Why I won’t spank my children

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I was spanked as a kid, though it was only a handful of times. My brother was more of an instigator, which meant he had more experience with the wrong end of a paddle.

Our experience of corporal punishment was nothing like what Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son endured. There were no belts or switches in our case. No open wounds or other physical injuries. Typically it was one swift, sharp swat—administered after a requisite “cooling off” period and followed quickly by an affirmation of our parents’ love for us—and then it was done.

My parents’ approach to discipline marked a significant departure, if not a complete one, from that of their parents’ generation. Which is pretty remarkable, when you consider the overwhelming pressure that fundamentalist churches put on parents to spank their kids. (To this day, 80 percent of born-again parents think it’s appropriate—even necessary—to spank. That’s down just slightly from 90 percent when I was growing up.)

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas, but parents weren’t the only adults who thought they had the right to spank a child. I remember being spanked by my third-grade principal… at a public school. (I was surprised to learn that 19 states still allow spanking in public schools, and that a quarter-million public school kids were physically punished as recently as 2008.)

The incident from third grade has been lodged in my memory for almost 30 years. Maybe it was the perceived injustice of being physically punished for such a minor infraction. (In my case, it was playing flick football with a plastic straw during lunchtime). Maybe it was the shame attached to a disciplinary trip to the principal’s office. Maybe it was the giant wooden paddle he used, which sat ominously perched against the office wall when not in use.

As parents, my wife and I have decided we’re not going to spank our children. There are several reasons for this, but there is one in particular that’s especially important to me.

The false gospel of spanking

We could talk about the religious arguments for and against spanking. To me, using the Bible to justify spanking is one of the more egregious examples of an overly literal—and highly selective—approach to Scripture.

In a recent article for The Week, RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt took apart the religious argument for spanking. He might be overstating things a bit when he says the “rod” mentioned in Proverbs 13:24 and 23:14 was a shepherd’s staff used for guiding, not hitting. It is indeed the same Hebrew word, shaybet, used elsewhere for a shepherd’s staff—notably in Psalm 23. But the context of Proverbs 23:14 in particular suggests it sometimes had a more violent use, unfortunately.

Even so, Merritt is 100% right when he points out that the Bible hardly mentions corporal punishment outside the non-literal book of Proverbs. The sayings in Proverbs were meant to express general truths—which, like all the other writings in the Bible, were shaped by the culture that produced them. (This, by the way, was a culture that practiced a far more severe form of corporal punishment than anything endorsed by most evangelical proponents of spanking today, with the possible exception of Adrian Peterson.) Turning these proverbs into absolute, literal, universally applicable statements creates all kinds of problems.

Merritt is also right when says spanking is never encouraged in the New Testament. Meanwhile, there are plenty of passages that discourage Christians from engaging in violence of any kind.

And that’s what spanking is. It’s an act of violence, no matter how much restraint is exercised in the application. Which means Merritt is also right when he refers to the promotion of spanking by Christians as a “false gospel.”

The overwhelmingly negative effects of spanking

We could review the overwhelming evidence, summarized well in Merritt’s column, that spanking is an ineffective deterrent and has long-lasting negative consequences for children. Spanking is linked (not surprisingly) to hostile behavior in kids, impaired brain development, and depression.

Especially troubling to me is that when we spank our kids, we’re teaching them that violence is a legitimate way of resolving conflict. Whether we mean to or not, we show our kids how to deal with their anger and frustration by how we handle our own. If my anger at my child’s misbehavior leads me to strike, all I’ve done is teach her to do the same when she gets angry.

We cannot proclaim a gospel of peacemaking while at the same time using violence to solve our short-term problems. We cannot show our kids what it means to “turn the other cheek” if we’re busy swatting theirs.

Spanking is a sign I’ve given up  

But for me, one of the most important reasons to swear off corporal punishment is that spanking my kids would mean I’ve given up trying to find another way.

Believe me, there are times when I’m tempted to spank my 4-year-old. There are times when she puts my parenting skills, such as they are, to the test—when she goes for gold in the Tantrum Olympics. She is a normal kid, after all, which means she can yell, hit, kick, and claw with the best of them.

There are times when I just don’t know how to help her calm down, how to help her channel her behavior in a more positive direction. There are times when it’s tempting to believe a quick swat on the butt will snap her out of it. There are times when I feel my own anger welling up, feeding off of hers.

Whenever I feel tempted to resort to corporal punishment, it means I’ve run out of other ideas. It means I’ve given up finding another way to help my daughter learn how to behave. It means that instead of helping her work through the tumultuous and often confusing emotions of childhood—instead of helping her find a more constructive way to express her feelings—I’m teaching her to shut them down, to stifle them. It also means I’ve given up practicing a nonviolent ethic of love.

Refusing to spank—even as a last resort—forces me to be more creative as a parent. It forces me to engage with my child rather than simply trying to control her behavior. It keeps me honest when I tell her that we shouldn’t ever hit someone else… and especially when I tell her about a person named Jesus who responded to all the violence of this world with disarming love.

Have you sworn off spanking your kids? What are some creative ways you help guide their behavior instead?

Image credit: Boston Public Library on Flickr

My new reading list

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Last week I decided to get real about the patriarchy on my bookshelf after I realized that nearly all the theological and religious books I own were written by men. It started when I shared a list of 10 books that have stayed with me over the years. There was not one female writer among them.

There is no use in men like me claiming to be “allies” or advocates of gender equality if we’re so busy speaking for women that we don’t bother listening to them. If all I am is another voice speaking in their place, then nothing’s really changed, has it? Being an “ally” might make me feel better about myself, but it will accomplish little else until I allow myself to start being shaped by their voices.

So I decide to ask for help… and you responded, big time. I got dozens of suggestions through email, blog comments, tweets, Facebook messages… more than 70 names in total, from all ends of the theological spectrum. Not all of them fit neatly into my original criteria of being theological or religious writers. But all of them are important voices, well worth listening to.

Below is a list of the recommendations people shared. It’s likely I missed a few, but I tried to keep track of all the ones that I saw. The other day, I spent a few hours learning about each author and made note of one or two books by each. (Or three, in some cases where I just couldn’t narrow it down.) If you’re like me, some of the names will be familiar to you; some won’t. Probably 80% of the names below were new to me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to get through the entire list, but I intend to make a start. Namely, with 10 books—a new list of 10 books that I hope will stay with me over the coming years. (I’ll share that list at the end of this post.)

Some of these authors fall safely within my comfort zone. Some are sure to challenge me in interesting and perhaps uncomfortable ways. But that’s the whole point of reading, isn’t it? To step outside your own limited perspective and allow others to shape it, even if you don’t end up fully agreeing with them? How much of our impoverished discourse can be traced to the fact that we tend to hear only the voices that sound like our own?

This is my first small step in trying to change that, in trying not to be as much of an “ally” as a listener. To every one of you who took the time to recommend an author (or several, in some cases), thank you. And if, like me, your reading has felt a bit one-dimensional, I hope you’ll take a moment to peruse the names below. You might find something that sets you on a new journey, that gives you a new perspective…

Religious and theological writers

Karen Armstrong, comparative religion
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
The Case for God

Karen Baker-Fletcher, systematic theology
Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective
Sisters of Dust, Sisters of Spirit: Womanist Wordings on God and Creation

Nancy Beach, church ministry
Gifted to Lead: The Art of Leading as a Woman in the Church

Sarah Bessey, writer
Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

Jeannine Brown, hermeneutics, New Testament studies
Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics   

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor
Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest
The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity

Laurene Bowers, UCC minister
Becoming a Multicultural Church

Barbara Brown-Taylor, Episcopal priest
An Altar in the World
Learning to Walk in the Dark
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

Kelly Brown-Douglas, religion
Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective

Diana Butler-Bass, Christian history
Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story

Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun
The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century

Lynn Cohick, biblical studies
The Story of God Bible Commentary: Philippians

Carlene Cross, writer
Fleeing Fundamentalism

Sarah Cunningham, writer
Beyond the Broken Church

Carolyn Custis-James, writer
The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women

Mary Daly, feminist philosophy
Beyond God the Father

Lillian Daniel, UCC minister
When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough

Marva Dawn, theology
Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down

Denise Dombkoski Hopkins, biblical theology
Journey Through the Psalms

Musa Dube, feminist theology
Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible

Margaret A. Farley, ethics
Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Cherith Fee Nordling, theology
Knowing God by Name: A Conversation Between Elizabeth A. Johnson and Karl Barth

Sister Maureen Fiedler, activist
Rome Has Spoken…: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries

Katie Geneva Cannon, theology
Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader

Beverly Harrison, Christian social ethics
Justice in the Making: Feminist Social Ethics

Rachel Held Evans, writer
A Year of Biblical Womanhood
Faith Unraveled
Searching for Sunday

Carter Heyward, Episcopal priest
Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right

Joyce Hollyday, UCC minister
Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us
Then Shall Your Light Rise: Spiritual Formation and Social Witness

Carol Howard-Merritt, practical theology, PCUSA pastor
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, ethics and theology
En La Lucha: Elaborating a Mujerista Theology

Karen Jobes, hermeneutics
Letters to the Church: A Survey of Hebrews and the General Epistles
Invitation to the Septuagint

Elizabeth Johnson, theology
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse
Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God

Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, theology
Refiner’s Fire: A Religious Engagement With Violence

Anne Lamott, writer
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Amy-Jill Levine, New Testament studies
Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus
The Jewish Annotated New Testament

Henrietta Mears, Christian educator
What the Bible Is All About

Sara Miles, founder of The Food Pantry
City of God: Faith in the Streets
Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion

Rita Nakashima Brock, theology and culture
Proverbs From Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us
Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire

Carol Newsom, Old Testament studies
The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations
Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition  

Elaine Pagels, religion
Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation

Christine Pohl, Christian social ethics
Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition

Kwok Pui Lan, theology
Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology

Rosemary Radford Reuther, theology
Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology

Sharon Ringe, hermeneutics, UCC minister
Biblical Interpretation: A Roadmap

Jane Rogers Vann, practical theology
Gathered Before God: Worshiped-Centered Church Renewal

Sarah Ruden, classical literature, biblical linguistics
Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

Cheryl Sanders, Christian ethics, Church of God pastor
Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People
Ministry at the Margins: The Prophetic Mission of Women, Youth, & the Poor

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, theology
Democratizing Biblical Studies: Toward and Emancipatory Educational Space

Angela D. Sims, ethics, black church studies
Religio-Political Narratives in the United States

Dorothee Sölle, theology
Dorothee Sölle: Essential Writings

Marti Steussy, hermeneutics
Chalice Introduction to the Old Testament

Elsa Tamez, theology
The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead
Bible of the Oppressed
The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith From a Latin American Perspective

Phyllis Tickle, writer
The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why

Krista Tippett, broadcaster
Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How We Talk About It
Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit

Maren Tirabassi, UCC pastor
From the Psalms to the Cloud: Connecting to the Digital Age

Emilie M. Townes, ethics
In a Blaze of Glory: Womanist Spirituality as Social Witness

Renita J. Weems, theology
Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible
Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt

Sharon Welch, religion and society
A Feminist Ethic of RISK

Delores Williams, theology
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

Sister Miriam Therese Winter, theology
Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe

Hildegard of Bingen
Scivias

Teresa of Avila
The Way of Perfection

Other writers

Hannah Arendt, political theory
On Revolution

Carol Gilligan, psychology
In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development

bell hooks, writer and activist
All About Love
Feminism Is for Everybody
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

Susan Ludvigson, poet
Escaping the House of Certainty

Sue Monk Kidd, novelist
The Secret Life of Bees

Alice Notley, poet
Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005

Kay Ryan, poet
The Best of It: New and Selected Poems

Cheryl Strayed, writer
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

Jean Valentine, poet
Door in the Mountain: New Collected Poems, 1965-2003

Alice Walker, author and activist
The Color Purple

The first 10…

Finally, here are the first 10 books I’m choosing to read from this list. I’ve tried to aim for a mix of authors representing different theological and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve chosen some books that naturally appeal to me, as well as some I might not have picked up on my own. And to honor those who responded to my earlier post, I tried to choose at least one from every list someone was kind enough to share with me. (It helped that there was a some overlap between lists.)

Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Learning to Walk in the Dark An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor
(Late substitution based on multiple recommendations)

A People’s History of Christianity, by Diana Butler-Bass

The Gospel of Ruth, by Carolyn Custis-James

Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, by Musa Dube

Reframing Hope, by Carol Howard-Merritt

The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine

Saving Paradise, by Rita Nakashima Brock

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

Sisters in the Wilderness, by Delores Williams

A prayer for our enemies

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From the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies:

Lead them and us from prejudice to truth;

deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge;

and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(HT Jim Vining, image via Kurt Willems)

Where are all the women? What my bookshelf says about the continuing effects of patriarchy

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The other day, I did one of those “10 books that stayed with me” status updates on Facebook. It’s a thing that’s been going around for a while now. (After more than 130,000 such lists were tallied, Harry Potter came out on top, in case you were wondering.)

For my list, I chose to highlight 10 books that had a lasting theological impact. Later that day, one of my friends gently pointed out what, in hindsight, seems like a glaring omission:

There were no women on my list.

I have to be honest. I was a little embarrassed when I realized this. And alarmed. What bothered me even more than the fact that there were no women was the fact that I hadn’t even noticed my failure to include any.

I’m committed to gender equality. I’ve written about my theological journey from complementarianism to egalitarianism, and how it’s impacted my marriage on a practical level. I’ve shared how we’re trying to raise our daughter without all the baggage of patriarchy—writing about it here, here, here, and here, for example.

But a theoretical commitment to something can blind you to the ways in which your behavior is still shaped by its antithesis.

I can pen a rebuttal to Dave Ramsey’s caricature of the poor, for example. Yet I haven’t always honored my responsibility to be openhanded toward those in need.

I can write passionately about racial reconciliation in Ferguson. But I am not unscathed by generations of prejudice.

I can flaunt my egalitarian credentials on the interwebs—without even realizing how bad I’ve been at listening to the voices of women.

A theoretical opposition to patriarchy doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve stopped perpetuating it.

—//—

After reading my friend’s comment on Facebook, I scanned my collection of theology books. Then I started counting.

Only one was written by a woman.

Hoping for a better result, I expanded my search to include popular religious titles as well as academic ones. True, I’ve got books by Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) and Carolyn Custis James (The Gospel of Ruth) on my shelf—and books by Rachel Held Evans (A Year of Biblical Womanhood) and Sarah Bessey (Jesus Feminist) on my Kindle. Rachel and Sarah in particular have shaped my thinking in meaningful and profound ways.

But the balance was still overwhelmingly tilted in one direction: 89% of the religious books on my shelf (or phone) were written by men.

Now, there are likely a number of reasons for the imbalance. My friend who first pointed it out suggested it had something to do with the church background I grew up in. True enough. When I decided to go to seminary, I was encouraged to avoid schools that accepted women into ordination-track degree programs—the assumption being that this was an indicator of “dangerous” liberal tendencies. But I have long since shifted my horizons.

Some of it surely has to do with this unsettling stat: only a quarter of all PhDs in theology go to women (HT Richard Beck, Kieran Healy). Which means at least 75% of those who are in a position to write academic theological books are male. I find it hard to believe this is because women just aren’t into theology, when there is a far more likely explanation: women have been told in various ways—some implicit, some more direct—that theology is a man’s pursuit.

Even in churches that are committed to gender equality, the vast majority of lay and ordained leaders are male—including two thirds of the employed priests in my own denomination. All of which is why, while writing for Elizabeth Esther’s blog last year, Stephanie Drury concluded:

Straight [white] men in Christian culture simply don’t… examine the ways in which they are sexist, and this is the most difficult factor in the move towards wholeness.

Besides, none of this changes the fact that the ratio of women to men on my bookshelf is worse than the ratio at academic institutions. I have no excuse.

As Maggi Dawn, a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, writes:

There are so many women with interesting things to say, some writing about feminism but many more simply writing about areas of theology that used to be thought of as a male preserve—or, the earlier you go, writing theology against the culture that denied them access to what was assumed to be a male preserve.

She even came up with a reading list—without having to put too much thought into it—of female voices in theology. Voices that many of us just aren’t listening to.

This has to change. My bookshelf has to change.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to be working from Maggi Dawn’s list to expand my horizons. Reading books by female theologians will not automatically make me a better specimen of gender equality. But it might help me to listen better to female voices. And doing so will enrich my theological perspective.

Maggi Dawn’s list of female theological voices can be found here (HT Laura Everett). What books or authors would you add to the list?

UPDATE  
I received dozens of suggestions in response to this post, which I’ve compiled here, along with a list of the next 10 books I’m going to read:

MY NEW READING LIST

A former Mars Hill pastor’s resignation letter

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Via William Throckmorton:

Dustin Kensrue, the worship pastor at Mars Hill’s Bellevue campus, has resigned. That makes four out of nine Mars Hill pastors and elders who signed a letter calling for Mark Driscoll’s removal who have either resigned or been forced out.

If you want a picture of what’s going on at Mars Hill, read the letter he shared on Twitter this week.

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Some excerpts…

While the nine signers of the letter that was leaked last week have been met with gratefulness and an outpouring of prayer from the people of Mars Hill, internally we have been dismissed and defamed as “immature” among other epithets…

One pastor was already removed from eldership for his part in signing the letter…

As for the 5 the signers who were at Bellevue, it was made clear we weren’t going to be fired at this point (I am assuming for PR reasons) but it was also made equally clear to us where the door was, and that it would be just fine if we chose to walk through it.

What executive elder Dave Bruskas revealed about governance at Mars Hill in a meeting with Kensrue last week:

He went so far as to say that if 61 of 63 elders across Mars Hill all shared the same conviction that something needed to change, it simply wouldn’t matter.

On the consolidation of power in the hands of Mark Driscoll and a handful of his closest allies, which casts serious doubt on the ability of the church’s Board of Advisors and Accountability to investigate with any integrity:

In the last 2 major revisions of the Mars Hill bylaws, the ability for the FCE [Full Council of Elders] to do anything has been all but completely taken away. The two things that the FCE can still do is to approve a change to the MH statement of faith, and to approve the slate of nominees for the board of BOAA [Board of Advisors and Accountability]. The problem with approving the slate is that it provides only the illusion of accountability since the FCE cannot nominate people for the slate, and if they did choose to vote a slate down, the current BOAA remains in power until the FCE approve a slate that the BOAA provides. At this point, continuing to even call the FCE a council is essentially a ruse and a farce.

Power is consolidated in such a way that the government of MH can only be described as an oligarchy which does not reflect the mutually submissive view of elder governance in provided in the Bible. And this theological shift points to the likelihood that this consolidation of authority through the revision of the bylaws is not, as it has been presented, an oversight or an unintentional byproduct of solving some other set of problems, but rather a deliberate and deft grab for power.

On the powerlessness of pastors and elders to lead Mars Hill out of this morass:

So, what’s the answer to the question “what can your elders do?” Simply put, sadly not much. This is why we’ve looked pained when you’ve have asked us what we are going to do about all of this…

Your pastors, who are on the ground with you, who know you, who care for you, who pray with you, and in whom you trust—these men have essentially no voice and no vote in what happens with your church as a whole, and the leadership is actively trying to limit the voice that they do have.

Read the rest here.

Image via Facebook

Matthew Paul Turner’s Great Big American God

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God has an image problem. The question is, which God are we talking about?

There have been many manifestations of God over the last four centuries of American religious history, according to Matthew Paul Turner’s newest book, Our Great Big American God. MPT’s sweeping historical overview doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. That’s because nothing is sacred in this book.

Then again, when you’re writing about how we’ve continuously made and remade God in our own image, maybe nothing should be sacred.

Unknown-1From the Pilgrims to Jonathan Edwards and the creepiest children’s sermon ever… from the emergence of modern-day evangelicalism to the corporatization of God… MPT dismantles the popular, sanitized version of our history—one that depicts America as a shining “city on a hill” planted by God himself. The effect can be jarring at times, even for those of us who’ve long since grown suspicious of the sanitized version.

Take, for example, how Our Great Big American God demolishes the notion that the Puritans came to America for the sake of religious freedom in any broad sense of the term. In truth, they came for their own religious freedom. Once on these shores, they ruthlessly denied such liberty to anyone who believed differently that they did. As MPT concludes, they effectively turned God into a “controlling, state-run deity, the same God that had made England so impossible for them to endure.” Just ask Roger Williams. Or Anne Hutchinson.

A few chapters later, Our Great Big American God turns its attention to D.L. Moody, the father of mass evangelism and a forerunner of sorts to Billy Graham (though the oft-repeated story of a chain of religious conversions connecting the two men is largely untrue). Our Great Big American God doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Moody’s legacy: his uncomfortably close ties with the robber barons of the Gilded Age and how he openly preached against the labor rights movement—at a time when child labor was commonplace and the average worker toiled 10-hour days, six days a week in dangerous and often downright horrific conditions.

Our Great Big American God also traces the development of dispensational theology in the 1800s by men like J.N. Darby and C.I. Scofield, including the invention of the rapture. It directly connects dispensationalism to the American church’s failure at times to practice the kind of radical compassion embodied by Jesus and his first followers:

Darby’s ideas not only changed how America’s Christians thought about God and the Bible but also how they thought about the world. According to Scofield, Christians shouldn’t worry about “the reformation of society.” He said, “What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.” Which is why so many of America’s Christians do little to improve American society, because why bother when Jesus is coming back?

If you find yourself cheering while MPT takes on someone else’s golden calf, just wait. He’ll probably tackle something that hits a bit closer to home before long. Like I said, nothing is sacred in this book. Reading Our Great Big American God was at times an unsettling experience for me. But the conclusion it points to should be unsettling for all of us:

That’s because all of us have fashioned God after our own image, to one degree or another.

God has become, in effect, “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked. Which is exactly what Americans have been doing with God all along.”

We think it’s God’s story we’re telling when, all too often, what we’re really doing is using God’s name to baptize or legitimize our own agenda. Which is why God so often ends up (conveniently enough) being angry about the same things we’re angry about and hating all the same people we hate.

The irony, of course, is that this leads to a smaller view of God, even when we think we’re proclaiming a big, all-powerful deity. Whether it’s the Puritans in the 17th century or John Piper in 21st, this is what happens “when God is left in the hands of angry people of faith.”

The big sovereign God that Christians usually boast about becomes a small and narrow-minded deity incapable of handling unorthodox ideas, at least not without humans helping him to carry the burden… As hard as we try to demand that God be this or declare that God hates that, in the end, our actions often undermine our understandings about the sovereignty of God.

Our Great Big American God should prompt plenty of discussion and debate, to echo what Chaplain Mike said in his review for Internet Monk. But it should also prompt a fresh dose of humility—for all of us—in how we go about telling God’s story. Being confronted with the less savory bits of our religious history should remind us that maybe we don’t have God entirely figured out, after all.

To quote something Matthew Paul Turner shared in a recent interview with Bedlam Magazine:

If we really care about God’s story we would be more careful how we express it. We would approach it with gentleness and questions and humility as opposed to such confidence and arrogance that we are just absolutely convinced that we know what God thinks about this issue. I hope it gets people talking about our Christian history and how there are so many bits and pieces of our history that play out in the here and now. As we tell the story it would behoove us to consider the words we use.

Our Great Big American God is worth reading, even if it makes you squirm at times. Which it should.

Good and bad reasons to criticize Mark Driscoll

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The collapse of Mark Driscoll’s empire should give us plenty to reflect on. The dubious wisdom of megachurches functioning as mini-empires. The unhealthy influence wielded by celebrity pastors in our culture (and our willingness to let them wield it). The connection that seems to exist between certain theological perspectives and authoritarian (and sometimes abusive) forms of church governance.

But we should also consider what it took to finally hold Mark Driscoll accountable. There was a time not that long ago when criticizing his behavior would get you labeled a “hater” in many circles. In the end, even some of Driscoll’s allies wound up speaking out, but not always for the right reasons.

There are good and bad reasons to speak out against authoritarian leaders like Mark Driscoll.

Bad reason: self-preservation

The tipping point probably came when the Acts 29 church network revoked Mars Hill’s membership and called on Driscoll to step down. Suddenly, dismissing all of his critics as “haters” didn’t work anymore. Mark Driscoll was one of the founders of Acts 29. The leadership of Acts 29 were among his closest allies. When even your friends start telling you to “seek help,” the game is pretty much over.

Still, Acts 29 made no secret of their motivation for speaking out: self-preservation. From their letter to Driscoll:

Over the past three years, our board and network have been the recipients of countless shots and dozens of fires directly linked to you and what we consider ungodly and disqualifying behavior. We have both publicly and internally tried to support and give you the benefit of the doubt, even when multiple pastors in our network confirmed this behavior.

Because you are the founder of Acts 29 and a member, we are naturally associated with you and feel that this association discredits the network…

In other words: You’re making us look bad.

Their letter acknowledged that Acts 29 had allowed Driscoll’s behavior to go unchecked—that they had essentially looked the other way—even after several of their own members confirmed the accusations to be true.

Acts 29 was right to urge Driscoll to step down, but it’s hard to read their statement as much more than throwing a former ally under the bus.

There was not one word about those who were spiritually abused.

Not one word about Mars Hill members who were subjected to coercive forms of “church discipline.”

Not one word about church leaders who were fired for questioning Driscoll’s power grab in 2007.

Not one word about those whom Driscoll berated, threatened, and verbally abused over the years.

If Acts 29 acted out of genuine concern for Mark Driscoll’s victims, why did they fail to even mention them their letter to Driscoll or in the public statement on their website?

Good reason: standing up for the abused

It wasn’t Acts 29 who brought Driscoll’s misdeeds to light. It was Stephanie Drury, whose online community offers safe haven for those who’ve endured spiritual abuse, including a number of Mars Hill refugees. It was Warren Throckmorton, whose relentless coverage kept more traditional media outlets playing catch-up. It was Matthew Paul Turner, who shared first-person accounts of spiritual abuse and bizarre exorcisms at Mars Hill. It was Dee Parsons at the Wartburg Watch. It was former Mars Hill leaders like Paul Petry and Bent Meyer who stood up to Driscoll when he consolidated his power in 2007—and were fired for doing so. It was Ron Wheeler.

There’s a big difference between Acts 29 and these individuals. One group acted out of self-preservation, the other on behalf of those who’ve been abused and marginalized by Mark Driscoll.

By their own admission, Acts 29 looked the other way for years while Driscoll consolidated power and perpetuated destructive patterns of behavior. Meanwhile, those who spoke out were labeled “cynics,” “vipers,” and worse by Driscoll’s defenders. Those who’d been abused were dismissed as little more than an angry mob. Driscoll’s critics were told they were simply using him to build their own platforms or sell more books.

To be sure, there are plenty of bad reasons to criticize someone like Mark Driscoll. And there’s a great chasm of difference between criticizing them and celebrating their downfall. But standing up for the abused means speaking out against their abusers. It means bringing their abusive ways into the light. 

That’s just what the so-called “cynics” and “haters” did with Mark Driscoll.

There are people out there who will not suffer spiritual abuse at the hands of Mark Driscoll anymore because of the work of Stephanie Drury, Matthew Paul Turner, and Warren Throckmorton, and others. Whether or not Driscoll continues as pastor of Mars Hill, he’ll never get the free pass he once had. People will go into his church with their eyes open (or at least with no excuse for not having them open).

That’s why I think we should be very, very careful about using the label “cynic” to silence public dissent.

Speaking out against abuse is more important than protecting the church’s reputation. It’s more important than preserving some artificial sense of “Christian unity.” It’s more important than self-preservation.

I hope we’ll remember that with the next Mark Driscoll.

Related posts: 
On using the label “cynic” to silence people
In defense of troublemakers

Image: Surrender Magazine

Under the Banyan Tree

So, you know how it goes. You make new friends at church… get to know them a bit… discover you have a lot in common… think to yourself, we should totally hang out more… and then they announce, “Oh hey, we’re moving to India!”

What the heck, guys?

Seriously… our friends Nathan and Abby are heading to the border of India and Nepal to spend a year serving, learning, and discerning. Abby grew up in the region. Her parents have spent almost three decades (and counting) providing education for children and rehabilitation and support for exploited women. Trafficking, illiteracy, and poverty are all serious challenges affecting the region.

Over the next year, Abby will offer counseling for at-risk women and students (she has a master’s degree in counseling psychology). Nathan will work with indigenous ministry leaders, focusing on leadership development, theological training, and what he likes to call “life-on-life discipleship.”

I mentioned in my post yesterday how Nathan and Abby had shared their vision with our church. We’re not just supporting them because they’re our friends. We’re supporting them because we believe in the vision they have for doing compassionate work in a cross-cultural setting.

They don’t see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” They don’t see the people they’re going to serve as “helpless.” They’re going to India and Nepal to discover—and amplify—the good that’s already there. In the people, their communities, and their culture.

In other words, their vision starts with Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. God made the world good. The people of India and Nepal are good. Their culture is good. Nathan and Abby see that. They also understand the tremendous challenges facing extraordinary the people of this region. Abby and Nathan have spent the last several years equipping themselves to help others overcome these challenges. But the important thing is, they are starting where God starts. Like they said when they shared their vision with our church, “We’re not going to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.”

We need more people who will go out and serve from this vantage point. If you are looking for a good cause—people who are not only doing the right things, but doing them the right way—I encourage you to visit Nathan and Abby’s website, Under the Banyan Tree. Watch their video to hear more about their vision for serving the people of India and Nepal. They deserve your support.

You can also go here to make a gift to support their work. 

When Christian compassion goes wrong (and what to do about it)

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“It is impossible to change a dirty, ignorant savage in a few months or years into a cultivated Christian gentleman, but progress is being made.”

          — S. Hall Young, 1920

S. Hall Young was a missionary to Alaska in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He established the first Presbyterian church there. He explored the southeastern wilderness. There are mountains and islands named after him. President Woodrow Wilson nearly picked him to be governor of the Alaskan territory in 1897. Young spent a decade doing missionary work among the indigenous population—a population he evidently despised.

A few years before his death, Young wrote about his first trip to Alaska, during which he met an executive with the Hudson Bay Company.

As we were nearing the wharf, upon which squatted a score of blanketed natives, most of them with faces blackened and tousled hair, he laid his hand upon my shoulder and said:

“Let me give you a bit of advice. Don’t become an Indian.”

I was nettled and I have no doubt my face flushed. Waving my hands toward the natives, I replied:

“Do you think I am in danger of becoming like those creatures?”

Young wasn’t sharing this scene from his past to highlight the naivete or arrogance of his younger self. He fervently hoped other missionaries would follow his example. To find anything good in native culture—that was naïve, according to S. Hall Young. To accommodate indigenous people in any way was to yield to what he called a “backward pulling.” It was “the most dangerous thing” a missionary could do.

Time—along with a justifiable sense of guilt over our ancestors’ colonialist tendencies—have rendered Young’s words less palatable than they were a century ago. Yet before you dismiss him as a crackpot or an outlier, it should be noted that Young was no fundamentalist. In the same article, he wrote approvingly about the work of Catholic, Episcopal, and Congregationalist missionaries in Alaska. He was not atypical. His writings reflect the attitude of many in his day.

We may wince at his reference to the “dirty, ignorant savage.” We might want to congratulate ourselves for eschewing such terrible language today. But Young’s sentiment is still very much alive.

Whether it’s evangelism or humanitarian work or some combination of the two, Christians have a tendency to see themselves as “coming to the rescue.” In other words, we’re still shaped by the same worldview that Young took to Alaska.

We tend not to think of those we serve as having something to offer, something to contribute. We tend not to think of ourselves as having something to learn from them. In which case, we’re not that different from S. Hall Young.

We may not use his offensive words, but we perpetuate his legacy in other ways.

I saw it in the pastor I met when I was representing a humanitarian relief agency at a youth ministry conference. He marched up to our booth and announced he only wanted one thing: to find out how to get himself on a trip to Africa. He wasn’t interested in the lives of the poor. He was after a bit of poverty tourism. It was just another notch in his youth ministry belt.

I saw it in the youth group on the flight to Haiti last spring. The kids and their adult chaperones wore matching shirts that read, “Showing mercy to the people of Haiti.” I don’t think they even considered what this conveyed to our fellow passengers—the majority of whom were Haitian. What made this group think the people of Haiti needed our mercy—let alone that putting this on a shirt to be worn in Haiti was a good idea? In light of that country’s troubled history (and our part in it), maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe we’re the ones who need mercy for our misdeeds.

I’ve seen traces of S. Hall Young in myself, too. The patronizing, condescending attitude toward those in need. The assumption—rarely stated in the light of day—that the end goal of compassionate work is to make others look and behave more like us.

Sometimes it makes me wonder if such endeavors are doomed from the start.

But then I see glimpses of another way. Reminders that we don’t have to perpetuate the legacy of S. Hall Young in order to serve.

I see it in Cindy Brandt’s article, “How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye.” She points out that we’re often so busy “evangelizing” others that we don’t see our own need to be “evangelized”—to sit at their feet and learn:

What I came to discover is how much the world craves a listening ear. The biggest problem I have with evangelizing is that you enter into a relationship with a prescribed intention, and that stands in the way of listening well.

You can’t listen well when you are carrying an agenda.

You can’t listen well when you are looking for ways to fortify your own position.

You can’t listen well when you are searching for what is broken in your conversation partner, in order to introduce the solution.

On the other hand, if you are wanting to be evangelized, you learn to listen deeper, because you are trying to uncover truth. You search for the beauty in your neighbor to find points of connection — you are seeking to be saved by them. You become the student, longing to learn from, instead of preach at. You voluntarily place yourself in the inferior position of need and find that your own vulnerability compels others to shed their masks. Your courage to admit uncertainty disarms, until all that is left is raw honesty and frailty of our common human condition.

I see it in my friends Nathan and Abby, who are getting ready to move their whole family to the border between India and Nepal (where Abby grew up). They’re going to offer counseling for at-risk women and young people, as well as leadership development and theological training for indigenous ministry leaders. A few weeks ago, they shared their vision with our church. It was very different from the one that drove S. Hall Young. To paraphrase what Nathan and Abby shared:

We believe the people we’re going to serve are good. Their culture is not bad; it’s good. We’re not going halfway around the world to bring light where there isn’t any already. God’s glory fills the earth. It’s already there.

No, this isn’t feel-good pop psychology masquerading as ministry. Abby and Nathan also observed that the region they’re moving to is affected by high rates of human trafficking, illiteracy, and violence against women. But they know this is only part of the story. There’s also a deep hunger for justice, a rich and vibrant culture to be honored instead of dismantled. They know the people there understands things about God and the world that we don’t. They have as much to teach us as we have to teach them.

Abby and Nathan are committed to a very different story than the one S. Hall Young told. Or maybe they just have a different starting point. Young began his story at Genesis 3. At least, that’s where he started whenever he looked at the indigenous peoples of Alaska. “Savages,” as he called them.

People like Cindy and Abby and Nathan begin the story at Genesis 1, with creation. The world as God made it is good. Very good. And not just the part of the world that looks like us. ALL of it.

Yes, there is sin. Yes, there is brokenness. But that’s not the whole story. That’s not where the story began, and it’s not where we should start, either. To quote something Nathan wrote a few years back:

God’s first speech-act of creation is what sets the trajectory and establishes our foundation for viewing humanity and doing theology… it establishes that we are to view all of humanity primarily through the lens of their creational goodness.

When you start with S. Hall Young’s view of the world, otherwise compassionate endeavors end up looking more like a conquest. When you start with a view of the world that’s framed by God’s act of creation, you understand that all you’re doing is discovering—and perhaps amplifying—the good that already exists. It exists because God put it there.

In the end, I believe this is a much more life-giving model for Christian engagement with the world. To quote Cindy Brandt, it’s time we “listen to other people’s stories as if [our] salvation depended on it, because it might.”

 —//—

Note: If you’d like to learn more about Abby and Nathan’s work in India and Nepal, watch the video below and go to their website, Under the Banyan Tree. They could use your support.

White people don’t want to talk about Ferguson. Which is why we need to.

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Let’s be honest. Most of us who are white don’t want to face what’s happening in Ferguson.

We don’t want to be confronted by anything that might disrupt our carefully constructed narrative which says we already took care of racism in this country. I mean, hey, we have a black president, right?

Yet here we are in a country where blacks and whites use marijuana at about the same rate. Guess which group is 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for it? Blacks are significantly more likely to be pulled over, and they are sentenced to more time in jail for the same crimes.

And of course, black young men are more likely to be killed by police (or vigilantes), then tried in the court of public opinion. Kendrec McDade. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. John Crawford. And of course Michael Brown.

We’ve heard all these facts before. They’ve been on a recurring loop since the media began reporting the terrible events in Ferguson. Yet according to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 37 of whites say Michael Brown’s shooting raises racial issues, compared to 80 percent of blacks.

When you see a police force that is 94% white fire tear gas and rubber bullets at a population that is 67% black, it raises racial issues. When the images out of Ferguson look like something out of the Deep South fifty years ago, it raises racial issues. To say otherwise is to live in a particularly toxic form of denial.

The Pew Research Center also asked about the police response to the protests. Only a third of whites think the police went too far in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting.

Only a third think armored vehicles rolling down the streets of Ferguson is going too far.

Only a third think police dressed in camouflage (for some inexplicable reason) waving military-grade assault weapons at unarmed civilians is going too far.

Only a third think lobbing tear gas and stun grenades at civilians—the very citizens they’re supposed to protect—is going too far.

Only a third think threatening reporters and calling protestors “f*****g animals” is going too far.

Only a third think treating black civilians like enemy combatants is going too far.

We have a problem. And the problem is that we won’t even accept that there’s a problem.

There can be no justice, no resolution, no reconciliation until those of us who’ve been blinded by our privilege come out from our gated communities and our artificially constructed realities and listen—really listen—to the experience of being black in America.

We don’t want to talk about Ferguson. Which is precisely why we have to.

Image via Medium.com.