Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, May 21, 2005

On not believing everything you read in Newsweek

Let's grant that Newsweek was not able to authenticate its Koran-in-the-toilet story. Does that mean we are free to ignore what is reported from the regions most affected by our "war on terrorism"? Lo, none other than Laura Bush said yesterday (May 20), "You know, you can't blame it all on Newsweek." While the magazine's report was "irresponsible," she said, the rioters deserved some blame too. (Maybe she read Tom Friedman's column that day about that very same subject.)

Today's news (May 21, 2005): A former Afghan force commander (our ally during the Afghan offensive), Abdul Khaliq, was interviewed by a New York Times reporter. This man, who is presently working in road construction to improve his country, said that he was happy at first to see Taliban members taken prisoner. Now, however, he is agitated about what he has heard about insults to Islam and sexual abuse in Guantánamo. Reportedly, he said this: "The Americans were good people before. Now, definitely, people are changing their minds about America." Should we discount this testimony because "the media is biased"?

In Pakistan, the issue of American abuse is especially prominent because prisoners released from Guantánamo are interviewed on Pakistani radio and television as soon as they get home. Only last Friday (May 13), an Urdu-language television talk show taped interviews with two Pakistani ex-prisoners who said they witnessed desecration of the Koran. Is this true? Most Pakistanis apparently believe it is true. Reporting by Newsweek is not required for this to become known.

I admire Billy Graham. I admire Franklin Graham and his agency Samaritan's Purse. But one could make a case that in the long run Franklin Graham's much quoted remark, "Islam is a very wicked religion," has done far more harm than the Newsweek article. Why is that so? Here's why: it is so because a great many of our American soldiers are evangelical Christians, and they have been led to believe that contempt for Islam is a Christian virtue. Charles Graner, of Abu Ghraib infamy, has described himself as a Christian, and part of the defense at his trial was that he handed out Bibles to Iraqis. He is only the most egregious example. There have been many documented stories about guards deliberately insulting the faith of prisoners, and these reports have not been discredited.

The same May 21 Times article describes a middle-class Pakistani woman looking through the women's magazines in an Islamabad bookshop as her two children played in the aisles. She was asked by a reporter to comment on America. "The first word that comes to my mind is ‘torture,'" she said, "[Guantánamo] is a place where Americans lock up and torture Muslims in the name of terrorism."

Typical American responses to this will be, "All she hears is propaganda." "The reporter went looking for someone who would say that." "The article is slanted." "Why don't they say something good about America?" These responses, which I hear everywhere I go, demonstrate an unwillingness on the part of "Christian" America to face our lack of military discipline and the betrayal of our own best values.

None of these abuses would have occurred, or would have been promptly stopped, if the president, during his various visits to military bases, had given speeches denouncing torture and abuse as un-American; and if the generals passed this word down the chain of command, and if the officers in charge of the prisons made regular unannounced inspections, and if the rank and file were thoroughly trained in procedures, attitudes and techniques that respect the humanity of those who are in their power. It is simply undeniable, at this stage, that the soldiers in charge of these situations, both officers and non-coms, were confused about the mixed signals they were receiving. The evidence for this has been piling up for months and is uncontrovertible.

Friday, May 13, 2005

A truly liberating view of worship

A recent visit to Edinburgh has offered opportunities to meet members of the remarkable Torrance family and has resulted in much rethinking. I was given a book called A Passion for Christ (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1999) which commemorates and celebrates the six extraordinary children of Chinese missionaries, all born in China, all of whom (three sons and three daughters) committed themselves body and soul to Christian ministry. The three sons (Tom, James, David) are all world-renowned theologians and churchmen, and this small paperback volume offers a representative selection of some of their work. Among their children, Iain is now President of Princeton Theological Seminary (USA) and Alan is Professor of Systematic Theology in the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). The three Torrance brothers have loomed so large over the Church of Scotland (and, indeed, the universal Church) for fifty years that they have inevitably been the subject of criticism. Personalities so large make large targets, and the evangelical faith that they have defended so imaginatively and yet so determinedly is not in fashion in these "tolerant" times. Speaking for myself, however, I find the example of such a God-intoxicated family to be most inspiring, and their theological writings to be deeply enriching.

I will be posting further ruminations about the Torrances, but at the moment I am particularly attracted to the thought of James B. Torrance, the second of the three brothers, whose writings about worship are attracting interest in this new generation. I was first introduced to James Torrance by a member of GenY, who gave me a copy, now treasured, of Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (IVP).

Below the line there is a selection from James B. Torrance that I found in A Passion for Christ. This is an exact quote from Torrance's words:
As I see it, there are broadly two different views of worship in the Church today.

The first view, probably the commonest and most widespread, is that worship is something which we do—mainly in church on Sunday. We go to church, we sing our psalms to God, we intercede for Northern Ireland or the Middle East, we listen to the sermon (too often simply an exhortation), we offer our money, time and talents to God. No doubt we need God's grace to help us do it; we do it because Jesus taught us to do it and left us an example to show us how to do it. But worship is what WE do.

...This view of worship is in practice unitarian. It has no doctrine of [Christ] the Mediator...It is human-centered, with no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit. It is basically non-sacramental. It engenders weariness. We sit in the pew watching the minister "doing his/her thing," exhorting us to "do our thing," until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week. This kind of "do it yourself with the help of the minister" worship is what our forebears would have called "legal" worship and not "evangelical" worship. It is what the ancient Church would have called "Arian" or "Pelagian" and not truly catholic.

The second view of worship is rather the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father—of participating, in union with Christ, in what he has done for us once and for all in his life and death on the Cross and in what he is continuing to do for us in the presence of the father ate in his mission to the world. The bread which we break, is it not our sharing in the Body of Christ ? The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not our sharing in the Blood of Christ?...Our intercession for Northern Ireland and the Middle East, are they not our participation in Christ's intercession for Northern Ireland and the Middle East? Our mission to the world and to the needs of humanity, are they not the gift of participating in Christ's mission to the world and his ministry to human need? Is this not the meaning of life in the Spirit?

The second view is trinitarian and incarnational. It takes seriously New Testament teaching about...the Church as the Body of Christ. It is fundamentally "sacramental," but in a way which enshrines the gospel of grace, that God in the gift of Christ and the gift of the Spirit, gives what he demands—the worship of our hearts and lives. This is the heart of our theology of the eucharist...this second view is both catholic and evangelical...if the first way can engender weariness, the second way is unifying in that it recognizes that there is only one way to come to the Father, namely through Christ in the communion of the Spirit, in the communion of saints, whatever outward form our worship may take. If the first way can engender weariness, this second way—the way of grace—releases joy and ecstasy, for with inward peace we are lifted up out of ourselves by the Spirit into a world of praise and adoration and communion in Christ.