Category Archives: religion

Wisdom from MLK

In his sermon “Shattered Dreams,” (you can find it in Strength to Love, pp. 87-98) Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us of the sad final years of the Apostle Paul’s life.  At the end of his letter to the Romans (15:23-29), Paul expresses his desire to come and visit the churches there so that they may be mutually encouraged. He had finished his work in Asia Minor and Greece and was ready to head westward to Spain. He was planning his visit to the Roman churches after a quick stop in Jerusalem to drop off the offering that the Gentile churches had collected for the church. If we take Acts at face value, instead of the long awaited visit to Rome, Paul was instead arrested in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome in chains. Tradition has it that he was never released from prison and was ultimately beheaded by Nero in the persecution of Christians that followed the great fire in 66 CE.

King reflects on this painful end:

Paul’s life is a tragic story of a shattered dream. Life mirrors many similar experiences. Who has not set out toward some distant Spain, some momentous goal, or some glorious realization, only to learn at last that they must settle for much less? We never walk as free people through the streets of Rome; instead, circumstances decree that we live within little confining cells. Written across our lives is a fatal flaw, and within history runs and irrational and unpredictable vein. Like Abraham, we too sojourn in the land of promise, but so often we do not become “heirs with him of the same promise.” Always our reach exceeds our grasp.

I have long known that there are many forces working against the just world we seek. Tuesday reminded me just how far “our reach exceeds our grasp.” I guess it’s time for us to extend a little further.

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Yay World Vision!

This week we saw a damning public display of discrimination in the name of Jesus. Slow clap for World Vision. As would be expected, I have a few thoughts.

First, the events of this week are shameful. From World Vision–a spineless reversal motivated by money. From conservatives–the retraction of perhaps millions of dollars to “help” those who are poor. From liberals–using people who are poor to make political statements. Shame on all of you.

As you may already know, I think the Christians who, in the name of God, insist on bigotry and discrimination against gay people are on the wrong side of history and theology. This week’s shameful Christian outcry against a policy of non-discrimination and World Vision’s subsequent retraction is horrifying to me. In no way am I endorsing their behavior.

But I am thrilled that this all went down. I have never been a fan of World Vision. Their model is untested, with little objective empirical data to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. They objectify poor children and market them to support their efforts at development. The dignity, agency, autonomy, and power inherent in every human being is flattened into a pathetic picture of a helpless (black) child who can do nothing without help from the great (Western) savior. Such an image is good for raising funds, shitty for actually fixing the problem. And the events of this week demonstrate this.

If supporting a poor child is merely a marketing strategy when you  make a PR slip that commodified child can be easily replaced by another commodified child from another organization.

But I did not need this week’s events to know that World Vision, a Christian aid and development agency, exists for itself. Their longstanding practice of giving away the Super Bowl loser t-shirts is roundly criticized by anyone who knows what good aid looks like. It looks good to Charity Navigator (often a specious measurement tool) because World Vision can claim that they received a $2 million dollar gift (100,000 t-shirts with a “market value” of $20 each) and then distribute that gift relatively cheaply. But… is the gift really worth $2 million? Those shirts are useless, with no value whatsoever in the US (the NFL prohibits the sale of said t-shirts). The NFL can continue to overproduce things that are unnecessary (do we really need our Superbowl Champion t-shirts the day after the Super Bowl?) and look like really good guys by giving a $2 million donation. World Vision looks like an effective charity with low overhead, rich white men pat themselves on the back. Win-win, right? Except that no one really needs a Super Bowl loser t-shirt in Africa. Yes, World Vision has helped give us the impression that these are helpless, useless poor people with no idea how to clothe themselves. But that is just absurd.

They further lost credibility last year when they actively lobbied against food aid reform. Current policy is that food aid be grown in the US and shipped overseas on US vessels. The inherent waste and ineffectiveness of such an approach is obvious. But it is good for US farmers and shipping companies. And World Vision. So when President Obama proposed that as much as 25% of our food aid be locally sourced, World Vision stood in the way. Even though as many as 10 million more people could have been fed by such a policy.

So now you know why I am glad. I hope they lose millions more and that those millions go to more reputable organizations like Church World Service, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran World Relief, and other such agencies that respect the dignity and agency of people, regardless of their economic status or sexual orientation.

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Jesus Was Right to Call Us Sheep

So a new Jesus movie is opening this weekend on 3,000 screens. And Christians of many (conservative) stripes are thrilled about it. I hear rumblings about peoples lives being changed by seeing the film. Mega churches are renting out stadiums for church members to bring their unsaved friends. As if no one in the U.S. has heard or seen this hackneyed presentation of Christianity. Jesus, a white dudebro with great hair and teeth and stands up to the evil dark skinned Jews. We love us some White Savior with great teeth.

Dudebro Jesus

News flash: we have heard this story and this understanding of Jesus has little (if any) use for us today. This Jesus has been roundly rejected in the Global North. Not because we are godless pagans (though some of us are) but because the questions of the movie are fundamentally irrelevant to our daily being and doing. Yes, christological debates were huge among the elite in the third and fourth centuries. Today? Not so much. I am daily confronted with the impotence of the church when it comes to the great horrors of our time, especially poverty and inequality rooted in various forms of discrimination. I will spare you the litany. And yet here we find churches expending considerable time, energy, and money… to basically line the pockets of Hollywood bigs. Sheep indeed. Forming new sheep. 

A few other (minorish) beefs:

  1. British accents! WTF??? (Also, WTF with only the bad guys having British teeth?)
  2. Written and directed by people with NO theological training. But Roma Downey did play an angel in a TV series with HORRIBLY SHITTY theology.
  3. The mishmash of all the Gospels into a single story… Doesn’t anyone listen to Irenaeus anymore? (Maybe that is not such a bad thing…)

Thanks to @danielsilliman for his post on the marketing of the film and the many links therein. The vitriol and frustration are my own. Which is perhaps a topic for exploration later.

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5 Minute Post: Ken Ham’s Biblical Interpretation Is as Clumsy as his Science

Tonight Ken Ham and Bill Nye will face off to debate the origins of life. The whole exercise is a farce. James McGrath (@ReligionProf) has posted numerous pieces illustrating the absurdity of Young Earth Creationism (the idea that the world was created in six literal days about 6,000 years ago) and I refer you to his blog to explore the multitude of reasons why such a view is entirely untenable. In this quick post I want to simply draw attention to the fact that Ken Ham’s ideas are thoroughly unbiblical. The irony here is that his website “Answers in Genesis” has the proud tagline, “Believing it. Defending it. Proclaiming it.” Well, dear sir, maybe you should actually know what “it” says. As a public service, here is a tutorial.

1) Genesis 1-11 narrates three events of creation. Only one of them is concerned with six days. Gen 1:1-2:4 is a distinct creation story and it is written with theological not historical intent. The author organizes the account around six days of creation to affirm God’s sovereignty (compare this account to the popular ancient creation account, the Enuma Elish, for example) and the holiness of the seventh day. There is no concern with science or history here, these concepts did not even exist as we know them. To read it as such is to impose a hermeneutic that the text itself does not demand (and one that Mr. Ham seems to be oblivious to).

2) The second distinct creation story (Gen 2:4-25) uses a different title for God (LORD God in Gen 2 vs. God in Gen 1), has a different order of creation (e.g., humans early on vs. humans last), and a different mode of creation (molding vs. speaking). The number of days required for the events to unfold are unclear. The original editors of Gen 1-11 saw these discrepancies and inserted a toledoth formula (“these are the generations of”) to announce that we are dealing with different accounts (for other examples of this strategy, see e.g., Gen 5:1, 10:1, 11:27). In short, the Bible itself does not tell a single story of creation in a set number of days.

3) The third account of creation (still in the first 9 chapters of Genesis!) is following the flood when God again makes a wind blow over the waters (Gen 8:1), reissues the command to be fruitful and to multiply (Gen 9:1), and reiterates that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6). Again the time frame is irrelevant and the concerns are theological and moral.

4) Leaving Genesis, we see that creation is described in many ways throughout the Bible. In Job 38, God wrestles with primordial forces (no speaking here!). In Psalm 104 God stretches the heavens like a tent. Perhaps more importantly for the question of time, God continues to create to to the present. In Proverbs 8 God gets help from Lady Wisdom in the ordering of the cosmos (mono-what?). Christ plays a part in creation Colossians 1:15-20. And on and on.

In sum, the Bible has many ways in which creation is conceived. None of the descriptions are concerned with history or science, but with what it means to be human and how we ought to relate to God, to one another, and to creation. Questions of history are foreign to the text. Ham’s “literal” interpretation is nothing of the sort.

Mr. Ham, your biblical literacy is as tortured as your scientific inquiry.

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Rock and Roll Jesus

Last week I took to teh Twitterz to crowdsource popular songs about Jesus. I compiled the songs into the following list. I will be adding hyperlinks to the YouTube songs and videos for easier access over time. For now, here is the list (another fabulous list can be found at Pop Culture Christ). Glaring omission? Let me know in the comments! Thanks to all who helped!

Bartender (Dave Matthews Band)
Christmas Song (Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds)
Crucify (Tori Amos)
Down by the River to Pray (Oh Brother Where Art Thou)
Gloria (Patti Smith)
God (Tori Amos)
Godspell
Human of the Year (Regina Spektor)
In the Name of Love (U2)
Jesus (Velvet Underground)
Jesus Came to Tennessee (Will Hoge)
Jesus Christ (Big Star)
Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child (Modest Mouse)
Jesus Is Just Alright (Doobie Brothers)
Jesus of Suburbia (Green Day)
Jesus Take the Wheel (Carrie Underwood)
Jesus Walks (Kanye West)
Jesus Was an Only Son (Bruce Springsteen)
Mrs. Jesus (Tori Amos)
My Hero (Foo Fighters)
One of Us (Joan Osborne)
Opiate (Tool)
Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode, Johnny Cash)
Picture of Jesus (Ben Harper)
Power of Gospel (Ben Harper)
Rebel Jesus (Jackson Browne)
Sober (Tool)
Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum)
Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)
The Man – Modern Jesus (Portugal)
The Transfiguration (Sufjan Stevens)
The Troublemaker (Willie Nelson)
When the Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)
When You Were Young (The Killers)

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Faith Rising

On Good Friday, some 55 days ago, I argued (quite effectively, I think) that God is dead. The dark post seemed fitting for the day. And then it just lingered. I promised myself that I would follow up with a strong affirmation of Easter faith. I even put the promise in writing. My parents began to fret. My priest began to pray (and maybe my bishop too–I learned a couple weeks back that he too had read it. Good thing they passed over me for that high profile position in the diocese…). For some reason I have struggled to write this post; perhaps that struggle will be a topic for another day. But today, with the flame of Pentecost still burning, the Spirit is moving (or at least I am motivated enough to try to write something halfway faithful).

To start, I will affirm that I think the issues that I raised in the previous post are very real problems that cannot be easily explained away. This post is not an attempt to reply to those concerns because I have no answer for them. You may have an answer, and I welcome your insight. I wish that the questions did not haunt me. I continue to seek in spite of the text, the tradition, and reason , not because of them.

One way around the problems is to follow Karl Barth as he takes a Kierkegaardian leap into the void. As Barth writes in his Epistle to the Romans (which is very useful for understanding Barth but not so useful for understanding Romans), “Faith is not a foundation upon which [human beings] can emplace themselves; not an atmosphere in which they can breathe; not a system under which they can arrange their lives.” (ER, 110)  The very discomfort I express is the place where faith can happen. It is only after the system has been completely dismantled that we can see clearly that faith “for all alike it is a scandal, a hazard, a ‘Nevertheless’; to all it presents the same embarrassment and the same promise; for all it is a leap into the void. And it is possible for all, only because for all it is equally impossible.” (ER, 99).  Kierkegaard writes similarly, “Without risk, there is no faith. Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty, so that in the objective uncertainty I am out ‘upon seventy thousand fathoms of water,’ and yet believe.” (Unscientific Postscript)

I am curious how you deal with the tensions. Have you, dear reader, found a better way?

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I guess Qohelet was right

There really is nothing new under the sun. Exhibit A: The opening paragraph to Abraham Heschel’s God in Search of Man, written in 1955 (!).

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.

I think I am going to like this book.

 

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