A Crisis of Fact

Five months.

It has been five months since I last posted anything here. Last fall, the last few times I posted, I apologized for the scarcity of posts. This time I won’t, because I’m not sorry at all. I quite simply had nothing to say.

You see, for most of the last five months I’ve been going through what I’ve referred to in conversations with my wife as a bout of “low grade depression.” What exactly that means, I’m not sure, but I had to give it a name in order to talk about it. Mostly it has manifested itself in an inability, much of the time, to access the deep places of my heart in any expressible way.

Much of this feeling I’ve been talking about relates to what God has been doing in my heart over the last few years – moving me away from convention and “normalcy,” out into the fringes of His body. Some would say I have left it all together, but that is not the case.

This is not, however, going to be another post where I talk of the disappointment and hurt I have felt at the hands of the “normal” church. This crisis has been of a related, but different nature.

In figuring out where I stand in my relationship with Christ, one thing that has come to consume my thoughts of late is the question of where I stand in relationship with Scripture.

I named this post long before I wrote it – long before, in fact, I had any idea what exactly it would say. You see, we often refer to these moments where we are questioning much of what we believe . . . much of what we have believed all our lives . . . as a “Crisis of Faith.”

My faith, though, is not something that is in crisis. This is a crisis of a different sort. It is a crisis of fact.

. . . as in, I am constantly wanting more of them. More facts, more knowledge, more information.

In this case, I want more information about this thing, this book – or collection of books, to be more accurate – that we call “The Bible.”

You see, there are some things about it that just have not made sense to me. I grew up believing something very close to the story that God planted the exact words in the heads of those who penned the original Scriptures, that they wrote them down infallibly, and that those words have been passed on to us completely untarnished.

I do not believe that anymore. My first step away from that belief came with the realization that Scripture itself may claim to be inspired, but its myriad of scribes, copyists and translators do not. Thus I came to believe that Scripture is infallible in its original form, but that minor errors have been introduced in its copying and translation.

Then I began to wonder about that word “inspired.” Scripture claims to be “inspired,” but what does that really mean? Does that truly mean that every word – even in its original form – was absolutely infallible? The word, in Greek, literally means, “God-breathed.” The meaning of that term, in turn, is somewhat of a mystery.

Then I began to study more about what has become one of my passions – one that I have written about here before, as well as on my wife’s blog – the historical context of Scripture. I began to realize that there are little things that just don’t seem to fit. One minor example is found in the story surrounding the birth of Christ. Luke relates that the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem was undertaken when Cyreneus was governor of the Roman province of Syria. Then, Luke says, after Jesus was born, King Herod – fearing for his throne – killed all children in Bethlehem below the age of two.

The only problem with this is that other contemporary historical sources reveal that Cyreneus did not become governor of Syria until after Herod’s death. Furthermore, the entire purpose of a census such as the one recorded here (and mentioned in those same historical writings) was to survey the population of a province like Judea as it transitioned from a semi-autonomous kingship to direct Roman rule . . . something that happened not only after, but because of Herod’s death. Furthermore, there is no chance that the mistake was in the other historical sources, for history has carried down to us exactly when Cyreneus was governor, as well as the names and dates of his predecessors and successors in that position.

In other words, Luke – writing roughly eighty years after the death of Christ, got some of his facts wrong.

In any other historical book, this would be no big deal . . . but discovering this about Scripture left me in somewhat of a quandry. After all, if mistakes exist in little things, why not in bigger ones? And if they exist in bigger ones, then how can we be sure that we have a true picture of what God wanted for us when He gave us the Scripture in the first place?

It makes perfect sense to me that Scripture might not mean everything we think it means. After all, my whole life I have had scriptures spouted at me to justify things like male headship, the duty of tithing, the primacy of the local church fellowship, even the biblical basis of the Republican party . . . all positions I no longer believe.

It is a big step, though, to realize that Scripture might not even necessarily mean everything it was meant to mean.

There has always, in my moving away from the various positions mentioned above, been a small kernel of doubt in my mind about certain things. After all, it says “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Taken completely separate from the surrounding historical context, and even the surrounding verses, that seems to be a pretty straight-forward command. However, it never sat well with what I know to be true of my Savior – the fact that He looks on all of His chosen equally . . . and that He promises, among other things, to be the sole mediator and spiritual authority in their lives.

Whenever I raised these issues to those who still believed as I once did, the question was always the same: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?”

This question has always presented a challenge to me. I felt trapped by it. On the one hand I could answer “yes,” and admit that my admittedly more “nuanced” reading of Scripture – together with the belief that God doesn’t necessarily have the same message for all people at all times – is wrong. On the other hand, I could say “no,” and deny the sovereignty of God to manipulate the laws of science and nature to miraculously preserve his written will.

I am willing to do neither. To do the latter would be to deny that God is who He is. To do the former would be to call Him a living contradiction.

This morning, I realized that there is a third option to this struggle I have been waging in my mind for the last several months.

You see, the question itself: “Don’t you think that God is capable of preserving in Scripture an accurate record of what He wants from us?” makes an incredibly deep-seated assumption . . . it assumes that’s what He intended for Scripture in the first place.

I have struggled for so long wondering how I can believe God incapable of miraculously preserving some sort of guideline for his people . . . I’ve never considered that the flawed, incomplete, sometimes incomprehensible story we have of God’s interaction with mankind may be exactly what He intended us to have.

After all, God’s language has been that of riddles for as long as He has interacted with humanity. From his claims on the life of Isaac to his curse of a fruitless fig tree, the simple fact is that God sometimes just does not do what is expected of him. We expect Him to give us a rulebook to live by, so when He gives us something else, we see it as a rulebook anyway. We expect Him to tell us what He wants us to do . . . so when He tells us how He wants us to love, we try to turn THAT into something we’re supposed to “do” as well . . .

He spoke in riddles, even to his closest friends and followers. They rarely made sense of what he meant – and he usually did his best to keep it that way.

What if that’s exactly what He continues to do, to this day?

What if the book we call “Bible” is another grand riddle? What if He’s being deliberately vague, and throwing in a couple seeming contradictions just to make us engage in some introspective head-scratching? Isn’t that just like him? Isn’t it just like a loving Father, when his child asks a question to which he might very easily give a straightforward answer, to instead say, “Why don’t you go do some reading, thinking, or research on that and figure that one out on your own?”

I know my own father did that many times – and I know that I’m better off for having learned how to think for myself.

Maybe Scripture is intended not to tell us what to do or think, but to teach us to think for ourselves, and to live in the shadow of our God as best we can. Maybe we are all suffering from a crisis of fact . . . and are trying to compensate by creating new “facts” – new religious commandments, traditions and “to-do lists” where none existed before.

But aren’t the folks who perverted the Jewish faith in the same way the very ones that He whipped out of the temple courtyard? Aren’t they the same ones he called “beautiful tombs, full of dead men’s bones?” Didn’t he roundly criticize and condemn the people who tried to turn the Scriptures into more than they were intended to be?

. . . and didn’t they kill Him for it?

I don’t want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to try to invent some new set of commandments because I can’t accept that the words He left us just aren’t enough to tell me what to do with myself at each and every fork in the road.

I want to think for myself . . . to take what He’s given me and use it to continue onward as I believe He would have me do.

And honestly, I don’t think He ever intended otherwise.

Ecclesiastical Orphism

Last night, my wife and I had a delightful evening out at an orchestra concert, but the object of our evening outage was no ordinary orchestra.

The fare for the evening was the world-renowned Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which happened to be visiting the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD, where Heidi often freelances with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

This was a very special night, shared with a very special group of people. Orpheus is, quite simply, a joy to watch. Their philosophy of music and of life is evident with every note.

You see, unlike the vast majority of “normal orchestras” – even world-famous ones – Orpheus has no conductor. There is no “leader” standing up at the front of the stage waving a stick, giving orders to the performers on stage, and taking responsibility if something goes wrong.

Rather, this group operates by what it calls “The Orpheus Process,” described on their website thus:

“Instead of one person taking on the orchestra’s artistic responsibility and leadership, we share leadership throughout the membership of the orchestra. Each piece sees a different concertmaster, rotating principle musician chairs, and a sharing of ideas and inspirations. This empowering formula creates a dynamic setting where each musician takes artistic ownership of the performance, not just his or her own part. When we feel personally connected to the music, we know you will too.”

Indeed, that connection was obvious – inescapable, even. Each musician was personally invested in every note, every movement, every breath that escaped the stage.

As an amateur musician myself, I’ve performed in a number of low-level orchestras. As a professional violinist, my wife has performed in more advanced settings. I’ve never experienced anything close to what I saw on that stage, and according to her, neither has she.

Normally, the conductor chooses the music, interprets it, and then coaches the orchestra into performing his interpretation. Normally the orchestra members have a responsibility to follow him, and to pay attention to their section leader and their stand partner. Normally the section leaders have the responsiblity for coordinating and leading the other members of their sections.

That framework means nothing in Orpheus. Yes, there are section leaders, but they rotate for each piece. Yes, there is even a concertmaster (The section leader of the First Violin section in a traditional orchestra, arguably the “lead musician” on the stage, underneath the conductor.) But when it comes time to prepare for a performance, each musician is fully invested in the art the group is crafting. The section leaders are rotated for each piece. A violinist might be the concertmaster for one piece, sit near the back of the section for another, and watch a third from off-stage if it calls for a smaller number of violins. The music is interpreted, not by one person, but by the whole ensemble, through a collaborative rehearsal process that gives each musician a chance to examine the piece from both inside and out, and to provide input to the group.

Similarly, where a normal orchestra receives its cues from the conductor – starting and stopping based on the movement of his baton – Orpheus might take its cues from the concertmaster, or the oboe, or the section leader of the string bass section . . . all in the same piece of music, depending on where the melody is at any given point in time. The music is almost organic – cues come from the people responsible for the particular phrase of music being played at that point in time, and each musician is keenly aware of the other 40 or so musicians on stage at every point in the piece. They have to be, or the whole enterprise would collapse.

I found myself musing, as I watched them play, “This is what the church should look like . . . “

The traditional, institutional church has followed a very similar path as the traditional, institutional orchestra. In the beginning, neither had a “conductor” in the true sense. The early church was led by learned men who agonized over the interpretations of what they perceived to be the words of God. Similarly, early orchestras were led – if not by the composer of a given work himself – by the concertmaster . . . the most learned and experienced musician among them.

Over time, both institutions began to travel a different path. Rather than a musician being both a part of the orchestra, in addition to being its leader, the role of “conductor” became a “special” function – set apart from the rest of the people on stage. It became the conductor who solely interpreted the music, who solely took responsibility for its successes and failures, and who solely accepted the applause of appreciative crowds.

Similarly, in the church, the “vicar class” was born. Bishops, Priests, Pastors, and other roles were invested with meaning well beyond that found in scripture, or invented from whole cloth – meaning that set them apart from “normal” members of the flock – the “laymen.”

Where the conductor was responsible for interpreting the intent of the composer, these “pastors” became responsible for the interpretation of God’s intent. Where the conductor’s shoulders bore the weight of the orchestra’s success or failure, the pastor’s shoulders bore the responsibility for the eternal souls of his parishoners. Where the conductor was glorified when “his” orchestra performed well, the pastor became the object of special status – including promotion in the new ecclesiastical hierarchy – depending on the “performance” of “his” church.

Orpheus, to me, is a symbol of where the church is going. I cannot speak for all believers, but I can speak for a small but growing portion of us. We are steadily wearying of the so-called “experts” who impress upon us their interpretations of God’s will with less and less justification. Instead, we are turning to relationships – the same sort of relationships that I saw on that stage last night.

Think of the incredible amount of trust those musicians must have in one another. If a single person falters, the whole performance suffers. If a single person even fails to communicate – fails to cue the others when beginning a new phrase, fails to hear or see what another part of the ensemble is doing, fails in any way to either understand the other musicians, or to make him or herself understood in turn – what was a glorious piece of music a moment before is suddenly a cacophany of mere noise.

In the same way, believers should be able to trust one another. If we all have the same goal in common – the joy of a life lived with Christ – I should trust that my fellow travellers on this journey are living that life as best they know how, and I should expect them to trust me the same way. None of us should be due any individual credit for any “kingdom” successes – the reward belongs to the body of Christ. The tapestry that is created when the body of Christ lives and works as an organic entity – all parts in relationship with one another and working in their unique and separate ways toward the common goal of seeking to know God – is truly a work of art . . . one even more stunning than that created when 40 musicians trust each other enough to get out on stage and create something beautiful together.

Just like the Orpheus process, participation in the body of Christ should be, and is, an empowering process. It does require an incredible amount of investment. In a traditional church setting, I could sit back and let some pastor tell me what to think. Outside of the traditional church framework, I cannot do that. I am responsible, any and every day, to truly “give a reason for the hope that is within me.”

I can’t just regurgitate some talking points or a list of scripture verses. In the same way each member of Orpheus has to know what they think of the piece being played, I have to know what I believe about the God I walk with.

It is a big responsibility – and one I don’t always live up to. There are too many questions I continue to ask myself, and to which I don’t know the answer. There are too many times when I still find myself reciting a party line, rather than giving coherent thought to a question.

I want more for myself – demand more from myself.

I want a life – a faith – that looks like Orpheus.

Profundity sometimes crops up in the strangest places . . .

It’s been a month now since I’ve posted here. I feel like I should apologize, but the truth is, I’m not terribly sorry for it. I only tend to write when I feel like I have something profound to say, and I haven’t felt that way much lately.

The short story I mentioned a month ago (and said I’d have ready in a couple days) is still in progress. I’m hoping to get further into it later today.

But that’s not the reason I’m writing now. I’m writing because, finally, I feel like I have something to say.

It stems from a post on one of my regular political blog reads PowerLine. The post was very short and simple, about the new action movie out in theaters this weekend, “The Kingdom.”

The post notes the Saudi Kingdom’s ties to terrorism, and the movie’s dubious assertion that the Saudis are our “partners” in combating terrorism. PowerLine’s conclusion, “skip the film.”

This is, to me, symptomatic of many conservatives’ approach to Hollywood, and more broadly, to life in general.

In attempting to differentiate from the relativism so prominent in liberal circles, conservatives, as the arbiters and protectors of absolute truth, often seem to want to protect that truth by eliminating access to anything else.

Take, for example, the movies “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Da Vinci Code” or “Brokeback Mountain,” just to name a couple examples.

Each of these movies contains themes that are anathema to the average conservative, so the conservative solution is to boycott the films, encourage others to do likewise, while simultaneously excoriating them, along with those who created them and those who go to see them.

I’ve seen all three, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what there is in any of them that fills conservatives with such fear that they refuse to engage the ideas in the films directly. The first is a pure propaganda film that anybody who regularly reads a newspaper should be able to refute. The second is a quasi-historical action film based on a thriller novel. The third is, quite simply, a tragic love story just as epic (and just as psychologically screwed up) as “Romeo and Juliet.”

Yet conservatives are afraid to engage with these cultural statements, preferring to shun them instead.

This approach is costly, on two counts. First it discredits legitimate criticism of these movies by revealing that, often, their harshest critics haven’t even seen the movies they deride. Second, it allows those who refuse to see movies because of political objection to miss out.

Which brings me to the reason I’m writing this post. Last night, Heidi and I watched the movie “Knocked Up.” I was expecting a dumb, brainless comedy, but that’s not what it was. It certainly had its stupid moments, but on the whole it was, really, almost a cross between a romantic comedy and a coming of age drama. The main character is a thirty-something bachelor who lives in a house with five other guys (and sometimes with their various girlfriends of the moment, smokes pot, and wants to start a porno website. He ends up getting a girl pregnant, and the story goes on from there.

Sounds like your typical dumb comedy, right? But along the way it has a lot of great messages about really getting to know the ones you love, taking responsibility for your actions, and . . . well . . . learning how to be a grown-up. In a day when we have an awful lot of thirty-something “kids” running around our world, that’s an important message.

It reminded both of us of a similar movie (made by the same director, Judd Apatow) “The 40-year old Virgin.” It’s a story of a guy with a pretty normal life, except for the fact that he’s 40 and has never had sex. Upon finding this out, his co-workers attempt to twist a variety of situations in order to change that fact.

Again, sounds like pretty standard comedy fare, right? Hardly. The fact is that this movie has a lot to say about love, sex, relationships, marriage, and the purposes for each.

Nevertheless, you won’t find most conservative movie reviews recommending these two. In truth, they have a lot against them – both are pretty crude, and I’d hardly recommend them for anybody, but the simple fact is that just dismissing them out of hand misses something.

But isn’t that the way we are about a lot of things? (I say we, not because I self-identify as a “conservative,” any longer, but because this is not just a conservative problem, it’s a human problem).

I mean, if you think about it, how many times have you conservative readers dismissed something because “It was in the New York Times,” or you liberals because you “saw it on Fox News”?

How many times have we used the words “consider the source” to dismiss an idea, rather than engaging with it?

What are we so afraid of?

This, quite frankly, is one of the biggest things that drove me from organized church. I couldn’t stand the fact that each question I raised was one more thing nobody around me would deal with. When I asked why my church didn’t allow women in leadership, why they insisted on church attendance at least twice a week, why they believed in the universal effectiveness of accountability relationships, and why they believed that tithing had a place in worship, but special music didn’t, I had Bible verses spouted at me. When I questioned whether those verses said what was claimed of them, I was “prayed for,” “counseled,” and eventually, marginalized.

I have no doubt that each person I spoke with at that church was very sincere in what they believed. But I just wish that they would have engaged more with my questions, for I was no less sincere. Those I spoke with were happy to engage with questions of theology and eschatology. We had many frank discussions, for example, about the “five points” of Calvinism, and about the differences between dispensationalism and covenant theology.

But when it went deeper than that, the doors were shut.

Perhaps that’s the answer. Perhaps we just can’t quite engage with something scary enough to undermine our entire worldview. The question “does the Bible require that we attend, or at least attempt to attend, church each Sunday?” is just such a question. It’s scary.

But what are we afraid of? Why do churches like the one I used to attend marginalize radical thinkers like John Eldredge or Brian McLaren?

Is it truth we’re defending when we marginalize someone just because we are uncomfortable with what they say?

Can’t the truth stand on its own? If something is really true, why do we need to shield it from those we perceive to be attacking it?

And if it’s not true, why should we believe it anyway?

Is it truth we’re defending? Or is it our comfort zone?

Nothing Personal

I have tried, over the past week, to generate a few different posts on a few different topics, but found that I couldn’t bring myself to write them. I think, in looking back, that the reason for this grew out of the fact that they were all sort of interconnected in a way I hadn’t quite grasped yet.

I think I’ve got it now, so I’m going to give this a try.

Last week, a tragedy occurred. A poorly-maintained, heavily-traveled transportation artery constructed more than forty years ago failed due to neglect, and people died.

About 100 of them.

No, I’m not talking about the I-35W bridge in Minnesota. The cost of that catastrophe, in lives, at least, was thankfully much smaller than it might have been.

The same day, however, on the other side of the world, a train wreck in the Democratic Republic of the Congo took a far higher toll.

Also last week, as I noted in my last post, a religious talk show host made and defended statements linking the Emergent church movement with terrorists from al Qaeda.

Over the weekend, the Democratic leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives, which took power early this year after capitalizing on unethical and morally questionable tactics employed by the former Republican majority, violated the House rules they themselves had established, changed the total of a razor-thin vote after the Chair had gavelled it closed, and expunged the old total from the record, literally stealing the vote on national television. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was heard on camera responding to protests against the violations of parliamentary procedure with, “We control this house, not the parliamentarians.”

This week, one of my favorite bloggers, “Naked Pastor,” was viciously attacked on a popular “Christian” blog, where the author and several commenters cast brutal personal insults and aspersions masquerading as critiques of his blog’s content.

What on earth, you may ask, do any of these events have in common?

Perhaps it is the ease with which communications are conducted electronically. Perhaps it is the breadth of information that is easily available, allowing anybody who desires to become an intellectual. Perhaps it is the fact that government interventions and intrusions have eliminated the necessity for people to just grow up and be adults.

Perhaps it is all of these, and more, but it seems to me as though we have entered an age where we interact with numbers, figures, statistics, information and data, and forget that we live out our stories here on earth interacting with other people.

The news media has had a field day with the I-35W bridge collapse, giving it nearly wall-to-wall coverage ever since it occurred. In all the talk of recriminations, blame and fallout, the one thing I have yet to see is an ounce of sorrow over the lives lost.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” according to the common news media slogan . . . but that doesn’t mean they treat it as the human tragedy it is.

Still, since it is, after all, an American tragedy, at least it gets some recognition. The same day, virtually the same event in a country on the other side of the world received nary a breath of coverage, despite the far higher loss of life.

I asked my wife why she thought this might be, and her response was very telling. She said, “We care about the tragedy in Minnesota because that could have been us.”

That’s just it. We don’t care about the people who have lost loved ones. We don’t care about the lives lost. We care because it could have been us. Those of us in the Washington D.C. area care because we’re in the process of getting a new Woodrow Wilson bridge due to unsafe conditions on the old span similar to those that cause the I-35W collapse. Our emotions are not filled with sorrow, but with relief.

We don’t care about the train in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because that could not have been us.

In my last post I talked about Frank Pastore’s article excoriating the emergent church movement. I’m not going to rehash my previous words here, but it seems to me that this is the opposite extreme of the very same phenomenon that I talked about relating to the transportation tragedies in Minnesota and Africa. In Pastore’s case, it’s dehumanizing by taking things too personally.

Whoever you are, whatever you believe on any give subject, right now, I want you to think of the single issue you care most about in all the world. It can be a political issue, a philosophical issue, a religious issue, or your favorite color for all I care. I want you to think of a person with whom you have often and/or emphatically disagreed with on that topic. I want you to repeat after me. “Just because they disagree with me doesn’t make them stupid.”

I myself have fallen into this trap more than once – the trap of believing that disagreement with my staked-out position on some political, theological or philosophical issue is an indication that the one doing the disagreeing is less “enlightened” or “informed” than I.

That may well be true – but it may well not be. Very intelligent people are capable of coming to very different conclusions on the very same issue. Assuming that one who disagrees with our chosen beliefs is “stupid” is to assert that we know all there is to know on that subject . . . to assume that it is even possible to know all there is, on this or any subject. It is the height of arrogance.

It is this same arrogance that has led the political leaders in this country – both Republican and Democrat – to forget why they are there. In the case of our nation’s leadership, they have dehumanized the very people who put them in leadership in the first place, by treating power as an end in and of itself, rather than as a means to the end of leading this country well. When former House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Tom Foley, whose political views are as opposite as they come, can agree with one another that you’re doing something wrong . . . odds are pretty good that you’re probably doing something wrong.

In the case of the transportation accidents, we have dehumanized the victims. In Pastore’s article, he dehumanized a group of believers. Congress dehumanized those they’re supposed to work for.

In the final example I listed, though, a group of people did their best to deliberately and viciously dehumanize a single person who had done nothing to them . . . and in the process dehumanized only themselves. Many of the commenters chose to attack him simply based on the vague and provocative descriptions provided in the blog post itself, and the author of the post felt it necessary to filter out comments supportive of the attacked pastor, and then defend herself against his supporters in a second post.

Naked Pastor’s response is one more example of why I like him so much – it is full of the very same grace and kindness that his attackers chose to eschew. He doesn’t become defensive or take the bait of their vitriol. Instead he says,

To my sister Ingrid and Slicers. Thanks for the review of my blog. I’m truly honored that my blog even got noticed, nevermind a mention! A couple of things:

Your filters only block words, not pictures. The word “naked” in nakedpastor, a blog where I try to bare my soul and not much else, is what’s being blocked. You probably couldn’t get The Naked Archeologist either, and he just shows ruins and pots. I consider what I show on my site to be artistic and tasteful. We disagree there. I just wanted to correct you on why my site is blocked by porn filters.

Ingrid: I’m surprised you didn’t mention my cartoons! Come on – admit it – you HAD to like some of them. You could’ve written some of them yourself. That’s okay though – you were critiquing one aspect of my blog. But from my artistic style and taste to conclude that my site is “theoretically supposed to be a pastor’s blog” is quite a leap. There’s nothing theoretical about it. It IS a pastor’s blog, no matter how different in taste and expression he is from your image of what a pastor is or looks like. That’s okay too though. I don’t expect full endorsement from everyone.

This is just a slice of who I am. If you read through my site you might discover that we are, after all, brothers and sisters with the same Lord. You would “meet” some people from my church who I consider heroes of the faith – of the Hebrews 11 caliber! It interests me that some of you are so quick to call names like “pervert” and question my call as a pastor or even a Christian. But that’s okay too. I suspend judgment and hope that we can cross kinder paths in the future.

Lord haste the day when we will all finally stand naked before you!

david (aka “nakedpastor”)

Even in the midst of personal attack, he treats his attackers as human beings, with different tastes, opinions and beliefs – and that’s exactly what they are.

All of this talk about “dehumanizing” begs the question, “what does it mean to be human?”

I think, as I write this, that we have to return to the creation story to answer that.

Genesis 1 doesn’t tell us very much at all about humanity, other than that it was created. Neither does much of Genesis 2. Verse 15 tells us where God placed his first human. Verses 16-17 tell us of God’s first interactions with his first human.

Not until verse 18 do we learn anything at all about this creature Scripture calls “man.”

What, then, is the very first thing we learn about man? It is the simple fact that “it is not good for the man to be alone.”

There it is. The very basis of what humanity is. We were created for relationship. When we eschew relationship, we dehumanize ourselves and those around us. The more we pursue genuine, open, honest relationship, the more we are being what we were intended to be.

But instead of relating to . . . and grieving with . . . sufferers, we sigh in relief that it is not our own suffering. Instead of engaging in dialogue with others who do not believe as we do, we think them simple-minded or immature. Instead of serving one another we seek as much power as we can, and instead of being kind in our differences we are cruel.

What a fallen and broken race is this humanity! Where we are intended to nourish one another emotionally, instead we feed on each other, engaging in emotional cannibalism, and very accurately say, “it’s nothing personal.”

Indeed it isn’t. That’s the problem.

An Anti-Christian Christianity

My friends, it has again been a long time. I think I find that some posts just flow from my fingers, while others take time to germinate and grow in my mind. With this latter type of post, I feel – as I have always felt, with many projects and pursuits throughout my life, to allow it to gain a level of maturity before I share it with the world.

This is such a post.

Many of you who read this might consider yourself representatives of the “emergent” or “missional” community as it is sometimes known. I need to preface this post by the fact that I consider myself neither, for reasons that have nothing to do with the reasons those who take these names have for choosing them.

I simply do not like the terms. The first – when taken to its logical conclusion – seems to me to imply that believers can somehow “emerge” to different levels of spiritual enlightenment. In one sense, I have “emerged” from the institutional religious setting known in the 21st century as “the church.” But in truth, the sense in which I have “emerged” is the same sense in which all those of us who follow Christ are free from the bondage of our own sin and the weight of our humanity.

The second, it seems to me, misses the point. Even those who consider themselves “missional” define it as a different way of “doing church,” a different focus.

All of that said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for many of the ideas espoused by missional and emergent thinkers, and for those who espouse them, particularly their focus on how much of Christian tradition is precisely that – mere tradition.

It is for this reason that I was incredibly disturbed by something I read on the popular conservative political site formerly operated by the Heritage Foundation, Townhall.com.

I was disturbed because it was one more reminder of who I used to be . . .

The item in question was a column by Townhall columnist Frank Pastore, referred to in his bio as “a former professional baseball player with graduate degrees in both theology and political science,” who is also a radio talk-show host for KKLA 99.5 FM in Los Angeles. His original column has now become two. They can be found here and here.

The first column is entitled “Why Al Qaeda Supports the Emergent Church.” It is a lengthy diatribe against members of the emergent movement, the logic of which seems to run “Emergents are generally not politically conservative. Political conservatives are the only people interested in fighting al Qaeda.” Therefore, Emergents are allies of al Qaeda.

His second column is a defense of his first, in which he responds to challenges for his “sources” by citing several emergent writers and a number of critics of Emergent, none of which, according to his citations, at least, says anything about al Qaeda at all.

The most ironic thing, for me, is that as someone who is generally pretty politically conservative, I probably line up with Pastore’s political views a fair percentage of the time. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I do not consider myself “emergent” or “missional,” I feel the sting of Pastore’s accusations myself, simply because I seem to fit his overarching definition of an “al Qaeda ally” – by which he seems to mean anybody who disagrees with his personal, political and spiritual agenda. I have written a lengthy response to his first column that addresses several issues he raises point by point. That response continues below the fold . . .

Continue reading An Anti-Christian Christianity

With “Friends” like these . . . (UPDATED with Video)

One of the last few remaining institutions of government that reminds us the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, rather than freedom from religion, is the morning prayer held in the U.S. Senate. Over the two centuries of our country’s history, this prayer has predominantly been offered by Christians of some stripe or other, though in the past Jewish and Muslim leaders have also offered morning prayers.

This morning was a historic first. For the first time in history, a Hindu spiritual leader offered the opening prayer of the U.S. Senate.

The invocation given by Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest from Nevada, was taken from the Rig Veda and Bhagavad Gita, and I find its words quite inspiring, despite the fact that they come from a culture that does not acknowledge the God I worship:

“We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of heaven. May he stimulate and illuminate our minds.

“Lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening.”

I can certainly agree with particularly the second half of of this stirring invocation.

Unfortunately, this morning’s Senate prayer was an historic first for another reason.

. . . three reasons, actually, named Ante and Kathy Pvkovic and Kristen Sugar.

For the first time in U.S. history the morning prayer of the U.S. Senate was disrupted by the shouting of protestors who interrupted Zed by “loudly asking for God’s forgiveness for allowing the ‘false prayer’ of a Hindu in the Senate chamber.”

UPDATE: Here’s a video of the travesty, courtesy of Talking Points Memo

[youtube EZ9To30Hz7A]

One of my favorite political blogs, Captain’s Quarters, the author of which is a devout Catholic, excoriates the trio:

Thank the Lord that this trio doesn’t represent real Christians. They’re great ambassadors for the numbnut contingent, however.

Unfortunately, I think this is a shortsighted view of the incident. While most “mainstream” believers might not try to disrupt the U.S. Senate, it is clear that they have the sympathy of a large contingent of the so-called Christian mainstream. A Newer World points out this statement from Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council. The statement closes with:

There is no historic connection between America and the polytheistic creed of the Hindu faith. I seriously doubt that Americans want to change the motto, “In God we Trust, which Congress adopted in 1955, to, “In gods we Trust.” That is essentially what the United States Senate did today.

Hogwash.

On many fronts.

The U.S. Senate is not a religious body, and while many of those who came up with the concept of the Senate may have been believers in the God of the Bible, even Christian tradition is fractured and diverse – and our nation is hardly exclusively a “Christian” nation.

According to the Hindu American Foundation, the nation contains 2 million Hindus, and it is one of the fastest growing belief systems in the country. To say that we are a “Christian nation” is to live in the past. To say that Hindus have no impact on our history and culture is to ignore the impact words like “karma,” “yoga,” and “avatar” have on 21st Century American culture.

Certainly, a practicing Hindu could tell us that these words are hardly used in their original context . . . but then, even the U.S. Senate doesn’t operate like it did at its founding. The point is that American culture is no longer exclusively influenced by that of Western Europe.
The simple fact is that Hindus, like Christians, Jews, Muslims, Athiests, Wiccans and many, many more adherents of all manner of belief systems make up this country. Members of each are represented by the U.S. Senate, and each has its right to be heard. That is, after all, what freedom of religion is all about.

I may not agree with most of what some – or any – of these religious traditions has to say, but the least any of us can do is respect their right to say it.

It’s people like Kristen Sugar and the Pvkovic’s who make me ashamed, at times, to call myself a Christian. If statements like Tony Perkins’ are representative of the “Christian” response to this morning’s events, I’m not sure I am one.

With Rajan Zed, I pray to the deity supreme, who resides in my heart, and ask Him to stimulate and illuminate my heart and mind, and those of all who read this.

I ask Him to lead us from the unreal to real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality. May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening.

Formerly Known as Ex-Gay?

We’ve written a lot here about Bill Kinnon’s “Formerly Known” meme that has become increasingly popular across the internet, and to which Heidi and I have both contributed. Yesterday, I read a post from a blogger who has captured my attention on a few occasions, which is not a part of that meme . . . but which perhaps should be. It’s called “My Ex-Gay Survivor Story” and was written by Eric over at the Two World Collision Blog.

His post presents some very interesting food for thought. Please read it before continuing on with this post.

Continue reading Formerly Known as Ex-Gay?

Technology, Trust and Transformation

I discovered a new blog yesterday – one that focuses on a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s called “When Religion Meets New Media.”

The author, Heidi Campbell, is involved with the Wikiklesia project I mentioned here about a month ago, and her blog concentrates on the religious response to, and use of, the ongoing communications revolution in which we find ourselves.

As a Public Affairs professional who has tried, with relatively little success, to move a decidedly “old media” Defense agency public affairs office towards an appreciation of new media tools and tactics over the last two years, this topic intrigues me.

As a blogger and writer on things philosophical and theological, the intersection of this phenomenon with religion – any religion – fascinates me.

If you are here, reading this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you what constitutes “new media.” It used to shock me how little appreciation institutions of any sort had for powerful tools like blogs or social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace. The deeper I get into this issue, though, the more I am coming to think that this is precisely because they are institutions. New media, it seems to me, is innately anti-institutional. Already it is driving down the readership of virtually every major newspaper in the United States, changing the face of politics, bringing down corrupt governments, chipping away at attendance in local institutional churches, and threatening national security.

It is these last two applications that intrigue me the most, for it is in these areas that we see the intersection of new media with religion.

Those of you who have read much of my writing here are already aware what I think of the institutions and traditions that make up modern-day “Churchianity.” This being the case, I believe the online revolution and the advent of “Web 2.0” – the sprouting of social networking, wikis and other collaborative sites – to be perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened to the church since Martin Luther picked up a hammer in Wittenburg.

What you might not realize is that Christianity is not alone in this. I’ve talked before about the tremendous propaganda successes radical Islamists have achieved using websites, cell phones, and video cameras. Just last week, ABC News was handed a tape that was all over the Internet within hours, showing a Taliban “graduation ceremony” of suicide bombers preparing to enter and attack Western targets such as Germany, Canada, Britain and the U.S.

However, Islam is also suffering its own identity crisis in strikingly similar ways to that being endured by Christianity – and for largely the same reasons. Due almost entirely to the ease with which materials can now be published, ordinary Muslims all over the world are beginning to question the previously unassailable credibility of both the Ulama (Islamic scholars) and the Hadith (Islamic traditions).

I find all of this very exciting, because it forces each of us – no matter what we believe – to reexamine what, and who, we trust.

Going back to Islam, the importance of the Hadith has always stemmed from the assertion that it relates back to the practices and words of the prophet Muhammed and helps to explain the words of the Quran. Similarly, the Ulama are those most studied in Islam, and thus have been the arbiters of Islamic Law.

Similarly, the importance of Christian tradition has always been said to be its relation to scripture, and the importance of the “vicar class” has always been its members’ study and training in scripture and doctrine.

Prior to this time, those assumptions have been virtually unassailable – and those who make waves have found themselves cast out by the very arbiters whose authority they doubt, using the very traditions whose legitimacy they question. I’ve felt this myself, having been threatened with excommunication due to my decision to leave the Southern Baptist Church of which I was a member for two years. It’s not exactly as bad as a fatwa calling for one’s death, but it’s unpleasant enough.

Increasingly, though, technology is loosening the desperate hold of the so-called “religious experts.” No longer does a Muslim seeking to better understand his religion need an Alim to explain it. No longer do I need a pastor to tell me what He believes God wants from me.

So again, Who (or what) do we trust?

As Christians, who do we trust? Ask yourself this question. Do you trust Scripture?

Why?

And what do you mean by your answer?

Think about it for a moment. Do you believe Scripture to be infallible? Authoritative? Inspired?

What do each of these words mean to you?

If Scripture is truly infallible, then which version (or versions) are flawless? If your answer is “the original texts” then how do you feel about the fact that no person now living has ever seen one of these texts? If your answer is “copies of the originals in their initial languages” then does it disturb you at all to place your trust in human translators to “get it right”? Does it bother you that many well-meaning people have come up with different answers? Does it give you pause to realize that some of the most trusted versions were blatantly politically motivated at the time of their translation?

If Scripture is “merely” authoritative, what does that mean to you? Does it mean that every word must be followed? How then do you feel about the Old Testament demands to abstain from eating rabbits, stone rebellious children and engage in blood feuds with rival families? How do you feel about the fact that Christ himself advocated routinely breaking some of the ten commandments? How do you feel about the myriad interpretations of various New Testament issues like drinking alcohol, wearing headcoverings and speaking in tongues?

Who do you trust to tell you what to think?

If Scripture is “inspired” – the only one of these three terms it actually claims to be – what does that mean? What does “profitable” mean? How about “teaching” (doctrine in the KJV), “reproof,” “correction” or “training in righteousness”? How do you feel about the fact that the single passage in which scripture does claim to be inspired is a very specific reference . . . to the Old Testament?

How do you feel about the fact that the Old Testament canon was compiled based on material from books that didn’t make the cut? How do you feel about the fact that the New Testament canon originated as a sort of “pastor’s recommended reading list“?

Who do you trust? Historical church leaders like Martin Luther – who called the book of James “an epistle of straw,” yet quoted from it anyway? Even more distant church fathers like Athanasius, Origen and Augustine, who disagreed with one another?

Who do you trust?

My point is not to belittle Scripture. My point is that human authorities, no matter how respected or credible, are not perfect. It seems to me that the more conservative, “fundamental” sects of Christianity have ceased to be “Christians,” and have become “Biblists.” We (I include myself in this group because it is in this tradition that I grew up) have forgotten that Christ said that He, not the writings of His followers, was the way, the truth and the life. We have forgotten that a relationship with the living God is a personal relationship . . . not a matter of academics.

Who then do you trust? Your pastor? your church leaders? your Bible? . . . or your Father?

This is the glory found where technology intersects with religion – the glory of a personal relationship with our Creator, free of intermediaries, interventions and interpretations. Of course we are never free of our own interpretations, but as Samuel once had to be reminded, the Lord knows our hearts. Of course we . . . I . . . struggle daily with my own presuppositions and interpretations, but I trust God. I trust Him to draw me to Himself. My own filters are difficult enough to navigate. I am grateful that technology has negated the need for any others. It has transformed relationships of many kinds – only one of which is my relationship with Father.

Radical Individualism

Some friends of ours have recently been transitioning into the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy, and have written extensively about it here. It’s been interesting for me to observe for a number of reasons, primarily because it seems like they, along with other friends of ours, are seeing many of the same issues we see within the modern, western, evangelical church, and have responded by taking a track roughly 180 degrees opposite the direction we’re headed – that is, a track toward more liturgy, tradition and structure.

As I said, it’s been interesting to watch. I’m glad they’ve found something that seems to be fulfilling for them, and that seems to bring them closer to a relationship with God. I do have some thoughts, though, on why our path has been different.

I think Brooks, the author of the earlier linked post, hits on the heart of the journey my wife and I have been taking, at the very end of his post, when he says,

Of course, one can’t simply decide which Church is right by its spiritual practices. Choosing the East simply for these reasons would have been subjective and, to speak plainly, radically individualistic (Protestant) of me. So, with reluctance, I turned toward the doctrinal and theological differences between East and West, realizing that Apostolic authority, Tradition, and ecclesiology were ultimately the more important factors in this dilemma.

I’d like to break this down in sections, because I think Brooks is getting at some very important things in this paragraph.

First, he puts up a dichotomy between choosing a church based on spiritual practices, or based on doctrinal and theological differences, apostolic authority, tradition and ecclesiology.

In examining this dilemma he’s constructed, I have to ask, What’s the point?

What is the point of choosing a particular church?

It seems to me that the point should be exactly what Christ asks of us . . . an eternal relationship with Him. If a church or other spiritual setting does not further that relationship, what is the point of being there? Brooks hints that this is one of the things he longs for when he talks of some of the Eastern traditions, and says of them that “the goal . . . is an experiential knowledge of God.”

God wants us to experience Him. That is the entire point of His touching our lives as He does.

What, then, of Brooks’ dichotomy? Spiritual practices or traditions and theology?

To my mind, a relationship – any relationship – is about daily interactions. My relationship with my wife is not based in the theoretical constructs of marriage, the history and traditions of marriages through the years, or the authority of church leaders who define marriage for us . . . it’s in the day to day actions that draw us close to one another, and by which we profess our love for each other, to each other, and to the rest of the world. Yes, we engaged in a (marginally) traditional wedding ceremony. Yes we got a marriage license from the District of Columbia. But that is all secondary to the relationship we have with one another.

Why should our relationship with God be any different?

While this may seem that I’m taking the opposite side of Brooks’ dilemma, in truth I think he’s created a false dichotomy. My relationship with my wife is not merely the product of the things we do. . . it flows from who we are. Yes, this results in certain actions, but the actions are not the point. In the same way, even the “spiritual activities” in which I engage are not the point of my relationship with God.

They flow from who I am – His redeemed heir, created in His image.

For myself, then, when the choice is between choosing a spiritual environment based on either “spiritual activity” or “theology, history, and ecclesiology,” I choose neither.

Perhaps that’s why I don’t go to church.

I think the difference here flows from divergent understandings of what a relationship – in its most intimate sense – really is.

I recall, not too long ago, a conversation my wife and I were having with some good friends of ours, about the nature of intimacy. In response to one friend’s question about what intimacy is, I replied, “it’s knowing somebody as deeply as you possibly can.”

My wife disagreed, and when she explained, it opened up a whole new world of thinking to me. She said, “intimacy is knowing yourself as deeply as you possibly can, and sharing that whole person with another.”

After having several months to reflect on what she said, I think this is what God calls us to. I think believers tend to focus so much on others that we lose bits and pieces of ourselves. Over time, we become shadow people – the same kind of person I mentioned becoming myself, in my story of my journey away from traditional church. Certainly God calls us to care for others. Certainly, He calls us to sacrifice ourselves . . . but how can we truly “present our bodies a living sacrifice” if we don’t know what – or who – it is that we’re giving?

In the same way, if I believe that a relationship with Christ is all about knowledge of Him, then of course things like ecclesiology, theology and church history are going to be of utmost importance to me.

If, on the other hand, a deep intimacy with God involves knowing myself, and offering that self wholly and completely to Him, then those things fade in importance, and what becomes most important is a deep and exciting adventure to discover who He has made me, and what He continues to do in, for and through me each day.

That, I believe, is the relationship God calls me to.

This leads directly into the second issue I have with what Brooks wrote. For when one looks at the issue as Brooks does, one cannot help but come to the conclusions he does – for when he says that making a choice in that fashion would be “subjective” and “radically individualistic” he is exactly right!

My problem here is with his degredation of “radical individualism.” First, he decries this as a Protestant characteristic. I disagree. Perhaps it is more Protestant than it is characteristic of the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, but the simple truth is that each denomination with which I have had any experience (and these have all been protestant) is just as hostile toward “radical individualism” as Brooks seems to be here.

Again, I think this stems from the different understandings of intimacy. When intimacy is about knowing others, the collective becomes the most important means of relating to Christ because our understanding of Him is only fully achieved when we are subordinated to that collective.

When, on the other hand, intimacy is viewed as knowing and sharing myself, the importance of a collective does not disappear – after all, I must have someone to share myself with – but the importance of the self as a created likeness of God, in whom He is continuously at work, becomes the key to an intimate relationship with Him, and with other followers of Him.

Now that, dear friends, is a radically individualistic concept – and one for which I am utterly unapologetic. I am a radical individualist.

Perhaps this is why I don’t find myself fitting anywhere in a traditional church setting. It’s not necessarily that I take issue with the theology of every church I’ve visited (though that’s certainly true in some cases.) It’s not necessarily that I disagree with the spiritual practices in which they engage.

The truth is that I just can’t handle being subordinated to the collective of an institution. It flies against not only everything I believe, but against who I was created to be.

I was created to be Michael John Daniels – writer, musician, thinker and friend. I was not created to be “that guy in the third row who sings in the choir, helps in the nursery, and is an occasional usher.”

I am not what I do. I am who I was created to be.

I have heard many sermons on the nature of “body life” . . . you know, the ones that say “everybody needs to take part in the body by doing the things they’re good at doing in service to the body. After all, the hand can’t live by itself, nor the foot, nor the eye . . . ”

You know the drill. I’m sure you’ve heard many of those same sermons.

But the truth is that, while we were created to be the body of Christ, that characterization extends so much deeper than most of those sermons assume. I am part of the body of Christ, not because I clean up after services or play my violin for the offering, but because He has chosen me and given me unique gifts.

I am part of the body because I am me . . . and only by being fully myself – as fully as I can possibly be – can I use that to serve others.

I am reminded of the old Sunday-school ditty “Jesus, then Others, then You . . . what a wonderful way to spell ‘JOY’.”

But the truth is that genuine joy in relationship with Christ, or with others, can only come when one is fully aware of oneself first.

After all, Christ did say “love your neighbor, as you love yourself.” I find it hard to believe that the one who loved the entire world would use that word “love” lightly enough to mean what we have surely all heard that it means. “You’re selfish enough that you always do what you want for yourself . . . so now do those same things for other people.”

I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I have been terrible at making wise choices for myself. My life has certainly not been characterized by much in the way of “self-love.”

Perhaps that’s because what most people think when they hear the words “love your neighbor as yourself” is “love your neighbor at the expense of yourself.”

No wonder we think so little of radical individualism. To my mind, the body of Christ could use a major infusion of it.