Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Praise God for African-American Christianity

There are countless reasons why white Christians should praise God for the black church, and we saw some of them today at the stupendous Inaugural ceremony. Speaking for myself, my tears started to flow when Aretha Franklin stood up in her magnificent church-lady hat and spun out her famous voice across the millions in the Mall.

Was she worried about being politically correct? "Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims' pride..." Her "fathers" owned slaves, and the Pilgrims are derided today by the bien-pensant, but she stood proudly on their legacy this morning and did not disrespect them by altering the words of the familiar patriotic hymn.

Then Joseph Lowery, one of the few Civil Rights lions still alive, closed the ceremony with as classic a Biblical benediction--ending in cross-cultural humor that touched all the bases--as one could ever hope to hear. Not for him any tender-minded scruples about quoting Scripture; he quoted it robustly, extensively, and in full confidence of the universality of its message.

I am not sentimental or romantic about the black church. It has its manifest failings just like every other branch of the people of God. But it should be celebrated gratefully for its generosity in connecting the hopes and fears of their own community to the hopes and fears of all the years, and its pitch-perfect way of incorporating political aspirations into the great sweep of the story of the salvation of our God.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gene Robinson and the universal gospel

The basic problem with Bishop Gene Robinson is not that he is openly and actively homosexual. The real problem is that he does not believe Christianity is a universal faith, nor does he believe that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have a universal message. Why do I say that? Well, because of some things he said that are quoted in The New York Times. In an article about his being chosen to give a public prayer at the time of the inauguration (not at the inaugural ceremony itself), he said that he had been reading former inaugural prayers and was "horrified" at how "aggressively Christian" they are. He says that his prayer at the time of the inauguration will not be a Christian prayer at all, "and I won't be quoting Scripture or anything like that." He said he might offer a prayer to the "God of our many understandings" (using AA language).

I can certainly imagine a situation in which prayer to "God" without Trinitarian language might be called for, for instance in an emergency situation like a battlefield or under bombardment where there were people of many faiths. I believe that Christians can pray with Jews to "God." Possibly even with Muslims. But for a Bishop of the Christian Church to say (aggressively) that he is shocked by Christian prayers offered at past inaugurations and that he will not offer a Christian prayer suggests that he does not really believe that the Christian gospel is truly universal (I do not use that wimpy word "inclusive").

What does this mean? Does it mean that Christian clergy and other Christians should not offer prayers at official functions at all? Maybe. Does it mean that we should simply do away with all prayer at public events? Maybe. I don't know. But what I do know is that we (especially those of us on the evangelical left) must do a much better job of teaching the universal message of (for instance) Isaiah 40-55, some of the Psalms, and Romans 9-11.

P. S. Having now heard most of Bp. Robinson's prayer on NPR, I find some of it very impressive (asking "the God of our many understandings" to bless us with more tears concerning suffering, more anger against injustice-- reminiscent of William Sloane Coffin's famous public prayers). The point is not the prayer itself. The point is that Bp. Robinson, in his quoted remarks, discloses his lack of faith in and understanding of the radically universal message of the Scriptures which he disdained to quote.