Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Refining a Reformation: A Response to Spong

As I write on the need for a new reformation (see Nov. 3) for Christianity, many people have told me my ideas are similar to John Shelby Spong's, who wrote Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (a notion that I wholeheartedly agree with). Having never read him directly, I needed to, so delved into his latest book, The Sins of Scripture. What I discovered shocked me. Although I can agree with Spong on the need to rethink so much of what has become traditional Christianity (and agree with several of his conclusions), I believe he has succumbed to an emotional overeaction that reinforces to me the need for a more objective fact-based reform.

Spong believes much of the Bible is a fraud, stating, for example, that the idea of Jesus's suffering as atonement due to inborn sin is a human creation concocted by the early disciples to explain the crucifixion. He believes sadomasochism is in the heart of Christianity because God is portrayed as an angry Father who punishes people, and eventually His son, for the sin of humankind. But he doesn't offer objective evidence for this fraud, only a host of emotionally based arguments, some of them misusing Scripture the same way that fundamentalists do. He also ignores other evidences such as the NT manuscript evidence for historicity, Isaiah's predictions of a suffering servant who bares sin for the people, and the testimony of history of human evil that cries for justice--atrocities such as the Killing Fields, Rwanda massacres, the Holocaust, Stalin's purge, and the Armenian holocaust, to name only a few in our century.

Where Spong sees problems in Scripture, he often jumps to conclusions without attempting to understand the historical, cultural, and literary context, before making an intepretation--the very sin that proof-texting conservative Christians practice. For example, he says Matthew 27:25 (A Jewish crowd insists on Jesus' crucifixion in response to Pilate's plea of innocence, "His blood be on us and on our children.") is responsible for anti-semitism and untold Jewish suffering and therefore a "sin of scripture." The question is did that event really happen? If misguided people misuse and abuse the recording of that event to justify anti-semitism, how does that make the writings sinful? A careful study of related texts shows that the NT is not anti-semitic (all its authors and the whole early church was Jewish, Paul told non-Jewish believers to not be arrogant or boastful to Jewish non-believers), but that a segment of Jewish people simply rejected Jesus (as did many non-Jews as well).

A careful study also indicates that God is not laying a guilt-trip on people (as many churches do as a result of misinterpretation) just because He sent a sacrifice for sins. The overall message is grace, not guilt, another NT theme that Spong ignores.

Spong fixates more on Scripture being fraudulent or guilty of false teaching. I agree that there are real problems with some biblical passages, but the solution is not to reject its teachings outright, but pursue correct translation, interpretation, and application in today's world. The problem is not so much Scripture, but people and institutions twisting and abusing it to justify evil or falsehoods. Without a new reformation, fundamentalism and much of evangelicalism on the right, will continue to abuse Scripture, and people like Spong, on the left, will continue to overeact to such abuses.

I respect Spong for making a bold call for change and will continue to read his position. However, I believe the change must be in line with historical truth found through sound exegesis, hermeanutics, and an honest study of canonicity and the nature/limits of biblical authority and inerrancy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Intelligent Design Theory Revealed

With the Dover, PA case, Intelligent Design (ID) theory is in the news. A local school board tried to legislate (the operative word is "legislate") that science teachers read a disclaimer to students that evolution is not universally accepted and that ID theory offers an alternative scientific perspective. Eventually the school board was voted out. But what is the real issue at hand here? On the one hand, knee-jerk reactions from staunch evolutionists were that this was a back-door attempt to introduce religion and "creationism" into the classroom. On the other hand, the appalling response from conservative Christian Pat Robertson was that Dover, Pennsylvanians should not bother calling on God should a future disaster come their way since they denied Him with their vote! Really now, why do extremist views get all the press?

First of all, ID theory is not a new brand of creation science. Anyone who understands the debate knows this. Creation science is based on a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis and tries to support a young earth, a worldwide flood, and a literal six-day creation timeframe among other things. ID theorists don't support these assertions at all. Authentic ID theorists and the related and growing critics of evolution are not presupposing a literal reading of the Bible, but rather are simply pointing out the real problems with neo-Darwinism and specifically the mechanism that drives evolutionary theory--random mutations and natural selection. Yea, but aren't they closet fundamentalists pushing their agenda through a new means? Hardly. A case in point is David Berlinski, avowed agnostic, and one of Darwinism's harshest critics, who debates along side ID theorists against macro-evolution (check link in title).

Second, the Dover school board probably did include Christians who wanted to use ID theory to fight evolution. Their mistake, I believe, was trying to legislate rather than encourage science teachers who choose, to bring the scientific literature that critiques Darwinism into the classroom. There is real discrimination to those who attempt this (one teacher in Bellingham, WA did this a few years ago and got the boot).

Finally, who does Pat Robertson think he is? Those who voted against the school board aren't necessarily against ID theory, but perhaps against legislating its promotion. Others probably are not well informed about it with all the hype and half-truths out there. And even if they are well informed, what happened to the grace of God?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Caring for the Poor and Fighting Poverty

I'm ashamed I haven't given to the Pakistani earthquake relief effort yet. I could use the excuse that I was recently layed off from my job, but that doesn't cut it. They estimate 2.5 million people are homeless out in the open cold weather as winter approaches. The least I could do is give a few bucks out of my savings or forego a few meals and donate the saved cost. Caring for the poor often takes sacrifice.

Relief efforts are usually what people focus on when they think of helping the poor. More importantly is the long-term work of development that helps people overcome poverty and could make an earthquake such as Pakistan less devestating. This ongoing fighting poverty can be in the form of a variety of self-help programs such as the provison of microenterprise loans that enable the enterprising poor to run succesful businesses or agricultural inputs to improve food production.

Pedro Alonso, a Spaniard working in Mozambique, is a malaria fighter (Time, 11/7, page 88). He is working on a malaria vaccine for children with the help of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which was started by the Gates Foundation (Malaria is a bigger killer than AIDS in Africa and efforts to fight it are often overlooked). Yours and mine two cents or occaissional $100 bucks to fight poverty all helps the cause but don't ignore the great contributions of affluent philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates. People fault the rich for being rich but when they let their hearts guide them rather than greed they can do enormous good. While working at World Vision as a grant writer I saw both indivdual philanthropists and corporations give millions of dollars. Capitalism mixed with compassion cares for the poor and fights to overcome poverty.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A New Reformation

Christianity needs another reformation. It’s been almost 500 years since Luther tacked his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg cathedral that drew attention to the corrupt and misguided practices of the Catholic church. The Protestant movement produced great reforms including freely-translated scriptures, the end of the practice of indulgences, marriage for Christian leaders, and many others. Although Catholicism has had some positive changes in recent years it still needs radical change (e.g. optional marriage for priests and nuns) since it never had its own reformation. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity are steeped in beliefs and practices that I believe are in dire need of reform. What reforms are necessary? Here are six important ones:

1. Honorable Interpretation of Scriptures – Very few Pastors and Leaders teach people how to study the Bible honorably. Verses are commonly taken out of context, sound historical and cultural considerations are rarely taught, original language is usually ignored, and there is widespread confusion about what literalism really means. Conservatives practice what I call “selective literalism”, in which someone selects a verse that supports their view and says, “The Bible says…” while ignoring the full context of the passage, linguistic, historical, and cultural facts, translation alternatives, and other verses in the Bible that bring clarity. Also, albeit a small percentage, there are a number of key mistranslations of words or passages in the majority of English Bibles.

2. Limits to the Authority of the Bible – Far too often, the OT is casually quoted as if it has equal authority with Christ and His new convenant. Inerrancy defenders have never adequately explained the obvious discrepancies in many Biblical passages (claiming the original documents were inerrant just reinforces that we don't have an inerrant Bible in our hands). Advice from Paul to the early church, 2000 years removed from our modern context, is blindly accepted as law for believers today.

3. Freedom in Christian Behavior – So much Christian teaching ignores the established fact that believers in Christ are “released from the Law” (Romans chapters one thru 10) and in fact, released from a Law-based approach to God. Nevertheless, performance-oriented Christianity is rampant. Believers are told a host of commands that are either derived from the OT law that they aren’t under (e.g. tithe 10 percent to the church and attend church weekly), concocted from a law-based reading of the NT (e.g. establish a daily prayer time and regular “witness”, don’t allow women in leadership), or created from traditional non-biblical teaching (e.g. do not drink, dance, go to certain movies, engage in singles sexuality, etc.)

4. Ensuring Love is Fulfillment of the Law – Rather than making Christ’s and Paul’s command to make love for God and love for neighbor the guiding principle for Christian behavior, churches have made adherance to a set of both written and unwritten laws and a traditional non-biblical definition of holiness the standard.

5. Refutation of Dangerous and/or Misguided Teaching – The church has done well refuting cults but failed in its refutation and denouncement of cultic-like (at worst) and misinformed (at best) teaching such as the seven-year tribulation belief (Left Behind), non-scientific origins teaching (Creationism), condemnation of homosexuals, and extreme anti-abortion teaching.

6. Reform of Sexual Mores – The church adheres to a sexual standard based on tradition more than the Biblical record. Behaviors such as masturbation, singles sexuality, nudity, and certain sexual practices are condemned by inference not direct Biblical admonitions (e.g. the word translated ‘fornication’ or ‘sexual immorality’ is from the Greek word ‘porneia’ which historically didn’t include all sex before marriage or masturbation). Church moralists ignore the obvious Biblical acceptance of polygamy, concubinage, sex with servants, certain forms of prostitution, the erotic literature of Solomon, the property-related context of the Jewish view of adultery, and the practice of heterosexual and homosexual shrine prostitution (false worship to false gods) when interpreting right sexual mores for today.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

How I Overcame Depression

Nine years ago I was diagnosed by a psychologist with post traumatic stress disorder stemming from serious personal conflicts while working in Africa for five years. Later, another psychologist said I had "aggravated depression." For three and a half years I endured the intense, debilitating mental anguish that is depression. It was worse than any physical suffering I had, including malaria, hepatitis, and appendicitis.

Thank my Creator that He showed me a way out of the suffering and I have been depression-free for over six years. Although it was recommended by my first counselor, I took no drugs or medication. I'm here to say there is a way out from this common condition without being dependent on drugs. Our society is drug-crazy with doctors and psychologists prescribing a drug at the drop of a hat. I've met so many people who are on anti-depressants but are not dealing with the root issues of their depression. Drugs can be a good temporary solution to help people cope with the mental pain. (I probably should have taken something at the most intense time of my condition to minimize the anxiety and intense stress). But I believe they should be a short-term solution (with some exceptions to conditions that are truly caused by chemical imbalance) to get one over a hump while they tackle the root causes.

How did I finally overcome the funk? It's a long story but the short answer is through cognitive therapy. My second psychologist was brilliant in helping me uncover some childhood issues that had made me susceptble to depression all along. He gave me tools to combat negative thinking. I also did my own study and discovered a key book that helps one overcome distorted thinking (click on title for link). We feel what we think and if we are barraged by negative, self-criticizing thoughts (sometimes not even noticed), then we will inevitbly become depressed. The way out is knowing the lies we think and combating them with rational responses and the truth. In my opinion, the this needs to include the truth about our Creator's unconditional love and acceptance.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Who Defines Sexual Morality?

The New Testment contains a Greek word that describes outlawed sexual behavior. The word is "porneia" which is commonly rendered as "fornication" or "sexual immorality" in modern English Bible translations. According to the Miriam-Webster dictionary, fornication means "consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other." The problem is that porneia is a broad, general term that means sexual behavior condemned by God in His law, which is spelled out in detail in the Holiness Code of Leviticus. Porneia includes, but is not limited to, incest, rape, and adultery. Obviously "fornication" is a bad translation, since it is limited to "consensual" behavior. Furthermore, there are examples of people in the Old Testament where two people not married to each other had sex and it was not considered sin. Many godly men of God had concubines, for example, and the law in Exodus had provision for a man to have sex with a slave or servant.

The other term commonly used, "sexual immoratity" (NIV), is a better choice for the English but still leaves open the question of what it entails. It is rarely, if ever, used as the general term it should mean: "illicit sexual behavior as defined by the Torah". It is usually used as a term to define anything the hearer believes is immoral sexually, so polygamy, concubinage, singles sexuality, viewing pornagraphy (another term that needs defining) all forms of homosexuality, and even masturbation is usually included in the concept. Again the problem is that the way "porneia" is used in the NT and in the OT Greek translation (Septuagint), it refers to a set of well-defined outlawed sexual behaviors. To see what it actually means, one must go back to its roots. Porneia in the OT was assocated with the a long list of specific sins found in Leviticus like adultery, bestiality, incest (very detailed on what constitutes it), idolatry-related sexual behavior, and rape.

In the NT, the best way to determine what it means is to look at the places where it is mentioned that includes examples. (When the word is used in a list, it doesn't provide a clue of its meaning). There are only four that I have found and they describe incest (where Paul says "a man has his father's wife"), adultery (where Paul says don't defraud a brother), sexual idolatry (where Paul cites a story from Numbers that is clearly about idolatry), and prostitution (where Pauls says don't unite Christ in you with a harlot).

So, why does the church associate other things with sexual immorality beyond these such as singles sexuality, polygamy, masturbation, pornagraphy, oral sex, and other behaviors?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Sex-Negative Society

I was at an AIDS conference with World Vision in 2003. World Vision has an approach to AIDS similar to the Ugandan government's. It's called the ABC strategy. A-abstinence, B-be faithful, and C-condoms. Education is geared around teaching young people to be abstinent, married people to remain faithful, but for those who are unable or unwilling to do A or B, they are taught to use condoms. The approach has helped Uganda decrease their AIDS rate drastically.

While there, I met an Anglican priest from Uganda who is HIV positive and was a leader in the ministry. A group called Concerned Women for America (CWA) passed out literature condemning World Vision's promotion of condoms on moral grounds. After my new acquaintence read the literature that they passed out, he openly wept. "Don't they see how unloving this is?" he said. "What about women who are married to someone who they suspect may be HIV positive? Or those who are resort to prostitution to feed their children?" I thought to myself "Yes indeed, not to mention those who choose what society calls an immoral lifestyle. Where is the compassion in holding information that could save their life?”

This is a good example of a sex-negative society or culture which is common in the church. A standard is set that sex is bad except in narrow circumstances. Even if someone is faced with a life-threatening disease, people are not told to try to protect themselves or their partners, only to follow the strict standard. The narrow view of groups like CWA ignores the complexities and realities of human relationships and sexual behavior and says "Accept our standards or risk getting a incurable disease." There is no room for different views on the standard or allowing someone time to become ready to change their behavior.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Last Days Madness

The madness over this is mind-boggling! Popularized by Hal Lindsey's 1970's book "The Late Great Planet Earth" and the recent "Left Behind" best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye, the premise of this belief is that the Bible predicts the end of the world and the return of Christ amidst a tribulation period of worldwide suffering and plagues. Some versions like Lindsay's and LaHaye's say true believers in Jesus will be raptured (taken from the earth to heaven) before this 7-year tribulation period and escape its horrors (not all evangelicals believe this version). The problem I have is the last days mentality is at best a silly interpretation full of half-truths, and at worst a gross misreading of the Bible that promotes myths and outright lies.

There isn't enough space in this short blurb to make the case for this (see link on title for a book that carefully dissects the flaws of end-times theology). Suffice it to say that Jesus described a time of tribulation and then declared "I tell you the truth, this generation shall not pass away until all these things come to pass." Here the literalists refuse to take Jesus' words literally. The generation alive who heard Christ's words would not die out before these "end-times" events took place. That fits perfectly with the incredibly terrible times in the Roman Empire from around 64 to 70 AD when Roman legions took seige of Jerusalem, Christians were persecuted under Nero, earthquakes occured, comets were sighted, civil wars were fought, and the Jewish capital, temple, and way of religous life (e.g. sacrifical system) were utlimately destroyed. The historian Josephus describes this period in detail.

But if the overwhelming majority of end-time catostraphic events have already occured, where is the drama in that? The answer is there is none. Nor should there be in my opinion. The modern version of end-times theology with the Left-Behind-style rapture was developed in the 19th century by an Irish priest named John Nelson Darby. It was never taught by the early church.

Some claim the fruit of end-times books is people thinking seriously about their standing with God, even if the story line may not be based soundly on scripture. But it equally results in people not taking scripture or its proponents seriously. Nicholas Kristoff, a columnist for the NY Times, interpreted the "Glorious Appearing" book by LaHaye as a study in intolerance and a re-portrayal of Jesus presiding over a militant christianity. Playboy magazine, speaking on U.S. middle east policy, mocked believers as succumbing to an extraordinary delusion in believing in the rapture-style last days scenario and interpreting today's events in light of it.

The bottom line is integrity. The traditional modern fundamentailist or evangelical church view on the end-times has no scriptural or historical integrity.

Black-and-White Thinking

Who would have thought that Bono (U2) and Jesse Helms would be contributors to the same book (The Awake Project, Uniting Against the African AIDS Crisis) and that they would be arguing the same case. There is a way of thought---black-and-white thinking---that puts people in a neat little box. One is either on the right side or not, in this type of mind. Liberals think conervatives are greedy, non-caring capitalists who love to rape the earth, and conservatives think liberals are immoral, paternalistic socialists who love to control the masses. In my experience, many on each side swallow the stereotypes and usually seriously misunderstand each other. Why? They can't get out of the rut of black-and-white thinking.

From what I can tell, Bono is a Bible-honoring believer in Christ. Unfortunately he doesn't fit the evangelical mold (with their speak-dress-sing-look-behave-like-us mentality) so is normally dismissed as a spiritual voice. Jesse Helms said he was ashamed he had not done more for the world's AIDS pandemic and then argued for more funds for projects. I was surpised to read that. I had put him in a box. I needed to relearn that life is often not black or white, but shades of gray.

When people criticize President Bush, for example, because of his supposed unjust policies, they usually overlook important facts. For example, he was the first president to commit $50 billion to combat AIDS internationally (and was a contributor to that book along with Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela), had the most ethnically diverse cabinet in history his first term, and implemeted a foreign policy that has freed millions of women and men from some of the most repressive totalitarian regimes the world has seen. On the last achievment, one may disagree with the means, but they shouldn't allow black-or-whtie thinking from clouding the obviously just results.

There is a place for calling a spade a spade. There are fundamental and structural evils in the world and just and good princples. But people are complex. It shouldn't take an AIDS crisis to see where we all have common ground.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Beware of Group Think

My favorite feminist is the former Director of the L.A. chapter of NOW, Tammy Bruce, because she breaks the mold. She is openly gay, pro-choice, gun-owning, pro-death penalty, and voted for President Bush! I may not always agree with her but I love her spunk. You can't type someone like that in stereo.

Recently I heard her speak at Florida State University about some of her experiences as a NOW Director and progressive feminist with a conservative bent. One of the things she noticed was how colleagues in the pro-choice movement would react win she or someone else within the ranks would question or consider a new perspective outside the party-line. There were a lot of black-and-white thinkers who could not handle alternate perspectives and would question a member's loyalty if they deviated. A kind of group-think mentality developed where one was afraid to differ or disagree.

I have seen this same attitude in many churches and in evangelicalism. There is a general understanding that one must hold to certain views, beliefs, doctrines, perspectives, and political thought. I'm not saying a group shouldn't have core values and beliefs they share. But the black-and-white mentality can take over a group so that the gray areas are forced to go black or white. If it goes too far it becomes very unhealthy. A person can lose their individualism as they are consumed with fitting into a fellowship, avoiding conflict (which is not always unhealthy), and sacrifice their own personhood on the alter of group-think. Independent thinkers can't handle this, which is probably why Ms. Bruce left NOW and is who she is today.

The key I suppose is striking a balance between sharing a broad set of core values or principles and welcoming independent thought--not always an easy thing to do but well worth the effort.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Rethinking Faith and Freedom

I was inspired to create this blog after watching the recent movie called Luther about the 16th century reformer played by Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love). Martin Luther, after seeing many abuses and misuses of religion in his day, rethought his faith and culture and helped restore Christianity to much of its original core and freedom. I hope to address many similar issues of our day where there is a need to rethink, restore, and perhaps even reform our ideas in the areas of faith, politics, culture, and sexuality. I have had to rethink issues in my life, sometimes a few times over, when confronted with new-found knowledge, facts, or truth, and some of these posts will describe such instances, while others will ask new questions or simply reinforce time-tested answers.

Luther was an independent thinker and I share that tendency. To all those who insist on thinking for themselves, I invite you to grab a mug of your favorite brew and hang-out in this Pub; share your comments, so that myself and others can learn from your experience, or just have a good read. Ironically, the day I post this is Martin Luther King day 2005, a time to honor another great independent thinker who also rethought and reformed the culture and freedoms of his day.