February 15, 2007

Obligatory Post on the Edwards Bloggers

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 11:26 pm

I honestly don’t know of a single left-of-center political blog that hasn’t posted on the Marcotte/McEwan/Donohue/Edwards affair. Most left-of-center Christian blogs have posted at least once on it, if not several times. But not me. Until now.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to technorati.com, search for “marcotte mcewan” and click on any link that comes up. Forgive me if I don’t bother with links in this post — there are so many good posts to link to, I can’t begin to do justice to them all, so I’m just going to write.)

Every time I started writing a post about this saga, I ended up spending my time reading other bloggers’ posts about it, until I wasn’t sure how I felt about it anymore. Or I no longer agreed with what I had just written. Either way, I wasn’t able to actually post about it myself.

Now that it has played out, presumably, to its end, and everyone has written their fill, I can finally write something about it without getting distracted. Of course, I’m way behind everyone else, but then I’m always way behind everyone else. If you’re still reading this blog, then you’ve accepted that fact, so I feel no need to apologize. Let me just say that, if I have a fault, it’s that I have to think (well, maybe over-think) through something before I can write about it. So sue me.

Why has this whole sorry affair attracted so much blog ink? Well, it’s about blogging, and bloggers, and divisive politics, the Christian right (of the worst sort), religious taboos, sex (kind of), and how we feel about public discourse of religion. It’s an ambiguous morality tale where all sides are right, but all sides are also wrong. In short, it’s perfect for blogging.

(Except for me, because of the aforementioned personality quirk.)

Bill Donohue is a reprehensible bigot — let me get that out first, lest anyone misconstrue where my sympathies lie. The idea that Catholics, or Christians in general, should aggressively defend themselves against anti-Christian speech (real or imagined) by getting people fired, yelling on cable news shows or mounting PR battles is entirely unbiblical and unChristian. “Blessed are the meek.” Sound like Bill Donohue to you? Me neither. “Turn the other cheek.” “They will know you by your love.” “Love your enemies.” Donohue has been so entirely co-opted by our divisive political culture that he is the poster child for how not to act like Christ. He is the anti-evangelist. Any unchurched person seeing him on television would decide that Jesus teaches us to be a bully, running around screaming at people we don’t like. He’s the anti-evangelist, losing souls for Christ.

On the other hand, I like the secular liberal blogosphere. I’ve occasionally read posts on Shakespeare’s Sister and Pandagon when linked to from some of the blogs I regularly read, and always found them interesting, intelligent and pretty funny. But, there is a definite anti-Christian thread through much of the left half of the blogosphere. Just think of Markos, Kevin Drum, Atrios, etc etc. — atheists, or at least agnostics, all. They’re not anti-religious (although many of their commenters are) but they talk about Christians, even liberal Christians, as though they have just discovered the platypus. We look funny, they’re not sure what all our appendages are for, or why we’re here, but they’re happy to let us go on doing whatever it is we do.

As you go deeper into the liberal blogosphere, however, the presumption arises that anyone enlightened, intelligent and reality-based enough to be a liberal must also be an atheist. The corollary to this is that anyone superstitious enough to be Christian must also be a whackjob. And unfortunately, the Christian right gives them plenty of evidence that this is the case. The distinction between a progressive, dare I say intelligent, Christianity and fundamentalism is lost on them.

Maybe just one link. Faithful Progressive has asked for respect from the liberal bloggers:

I’d like to see blogs move away from offensive Howard Stern like comments about religion. Maybe some of the big blogs will now pledge to at least limit such profane nonsense from both their posts and comments? Is that really too much to ask for a constituency that is, in all likelihood, bigger than the Netroots?

It would be great if bloggers complied with FP’s request. But I have a different view. We are not a constituency that has to be courted and cultivated to earn our votes and support. We aren’t about earning respect, or not directly anyway. If we are to be prophetic voices, then we will say and do what we are called to do regardless of any respect or lack thereof. We aren’t in this to be welcomed on the Democrats’ team, praised, appreciated or loved. Sure, it would be nice, but if the early Christians held on to their witness in the face of the Roman lions, surely we can stand up in the face of snarky comments about the virgin Mary.

So I figure we should let the blogosphere be the blogosphere, but just make sure we add our voices to the conversation. If we are good at proclaiming our message via our blogs, it will get through, people’s minds will be changed, we will have an impact on the national conversation and our leaders and their policies will reflect that. But more importantly, we will be doing what we are called to do.

In the meantime, though, I wish Bill Donohue would shut the f*** up.

February 10, 2007

Theology Smack-Down: Andrew Sullivan vs. Sam Harris

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 3:46 pm

For the past couple weeks, Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris have been having an online debate on faith. They have already covered a lot of territory, and it’s still going on. I am finding this “blogalogue” fascinating.

Although he’s a political conservative, Sullivan reflects a fairly moderate, and in some respects, a progressive Roman Catholicism. For example, although I heartily agree with his larger point regarding the ineffability of God, Sullivan is more pluralistic even than I’m willing to go:

Do I believe that other religious traditions, even those that posit doctrines logically contrary to the doctrines of Jesus, have no access to divine truth? I don’t. If God exists, then God will be larger and greater than our human categories or interpretations. I feel sure that all the great religions – and many minor ones – have been groping toward the same God.

But what of Sam Harris? As the author of two books that advocate atheism and condemn relgion, all religion, it would be easy to dismiss him as I’ve dismissed Richard Dawkins in the past. But I find Harris is rather different than Dawkins. Where Dawkins is so convinced of his correctness that he can’t be bothered to learn anything outside his own field of genetics, Harris seems to be really trying to understand this whole religion thing. His conclusion so far is that it doesn’t withstand rational scrutiny, but he seems open, as demonstrated by his willingness to engage with Sullivan, to changing his mind. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t bluntly and forcefully state his case!

You seem to have taken particular offense at my imputing self-deception and/or dishonesty to the faithful. I make no apologies for this. One of the greatest problems with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn’t actually know this. The truth is that, while Mommy may be rigorously honest on any other subject, in this instance she doesn’t want to distinguish between what she really knows (i.e. what she has good reasons to believe) and 1) what she wants to be true, or 2) what will keep her children from grieving too much in Granny’s absence. She is lying–either to herself or to her children–but we’ve all agreed not to talk about it. Rather than teach our children to grieve, we teach them to lie to themselves.

I’ve met people that come across in person like Harris does in print. They are very smart, brilliant even, and with their formidable intellect have come to a particular conclusion on a topic. They don’t mean to be rude or arrogant, but can’t help stating the truth as they see it, and won’t change how they see the truth until and unless someone pokes a hole in their logical argument. They are unwilling to concede anything in the name of tolerance or manners, but only in the face of superior reasoning or new information. I find Harris to be an engaging writer and a worthy intellectual foil for us believers.

But he’s still wrong in several areas, sometimes spectacularly so. In particular, his depiction of religious moderates as less faithful than conservatives:

How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights—scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Yikes…”), mathematical (“pi doesn’t actually equal 3? All right, so what?”), and moral (“You mean, I shouldn’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves? They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, “written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost.”


Religious moderates—by refusing to question the legitimacy of raising children to believe that they are Christians, Muslims, and Jews—tacitly support the religious divisions in our world. They also perpetuate the myth that a person must believe things on insufficient evidence in order to have an ethical and spiritual life. While religious moderates don’t fly planes into buildings, or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they refuse to deeply question the preposterous ideas of those who do. Moderates neither submit to the real demands of scripture nor draw fully honest inferences from the growing testimony of science. In attempting to find a middle ground between religious dogmatism and intellectual honesty, it seems to me that religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.

Harris has several fundamental misunderstandings here. First, moderate and progressive Christians don’t believe the Bible was dictated by the Holy Spirit. For us, saying the Bible is “inspired” by God reflects the fact that God acted in human history, and humans were inspired by God’s actions to first, talk about their understanding of these events, and later, to write about them. Sure, the Holy Spirit acted to help them understand, talk about and write about what had happened to them, but in no way did the Holy Spirit “dictate” the Bible, the Pope’s comments notwithstanding.

This doesn’t mean we don’t take scripture seriously. In some ways, we take it more seriously than conservatives, as we try to get to successively deeper layers of truth in the Bible. And this is really where the Holy Spirit acts — to help us to understand God’s will through the words in the Bible. This is also where the body of Christ, the Christian church, acts. Through worship, fellowship, study and sacraments, we are brought into a clearer understanding of God’s plan for us and the world.

Harris is also wrong when he says that moderates refuse to question the preposterous ideas of religious conservatives, as this blog demonstrates. Pastors and priests have spoken out against the rapture (“the rapture is a racket“) and against violence of every kind. For Harris to say otherwise shows he hasn’t listened to many sermons in mainline protestant churches.

And lastly, Harris is wrong when he says moderate Christians don’t submit to the demands of science. We don’t reject religion because it can’t be proven scientifically, but we accept evolution because is has been. As Sullivan rightly points out, science is true, but not all truth is scientific truth. Moderates and progressives understand this, and embrace truth wherever we find it.

This is no betrayal of faith, it is a deepening and enriching of faith. Religious moderates certainly haven’t betrayed reason either, as the writings of theologians from Augustine to C.S. Lewis can attest. We have integrated faith and reason by way of the Holy Spirit, and elevated both.

The Sullivan/Harris blogalogue continues, and I’ll be following it closely. Sullivan is holding up the Christian side well, but Harris is certainly no slouch, and it will be interesting to see where this leads.

Update: Andrew Sullivan’s latest is here, and is his most impassioned defense of the faith yet — a must read.

February 8, 2007

Decision On Pastor Schmeling Hearing

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 6:04 pm

The panel has delivered its decision on the disciplinary hearing for Rev. Bradley Schmeling, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta (details on the hearing here; more details on the hearing and the decision here). The hearing was conducted to decide whether Pastor Schmeling, who is in a committed same-sex relationship, should be removed from the roster of ELCA clergy. Schmeling’s church was unanimously supportive of him, and made it clear that, if forced to choose between their pastor and the ELCA, they would stick with their pastor.

I find the committee’s decision simply brilliant, although it wouldn’t seem so at first blush. They have ruled that Pastor Schmeling will be removed from the clergy roster on August 15, 2007. Why August 15th you ask? Well, the next ELCA Churchwide Assembly will end on August 11th. A majority of the committee, although a very close majority, feels they do not have the power to change the ELCA Bylaws, so they are queueing this up for the CWA to correct before their ruling takes effect.

They go further, however. To quote directly from their decision:

In the event that the Committee on Appeals determines that paragraph b.4) of Definitions and Guidelines is unconstitutional[…], then this committee would find, with near unanimity, that there is nothing about Pastor Schmeling’s acknowledged and stipulated homosexual relationship that would impede the proclamation of the gospel or the right administration of the sacraments. If relieved of the specific requirements of Definitions and Guidelines and permitted to decide this case under the standards of constitution chapters seven and twenty, this committee would find almost unanimously that Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office, and would find with near unanimity that no discipline of any sort should be imposed against him.

Translating: Pastor Schmeling is morally fit to be a pastor, it’s just the current rules that get in the way. Whether the rules are set aside on appeal or not, they recommend that the Churchwide Assembly change the Definitions and Guidelines and Visions and Expections, the two documents governing behavior of ELCA clergy, to remove the prohibition against committed same-sex relationships. This is so cool!

I think there are a couple different things going on here. It is easy to argue against gay rights or for a scriptural basis for condemning gays when it is in the abstract, but when someone that you know and love comes out as gay, it’s not so easy. Given a choice between adherence to a legalistic doctrine on the one hand and love for a gay son or daughter, most Christians embrace the latter, and rightfully so — just look at our Vice President. Similarly, it’s easy for a church body to intellectually argue about Biblical and church law, but when faced with a decision to kick an entire congregation out of the church, it’s not so easy. Especially so when the pastor in question is clearly called by God and by his congregation to his ministry! Choosing between church legal documents and the love of God so evident in Pastor Schmeling’s ministry, it’s not hard to choose.

So why not just dismiss the case without any discipline? By way of analogy, many have criticized Roe v. Wade not for its legalization of abortion, but because it was decided by the judiciary and not by the legislature. The conservative attacks on activist judges started with Roe v. Wade. Think how different the debate would be if it had been decided by Congress! Advocates for abortion would have to try to change the hearts and minds of the electorate instead of just attacking activist judges.

I have to wonder whether the same dynamic is at play here. If the panel had tried to “legislate from the bench”, they and their decision would become the focus of attacks by Word Alone and the IRD. But if the CWA changes the bylaws, the conservatives will have to try to change the hearts and minds of ELCA Lutherans, a much harder task.

Pastor Schmeling and his backers can appeal the decision between now and August, but I suspect it will come down to a vote at the Churchwide Assembly in August. The vote may require a 60% super-majority, but I think it will pass. Like the hearing committee, the CWA won’t be debating this in the abstract, but will be hearing directly from fellow Lutherans whom this decision will directly affect. Even if they are opposed to gay clergy, they would have to vote against congregational autonomy and self-governance. They would have to decide to evict a church because of their choice of pastor. I may be naive, but I just can’t see that happening.

February 5, 2007

Lutheran Liturgy: Hymn of Praise

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:58 am

First, a couple notes on this series of posts on liturgy. I make no attempt here to provide any of the theological or historical background for the liturgy — I’m not really qualified to do that. Instead, these are my personal reflections on the Lutheran liturgy, good and bad, and nothing more.

Second, I should note that so far I’ve been dealing with the traditional setting. My church alternates between the traditional setting and a contemporary setting and variations thereof. All follow the same liturgical structure dating back thousands of years, but the contemporary service has updated music with guitars and piano instead of the organ. Maybe I’ll get around to commenting on the contemporary service, but for no particular reason I’ve started with the traditional one.

Lastly, the ELCA is currently rolling out a new hymnal that is getting some press in Lutheran circles. I haven’t seen it, but my understanding is that it doesn’t change any of the current “settings”, or services, but consolidates some of the contemporary settings that have been in use, along with the traditional settings, into one book. Hence, it doesn’t really change my comments here, I don’t think.

So on to the liturgy. I think the structure of the liturgy is inspired, divinely so — its flow is just so…perfect. Last time I wrote about the Confession and Forgiveness of Sins. So now we’ve all admitted we’re sinners and heard that we are all forgiven, so what’s next? God’s kingdom is what’s next. There is only one possible response to God’s forgiveness — singing our praises to God. This is the Hymn of Praise:

This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia.
Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.
Power and riches and wisdom and strength, and honor and blessing and glory are his.
This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia.
Sing with all the people of God and join in the hymn of all creation:
Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever Amen.
This is the feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.
Alleluia. Alleluia.

I like this particular form because it borrows so heavily from Revelation. It feels like practice for the heavenly kingdom, and every Sunday is supposed to be just that — a foretaste of the feast to come. I also like the phrase “feast of victory”, which of course is referring to communion, but it’s very evocative of my favorite image of the Kingdom: a party. We so often think Revelation is eschatological, foretelling the rapture, the final battle, and Christ’s return. Of course, I believe the rapture is a racket, but worse, it distracts from the incredible portrait of God’s kingdom found in Revelation — a feast, a celebration, a party! The Hymn of Praise is meant to be this kind of joyful praise as practice for an eternity with God.

But then there’s the reality. It’s Sunday morning, and I’ve already argued at least once with every member of my family. I’m sleep deprived, because I’m always sleep deprived, and I’ve just missed my one opportunity of the week to sleep in. Problems at work and home are bouncing around in the back of my mind. So there I am — grouchy, tired and distracted, singing the Hymn of Praise. The difference between living in eternal bliss in heaven and living out our mortal and temporal lives couldn’t be more apparent. Which is why we need to practice the Kingdom in church every Sunday.

So at best, the Hymn of Praise for me is a time for centering my mind on church as a foretaste of the feast to come, as an opportunity to practice an eternity of heavenly praise of God. At worst, it’s a reminder of how much I let all the crap in my life get in the way of my relationship with God, a reminder to let it all go and return to what really matters by turning it all over to God. Only then am I prepared to listen to the Word of God, which I’ll talk about next.

February 4, 2007

God, Mammon and Ministry

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:43 pm

An interesting issue has come up at church. This is a happy problem, not one of those controversies that can rip a church apart, and no one’s threatening to leave the church over it. A cellular telecommunications company has offered us a tidy sum in return for installing cellular transmitters on our bell-tower, something like $20,000 a year.

When this came up at our annual congregational meeting a couple weeks ago, several people expressed concerns over potential health and safety issues. The choir loft is underneath the bell-tower, and some were worried whether it would be safe for those sitting there. We’re in earthquake country, so there were questions about what would happen to the transmitters in an earthquake. Lest anyone think these concerns are just due to an ignorant technophobia, one of those voicing these concerns is a rocket scientist. No, really, he’s a real rocket scientist, with a PhD in Physics from, I think, MIT. So these concerns are well-founded, valid, and not to be dismissed out of hand.

I spoke up during the meeting, though, with another view. After the meeting, I got an email from my rocket scientist friend asking for more input, and herewith my reply to him:

Thanks for asking for my input. Let me try to explain where I was coming from.

In the meeting, it seemed that everyone was pointing out the potential problems, the downside, as if they were looking for a reason to reject the proposal. I understand there are potential problems, and I’m not minimizing those, but I believe we should also look at the upside, which is the money, and money = ministry. For this reason, we should be working to find a way to make it work instead of finding reasons to turn it down.

I don’t have a preconceived idea of what the money should be used for […] But let me just give some examples to make my point. During Christmas we had that program where you could buy an animal for someone in the third world for Christmas. Think of how many goats $20,000 would buy! Or how many students [at our local community college where we help needy students with meals] we could help with $20,000! Or how many scholarships to [our church’s K-8 school] we could give! We need to remember that we are to be about ministry, and that takes our time and effort, but also money, and here is an opportunity to get some funding for ministry.

I’m sure if you and [another member with concerns] worked through the issues with the telecom company we could reach a deal that would work for them and for us, and would give us some money for ministry. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Thanks for asking.

Grace and Peace,


Christians have always had a conflicted relationship with money. On the one extreme, there is the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and his ilk, or John Tetzel’s selling of indulgences in the Catholic church 500 years ago. For them, money is a way to buy favor from God. At the other extreme is the monastic vow of poverty or the Puritan condemnation of money as the root of all evil. Meanwhile, most churches struggle to balance their budget year after year, while a handful of megachurches are able to raise money for extravagant building programs. Christianity seems to have a love-hate relationship with money.

But we need to remember that it takes money to do ministry, and the more money we raise, the more ministry we can do. Not that we should ever put the health and safety of our congregations at risk, but neither should we be so risk averse that we don’t seize opportunities to expand our ministry. I trust that those in my church investigating this cellular deal will make the right decision. I just want them to remember that sometimes God and Mammon are on the same side.

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