Luke 2.1-7 takes us from the most powerful man in the world to an infant in a cave. That's a pretty stark contrast in a single paragraph. On Sunday, we'll see some of the reasons why Luke tells the story of Christ's birth this way.
by Matthew Raley In 2012, I got a lengthy email from a well-known pastor endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination. Gingrich was peaking at that moment and the pastor argued that evangelicals should consolidate behind him. This was the man to deliver victories in the culture wars.
The email was lengthy because the pastor had to navigate rocky moral straights. He said he had wrestled with Gingrich’s adultery and third marriage. How could he endorse a man who had done such things? Several paragraphs of reasoning boiled down to two points. Jesus forgives us all. And Gingrich held the right positions on abortion and gay marriage.
I tapped the little trashcan icon.
That email illustrates an evangelical sexual crisis. We have proclaimed Judeo-Christian morality as the standard for our society, but we are not holding to that standard ourselves. In this crisis, many believers have lost hope for cleansing from their sexual sins. We are caught in what I call the Pharisee’s spiral.
The Pharisees of Jesus’s time reduced spirituality to rules. Keeping the rules made them good. If they broke a rule, there were additional ones that would save them from guilt. For instance, a Pharisee might break an oath that he swore on the temple. But he was still good: since he didn’t swear on the gold of the temple, he was not bound by his oath (Matthew 23:16-17).
The Pharisee’s spiral is the swing between guilt and rationalization. I broke one rule, but I’m safe because I kept another rule. A Pharisee always reads the fine print. That’s where he finds the good news.
The pastor exhibited this spiral when he endorsed Gingrich. Why was Gingrich acceptable now when his moral twin, Bill Clinton, was anathema in the 1990s? They were both adulterers. When Clinton was running for president, evangelicals said that his adulteries were disqualifying. Gingrich lost the House speakership because his own sin was revealed.
Spend time in the Pharisee’s spiral and there’s a neat solution. Both men broke the rule. Both can be forgiven by Jesus. But one has the wrong stance in the culture war, and the other has the right stance. Gingrich is saved by the fine print.
If Gingrich were the only case in which Christian leaders public looped their way through this sort of explanation, the spiritual impact on the average evangelical might not be so devastating. But there have been many leaders like Gingrich. What I hear from believers struggling with their sexual sins is exactly the sort of hurt one expects from people repeatedly cycled through the spiral.
They tell how they got pregnant before they were married. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they got married and stayed married? (Fine print.) They tell of homosexual experiences. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they still feel guilty? (Fine print.) They have used pornography. (Broken rule.) Can they be intimate with their spouses without that sin hanging over them? Is there any fine print for that, or are they permanently broken?
Churches are packed with people who need sexual healing, many of whom think sexual purity is a matter of fine print. What they need is genuine good news. Jesus Christ paid not only for forgiveness, but also for a process of cleansing. He paid with his life. And the cleansing he purchased reaches our sexuality, restoring God’s design for human flourishing.
As our society turns the body into a commodity through human trafficking, objectifies women through pornography, eroticizes childhood, and imposes the cost of our sexual decisions on our offspring, we evangelicals cannot satisfy ourselves with declaring absolute standards. We have to declare an absolute Savior. And we can’t declare Him unless we’ve experienced his power.
At Chico Grace Brethren, we’re going to start breaking the Pharisee’s spiral in our own hearts. On March 9th we’ll begin a study of how to stop being “puffed up” in the midst of sexual sin. Our text will be 1 Corinthians 5-6. I will be talking to Christians about the process of cleansing Christ purchased for us. But I invite anyone to listen in on this conversation. More information at chicogracebrethren.com.
by Matthew Raley Let's make that, "Lessons Camping has taught inadvertently."
1. An interpreter of the Bible has to exhibit sound reasoning.
Camping consistently appeals to what he calls the "spiritual" meaning of the text. There's what a passage says, and then there's a secret code in it that contains what God really meant. You crack the code by "comparing Scripture with Scripture," as Camping likes to say. This procedure of his reduces to cut-and-paste: pull this fragment of a verse from here, join it with this bit of numerology from there, and, lo, the "spiritual" meaning is clear.
There is no "spiritual" meaning of Scripture. There's just the meaning. "Spiritualizing" is nothing but an escape hatch for a teacher who can't find a legitimate connection between a biblical passage and life. And Camping is far from being the only pastor who uses it.
We grasp the meaning of the Bible in the usual way: by applying the knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, history, genre, literary allusions, and lines of reasoning. Many pastors do not want to do the work of learning these things, much less be held accountable for demonstrating that their interpretations are valid.
Which brings us to ...
2. Debate among pastors and scholars is a safeguard for congregations.
If you're going to teach God's word, you'd better be prepared to argue your case. Pastors are guilty of a breach of ethics when they refuse to answer questions, or debate the many problems of interpretation, or expose the line of reasoning behind their preaching. A pastor owes it to his people to be accountable to the community of scholars in this way.
Camping is a classic prophet-leader, who relies on his authority over his followers to answer all questions.
Today, just as many pastors don't want to debate, so many believers don't want to hear arguments, regarding debate as inherently divisive. I hear people say, "Let's not argue about words. We all believe the same God."
Their aversion to public argument is foolish. It reduces every disagreement to a matter of preference between the personalities or styles of teachers, instead of recognizing that there are real issues to be decided that are larger than mere points of view. The folly of this reductionism is that a cult leader like Camping thrives in a contest of personal loyalty.
Where mere personal appeals are the issue, believers are not safe. They need to be challenged to think, not just prefer.
3. A Bible teacher is responsible for what he teaches.
Camping keeps saying, as many pastors say, "I'm just teaching the Bible. I'm not responsible for what it says."
This is another escape hatch. As a teacher, I am responsible for what I teach. I am not at liberty to equate my interpretations with the Bible, so that if you reject my teaching you are by definition rejecting God. I am morally accountable for my expositions of Scripture, for the workmanship of my sermons, for the clarity of my reasoning, and for the precision of my applications.
This is an awesome responsibility. A few people's hope, health, and decision-making are deeply influenced by what I say. This reality is what drives me to study: When I come before the throne of God, the Lord will render a verdict on whether I accurately taught his word.
Camping should repent of his self-indulgence. Judgment Day is indeed coming for him.
by Matthew Raley It has been several weeks since I've made any significant posts, for which I apologize. I have been preoccupied with some personal changes. I am excited that the Lord is leading me to take a church one-third the size of my current ministry.
I will be leaving the Orland Evangelical Free Church (OEFC) in one month and will become pastor of Grace Brethren Church (GBC) in Chico. (For readers not from California, Chico is 20 miles west of Orland.)
Chico is my hometown, and my parents and grandparents still live there. Bridget and I look forward to our boys Dylan (10) and Malcolm (5) being closer to Pops and Grandma. I'm also eager to be closer to my musical work, which centers on Chico State.
I have a personal connection to GBC, too. My grandpa Vere was an elder there in the final years of his life. I was encouraged to see him productive and busy with ministry among people he loved. This is a spirited group with a sense of calling and a strong desire to serve.
Our personal satisfactions, however, do not mask the challenge we face. The people at GBC have experienced many difficulties and are asking for a new direction. I will be the sole pastor, financial resources are low, and I hear many around town are skeptical.
Here's the story.
OEFC has grown significantly over the years. Part of the growth has come from other towns, Corning and Chico in particular. A sizable number of people have felt a strong enough kinship with the OEFC's focus on expository preaching and its philosophy of ministry to keep driving to Orland each Sunday. But our Chico and Corning attenders have always felt a strong desire to minister actively in their own towns. We have all felt that our worship together would be temporary.
So, two years ago, OEFC began exploring how to help our Corning attenders start a church there. They have done just that, holding the first service of Christ Community Church on February 13th at a school in Richfield under the leadership of Jeff Tollison.
When the opportunity with GBC came to my attention, I felt it might be a chance to do something similar in Chico. Perhaps OEFC might send the Chico attenders to join and refresh GBC. When the leadership GBC welcomed the idea, I knew I had to do something dangerous. I told the OEFC elder board of my strong desire to lead this effort myself.
That was a difficult thing to say in some ways. I knew my revelation would hit them hard, and I did not want to hurt the men I've served with closely for so many years. But, in another way, telling them about my desire was easy. I know these men. In spite of their sadness, I was certain they would see a new opportunity to help believers from another town.
And that's exactly how they responded. One of them said what the rest were thinking: "The Kingdom has to get bigger."
Together, we agreed to take another dangerous step: Tell the OEFC congregation about my desire. Again, this was difficult emotionally. I have served the Lord at OEFC for 12 years. I didn't want to hurt my congregation. But, again, telling them what was stirring in my heart-and-mind was the obvious step to take. I have always trusted them to receive hard things graciously. They are my colleagues.
Three weeks ago, the elders and I announced at OEFC the possibility that I would move to GBC. That evening, I told the congregation the story, took their questions, and asked them to pray for the Lord's leading the following Sunday when I candidated. There were many tears.
But since that meeting, person after person has spoken or written to Bridget and me, many after deep wrestling. They have variations of the same thought: we're sad, but we see the Lord leading you. One said, "I'm sad, but I'm full of hope." Another said, "We are planting you over there!"
These blessings are powerful to me because I know they come at a price.
GBC extended a call to me on February 20th, and I accepted. The two churches, OEFC and GBC, will worship together in a special service of dedication on April 3rd in Orland, colleagues now in something new.
by Matthew Raley The term awakening is important to American evangelicals -- and ought to become more important. It refers to periods of spiritual renewal, of which churches are in desperate need.
So I was not surprised to find the word associated with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, and the formation of his Black Robe Regiment. One of the regiment's websites announces that it is "awakening the Christian community." Another is more specific: "The time has come that we must now arise and awaken to the danger of this hyper-progressive agenda that so permeates every aspect of our political, legal, and educational systems."
The term moves in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform. "Awakening" gets picked up by various Beck enthusiasts as a focus of their hopes.
Here is one pastor about the "evening of prayer and spiritual renewal" Beck hosted at the Kennedy Center on August 27th, the eve of the big rally: "I’m telling you tonight was like the beginning of a Revival for our country with Asians, Latinos, African-Americans and people from all walks of life singing praise songs and calling upon God to restore our Nation . . . ." The pastor concludes, "Tomorrow, I pray will begin the next great awakening in America."
The next great awakening. There seems to be some confusion.
"Great awakening" is a phrase applied to two periods in American history. The First Great Awakening occurred in the 1740s, the Second from 1800 to roughly 1830.
Here's the problem: Beck's regiment is modeling its awakening not on those periods, but on the Revolutionary War period (1775-83). That is a generation after the First and about a generation before the Second Great Awakenings. No one classifies the Revolution as a period of spiritual revival. Quite the reverse.
Iain H. Murray, in his study Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), summarizes (p 74), "With the possible exception of Western Pennsylvania, there seem to have been no areas where there was general revival during the years of the War of Independence . . . . In most of the country there was evident spiritual decline as political and military events dominated public attention."
Murray quotes an observation from Robert Semple, who was fourteen when the war was won in 1783. Semple said that with liberty came "leanness of soul" (p 76).
This chill to their religious affections might have subsided with the war, or perhaps sooner, if there had not been subsequent occurrences which tended to keep them down. The opening a free trade by peace served as a powerful bait to entrap professors who were in any great degree inclined to the pursuit of wealth. Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety. Speculators seldom make warm Christians. With some exceptions the declension was general throughout the State [of Virginia]. The love of many waxed cold. Some of the watchmen fell, others stumbled, and many slumbered at their posts.
Note that last sentence describing Virginian pastors. That would be the original Black Robe Regiment -- falling, stumbling, slumbering.
The spiritual drought lasted so long, according to Semple (Murray, p 78), that it "induced many to fear that the times of refreshing would never come."
At this moment in our nation's life, pastors need to know their jobs. The surest way to freeze congregations in self-righteousness is to go soldiering in the populist militias. Churches are populated with sinners who have trampled the holiness of God, and whose only hope is that the Jesus Christ whose name they have claimed will recognize them on the last day.
I fear we are not on the edge of an awakening, but inhaling the fumes of stupefication.
by Matthew Raley Five years ago this morning I awoke to a new reality. I had slept at my parents' home, with my then 5-year-old son Dylan in a trundle bed below, and my infant son Malcolm across the hall. My 35-year-old wife Bridget was in ICU unable to see, walk, or even sit up. She was on morphine to control pain that had left her hyperventilating the night before.
I learned that afternoon what we had suspected the previous day: Bridget had had a stroke. It had occurred in her brain-stem, which technicians had not bothered to scan at first. I was told that someone who has a stroke there usually isn't alive to need a scan.
So, five years ago today, I was wondering what sort of a life God had blessed us with. Maybe the dreams Bridget and I had treasured for life and ministry would not be realized. Maybe the scale of life would shrink radically.
My immediate concern was for Dylan. He had seen his mom collapse while getting him ready for school, and had watched her crawl to the telephone. I couldn't give him any assurance that she would get better.
Lacking any other approach, I simply told Dylan what her condition was and asked him what specific thing we should ask the Lord to do first. Dylan asked for her sight. The next morning, Bridget could see. Then Dylan asked for her relief from pain. The next day, she was given relief and the morphine dosage was lowered, soon to be eliminated entirely. Then Dylan prayed that she could walk.
The next day, she got up with the aid of walker and took new steps. I was there. It was one of the toughest moments for me, because it was clear progress in a brutal reality. So much had to improve for her to take those steps at all. But Bridget's command of her legs had been broken. She was holding herself with her arms to walk like a ninety-year-old.
I can't say whether any of these answers to prayer were miracles, or just God's normal providence through bodies he designed to heal, and the skill with which he has endowed human beings. I can say that all of these blessings were hard.
Over the next weeks, we were confronted with enormous bills that inadequate insurance had dropped in our laps, all of which were paid by the Enloe Foundation. During Bridget's hospitalization and physical therapy, many people came forward to help care for Malcolm while I was at work. We received meals, help cleaning the house, and ongoing aid while Bridget regained her balance and strength at home.
All of this blessing came little by little, one day after another. Now, after years of difficulty, Bridget is free from medications, though not totally free from stroke-related pain. She has all of her abilities, but not all of her old energy. Dylan has a tremendous faith, which he is building on from these experiences. Both boys have their mother.
I call these things to mind today because the difficulties of ministry are crushing. Though we are crushed, we are not destroyed. Though the blessings are hard, our hope is greater. And this hope in Jesus Christ does not leave me disappointed.
Dear Evangelical Black Robe Members, You captured my attention through Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally, and you've attracted a devoted following. In an effort to understand what you're doing and why, I've been looking at your website, and I have a number of questions.
Here is the first sentence on your home page:
The Black Robe Regiment is a resource and networking entity where church leaders and laypeople can network and educate themselves as to our biblical responsibility to stand up for our Lord and Savior and to protect the freedoms and liberties granted to a moral people in the divinely inspired US Constitution [my italics].
The last clause raised many issues for me.
1. Upon what do you base your claim that America was ever "a moral people?" By moral, I assume you mean ethically good. How do you propose to demonstrate that morals in 1776 were good by God's standards for behavior, equity, and love? Quotations from the founders about the importance of morality will not suffice, since goodness is not in the professing but in the doing.
2. Do you believe that God gave us liberty because we were moral?
I ask because, since you are evangelicals and believe that no form of God's grace is merited by us, then you must know how suspect that teaching would be.
3. Do you actually believe that the U. S. Constitution is "divinely inspired?" You must be aware that this is Mormon doctrine, and has never been part of the Protestant tradition, founded as it is upon sola scriptura. Why are you, as evangelicals, promoting Mormon mythology?
As a corollary, if you don't believe the Constitution is divinely inspired, why did you permit the claim in the first sentence of your home page? Who wrote that sentence, and what is his/her theological tradition?
4. Elsewhere, you assert, "The Constitution (Part 1--the Declaration of Independence, and part 2), was and is a covenant between the people of America and their Heavenly Father."
Let's leave aside the enormity of asserting that the Declaration is part of the U. S. Constitution. Just answer this: on what possible basis in the Bible do you make the claim that God made a national covenant with Americans?
And again, why are you evangelicals signing on to Mormon myths?
5. In the same paragraph, you also claim,
A people who were honed by thousands of years before Christ walked the Earth by way of the Israelites who had been scattered and dispersed many times in their history. These folks who now inhabited this New Jerusalem (this New Eden that Christopher Columbus saw), were living out what they saw as a life and a country that was fashioned entirely by their Creator.
Are you agreeing with the Mormon tale that native Americans are Israelites?
6. On the same page, you say that "Liberty and Freedom has [sic] been graciously bestowed by our Heavenly Father to each of us. It [sic] has been freely offered, freely sacrificed for by Christ Jesus, and it is the duty of each of us to acknowledge that precious gift and to not give it away lightly."
Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to give us political liberty? As evangelicals, surely you must believe that it is liberty from sin and death that Christ purchased. If you want to say that the liberty was also political, you will have to point to some biblical text that not only uses the words liberty and freedom but teaches that these words signify political rights.
7. Why is there no doctrinal statement on your website? How do you propose to advance spiritual revival without stating clearly what the spiritual principles of that revival are, and upon what scriptures those principles are founded?
8. Why is your "networking entity" by invitation only? You say that your site "is an invitation only closed social network for church leaders to freely communicate in a safe environment. We will vet all prospective members to ensure that they are in fact an active church leader."
It may be that this site does not represent your views of the Gospel or of the Black Robe Regiment. If so, then I invite any evangelical member of the Regiment to disavow the site. State clearly that you do not believe that our Constitution is inspired by God, that it is a covenant with God, or that Americans are a "moral" people descended from the Israelites, but that all Americans are sinners, unable to govern themselves, deserving no favor from God, and who are only freed from their sins by the blood of Christ.
Without straight talk of this kind, I have to conclude that members of the Regiment are fighting to establish a civic deity for Americans -- which is to say, an idol.
by Matthew Raley Here is a link to a local Action News special report in which I participated. "For the Children's Sake" addresses the parenting teachings of Michael Pearl in relation to the Schatz family. Many thanks to the news team for running this story!
by Matthew Raley A church is not a business. A church is a town.
Many kinds of people live in a town, and they stay because, in their diverse ways, they are connected to the town's life. A doctor can live in the same town as a carpenter because both contribute to its vitality. A town has different sections in which people congregate at different times for different reasons. The variety of resources available -- available in an organic and free way -- is what makes the town feel lively.
A town doesn't have a mission, in the business sense. It has a culture. It doesn't tell residents where to go, or what their priorities should be, or what skills they should have. Such a town would be oppressive. A town is attractive if the way of life it offers is strong, meaning there's energy and laughter and productivity. Businesses contribute mightily to that life, but ultimately they are nurtured by the town.
So with a church. It is a congregation of differences united in a life.
Churches often become oppressive because they drive out diversity, as if they were businesses working a plan. Seeking to be purposeful, such churches instead become destructive.
I think one of the toughest challenges of pastoral leadership is nurturing oneness in diversity.
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column this week that caught the problem.
He describes the traits that make a good business executive. Three studies of strong executives, he says, have shown that "warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive."
Such findings swim upstream. Many leadership books emphasize that the CEO should be out relating to people, showing his or her human side. There is a glut of writing on team dynamics, on inspirational leadership, and on "vision," as if business people are temperamentally unsuited for their jobs.
There is also a deep-rooted aversion to business culture among professionals in literature, education, and the arts, who use business as a cuss word, and think the marketplace is inherently crass.
Brooks is onto the cultural animosity that makes the critique empty.
The personality types that make great business people are not strong on being reflective or expressive. "For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence."
What we have here, Brooks says, is one culture sniping at another. It's just, They should be more like us.
"Fortunately," he writes, "America is a big place. Literary culture has thrived in Boston, New York and on campuses. Political culture has thrived in Washington. Until recently, corporate culture has been free to thrive in such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond." He wonders what a drive for control from Washington will do to the nation's life.
Churches should be big places -- even the numerically small churches. They should have little districts where the arts, social action, scholarship, and enterprise all thrive, and those districts should be open to traffic, so that people congregate at different times and for different reasons.
Like a town.
We all read 1 Corinthians 12 about the body and its diversity, and we all agree with it. But we tend to say, "Yeah, those people really need me," in blunt rejection of the text's point.
These days, churches seem to cater to specific interest groups. They gather a demographic -- Mosaics, say -- and they base their oneness on their shared cultural perspective, implicitly or explicitly criticizing all the others. This is an illusory oneness, and the illusion is ugly.
Actual oneness in Christ comes when people of diverse races, professions, and ages form a way of life together founded on his atoning death and resurrection. They form a culture based on love. They live together in a little town. I have seen that this oneness is attractive.
And, as a pastor, I have learned that I cannot nurture it by remaining a small man.
By Matthew Raley As the Orland Evangelical Free Church raises funds for a new facility, I am in charge of communicating the vision. I have had many struggles with the fundraising process, most of them in the small hours of the morning.
Fundraisers, as a rule, shouldn't confess their doubts, but should project certitude. This building is God's will. They should not admit that the future holds uncertainties, or wonder aloud about communication ethics.
Furthermore, in our case, response to the vision for ministry that we've articulated has been positive. In many cases, passionately so. We're getting this response because the ministries that will be advanced by a new building are the fruit of decades of prayerful work by many, many believers in this region.
Why bother confessing pastoral struggles when the laws of fund raising forbid it and when support for the project is already strong?
Simply put, I don't feel that people should accept my certainties until they've heard my struggles. Here is one: how to show leadership when so many people are used to salesmanship.
There are similarities between the two.
Both salesmen and leaders have to present a strong case for their proposals. They have to show passion, and they have to transfer that passion to others through articulate presentations. In the final analysis, they have to move people.
But there is a crucial difference, one that goes to the heart of what a pastor is.
A salesman aims his message at people's existing priorities. The customer wants a red car. She likes red. She wants to see the red cars the salesman has. The salesman who walks her over to a yellow car and spends five minutes extolling the virtues of yellow is an idiot.
If I'm a salesman-pastor, my goal is to sell the new building. I speak to the most immediate, tangible priorities the people have, and show that the building will scratch their itch. Y'all want larger space, better lighting, no more leaks? Have we got the plan for you!
But a leader aims his message at what people's priorities must become.
The people in any church have narrow priorities. Some are devoted to their families, but not engaged with the community. Others are passionate about learning the Bible, but need to put that learning into practice. For most, the weekly grind of life forms horizons that are too near, and they need to see how the Kingdom of God calls them further.
So, if I'm a leader-pastor, my goal is to draw people out of their narrow corners to embrace new priorities. I show how scripture calls us all to personal growth, and how it calls us to be part of corporate experiences of God's power. For a leader, the building is a secondary product of this kind of spiritual growth -- an important indicator of whether something real has happened, but only an indicator.
We are living in a time of salesmanship, not leadership. Many of those who are supposed to lead -- pastors and politicians all the way to artists and intellectuals -- have given up their callings and opted for the easier course of selling.
We are now smaller, uglier, and more cynical. We expect communication to be manipulative.
But in the struggle to communicate I have two certainties.
First, the believers in Orland are constantly striving to enlarge their Kingdom priorities. They have given more time, money, and prayer to their ministries every year. They are seeking training, giving counseling, crossing generational and cultural lines to build each other up.
I am certain they will see the need for larger kingdom priorities not as manipulation, but as encouragement. I return to this confidence as a way of keeping my tone with Christ's people respectful.
Second, I am certain that the Lord will notice his people changing their priorities, and that he will provide the facilities we need -- in the time and the manner of his choosing. We will see God move -- the greatest sight of all.
To sell a mere building would be to settle for considerably less.
My sermon on Sunday explored the connection between ignorance of God and unbelief. When God's people don't know his history, his promises, and the worldview he instantiates in the Bible, they cannot have confidence in him. In their worship, God becomes a mystery guest. The broad ignorance of American evangelicals about the faith they claim is well-documented. But I have many questions. Specifically, what kind of ignorance are we facing? In order to have abiding faith in God, what should evangelicals learn? And how?
Many have decried evangelicals' biblical illiteracy, which I have seen all too often. Once, at a banquet where I'd been invited to speak, I was seated next to a woman who'd been highly involved at the host church. She told me about a T.V. movie she had seen: a young man in olden times was sold into slavery by his own brothers, was taken to a foreign country, even wound up in prison, but eventually became the nation's ruler. The movie was really exciting, she said, addingRead More
Early in 2007 I went to a writers conference in Colorado Springs, the home base of Ted Haggard. Haggard was supposed to have been a headliner at the conference, but a couple months prior he had become a headliner in a less positive way: he had resigned from his megachurch and from the presidency of the National Association of Evangelicals because of drug use and sexual immorality. Though he was not speaking at the conference, he haunted it.
At most meals, conversation discovered members of New Life, where he had been pastor, and gingerly probed them, finding them in various stages of anger and sorrow -- and also defensiveness. One man of Calvinistic views and Socratic habits, whose method I had the misfortune to witness over dinner, peered at a New Lifer through heavy glasses and questioned whether Pentecostalism had been the real cause of Haggard's fall.
The hardy soul under interrogation insisted New Life was going to be just fine.
In this buzz, I happened to be pitching a novel about pastoral deceit (since published as Fallen). I took it to a mentor for some feedback, an editor who lives in Colorado Springs, and after reading the first couple of pages he mused about the lightning chain of people he had witnessed saying to each other on the day Haggard fell, "Have you heard about Ted?"
Colorado Springs had been haunted for months.
It is not free yet. Two weeks ago, an article reported that Haggard was back, not at New Life, but at a church in Illinois. What are we to think about his return to preaching? The piece sampled many reactions, three of which made me realize something about the nature of unbelief among Christians.
Start with H.B. London of Focus on the Family -- a faithful man who is devoted to restoring fallen pastors, and who had been helping with Haggard's restoration. The article summarizes his view: "a return to vocational ministry in less than four or five years would be dangerous." Then London is quoted as saying, "To sit on the sidelines for a person with [Haggard's] personality and gifting is probably like being paralyzed. If Mr. Haggard and others like him feel like they have a call from God, they rationalize that their behavior does not change that call."
That kind of personality and gifting. He's wired to lead. You can see why he rationalizes his return, but . . . it's dangerous.
A negative assessment majoring on compassion. London's emphasis probably isn't reflected accurately by the article, but I wonder why the nod toward Haggard's charisma and talent is needed at all, and why his return would be dangerous rather than completely unjustified.
The statements seem tempered. What I think ought to be sharp edges of principled reasoning are blunted. As reported, they are weak.
A second reaction comes from Leo Godzich, who has met with Haggard weekly as part of the restoration process. "If all men are honest," he says, "all men are liars and deceivers. Once someone is gifted and called, that is something they generally cannot escape. . . . True redemption occurs when someone is fulfilling a destiny and purpose in their life."
Those sentences almost made me blow out a swig of coffee.
1. The doctrine of moral equivalence: all men are Haggard. Hit the gong. Not all men have systematically deceived their wives, their children, their associates, their subordinates, their boards, their constituents, and the public at large in order to cover up their behavior.
2. The notion of calling: Haggard "cannot escape" his "destiny." Get the hook and yank Godzich offstage. There's a substantial difference between "not escaping" and renewed self-promotion.
3. The new salvation: "true redemption" as fulfilling your purpose. It's trapdoor time for Leo. Down to the dungeon. True redemption is actually the forgiveness of sin, not the fulfillment of a calling that is very much in question.
This is the perversion of principles to fit a man.
A third reaction comes from the Illinois pastor who invited Haggard to preach. Chris Byrd says, "I had confidence his heart was solid, his theology is sound and the message he's always brought to the body of Christ would come forth." By what standard was Byrd confident that Haggard's heart was solid?Why should I be confident Haggard's theology is sound? On Byrd's say-so?
This is the substitution of pious avowals for discernment, again because of partiality to a man.
I constantly encounter people whose faith in Christ is in crisis. The reason is always the same: their relationships are entangled in unconfessed, unrepented sin. Sometimes the sin is their own; often it belongs to others. In order to salvage these relationships, they want to give and receive compassion. They want to have the space to change, and they want to give that space to others.
They are dancing a minuet of mercy with their partners. To keep the dance going, they have to keep Christ from cutting in. They have to redefine sin, broaden righteousness, and avoid judgment. But after years of giving and receiving vague compassion, they have relationships haunted by destruction. And when their rationalizations no longer give comfort, they want Christ to wave his magic wand and do a "work of transformation" -- which he won't do on such terms.
This is an anatomy of unbelief today.
In all likelihood, many New Lifers from that haunted 2007 conference have learned something about true redemption -- that sin, righteousness, and judgment will not be redefined by partiality, and that forgiveness is a sharp tool for healing.
My prayer is that they've gained a gospel worth believing.
Sermon audio (October 5, 2008): Jesus Invades Your Experience The other day, I was riding with our old Dutch dairyman Pete in his massive red truck. Over the grinding of the diesel engine, we talked about today's young men, and Pete observed that they seem to take years to figure out who they are, and what they should be doing with their lives. "I see it over and over, even in good families. There's something missing in these guys."
His comment made me think of my three-year-old son Malcolm, a tough, thick-set package of nuclear energy. He knows what he wants and he lunges for it. He had wanted, for instance, a ride in Pete's red truck, thinking it was a fire engine, and he cried angry tears on my porch when we left. I wondered why our society dissipates boys' drive and potency, and what I need to do to ensure that Malcolm keeps a healthy sense of self and grows up strong.
The woes of boys are getting increasing comment these days, but the problem of the formless, unmotivated, needy self is everywhere. Many people seem to lack solid identities, to be unable to form healthy relationships, seem to drift from one thing to the next like so much channel-surfing through life.
In this context, a pastor's temptation is moralism. Every month or so, after surveying someone's personal wreckage, I think, "I really need to do a series on time management," or, "I've got to preach on financial priorities." I wonder whether I give enough "practical application," telling people what's what.
If moralism is a temptation as a pastor, it is doubly so as a father. It is enticing to think that I can build up my son's identity through his submission to my authority.
Moralistic preaching and parenting tries to rebuild crumbling boundaries using precepts. Thou shalt and Thou shalt not. If you allow entertainment to suck your time, then of course there won't be enough hours in the day for your responsibilities. Thou shalt turn off the T.V. If you blow your money on toys, restaurant food, and mortgage-backed securities, then of course you won't have a financial chair when the music stops. Thou shalt not go into debt.
But moralism has been the downfall of contemporary Christianity. The precepts of godly wisdom nurture life in those who already have life; but among the legions who do not, the Get a clue! method of preaching doesn't edify. The "practical applications" of moralism merely compound people's guilt.
Moralism has been the downfall of Christianity because it is not the gospel.
For the needy contemporary self, the only hope is God-focused individuality, the unique expression of God's glory in a reborn personality. As we are seeing in our series on the man born blind in John 9, Jesus himself has to invade a person's life, not merely to reset what a person does, but who a person is.
Consider an observation: Human beings cannot define themselves, but are only defined in relationship.
There are two common myths about the self. One is that you can be true to some wisdom or potential inside your personality, wisdom defined by you alone -- the Oprah storyline. The other is that you can improve yourself, work hard, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- the moralistic storyline. The two myths are equivalent in the sense that they both portray individuals having potential on their own.
Malcolm is growing up in a society that preaches these myths, and that requires him to invent himself according to one or the other, and sometimes both.
The reality is, Malcolm doesn't have any sense of self autonomously. His definition of who he is comes from his relationships -- and it always will. He learns about himself through the process of relating to me, to his mom, to his grandparents, to other adults in the community like Pete. His self-awareness as an adult will grow in the context of interaction. He defines himself in relationship.
If I surrender to the temptation of moralism, then I will raise Malcolm using precepts. I will portray Jesus as the person with high standards, who is forgiving of Malcolm's faults, but who is all too frequently "disappointed." Malcolm's relationship to this Jesus will teach him a sense of self that is sickened by failure.
This is not the Jesus of John 9, who heals the blind.
Jesus is Malcolm's creator, and designed Malcolm to display the works of God. All of Malcolm's traits have the potential to make God's glory visible. Because Malcolm has this potential, Jesus is invading his experiences. Jesus is not waiting for an invitation. Having paid for sin, and bringing new life with him, Jesus is able to slather Malcolm's eyes with mud and give him spiritual sight. As Malcolm is defined more and more by his interactions with Jesus, even Malcolm's limitations and faults will become visible marks of divine love.
The gospel calls for a new individuality in Christ, a uniqueness forged by loving relationship. The gospel resets who people are. I don't know if the passive, disappointed Jesus who is just waiting for people to be interested in him is the sole cause of today's unformed, unmotivated, needy self. There may be more causes than Christian moralism.
But I do know that what's missing from people today is Jesus himself.
Sermon audio: Should Faith Influence Politics? I once tried to be a speechwriter for a gubernatorial candidate in Oregon.
The former five-term congressman was fighting to win the Republican nomination, and his staff thought he needed help in the English language department. He began speeches by saying, "You all know I'm a straight shooter. So what you hear tonight is coming straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart." His researcher winced every time she heard it.
Since I was a recent graduate of the congressman's alma mater, someone recommended me to the campaign manager as a speechwriter. So, by and by, I showed up at the headquarters wearing chalk stripes and carrying a portfolio of political stuff I'd written, and I got the volunteer position.
At one point during the interview, the manager left me sitting alone in her cubicle. I happened to look up, and was startled to see the congressman, his hand in the trouser pocket of his Brooks Brothers suit, chewing gum and staring at me without any intention of saying hello.
He didn't want a speechwriter.
The first meeting I attended was with the congressman, the manager, and the researcher. The goal was to produce an op-ed about the release of a murderer because, that year, the crime issue was a good bet for mobilizing voters. But we got stuck on the first line. "The first line," said the congressman, "has to be, 'You've got to be kidding!'"
Silence. The researcher offered, "We could start by stating what we're objecting to." The manager nodded.
"No. Just, 'You've got to be kidding!'"
The meeting lasted all of ten minutes. He didn't want to be told what to say.
There were road trips. Several of us would pile into a Lincoln and roar down the I-5 at 90 mph, the radar detector blinking on the dashboard. One would think it was an ideal time to get to know the man whose voice I was supposed to capture in writing. But the candidate took numerous calls, chatted with the driver, and read position papers. I had very pleasant conversations with his wife -- number three, very smart.
I watched and listened to the congressman for a day, and returned a week later with a draft. I handed the speech to him, the manager smiling, and without so much as a glance, he handed it to the driver. "I won't be using it today." And we were off again.
But a few miles up the freeway, the phone rang. It was the manager. She asked the congressman if he was on the speaker phone, which he was. So he switched to the hand-held. "Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah." Click. He reached into the pile of papers his driver had put in the car and read through my speech.
"It's good. Yeah. I like it. Some good lines in there."
But he went back to "straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart."
Evangelicals have savored their few moments of influencing politics. But they haven't achieved the cultural change they were hoping for. The country hasn't turned to Christ. Families are not measurably stronger because of any legislation passed. The main evangelical successes have been in opposition to gay marriage and abortion, not in advancing a vision for the country.
The lack of progress boils down to resources.
In politics, you have to influence a five-term congressman. You have to be big enough, mobilizing a large enough constituency or having the money to lobby him. Or, you have to have access to the person who influences how much funding goes to his district. Or, you have to have helped elect him in the first place.
Fundamentally, he must want to listen to you. And even that is not enough. He can think of many reasons to listen to a lot of other people too.
Evangelicals have committed vast resources -- not just financially, but in terms of grass roots organization, media time, and depth of experience -- to influencing five-term congressmen. They have been successful at becoming big. But now they are experiencing again how hard it is to move a nation from the top.
What would have happened if, for the last twenty years, they had committed the same resources to making disciples for Christ? Imagine the impact on American culture if local churches had been successful at saving marriages, nurturing new generations of Christians, deepening people's knowledge of the Bible, and developing their capacity to pray. Imagine the impact if local churches had been as passionate about God's priorities as they've been about ballot initiatives.
When confronted with what it really costs to make disciples, most evangelicals for the past twenty years have said the same thing. "We don't have the resources. We don't have the time, the money, or the patience. We can barely make disciples of our own kids."
The sad reality of these two decades is that political parties have been able to attract evangelical resources, but the cause of making disciples has not. We will talk about the political implications of this reality on Sunday morning.
My candidate for governor got the nomination, but went down in flames that November. My effort to influence him didn't even survive the primaries. He fired the campaign manager.
There is one thing that will make a five-term congressman want to listen. A cultural transformation in his district. The question is, how much do evangelicals really want to influence politics? Are they willing to move a nation from the bottom?
Sermon audio: Should a Christian Question Authority? I'll tell you about the time I got sent away for counseling.
When I matriculated at Willamette University in 1989, freshlings were herded through a course on world views. That year, the powers assigned readings from Victorian England -- Mill, Dickens, Marx, et al. -- and we were supposed to discuss them seminar-style. This was intended as a perspective-softener. We would get points of view from other times, other social strata, and other students, and we would come to the breezy but Correct conclusion that the world is not as we assumed.
But what the powers intended as a means of softening my perspective, I took as a means of expressing it. Well, I thought, they said we should discuss. So I did discuss. I discussed what I thought of Darwin's theory, Mill's utilitarianism, and the university's relativistic world view -- all of which I'd had the distinct impression was relevant. But I discussed my perspective without the least intention of softening it, which meant I wasn't really obeying the powers.
My professor took me aside after about two weeks and said, "I want you to go talk to Charlie." She meant Charles Wallace, the university chaplain. She was nice about it, but she'd clearly had enough. You're a Christian, she seemed to say. Maybe Charlie the Christian will know what to do with you.
2008 is the third year I've collected questions from the community about spiritual and moral issues for a sermon series. (The link to the two previous years is on my blogroll.) The first question that jumped out at me from this year's batch was, "Should Christians question authority?"
I have to admit my bias.
I have a contentious personality. For me, arguing is fun, and arguing with authority figures is even better. Winning those arguments is so much fun that it's probably immoral.
So I chose to address the question about authority because it appealed to my baser instincts.
In addition, trouble-making is part of my heritage. My grandfather, my great aunts and uncles, my dad and his sister, have all been contrarian and stubborn. On vacation, I took my family to visit Aunt Jan, who has used her genetic sonar for absurdity well and often. Over breakfast (french toast battered with eggs and whiskey), we sounded off against Mel Gibson's Passion, the evangelical mania over it, and its theology. We also shared precious moments of confrontation with the film's devotees.
In the end, however, we had to agree that the underlying reason we hated it was that everybody loved it. Tell me the last time everybody was right.
But personal and familial biases aside, I also chose to address the question about authority because of the questioner's sensitivity. The woman asked specifically about the virtue of meekness. Can a Christian habitually criticize those in authority without becoming arrogant? Don't we owe submission to those over us?
I have learned valuable truths by over-exercising my critical faculties. I've learned, for example, that the vast majority of people hate arguing. Contention fills them with dread, and they will not voice their opinion if they fear that someone will debate them. This has led me to nurture discussion by shutting my mouth. I've also seen that the process of learning must go deeper than mere questioning. If I am really going to learn a subject or a skill, I have do things contrary to my experience and instinct. That means, again, shutting my mouth so that I can submit to my teacher.
These are good arguments for meekness.
But I have learned something else. While critical questioning is a terrible way to discover whether an authority is speaking the truth, it is a great way to discover whether the authority is interested in nourishing, imparting, engaging, and being understood, or whether he is merely interested in conformity. The authority figures I've known who nurture life in their students have all embraced criticism as a sign of a living mind.
What we face today is not the authority of a few. We face the authority of the masses, the despotism of the People. We face the unrelenting tyranny of everybody's opinion. We used to wear what displayed our place in our culture. Now we wear the latest fad. The legacy of ethics used to teach us how to make decisions. Now, our decisions are dictated by fashion, and our ethics are retrofitted rationalizations.
I think that churches, in this environment, need to focus less on controlling people's behavior than on educating their consciences. This means using the authority of parents and elders to earn submission and to empower people to question. I believe that the church where this is achieved will continue to make new Christians, generation after generation. That is the theme I will preach on Sunday morning.
At Willamette, I went to the appointment my professor had already scheduled with Charlie. I don't remember much about our session, except that we ended up trading favorite scenes from Monty Python, and that I continued in class as usual. Charlie the Christian did indeed know what to do with me.
But I wouldn't have known what to do at Willamette if I hadn't been given a trained conscience.
Intellectualism has long said, to coin a phrase, "Everything must change." Will emergent intellectuals be any different from the utopians of the past? Not so far. Their knowledge seems enslaved to ideology: Evil is built into our social structures. Racism is systemic. Economic inequality is institutional. War is the result of the military industrial complex. Poverty in the developing world is the legacy of imperialism, imposed first by Western colonial powers and then by cold war superpowers. So, if we're serious about addressing all these problems, the world has to be reorganized.
Fortunately, this is now possible.
A new generation has outgrown the confines of the Enlightenment and is emerging into postmodernity. We no longer think in outmoded ways. We're no longer shackled by the prejudices of ye olde puritanism, or the bigotry of Western thought, or the obsession with proving others wrong. We know that we can change everything because we have what previous generations lacked: dialogue about theoretical models.
And all God's people said, "Yes we can!"
Utopianism of this kind has a pretty well-documented history. Michael Burleigh's recent book about the decline of Christendom, Earthly Powers (HarperCollins, 2005), narrates how political schemes for restructuring society gained religious authority. Among the vast collection of intellectuals Burleigh sketches is Auguste Comte (pp 229-230):
One of the fathers of modern social "science", who in 1839 coined the term "sociology", Comte sought to establish the philosophical basis for the sciences and for the scientific ordering and reform of society, a formula calculated to appeal to the right as well as the left. . . . [Comte's] Positivism was supposed to be a third way between the outmoded theologically grounded world of the ancien regime and an abstract, critical rationalism that had become anarchic and incapable of creating anything.
The essence of his Religion of Humanity was to redirect mankind's spiritual energies away from the transcendental and towards the creation of a happier and more moral life here on earth through the worship of the best in man himself.
The idea that science must direct cultural change led to an array of horrors.
Burleigh narrates the course from Saint-Simon and Comte, among others, to the totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century. Turning to older scholars, Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, showed the many responses of Anglo-American thinkers to the destruction of culture by utilitarian reformers. In The Road To Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek argued that centrally planned economies lead to tyranny. Jane Jacobs documented the dehumanizing impact of urban renewal dogma in The Death and Life of Great of American Cities. Paul Johnson scandalized the chattering classes with his book Intellectuals, which did the extreme disfavor of comparing the ideals of famous thinkers with their actual behavior.
And the emergents?
Infatuation with causes on the left is deepening, especially among younger evangelicals. It is now God's work to protest the war in Iraq, to bring about world peace, to end poverty all over the world, and to advocate environmental regulations. A renewed identification of the gospel with social justice can be heard in many churches, as well as impatience with the idea that salvation is for heaven and not for this world.
I am not saying that emergents are simply latter-day versions of Comte. But I will say that many of them are intellectuals in the old style. Their obsessive theorizing about the course of history and their absorption with grand political change are characteristic of alienated model-mongers. I see two problems with their leftward tilt, just as I see other problems with populist conservatism among evangelicals.
1. The evils of this world are not systemic, but spiritual. Reorganize, restructure, reform all you want, but the power of wickedness will merely shift. A culture is only transformed as the individuals who live in it are reborn in Christ. The reason evangelicals are failing spiritually in America is not that they have ignored progressive political causes, but that they have ignored the Holy Spirit's call to their own souls.
2. Evangelical pastors should not surrender their authority to intellectuals. Every generation since the French Revolution has seen vicars of "progress" emerge. These parsons, whom Malcolm Muggeridge used to call "tame clergymen," bow from their pulpits to the greater authority of Comte's social sciences, giving their benediction to whatever totalist model has favor this year, whether it's emissions caps or a UN war crimes tribunal. A pastor's authority is in his fidelity to the Bible, not to the consensus at Davos.
The linkage between the Kingdom of Christ and earthly power is an old, old folly. If emergents are unable to shake the euphoria of knowing how to change everything, they will end in the enclaves of bitterness, and nothing will have changed.
The headline in the New York Times on Sunday read, "Anglican Conservatives, Rebelling on Gays, Will Form New Power Bloc." Conservatives from Africa, South America, India, Australia, and the United States met in Jerusalem to "create a new ecclesiastical province in the United States and Canada to absorb the parishes that have been outraged by the American church’s consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and the Canadian church’s blessing of same-sex unions." The story put my week at the conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America in perspective. As we debated a thorough revision of our statement of faith in St. Louis, there were none of the Anglican agonies.
My Episcopalian brothers and sisters have endured a crisis of doctrine, conscience, and fellowship for years, a crisis induced by an American leadership determined to remake Christianity in their own image. Only now do conservatives have a chance to emerge from the crisis with a communion they can embrace. My friends with Episcopalian parishes would affirm the work God has done among their people, but the strain in their voices when they describe meeting with machine-driven bishops tells some of the cost of that work.
I continue to be inspired by their example while thanking God that I don't have to carry their burden. I am blessed by the godly leaders of the EFCA.
When I first heard about the proposal to revise the EFCA statement of faith, I was suspicious. I have little confidence in organizations. One of my largest challenges as a leader is my own cynicism about institutional goals: I can't bring myself to use the lingo of teams, which I associate with conformism. So when the word unity shows up on banners, I'm chiefly interested in discovering the agenda behind it.
But now I can honestly say --
I interrupt this repentance just to emphasize that my suspicion of many leadership practices in institutions is unchanged. I don't like grand visions, glossy marketing, rah-rah speeches, videos, ads disguised as magazine articles, groupthink disguised as fellowship, the exaltation of the team player as the ultimate example of godliness, or the permanent smile of the mass communicator. Just so that's clear.
I like networks of people in relationship with each other. I like to see those people, as unique individuals interacting with other unique individuals, make corporate decisions on the basis of biblical principles and their shared history. I like leaders who understand that this kind of process can't be reconciled with marketing, but only thrives on good old deliberation.
The reason I was won over to the revised statement of faith is that the EFCA's leaders -- President Bill Hamel, the board of directors, credentialing director Greg Strand, and the Spiritual Heritage committee -- showed that unity was not their slogan but their goal. They showed their integrity with patient engagement and transparency.
To strengthen our unity, we need a statement of faith that stirs us with its truth and timeliness, and the proposed revision certainly delivers. Its statement on the doctrine of God slams the door on open theism, letting the Lord's full glory out:
"We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having limitless knowledge and sovereign power, God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself and to make all things new for His own glory."
The new statement on the Bible is specific and sweeping:
"We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises."
Paragraph #4 on Jesus Christ is filled with terms evoking the biblical narrative of redemption, and paragraph #8 on Christian living is a needed affirmation of God's purposes for salvation. As a confession of the biblical heritage of Evangelical Free churches, this statement will deepen our unity for decades to come.
But more important than producing a strong document was how the leaders produced it. A key issue for many pastors and lay leaders around the country was whether an affirmation of the premillennial return of Christ (#10) should be included in the new statement. At first, the spiritual heritage committee recommended that the term premillennial be dropped. They had good reasons, and at first I agreed with them. It is not an essential doctrine for a person's salvation, and it does pose difficulties for our cooperation with outside ministries.
But as I listened to older pastors in the movement, the significance of my own commitment to premillennialism deepened. This particular teaching was a passionate focus of the fathers of our movement more than a century ago. It has relevance today as evangelicals decide whether their engagement in politics is a matter of Christianizing the State or evangelizing souls. The EFCA is not among those calling for Christian laws in order to hasten the return of Christ. Christ will set up his own law, in his Father's time.
The EFCA leaders said they would listen to input from the churches. When that input showed a strong desire to retain premillennialism in the revision, the leaders did listen. They put the term premillennial back in the statement. Then they won over most of those who had originally supported dropping it. They impressed me with their reverence for history and fellowship.
The 2008 conference adopted the revision by an 86% vote. I am proud to have been a part of it. I'm grateful for the consistent orthodoxy of our movement. And I'm encouraged to have witnessed the deliberation of a network of people, not the operations of a machine.
I sit in a suburban St. Louis hotel room trying to understand my own reaction to the dust-up between James Dobson and Barack Obama. Admittedly, I'm in the haze that results from a day of conference meetings. I'm also irritable because travel destroys the daily rituals on which I depend for well-being, and because travel to a denominational conference is particularly charmless. More importantly, I am worried about my dad, who had stoke-like symptoms on Tuesday. I freely admit, I may not be thinking clearly.
Nevertheless, in my hotel room -- which has that twenty-year menthol smell, yet has been declared "non-smoking" -- I slog through several articles about the controversy.
It appears that, in order blunt Obama's outreach to evangelicals, Dobson attacked him for misusing the Bible. The AP, which received an advance copy of Dobson's broadcast remarks, reported, "Dobson took aim at examples Obama cited in asking which Biblical passages should guide public policy — chapters like Leviticus, which Obama said suggests slavery is OK and eating shellfish is an abomination, or Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, 'a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application.'"
Dobson said, "I think [Obama is] deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own worldview, his own confused theology."
While I listen to the guy shouting into his cell while he gets ice in the hallway, I wonder if the AP might alert its writers that Leviticus is a book.
Next, I gather that Obama attacked Dobson for attacking him. The speech Dobson had cited, Obama argued, was saying that people of faith should ''try to translate some of our concerns in a universal language so that we can have an open and vigorous debate rather than having religion divide us.''
Obama said, ''I think you'll see that [Dobson] was just making stuff up, maybe for his own purposes.''
After I find all this on the Internet, I realize that I could've just listened to the TV in the next hotel room, which has been bellowing about the fight with perfect clarity.
What is my reaction to Dobson vs. Obama? I regard it as an imposition, a bother, another of the 24-hour news cycle's pestilential contretemps that I would ignore if it weren't for the politicians' blundering into the pastoral zone.
So, while vainly striving to ignore various aspects of my fellow guests' lives -- their children, their dogs, their gastro-intestinal dramas -- I try to understand my lack of partisan fervor. Don't I care when the Bible is abused by public figures? Don't I have an opinion about whether Obama's Christianity is legitimate? Shouldn't I offer some guidance for my flock as to which man is right? Or am I just resigned to the ultimate equivalence of all political and doctrinal positions?
Partly, I am reacting to Dobson's salvo as a pressure tactic, as a way of forcing every evangelical pastor to line up with him against Obama. We have created a culture of complaining, in which the loudest and most abrasive player drives others from the field. I feel this culture is degrading, no matter what message is being pushed, and I am not going to participate in the game.
Further, I am less than inspired by the wording of Dobson's attack. He says that Obama is "distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible." I'm not sure what Dobson means. The traditional understanding? Does he mean that Obama is using a straw man instead of dealing with real evangelical positions? Or does he mean that Obama is distorting the Bible itself? He doesn't quite say either. And what does he mean by saying that Obama makes these distortions to fit "his own confused theology"? And that Obama is doing it all deliberately?
I fear that Dobson has fallen into the populist habit of stringing words together for their connotations rather than crafting them for meaning. The tactic makes insinuation sound direct. In this case, it certainly communicates Dobson's feelings to evangelical insiders, but it draws no blood. Obama's theological problems are other than Dobson insinuates.
Even further, I am dismayed by the strategic imbecility of making Leviticus an issue in a political campaign. The people at Focus just didn't think this one through. Are we really going to win a public argument with Obama about hermeneutics, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, and which portions of the Bible "apply today?"
Obama's rhetorical questions about which Bible passages should determine public policy were sophomoric, just what we have come to expect from politicians trying to sound highbrow. But no matter how you choose to answer such things, it's not safe to take the tone lower. A little irony goes a long way.
Finally, I'm not convinced that Barack Obama's theology is, as Dobson charged, "confused." Obama's theology is banal, the sort of spiritual generalizing one hears on NPR, as if "translating our concerns in a universal language" is a self-explanatory aspiration, as if having "an open and vigorous debate" is not by definition living with ideas that "divide us."
I will continue to fight such clichés disguised as profundities from my pulpit. I'll do so because doctrines are not ultimately equivalent: Obama's Christian zen is just a repackaged modernist liberalism. I'll try to fight with better weapons than Dobson wants to hand me.
But for now, I put in my earplugs and go to sleep.
Last week, someone showed me a review of my novel Fallen on Amazon. The reviewer, Keith Hammond, made my day with some very generous praise, and then raised an issue that I've encountered often:
My only complaint is that the story seemed too personal and allegorical to be completely fictional. I would have preferred the book to have an addendum where the author directly talks about the issues or situations that caused him to write such a compelling book.
The first person to make this kind of comment to me was one my editors at Kregel, who, during our line-by-line slog through the manuscript, said that the dialog was "a little too good." He wondered what experiences I had plundered. After the novel was released, my secretary gave it to a relative, who finished it and made the hair-raising assertion, "Obviously, Raley's had an affair." Then there are the youth at my church, who have dissected the story with frightening precision, tracing eccentricities and obsessions from my habits into my narrative.
If only they were so devoted to their schoolwork.
So I guess I'd better tell all.
From start to finish, Fallen is invented. I didn't model any character on a person I've known, nor have I ever had to endure what Jim, the narrator, goes through. I've found that fictionalizing real-life scenarios and personalities almost always yields a flat story because there is too much authorial judgment on the characters and too little sympathy. A novelist needs to keep his cool.
Yet, for me, Fallen is a personal book. Mr. Hammond and others are right. The book is personal in this sense: almost every vile act I portrayed in the story was invented from what I have seen in my own soul.
When I drew characters for the story, for example, I tried to load them with contradictions. Jim loves his wife and daughter, but also treats them with selfish disregard. He wants to be gracious, but gives favor with calculation. Pastor Dave is an emotionally driven man, yet he disguises his motives by intellectualizing. Also, Dave wants to see himself as compassionate towards others, yet his core motivation is self-pity.
Each of these contradictions -- and many others in my characters, male and female -- has its origin in some struggle of my own for integrity. I simply implanted my hypocrisies within the quite different personalities of my characters. I hate confessing this procedure, because it makes the story feel like public nudity. But that's what I did.
The same is true of the relational struggles that the book portrays. I put my follies into all of the marriages and working partnerships. I invented the male characters' misconceptions of women, from their flippant infatuations to their ordeals in marriage, out of similar misconceptions of my own. While the power struggles among church leaders in the book grew out of the invented scenarios, my own anger in sympathy with each character showed me how the struggles would deepen.
The crimes in Fallen, then, were not written as veiled reports but as shame-faced extrapolations.
There are two important differences between my approach and the method of fictionalizing personal experiences.
First, as a matter of technique, memoirs-as-novels start with scenarios and create characters to fit, which yields a false story. A human being is not a robot. Fictional human beings cannot be robots and be true. So I started with characters and then shaped the scenarios. Every day I wrote, the characters surprised me.
Second, I would only write a memoir-as-novel to vent bitterness. I may be unusual in this tendency, and other authors might have other motivations. But, as a matter of repentance, I don't write to vent. I used to. Creating a little world in which all of my judgments are validated can be satisfying. But writing such things does not edify anyone. I found the method of spreading my darkness among many characters to be sanctifying. Instead of judging the sins of others, I was able to examine my own.
This is a method that I feel bound to follow. The subject matter of Fallen does not need more angry scribblers. But, I hope, a repentant one might do some good.
Sometimes I find a post that hits me in the gut. On Tuesday I saw "Confused Christian" on the new and anonymous My Bloggerings, and read expressions of what many evangelicals feel these days. It made me ask whether God's eye has left his people. MB, the blog's creator, wrote that she grew up charismatic but turned away from the sign gifts movement after she got married. "I just didn’t think that is what the Bible was all about." But now she feels that she can't replace it with anything.
At her current church, she says, "I am so unsatisfied with watered down preaching and 'anything goes' philosophy because God after all will still love you. I want more than this." She sees professing Christians living as immorally as non-Christians, being focused on their careers rather than their children. "My church has lost the art of mentoring younger people and feeding them spiritually. Instead, the goal is to make friends who drink and have poker games at their house and hit on girls at the Champs restaurant in our city."
MB says she wants a deeper community where life with Christ is more vibrant. "But I’m afraid that this is only a dream. For I have visited so many churches only to be let down by them all. Am I just expecting too much?"
Her experience is depressingly common. I often look at the demands of ministry and echo her question, adding another of my own. Is there any tool for nurturing spiritual life that works?
Morality doesn't work. Parents and church leaders who focus on raising standards of behavior only have scare tactics to motivate people. There's a wealth of material to use -- a culture that is spiraling into anarchy, case after case of self-destruction, evidence from medicine and social science about the effects of vice. But the reality is that people are not primarily motivated by fear. If future danger and immediate pleasure compete for people's attention, who wins?
Community doesn't work. The old line that embers burn when they're close together is true as far as it goes. But a pile of sticks won't make its own spark. Strong community without vibrant spirituality just strengthens people's selfishness under the cover of love and loyalty.
Family doesn't work. The fumes of human sin are most toxic when inhaled up close. The flame of the tongue, the heat of anger, the slow burn of bitterness have a way of suffocating all godly aspirations. Far too many families, if we're honest, have a well-preserved skin of faith, but their vital organs have been pickled.
Doctrine and preaching don't work. Neither do programs, buildings, or media. Truth be told, I can't think of a single spiritual tool that makes any impression on a heart that refuses to seek God. The tools only make that heart worse. Which means that, when people will not listen to the claims of God on their lives, the tool that is so useful at so many other times, the church, doesn't work.
There is only one thing that affects hearts like we have among evangelicals today. It is a single moment, the moment when the presence of Jesus Christ becomes frighteningly real, when a professing believer raises his face and discovers that God's eye, far from leaving him, has been locked on him all along, and has seen everything.
For that, MB and the rest of us have to pray.