The Culture Beat

March 9, 2011

The Continuing, and sometimes alarmng, C. S. Lewis Phenomenon

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,The Church,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:43 am

American Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, love C. S. Lewis. Last Friday, the New York Times published an article by Mark Oppenheimer recounting the ever growing impact of British writer and scholar C. S. Lewis, including a recent edition of the Bible with annotations of quotes by Lewis addressing topics and themes of biblical passages, and plans for a new institution of higher learning, C. S. Lewis College. Oh my.

I hold Lewis in the highest regard, having read many of his books over the years. As a young Christian, his writings kept me from becoming too immersed in an emotion-based, subjective form of Christianity. His uniquely lucid writing made the greatest idea and doctrines of the Christian faith accessible to my untrained mind. It grounded me in logical thinking and made my imagination soar in ways no other writing did. Lewis’ immersion in the great thinking of medieval Christianity and his ability to explain “mere Christianity,” the faith common to the church universal created a bridge for me and millions of others to the great treasures of Christian thought.

Because of the impoverished nature of 20th century evangelicalism regarding the life of the mind, Lewis’ books were doorways of discovery to our faith’s heritage and because of his singular gifts, and prolific work, it’s understandable that there would be such a continuing fascination with this giant of the faith. Lewis is that rare figure who transcends denominational categories–reading Lewis’ books engenders the sense that one has not only gained knowledge or insight about the book’s subject, but that one has also gotten to know its author in a way that inspires gratitude, and a sense of acquaintance, that few authors achieve.

Still I feel awkward reading of a Lewis annotated Bible, or a college founded on his work–surely Lewis himself would recoil from such hero worship. At what point does one’s appreciation for a great man slip into something like idolatry?

But the reason I felt most compelled to write this post was a passage in the article that clearly marked it as a New York Times piece:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis writes of Jesus: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”

This famous passage does not, on a second read, make much sense. After all, could not a great moral teacher have messianic delusions? But on a first read, it is quite persuasive, and classic Lewis. It is clear, confident and a bit humorous, and it offers a stark choice as it firmly suggests the right answer.

Mr. Oppenheimer, in ostensibly reporting on the Lewis phenomenon, cannot resist this slide into patronizing commentary. It implies that anyone who found this, one of the most quoted of all Lewis’ writings, to be a convincing argument for the deity of Christ, obviously never read the passage again or they would have easily perceived how bogus it was, poor benighted minds, unlike Mr. Oppenheimer’s. No, most people who’ve thought it through this most offensive of the claims of Jesus, would find it hard to to accept that a great moral teacher who repeatedly claimed to be the Son of God, and whose followers, often accepted death rather than disbelieve this crucial point, was simply having delusions of grandeur.

What the article doesn’t include of that famous passage says it better than I could:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.


July 14, 2008

When it comes to archeology, let the dust settle

Filed under: Faith Issues,Science,The Church — Culture Beat @ 4:23 pm


The latest bombshell from the world of biblical archeology hit the headlines about two weeks ago: A stone – the size of a coffee table, with neat Hebrew writing from a few decades before Jesus’ birth – may refer to an anointed one, or messiah, who would rise from the dead after three days.

The find would rattle Christianity to the core, some scholars exclaimed, since it pre-dates Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

But as quick as you can say “apocalyptic Jewish literature,” other scholars challenged that conclusion, including Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City.

As Rollston points out, the writing (dubbed the “Gabriel vision text” because the message claims to be sent through the angel Gabriel) is very fragmentary: many letters, words and entire lines of text are missing. Also, the possible messianic references – and those are questionable – run parallel to other writings from the same era.

“There’s nothing significant” religiously in the finding, Rollston concludes. “It’s interesting and important, but doesn’t impact any modern faith, be it Judaism or Christianity. This interpretation will not stand the test of time.”

Rollston regards this sensational story as the latest example of how easy it is to misinterpret, exaggerate or, in some cases, even mislead about archeological findings and their importance.

Biblical archeology is a complex discipline, with scholars working on expeditions and painstaking analysis for years, even decades. Research can focus on minuscule details, such as subtle differences in tool marks or letter forms, and even microscopic traces of materials remaining after thousands of years.

But archeology is also shadowed by seedy antiquities markets, dubious artifacts and outright forgeries, not to mention occasional rogue scholars who publish breathtaking theories often based on slim evidence.

So while scholars can uncover and decipher astounding finds that can reshape our understanding of a culture, a historical era or a sacred text – the Dead Sea Scrolls come to mind – they also endure overblown claims, public feuds and even law suits. Rollston has seen it all.

In 2007 he was called to Israel to testify as an expert witness in the trial of five individuals accused by the Israeli Antiquities Authority of forgery of antiquities.

Now he is in the middle of another debate, this one over a small stone seal (pictured above) that a few scholars say belonged to Queen Jezebel, the notorious wife of King Ahab described in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Kings. Rollston has challenged that conclusion on several grounds – that the theory is largely based on imaginatively “restoring” unknown missing letters, that the seal lacks any title or family reference, that it uses a style of writing that didn’t exist in Jezebel’s time, and more. This is a scholarly dispute, not a legal one, but it’s heated up the pages of academic journals for months.

Ironically, Rollston said he doesn’t care whether the seal belonged to the biblical Jezebel – a detachment he maintains when studying any artifact or ancient inscription.

“Whether there’s a possible relevance to a biblical text is a non-issue for me,” said Rollston, who earned his doctorate and taught at Johns Hopkins University before coming to Emmanuel in 2001. “I think that gives me an edge. Verifying a biblical text should never be the goal of a historian, because if it is, people can strain to find things they desperately want to be true, and that affects their judgment in a negative way.”

Forgers and publicity seekers are more than happy to exploit the desire to connect artifacts with the Bible. Most fakes contain references to famous biblical characters, according to Rollston.

He advises people to “let the dust settle” when some scholarly commotion makes headlines. Rather than accept sensational stories at face value, we should look at the credentials of people making the claims – as well as their critics – and find out what reputable, “methodical and cautious” scholars say before reaching any conclusions.

Rollston said his goal is “knowledge for the sake of knowledge,” which, he hopes, will increase understanding of a text or its setting. Good scholarship can inform faith, but it can’t substitute for it.

“Having good data is never a problem for people of faith. We’re created in the image of God, with intellectual capabilities, and he expects us to use that,” Rollston said. “People have nothing to fear from knowledge. It may transform their faith.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 July 2008.

June 30, 2008

Women as ordained ministers: It’s a matter of interpretation. Or not.

Filed under: Faith Issues,The Church — Culture Beat @ 11:07 am


Pastor Clay Austin of First Baptist Church of Blountville , Tenn., knows what he would say to his daughter if she ever told him she felt called to become a pastor herself.

“I’d tell her to go to the United Methodist Church, because the doors are open there,” the Southern Baptist minister said. “They’re not in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

If that sounds like odd advice, just remember that the topic of women in ministry can cause all kinds of tensions.

While church groups across a wide theological range ordain women as ministers, many do not, including the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The Eastern Orthodox churches, the world’s second-largest Christian communion, do not ordain women as priests, nor does the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. and the world.

But numbers don’t win philosophical debates, and advocates on each side of the question cite Scriptures and wield impressive theological arguments. Last week in this space, a few local women pastors talked about their ministries. This week looks at why some churches don’t believe women are called to be pastors or priests.

The Roman Catholic Church starts with Jesus’ apostles: He chose 12 men, and they later selected men to succeed them. That example wasn’t an oversight or a nod to society, according to Randy Stice, associate pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City, Tenn. It was an explicit, everlasting decision.

“In other ways, Jesus did not follow the norms of his culture,” Stice said. “He spoke with women, and they were the first witnesses to the resurrection. So the fact that Jesus was not in other ways bound by the customs of his time and place but still chose men as apostles is significant.”

Women can work in almost any other aspect of church ministry, he said.

“One of the guiding principles is that there is diversity and mutual complementarity between women and men,” he said. “In our parish, they’re leaders of parish ministries. We have girls as altar servers and women as eucharistic ministers.”

But the Catholic Church draws a sharp line at the sacraments, arguing that because a priest stands “in the person of Christ” as he blesses the Lord’s Supper or baptizes a person, he should possess “a natural resemblance” to Jesus. Jesus’ presence is essential, Catholics will say, and so everything about him matters, including the fact that he was a man.

So the issue isn’t really up for discussion in the Catholic Church, Stice said. In a 1994 letter to Catholic bishops, Pope John Paul II declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

“The Catholic Church feels it’s bound by the example that Christ gave,” Stice explained. “The church is steward of the faith, but not master of it.”

The summary of Southern Baptist core beliefs, the “Baptist Faith and Message,” is concise and clear: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

The Baptists’ restrictions, said Austin, are based on biblical teaching, Austin said, but “their interpretation and their culture” also play a role.

All churches, first century or 21st century, live and work within particular places and times, and most Southern Baptists churches are not ready to accept women as lead pastors, according to Austin, even if many are employed as associates.

But as in the past, the possibility of change remains.

“We don’t rise above culture in interpretation of Scripture,” he said. “If we went back to the 1850s, we’d find rank-and-file Southern Baptists supported slavery. What changed? It was a long, hard cultural struggle. Perhaps the women-in-ministry issue is going to follow that course. But it will be a long learning curve.”

Austin said he struggles with the issue – obviously, considering the advice he would give his daughter. But he welcomes “anything that forces you to go back and examine Scripture.”

“I want to have a high view of Scripture, but I also have to interpret it,” he said. “Everyone has to decide for themselves how they would interpret Scripture. I encourage people to explore their call and what it really is. If that’s what you been called to do, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 June 2008. Second of two columns on women in ministry.
Image: The Maria Sjodin Co., a fashion designer in Stockholm, Sweden, features a line of “casual priest” clothing for women clergy.

June 22, 2008

Rev. Ms.

Filed under: Faith Issues,The Church — Culture Beat @ 10:27 pm


As Beth Yarborough was leaving her office at Jonesborough (Tenn.) Presbyterian Church (USA) recently, she met the photographer for the church directory, who was just coming in.

“Are you the secretary?” he asked.

“Actually, I’m the pastor,” she answered. The photographer froze for a moment in awkward shock.

“Oh!” he blurted. “The pastor?”

It was one of the few occasions from Yarborough’s seven-year pastorate when she was pegged by a stereotype. A man in her place, after all, probably wouldn’t have been asked if he was the secretary. But she laughed about it.

“After he got over the initial surprise, he was fine,” she said. “Having a woman as a pastor is still a bit of a rare phenomenon in this region.”

Indeed. With hundreds of congregations in northeast Tennessee, women serve as senior or “solo” pastors in maybe a dozen of them. Denominations across the theological spectrum – Pentecostal, evangelical and mainline Protestant – ordain women for all types of ministries. Others, of course – including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church, the nation’s two largest denominations – limit the types of ministries women can perform.

Still, any congregation can struggle when a woman steps into its pastorate, especially if she’s the first female in that role. Tradition often trumps accepted practice.

Sharon Amstutz, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (USA) in Johnson City for the past six years, has been warmly received, but she suspects a few families left when her ministry began because of her gender. But she also recalls a particular hospital visit with the church’s oldest member. He had opposed calling a woman as pastor. “But I was wrong,” he told her. She has felt accepted ever since.

In recent conversations with a few of the local women who are pastors, they all resisted two notions: first, that they are feminists in any militant, “I-am-woman-hear-me-preach” sense, and second, that just being a woman specially suits them – or hampers them – for ministry.

“In this culture, starting by saying ‘I’m a pastor’ can close down a conversation,” said Michelle Buckles, pastor of Cherokee United Methodist Church, Johnson City, since last summer. She explained with a scenario that won’t come from a male pastor. “Where I have my nails done, I didn’t tell them for a long time that I’m a minister. I just tried to let them get to know me. What I want to say if someone has a problem with a woman pastor is, ‘Please give me a chance to get to know you, and vice versa.’ I’m comfortable enough as a woman, as a minister, as someone trying to follow God’s call, to handle it.”

“There’s really nothing gender-specific I can think of,” Amstutz said. “As a woman, my greatest contribution (compared to male pastors) is that I bring food to the potlucks,” she joked.

They have all wondered whether women are particularly effective in providing pastoral care, but they know men can do that task equally well – although Yarborough did suggest at least one difference when she talked about visiting a dying parishioner in a hospital. The woman didn’t need more medicine, Yarborough realized.

“She just needed a hug, and so I climbed up beside her and just held her for a few minutes,” she recalled. “I don’t think a lot of men would do that.”

They are well aware that questions, sincerely held differences of biblical interpretation and even suspicion hover in the air over their roles, but none of these women doubt their own calling, just as they don’t expect male ministers to doubt theirs.

“My job is to help people be the body of Christ,” Amstutz said. “That’s not a power over them. I don’t see my job as having authority over anyone. We’re sorting through the Scriptures together.”

“I’ve seen God’s work in my ministry,” Buckles said. “(Author Frederick) Buechner defined vocation as the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. That’s where I’m living right now.”
Yarborough said she doesn’t think much about being a woman in ministry.

“If someone has a problem, I tell them to talk to God about it, because I know I’ve been called,” she said. “I just think of myself as a pastor. I focus on that. Here I am.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 June 2008. First of two columns on women in ministry. Next time: Why not women? Churches have reasons.

June 14, 2008

AA and God (as we understand him)

Filed under: Faith Issues,Miscellaneous,The Church — Culture Beat @ 4:26 pm


A dozen men were sitting around a plain room one night this week in Johnson City, Tenn., and one of them – call him Freddie – wanted to talk about forgiveness. He had caused some trouble for his girlfriend, lied about it and then got caught. When he called her a few days later, she said she forgave him.

But Freddie was worried. Did she mean it? How can a person know he’s forgiven?

The other men murmured encouragement and then in turn talked about their own experiences and ideas about forgiveness. This was an important topic.

Each one introduced himself the same way: “I’m ____, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Welcome to Alcoholics Anonymous.

After everyone spoke, the chairman aimed some tough love in Freddie’s direction.

“Well, the first thing you need to do is to cut that s— out and not do it again,” he said with a laugh that softened the blow. “If you do that again, you’re just done.”

Then he cited Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer: “She needs to forgive, if she wants to be forgiven. And so do you. We’re all in this together. None of us is clean. We’re all sinners.”

Alcoholics Anonymous and its members avoid the spotlight for obvious reasons, so it was easy to miss this week’s anniversary: On June 10, 1935, a stockbroker and a surgeon formed the first “AA” group in Akron, Ohio, with a simple idea: They would actively support each other’s desires to stop drinking.

That modest start has mushroomed into a worldwide network with more than two million members. Its legendary “12 steps” to sobriety is now part of the cultural vocabulary, applied to all sorts of compulsive behavior, from taking narcotics to shopping.

On any given day, at least a dozen AA groups meet in the Tri-Cities area. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

AA is determinedly not a religious group, as the chairman quickly explained when I introduced myself before the meeting. But it is spiritual, right? He nodded yes.

The “12 Steps” and other AA literature repeatedly refer to God or spiritual life in some form. (Step 2: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Step 3: “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”) Members say it’s impossible to understand AA without that component.

That’s not to say spirituality is absolutely necessary for recovering alcoholics to get sober, according to Jon Webb, a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University who has studied both addiction and spirituality. Other effective forms of therapy don’t call on any “higher power.”

But AA is different: it presumes that recovering alcoholics need resources they can’t supply themselves.

“Part of the bottom line is the person’s own sense of spirituality, not something that’s imposed,” Webb said. “It has to fit for the person. AA is trying to help people find their own source of spirituality, their own source of power outside themselves. It works, we know, but we’re not sure why. Research is still being done. One paper indicates that as spirituality increases over time, drinking decreases over time.”

Being in a group is also an essential element of AA, to the extent that discussions about “spirituality” and “community” almost completely overlap.

AA groups meet five nights a week at Watauga Avenue Presbyterian Church, involving about 100 people, and Pastor George Rolling sees an interlocking relationship between AA’s spiritual dimension and its group life.

“In theory, community can be bereft of spiritual aspects, but not in real terms,” he said. “It takes a community for someone to acknowledge there’s a problem and to get help, as opposed to taking on the problem alone. A lone individual is working against tremendous odds. There’s no substitute for a community of faith or active belief. People need community to steer them in truthful directions.”
Rolling also thinks that Christians can learn some lessons from AA.

“They are totally nonjudgmental,” he said. “They will never call out a fellow member. They are supporters – encouraging, praying. One for all, all for one. They share a common need.”

He paused a moment.

“Don’t we all?”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 14 June 2008.

May 27, 2008

‘Going to the (fill in the blank) and we’re gonna to get married’

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 9:55 am


Consider this paradox: The government of Germany supports religion, but clergy there are not allowed to perform official weddings. Couples must be wed by state authorities. For a church ceremony, the couple takes an extra step, and they often do, even a year after their official marriage.

In the U.S., however, where church and state are officially separate, clergy are allowed to perform state-approved ceremonies.

The irony is apparent to Scott Bartchy, professor of Christian origins and the history of religion at UCLA, who taught in Germany during the 1970s.

“Early on (in the U.S) we empowered ministers and rabbis to marry people,” said Bartchy, who graduated from Milligan College (where I teach), earned advanced Harvard degrees, and once taught at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City. “We hear it when they say, ‘by the authority vested in me by the state of Tennessee.’ What in the world is the ministry doing administering the laws of Tennessee?”

The complex relationship between marriage, the state and religion crashed the headlines again last week when the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in that state.

The ruling was close, 4-3, and it may be overturned if voters decide in November to amend the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and woman. (In 2000, Californians passed a proposition saying as much, with a 61 percent majority, but that does not carry constitutional weight.)

Except for California and Massachusetts, which approved same-sex marriage in 2003, American laws recognize marriage only between a man and a woman. Several states, including California, already have domestic partnership provisions, which give same-sex couples some legal rights but are not considered equal with marriage.

But more than legalities are involved. There are cultural and economic dimensions – and religious ones, of course. People get married in church buildings, synagogues and mosques for a reason.

Faith traditions teach theological ideas about the meaning of marriage and family. For Christians and Jews, Genesis 2 portrays the relationship between man and woman as a reflection of God’s own nature. Popular notions of romance – “when two egos enter a relationship to maximize their own benefits,” as Bartchy put it – doesn’t play a big role. The biblical ideal of being “of one flesh” means more than being in one bed.

There was a time when such ideas were generally accepted, and common religious teachings coincided with the state’s interest in maintaining stable households. Church and state found it easy to meet at the wedding altar.

That cooperation was part of another legacy – the tangled and often troubled relationships between governments and churches dating back at least to 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and favored it with his patronage.

Before then, distinctions were clear between Christians and the society at large ad especially the government. Constantine’s edict made life easier for Christians, but it also smudged the borders between church, state and society.

The current disputes over marriage show just how long-lasting and messy that legacy has been. Here’s a question: If a minister believes – for theological reasons – that marriage is only between a man and a woman, but performs a wedding in Massachusetts or California, is he or she compromising a matter of faith by sanctifying that state’s broader definition of marriage? Or anywhere – what if a minister who believes Jesus’ words about divorce (Matthew 19:3-9) performs a marriage between two legally divorced people?

The state is interested in stability, but not necessarily in how or why people live together, other than a vague notion of “an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children,” as California Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in last week’s majority opinion.

It may be time for church and state to separate at the altar, according to Bartchy.

“I think we would clean up our act a whole lot if the state alone issued marriage licenses,” he said. “Whatever form the majority thinks that should take ought to be case, since this is a democracy. Then whatever Christian or other religious groups do, that’s for them to decide.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 24 May 2008.

The days of our lives

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,The Church — Culture Beat @ 9:52 am


Mother’s Day and the Christian day of Pentecost fell together last Sunday – a rare coincidence, thanks to the same lunar calendar that this year gave us the earliest Easter any of us will see for the rest of our lives.

Pentecost commemorates the day when, according to the Book of Acts, the Spirit of God came on the small, huddled group of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, igniting them to “be witnesses” and in effect launching the church. The day is often called the birthday of the church. (As with other holidays, calendars vary between Western and Eastern traditions; the Eastern Pentecost is June 15 this year.)

So I was baffled when I noticed how many church bulletins, advertisements and newsletters focused on moms more than on Pentecost.

Nothing against moms or Mother’s Day – some of my best friends are moms – but Pentecost is a big day, traditionally regarded as a major Christian celebration, on the same plane as Christmas and Easter. It seemed strange that churches would give more attention to a secular observance, even a worthy one, than to a meaningful Christian holiday.

The fact is that, besides a couple of really big holidays, many Christians and congregations don’t follow the traditional church or “liturgical” calendar. Some even track the civic calendar more closely. I remember that my boyhood church observed Labor Day and Flag Day – Flag Day! – but ignored Advent. We politely nodded hello to Pentecost but rolled out the red carpet for July Fourth.

But the church calendar, according to Pastor Jim Nipper of Our Saviour Lutheran Church, can provide structure to the church teaching, to help Christians learn what they believe through annual cycles of Scriptures and observances. “Having that order does lift up what’s important,” he said.

There’s tomorrow, for example – Trinity Sunday. It’s a minor celebration, but not a meaningless one. As the name implies, it focuses on the doctrine of the Trinity, one of the most confounding teachings of Christianity, which says that God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” to quote Reginald Heber’s hymn.

This teaching is “the Christian way of offering some definition of who God is, even though the Trinity is a mystery,” Nipper said. “It is a unique understanding of who God is. We don’t have three gods; we have one God who makes himself known in three ways. It’s the same person who wears three different hats.”

Trinity Sunday found its way onto the church agenda after the first major doctrinal dispute, the Arian heresy of the early fourth century. A church leader named Arius denied that God could have a son in any meaningful way, and thus concluded, contrary to church teaching, that Jesus was not of the same “substance” as God. As he gained followers, church leaders gathered to debate and then formulate orthodox expressions of the faith.

“The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God,” stated the Athanasian Creed, from the mid fourth century. “And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord.”

There’s more about this that I don’t understand than I do. It’s indeed a mystery, but one at the heart of the Christian faith. The doctrine of the Trinity sets Christianity apart from other religions.

Jews and Muslims may honor Jesus as a prophet and great teacher – but as equal, “one substance,” with God? That’s blasphemy. “God neither begets, nor is He begotten,” the Koran bluntly states. “The Lord our God is one,” declares the Hebrew Scriptures.

As much as these faiths share – including a basic belief in one God – they also are defined by their distinctive beliefs and practices, and it is good to understand them. Nipper doesn’t want to emphasize separation from other people, but “the doctrine of the Trinity binds Christians together.”

Considering how important these teachings and events are, a few days on the calendar doesn’t seem like much at all. Not even with honored parents in the room.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 17 May 2008.

May 3, 2008

Global shifts, national interests, spiritual kinships

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 11:43 am


Some time ago I was behind a car plastered with three bumper stickers: “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace … One Nation Under God … The Power of Pride,” the last one decorated with an American flag.

It took a minute for the mixed message of cheek-turning Christianity, proud nationalism and support for the war on terrorism to sink in, partly because that blend is a common sight around here.

Not so in other parts of the world, not even where the Christian faith used to dominate, according to Dr. Brian Stanley, a church historian and missions specialist at England’s Cambridge University.

“There has been a massive shift since the Second World War,” he said, one that has moved the global weight of Christianity to the south and east – to Africa and Asia – and away from the “old heartlands of Christianity” in Europe and North America.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s Christians – about 65 percent – live in Africa and Asia now. A hundred years ago, at most 10 percent of the world’s Christians lived in those regions.

But since 1945, migration, improved mass communications and waves of independence movements that freed colonies from old European powers helped to alter the world’s religious landscape.

At the same time, Christianity began declining in Europe and in parts of North America. If this is a typical weekend in Western Europe, less than 10 percent of adults will darken the door of a Christian or Jewish place of worship, a percentage closely mirrored in many urban areas on this side of the Atlantic.

The growth of Christianity in Asia and Africa “surprised a lot of people,” said Stanley, who directs the Henry Martyn Centre, an academic institute specializing in the study of Christianity around the world. In the 1950s and ’60s, experts predicted that Christian religion would evaporate after Western colonists pulled out. Just the opposite happened.

“What was once Christian in the North – or West, if you prefer – is not Christian anymore,” Stanley said. Gone are the old distinctions between so-called Christian and heathen nations. No one can easily draw a religion’s territory on a map anymore.

If the geography of Christianity has changed, so has the environment in which it operates. It is a minority religion in most cultures, just one among many faiths.

“What is emerging in the South (hemisphere) is a very different form of Christianity,” said Stanley, who lectured at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tenn., in 2004. “Very few nation-states have governments that are explicitly Christian. The majority are Islamic or secular, such as India because it is so religiously diverse.”

That kind of atmosphere is “cutting away at a lot of deadwood,” Stanley said. “People are Christians because they choose to be, sometimes at considerable cost.”

In Iraq, for example, Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, was kidnapped and killed in March, but his high-profile death came after a series of abductions, murders and church bombings aimed at Iraq’s Christian communities.

In most places, Christianity is starting to resemble the church in its earliest days, according to Stanley, when “people were more at the margins of power rather than at the center of power, and often challenging the powers that be.”

This global shift will test Christians in the United States and other Western nations, even in the so-called Bible belt. Bumper-sticker slogans won’t work well.

“Christian identity and Western or American identity are going to pull further and further apart,” Stanley said. “More and more Christians will not be in free, democratic societies. That will challenge our view of Christianity in its connection with our national identity.”

In other words, Western Christians should expect to wrestle with political and economic policies that pressure fellow believers in other countries. Christians in Palestine, for example, are baffled and angry at the strong support that American church leaders such as John Hagee give to Israeli policies, even when Palestinian church communities are destroyed as a result.

American Christians are entering unfamiliar territory, where national interests collide with spiritual kinships.

“That will challenge Christians,” says Stanley. “Where is your ultimate loyalty?”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 3 May 2008.

Yeah. It’s the money thing again.

Filed under: Faith Issues,Politics,The Church — Culture Beat @ 11:41 am


Last fall Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, started poking his Iowan nose into the finances of six media-based ministries. Citing allegations of possible abuses – extravagant housing allowances, excessive compensation, personal use of assets such as private jets, lax board governance, unreported income – he wanted an accounting, literally, of how much money these ministries receive and how it gets used.

The targeted ministry leaders cried foul at first, saying the Senate was tearing down the wall separating church and state, but four of them have since started cooperating. Only Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar continue to resist. Life may get complicated for them.

Grassley said he simply wants to protect donors.

“Tax-exempt organizations rely on the generosity and good will of their contributors to help fill food pantries, clothe the needy and serve the underprivileged,” he stated. “Donors of modest means pinch pennies and make sacrifices so others less fortunate may benefit from their collective contributions. … Considering tax-exempt media-based ministries today are a billion-dollar industry with minimal transparency, it would be irresponsible not to examine this tax-exempt part of our economy.”

The Senate committee action might be necessary, but it’s unfortunate. Government intervention wouldn’t be necessary if donors were doing their job, which involves more than writing a check. They should also be asking questions.

“Ministries are responsive to donor enquiries,” according to Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a voluntary accreditation agency for Christian nonprofit organizations. “Donors should understand they have a long-term relationship (with ministries). Healthy dialogues are always good. Self-regulation is better than government oversight.”

His organization, like a Christian Better Business Bureau, offers suggestions for wise giving (“know your charity … understand what your gift will accomplish … focus on the mission”). The bottom line: Donors should be both generous and informed. The Internet, Behr points out, makes active, educated giving easier than ever.

Concerns about mixing money and ministry are as old as the church itself — not surprising, considering the Bible’s general skepticism about wealth. Jesus said it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25), a verse not quoted much by the Rev. Dollar. Jesus sent his followers out to preach with necessities, not with some first-century equivalent of a Rolls Royce.

The apostle Paul wrote that “workers deserve their wages,” and that good teachers and leaders should be treated generously. But a few lines later, he warned that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction, for the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6: 9, 10).

Money itself is not evil, but perhaps dollar bills should be printed with warning labels: “Money can be hazardous to spiritual health.”

By the early second century, just a generation after Paul, church leaders were concerned enough about potential financial abuses that a Christian instruction manual, “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (known in Greek as the Didache), addressed the issue.

“Let every apostle (messenger) who comes to you be received as the Lord,” the Didache instructed. “But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet. … Not every one who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds the ways of the Lord.”

It’s impossible to say for sure what early Christians would think of a TV preacher who cries for cash and promises riches in return, but it’s obvious that their tests were more practical than mystical: If some teacher outstayed his welcome or scrounged for wealth, then he wasn’t to be trusted.

With 1,900-year-old wisdom like that, maybe Sen. Grassley wouldn’t need to protect donors from dodgy televangelists or, for that matter, from themselves.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 April 2008. This was the second of two columns on financial accountability; the first appeared on April 5.
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April 19, 2008

Word of the day: Hope.

Filed under: Faith Issues,The Church — Culture Beat @ 9:41 am


If he had a few minutes with Pope Benedict XVI (pictured here, arriving in the U.S.), the Rev. Gerard Finucane would urge the pontiff to mandate an hour of contemplation each day for every believer.

“If it’s five minutes or an hour – so be it,” said the pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “We’re bombarded by so many voices, it’s hard to hear what the spirit of God is saying to each of us. We need some isolation, to get away from cell phones and TVs and clear out the clutter. It’s something our age needs.”

Unfortunately, Finucane didn’t have a chance for that conversation this week, when Benedict visited Washington, D.C., and New York City. It was the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s first visit to the United States since he was chosen to lead the Roman Catholic Church in 2005.

Besides, the pontiff, who turned 81 on Wednesday, needed to discuss other issues.

On Thursday, the first full day of a five-day visit, Benedict led mass for 45,000 people gathered in Washington’s new baseball stadium. After that event, it was striking how many people who attended described the “warmth” and enthusiasm they felt, sometimes in surprise since as cardinal he was known as “God’s bulldog” for his doctrinal rigidity. Many talked about their renewed sense of “hope.”

Hope is an important word. It’s no accident that for his visit Benedict selected a simple theme: “Christ our hope.” That was also the subject of an encyclical, a major letter to the church, which he issued last fall.

But now he was coming into a situation that could be read as hopeless or at least discouraged. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has been losing members and facing financial crisis. St. Mary’s, which has doubled in membership in the past decade, is an exception. Catholic colleges and universities struggle with tensions between accepted doctrine and academic freedom.

Most troubling of all, the American church is still reeling from a decade-long scandal of priests who sexually abused children, sometimes over the course of years and sometimes as their American leaders turned a blind eye. More than 5,000 U.S. priests have been accused of abusing about 12,000 children since 1950, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The church has spent about $2 billion on legal claims.

Despite efforts to hold clergy accountable, thousands of members felt betrayed and vulnerable in their own churches. Grassroots groups that offer support for victims also call for a housecleaning in the church. Some brush off any suggestion that substantial changes have occurred.

So it was significant that as Pope Benedict began a major trip with hope as its theme, he addressed the sexual abuse scandal first and in direct terms. He talked about the “shame” he felt and promised that priests who committed pedophilia would be removed. He publicly spoke about the scandal three times in the next day. (The sex-abuse troubles briefly brushed the Diocese of Knoxville, of which St. Mary’s parish is part, with an accusation made years ago against the founding bishop. No problems have ever been reported from St. Mary’s.)

After Thursday’s mass, the pope unexpectedly met and prayed in private with a small group of victims. He had requested the meeting, and it was the first time the pope had met face to face with victims. They came away with both wait-and-see skepticism and – that word again – hope.

Benedict addressed other topics this week – immigration, war, the dangers of relativism, relationships between people of different faiths. For each one, it’s worth noting that Benedict tried to communicate hope by addressing difficult issues, often in blunt terms.

“The thing is that healing takes time,” Finucane observed. “We want to reach out and offer the care and healing we can. But obviously trust has been broken, so when the church reaches out, there’s some doubt about sincerity. We need time to rebuild the trust.”

But Finucane is, of course, hopeful.

“As the shepherd of this flock, (the pope) has the responsibility to speak out forcefully and to give direction,” Finucane said. “But the fact that he chose as his theme ‘Christ our hope’ tells me he chose not to adopt a negative tone, especially in the Easter season. If we follow Christ as the good shepherd, we have that hope to make changes in our lives and move forward.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 April 2008.

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