Bell's Redeeming Deity

by Matthew Raley I am surveying features of Rob Bell's book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell's description of the nature of God.

According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people's opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is "violent" and "destructive." If this account of God were true, he says,

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)

He goes on, calling this God "devastating," "psychologically crushing," "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."

Bell counters that God is love, and that God's invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God's love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.

Yet Bell's story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.

For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them "the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok," recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. "But this isn't the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, "What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny ... wasn't? What appeared to be over, isn't. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration." (p 83, emphasis original)

So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a "movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life." (p 85)

Using Bell's standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God's redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.

The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.

So let's imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: "This fire isn't forever. Your father loves you! He's inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you'll have another opportunity to love God!"

Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?

Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.

Bell's proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God's nature coherent.

Celebrity status will not exempt Bell's arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell's distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.

Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice -- standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about "a loving God" or "a just God" fall apart once we delve into specific cases. "Loving" toward whom? "Just" in whose cause?

I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God's punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his "better story" about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.

Churches and the Decayed Culture of Learning

by Matthew Raley In a New York Times op-ed piece, "Your So-Called Education," Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa expose key failings in undergraduate institutions. The B.A. does not mean what it used to, they report, and there are structural reasons for its decline. Their sharp criticism raises questions about our cultural foundations for learning, not just in colleges but in another educational enterprise, the local church.

Arum and Roksa followed several thousand students in more than two dozen undergraduate institutions over four years. They found that in "a typical semester . . . 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester." The average student spent 12-13 hours per week studying, half the time a student would have spent in the 1960s.

With such minimal work, tests show that a large proportion of students make no significant progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing.

And for this students and their families pay the equivalent of a home mortgage?

The causes Arum and Roksa identify are all institutional, but raise cultural questions that are beyond the scope of their study.

The investments of colleges and universities are one cause: fewer tenured faculty, more counselors who attend to social and personal issues. "At the same time, many schools are investing in deluxe dormitory rooms, elaborate student centers and expensive gyms. Simply put: academic investments are a lower priority."

The empowerment of students is another cause. Federal Pell grants are dispersed to students, not institutions, which means a student takes dollars wherever he or she decides. The evaluation of faculty emphasizes student assessments, making it difficult for a professor to advance unless he or she is popular. All of this tends to make students think like consumers who insist on being satisfied with the school's "service."

Unfortunately, undergraduate schools could adopt all of Arum's and Roksa's sensible reform proposals and never revitalize learning.

Consider the significance of schools' spending on counselors. Social dysfunctions are driving that expenditure: drinking, drugs, cutting, sexual crime, STDs and other public health dangers, and mental health issues like depression. Undergraduate culture is often a degraded underworld. Where does learning fit in such a context?

A key cultural foundation for learning has always been strong family life, and we're seeing the consequences of family decay.

Consider also the spending on gyms and sports programs. This too expresses a larger cultural reality: we are obsessed with entertainment and activities. How could learning be anything but a sideline where leisure activities are so exalted.

And the empowerment of students as consumers of education? This is quite simply an abdication of authority, a capitulation to our culture's relentless leveling of all points of view below the only one that ultimately matters: that of the divine Self.

Which brings me to the other educational enterprise I mentioned, the local church, which should be a prime mover in rebuilding a culture of learning -- and in the past was exactly that.

Churches today are so enslaved by the same culture of dysfunction, leisure, and consumerism as colleges that one struggles to envision churches as centers of learning. In fact, the idea that a church might be an educational institution is only dimly remembered, when it is not violently rejected. American evangelicals are likely to see this priority as snooty.

But how exactly are Christians to restore a degraded culture if they can't think critically, or reason about complex issues? And how are they supposed to gain those skills if they know little about the history that made us who we are? And how -- really, how exactly is this supposed to happen? -- how are they going to apply the gospel to their lives if they won't read?

Evangelicals seem to think bumper stickers, petition drives, and fun music are enough to "take back the culture." They have forgotten that our duty in Christ is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Chico News & Review Reports on Churches and Gays

by Matthew Raley Jerry Olenyn did a service for Chico in his story for CN&R on how local churches view homosexuality. Writing such a piece is a thankless task, the only guarantee being that some on all sides will see Olenyn as biased. Conservative evangelicals should notice that Olenyn's language is even-handed, that his use of quotations presents a well-rounded picture of what conservative pastors believe and feel, and that his objective in the piece is right: to deepen our civic culture on this issue.

The article is solid reporting, an essential tool for keeping leaders honest and their discourse civil.

Olenyn only made one characterization in the story: "There's a definite evasiveness that seeps through this discussion. Conservative churches fear being labeled homophobic and intolerant, while gay-affirming churches worry that their pro-gay stance could cost them members." The characterization is fair.

Olenyn identifies the roots of this evasiveness. He responds to one pastor's assertion that "there are bigger issues" than homosexuality, "such as reaching out to the lost, feeding the hungry, and fulfilling Christ's mission." Olenyn asks, "But does part of fulfilling Christ’s mission include defining sin? And what exactly is sin?"

Perceptive. A pastor cannot speak clearly about whether homosexuality is a sin until he defines what sin is.

Throughout the article, as in the debate nationally, the word sin is used without definition. Today sin connotes a "really bad" thing, something that makes you feel guilty. With the term apparently used this way, we seem to be debating whether churches have a right to shame people.

To understand the Bible's definition of sin, we should start with the more basic issue of what it means to be human.

According to the Bible, human beings can only understand themselves fully in relation to God (e.g. Psalm 139). We are creatures. We do not govern our own lives. Rather, we serve something larger than ourselves -- either God or the things we put in place of God.

Sin, in this worldview, is primarily an identity of servitude to false gods, whatever form they take, and only secondarily a specific action or choice (Romans 1.18-32). Paul's teaching in Romans 6.15-23 is that human beings are sin's slaves. Jesus himself teaches (John 8.34), "Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin."

The implication is clear: to be human is to be the property either of sin or of God. All specific acts of sin express the same identity of sin-slavery in different ways. The issue in reconciling with God is not the individual acts, but the identity that those acts express.

The contrast between the biblical view and that of Western modernity is stark. The modern individual assumes -- more precisely, he believes as a matter of doctrine -- that he owns himself. He is the property of no one, having the autonomy to construct his life as he chooses. His dignity as a human being consists in asserting himself.

Conservative evangelicals know that a genuinely biblical definition of sin calls people to reject their most basic beliefs about who they are. For many decades now, evangelicals have been trying to finesse this point. They have cast sin in terms of "choices," "addictions," "values," or "lifestyles," as if behavior were the primary issue. Jesus, in this cautious gospel, is less Savior than Coach. He helps you make better choices about your life.

But in addressing homosexuals -- without a social consensus on sexual morality -- evangelicals are trapped by their evasiveness about sin. They can't confront homosexuality without asserting God's right to determine human identity. At the same time, they can't assert God's right over our identity without offending many of their own converts. The evangelical pew holds many who believe that their lives remain their own property, and who've been assured that God would never be so Godlike as to require their very selves.

Several conservative pastors quoted in Olenyn's article showed a wise mix of clarity about the Bible's teaching on homosexuality and humility as forgiven sinners. I'm grateful that Olenyn showed this.

But I am also grateful that he identified the core question, which humbles everyone equally: What exactly is sin?

An Open Letter To the Black Robe Regiment

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.


Matthew Raley

People Sing Certainties, Not Questions

by Matthew Raley In recovering the folk singing dynamic, you can have all three of the fundamentals we've discussed so far without the people actually singing. A congregation can meet in a resonant space that permits them to create sounds together. The people can share a memory of songs from the past, and they can gain new songs that retain the stripped-down style of folk melodies.

But without the fourth fundamental, they won't sing.

Maybe I should describe what I think singing is. The murmuring of today's congregations does not qualify as singing -- the shifty-eyed, slouching, hands-in-pockets, worthless droning that advertises in the flashing neon of body language a desire to be elsewhere.

Singing is done standing straight, with the chest up, the throat relaxed, and the lungs filled not from the top but from the bottom. Singing is loud -- less in the sense that someone turned a knob clockwise, than that someone next to you spoke with sudden intensity. Singing is loud emotionality.

So, I repeat, believers can have every fundamental of the folk singing dynamic and still not sing. They have to want to sing. You can't cajole them into singing, manipulate them, or in any way circumvent their lack of desire to sing. If they don't want to, they won't.

The fourth fundamental is the thing that supplies motivation for singing -- a prejudicial belief system. People sing what is beyond question. You sing what you know.

Prejudice now refers almost exclusively to irrational hostility, especially racial bias, and has become popularly synonymous with a quite different word, bigotry. Where bigotry has always referred to hatred or intolerance, prejudice can be used in a more neutral way.

Prejudice is literally pre-judgment, a decision made prior to reason, debate, or fact-gathering. There are morally important human resources in this word. To take just one example, my father drove into me a prejudice against lying. I don't question whether lying might be an effective tool, or might be justified in a certain instance. My pre-judged position, my reflex, is, "Never lie."

The Enlightenment taught us that prejudice of any kind is wrong, and must be debunked as so much superstition. Human beings have the power to transcend their experiences, to know truth with metaphysical certainty, and to unshackle their minds from old notions and subjective perceptions. Through questioning every certitude, human beings can gain control over their environment.

The Enlightenment was full of crap.

The educational project of rationalism has not ended prejudice at all. It has merely created people who are prejudiced and pretentious, prejudiced and cynical, prejudiced and credulous, prejudiced and deluded. The atomic bomb comes to mind.

No amount of reasoning eradicates prejudice, though it may put different prejudices in circulation.

Here's the point: people don't sing from purely rational motivations. They don't sing what they debate or question. They don't sing to prove a point. There are no songs about the impact of the federal fiscal stimulus on consumer demand, the effectiveness of flu vaccines, or the potential of the new season of House. People sing their certainties, and their certainties are largely unconscious. To be sure, they sing about their emotional struggles, but they do so because they know what they feel.

When you get right down to it, evangelicals don't sing because they don't know much. Their faith is painfully conscious. Their prejudices have been leveled -- and by their own teachers. They have been taught that the solutions to their relational problems are therapeutic, not supernatural. The Bible is no longer an authority in churches, merely a source of quotations. And, most devastatingly of all, God himself is called high but held low.

Evangelical music has degenerated into "At Last, I Know My Issues!" because evangelicals are now a deeply self-conscious people. And this has to be laid at the door of preachers. "Five Steps to a Better Marriage" is not a theme that will ever burst into song. But as a theme, it will appeal to that rational, calculating demon who constantly asks, "How can I get what I want?" Evangelicals now refuse to know anything about God until they're sure that their selves will remain intact.

With such a troubled belief system, why would evangelicals truly sing?

C. S. Lewis didn't like what he called "the lusty roar of the congregation." I'd love to have it back. The return of the primitive, unselfconscious certitude of singing would demonstrate that people once again knew God, that their questions had been driven from them by direct experience of his grace, and that they had yielded control to his sovereign power.

They would sing again about the true faith: the coming of Jesus Christ, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and pending return, his abolition of wars, lies, betrayals, and loss, the delivery of justice for his martyrs, and the reunion we will have with him. Believers would sing with longing that Jesus Christ be their vision, that they reach that beautiful shore, gathered at the river that flows by the throne of God.

But as they've stopped, we listen for the rocks.

The Apostle Paul, the iPod, and Evangelical Music

by Matthew Raley Recall the distinction between encouragement and edification.

To encourage is to hearten or animate—to give an emotional uplift when someone is down. Edification, like encouragement, has an emotional impact, but is not primarily focused on a person’s subjective world.

To edify is to build people morally and spiritually. This usually means that the work of edification goes beyond individual instruction to address the relationship of that individual to the community. We ask questions like, “Is this person alone? How can she be better connected?”

The edified person is a connected person, which is how Paul uses the Greek term in Ephesians 4.11-16.

Believers in many roles work together “for building up the body of Christ.” The “unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” is the state into which “we all” must grow. That unity prevents our being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” The phenomenon of people growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” is explicitly relational. Christ, "from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working together properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Giving encouragement to individuals is good work, but it is not the same as what Paul describes. Edification summons an energy that comes directly from Jesus Christ, and that reaches into the community of believers to create loving vitality. Edification in Christ connects people.

The dominant ethos of worship today, even in theologically conservative churches, is closer to that of the iPod than the want freedom to express their own passion for God. They want to be in a place where everyone else is doing the same thing. If they don't feel that freedom, then their worship is inhibited by the people around them. Authentic iPod worship is dancing Godward like no one's looking.

To be sure, people want a sense of togetherness in this expression of individual passion. But the togetherness only comes when everyone is into the tunes. If even 10% of the people are standing still, the energy is gone. And that means, in order to preserve the energy, only the people who like what you like can worship with you.

I cannot say this in strong enough words: the iPod mode for worship is not the Bible's mode.

The iPod mode is just you. It does not match Paul's description of Christ's body in Ephesians 4. It cannot. Because it's just you. Even if your passion involves speaking directly to Jesus, it's still just you. You and your passion are not enough to reach the edification that Paul describes because you are just you. Even if other people like you express their individual passions in the same room with you, you and the other versions of you have merely attained corporate selfishness.

Maybe you think I'm applying Paul's words about the life of the body inappropriately. After all, you say, Paul wasn't talking about music in Ephesians.


Paul applies his principles of edification in the rest of the letter.

After covering a host of sins that destroy edifying love, he commands the Ephesians to make “the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” The will of the Lord is not drunkenness, the debauched pursuit of individual pleasure and fake fellowship through boozing, but the filling of the Spirit. The first of many subordinate clauses that specify how the body becomes Spirit-filled says, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart . . . .”

A preeminent way in which the body of Christ is edified is in singing, both to one another and with one corporate voice.

In the larger context of Ephesians, this direction is specific. Christ “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles, “that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two” (2:14-15). Therefore, two formerly alienated cultures must now sing together. The newly reconciled body must sing "psalms" from the Old Testament, the ancient chants of Israel. The body must also sing "hymns," Greek forms of idolatrous praise that are now turned to praise the living God.

Further, the body must sing music that originated with neither Jews nor Greeks. The phrase spiritual songs is, of course, much debated. But at the very least, it indicates that the new culture of Christ's body in Ephesus must produce new music that is formed in "the unity of the Spirit" (Ephesians 4.3, a use that sets the context for all subsequent references in this letter to things that are "spiritual").

Paul was talking about music. And we will unpack the musical implications of what he taught in the coming weeks.

For now it's enough to repeat that we live in a time of consumeristic selfishness, a narcissism that divides young from old, individual from community, race from race, and rich from poor. Evangelical worship music has not challenged this narcissism at any level.

I fear the evangelical culture of encouragement is a mask for self-adoration.

The California Court on Prop 8

by Matthew Raley There is only one issue that concerns me anymore.

I went through a conservative optimist phase in my not-so-distant youth, when I thought American society was salvageable by political means. I also went through a conservative pessimist phase, during which I groused about how days gone by were better than these.

I remain a conservative, but I follow the issues the way a sportsman follows athletes -- without a sense of personal investment. Today, I'm unimpressed with the teams of both right and left. Neither offers a coherent vision of what our culture should be.

The religious right is convinced that gay marriage is the tipping point for culture, where we shoot off the slippery slope into free-fall. So evangelicals across the country have poured resources into this battle appealing to the average American's supposed traditionalism.

Take that point of view apart.

1. The tipping point for our culture came decades ago. There was not a Christian campaign against no-fault divorce in California, the innovation that actually pushed the institution of marriage off its foundations. If evangelicals want state law to reflect marriage as God designed it, they should campaign for "One man, one woman, til death us do part."

Evangelicals won't be campaigning that way anytime soon because they've embraced the divorce culture. Statistically, as has been documented many times, there is no difference between the practice of evangelicals and other Americans. Anecdotally, I learned about divorce as a child by watching the splits of my parents' church friends.

Consider the consequences of so many broken evangelical families.

When the world says life is about personal fulfillment not personal holiness, we apparently agree. Christian counselors are sending couple after couple to the divorce courts on this basis -- and it's not as though this is a secret among evangelical church-goers. Our counseling center routinely helps couples who lost hope because of their Christian psychologists. In living this way, we have taught several generations of children that evangelical religion is about crying out to God on Sunday and being selfish during the week.

We have, indeed, manufactured the unbelieving majority in our country. The cynicism of young voters about traditional values was learned from church, not from Hollywood.

Gay marriage is not the tipping point. That point is long past.

2. Having entered the political fray with a fractured base -- a base that opposes threats to marriage in principle but that is under the thumb of family courts in fact -- the religious right has little option but to find enemies and blame them. That's elementary, abc stuff. If the base is not united, your tool is fear.

So the enemies are homosexuals.

This strategy is Pharisaical. Which is to say, it is the wrath of man leveraged to produce the righteousness of God. And like all works of the Pharisees, it is doomed to ignominious failure.

Gays are not my enemies.

3. Appealing to the self-righteousness of the average American is anti-Gospel. The Bible teaches that the average American does not need a Savior from the sins of others, but from his own.

So much for the team on the right. The left has its own problems.

1. Not so long ago, the left was portraying the family as an oppressive institution. Academically, many analyzed family relationships in terms of economic power. Politically and culturally, many more worked to eliminate the legal and economic incentives to marry and stay married, to "educate" young people out from under sexual "repression," and to stigmatize the traditional family as a relic of 1950s conformism.

To a great extent, the left has succeeded in blasting away the living culture of marriage. But now that the oppressive structure has been overthrown, it seems to have an Arcadian mythic elegance. I sometimes wonder if same-sex marriage is leftism, wistful for bourgeois tenderness, bringing a picnic to the evocative ruins.

2. Last fall the response of some to Prop 8's victory was to search out its supporters and harass them. This was condemned by many gay marriage supporters for what it was, thuggery. But there is still an unwillingness, most recently expressed by the New Hampshire legislature, to codify religious protections into law with regard to this issue, as if those who oppose gay marriage, as I do, should be compelled to endorse it.

This elevation of gay marriage over the health of civil society will inflame, not persuade.

The maneuvering of left and right leaves me cold because it obscures the one issue I care about.

Marriage is an expression of Jesus Christ's redeeming love for his church. I care that his power to transform and nurture is exhibited deeply in my relationship with my wife and sons. I care that his power is exhibited in the congregation I serve. I care that his power should reach people who at this moment may be antagonized by his name.

I'm grateful to the homosexuals who have come to the church, and those who've admitted me into their lives as a friend. In a time of rancor, I appreciate the chance to show respect and care even in the face of profound disagreement. I am confident that Christ can and will show himself in this way.

The California Supreme Court's decision yesterday contributes nothing to this overriding project.


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.

The Diversity Culture Then and Now

by Matthew Raley To my frustration, the default mode of pastors when teaching the New Testament is, "We have to cross a huge gap of time and culture to understand the 1st century."

The Bible is indeed a foreign book, and studying it does require effort. Its foreign nature derives from a national Jewish narrative stretching back to Abraham, which imposes Hebrew patterns of thought on us even in translation. So, fine: there's a gap.

But to imagine that the cultural environment in which Christ walked, at the end of that narrative, is on the far side of a chasm, that the New Testament world is culturally alien to our own, is to misunderstand both then and now. It is to remain in a Victorian point of view.

Consider this characterization of Roman religious life from Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume I, Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co., n.d., p 74):

The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancor; not was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth.

Pick apart those ideas, and you find a description of spirituality today. Spirituality is story not doctrine. I shun speculative systems as so many "chains" that bind people in "rancor." There are many gods, and the ones I follow may not belong to you. But there is a reality to them all.

Or this (p 75): "Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship." There was, Gibbon says, a tolerance of all traditions. That is certainly the ethic today.

To be sure, Gibbon was grinding an ax with regard to Christianity, and his care to present the Roman world as civilized and ironic -- rather like himself -- was motivated by that agenda. In my 19th century edition of the Decline and Fall, the editor scores Gibbon for exaggerating polytheistic tolerance in a lengthy footnote in minuscule print (pp 509-510).

Still, Gibbon's description of 1st century society as spiritually open agrees with the book of Acts. Luke famously says that the Athenians "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new." So they heard from Paul and, after due amusement at the idea of resurrection, said they would hear him again (17.16-34).

Here is the town clerk calming an anti-Christian riot in Ephesus (19.35-37):

Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious not blasphemers of our goddess.

It worked.

My new book, The Diversity Culture, is based on the fact that our American culture is very like the 1st century. In particular it is like the Samaritan culture with which Jesus interacted in John 4.

Sychar was at the junction of trade routes, and had been for centuries. By the time Jesus sat at its well, the ethnicity of its inhabitants was profoundly mixed, even untraceable. The Samaritans had gone back and forth between polytheism and Judaism several times. And the woman Jesus met at that well was evidence that the family as an institution had broken down.

The similarities between Samaria and America are important.

I do not believe that American evangelicals have seen the height of Christianity's glory. The Victorian culture that did not survive the industrial age was historically Christianity's dusk. The story of the 19th century was one of Christendom sinking into unbelief while retaining the cultural habits of faith. That was truly a time far removed from the 1st century.

We are now entering an age of renewed opportunity.

Our contemporary culture of openness and the ancient culture in which Christ's message first thrived are strikingly similar. We are in a time of absolute spiritual darkness. The claim that there is one God will be as countercultural now as it was to ancient polytheism.

But if we can recover the ways Christ spoke his exclusive claims into cultural diversity, we will see him speak afresh. And we can recover them, because we are closer to the New Testament environment than we've been for centuries.

Give Me Tough Questions for 2009

by Matthew Raley "The Ideologists," by Max Beckmann, 1919, Museum of Modern Art

I am gathering topics for Tough Questions 2009, the annual sermon series in which the community tells me what to preach. This year, the term "community" embraces the blogosphere.

In the comments to this post, leave any question about morality, politics, spirituality, or culture related to Christianity, and I will choose six to answer. The best questions are precisely worded, and come in complete English sentences. (Yes, that has been a problem.) For a collection of last year's topics, click here.

The series will begin August 9. If you're not anywhere close to the Evangelical Free Church of Orland, CA, or in any case have no inclination to go there, the audio will be available here at Tritone Life.

Being Christians in the Age of Obama

Sermon audio (10-19-08): Opposition to Christ in You Yeah, I know: it ain't over til the fat lady sings. Obama isn't elected yet. McCain could still pull an upset.

But nothing changes the fact that our country is headed for an acrimonious reckoning. The name Obama itself reflects the depth of the nation's divisions. About half the country is convinced he'll redeem America, and about half thinks he'll turn us into France. Americans are in the habit of getting pretty worked up over presidential candidates, but this year is special.

Consider a few flash-points.

Many Republicans are angry over the media's investigations of Joe the plumber. At National Review Online on Monday, Byron York reported from a McCain rally where the spectators were holding up signs like "Phil the Bricklayer" and "Rose the Teacher." The encounters between such people and reporters quickly escalated. One man said to reporters, "I support McCain, but I’ve come to face you guys because I’m disgusted with you guys." Many see themselves as persecuted.

On his Monday radio show, Sean Hannity interviewed a girl who was called a racist for wearing a McCain T-shirt to school. Her parents complained that the teachers and administrators had done nothing. More persecution.

Sarah Palin continues to divide not only the country in general but conservatives in particular. George Will, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan have earned the ire of the grassroots right for their rejection of her populism. The ire is expressed along class lines, that these are fake conservatives because they are intellectuals, members of the media elite who look down their noses at common folk. Persecution from turncoats.

In California, the portents of an Obama victory combined with a victory for gay marriage against Proposition 8 are giving many evangelicals nightmares about totalitarian judges taking away their religious freedom. Persecution from government bureaucrats.

This election is defined less along the lines of economics, philosophy, or even race than those of class and culture. From the grassroots conservative point of view, it's Walmart against Wall Street, blue collar against white, Western Pennsylvania against San Francisco. It's Obama against Palin.

Evangelicals have spent decades confusing political causes with the cause of Christ. I have written at length about their populism and resentment, characteristics that mix a particular American identity -- predominantly rural and suburban, middle class, and conservative -- with godliness and truth. This year, many evangelicals fervently hope that populist anger will carry McCain to victory.

I think evangelicals are at a watershed.

If they invest their passion into being Sam's Club Republicans, into retaining the consumer culture that "made America great," and if they continue to link their faith in Christ and their political views, then they will be deluded about this year's reckoning.

They will interpret a McCain victory as some divine approval of their way of life, and will ignore the role their own immorality has played in the nation's decline. Conversely, they will interpret an Obama victory as the beginning of the persecution of the common American, stoking the fires of their resentment even hotter.

Neither response will advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, but merely intensify the acrimony.

But if evangelicals invest their passion into being Jesus' followers, into showing his grace and truth in their relationships, then they will see this year's election for what it is -- an opportunity. This is our chance to demonstrate that we care more about displaying Christ's glory than about displaying America's.

Many of the evangelicals I know are determined to make Christ the issue in their lives. They are taking steps to glorify him in their marriages, in the nurturing of their children, in their personal devotion to the scriptures and prayer, and in simple integrity. These believers understand how the sins of God's people are more significant causes of America's spiritual death than the sins of non-Christians. They also understand that their process of repentance will be full of suffering.

But they voice their sense of peace that Christ will turn them into unique expressions of his love, and that their individuality in him will become a clear, strong message of the gospel. They know that any opposition they get for displaying Christ is not opposition to their social status, or their political views, or their economic aspirations, but is the same opposition that Christ himself got when he was on earth. And they know that Christ can overcome that opposition.

To advance Christ's Kingdom, evangelicals must take one course or the other, the political or the spiritual. And the political course has demonstrably failed.

I am convinced that devotion to Jesus will help us avoid putting hope in a McCain administration, and that such devotion is the only way to face our more likely future, the age of Obama, without acrimony.