Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, December 23, 2005

Changing the subject: God as passive "approver"

My love of the Bible began in earliest childhood when my grandmother read the Psalms to me, but I had no serious knowledge of it until I studied it in college. The courses I took were academic, with little theological emphasis; the "documentary hypothesis" ruled and I quickly mastered J, E and P as well as Q and Proto-Luke. I don't despise this period of my life at all; any way to become familiar with the Scripture was better than no way. Besides, the 50s was a decade relatively innocent of political correctness; there was more willingness to take the text on its own terms than there is in scome circles today. At least that was true for me.

Today, however, the overwhelming emphasis on "tolerance" and "the triumph of the human spirit" and other such cliches seems to dominate every approach to the Bible in the educational arena. Take for instance an op-ed piece in The New York Times this week entitled "Preach, Don't Teach, the Bible." It was written by Bruce Feiler, author of several books including, most recently, Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion. Mr. Feiler is much to be commended for his enthusiasm for the teaching and learning of the Bible in high schools. In general, I support his argument, since I myself benefited so greatly from study of the "literary and historic qualities" of Scripture. It is tragic that the content of the Bible is unknown to most Americans today, especially in view of its central and formative role in our history.

However, it is very important for Christians to recognize the vacuum at the center of such presentations, so that worshippers understand how to reverse a non-theological interpretation. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Mr. Feiler's article:

"In the Book of Isaiah, God embraces the Persian king Cyrus and his respect for different religions, even though Cyrus does not know God's name and does not practice Judaism. By calling Cyrus "the anointed one," or messiah, God signals his tolerance for people who share his moral vision, no matter their nationality or faith."

This is all wrong. In Isaiah, God does not "embrace" an already-acting Cyrus. God has set Cyrus in motion even though the Persian king does not know it. Cyrus plays a "messianic" role, not because he "respects different religions" and "shares God's moral visions" (!!!), but because God has chosen him and for no other reason. There is absolutely nothing in the text about Cyrus' personal attitudes, let alone his respect for other religions and sharing of God's values. Feiler has managed to remove God from his role as the active, purposeful agent and has substituted Cyrus, making Cyrus the mover and God the passive approver who "signals his tolerance." This is a pathetically reductionistic picture of the Lord God of Sabaoth, and we need more preaching and teaching in the Church to explain why this is so.

Here is another excerpt from Feiler's op-ed piece:

"In the Book of Jonah, God offers a message of forgiveness and tolerance when he denounces his own prophet and spares his former enemies, the Ninevehites, when they repent and turn toward him."

But the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob does not "offer" anything. He is the mover and shaker of events, towering over the drama as the One who whose purposes cannot be evaded by a disobedient servant. Turning the story of Jonah into a moralistic tale teaching 21st century pop values is a disastrously wrongheaded view of the Word of the living God.

This is important, because these pervasive shifts of the Biblical emphasis has led to an insufficient understanding of God in the mainline churches. That in turn leads to timid preaching and little or no confident Biblical teaching. This weakness is causing no end of trouble in the mainline congregations as we watch our members drift into apathy or depart for the evangelical church down the road. Only a recovery of the voice of God, as he wills the Spirit to speak it through his human messengers, will halt this attrition. Nothing less can stop the Christian Right, with its generally inadequate understanding of social action and its unimaginative approach to Biblical interpretation, from continuing to be essentially the only Christian voice being heard in the land.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Tookie Williams case

For those who believe that capital punishment is one of the defining issues for Christians in our time, there is an imperative that we not be naive or sentimental. There is a tendency among death-penalty opponents to gloss over the horrific nature of crimes committed by death-row inmates. An example from the recent debate about Tookie Williams was discussed on NPR. One of the demonstrators supporting clemency for Williams said, "I don't care what he's done in the past..." followed by impassioned testimony about the positive things Williams had done while in prison. A relative of a victim responded angrily, "If he had seen his loved one lying in a pool of blood, he would care. He would care."

Indeed. It is essential that anyone arguing against the death penalty be hyper-aware of the seriousness of murderous crimes and that he (or she) watch his language in that regard. Anything that falls short of utmost condemnation of murder cannot be useful in the debate. The argument against capital punishment must be clear-sighted and even-handed. Those who thus argue must not give the impression that they do not care if a great and irreparable wrong has been done.

The question is, given that wrong, what is the proper response of society? Is it good for society to cultivate retribution as a key value? Is it wise to reject the possibility of redemption in this life? Is it humane to encourage the basest instincts of those (and they will always be a majority) who relish the death of another? Why is it better for Tookie Williams to be put to death rather than serving a life sentence where he was having such a good effect on many fellow prisoners? Does anyone seriously believe that this is a deterrent? Apparently so, but no one has been able to show that it is.

More important for Christians is the connection between the death penalty handed down by the state, with the consent of the govermed, with the death of Jesus Christ. He was condemned by the best of state and church. He was "numbered with the transgressors." He prayed for his torturers and commanded us to do the same. The cruciform life of a Christian disciple should mirror that of the disciple's Lord. This is not naivete. This is a way of understanding human sin that offers to the world an image of Christ's victory over the very worst that human nature can do.

The difficulty seems to be in persuading people that prisoners--malefactors, transgressors--are not the same species of person as those who look upon them from outside the bars. Those who demand the deaths of others consider themselves superior and therefore able to pronounce upon another's deserving. They seem lacking in imagination; the possibility that, given certain circumstances, they might be the ones in prison, never seems to occur to them.

This is why Johnny Cash was so important and why his example should be continually celebrated. Unfortunately the film Walk The Line covers only the first half of his life. It was in the second half that he did his deepest work, most apparent in the last album, When The Man Comes Around) Cash knew he had been in prison (and I don't mean literal prison, for contrary to popular opinion he never did hard time). He knew that he had escaped prison, literally and figuratively, solely by the grace of God. To the end of his days he felt a deep emotional connection to those who were in bondage, behind prison bars and the bars of their own impulses. He was able to identify with them. The example of this revered singer should, at the very least, give us pause.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Christian Right, Christian Left in a time of moral crisis

One of the most disturbing things about Christianity in America today is the failure of the traditional Protestant denominations and the so-called Christian Right to be in conversation with one another. Everywhere I go, mainline clergy are hanging out with other mainline clergy, indifferent to the point of obliviousness to what is going on at the nondenominational Bible church down the road. I speak as a mainliner who frequently attends evangelical churches, both to worship and to see what is going on. In many cases, the young families who are attending these churches in droves would have been going to a mainline church in the 1950s. Yet the mainlines don’t show any sense of urgency or crisis.

Many of the people who attend these more "conservative" (not really the right word) churches say that they are there because they are looking for a "Bible-based, Christ-centered" church. But why have the mainlines ceded this description to the off-beat churches? Why not be just as "Bible-based and Christ-centered" as they are, though in a more traditional way? In the two congregations that I served in the second half of my ministry, we attracted many people from fundamentalist backgrounds who were eagerly looking for a liturgical church with evangelical preaching.

A manifestation of the malaise of the mainlines is the refusal of the clergy to spend time getting to know, and perhaps finding something in common with, some of the evangelical clergy in the new, burgeoning congregations. My experience of the scene is that some clergy in established churches are not even aware that the congregation meeting in the local high school or community center is draining off many of the young families from their own day schools!

If the clergy and lay leaders of the "liberal" churches could reach out more to their counterparts in "conservative" churches, perhaps we could help each other. My husband and I have recently been in contact with some of the leaders in several of these nondenominational congregations. Our goal is to share love of Scripture and praise of Christ with them on the basis of shared faith and gratitude while, at the same time, bearing witness to a larger view of Christian responsibility which includes issues such as the death penalty and torture.

We have a serious situation here. The Christian Right is up in arms about nativity scenes on public property and President Bush’s "happy holiday" card. They studiously ignore the fact that the nation is in the throes of an intense debate about Tookie Williams' pending execution and the CIA's secret prisons. But the mainlines are not going to have any effect on this situation if we just continue to look on with scorn from a disdainful distance.

It's not as if the mainlines have anything to brag about with regard to these issues anyway. A number of Methodist bishops have just issued a statement of contrition for their silence during the buildup to the Iraq war (see previous Rumination). I still don't hear prayers for our enemies in any of the churches that I visit. There has been precious little said or done about Darfur. Most of the news in the Episcopal Church is about dissension concerning homosexuality, so there is little energy left to tackle the great national and world issues. The leadership in the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches seems to be focused on injustice done to the Palestinians, while remaining silent about administration-sponsored torture, "renditions," and secret detentions by our very own government. Surely it is scandalous that Christians cannot get together to protest these things. But how can we have a concerted protest if we in the mainlines continue to act as if more than half of the American churches don't exist except for us to ridicule and feel superior to?

It is true that quite a few moderates have been expelled from conservative seminaries and congregations. I have felt the sting of this myself, though it is far worse in some of the more extreme circles (ask a moderate Southern Baptist). The fault is not all on the side of the Left. Yet over and over I have found that where there is genuine shared faith in the context of the confession of Christ as Lord, the Spirit will build bridges across the divide. May it be so.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Shame on The New York Times

Did you know that Judith Miller's most serious screw-up was not her role in the Valerie Plame exposure? Until I listened to NPR today, I had forgotten that prior to the Iraq war, Ms. Miller (who has now been eased out at the Times) used her prominent position at the august newspaper of record to report on the Administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ready to use. Her articles made it sound as if there were no doubt about the matter. She did not, apparently, dig deeper to find out if the claims were, in fact, true. The Times recently apologized for this egregious lapse in investigative journalism.

There is another aspect to this story. On the Brian Lehrer show yesterday morning, Lehrer interviewed Jonathan Lande, a reporter for the Knight-Ridder chain, which publishes papers in places like Akron and Biloxi. Mr. Lande wrote a series of well-researched articles calling the Bush administration's claims about WMD seriously into question. It is difficult to understand why there was so little attention given to his work during the buildup to war against the regime in Iraq. It's as if all the major American institutions, including the Times and, for that matter, the mainline churches, allowed themselves to be faked out by the drumbeat for an invasion.

Karl Barth's wonderful written prayers often included thanksgivings and intercessions for newspaper publishers, editors and reporters. Mr. Lande's work shows why we need newspapers. But why was no one listening? Is reporting less important if it appears in "little" newspapers?

In another development, a significant number of Methodist bishops (96 out of a possible 164) have just issued a statement saying that "too many of us were silent" in opposing "the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq." The Resources section of this web site includes eloquent appeals by Richard Hays, professor of New Testament at Duke, who began to plead with the leadership of his denomination to speak out against undertaking this war before it became a law unto itself. The bishops' "statement of conscience" is a rather craven affair, in view of the availability of many powerful arguments against the war that the bishops could have heeded back in 2002, but their paper is better than nothing.

Here is a link to further information: (Look for "Access to Evil")