January 29, 2007

Richard Niebuhr: The Culture War Isn't New

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 pm

Over the years I’ve tried to occasionally tackle some of the theology classics, such as Mere Christianity and Miracles by C.S. Lewis, The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be. (Yes, I am a total nerd — reading theology for fun.) So now I’m reading Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr (the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, another author on my list). Having blogged for several years about the current conflicts between religion (both left and right) and culture (left and right) in the U.S., I always felt we have been experiencing a unique dynamic in a unique cultural context. Then I read the opening words of Chapter 1 in Niebuhr’s book, written 56 years ago:

Christ and Culture (Torchbooks)

A many-sided debate about the relations of Christianity and civilization is being carried on in our time. Historians and theologians, statesmen and churchmen, Catholics and Protestants, Christians and anti-Christians participate in it. It is carried on publicly by opposing parties and privately in the conflicts of conscience. Sometimes it is concentrated on special issues, such as those of the place of Christain faith in general education or of Christian ethics in economic life. Sometimes it deals with broad questions of the church’s responsibility for social order or of the need for a new separation of Christ’s followers from the world.

The debate is as confused as it is many-sided. When it seems that the issue has been clearly defined as lying between the exponents of a Christian civilization and the non-Christian defenders of a wholly secularized society, new perplexitiies arise as devoted believers seem to make common cause with secularists, calling, for instance, for the elimination of religions from public education, or for the Christian support of apparently anti-Christian political movements. So many voices are heard, so many confident but diverse assertions about the Christian answer to the social problem are being made, so many issues are raised, that bewilderment and uncertainty beset many Christians.

In this situation it is helpful to remember that the question of Christianity and civilization is by no means a new one; that Christian perplexity in this area has been perennial, and that the problem has been an enduring one through all the Christian centuries.

He goes on to describe just how the conflict between Christianity and the civilization in which it finds itself has reappeared repeatedly throughout history, beginning even during the life of Jesus. And it continues today.

This reminds me of why we read the classics: so that we don’t reinvent the wheel out of our narcissistic belief that our experiences are unique.

January 25, 2007

The Virtues of Evangelical Sex

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 12:26 am

Alexandra Pelosi (whose mother was sitting behind our President last night) has made a documentary on evangelicals. Her tour guide throughout was Ted Haggard, former pastor of the New Life (mega)Church and former President of the NAE. She completed the documentary a week before the revelations of Haggard’s drug-enhanced sexual liaisons with a male prostitute. This interview in Newsweek focuses mostly on her reactions to Haggard’s fall and its impact on her documentary, but there is also this:

Early on in the film, Haggard tells you, “Surveys say that evangelicals have the best sex life of any other group.” He then asks a pair of married, young male parishioners standing nearby how often they have sex with their wives. One of them responds, “Every day. Twice a day.” Then Haggard asks the man how frequently she climaxes. “Every time,” the man says. Leaving all the subtext aside for a moment, I’m wondering if this exchange was in the very first cut of the film, even before the revelations about Haggard came to light?
Yes, it was just a pure, weird coincidence.

What did you think of that conversation when you first witnessed it? And what do you think watching it now?

Well, look, evangelicals have issues with sex. The two biggest issues for them are gay marriage and abortion, both of which are about sex on some level. And he’s standing in the parking lot of a church talking all about sex.

But when I saw that exchange, I wasn’t thinking about either issue. I was thinking about Ted Haggard’s dishonesty. And it also made me wonder about how truthful the other two men were being.
I just think that they’re the only three men in America who have sex with their wives every single day. And hey, good for them.

So sure, the subsequent revelations about Haggard cast all of this in a different light, but let’s just ignore Haggard’s repressed sexual orientation for now. This whole conversation, apparently initiated by Haggard, is totally bizarre!

Let’s start with the claim itself, that evangelicals have better sex lives. What is this supposed to mean? That people with good sex lives are more apt to be evangelical? It’s more likely he meant that being an evangelical Christian improves one’s sex life. When Jesus says we shall have life and have it more abundantly, was he talking about sex every day, twice a day? I’m kinda thinking that wasn’t what Jesus meant. So what is Haggard getting at?

Maybe he’s thinking it’s good evangelism: “if you aren’t satisfied with your sex life, come to church!” After all, sex is used to sell everything else, maybe he figured he could use it to sell Jesus. Now that would be an interesting way to reach the unchurched.

Here’s another thing I can’t help but wonder about — the reaction of the two men of whom Haggard asked a rather personal question. What would you do if your pastor asked you how often you have sex, and how often your wife had an orgasm? I’d be convinced I had stepped into an alternate universe. Now I’m certainly not hung up about sex, and if he asked me these questions in a private conversation because they related to, say, a personal or spiritual crisis I was having, then sure, I’d be happy to talk about it. But in a parking lot? With cameras rolling?

So I suppose the two men clued in to the fact that this was evangelism going on here. But what’s the right answer? “We only have sex for the purposes of procreation, and we are careful not to enjoy it!”? Clearly not — the correct answer is “every day, twice a day” and she climaxes “every time”. That, of course, is nothing but juvenile swagger of the sort most of us grew out of when we started shaving. As far as I’m concerned, anyone that talks about how much sex they’re getting has gotta be a virgin.

Which perhaps is the truth underlying this whole exchange. I’m just speculating, but perhaps this conversation was an attempt by some men with some issues about sex to prove to the outside world that they are just as much “swingers” as all those people having all that sex out there in the secular world, except that their sex is within the bounds of Christian marriage (whoops). Perhaps they imagine that the non-churched are having all this sex, so they have to demonstrate that they are too, and in fact having even more than the non-churched. “Hey, we’re Christians, but that doesn’t mean we’re not ‘wild and craaaaazy guys!'”

I don’t know, I guess that’s being pretty uncharitable, and I don’t mean to be. It’s just this little anecdote prompts so much head-scratching that I can’t help but wonder at the inner life it reveals about the participants. And all this without even considering Haggard’s closeted homosexuality! It boggles the mind.

Update: It looks like Pelosi’s documentary is on HBO tonight, Thursday Jan. 25th, at 9 PM.

January 22, 2007

Christ, Salvation and the Non-Christian

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:28 pm

Elmo at p.o.s. 51 has a post on a hot-button issue for conservative Christians — whether only Christians get to go to heaven. Elmo’s interest in this theological topic stems from some of the ECUSA’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s comments in the press. From a Time Magazine interview from last July:

Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?

We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.

An article of faith for conservative Christians is that God’s grace is unavailable to non-Christians. And yet, I agree with Bishop Jefferts Schori. While I have maintained on this blog that I am theologically orthodox, have I finally revealed my true spots as a theological liberal? Hardly.

William Placher stakes out the various positions on this theological conundrum thusly (my paraphrase):

  • Exclusivists believe that all non-Christians will go to hell
  • Inclusivists believe that there are “anonymous Christians”, saved by Christ without necessarily understanding it is Christ that is saving them
  • Pluralists believe that good Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims can go to heaven

While the pluralist position may be more recent, and hence “liberal”, theologians have been debating exclusivism vs. inclusivism for centuries. Dante, author of The Divine Comedy in the 14th century, was an inclusivist, as is Roman Catholic teaching today. C.S. Lewis, certainly no theological liberal, was an inclusivist, as anyone who’s read The Last Battle, the last book in the Narnia series, can attest. So the inclusivist position has a rather orthodox pedigree. It’s just not true that only exclusivists are Real ChristiansTM.

But let’s go to the heart of the matter — John 14:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Conservative Christians automatically see this as a statement about how to get to heaven — make a decision for Christ, say the sinner’s prayer, be born again, and join the local megachurch. But there’s another way to read this verse — as a trinitarian statement about who Jesus is in relationship to God the Father. Jesus seems to be explaining that, as one of the three persons of the trinitarian Godhead, it is Jesus who bridges the great divide between the Father and a fallen humanity. He isn’t saying anything about what we have to do to get into heaven, but is telling the apostles who he is.

So is this interpretation correct? As always, context is important. Before Jesus’ statement about the way, the truth and the life, he talks about heaven:

Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

So it’s easy to think that this is all about how to get a dwelling place in heaven reserved in your name. But a few verses later John says:

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.


”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

This is a description of Jesus as a part of the Trinity. Jesus is explaining who he is and how he relates to God the Father and God the Spirit. To turn this into instructions on how to get to heaven is missing the whole point. Jesus is God, but plays a unique role within the Trinity — he makes God visible to us, and he sends us the Holy Spirit.

As Jefferts Schori says, we are putting God in an awfully small box if we turn Jesus’ words about who he is, and who the trinitarian God is, into instructions for getting into heaven (and keeping everyone else out).

But back to Elmo’s post. He received an email from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA on this topic. Bishop Hanson says, in part:

Bishop Schori’s remarks about those who are saved represent a specific theological school of thought that became increasingly popular at the Second Vatican Council and beyond. While it does not deny that Christ is God’s revealed means of salvation, it opens the door for the possibility that God has the capability of saving fallen humanity through a variety of means. Such a position would be in accordance with the biblical principle that God desires the salvation of every human being. We are certain that God accomplishes such salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are not certain that God also will act in other ways to proffer salvation. Only God knows how God will act to redeem the world.

I agree. (Good thing too, since Bp. Hanson is the head of my denomination.) Bishop Hanson is speaking inclusivistically here, not exclusivistically.

There is much more to say here (Jefferts Schori expanded on her statement in an NPR interview last November; Bishop Hanson tactfully criticizes Jeffert Schori’s choice of words in that interview; Father Jake had some interesting thoughts; etc.), but I’m going to leave it there for now, save one closing thought.

Where we stand on this issue of whether non-Christians can be saved gives a clear picture of what kind of a God we believe in. Does God set up a rigid credal test for who’s in and who’s out? Will the victim of a priest’s sexual abuse who subsequently rejects Christianity spend an eternity burning in hell while the priest who abused him is forgiven? Is the Kingdom of God a private club, for members only?

Or is God’s grace limitless? Does God make the effort to reveal Godself to those unable to receive God through the Christian church, for whatever reason? Does everyone, no matter where or into what circumstances they are born, have an equal chance at salvation? Is God just? Is God love?

I know which God I believe in.

January 20, 2007

Gay Lutheran Pastor Goes On Trial

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:22 pm

Update: Day-by-day updates are available here, although since it’s a closed hearing, there’s not much hard news — still, it’s uplifting to hear of the events from the point of view of the defense team.

Update II: The hearing ended on Tuesday Jan. 23rd, and a decision must be issued before Feb. 7th. Details here.

I’m afraid the ELCA, which, as is typical for us Lutherans, has tried to keep everyone happy with the whole gay clergy issue, has stepped right into the middle of it. The Bishop of the ELCA’s Southeastern Synod, Bishop Warren, has elected to conduct a disciplinary hearing to remove Pastor Bradley Schmeling of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta. In spite of the current ELCA rules requiring celibacy for gay pastors (which the last Churchwide Assembly regrettably voted to keep in place), the Bishop has a great deal of latitude in how to deal with partnered gay clergy. Unfortunately, he has decided on a disciplinary hearing.

From the Washington Post, we hear how the St. John’s congregation prepared for this hearing by performing an act of sublime servanthood and humility first modeled by our Lord:

Members of the oldest Lutheran congregation in Atlanta washed their pastor’s feet — and he washed theirs — in a gesture of mutual support as he prepared to go before a tribunal that may defrock him for living with another man.

The Atlanta Constitution has a moving story about a life-long Lutheran who went from staunchly opposing Pastor Schmeling when he was first called, to donating money for his defense in his hearing:

James Mayer is a 70-year-old truck driver from South Carolina who calls himself a “tough Lutheran.”

But when he talks about what’s happened to him during the past six years, his eyes well up. He swallows hard and sighs. Then the tears come.


“My mother preached the Bible; Daddy lived the Bible,” he says. “If I said I needed help, he was there. The words ‘I love you” weren’t part of his vocabulary. It was just something I knew.”

Mayer says he saw the same quality in Schmeling. He somehow made people know that he cared for them. He made time to help. Made time to meet complete strangers. Made time to make everyone welcome.

By the time Mayer learned that Schmeling had a partner, he says it was “irrelevant” to him.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he says. “If you find someone like Pastor Brad that everyone likes, you know that he was going to run into someone who was gay and who felt the same way the rest of us do.”

St. John’s is conducting services and prayers around the clock during the trial. Meanwhile, Bishop Warren has tried to keep the whole hearing completely under wraps. According to one of Pastor Schmeling’s advisors, the Bishop has closed the hearing and tried to get Schmeling to agree to media silence. Schmeling has refused.

This is not a situation forced on Bishop Warren by church rules, or by anyone outside his Synod. Now perhaps Bishop Warren felt he had to pursue this course of action to keep the other ELCA churches in his synod happy — after all, this is the deep south we’re talking about. But regardless, he is at risk of losing one of the few growing congregations in the ELCA, since St. John’s has said they’d rather leave the ELCA than lose their pastor. How many churches would say the same thing about their pastors, gay or straight? Again, from the Washington Post:

“Everybody in the congregation feels Bradley was really called to us, and nothing has changed about that. Regardless of what happens, I don’t see our position that he’s our pastor changing,” Ballew said.

Asked whether parishioners would rather keep Schmeling or remain in the ELCA, Ballew momentarily fell silent.

“We have long ties to the Lutheran Church; we would never leave voluntarily. I don’t see that changing either, not from our standpoint,” he said. “But I can’t really speculate on what the bishop would do.”

There’s something wrong when a denomination forces a thriving congregation to choose between their pastor, whom they believe has been called by God to serve them, or staying in the denomination.

Please pray for Pastor Schmeling and St. John’s. And for Biship Warren.

January 18, 2007

IRD, Ex-Episcopalians, and Mainline Orthodoxy

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:11 pm

And then, without a word of explanation, he began blogging again…

Mark Tooley of the IRD, the arch-conservative organization working to create schism in mainline denominations, has another piece in the American Spectator, this time criticizing a statement by over a thousand clergy calling for an increase in the minimum wage. Tooley quickly goes to one of the stock criticisms of mainline protestantism:

But note the tone of utter moral certainty from the prelates. The various Episcopal and Lutheran bishops, presbyters, and Methodist functionaries who signed on, along with an ecumenical smattering of others, would never and probably could never proclaim with such certitude any traditional articles of their own faith such as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ […]

It’s funny how often I’ve seen this meme get thrown around, that mainline protestant denominations have somehow abandoned orthodox belief. Via Father Jake, here is another very recent example from two conservative ex-Episcopalians, now-Nigerian Anglicans, causing schism in Virginia:

The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. Some leaders expressly deny the central articles of the faith — saying that traditional theism is “dead,” the incarnation is “nonsense,” the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, the understanding of the cross is “a barbarous idea,” the Bible is “pure propaganda” and so on. Others simply say the creed as poetry or with their fingers crossed.

To which the Rev. Penelope Duckworth replies:

However, in more than 20 years of ministry, I know of no Episcopalians who would say the incarnation is “nonsense,” the resurrection “a fiction,” or the Bible “pure propaganda.”

Similarly, having sat in Lutheran pews my whole life, I don’t know any Lutheran that would say such things. There may actually be some, but if I’ve met them they haven’t confessed such beliefs to me. I certainly have never heard a Lutheran pastor, nor clergy from other mainline churches I’ve visited, say anything along these lines from the pulpit, or even in private. In the ELCA we recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed every Sunday, and none of us cross our fingers.

So where does this come from? Well, there is retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who pretty much rejects orthodox Christian theology. (Of course, Rev. Duckworth is still correct, since not even Bp. Spong would say the Bible is “pure propaganda”.) What’s interesting is that some of the wording used by the Virginia Episcopalians echoes some of the wording of Spong’s 12 “theses“: “theism is dead”, salvation through the cross “a barbarian idea”, etc.

So that’s it. The Nigerian Anglican Church in America, or whatever they call themselves, is a response to a single retired Episcopalian Bishop. Never mind that Spong does not represent anyone but himself, and that the ECUSA sticks with a traditional Christian orthodoxy, much less the rest of the mainline. Apparently we are all Spongians now.

Small wonder that IRD and the ex-Episcopalians trot out the same line. It turns out there are some close ties between the Virginia churches, the IRD, and of course, Fox News.

But the real story here, despite the conservatives’ protestations to the contrary, are political and social, not theological. I didn’t quote Mark Tooley in full above. He goes on to say:

…would never and probably could never proclaim with such certitude any traditional articles of their own faith such as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, not to mention moral teachings about homosexuality or abortion. On these issues, they would likely boast of their “diversity” of opinion.

There it is — abortion and gay rights, along with increasing the minimum wage. The idea that one could be both theologically orthodox and socially and politically liberal is anathema to the conservatives. It is a very dangerous idea, since it opens the way for a faithful understanding of Christianity to not only allow, but demand, social justice and a compassionate society. And the conservatives certainly can’t allow that to happen.

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