Sunday, November 23, 2008

The War on Christmas?

It happens every year around this time. You hear it from preachers, people on the radio, and even from talking heads on cable news stations. Every year right around this time they start talking about the "War on Christmas". Who's waging this war, you may ask? Apparently the "War on Christmas" is waged by pagan greeters at WalMart who dare to say "Happy Holidays", heathen municipalities who remove nativity scenes from city halls, and anyone who dares to write "Xmas" instead of "Christmas". 

There may well be a war on Christmas, but I highly doubt that any of these people are combatants. WalMart greeters and local governments are just doing their best to be inclusive of other religious traditions, and I for one am not threatened by the lack of a nativity scene outside the local courthouse. As for "Xmas", X is the Greek letter "chi", which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. So "X" is kind of like saying "JC" for Jesus Christ. Scary.

Like I said, there may well be a war on Christmas, but like any other serious threat to the Christian faith, it doesn't come from outsiders. Our own worst enemy is ourselves. We are commemorating the day when Jesus was born into poor, humble circumstances, and at the same time we go further and further into debt to buy a bunch of junk nobody needs anyway. We remember the night that the holy family could find no room at the inn, but the most we'll do for someone without a home is toss some change in the Salvation Army bucket (that's a good start, though). We recall the violent purge by a jealous King Herod that forced the holy family to flee to Egypt and live as refugees, but we ignore the foreigners within our own borders just because they might not have all the right documents. If anyone is destroying Christmas, it's us.

This doesn't have to be the case, though. We can still enjoy the decorations and the parties, and yes, even the gifts and still keep Jesus first. A number of churches are participating in a movement called The Advent Conspiracy that focuses on substituting compassion for consumption. The idea is simple: we can worship Christ more fully during this season by spending less and giving more to those who really need it. 

Imagine how much good we could do if we decreased the amount we spend on presents by 10% and used that to help dig a well in a village in the desert or provided mosquito nets for people who might otherwise die of malaria. The Advent Conspiracy is a way for us to move beyond feeling even more guilt to actually doing something to spread God's grace in the world.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Hermenutic

Friday is my sermon writing day, and as usual I've been writing paragraphs, deleting them completely, rewriting them, deleting, (lather, rinse, repeat, if you will)...

This particular sermon should be a fairly easy one for me. This Sunday is Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday in the lectionary cycle, and the gospel passage for this week is Matthew 25:31-46, which is the very famous "Sheep and Goats" passage from Jesus' final discourse in Matthew's gospel.

This should be easy because this is one of my favorite passages and it allows me to go off on one of my favorite rants against holding up some kind of confessional act (the "sinner's prayer", etc.) as the measuring stick for salvation. This passage contains the only last judgment scene in the New Testament, and there isn't a hint of confessional orthodoxy in it. Instead, the chief difference between the sheep and the goats is how much they went out of their way to help those who are most vulnerable and have been left behind by the rest of society.

That should give me more than enough license to preach a sermon where I thumb my nose at my friends in the personal salvation camp and tell people to get off their butts and start serving the poor. And my sermon will no doubt contain some elements of that.

But I'm starting to wonder if I like this passage a little too much. I know, I know, it's not possible to like the Bible too much, blah blah blah. Hear me out.

I like this passage so much that I'm all too eager to shove it in the face of someone who has a different viewpoint than me. When I do that I'm guilty of the kind of thing that pisses me off when I see other people shoving Leviticus 18:22 in my face to "prove" that homosexuality is a sin or throwing John 14:6 in my face to "prove" that everyone who doesn't accept Christ goes to Hell when they die.

In other words, I'm all too happy to proof-text Matthew 25.

Proof-texting is always a bad idea because it shows that you're not critically engaging a text, and that you're cherry picking  your favorite verses to buttress your own previously held viewpoints. When you proof-text, the Bible becomes one more bloody glove in your evidence pile. It also suggests that you view the Bible as a list of commands handed down from God instead of the witness of people's experience of God in the language and symbols of their day.

So even though this particular passage communicates many of the things that I consider to be important in the Christian faith, I can't take the easy way out and use it as a proof-text. I have to interpret and preach it in light of the rest of the Bible, not just the stuff that I like. It's especially important that I be hermenutically consistent, even when it's not convenient. So I guess this sermon won't be as easy to write as I'd thought.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: The Faith of Barack Obama

Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama, like his earlier works on George W. Bush and The American Soldier, respectively, seeks to provide a short, accessible theological biography of an important figure in modern American history. Much treatment, scholarly and otherwise, has been given to Obama’s racial background, his educational influences, and his early political career in Chicago. But very little serious treatment (i.e. not scare-tactic propaganda) has been given to his faith background.

Mansfield attempts, and largely succeeds in, examining Obama’s varied religious influences in as objective a manner as possible. His first chapter explores Obama’s childhood being raised by his mother and grandparents who, while being more or less agnostic themselves, nevertheless respected the value of religion in others’ lives and exposed young Barack to a variety of religious traditions. Mansfield also dives into Obama’s time living in Indonesia with his step-father, where he attended a secular school and learned about Islam as a civil religion, much the way children in the United States are exposed to aspects of Christianity as a civil religion. Mansfield does a very skillful job in refuting the largely discredited charge that Obama is a Muslim, since he left Indonesia before reaching the age when young men would choose to embrace the faith for themselves.

Perhaps the most valuable part in the entire book is the chapter where Mansfield explores the influence of the black church, and specifically of Jeremiah Wright, on Obama’s faith development. Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama attended for more than two decades, was uniquely able to nurture Obama’s faith journey because of its deep commitment to political activism and social justice- concerns Obama shared when he came to the church. As for Wright, Mansfield paints a very nuanced picture of him as a man of his generation, shaped by the struggle for civil rights, harboring deep suspicion of the government because of grave injustices like the Tuskegee experiments, and greatly influenced by the rise of the Black Liberation Theology of James Cone. Obama is a man of a different generation that, sharing the same concerns of their predecessors and carrying on their struggle, is not as angry and thus more able to gain acceptance in white society. Mansfield sums up the influence of Wright on Obama by saying, “To be a member of a church is not necessarily to descend into mindlessness, and a mind as fine as Obama’s is less likely to accept ideas unexamined than most.” (pg. 67)

The journalistic skill and subtlety with which Mansfield examines Obama’s background makes most of the book excellent reading. It is also what makes one particular chapter, “Four Faces of Faith” so disappointing. This chapter feels extremely out of place and makes this reader wonder if it is something of a last minute addition to the book. In it, Mansfield takes the four most prominent figures of the 2008 election cycle, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, and paints a picture of them as representatives of the different approaches to faith, largely defined by generational identity, in America today. (The book probably went to press before the sudden arrival of Gov. Sarah Palin on the national stage, and it would be interesting to see how Mansfield would incorporate her into this chapter).

It’s not that this chapter is not written without the usual research and insight that Mansfield generally brings to his subjects, or that the chapter contains a gross amount of political bias (even though one does sense that Mr. Mansfield was a strong McCain supporter). This chapter is disappointing because it does very little to give us a picture of who Barack Obama is as a religious person in the way the rest of the book does so skillfully. This material would have been better suited as a long form feature article, or as preparatory material for books on the faiths of Hillary Clinton and John McCain, respectively (books I’d quite like to read).

This particularly unfortunate and out-of-place chapter aside, The Faith of Barack Obama is an excellent book. Mansfield closes by suggesting that, as a representative of his generation, Barack Obama will be a transformative figure as coming generations move past old divisions and conflicts and form a new mold of racial and religious identity.

(Sidenote- Mansfield heavily references Obama’s books Dreams from My Father, and The Audacity of Hope, which many readers will want to pick up after reading The Faith of Barack Obama if they have not already. These books are also well written and worth your time.)

This is the first review I'm doing as part of a blog ring for Thomas Nelson Publishers. I was provided a free copy of the book in exchange for a review on my site.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Great Emergence

I'm currently reading Phyllis Tickle's The Great Emergence, which, according to all the buzz, promises to be among the greatest works on the church and emerging culture. I've only made it through one section thus far, and this isn't a full review by any means, but one of Tickle's assertions in the first section really intrigues me.

Tickle claims that the church (and to a lesser extent, most major world religions) have a kind of major house cleaning every five hundred years or so. She calls these house cleanings "rummage sales", in which people rethink forms of religious expression. Old forms of expression remain, but even they rethink themselves. The most convincing example of this is the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic Church continues to exist, but as a result of Luther's Reformation, the Church of Rome undertook a counter-reformation that was ultimately beneficial for them in the long run. Tickle points to the Great Schism of 1054 and the coming of the Dark Ages and the preservation work of the monastics in the sixth century as other examples of these "rummage sales" in this history of Christianity, and she contends that the current "Great Emergence" is the semi-millennial incarnation of Christianity's house cleaning.

I find this metaphor very compelling because it serves as a powerful legitimation of the emerging church movement against frequent charges of heresy. Comparisons of the emerging church  to the Protestant Reformation are not unheard of, and her analogy makes the case that God is at work in these new movements.

However, I have to wonder about the implications of following this metaphor to its full extent. Why exactly is it that these rummage sales occur every five hundred years? Is it (as Tickle seems to suggest) that the very temporary nature of the forms of cultural expression we use to communicate religious truths requires us to rethink them as language and cultural forms change? In other words, is it because we keep confusing the medium with the message (that assumes they are two separate things, which I'm not sure they are)? Given that Reformed theology (a product of the last rummage sale) still argues persuasively for God's sovereignty in all things, is there an implication that God causes these rummage sales to happen on a somewhat regular basis?

Furthermore, what does this argument about cyclical nature of rummage sales say about the ultimate future of the emerging church movement? Will it crystalize into a new orthodoxy that will eventually have to be deconstructed? Does that mean that what is going on now will ultimately fail because the focus is on continual questioning and rethinking, and innately opposed to rigid orthodoxies? 

Like I said, I haven't read the whole book yet, and Tickle may address these questions. Either way, I'm guessing that these questions I've raised would be valuable for discussion. So post a reply and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day

It's Election Day here in the USA. Get out there and vote if you haven't already!

On a related note, I'll have a review of Stephen Mansfield's new book, The Faith of Barack Obama, up in a few days. I'm part of a new blog network through Thomas Nelson Publishers where they send bloggers free books in exchange for reviews, plus they link our pages on their site, which hopefully sends more traffic this way. It's a brilliant concept, and my wife, who works for Abingdon Press (one of Thomas Nelson's competitors) wishes she'd thought of it first. I think they're still taking applications, so if you have a blog and like free books this would be a good opportunity.

For those that don't know, Mansfield is the author of The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of the American Soldier, among other books. I got the book yesterday, and I'll be interested to see how he treats issues like Obama's background with Islam and his relationship to Jeremiah Wright. While these issues have been used in negative attacks by Obama's detractors, they remain interesting issues that are worthy of rational exploration. I hope that Mansfield will treat them as such. Check this space soon to find out if he does.

Once again, GO VOTE!