3 things I’m thankful for this Fourth of July

722536188_2741099d4c_z

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.

71w86zhxDfL

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)

958815404_6ec61210a1_b

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?

6972571733_7ed9b204dd_b

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…

—//—

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?

4799661472_f7fe367762_b

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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 7.05.31 AM

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.)

Screen-shot-2010-10-27-at-10.50.25-PM

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.

It’s not just your imagination. We are becoming more polarized.

PP-2014-06-12-polarization-0-01

Today, the Pew Research Center shared the findings of their new study on political polarization in America. Their survey of 10,000 adults confirmed that it’s not just your imagination. Polarization is getting worse.

Think about that. We’re more polarized today than we were two decades ago. When Bill Clinton was in office. When the Democrats tried to overhaul the US healthcare system and triggered one of the biggest political upheavals in our lifetime. When Republicans used their House majority to impeach a sitting US president.

Yeah. We’re more polarized than that.

For all the partisan wrangling of the 1990s, there was actually a good deal of ideological overlap between the two parties, which is another way of saying most Americans were somewhere in the middle. When I studied political science almost 20 years ago, my professor used to say the differences between the two parties were more about style than substance.

Those were the days.

Today, we’re drifting farther apart. The number of people at the far ends of the spectrum—those who are consistently (read: exclusively) conservative or liberal—has more than doubled. From 10% in 1994 to 21% today.

We don’t just dislike each other…

With increased ideological uniformity comes open hostility. The number of Democrats and Republicans who hold “very unfavorable” views of the other has skyrocketed. And it’s not just that we don’t like each other. Increasingly, we view those who disagree with us as a threat to society. More than a quarter of Democrats and over a third of Republicans see the other side in this light.

PP-2014-06-12-polarization-0-02

We’re hunkering down in our respective ideological silos. No longer are those with differing views just people who disagree. They’re adversaries. Enemies who must be stopped at all costs. For the good of the nation.

You see where this is going?

It’s not hard to guess how we got here. Fox News and MSNBC both launched in 1996. Increasingly, conservatives and liberals retreat to their own private echo chambers. Fewer of us have any close friendships with those who disagree with us. We don’t even want to live in the same communities as each other. Civil discourse is giving way to a new political ghetto:

Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force. It lead us to view others as obstacles and threats, not as people whose inherent dignity and worth are every bit as real as ours. And it’s not just the political landscape that’s being affected.

Tomorrow, why the time may finally have come for a four-party system…and why that might actually diminish our polarization.

Next week, polarization and the church.

John MacArthur’s advice for parents of gay children

John MacArthur has some advice for Christian parents whose children come out of the closet: shun them.

To quote from his video:

If that adult child professes Christ, claims to be a Christian, then that becomes an issue for confrontation of the sternest and strongest kind, because that falls into Matthew 18. That’s a sin for which you go to that person. If the person doesn’t repent and turn, you take two or three witnesses and confront again. If there’s still no repentance, you tell the church, and the church pursues. And if there’s still no repentance, then there’s a public putting out of the church of that person who professes to be a Christian. That’s how you deal with that.

You have to alienate them. You have to separate them… You isolate them. You don’t have a meal with them. You separate yourself from them. You turn them over to Satan, as it were, as Scripture says.

MacArthur calls this a Matthew 18 issue, referring to the passage where Jesus tells his disciples how to deal with sin. So let’s take another look at this text.

MacArthur’s translation of choice, the NKJV, says, “If your brother sins against you.” Granted, not all manuscripts include these qualifying words. But the context—including the mention of “two or three witnesses,” evoking courtroom imagery—indicates a situation where one person has injured the other.

There’s even less ambiguity in the parallel passage, Luke 17:

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

Matthew 18 isn’t about just any alleged sin. It’s about what you should do if another member of the church wrongs you personally. Even if being gay is a sin, how would my child be sinning against me personally by coming out to me? This isn’t about me. It’s about them and their identity. They haven’t done anything to me. I suppose someone might want to argue that they’ve sinned against me by letting me down as a parent. But how I respond is my choice. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has ever come out of the closet because they wanted to hurt their parents.

Matthew 18 is not a license for indiscriminate shunning. Whatever camp you’re in—affirming, non-affirming, or just confused—we should all agree this is a shamefully selective misuse of the Bible. We can do better.

If your son or daughter comes out to you, don’t follow MacArthur’s advice. Please don’t. For the sake of your child. Their life could literally depend on it. When parents reject their kids for being gay, it can send them on a downward spiral from which there may be no coming back.

  • Their risk of depression goes up.
  • They’re more likely to engage in substance abuse and unprotected sex.
  • They’re SIGNIFICANTLY more likely to attempt suicide.

Of course, maybe that’s what MacArthur thinks it means to “hand them over to Satan.” (Pro tip: it’s not.)

If you want much, much better advice on how to respond, read Benjamin Moberg’s piece. It’s beautifully written from the vantage point of personal experience. And yes, it has something for you—whether you’re open and affirming or whether you maintain a traditional sexual ethic.

Your kid’s life and well being could hang in the balance.

—//—

Postscript: My friend Nathan makes another good point about MacArthur’s misuse of Matthew 18. Jesus is addressing the church, not families. In fact, Matthew 18 is the only time the word ekklesia, translated “assembly” or “church,” appears in the Gospels. Even if a church were to decide that a person’s sexuality was a “Matthew 18 issue”—and that’s something a great many churches, affirming and non-affirming, would dispute—it has no bearing on how a parent should treat their son or daughter for coming out. What MacArthur is advocating is wrong, and it’s based on a careless reading of Matthew 18. As Nathan put it yesterday, “No church, whatever their position on this is, has the right to tell you to alienate, shun and un-invite your own children from the dining table they grew up eating at.” MacArthur should know better. We all should.

Are vanity Bibles like this one ruining the Bible?

Guess what’s coming this fall?

Duck Dynasty Bible

The Robertson family is publishing their own specialty Bible, The Duck Commander Faith and Family Bible. It features ancillary notes on faith, family, freedom, and other traditional values. (Let’s hope this doesn’t include the “value” of pretending the whole Jim Crow era never happened.*)

Last week, I wrote for OnFaith about four modern versions of the Bible that I believe are ruining the Bible—four ways in which the proliferation of Bibles is having the opposite of its desired effect. Commoditizing Scripture is causing us to read and value it less, not more.

But I seem to have neglected one version: the vanity Bible.

BpdTXi4CAAAPLXy

To be fair, vanity Bibles are nothing new. Joyce Meyer has one. John MacArthur has one. Charles Swindoll has one. Max Lucado has three. Even Thomas Kinkade has his own Bible. (No word on whether it includes anything as awesome as this.)

Some of these so-called vanity Bibles are better than others. At least most of the people listed above can lay claim to being Bible teachers of one kind or another. And not all of them opted to have their name put in the title.

But a Duck Dynasty Bible?

The product description notes that one of the contributing family members is a pastor with 22 years of experience. That’s good. But that’s not why anyone is going to buy this Bible. People are buying it for the guys who make popular duck calls and star in a reality TV show of dubious authenticity. (I guess I could’ve just said “star in a reality TV show.”)

I don’t doubt the Robertson family loves the Bible. I don’t doubt they’re serious about their faith. But it’s hard to see this as something more than an attempt to extend the lucrative Duck Dynasty franchise.

Here’s the question: Should we be using holy writ to grow our own empires?

And can the notion of vanity Bibles be reconciled with Paul’s rebuke against those who rallied around the first-century equivalent of celebrity pastors?

“I follow Paul.”

“I follow Apollos.”

You can almost hear the modern-day version.

“I follow MacArthur.”

“I follow Driscoll.”

“I follow… the Duck Dynasty guys.”

If we want people to take the Bible seriously, maybe we should stop cheapening it with gimmicky novelty editions. No wonder Bible reading fell 20% in a single generation.

Related post: The real difference between Phil Robertson and Pope Francis

*In fairness to the publisher, I know from personal experience that the lead times on projects like this can be considerable. So it’s possible they signed this deal before Phil Robertson’s controversial comments about gays and African Americans last December. That still leaves larger question about the legitimacy of vanity Bibles unresolved, in my opinion.

 

4 unintended consequences of turning the Bible into a consumer product

Stack of Bibles

This is my latest piece for OnFaith. In an era when we have more Bibles than ever, Bible reading is in serious decline. Maybe all those Bibles are part of the problem.

—//—

I was standing in the ruins of one of the world’s oldest synagogues when I realized I didn’t want to be a Bible publisher anymore.

The epiphany came at a rather inconvenient moment, since the whole reason I was there was to convince our guide, a respected Bible teacher, that he should do a study Bible. Or, as they like to say in the publishing business, I was trying to “acquire” him.

I’d been working for an evangelical publisher for almost five years. I loved my job. I loved publishing Bibles — and I published a lot of them. Study Bibles. Youth Bibles. Audio Bibles. We had a Bible for everyone…or at least we aspired to.

We wanted more people to read the Bible. And for a time, I thought publishing more Bibles was the best way to make that happen.

But standing in that synagogue — hearing about the role scripture played in the lives of those who had gathered there — I started to question that assumption.

At synagogues in and around Galilee, young Jewish children would memorize large chunks of scripture. We’re not talking about your average memory verse; we’re talking whole books. In truly exceptional cases, a student might memorize the entire Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Each Sabbath, the community would gather for worship. They would celebrate as whatever scroll they had in their possession was carefully unfurled to show everyone that the words were still on the page. God was still speaking to them.

They had nothing like our access to the Bible. No one dreamed of owning his own personal copy of the scriptures. Most rural synagogues were lucky to have one or two scrolls, and whatever they did have was likely shared on a rotating basis with other nearby synagogues.

Yet they loved the text. They couldn’t get enough of it — literally.

Standing in that synagogue, it occurred to me that we have the opposite problem today. We have more Bibles than ever. I had never stopped to ask whether this was a good thing. I just assumed more was better. Yet for all the Bibles out there, one thing we don’t have is more Bible reading.

What if that’s not just coincidence?

What if the proliferation of Bibles is part of the reason we’re reading scripture less?

What if familiarity and abundance breed indifference?

Read the rest at OnFaith.

Image by Bright Adventures on Flickr