• A Response to Tim Keller

    June 4, 2015 // 0 Comments

    Tim_Keller_TGC11Tim Keller, a popular Christian pastor and author, has weighed in on the gay debate raging through Christendom. His stated position was not unexpected—he is opposed to gay relationships because he believes the Bible is clearly opposed. What was surprising was the manner in which he chose to state his opinion: a relatively brief blog post reviewing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian. This issue demands more than a quick blog post, particularly from someone with Keller’s reputation as a thoughtful, scholarly elder. And the choice of Matthew Vines’ book, simply because it is popular and widely read, seems odd as well. Why not, if you’re a scholar, review a scholarly work, such as James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality? Vines’ book serves as a primer on the issue; it’s not a thorough treatment of all the questions at issue on this topic. Keller has to know that. Regardless, Keller has written what he has written, which you can read by clicking here, so I will offer a few thoughts on what he has said.

    1. First, credit where credit is due. I deeply appreciate Keller’s acknowledgment that if simply meeting gay people changes your view of gay relationships from “against” to “for,” your earlier belief probably wasn’t based on much other than bigotry. Good for Keller calling that out.
    2. In quoting Wesley Hill, Keller describes the traditional view of homosexuality this way: because God’s original design did not include homosexuality, that must mean that homosexual relationships are sinful. I’m not sure the logic follows, even if you accept that the creation account in Genesis fully expresses God’s original creative and sexual intent for all people, for all times. Many things in our world are not as God originally intended. A person born without legs is not experiencing God’s original design. But, alas, the person is here, and immobile, and has to get around somehow. Do we consider it sinful for someone to use a wheel chair or prosthetic limbs to move just because God’s original intent was that people use their legs? Even if you think homosexuality is a diversion from God’s original design, gay people are here, their orientation isn’t changing, and they have to navigate romance and sex and relationships somehow. Why do we assume that anything other than the Adam and Eve model must be inherently sinful simply because it isn’t the norm or the original design?
    3. Others have pointed out Keller’s rather embarrassing error regarding Plato’s Symposium. Plato does not quote Aristophanes in the myth of the lost halves, so there’s no need to muse over whether Aristophanes believed the myth literally. He didn’t write it! But there are other problems with this portion of Keller’s blog post. Keller appeals to the “great preponderance of the best historical scholarship.” That’s a rhetorical tactic that’s meant to convince you there is overwhelming support for what you’re about to hear. It’s a virtual lock, in other words. Almost everyone who matters agrees! Both sides use this trick, and it’s both unfair and untrue. I spent two years reading everything I could find on faith and homosexuality, and there is plenty of disagreement by equally smart and qualified scholars concerning each of Keller’s points. And you should question anyone, Keller included, when they suggest that one particular author “rightly and definitively — proves” anything. If this issue were settled so easily, there would be no debate.
    4. In referencing Romans 1, Keller focuses on, not just one verse, or even one sentence of one verse, but one phrase of one sentence of one verse (!) to make his appeal that Paul knew of mutual gay relationships. And even then his logic doesn’t hold up. He assumes that “for one another” means a relationship of equals among men who were clearly homosexually oriented. But he doesn’t deal at all with the phrases where Paul clearly states that these people exchanged their “natural” desires, suggesting that they weren’t really gay at all.
    5. Keller encourages people to read only one book, one which conveniently reaches his own conclusion about whether Paul knew of mutual gay relationships. He doesn’t encourage people to read broadly and deeply and really wrestle with these things before reaching a conclusion. That’s a major red flag for me. If someone really wants me to search for and insist on truth, they’ll encourage broader reading than one book.
    6. Keller asserts the old argument that the levitical laws can be separated into ceremonial and moral laws. Many of the scholars I’ve read have said that that’s an anachronistic, modern distinction that early Israelites would not have made or recognized. Keller is either unaware of this or intentionally doesn’t mention it.
    7. Keller seems to assume that the Bible is opposed to gay relationships in any and all circumstances, and therefore the issue is settled. But even if we all agreed that there was a biblical prohibition for all circumstances and at all times, that would not settle the question. The Pharisees in Mark 2 accused Jesus’ disciples of violating the Sabbath, one of the big Ten Commandments. Jesus’ response is not, “Well, it wasn’t really working on the Sabbath because, you see, it was just some heads of grain that they picked, so it’s not really work.” Jesus seems to cede the point that, yeah, the disciples were working on the Sabbath. They could have made preparations for food ahead of time, as the ancient Israelites were commanded to do when manna fell from heaven so that they wouldn’t be working on the day of rest. But Jesus says, you’ve got the point of all of this backwards. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The law exists to serve humanity, not vice versa. Jesus suggests that if a law is found to hurt, rather than help, humanity, it is ok in some circumstances to set it aside. So even if we all agreed that there was a clear commandment prohibiting homosexuality, that would not address whether the commandment always applies in the real life individual circumstances of the human beings at the center of this debate.
    8. And that ultimately is Keller’s failing with his post. He does not deal with the actual realities that people face. What is a gay Christian to do who continually fails at forced celibacy (given that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that not everyone has the gift of celibacy)? Is it really preferable to have people “slipping up” and having random hook ups or getting off to porn in some desperate attempt at some hint of intimacy? Is that really preferable to people finding stable, loving, self-sacrificial relationships to which they can commit themselves? Is it really good that gay Christians continue to live in depression and self-hatred and unremitting loneliness as long as they don’t put their penis in the wrong hole? That reduces a same-sex couple’s love to nothing more than a sex act. I can’t for a moment imagine that the same Jesus who found “wiggle room” even among the Ten Commandments would rather a person live on the knife’s edge of suicide than experience a nourishing, life-enriching relationship, just because of sexual mechanics. What will Keller do when a married gay couple, led by God’s Spirit, shows up at his church? Will Keller tell them, “Sorry, you have to divorce your spouse before you can join us. Oh, you have kids? Well, I’m sorry, but the Bible is clear. You guys will have to split up and leave your kids in a broken home because there can be no gay relationships under any circumstances”? That’s the corner Keller has backed himself into. That’s what happens when you fail to run your doctrinal positions through real flesh and blood situations. And Keller, as a pastor to thousands of real flesh and blood people, ought to know better.

    Posted in: Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

  • Recommendation: “The Bible Tells Me So”

    March 20, 2015 // 0 Comments

    peter ennsScores of Christian authors have written long works through the centuries attempting to smooth over or explain away apparent inconsistencies in the Bible–moments where the four Gospels don’t agree, two consecutive proverbs that give contradictory advice, perceived variances in the creation account(s), and just the over all sense that God’s personality changes as the timeline of Scripture progresses. Christians often get defensive when a skeptic challenges them on these very problems of Scripture.

    In The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, author Peter Enns invites us to consider that the problems of Scripture are not problems at all. Not that they don’t exist, but that God isn’t worried about them and so neither should you be. God doesn’t need off the hook for errors in the Bible because he’s fine with them in there. Our attempts at defending the Bible, Enns argues, as this perfect (inerrant) work of God beamed down to us in perfect form from heaven are actually keeping us from reading the Bible as God gave it to us: God-approved imperfection that is constantly being reinterpreted by pilgrims on a journey to better understand their Creator.

    If this sounds like a bunch of liberal, wishy-washy hog dung, you may be just the person Peter Enns wants to talk to. He presents his case with the Bible writers themselves as evidence, showing how even Jesus and Paul (especially Paul) reinterpreted and even jettisoned parts of Scripture in light of their growing understanding of what God was up to. His main point: the Bible is not now, nor ever was, the final word from God; Jesus is, and every other word must be continually reevaluated in light of that ultimate Word.

    It’s not a new concept, but I did find his approach somewhat novel and worth reading, especially if you’re skeptical or outright disbelieving of the whole idea Peter Enns is presenting. Read it before you dismiss it. Even if you don’t totally agree with Enns, he raises questions worth every Christian’s asking. My only quibble with the book is over style, not substance. Enns, presumably wanting to appeal to the masses and not sound stuffy and overly academic, continually interrupts himself with “humor” that often falls flat and sometimes even irritates. But again, it’s only a quibble, and one forgivable in light of the book’s other qualities.

    Posted in: Book Reviews

  • Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): Everything is old

    February 19, 2015 // 0 Comments

    san pedro(NOTE: This is part four in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings”  under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    I read church history last year, and it is a true horror from about 300 AD on, at least if one focuses on the seemingly endless stream of corrupt popes and emperors. The inquisitions, the crusades, the colonizing—it’s all as bad as you’ve heard. Worse, I think. But it’s also not the whole story. While the people with power did awful things, for which they get most of the attention, the average Joes, the common men and women in the proverbial pews, were simply trying to be faithful to their God. I had two paradoxical responses to church history—revulsion and attraction. While obviously repulsed by all of the church-and-state violence that was so opposed to the life of Jesus, I felt intense longing to connect with the goodhearted saints of old, folks like San Pedro Claver of Cartagena, whose life should be required study for every Christian. (The church named for him is pictured here.)

    Church history is at least partly to “blame” for my going Mainline. In The Story of Christianity, author Justo L. González notes that, at least as far back as the second century, barely a hundred years after Christ, there were two main components to a typical Sunday service: lengthy readings of Scripture with prayers and hymn singing, and then communion that ended with a benediction.

    Sounds a great deal like many Mainline services today, and I absolutely love that connection with my brothers and sisters from centuries passed. Just to think that I am participating in and passing down the same traditions as those very first believers is quite a thrill for me. It just feels more meaningful to me than sitting through a long sermon (a tradition that only gained traction in the 16th century) followed by singing the latest Hillsong tune.

    Nothing wrong with teaching—the church needs sound instruction—but the art of just sitting and hearing the Scriptures read is lost in many Evangelical worship settings. Nothing wrong with new songs either, or the bands that play them; in fact, I hope we’ll see some of the better recent worship songs make their way into Mainline hymnals so that we are contributing to the legacy of Christian worship. But I feel more connected to the saints who’ve gone before, the “great cloud of witnesses,” as the writer of Hebrews has called them, when I sing their songs, as well. Mainline churches are among the very few places where you can still sometimes hear early chant, Medieval and Renaissance choral works, and the later hymns of the Reformation and beyond. This is our inheritance. It is ours to preserve and pass on.

    And this desire to connect with our forerunners in the faith was a value of even the very early church. González says early Christians sometimes met in catacombs, not to hide from the Roman authorities, but because,

    “… Many heroes of the faith were buried there, and Christians believed that communion joined them, not only among themselves and with Jesus Christ, but also with their ancestors in the faith.

    “This was particularly true in the case of martyrs. As early as the middle of the second century, it was customary to gather at their tombs on the anniversary of their deaths, and there to celebrate communion. Once again, the idea was that they too were part of the church, and that communion joined the living and the dead in a single body. It was this practice that gave rise to saints’ days; these usually celebrated, not their birthday, but the day of their martyrdom.”

    Once you get past the morbidity of worshipping in a cemetery, there’s something downright beautiful about wanting to draw close, both physically and spiritually, to absent friends and saints, and to include them in the most intimate aspect of worship.

    Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Everything is old. Tradition trumps novelty. The hymns, the Scripture readings, the emphasis on communion—it’s all old, dating back centuries, connecting present with past and joining me to the great cloud of witnesses who gave me so rich a legacy. I want to share in it, contribute to it, and then pass it on to those who hopefully will remember to include me in communion as well. This is not the only way to worship, certainly, but for now, it is mine.

    Posted in: General, Mainline Musings

  • Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): The worship is rich

    February 12, 2015 // 2 Comments

    hymns(NOTE: This is part three in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings”  under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    Right from the start, let me say that this is not a criticism of the more popular praise song movement among evangelicals. I’m not bothered by singing the same line twenty times in the same song, especially if the tune is catchy. And to be honest, many of the Psalms are similarly written (see Psalm 136 as an example, in which “His mercy endures forever” appears 26 times).

    I will say that I wish all praise song writers would strive for better than, “Lord, let your glory fall on us,” or other such theologically fuzzy lyrics. What does that even mean, “Let your glory fall on us”? As a pastor friend of mine said once, the word “glory” refers to the fullness, or full weight, of a thing—all that there is to it—so that if God’s glory ever fell on you, you wouldn’t be around afterward to say, “That was awesome!”

    Modern praise choruses take seriously the psalmist’s hope that all the earth would “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 96:1). Indeed, one of the complaints among evangelicals about the older hymn-style worship is that the hymns are, well, old. But that’s only a half truth since they are new to those of us who have never sung them, which is most of us. Maybe we’ve all heard “Amazing Grace” and perhaps a few others, but most Mainline denominational hymnbooks have 400 or more songs, and for all intents and purposes, they’ve still new. The music can feel dated, especially if hammered out ungracefully on a warbling pipe organ or slightly-out-of-tune piano. But the texts! The words are often rich.

    One Sunday recently, I was sitting in a Methodist church, tired and generally unmoved by anything happening around me. Then we stood to sing “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” a “new” hymn.

    O young and fearless prophet …
    We marvel at the purpose
    that held thee to thy course
    while ever on the hilltop
    before thee loomed the cross

    The full weight—the glory, you might say—of that image jostled me out of my morning fog. I could see Jesus going about the crowds, knowing all the while what would happen in the end. Maybe at times he’d forget about it, but then a cold chill would come over him, and he would remember the cross ahead and the sense of abandonment that awaited: “My God, my God, why …” (Matt. 27:46).

    O help us stand unswerving
    against war’s bloody way,
    where hate and lust and falsehood
    hold back Christ’s holy sway
    forbid false love of country
    that blinds us to his call,
    who lifts above the nations
    the unity of all.

    What a needed reminder for those of us living in the most powerful country on earth, which lately seems always at war with someone. The earliest Christians were primarily pacifists, refusing to fight in Rome’s many wars, and while I don’t buy the no-war-ever-for-any-reason mindset—hard to imagine how sitting out World War II would have been the morally preferable choice—I do wonder if we might have avoided the brutal conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam if more of us had pondered “his call, who lifts above the nations the unity of all.”

    Stir up in us a protest
    against our greed for wealth,
    while others starve and hunger
    and plead for work and health;
    where homes with little children
    cry out for lack of bread,
    who live their years sore burdened
    beneath a gloomy dread.

    Not only are we the most powerful country on earth, we’re also the richest. The global economy has been slumping of late, and yet America is actually rebounding from its 2008 dip. Probably a good time for this hymn’s fresh reminder, published in 1931, during the Great Depression. If they needed a caution against greed then, during desperate times, then surely we need it now, during relatively bountiful times.

    That’s just one of the many old-yet-new hymns I’m discovering. Why have I gone Mainline (for now)? The worship is so rich. And since, as we discussed before, the homily takes a lesser role in Mainline churches than in Evangelical churches, I like to know there is a little more meat on the bone in worship than what a simple praise chorus can offer. The benefit of having the hymns teach a little more and the sermon a little less, is that what’s being fed us through the music has been past many eyes and ears before it ever received entry into the hymnbook. That doesn’t guarantee the theology is sound, but it’s a sure better test than a pastor’s solitary discretion when writing his weekly sermon.

    Who knows, maybe I’ll grow weary of the every-other-line-must-rhyme tendency of hymns, but for now I’m enjoying the old-yet-new of the songs that generations of Christians before me have loved.

    Posted in: General, Mainline Musings

  • Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): There are no celebrities

    February 5, 2015 // 1 Comment

    paparazzi(NOTE: This is part two in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings” under Categories on the home page of this site.)

    Some time ago, I got curious about church history. How did we end up at this point in the story of Christianity? Franklin Graham had used his considerable influence to help pass North Carolina’s anti-gay-marriage Amendment One. Mega church pastor Mark Driscoll was self-destructing after years of pastoral overreach and abuse. John Piper seemed incapable of tweeting anything sensitive. And Elevation’s Steven Furtick was building a three-million-dollar, 16,000-square-foot home that he said wasn’t “that big.” How did we get here? How did we arrive at a point where Christian ministers are sometimes elevated to celebrity status, often to their own detriment and to that of the church itself?

    The answer is complicated, but one factor stood out particularly as I read church history. While the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century certainly dealt with Catholic abuses, it gave the world its own set of problems. Never before had the sermon been so front and center in a worship service. For 1500 years, the taking of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, was the central act of Christian worship, something the entire congregation participated in, and for which the minister was, well, the minister, not the star. With the elevation of the sermon during and after the Reformation, the minister was the solitary participant and the one drawing the attention. The longer and more central the sermon became, the more a congregation came to associate themselves with a particular man. The church and its services became dependent on the pastor, and the pastor, who could not help but enjoy feeling essential, took on more and more of a central place in worship. Today, you will still hear people say, “What is Pastor talking about this week?” as though that were the primary concern on Sunday morning—one man and his thoughts on a topic as it relates to Scripture.

    The especially dynamic pastors attracted bigger and bigger crowds to hear their teaching, and huge churches began to grow up around these Christian celebrities, almost all of which have come from the Evangelical wing of the Protestant church in America. With celebrity status comes influence; influence is power; power corrupts; abuses happen; ministers fail; the church and the world suffer. Not all celebrity pastors fall, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t almost worse when they don’t. Should any one man and his thoughts on the Divine be so elevated in the context of worship? Should we place that much importance on anyone’s sermon?

    Just today I watched a message by Matt Chandler (which you can view by clicking here), one of the current rock stars of Evangelicalism. He’s young, he’s attractive, he’s eloquent, he’s firy, he grabs your attention, and he keeps it—in this case for 50 minutes. Fifty minutes! Ironically, he begins the sermon saying, “I’ve gotta go short because I want to give you an opportunity to see what [resources] we’ve got out there for you [in the lobby].” He invokes “all the boldness the Holy Spirit will grant me,” as if to say we should trust that whatever intense or excited emotions he might display are from God himself. And then there are the overstatements and outright misstatements that are inevitable when anyone speaks passionately and somewhat off the cuff, with only notes to guide him, about sublime things for nearly an hour. Chandler in this sermon calls Hitler and Stalin “brothers” and says the US has made them “look angelic” in comparison to the number of babies we’ve killed through abortion. He likens abortion after rape to tossing an old pair of jeans just because it has a tear (an odd and, I would think to any woman who’s been raped, outrageous comparison). Early in the sermon, Chandler says God has designed the intricacies of our very personalities; God even made sure Chandler had “tight vocal folds” so that he would be loud and without an inside voice all his life (pastors do love to justify and boast about their blusteriness). But then, later in the sermon, he says we are totally depraved and sinful from the moment of conception and that our personalities bear that out right from the get-go. So, are our personalities God’s design, or sin’s, or both? How do God and sin share that influence? Chandler doesn’t say. He couches his entire argument about the science of prenatal development in the decidedly unscientific Hebrew poetry of Psalms 51 and 139, the typical go-to passages on abortion, which were not written as scientific explanations of genetics. All of this goes on for 50 minutes, apparently unquestioned by any of the 10,000 (yes, 10,000) spectators observing this celebrity pastor.

    And the problem is not his staunchly conservative theological views; you could easily reverse his statements to make them staunchly liberal and end up with a similarly objectionable result. The problem is that in many an Evangelical service, the pastor and what he’s talking about this week are the showpiece of the service, even if what’s being said is highly questionable. The preacher and his preaching are what we’re really there for. Yes, the music and baptisms and scripture readings and occasional observances of communion matter, but mostly only insofar as they build up and support whatever the pastor’s message that week happens to be. That leads to innumerable abuses and overextensions of pastoral importance and authority, which can, and often do, end in destruction. The recent demise of Mark Driscoll is just one in a long train of examples from Evangelical Protestantism’s past, and while Matt Chandler has not unraveled (yet), he has had to retract a “few” things–like four years worth of sermonsI did a little research on Chandler after listening to his message. Turns out, as The Blaze notes in a profile on the pastor,

    “Visitors to the church’s website who want to listen to Chandler’s past sermons will notice that messages from 2002 through 2006 are gone. A note accompanying it reads in part, ‘We have removed all sermons prior to January 2006. The decision was made because of secondary concerns regarding tone, language and youthful angst over peripheral matters.'”

    Secondary concerns? I wonder how secondary those concerns felt to the people who may have been hurt for four years by Chandler’s tone? We all know that how you say a thing can hurt as much as or more than what you say. Do the 10,000 people hanging on his words every week know that a few years down the road he may wish to take them back over “secondary concerns”? Only, you can never really take them back. You can retract a statement, but you cannot retract the consequences of what you said.

    Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Because there are no Matt Chandlers. There are no celebrities. Some of that is a manifestation of Mainline Protestantism’s decline in recent decades. People aren’t flocking to the local Lutheran or Presbyterian USA church the way they still do to Evangelical churches, so there are no crowds to adore this minister or that. But part of the reason that celebrity pastors tend not to sprout from Mainline churches the way they do often from Evangelical churches is, I think, that Mainlines put less of a focus on the weekly sermon. To be sure, it’s still important; it’s just not as central as it tends to be in the Evangelical world. Time is granted for a sermon (homily, as Mainlines tend to call it), but there’s so much else that has to happen—hymns to be sung, communion to be taken, liturgy to be recited, plates to be passed, Scriptures to be read (often long passages from three different places in the Bible)—that the pastor’s sermon becomes just another part of the service. It’s important, but no more so than anything else happening. Typically in the more liturgical settings, the homily also follows the historic church calendar, so the minister feels at least somewhat less free to launch into whatever issue he or she feels passionate about that week, and I would say that is a very healthy restriction. (I couldn’t help noticing that Chandler’s abortion sermon was apparently part of a series on prayer. How in the world did he decide that, out of all the things one could say about prayer, he should devote a sermon to abortion?)

    Many of us are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of commentary all week long, from television “news,” from Facebook, from our own family members. Who really wants to sit for 30 to 50 minutes on a Sunday and listen to one more person tell us what they think, based (often tenuously) on a verse here and a verse there. My brain is tired by Sunday with opinion overload. I don’t mind hearing a homily or sermon, but at this point in my life, I’m less and less comfortable with a service structure that elevates the pastor’s role in speaking above even the congregation’s role in taking Holy Communion.

    Necessary qualifiers: I was a pastor. I delivered many, many sermons that were 30 minutes or longer which functioned as the centerpiece of the worship service. Millions of Christians have been nourished by this approach and I do not wish to demean their experience or the ministers who provide it (some of whom are my friends). Not all Evangelical pastors speak in the manner Chandler does. Most probably don’t. They don’t all make overreaching or careless statements about Hitler and Stalin or compare abortion after rape to tossing a pair of jeans with a tear. Chandler is merely an example to communicate a concern I have. This is not an attack on people; it’s a critique of a service structure that has traditionally granted too vaulted a place to the pastor and his thoughts—and however much a pastor may protest, they are his thoughts, and not, by extension, God’s. I’m in a transition time, where I’m asking questions and trying new things, after which I may end up right back where I started, so I’m not expecting people to abandon their church to join me down at First Methodist. I may end up Evangelical after all in terms of worship structure. For now, I really find that setting problematic. It remains to be seen whether I will, after a time, find the Mainline world more or less so.

    More thoughts later …

    Posted in: General, Mainline Musings

  • Why I’ve Gone Mainline (for now): An Introduction

    February 4, 2015 // 0 Comments

    Church_of_the_Holy_Trinity_Philadelphia_red_doorAfter more than two decades in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, I recently made a switch and have been visiting Mainline churches, particularly Episcopal and Methodist congregations. At first, I’m not sure I was even aware of why I felt the need for change. Now, I think it had much to do with wanting to address concerns that had been building in me for years over how the Evangelical world worships: the style, the structure, the whole thought process behind the weekly gathering. While I may have had some misgivings over certain beliefs of evangelicals, my real problem was with what happened when we all got together on a Sunday and “did church.”

    Fair warning: This may be a phase. I may end up right back where I started, at a non-denominational Evangelical church, after I’ve taken a breather, so to speak. There is much I still like and respect about that world, particularly its more progressive churches. And that reminds me, I didn’t go Mainline because Evangelicalism was too conservative. There certainly are many conservative–even fundamentalist–evangelicals, but there are many, many moderate and liberal folks there as well. When I speak of Evangelical versus Mainline, I’m more speaking of worship styles and structures, though certainly what one believes about God, the Bible, the big-C Church, and the world affects how those styles and structures form in the first place.

    Also worth noting: This is not a blanket criticism of Evangelicalism (like I said, I still like much about it), and it’s almost certainly not a fully-balanced comparison. Right now, my mind is reacting to the discomfort I feel in the Evangelical worship setting, which probably blinds me to the shortcomings of the Mainline worship setting. So be it. As I said, maybe I’ll end up right back where I started after a time of toe dipping in the Mainline pool. We all need vacations.

    In the next few posts, I’ll describe how the Mainline worship experience has assuaged some of the uneasiness I had been feeling in church, and if you’re as boring as I am, you might even find those musings interesting.

    Posted in: General, Mainline Musings

  • Review: A First-Rate Madness

    January 19, 2015 // 0 Comments

    first rateI’m not finished yet, but I’m so enthusiastic about what I’ve read so far, that I wanted to go ahead and recommend A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

    According to the publisher’s description, the book argues that,

    “… The very qualities that mark those with mood disorders—creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis.”

    To make his case, Nassir brings to bear biographies of some of history’s most important and effectual leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. His chapter on Lincoln is fascinating. I knew ol’ Abe had struggled; I had no idea how much. Nassir quotes Lincoln:

    “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

    Nassir beautifully illustrates how Lincoln’s pain may have been the very thing that provided him with the necessary realism and empathy to successfully lead a fractured country through a brutal Civil War.

    It almost doesn’t matter whether Nassir’s main thesis is correct, that a little crazy in our leaders may be better than none. Readers who know the pain of a severe mood disorder will find plenty of solace and, I think, profound hope in the life stories told here: what if our suffering will in some way make us better, and better for the world, than if we’d been well?

    Readers without mental illness may walk away wishing they had a touch! And they’ll certainly walk away better understanding and appreciating the many among us who have struggled this way. A First-Rate Madness offers one of the best symptomatic descriptions of depression and mania I’ve ever read and explains why these maladies are so much more than simply elevated sadness or happiness. I remember writing my own book on depression, Losing God, and thinking, “How in the world do I describe this for people who’ve never felt it?” Nassir finds a way over and over again. Quoting a patient of his, Nassir says,

    “Depression is a terrifying experience … knowing that somebody is going to kill you, and that person is you.”

    I highly recommend this book, both for those who just want to understand mental illness better, and for those who understand it all too well.

     

    Posted in: Book Reviews, General

  • Recommendation: Bible, Gender, Sexuality

    November 19, 2014 // 0 Comments

    9780802868633I had the privilege a couple weeks ago of hearing Dr. James Brownson, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, speak in Washington, DC, on the topic of the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality in particular, how the Bible might inform our thoughts on the relatively new phenomenon of gay covenanted (married) relationships. I was so impressed with Brownson’s careful, thorough approach, combined with a calm demeanor that eschewed the often pitched emotionalism surrounding this issue, that I decided to read his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality.

    I have to say it’s one of a very few books I’ve read in the last couple of years that I thought added anything new and meaningful to the discussion, and it rightly earned its starred review from Booklist. Brownson spends roughly 300 pages asking not just what the Bible says regarding gender and sexuality, but why. What is the moral logic behind what the biblical authors say, because only in rightly understanding that will we know how to apply scriptural teaching to our own cultural context today.

    Along the way, Dr. Brownson offers gentle but strong critiques of previous works on the topic from both sides of the debate. Herein lies one of the strengths of the book: Brownson seems to have read everything out there on the topic prior to his own book. I can’t think of a single argument on either side that he leaves unaddressed. True to his non-combative style, Brownson classifies the various positions of previous authors, not as “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” terms that incite more than they describe but as “traditionalist” and “revisionist.” And he is balanced in calling into question some approaches from both camps. (Particularly devastating is his analysis of traditionalist Robert Gagnon’s focus on the gender noncomplementarity of gay relationships. I mean, there is just nothing left of Gagnon’s argument when Brownson is finished, and it all unfolds in the most scholarly, respectful manner.)

    What I think I appreciated most about the book is what Brownson doesn’t say. He doesn’t conclude by telling churches what they must believe. He ends by explaining why churches must wrestle. Yes, Brownson is now affirming of covenanted (married) gay relationships (a change from his previous position), but you never get the sense that he’s insisting that you must be. And so the book wraps with an exhortation to think about these things in new ways, always asking not just what the Bible says, but why. This is a book for anyone who wants to delve into the thick of the church’s most urgent moral discussion. And it’s a book that every church leader, regardless of his or her position on the matter, should rush to read.

    Posted in: Book Reviews, Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

  • Recommendation: “Changing Our Mind” by David Gushee

    November 11, 2014 // 0 Comments

    David-P-Gushee-Changing-Our-Mind-front-coverDr. David Gushee has been for many years the leading conservative Christian ethicist, a friend to Evangelicals, with some twenty books to his name and another releasing next year. But now he’s gone and done it, announcing recently that he has switched his view of gay covenantal (marriage) relationships. Gushee now says the church should embrace gay marriages as fully as heterosexual marriages, and LGBT Christians as full members of the church.

    Not surprisingly, that has earned Gushee more than a few friends-turned-enemies. In his latest book, Changing Our Mind, Gushee gives a brief explanation of himself, how his mind changed and why he thinks the church universal needs to do some serious rethinking (and repenting) vis-a-vis the gay issue. I won’t retell his story here; I’ll leave it to you to read the book. But here are a few things I think commend this book to a broad audience.

    1) It’s short, only about 125 pages, so anybody can get through it.

    2) The style is accessible, not academic as with many of his other works. It reads more like a journal than a scholarly tome, so you won’t be wondering what in the heck he’s talking about.

    3) Gushee is a sage among straight, conservative Christians, so he can’t be easily dismissed. Some Evangelicals have objected to similar works by gay Christian authors such as Justin Lee and Matthew Vines because, well, the authors are gay and, therefore, naturally prone to having a gay-affirming position, but also because they’re young and not credentialed. This has always seemed unfair and snobbish to me, but it has been a problem. Gushee is straight, seasoned, and credentialed. He’s tough to ignore.

    4) Changing Our Mind offers exhortation to folks on both sides of the debate. Gushee cautions gay-affirming Christians not to charge all those opposed with hate or fear. Many traditionalists are motivated simply by a desire to be faithful to the biblical texts, which they read as critical of gay relationships. Disdain and homophobia are far from their minds. But Gushee also admonishes his critics for, at times, behaving more like Pharisees than the Savior, seeking to enforce rules without any concern for how those rules affect real people.

    5) The whole book just feels balanced. Gushee writes, “If what we are talking about is blessing an anything-goes ethic in a morally libertine culture, I stand utterly opposed, as I have throughout my career. But if what we are talking about is carving out space for serious committed Christians who happen to be gay or lesbian, to participate in society as equals, in church as kin, and in the blessings and demands of covenant on the same terms as everyone else, I now think that has nothing to do with cultural, ecclesial and moral decline, and everything to do with treating people the way Christ did” (p. 117).

    6) Gushee is humble. He repents, and when he does, you sense his grief. He makes a point of “apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here. I look forward to continuing the journey together in your company, if you will have me” (p. 126).

    The book is too short to satisfy all of the objections of its author’s critics, but I suspect Gushee is not trying to convince anyone. I think, as his apology suggests, he’s simply clearing his conscious. And maybe he’s asking his adversaries to consider, just to consider, “What if I’m wrong? What then?”

    Click here to read a transcript of a recent speech Gushee delivered at a conference of The Reformation Project in Washington, DC.

    Posted in: Book Reviews, Gay Marriage, General, More Gay Stuff

  • The Gay Christian’s Fury

    October 28, 2014 // 3 Comments

    anger_managmentI don’t post as much as I used to. I simply ran out of things I wanted to say. And I still get questions that I answered at length in my posts here, so I have some doubt as to how useful my blogging is. But for some reason, I felt the desire to write this morning.

    I try to maintain friendships I made before I held a pro-gay relational theology. Some of my newer, more gay-affirming friends have wondered about this, and all I can say is that I don’t think you have to agree with people to like them. Certainly, I hope, you don’t have to hate people just because you disagree with them.

    My less gay-affirming friends have, by contrast, wondered about some of my newer friends, particularly my gay Christian friends who tend to rant about the conservative Christian churches they came out of. Why are they so angry all the time? Everything they post on Facebook is so angry. We were so nice to so-and-so, and now it feels like he hates us.

    No doubt many of us on both sides of this debate, after the cultural storm has passed, will look back with some regret on things we said and wrote. But the anger my fellow gay Christians feel makes sense to me.

    Consider a slave and his master just before Emancipation. The master is a kind man. He provides for his slave. He feeds and clothes him, doesn’t overwork or abuse him. He may even offer education to the slave’s children.

    Emancipation comes, and the slave starts to consider what it all means. As he breathes in fully his new status, he is at first elated to know he is free. But that is followed soon after by an almost unbridled anger toward his former master. The slave considers that there never was any real difference between the two of them, and that even though his owner was a “nice” man, the very position of master-to-slave kept that slave in bondage all his life up till now. The slave’s anger is real, and it is fair, no matter how kind the master may have been.

    I get that this is no perfect analogy, that race and sexuality are different, but the similarity is enough that the analogy works, I think. When a gay Christian begins to believe that the Bible (and, therefore, God) may not be as relationally anti-gay as a particular pastor or church may have suggested, there is at first elation, and then, not long after, anger that borders on fury. (I’ve been through those stages myself.) As nice as the pastor and his church may have been, their very position on the gay issue kept that gay Christian in bondage all his life up till now.

    If you’re the pastor or member of that church that the gay Christian is now attacking on Facebook, you need to know that you may be the kindest, most well intentioned person on earth, but the very fact that you held the position you held, and that you possibly communicated it as Truth with a capital “T” rather than as simply your understanding of the Bible, has profoundly affected the way the gay Christian views himself and his deepest longings. You communicated that something was very wrong with this other person, which the gay Christian fully believed. Until now. The anger is real, and I think it is fair. Maybe there are better ways to express the anger than what the gay Christian has found, but right now that is beside the point. The anger needs to come out. It needs expression, and you as the former master don’t get a say in what that expression looks or sounds like.

    Posted in: General, More Gay Stuff