On reading my book to my daughter for the first time…

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Last night I read The Story of King Jesus to my daughter for the first time. Well, I read printouts with not-quite final art that my publisher gave me last week. Still, it was a moment I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

It’s been two years since I shared the first draft of what became The Story of King Jesus. Then Scot McKnight picked it up and shared it on his blog. Many, MANY rewrites later, it was a book proposal…and finally (after more rewrites), an actual book with a publisher and a release date and everything (ahem, March 2015). But it’s always been—and always will be—something I wrote for my daughter. This is how I want to introduce her to our faith.

She’s picked up bits and pieces about Jesus over the years. She knows Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, though she wonders why she’s never seen him in person before. We’ve read some Easter books together, as well as excerpts from The Jesus Storybook Bible and the Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu. But this was her first time hearing the whole story of Jesus in one sitting—including the story of Israel, which he brings to fulfillment.

I think one of the reasons we reduce the gospel to a handful precepts or sound bites is because we’re not sure our kids are up for something bigger. Or because we don’t think of the gospel as being primarily a story. Or maybe we worry our kids won’t have the attention span for something more than a few quick bullet points about sin and salvation.

I want to prove these assumptions wrong—because, frankly, this kind of gospel doesn’t work. It doesn’t stick. Stories stay with us for life. Bullet points, not so much. Our kids need a better story.

Last night, my daughter stayed with The Story of King Jesus all the way through, even though it’s longer than most of her bedtime books. She even had me read it a second time. OK, that may have been a bedtime stalling tactic. And granted, she’s a focus group of one. But she’s also a bit younger than the target age group (4 to 8) for my book, so I was thrilled to see how she engaged with it.

She was absorbed in the story and the art (thank you, Nick Lee). When we got to the part about the crucifixion, she grabbed her owl nightlight and held it close to the page so she could look more closely. On our second time through, she started repeating some of the key lines—completely on her own.

I have no illusions that everything got through on the first or even the second read. But she was absorbing, processing, engaging with the story. After we finished, she said it was her favorite story she’s ever read. (Though earlier that evening, she said the meatless chicken nuggets we had for dinner were her favorite food she’s ever had. The night before, peanut butter sandwiches were her favorite.)

As for the “most clueless dad” moment of the night… afterward she asked me, “When will it be put together?” I assumed she was asking a deep spiritual question about the state of the world. After all, God fixing the world—putting it back together—is one of the recurring themes of The Story of King Jesus. So I proceeded to stumble my way through a response…until she cut me off and said, “No, dad. When’s the book going to be put together?”

But she also asked me when Jesus is coming back, which gave us a chance to talk about how we get to be part of making the world right and good until he returns. We talked about how God gave us a job to do: love each other with all we’ve got.

The bottom line is, last night, I got to talk to my daughter about bringing heaven to earth.

I know it can be terrifying to talk to your kids about faith. We’re afraid we’ll say the wrong thing and screw it up for them. But it can also be a wonderful, rewarding experience. It can be like bringing a little bit of heaven to earth right here and now—especially when we let go the pressure to extract a decision from our kids now and just tell them the story and watch it begin to click in their own imaginations.

I think—I hope and I pray—that’s what started happening for my daughter last night.

UPDATE: I just found out you can already pre-order The Story of King Jesus through Amazon…

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We need feminism because my daughter thinks most TV shows are for boys

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Most weekday mornings, I get my daughter up. It’s a frenzied ritual of brushing teeth, combing hair, trying to persuade her that wool sweaters aren’t the greatest choice for the middle of summer (even in Michigan), and finally—after a series of delicate and sometimes tense negotiations—helping her get dressed in her chosen outfit. Then I make my way to my basement office and start my day.

Weekends are a different story. The two of us head downstairs together—usually before her mom and baby brother get up. We eat cereal and she picks something for us to watch on TV. Some mornings it’s Pingu. Sometimes she asks for “something on Hulu.” (I think she mostly just likes saying the word Hulu.) Sometimes it’s Phineas and Ferb. (Which, I’ll be honest… I have mixed feelings about, mostly because of how the older sister is portrayed, reinforcing the popular caricature of sisters as bossy, controlling, and otherwise inept. Not the picture of sisterhood that I want to paint for Elizabeth, who, as a new big sister, already has the makings of being a wonderful teacher and mentor to her younger brother.)

A few weekends ago, we were well into our Saturday ritual. She was about to choose something to watch when a look of apprehension came over her not-quite-four-year-old face.

“Daddy,” she asked, “is this show for boys?”

I was totally caught off guard. Where did my daughter get the idea that certain shows are “for boys”—and that she can’t watch them? It certainly wasn’t from us. My wife and I are intentional about teaching her that girls and boys are equal, that nothing is off limits to her because of her gender.

We go to a church where women can serve equally alongside men. Our current priest happens to be a man, but women hold a number of visible leadership roles—on staff, on the vestry (think: elder board), and at almost every level of ministry.

When we watch sports (which isn’t that often), we try to watch a balance of men’s and women’s events. We’ve even talked about taking Elizabeth to Canada next year to see the Women’s World Cup, if we can swing it.

When it comes to TV shows, we look for ones with strong female characters. But we don’t push our daughter toward stereotypically “girly” shows. Nor do we discourage her from watching shows that are supposedly “for boys.”

So where did she get this notion? What gave my daughter the idea that she can’t watch some shows because they’re for boys only? Maybe she got it from TV itself.

Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans shared 35 compelling reasons why we all need feminism. Many of them are sobering, like the fact that 1 in 4 American women experience some form of domestic violence. Or the fact that 80% of 10 year-old girls say they’ve gone on a diet.

Ten year-old girls, already being told their bodies are the only thing of value they have—and even then, only if they’re the “right” size.

Rachel shared another reason which, at first glance, may seem a bit more trivial by comparison. That is, until you consider the impact it has on a young girl’s perspective. In 2011, only 11% of the protagonists in films were female. This figure is only slightly better for children’s TV shows. Yes, there’s Dora and Kai-Lan. But there’s also Bob the Builder, Daniel Tiger, Super Why, Elmo, Phineas and Ferb, and a host of other lead characters who are male.

One study found that only 30% of the characters in children’s shows are female. And female characters are far more likely to be sexualized and/or presented in a way that glamorizes a narrow and unhealthy notion of beauty—even in children’s shows. (Case in point: Sofia the First.) To quote the study, “Females, when they are on screen, are still there to provide eye candy to even the youngest viewers.”

Even in 2014, the overwhelming message of children’s entertainment is that girls like my daughter are little more than props in a man’s world.

(So much for feminism being a capitulation to the dominant culture.)

That Saturday, I told my daughter she didn’t have to worry about whether the show she wanted to watch was “for boys” or not. If she wanted to watch it (and as long as there wasn’t any legitimate reason not to—e.g. violence), then it was for her.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell her this.

Patriarchy is not natural. Our daughters are not born into this world thinking they’re inferior or subordinate to men. They get that idea because that’s what the dominant culture tells them.

It’s what we tell them in our movies and TV shows.

It’s what we tell them when we objectify their bodies to sell everything from hamburgers to sex.

It’s what we tell them when we tolerate a 23% wage gap for a woman doing the same job as man.

It’s what we tell them when we trivialize and dismiss the reality of sexual assault—something a quarter of all female college students face.

Patriarchy isn’t natural. It’s learned. And it’s time we start telling our daughters a better story.

Photo credit: Aaron Escobar

Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

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The other day, I raised a question for evangelicals who think standing with Israel means supporting them no matter what. How do you reconcile a “never criticize Israel” mentality with the overwhelming witness of the biblical prophets?

If you’ve been told that unconditional support for Israel is the only “biblical” position, that the modern-day state enjoys the same kind of “most favored nation” status with God as ancient Israel did, then here’s another question. If Israel today is entitled to the covenant blessings spoken by the Old Testament, what about their covenant obligations?

The Bible never spoke of Israel’s covenant blessings apart from their obligations. It’s no use trying to have one without the other. And at least one of these obligations poses a bit of a problem for the modern state of Israel, if it is indeed the same nation as the one in the Bible.

Ancient Israel was not supposed to have a standing army. They weren’t supposed to stockpile weapons. There were no taxes to fund a permanent military. Israel’s rulers were forbidden from amassing large numbers of horses (Deuteronomy 17:16-17)—which was about as close as you could get to an arms race in the ancient Near East. Israel’s king was not supposed to make foreign military alliances. God stipulated that Israel should remain militarily weak so they would learn to trust him for protection.

Israel wasn’t allowed to conscript anyone into military service. If you didn’t want to fight, you didn’t have to fight. Note this remarkable command from Deuteronomy 20:

When you go to war against your enemies… the officers shall say to the army: “Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her.” Then the officers shall add, “Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too.”

There were times when God whittled down Israel’s fighting force to an impossibly small number—as a reminder that they were not supposed to rely on their own military strength.

Micah 5—the same passage which said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—also said that in that day God would destroy Israel’s horses and demolish its chariots. Israel’s military implements are mentioned in the same breath as other signs of their apostasy: witchcraft, idols, sacred stones, Asherah poles. The prophets considered militarization a form of idolatry—a blatant violation of Israel’s covenant with God.

If modern Israel is the same covenant nation written about in the Old Testament, then they are under the same covenant obligations. And that covenant forbids militarization. It declares militarization a form of idolatry.

If the modern Israeli state is not bound to these covenant obligations, then they aren’t entitled to the covenant blessings, either. You cannot have one without the other. If the laws that governed Israel in the Old Testament do not apply to Israel today, then they are just another nation, and they should be held to the same standard as every other nation.

Would we stand for any other democratic nation on earth driving people off of land that’s been in their families for generations? Would we stand for any other nation building settlements on land that almost everyone agrees belongs to someone else? Would we stand for them restricting people’s freedom of movement, bulldozing their homes, and killing thousands of innocent civilians?

Of course we wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t stand for violence committed by Palestinian groups either. But evangelicals keep giving Israel a free pass. They do so because they believe it is God’s covenant nation. Yet when it comes to holding Israel to the stipulations of that covenant… silence.

So which is it? Is modern Israel bound to the covenant or not? Either way, you’ll have a hard time justifying its treatment of their Palestinian neighbors.

Note: For a helpful summary of covenant stipulations forbidding militarization in ancient Israel, see chapter 3 of Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence

Photo credit: Israeli Defense Force on Flickr

 

If you think “standing with Israel” means never criticizing them, you’re going to have to get a new Bible

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Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian-American teenager from Tampa who was beaten by Israeli border police. Tariq was visiting for the funeral of his cousin, who was burned to death by Israeli extremists in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. Tariq’s beating was captured on video. (Photo source)

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that from a biblical perspective the modern state of Israel and the Old Testament nation are one and the same. Let’s say the old covenant is still in force, that the founding of modern-day Israel in 1948 fulfilled biblical prophecy.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Paul’s assertion that “all Israel will be saved” was a political statement rather than an expression of his belief that Jesus would rescue his own people from sin and death, along with Gentiles.

Many evangelicals take some or all of these assumptions to be indisputable fact (though evangelical support for Israel may not be as unanimous or unilateral as commonly thought). A plurality of evangelical leaders believe the founding of modern Israel fulfilled biblical prophecy. White evangelicals overwhelmingly sympathize with Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians—by a margin that makes Germany’s thumping of Brazil in the World Cup look too close to call. Half of evangelicals reject any possibility of peace between Israel and Palestine. Only 12% of white evangelicals believe the US should scale back its support for Israel.

The belief that the modern state of Israel is entitled to the blessings and benefits of what Christians regard as the “old covenant” gives way to yet another evangelical sentiment: namely, that it’s never OK to criticize the Israeli government. That “standing with Israel” means supporting them no matter what they do.

No matter how many Palestinian children are killed in the crossfire.

No matter how many homes and farms they bulldoze.

No matter how many walls they build.

No matter how many settlements they establish on Palestinian land, knowing full well that each one makes a viable Palestinian state more unlikely.

This sentiment was on full display in the aftermath of the reprehensible kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent retaliation by Israeli extremists. As Benjamin Corey wrote:

What bothers me most is that when news broke of the death of the Israeli teenagers, the internet lit up with your standard “stand with Israel” cheers, yet whenever Israel is the agent of aggression or retaliation, things go silent. The only voices who speak up are a few brave souls who are willing to be castigated by other Christians for having the courage to stand up against the violence and oppression of the nation state of Israel.

Why do we do this? Why does Israel get a free pass in doing whatever they want? They bulldoze communities so they can build illegal settlements, and we say and do nothing. They systematically use violence and oppression over their neighbors, and yet we say and do nothing. When things over heat, they retaliate—burning children alive, and we say and do nothing.

Why? Why would we be so foolish as to completely ignore behavior on the part of Israel that would in any other circumstance result in international sanctions or worse?

Let’s say modern Israel IS a continuation of the Old Testament kingdom (with the noticeable absence of a king). Let’s say the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and inaugurated by Jesus didn’t bring the old covenant to completion. Let’s say God didn’t expand the definition of Israel (in a spiritual sense—that is, his chosen people) to include Gentiles alongside Jews. Let’s say the dispensationalists are right.

Or, to put it as Benjamin Corey did, let’s say the “stand with Israel” folks are right.

How do we conclude from any of this that it’s not OK to criticize the Israeli state—especially when so much of the Hebrew Scriptures are themselves a prophetic critique of Israel? 

If “standing with Israel” means never saying anything negative about the Israeli government and berating anyone who does, then we should have nothing but contempt for the biblical prophets. We should cut them out of our Bibles. They should be condemned for treason against Israel.

In fact, they were. Amos was accused of conspiring against the government and was driven out of town. Jeremiah was thrown in prison by the king of Judah for predicting Jerusalem’s downfall.

The prophets routinely condemned Israel and its leaders for wishing destruction rather than mercy on their enemies (Jonah); for wrongly assuming that their military advances and territorial expansion were signs of God’s favor (Amos); for murder, theft, and adultery (Hosea); for coveting and seizing other people’s fields and houses (Micah); and for relying on military power instead of trusting God to protect them (Isaiah).

The prophets did not hold back. For them, “standing with Israel” meant speaking out whenever the nation fell into idolatry and injustice. Being God’s chosen people didn’t mean they got a free pass. If anything, they answered to an even higher expectation of integrity.

The prophets understood what Benjamin Corey states so well:

The best way to bless someone who is caught up in destructive behavior is not to condone or to support the behavior, but to lovingly confront the behavior and show them a better way.

Believing that the Israeli state is synonymous with the Old Testament kingdom shouldn’t change how we respond when it acts unjustly toward its Palestinian neighbors. Nor should our response be different when Palestinians perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own ways—though, as Benjamin Corey argues, those with greater power should be held to a higher standard.

It would be disingenuous to read the prophets as divinely inspired Scripture yet condemn others for doing and saying what they did. The best way to truly stand with Israel is to follow the prophets’ example, to lovingly but firmly confront evil and injustice, whoever the perpetrators might be.

3 things I’m thankful for this Fourth of July

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I’ve shared before about my ambivalence toward the commingling of Christianity and nationalism that takes place every Fourth of July. I have deep reservations with how we invoke God’s name to glorify our revolutionary past.

I can think of several reasons for ambivalence. For example, Kurt Willems has pointed out that the Revolutionary War did not meet the criteria for a “just war” as defined by Christian thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas. Carson T. Clark has observed that the war we commemorate each Fourth of July  pitted Christians against other Christians. Instead of gathering around a common table to receive Christ’s sacrifice, Christians sacrificed one another—in clear violation of Jesus’ teaching. (You can’t very well love someone while you’re trying to kill them.)

I could write at length about the idolatry of nationalism. I could deconstruct the blind spots of churches that hold patriotic (and often overtly partisan) worship services. But the truth is, I have blind spots of my own. So this year for the Fourth of July, I thought I’d do something different. I want to share a few things about America for which I’m truly thankful. These don’t lessen my reluctance to celebrate our presumed national supremacy. But sometimes the best thing is to pause for a bit and appreciate what is good.

So here are three things I’m thankful for this Fourth of July…

1. That our government was built on a commitment to freely relinquish power.

I think this may be one of the greatest legacies of the Founding Fathers. After his triumph over Lord Cornwallis, George Washington did something, well, unusual. He resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. Legend has it that he was offered the chance to become America’s king—a legend which may or may not be true. Either way, Washington walked away at the precise moment when he could have consolidated and exploited his own power.

Years later, Washington chose not to run for a third term as president. His reasons may have been more personal than political—he was tired and yearning for retirement. But once more he set the remarkable precedent of voluntarily walking away from power, rather than clutching it until the blood ran cold in his fingers.

It’s not quite as dramatic as Bilbo dropping the ring of power in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it’s pretty much the same idea. Power corrupts. The longer we hold on to it, the more it corrupts us. Washington showed another way to exercise power—with restraint.

2. That our ancestors envisioned a society where we can disagree without killing each other—most of the time.

The White House has changed hands between rival political parties 24 times since Washington left office. Only once did that change lead to revolt. The idea that someone can transfer power to their political rival without bloodshed was remarkable 230 years ago. And while it’s thankfully not as unusual today, it’s still something we shouldn’t take for granted.

The effect of polarization today is to draw us into increasingly hostile forms of conflict with each other. When you start viewing those you disagree with politically as threats to society, you are, in effect, giving up on the American political experiment.  

3. That God loves America as much as he loves every other nation.

God loves America. But we should never lose sight of the trajectory of the biblical drama. It moves from “one nation” to “all nations.” Even when it was still “one nation,” their job was to bless the other nations (Genesis 12).

There is no such thing as “American exceptionalism” in God’s eyes. America is not a new Israel. There is nothing in scripture to even remotely suggest that we are “special” in the way that Israel was in the biblical drama. To say  that we are is to move in the opposite direction that God is going.

God’s kingdom transcends and encompasses every nation. America doesn’t matter to God any more than Eritrea. But it also means that we don’t matter to him any less. God cares deeply for the people of this nation—and that’s something to be grateful for this Fourth of July.

Photo by Jeff Kubina on Flickr.

The Bible is messy, troubling, and weird. And that’s OK.

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Someone shared this quote with me from Peter Enns’ preview of his forthcoming book The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, September 2014):

What if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is? Not the well-behaved version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith. Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of our inner disquiet, a warning signal of a deep distrust in God. A Bible like that isn’t a sure foundation of faith; it’s a barrier to true faith. Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn’t support the spiritual journey; it cripples it. The Bible’s raw messiness isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s an invitation to a deeper faith.

What if the battle for the Bible is really just a battle for control? Is it really such a “high view” of Scripture if it means making the Bible something it’s not and never meant to be? Isn’t it a higher view to accept and embrace the Bible we have than the one we might wish we had?

Needless to say, I will be buying Enns’ new book when it comes out. (Unless I can wrangle myself an advance review copy…)

For more, see “Quick preview of my next book (or, respecting the Bible enough not to defend it)” on Peter Enns’ blog.

Jesus died because you didn’t clean your room (and other things we tell our kids)

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This kid obviously cleaned her room for Jesus.

Last week was VBS at my church. It was the first time my daughter was old enough to participate. I filled in as a backup crew leader. Think small group leader, but with more herding kids from one activity to the next. Also, pretending to know the motions to the songs, which occasionally meant spinning in circles while everyone else was jumping up and down.

The curriculum we were using* was all about God’s unconditional love. Which is a great theme to highlight, especially when you’ve only got a couple hours a night to engage kids, many of whom have no other connection to the church. If I could choose just one message to share with kids, this would be it. (Even if I can’t get the hand motions right.)

One night, we were supposed to talk about the fact that God loves us even when we do wrong. The curriculum did a nice job walking through the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. It also had a few suggestions for how to explain why Jesus died. One of them was to share some examples of sin that kids can relate to.

Like not cleaning your room.

Why did Jesus die? Answer: because your room is a mess and you didn’t tidy it up like you were supposed to.

I get that we have to keep things simple for kids. But is this really the best way to explain Jesus’ death? Is there no other way we can unpack for kids the idea that the world is broken and in need of rescue and repair?

Do we trivialize the gospel when we make it about “sins” like not cleaning your room? Do we sell our kids short by not telling them a more meaningful story?

Later that night, I saw proof that the kids in my group were itching for a better story, that they didn’t need a trivialized, oversimplified concept of sin in order for the gospel to make sense.

The makers of the curriculum wanted to address real issues that kids face, and they wisely included bullying as one of the featured topics. During the discussion time that evening, the change in my group was palpable. Suddenly, these kids—who wouldn’t take anything seriously all week, who spent the whole time cracking jokes and posturing for each other—got very serious. They listened. Each had a story to tell. Multiple stories, actually. You could see the hurt in their eyes. Each of them had been bullied at some point. Heck, they even wanted to know if I had been bullied as a kid. (Asking me a serious question—that was a first.)

Our kids understand the world is not how it should be. They don’t need us to soft-pedal it for them. They don’t need to be fed trivial examples of sin in order to understand Jesus’ death.

We don’t need to treat our kids as if they’re porcelain china, as if they’ll shatter into a million pieces if we’re honest about the way the world really is. Just ask them if they’ve ever had a run-in with a bully, and you’ll realize: they know what sin is.

They deserve a gospel that makes sense in the real world. And that, I think, is the main shortcoming of a primarily legal or transactional approach to the gospel. It reduces sin to a theological abstraction, one in which not cleaning your room is every bit as serious as murder or rape or bullying. It says naively that “all sin is sin,” when all sins are not, in fact, created equal. (For more on the problems of equalizing sin, see this post by R.L. Stollar.)

This, by the way, is one reason why I’m increasingly drawn to the Christus Victor view of the atonement, why I believe it makes the most sense of what Jesus did on the cross (knowing that the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to a single theory of atonement), and why I think it opens the door to sharing a better gospel story.

Christus Victor says we are captives of a broken world. Yes, some of that darkness resides in us. We are both victims and culprits. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and death, but we also contribute in ways both small and large. Christus Victor says that Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s victory over sin and death, as opposed to appeasement for the trivial “sins” of a 4-year-old who doesn’t clean her room.

Our kids deserve a better story.

(Although, if it will get my almost-4-year-old to clean her room…)

Related post: The gospel sketched for kids

*In case you’re wondering, the VBS curriculum we used was Weird Animals by Group Publishing. There are many, many good things about this curriculum: the way they tied in stories of impoverished kids in other parts of the world (and respected the dignity of those kids)… the way they highlighted God’s unconditional love… the fact that they created a music soundtrack that won’t drive parents batty. (No, really. My daughter is STILL singing the songs.) But when it comes to telling the redemptive story of the Bible, I think we can do better. 

Image by Paul Walsh on Flickr

Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

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Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.

Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”

We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?

Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.

Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. (See, for example, this thoughtful post from Justin Hanvey.) The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?

Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.

The truth is, I always have…

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I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.

What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.

Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.

Since then, many of my views have shifted—not least because of the influence of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care much for the term “liberal” because I think for some it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all), and that’s not me. Nevertheless, I’m definitely on the more “progressive” side of things than I was in college.

But I’ve brought all my old polarizing tendencies with me. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists too.) I still have a tendency to view those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.

—//—

Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. As Benjamin Moberg notes, civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…

Those who insist on shutting certain people out.

Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.

Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.

Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.

The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.

If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.

That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.

That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.

—//—

The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.

As long as we have to take sides from time to time, let’s be honest. If we claim Jesus as our example, can we find any case in the gospels where he didn’t cast his lot with the disenfranchised? Where he didn’t favor those who were marginalized or excluded over those who were in power?

Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.

The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.

Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.

Related Post: People of the third way

Photo by 55Lancey69 on Flickr

Will reading the Bible turn you into a liberal?

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Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, believes reading the Bible is the best cure for fundamentalism. As he writes in this piece for the Huffington Post from 2012 (which has been making the rounds again this week):

The best way for conservative churches to produce “liberal” biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

I think he’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek with his use of the word “liberal.” This is not really a “liberal” vs. “conservative” issue—at least not if the insinuation is that all liberals are angry, ivory tower types set on undermining Scripture. More on that later.

While we should be careful to avoid overgeneralizing about either side (conservatives can and do read the Bible without significantly altering their core beliefs), I resonated with Carey’s story on a personal level. Like him, reading Scripture has led me to question many assumptions which I previously took for granted. Absorbing whole books—not just settling for a daily verse ripped from its original context—has made me wary of any statement that begins with, “The Bible clearly says…” Like Carey, I’ve come to realize the Bible is vastly more intricate—and a good deal more human—than I once thought.

For Carey, it started with the realization that the gospels are not (with the possible exception of John) eyewitness accounts of Jesus.

For me, it started with hell.

The year was 2011. That was when Rob Bell published his book Love Wins. “Farewell” became a thing neo-reformed leaders say to those they deem heretical. Friends were lining up on either side of the “is there a hell or not?” divide.

I had decided to read the New Testament for Lent that year. It’s sad to say—especially for a kid who grew up going to churches with the word “Bible” in their names—but it was the first time I’d read the whole thing from start to finish.

Given all the fuss about Love Wins, I decided to keep an eye out for hell as I made my way through the New Testament. I wanted to see if a clear picture emerged, if things really were as straightforward as Rob’s most vocal critics said they were.

Sightings of hell were few and far between—and not all that consistent. Hell is mentioned just 23 times in the entire New Testament. And even that’s misleading, because the New Testament uses three different terms, which translators have unhelpfully collapsed into the all-homogenizing English word “hell.”

The Bible has plenty to say about judgment—it’s hard to escape that as you read—but most of what it says bears little resemblance to the dominant evangelical portrait of hell as a place of never-ending, fiery torment. Judgment is more commonly depicted as the end of something—“everlasting destruction,” “second death,” etc. The “eternal conscious torment” view is supported by maybe two passages in the whole New Testament.

In short, painting a “biblical” picture of hell is no easy task. The Bible doesn’t lay out a uniform theology of judgment. It’s not as though God gathered all the human authors of Scripture for a preproduction meeting and said, “Let’s get on the same page here. Make sure each of you include the following three key points about hell…”

That’s because the Bible is a human book—or rather, a collection of human books. I happen to think it’s also inspired. But we have a tendency to talk about divine inspiration at the expense of the Bible’s humanity. And it’s time we restored the balance.

This, I think, is the real issue. This is why reading the Bible—really reading it—for the first time messes with your head. It’s not so much a “liberal” vs. “conservative” thing. It’s a “turning the Bible into something it’s not” thing.

I grew up thinking of the Bible as more or less something that fell from the sky—neatly packaged, never contradicting itself, containing all the answers. And it just isn’t that kind of book.

Instead, it’s exactly what you’d expect a collection of books compiled over several centuries to be. It’s messy. It’s diverse. Sometimes it’s poetry. Sometimes it’s narrative. Sometimes it’s a literary genre for which we don’t have a modern-day comparison. It’s dialogical. It’s not a monologue from God. It’s a two-way (and in some cases multidirectional) conversation.

Sometimes, that makes coming up with clear-cut answers, well… difficult.

We try to make the Bible give us a straightforward picture of hell, and instead it gives us three different terms—each with a distinct meaning.

We try to draw a clear-cut sexual ethic from Scripture—and we get David, the man who took at least seven wives and plenty more concubines and STILL managed to be called a man after God’s own heart.

We try to create a neatly harmonized account of Jesus, but the Gospels stubbornly resist our efforts to collapse four stories into one.

None of which is to dismiss or diminish the Bible. None of which is to reduce this discussion to the same tired old “liberal” vs. “conservative” polarization. I left fundamentalism a long time ago, but like Greg Carey, I still love Jesus and the church. I’ve devoted a good chunk of my career to sharing with others what he calls “the love and wonder we experience with the Bible.” I believe the Bible is a complicated book, but for me it’s a sacredly complicated book.

Reading the Bible holistically won’t necessarily turn you into a liberal. And that’s OK. But liberal or conservative, you might grow to appreciate that it’s not always a simple matter of “doing what the Bible says.” Like Carey concludes in his post, reading the Bible requires responsible interpretation.

And maybe a good dose of humility.

Related post: 6 observations on salvation, judgment, & hell after reading the New Testament

Photo by khrawlings on Flickr

The case for a four-party system

Not conservative enough, evidently.

Not conservative enough, apparently.

This week, two events got me thinking about America’s two-party system. One was Eric Cantor, one of the most prominent—and most conservative—members of the House, losing his primary to candidate and a movement who felt he wasn’t conservative enough. The other was a report from the Pew Research Center, showing just how polarized we’ve become in the last 20 years.

I know, this isn’t the usual sort of thing I write about here. I’m intrigued and repulsed by politics at the same time. It’s like a car crash…you can’t look away. The older I get, the more ambivalent I become about participating in our political machine. So if politics isn’t your thing, you may just want to skip this post. I’m mostly writing to get it out of my system anyway.

People have been talking about third party for, well… probably as long as there have been two parties in this country. But creating a viable third party is notoriously difficult. Just ask Ross Perot. Our political system is designed to favor two parties, roughly evenly matched.

I’ve started to think that what we need is not a third party but a third and fourth party. Counterintuitively, having four major parties might help ratchet down the increasing polarization of late.

The third party in this scenario is fairly obvious. The Tea Party should break off from Republicans and form their own party. Evidently, this has occurred to lots of other people. Type the words “should the Tea Party” into Google and see what comes up. Tea Partiers are notoriously ambivalent about their own party, with 43% having a negative view of the GOP.

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So why not split? Why persist with an internal slugfest that most analysts predict will hurt both Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans in the long run? Why wage a battle for the so-called purity of the Republican party, calling the other side RINOs (Republican In Name Only) without ever seeing the irony? Why not give conservative-leaning voters a choice between a center-right party and a far-right party?

Of course the reason, known to Tea Partiers and conventional Republicans alike, is that splitting the party would send both groups into the political wilderness. Neither faction by itself can cobble together a large enough base to govern. Today, 47% of the US electorate leans Democratic; 40% leans Republican. If you split that 40% two ways, well…you do the math.

But what if something similar happened on the leftward end of the political spectrum? Democrats also tend to fall into one of two camps—moderate or “blue dog” Democrats on the one hand and progressives on the other. The divide is nowhere near as fractious as the one between Tea Partiers and Republicans—yet. But it’s real nonetheless.

So what if progressives bolted? It’s no secret most are almost as disillusioned with Barack Obama as conservatives are. (OK, for very different reasons.) And the thought of Hillary Clinton as his heir apparent has caused some to not-so-secretly wish that Elizabeth Warren would mount a challenge…sort of doing to Clinton in 2016 what Obama did to Clinton in 2008.

Why not let voters choose from four parties instead of two? The right and left wings of the electorate are pulling away from each other, as the Pew Research Center showed this week. Meanwhile, the two major parties are failing to get much of anything done as they struggle to contain their increasingly discontented bases.

I think a four-party system would be good for two reasons:

1. Four parties would cover the political spectrum better than two.

Most of American politics over the last several decades has consisted of people somewhere in the middle duking it out. This might have worked well enough when the number of people identified as “consistently liberal” or “consistently conservative” was fairly small, as was the case in 1994. But more people have gravitated to the left and the right since then, and they’re realizing they don’t have a home in our current two-party system.

Another way to get at this is to think of political ideologies in terms of four quadrants: the authoritarian right, authoritarian left, libertarian right, and libertarian left. Only the first two quadrants are represented by our two-party system. (Some would argue that both parties operate entirely within one quadrant, that Democrats and Republicans are varying shades of authoritarian right.)

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Libertarians on the left and right tend to be overlooked…until they make some noise, that is—as right-wing libertarians have done in the form of the Tea Party. (Heck, many Americans don’t even realize there is such a thing as left-wing libertarianism.)

2. No party would be able to claim a majority on its own, forcing parties to work together in order to govern.

Granted, moving toward a European parliamentary model might not be most Americans’ cup of tea. But creating a system where no single party commands a majority by itself does have one key advantage: it forces people of differing ideologies to work together if they want to accomplish something.

In some cases, depending on the political cycle, that could mean a legislative coalition between Republicans and Tea Partiers. Or between Democrats and progressives. It could mean a coalition in the middle, between Republicans and Democrats.

On certain issues of importance to libertarians both left and right, Tea Partiers and progressives might even come together—for example, to roll back government infringement of privacy (Cough! NSA. Cough!).

Having four parties would not lesson our ideological differences. But it might force us to be more honest about them. It would give like-minded people a chance to organize around a platform they believe in, instead of waging a civil war for control of a political party that never really belonged to them in the first place. And because no single party could govern unilaterally, it would force people from different camps to stop demonizing each other long enough to (hopefully) achieve something meaningful.

It’s probably pie in the sky, I know. But can it be any worse than what we have now?

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore on Flickr.