Hell, Doubt and Easter

Well, once again I violated the cardinal rule of blogging by disappearing for a week. Sorry about that. I was out of town, and then it was a holiday weekend, and there you go.

To make it up to you, here are a couple of Easter-related things that caught my eye this week, and some comments I had on them:

Continue reading Hell, Doubt and Easter

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Can Kingdom Work Include Gay Rights Advocacy?

220px-Stonewall_Inn_1969Last night, I sat down and read in its entirety, somehow for the very first time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written 50 years ago this April. Doing so after what can only be termed the one of the most remarkable MLK Days we’ve ever witnessed was powerful indeed.

Not only did the federal holiday honoring King coincide with the second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, a laughable impossibility during King’s lifetime, but President Obama’s speech directly tackled the civil rights cause of our time – the right of every couple to marry, regardless of gender.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

The reference to Stonewall is especially remarkable, as Obama placed it in line after the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and the voting rights march led by King himself in 1965. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City are considered the seminal moment in gay rights history, when LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn refused to be bullied any longer by the NYPD and began the push that is culminating before our eyes in the successful drive for gay marriage in multiple states across the country.

Equating gay rights with the civil rights era personified by King remains controversial in some circles, but less so in recent years – and rightly so, I’d argue. Race may be more clearly genetic than sexual orientation, which appears to be a complicated, even mysterious, mix of environmental and genetic factors, but the right of minorities, including sexual minorities, to be treated equally remains a driving force in American society. We should not close the book on racial equality just yet, but working on a new one simultaneously is not inappropriate. Indeed, gay rights and civil rights are more like chapters in the same book, rather than separate tomes entirely.

Which brings me back to King’s letter from Birmingham. The context, in case you’re unaware, was the criticism King and his  marchers had received from, of all people, local church leaders. King, as was his wont, issued a remarkable response, defending his passion for nonviolent resistance and leveling some eloquent – and richly deserved – criticism at those “moderate whites” who seemed to spend more time finding reasons not to support the cause of justice. In one section of the letter, King quotes from a letter he received from a white Texan arguing that since racial equality was inevitable, but that such things take time, and that King should not agitate for change that will happen in its own time.

King’s response is, of course, beautifully written, but it also dovetails with a theme of this blog lately, that God calls us to do kingdom work now, partnering with him in the restoration of all things and ensuring that his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Remove the word “racial” from the last sentence, and this could have written by any advocate for gay marriage rights today.

But should it be? Should gay rights be tied to “the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God”? Can Christians who advocate for marriage equality be performing kingdom work?

Continue reading Can Kingdom Work Include Gay Rights Advocacy?

Happy 2013!

Well, I’d planned to do a lot more blogging over the Christmas break, but stomach bugs have ways of changing one’s plans, and my wife and I spent most of Christmas and the days immediately thereafter awash in nausea and/or poop as one by one we all fell to the virus.

On that lovely note, Happy New Year! To ease back into the swing of blogging, I’m going to follow the crowd and list the most viewed posts from 2012:

1. Christians Have Power. How Will We Use It?

For all the talk about post-Christian societies and all the fear mongering about impending secularization and persecution, the reality remains: If you are Christian in America, you are most likely comfortable, accepted – and extremely powerful.

The question, then, is what do we do with this power?

2. The Radical Femininity of Christ

The men didn’t get it. They betrayed, abandoned and hung him on a cross. Yet while he was there, who stayed with him? The women. They got it. They stayed at the cross. They returned to the tomb, and as a result, were the first to see the risen Christ. The crucifixion and resurrection stories do not have a “masculine feel.” Indeed, the whole life of Christ is decidedly opposed to the masculine norms of his day.

3. Opening Communion for the 3-Year-Olds

Two weeks ago, our church did communion down front, “Catholic style.” We all stood up and took the crackers and the little plastic cups from servers at the front of the auditorium. I brought my daughter, mostly because I didn’t want her getting into trouble way in the back while we were at the front. After I had taken communion, the sweet older ladies who were serving us leaned down to my daughter’s level and said (paraphrasing): “Jesus loves you very much, and this is the life he gave for you.” And she took her first communion.

4. Christians and the NRA

Often when I discuss politics on here, I cast it in terms of morality and compassion. What does a moral, compassionate society look like, and how do we as Christians work to achieve that? I firmly believe one way is quit supporting organizations whose positions are morally repugnant and uncompassionate. The NRA is one such organization.

5. John Chrysostom and the 47 Percent

This insidious notion of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor has infected every level of our discourse. It determines whether we roll down the window and give change to the guy with the cardboard sign. It shows up in our attitudes toward the impoverished who live in the neighborhoods around our churches. And it reveals itself, sometimes more surprisingly honest than others, in our political discourse.

6. Love Wins

Many Christians would likely condemn Les and Scott GrantSmith for their relationship. There was a time I would have, too. But love is a mighty, inexorable power. It leads a man to accept his partner’s new identity, and it leads a man to sacrifice himself for a people who despise him. It saves us all from the slavery of sin and death.

7. Keep the Mithra in Christmas!

It’s no coincidence that Christmas occurs so closely to the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year. In premodern rural cultures, the lengthening of the days (i.e., the “rebirth” of the sun) was a significant sign of hope for the coming spring and reason to celebrate. The parallels between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son were simply too easy for the church to ignore them – and indeed why should it have?

8. How Should We Worship?

[O]ur professor certainly advocates a return to the way things used to be, and that’s a fairly conservative position, even if what he envisions would be considered a radical change from how things are practiced in most churches today.

I’m not sure I agree with him – culture often has defined worship services more than any particular doctrinal stance.

9. Transgender in the Church

[R]ather than spend my morning turning exquisite phrases of outrage, allow me to focus on something positive. This weekend, I read an amazing story from The Washington Post‘s Petula Dvorak about a transgender 5-year-old. Yes, you read that correctly.

10. The Purpose of Worship

The prophets in each case argue the technical aspects of the worship simply don’t matter – the songs, the offerings, the feasts, the prayers – it’s all worthless compared to how the congregation treats the poor, upholds justice, opposes oppression and loves others.

It was a good year for the blog; thanks for coming along for the ride. I’m grateful for your readership this past year and in the one to come.

The God who Flees

flight into egypt xx~001

Richard Beck the other day posted this incredible painting by Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight to Egypt (1879). Joseph is sacked out on the desert floor with the donkey grazing nearby, while Mary uses the now-famous Sphinx to prop herself up with her baby – the only source of light – in her arms. Her feet dangle off the edge of the Sphinx, whose nose, you’ll notice, is still intact.

What I like most is how it properly contextualizes the recent blogosphere debates over the historicity of the flight to Egypt. Because we don’t need to say the scene portrayed in this evocative painting probably didn’t actually happen. That’s not the point.

Likewise, as someone who enjoys getting behind the text of scripture to learn the actual history – Did this happen? Could it have? What really happened? How did the text come to say what it does? – it’s a useful reminder that no matter how the text got to the point where we have it, it’s what we have. In the end, after all of the historical criticism and analysis, we must arrive at the position of Walter Brueggemann, Brevard Childs and others: What we have is from what we must learn.

So the flight to Egypt may have happened, as Tony Jones and any biblical literalist argues. It may not have happened, as James McGrath, myself and any revisionist liberal argue. But in the end, what can we learn from the story, which is what we’ve got?

Continue reading The God who Flees

Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

innocentThere’s been something of a debate happening in at least one corner of the theoblogosphere over Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, the incident described in Matthew 2 as Herod’s attempt to kill the presumed usurper the Magi had called “King of the Jews.”

James McGrath started it with a post titled, “Why I’m Glad the Infancy Narrative Isn’t Literally True,” in which he argued God’s warning of Mary and Joseph to flee while letting all of the other baby boys be slaughtered was an act of heinous injustice that besmirches the character of God – were it true, which it isn’t. He argues it isn’t true because Luke – nor any other ancient source – does not corroborate it, and it seems to be set up so that Matthew can cite the fulfillment of Hosea 11:1.

Tony Jones responded with “Herod Really Did Massacre the Innocents,” in which he rebukes McGrath’s seeming attempts to write off pieces of scripture with which he is uncomfortable and says he’s glad the Bible contains this narrative because it matches the horror and injustice of “real life.”

McGrath responded, correctly, that Jones didn’t actually address any of McGrath’s historical critiques of the passage but determined its authenticity based solely on theological considerations, which is not exactly the way you want to be determining the historicity of anything.

After all of that, Brian LePort stepped in with a couple of points. On the historicity of the passage, LePort argues:

Personally, I don’t find these points to be as devastating a critique as McGrath, especially since (1) the actions fit the Herod we know from other sources; (2) I think scholars often invert Matthew’s exegetical approach depicting him as having read Scripture in order to find events to narrate whereas the peculiarity of Matthew’s exegesis leads me to think he had existent traditions through which he read the text connecting events to Scripture. In other words, I think Matthew had a tradition that Herod killed the children while seeking Jesus and this [led] him to read Scripture to see if there was any “foretelling” of such an event.

He also doesn’t see anything terribly troubling about God stepping in to warn the most theologically important family in world history of impending demise: “If God intervened to stop all evil, it would be the eschaton!” He seems to be agreeing with Jones here; the passage is no more troubling than the Newtown, Conn., massacre – which is to say, no more troubling than the problem of evil existing in the first place.

I’ll leave the theology to these more able minds, though I tend to agree with LePort’s take on this – but I’m leery of simply dismissing McGrath’s theodicical (is that a word?) concerns, as well.

But I feel there’s a middle ground to be had on the historical elements, something neither McGrath nor LePort brings up.

Continue reading Did the Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

Twenty

jesus-teachingFor all of the mass shootings that have plagued our country over the past 30 years – and even moreso in the past 15 – why does this one in Connecticut, the eighth of 2012, hit so hard? Because of one number. Twenty. The number of children age 7 and under killed in a simply incomprehensible attack.

Like many of you, I thought about those 20 (and the eight adults who died trying to protect them) in church yesterday. We opened the service with Joy to the World and its lyrics, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” and “Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns!” Does he?

We followed that up with Sing to the King, which states: “Satan is vanquished, and Jesus is king!” Is he?

Next was O Come All Ye Faithful, which follows up its title lyrics with, “Joyful and triumphant.” Are we?

It was a bold move to speak the hope, faith and expectation of Jesus’ reign during a weekend when any sign of it seemed so scarce. And, for me at least, it was a needed one. Advent is about acknowledging the wrongness of this world while also declaring the hope we have of its future rightness. In a weekend where the former was so clear, I’m thankful for our church leadership’s call to focus on the latter.

I’ve written a lot about theodicy on this blog (there’s a whole tag devoted to it, if you’re interested), so I’m turning the rest of this space over to folks who worked through this much more eloquently than I could.

Continue reading Twenty

Research and Papers and Finals, Oh My!

With a paper due in less than two weeks, a final the week after that and Thanksgiving right around the corner, blogging is going to be light for a little bit. I have to get up pretty early to get blogging done before work, and late nights at the library make that a lot more difficult.

So have a great Thanksgiving, and we’ll resume our conversations next week!