July 22, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: War in Lebanon

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:31 pm

No one believes, or at least will admit to believing, that the outbreak of war in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon is a good thing. But some believe that these events are fulfilling God’s Word in our presence.

Neil Little, a Toledoan who has programs on WGGN-FM (97.7) in Sandusky, said he is concerned that the networks reporting on the Middle East fighting are not making any references to Bible prophecy.

“Nobody is bringing up that this is what was prophesied in Jeremiah and Isaiah — that Israel would be bombarded,” Mr. Little said. “I understand what the geopolitical issues are all about, but I believe the coming of Christ is just around the corner. I preach it. I don’t want to scare people, but Christians should know what’s going on.”

The pre-trib pre-millenial dispensationalist worldview holds that many of these events are inevitable because “prophesy demands it”, as Hal Lindsey wrote in The Late Great Planet Earth. This leads to a fatalism: “Gee, it’s terrible that innocent men, women and children are dying, but you know, it’s God’s will, because prophecy demands it.” Hezbollah lobs rockets into Israel? Jeremiah. Christians in Lebanon are dying? Isaiah.

This fatalism results in a curious inaction, in a silence in the face of war, almost as if to work for peace in the middle east would be to thwart God’s will. Condoleeza Rice is delaying a U.S. call for a ceasefire to give Israel some time to root out Hezbollah, a move to which none of Bush’s Christian supporters are objecting. I wouldn’t presume that apocalyptic eschatology is driving Rice’s current policy towards the conflict, but I do think it is driving the approval of those policies by much of the Republicans’ base. After all, if we actually achieved a just peace in the middle east, we would be proving God a liar.

This attitude is behind much of the Christian Zionism in the U.S. Genesis 12:3 describes God’s promise to Abram that God will give him the land of Israel, and that “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you”. This becomes the proof-text for an unqualified support for Israel regardless of the wisdom and morality of its actions. U.S. pressure for Israel to stand down in the current conflict would be seen as abandoning God’s command that Abraham’s descendants will live in Israel. As Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary, writes:

Even if we believe that God wants the contemporary nation of Israel to prosper in the land that was promised to her ancestors, evangelical Christians do Israel no favors by refusing to criticize what the Israelis are presently doing in the Middle East. No one cared more about the well-being of the Hebrew people than the prophets of ancient Israel. Yet those prophets regularly criticized Israel’s leaders for their corrupt practices. They minced no words when they were convinced that the people of Israel were guilty of injustice: “O Israel, return to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity”

So here is yet another downside to the apocalyptic worldview. Conservative Christians are abandoning God’s will for us to speak truth to power and to be peacemakers in favor of a fatalistic acceptance of all manner of tragedy in the middle east and an unquestioning support for any and all of Israel’s actions.

July 14, 2006

Schism and the Death of the Religious Left

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 6:02 pm

From Adele Stan, an article on the Christian left in The American Prospect:

However tempting it may be to think of these controversies as the mere internecine struggles of individual churches, to do so would be to ignore their significance for the progressive movement as a whole. Ever since the rise of the religious right, liberals have longed for a religious counterpart on the left. But that notion was always dubious, and the recent turmoil within the Episcopal Church should put it to rest for good. Without the wholehearted participation of the mainline Protestant churches, there can be no religious left remotely comparable to the Christian right in Protestant-dominated America. And churches in the throes of schism hardly have the wherewithal to marshal their resources in the service of battles in the secular political arena.

A schism would be painful for all involved, but in some sense it would be incredibly freeing. What would remain of the ECUSA would be a leading voice, along with the UCC, in an emerging Christian left. I would think those on the secular left should be rooting for just such an outcome.

Those of us in the mainline denominations have these crazy ideas about reconciliation, peacemaking and Christian unity, so none of us want to see our denominations split. But with or without schism, the liberalizing forces in the mainline can’t be stopped. In fact, with the exception of equal rights for gays, leaders of the mainline denominations are already advocating left-of-center policies regarding federal spending on social issues, world hunger, AIDS, and the middle east. And none of these positions are causing threats of schism.

Of course the divisions are all about gay rights, which is a more visceral issue than funding for food stamps. I don’t know what will happen with the ECUSA, or my own denomination, the ELCA, over the next ten years. We will try to avoid schism without sacrificing our deeply held understanding of God’s will, but may not succeed. Regardless, at the other end of this process, there will be a more unified, although perhaps smaller, mainline that will embrace gay rights as well as broader peace and justice issues. I don’t know if it will be called “the Christian left”, but it will be everything Stan and others are looking for. They just have to be patient.

July 11, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Intermezzo

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:25 pm

I’ve been reading Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed, and enjoying it very much. I first learned of her book when looking into various views on the rapture for my earliers posts, and picked up a copy.

Rossing makes a convincing case that Revelation is entirely misunderstood by the dispensationalists, and that

  • It’s intended audience is the 1st century Christian community in the middle east, not the 21st century Christian community in the U.S. and Europe.
  • Jesus’ victory is by means of his death and resurrection, his gospel of peace and compassion, and Christians’ witness to their faith, not by means of a violent military encounter.
  • Revelation is prophetic in the original meaning of the word — it speaks God’s truth — instead of the current meaning — of telling the future. The dispensationalist notion that “prophecy demands it” misses the point of prophecy, which is as a warning of what may happen if we don’t repent, not as a prediction of what will happen regardless of what we do.
  • The pre-trib pre-millenialist interpretation is anything but literal — it requires, for example, assuming that the events described in the first half of a bible verse and the second half of the same verse are separated by 2,000 years.

Rossing certainly is clearing up for me the true meaning of Revelation. But, my objective in this series of posts is not to argue the hermeneutics of apocalyptic biblical interpretation. For that, I will defer to Rossing and others. My point here is only that we mainline Protestants have our authorities explaining our view of the meaning of Revelation, and the dispensationalists have another set of authorities (I will be gracious here) explaining their view. All are Christian, and all are sincere believers in their point of view. Most importantly, our choice between these eschatologies, I maintain, is an adiophoron, something that is not essential to our faith nor our salvation.

So the mainline versus the dispensationalist interpretations are choices we are free to make. Given that it’s a choice, what is the worldview of those choosing the mainline interpretation versus the worldview of those choosing the dispensationalist interpretation? And how does this worldview affect more broadly the theology and the politics of those who hold it?

July 9, 2006

The Meltdown of Liberal Christianity

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:41 pm

An editorial in the L.A. Times by Charlotte Allen, an editor for Beliefnet.com, titled “Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins”, attempts to trash my denomination (among others) and my faith.

Allen’s opinion piece is full of so many rhetorical excesses, logical fallacies and flights of fancy, I’m not sure where to begin. But I will start here:

It doesn’t help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark (“The Rise of Christianity”) and historian Philip Jenkins (“The Next Christendom”) contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents’ commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women’s ordination. The churches are growing robustly, both in the United States and around the world.

Correlation does not imply causation. Allen makes a specious connection here between the growth of female clergy and the decline in mainline church membership. This is a rhetorical smearing based on a none-too-subtle question: is it a coincidence? Asking the question presupposes the answer, all in the absence, as she must admit, of any evidence.

What’s interesting is that Allen ties this in with the observation that strict churches result in more committed adherents. Allen is implying that strict churches are growing churches, when the research only says that strict churches’ members are more committed. Whether a church is strict has nothing to do with whether it’s liberal or conservative. I believe that liberal mainline churches demand much more of their members than conservative mega-churches do. The vast majority of mainline church members are straight, but their churches are increasingly demanding them to be tolerant and accepting towards gays. This is change, and change is hard! The conservative megas make no such demands of their members. Mega-churches draw members with comfortable seating, lattes, the gospel of prosperity, and a worldview that validates their members’ deepest prejudices as biblically ordained. Liberal churches are making their members uncomfortable, forcing us to reconsider our unexamined assumptions such as whether God has a gender, the nature of sexual orientation, and the morality of our comfortable suburban affluence. Many liberal Protestant churches, growing or not, have devoutly committed members, because they have been confronted with a God who demands they move away from an easy judgmentalism to a very disomforting love of “the other.”

Allen calls the ECUSA a “Church of What’s Happening Now” concerned with whatever feels good. I really doubt any of the liberal members of the Episcopal Church are feeling very good right now. Meanwhile, many conservative churches engaged in an orgy of patriotic songs and flag-waving last Sunday that must have felt very good, while having nothing to do with worshiping our Lord.

But the worst part of this piece is the statement that mainline churches no longer believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, fully human but also fully divine, our Lord and Savior. Allen says that “the Episcopalians at Columbus overwhelmingly refused even to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord”, something that I am not familiar with and can’t comment upon. She also says that Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori “invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests” as Bishop of Nevada. From these two assertions, Allen infers that not only the ECUSA, but all of mainline protestantism, has abandoned “a bedrock Christian theological statement.”

What in the world is she talking about?

Tolerating diverse opinions such as Spong’s is not the same as agreeing with them. Unlike Roman Catholics or the Southern Baptist Convention, Episcopalians have a tradition of allowing diversity of belief, while uniting around a common religious practice, a compromise that served them well through England’s religious conflicts.

Spong aside, let me be clear: mainline Protestantism continues to confess the Triune God. My denomination, the ELCA, stands firm in the Lutheran tradition of a faith based in God’s saving grace through the death and resurrection of God’s only son, Jesus Christ. Allen’s assertion is libelous.

Given her rhetorical excesses and logical fallacies, I was left wondering why Allen would go so far out of her way to slam us liberal Christians. It would seem her conclusion provides the answer:

And they [liberal Christians] keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program — ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth — or die. Sure.

It seems her objections ultimately come down to the ordination of gay and women clergy, the search for inclusive language and the tolerance of dissenting theologies. Upon these objections, she condemns the entire mainline. But her battle isn’t with liberal mainline Protestantism at all, but with progressive elements in the Roman Catholic church.

If Allen wants to pick a fight with fellow Catholics, she can go right ahead — just leave us Protestants out of it.

July 7, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Part 4

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:57 am

In an interview by Salon, Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and a very vocal anti-monotheist, responds to a question thusly:

Salon: If you’re a Christian and you look at the figure of Jesus, you can easily read his core message as being about love and compassion and caring, particularly for the outcasts of society.

Harris: That is Jesus in half his moods speaking that way. But there’s another Jesus in there. There’s a Jesus who’s just paradoxical and difficult to interpret, a Jesus who tells people to hate their parents. And then there is the Jesus — while he may not be as plausible given how we want to think about Jesus — but he’s there in scripture, coming back amid a host of angels, destined to deal out justice to the sinners of the world. That is the Jesus that fully half of the American electorate is most enamored of at this moment.

Harris has been listening to the pre-trib pre-millenialists and their interpretation of Jesus’ return. And it is a Jesus I don’t recognize.

Are there really two Jesuses? A loving and compassionate Jesus and a vengeful smiting Jesus?

Lets compare two images of Jesus. First, a bit of stream of consciousness from the gospels:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy…If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…Love your neighbor as yourself…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Now here’s another image of Jesus:

Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. . . . Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.

This is from Glorious Appearing, the twelfth book of the Left Behind series, as quoted by Harpers.

No wonder Sam Harris speaks of “another Jesus in there”. Here is the evil inherent in the fundamentalist eschatology, the conservative apocalypse. Jesus becomes transformed from loving savior to savage killer.

This hope for a warrior Jesus isn’t new — after all, the disciples were expecting the messiah to overthrow the Romans and institute a new kingdom in the Temple. There’s a scene in the wonderful Christian movie The Last Temptation of Christ when, as they are walking to Jerusalem, Peter asks Jesus “is an army of angels going to meet us at Jerusalem?” While not biblical, it certainly captures the disciples’ expectation. In the Bible, Peter, the wonderfully dense Rock, is ready to fight when Jesus is arrested:

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.

But Jesus chastises Peter, and goes peacefully with the soldiers. In the gospels, Jesus’ kingdom is not one enforced by military power.

So why would anyone want to believe that when Jesus returns there will be “blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ”?

Vengeance.

Going back to my first post in this series, the apocalypse in general gives hope to the oppressed. In America, it gives hope to the culturally estranged, conservatives who see the culture changing around them, outside of their control. The government, liberals, Hollywood, globalization and pluralism are all blamed for rising crime, a coarsening culture and changing cultural norms. I’m sure it’s hard for many rural, conservative Christians to adjust. It’s not just that the world is changing, but that the conservative Christian culture has gone from the dominant societal norm to being marginalized. It would be easy to slip into resentment, anger and hatred of the prevailing culture, along with a growing conviction that the old ways were godly and the new ways are not.

It’s a small step from there to hoping, even confidently anticipating, God’s violent vengeance being wreaked upon the sinners. It would be a vindication, justice, revenge and restitution all in one, accomplished by a stroke of the sword coming from the Lord’s mouth. This desire for revenge isn’t seen as self-serving, but as God fulfilling his promise to institute his reign on earth. The victims of Jesus’ wrath are goats, not sheep, and it is divine justice he is meting out, not insanely bloody and horrific warfare. We Christians are not allowed to commit murder, but we can take joy in the anticipation of God’s perfect judgment upon those He condemns to hell. God (and we) have been patient, long-suffering, and merciful. In Armageddon, God, in His own time, has unfolded his plan to cleanse the earth of those unworthy of the new millenium by spilling their “innards and entrails” on the desert floor. Praise God!

At the heart of pre-trib pre-millenialism is a desire to see the “other” punished by God, and violently so. What’s worse is the belief that the Christians who have been raptured will have a ring-side seat in heaven to watch it all unfold. Not only does God smite our enemies, but we get to watch!

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ turned upside down.

More next time…

Obama and "The Speech"

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:15 am

I’ve been reading the blogosphere’s reaction to Barack Obama’s speech to Call to Renewal, and it’s been all over the map. Aside from those who are unable to tolerate religion whatsoever, and others who are unable to tolerate pluralism whatsoever, it seems there are two reactions. Chuck Currie (and I) loved what he had to say about Christianity and its call to help the least of these. Michelle Goldberg and Frederick Carlson object to Obama’s reinforcing the conservative frame of the liberals’ war on Christianity. Kevin Drum does a good job of summarizing:

And it turns out that in a speech of 4,600 words — mainly about his own religious journey, the liberal message inherent in the Bible, and the importance of the separation of church and state — he really only discussed liberal attitudes toward religion in four places.

[…]

But the plain fact is that he was careful in his speech and also plainly correct: “some” liberals are uncomfortable with any mention of religion in the public square, and he thinks this is too bad.

Nathan Newman at TPMCafe also hits the nail on the head:

If you read the whole speech, the almost kneejerk response to Obama pretty much illustrates his point of the discomfort by some progressives in any discussion of religion in the public square.

So Obama should have avoided playing into the conservative frame regarding secularist oppression of Christians, but let’s just accept the fact that many on the left are still learning the best way to speak about their faith in the current atmosphere, and may stumble as they look for the right words. At the same time, I hope Obama and others don’t retreat under fire. Visible Christian progressives like Obama may need to refine their message, but not abandon it.

As Amy Sullivan writes on this topic,

Americans are looking, Obama said, for a “deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country.” He started that conversation. A few others are joining in. It’s time for everyone else to catch up.

July 2, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Part 3

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:02 pm

So if the apocalyptic parts of the Bible are difficult to understand for those of us that haven’t spent years studying them, what do the professional theologians and pastors make of them? Let’s take a survey.

First, the Lutherans. A few years ago, Dr. Barbara Rossing, a professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, wrote The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Apparently, the first sentence in her book is “The rapture is a racket.” Instead, she believes Revelation tells us that:

God hears our cries; Jesus, the Lamb, is a new Moses, and He leads God’s people out of oppression into freedom—which is the new Jerusalem vision of chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation.

Next, the Roman Catholics. Dr. Paul Thigpen, author of The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to ‘End Times’ Fever, writes:

So what does the Catholic Church officially teach about the true meaning of all these puzzling symbols, figures, and events [in the book of Revelation]?

The short answer: Not much.

What about the evangelicals? Aren’t they all believers that we are in the end-times? Tony Campolo, author of Speaking My Mind, has said:

I have some problems with the whole Rapture theory, as [my] book suggests.

Two very important points I’d like to make here. First, all of these Christian thinkers believe in the second coming of Christ, and to some extent the prophecies of a tribulation. It’s the belief in the rapture, and that biblical prophecies are coming true in today’s newspapers, with which they disagree.

Secondly, unlike the authors I’ve quoted, my intent here is not to “debunk” the pre-trib pre-millenial interpretation. I’m only trying to demonstrate that it is not the only sincerely Christian interpretation. It isn’t even the majority view of Christians across the world. The world’s Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestants, and even many evangelicals, faithful Christians all, understand the apocalyptic tradition in the Bible differently than the “Left Behind” believers.

Belief in the rapture is a choice. It is one alternative understanding among several, all equally Christian, that one decides to embrace.

I would never dream of criticizing Christians who, understanding the differing apocalyptic theologies and in the good faith of their God-centered religious journey, come to believe in the rapture. (Angel, this means you!) God bless those Christians whose minds are open, but come down on the side of pre-trib pre-millenialism.

But here’s what I’m interested in: the worldview of Christians who have come to view the rapture as a shibboleth: a belief that separates the true believers from the apostates, the pretenders, the social Christians.

In my next post, I’ll start discussing some of the elements of the worldview that is inextricably linked with a belief in the rapture and a rapidly approaching apocalypse.

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