. J.K. Rowling's Voldemort was hardly the first Cauldron Born in literature. Lloyd Alexander's The High King and The Black Cauldron did a nod to the Cauldron Born. Before that, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein explored the Cauldron Born motif in a proto-sci-fi direction. Some modern fiction flirts with genetic engineering as a potential for horror, for creating a terror beyond our control.

What is so horrifying about the Cauldron Born, from Frankenstein to Voldemort? It's not that they're alive, nor that they're human. The problem is that they're not fully human, that they're masquerading as human but something has gone monstrously wrong. Something is lacking in these would-be humans, and that lack makes their powers frightening.1 I think the appearance of cauldron born beings in literature -- engineered by human hands -- explores our discomfort with the limits of what we can make through science or magic, and how that falls short of the life found naturally.2 It mirrors back our unease that we may not, after all, know quite enough about what we are doing to be able to fully handle the results. It is, in its way, similar to the story of the Fall all over again: we have a temptation to godlike power and, with more knowledge but less wisdom, it becomes a dehumanizing and nature-corrupting mix with results that are difficult to predict and more difficult to stop. The same basic theme informs much of the environmental movement's fear: that our knowledge and our greed for gain have outpaced our wisdom, opening up the potential for catastrophe. In more moderate terms, it's a critique of the history of human attempts to control the world, including a critique of certain applied sciences, where history has proved a good few times now that our knowledge of how to do something has outpaced our knowledge of the consequences and side-effects that happen when we do it.

Close cousins to the Cauldron Born are the creation-gone-haywire themes. In recent times these have focused (unsurprisingly) on computers. HAL (one step ahead of IBM) from 2001: A Space Odyssey is always a favorite. So is the unnervingly dispassionate military computer who responds to a teenage hacker's request, "Let's play 'Global Thermonuclear War'" in WarGames in a way that threatens to destroy the planet.

These man-made horrors also reflect the old theological observation that evil does not have a nature of its own, but takes another nature and parodies or corrupts it. Evil's nature is defined by what it lacks.

But it's not a right Halloween post if I spend all the bandwidth explaining why the genre strikes a chord. Let's get back to the Cauldron Born. Nobody else I've read does the Cauldron Born quite as sickeningly as Rowling's Voldemort. For Halloween, and for the identity of evil, sickening can be a mark of having shown just how revolting evil is ... right? ANYWAY ...
It was as though Wormtail had flipped over a stone and revealed something ugly, slimy, and blind -- but worse, a hundred times worse. .... no child alive ever had a face like that -- flat and snakelike, with gleaming red eyes. ... (Skipping a piece of black magic done on behalf of the villain ...)

But then, through the mist in front of him, he saw, with an icy surge of terror, the dark outline of a man, tall and skeletally thin, rising slowly from inside the cauldron. ... Lord Voldemort had risen again. (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, various excerpts from chapter 32)

Happy Halloween!

1 - It's debatable how much the "fundamentally inhuman" bit applies to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the movie adaptations. Is the problem in the created object, or just in our perception of it? Is the problem that we go beyond what we can reasonably handle, or is the problem that people can't handle "progress"?

2 - I know that not all of the "man-made humans" in literature turn out too badly. There's Pinocchio, whose life is not frightening to others, but personally sad until he becomes more fully human. This is much like the Tin Man in the Oz stories. But those get demoted to a footnote for Halloween! Tonight we explore the dark side of the story.

General footnote: Yes, I get impatient with those who do not see horror and science fiction as "worthy" or "serious" literary genres. They are the myths of our day where we grapple with the questions of life, death, and our place in the world -- or the universe. Granted that not all horror and sci-fi are high quality, still the same could be said fairly for any other genre.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Continuous Reformation: Imagine A Seminary Course Catalog

Do you believe the church should always be in reform? Imagine a seminary with graduation requirements and coursework that looked like this:

Semester 1
  • The Fear of the LORD
  • Humility and self-control
  • Torah studies
  • Proverbs and Psalms (musicians encouraged to bring instruments on Fridays)
  • Stewardship

Semester 2
  • The Prophets
  • Knowing God: images of God, presence and promises of God
  • Gifts of the Spirit 1. A seven-part course on wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear of the LORD, and joy in his presence.
  • Prayer and contemplation
  • The great laws: love of God and neighbor. Required term project: participation in a Matthew 25-originated hands-on ministry.

Summer Practicum: hospitality

Semester 3
  • New Testament: Gospels. Focus on knowing God through Christ.
  • Gifts of the Spirit 2. A three-part course on Faith, Hope, and Love.
  • Repentance and Forgiveness
  • Leadership 1. Spurring others on to good work. Building fellowship.
  • The Grace of the Lord

Semester 4
  • New Testament: Acts through Revelation. Focus on showing God to the world through following Christ.
  • Leadership 2. Delivering rebukes with gentleness and respect. Delivering encouragement. Forming Christ in your listeners by means of the Word. Feeding your sheep.
  • Work of the Holy Spirit 3. Main emphasis on knowing God, on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A basic overview of other gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
  • Perseverance and persecution
  • Proclaiming Christ as evangelism

Final Practicum: Shepherding with wisdom and compassion.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Halloween Special 1: Night of the Living Dead

If horror movies tell us something about our culture's deepest fears, what do the zombie movies say? I think the message is this: that we are already living among the undead, shuffling through life without seeing, without feeling, without loving, without caring, without resting, without any thought but our next meal. And in those zombies, we recognize more than just the masses of unlooking, unspeaking people around us, but ourselves as well.

If I were to start an evangelism campaign among the children of the Age of Apathy, I think I might start with the zombies. They are the personifications of the apathetic age. How much more alive are we than they are? Are we really alive or are we just undead? What does it take to be more alive? I'd almost be willing to pass out tracts that had a zombie cover on them ...

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Teenage Sunday School and Abraham's Sacrifice

Actually today we did a lot of Abraham -- a brief review of God's covenant, and of his rescue of Lot. But we spent the most time on the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

Challenge for the class: during the reading, listen for the answers to these two things:
  1. Where did all this happen?
  2. What's the promise associated with the place?
Read Genesis 22:1-14.
  1. Where did all this happen? Moriah
  2. Who picked the place? God did
  3. What's the promise associated with the place? God will provide the sacrifice. (We also did a brief review of the fact that "God will provide" is what "Moriah" means.)
  4. Sometimes authors draw on the Bible for inspiration, particularly Christian writers. Can anybody think of a book or movie with a place called "Moriah" in it? Not enough Lord Of The Rings fans in class today, only one got the reference to the mines of Moriah, and to Gandalf's sacrificing himself to save the fellowship there.
  5. Does anyone know whether, in later times, sacrifice was important to Abraham's descendants in Israel? Yes, it was.
  6. Does anyone know where they made the sacrifices? At the temple.
  7. Does anyone know where they built the temple? On a mountain. In Jerusalem.
Read 2 Chronicles 3:1
Then Solomon began to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David.

  1. Where exactly did they build the temple? Mt. Moriah. The same place Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac.
  2. Who picked the place? God.
  3. What was the promise that goes with the name "Moriah"? God will provide the sacrifice. (Which was a giveaway, it was still on the board, but I wanted them to see the connection.)
  4. When it says "God will provide the sacrifice," what is the ultimate promise about? Jesus

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Prelude: Children of the Age of Apathy

I won't make you readers suffer my poetry -- or experiments with verse, really -- very often. But I've been trying to get the feel for certain meters, and have also been thinking about reaching out to some of the frighteningly apathetic people I have known. And if this doesn't rhyme it's probably a mercy, really. I've read too many poems that the best you can say for them is that they rhyme a lot. This doesn't have even that to offer ... ;)

Have you looked on beauty once too many times
To be gladdened by a flower or the sky?
Have you reached for hope to watch it slip away
Too often to stretch out your hand again?
Have you blown out all your wishes every year?
Considered death to be a well-earned rest?

Has a hardened heart become a commonplace?
And smiling hope now seems the lot of fools?
Has your frustrated and despairing cry
Gone unanswered til you give it no more voice?
Would honest tears now seem a sign of life
To know your soul is not beyond repair?

I know, I know, some of those lines could be reworded easily enough if I wanted rhymes. But rhymes seem jarringly wrong for reaching out to people who smirk at the whole "smiling hope" scene.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Teenage Sunday School Finishes Genesis 3

Last week, due to a teen retreat, we had a different lesson for those who came. This week we were back to Genesis 3.

  1. Before the fall, what were relations like between God and man? Good.
  2. What were relations like between male and female? Good.
  3. What was the main temptation that led to the fall? Being like God.
  4. Is God perfect? Yes
  5. If we want to be like God, how do we want to see ourselves? Argument followed. Do we see ourselves as perfect or not perfect? Does it offend us if we're not perfect? Everyone agreed we want to be seen as good and praiseworthy.

New Material

Read Genesis 3:8-10
  1. After the people had done something wrong, what was their first reaction to God? Hide.
  2. After we've done something wrong, how typical is that, to either hide from what we did, or hide what we did, or hide from the person who might not like what we did? (Stayed with it til some examples had been volunteered of times we've tried to hide what we've done in our own lives.)

Read Genesis 3:11-13
  1. When God confronted them with their problems, what was their reaction? Excuses. Debate over whether the excuses amounted to lies, but everyone's agreed they were excuses.
  2. How typical are excuses when we've done something wrong? (Kicked off with an example from my own life and stayed with it until some examples had been volunteered from the class.)
  3. Get them to think about this: how much are the excuses because we don't want someone else to blame us, and how much are the excuses because we can't handle the fact that we did something wrong? Does the fact that we want to be as praiseworthy as God have any effect on whether we can handle the fact that we did something wrong? If we admit we did something wrong, what does that do to our idea that we're as praiseworthy as we like to think? Class looks like it doesn't want to be hearing this. Which, considering the topic, is ok. Made sure they got the point but then stopped before it was overdone.
  4. What are things now like between God and man? Not so good.
  5. What about between male and female? (Boys in the class spend a lot of time blaming girls. No girls in attendance this week. [Teachers obviously don't count, being semi-alien creatures anyway.] The boys knew they were being goofballs and I knew what the next section had to say about the blame game, so I just saved the response for next section ... )

Read Genesis 3:14-24
  1. So when they were caught doing wrong, their first reaction was excuses and blaming each other. Was God buying it? No.

And out of time. Will have to work in the promise of redemption as a review point in the future lessons on redemption.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Beatitudes: Water in the Desert of LIfe

This started as a reply to Japhy's comment on the previous post, but started growing ...
We must see God in times of joy, and seek God in times of sorrow. (comment by Japhy)

It feels that way, doesn't it? I think back to the various times in life when I was completely overwhelmed. Not merely "overworked." Not simply, "It's a little rough right now but I'll get through it if I just hang in there." But when I was truly completely overwhelmed, over my head. Sometimes with bad stuff happening to me, or bleak prospects for what the rest of my life might look like, or problems with family members' health/sanity, or sometimes just disgusted with the realization that I have a lot of evil inside me.

The beatitudes were always like water in a desert to me then. I was thinking tonight (during a long drive) that Jesus' teachings are so unlike those of the other religions, and the beatitudes really were foremost in my mind among those teachings. Take, for example, the problem of despair. It's a real part of life. And compassion is medicine for it, and hope is the antidote. But at times like that, compassion and hope can be heart-breaking in a good way. At those "worst of times" parts of life, it seems like the whole world depends on me and I'm just not up to it. With the beatitudes, with the realization that I'm not alone, that God does love me, that it doesn't depend on me toughing it out, that things ride less on my endurance and more on God's blessing -- that can bring me to tears of relief. It's such a weight off my shoulders. It's like all the lights had been out and someone lit a torch and now the darkness isn't overwhelming.

That's how I see the beatitudes.

On the off chance that someone will read this who doesn't know what Jesus said in the beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfield.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven. For in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.