Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Fulsome Orthodoxy

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

Recently I came across an essay by Mark Tooley, called “Calvinist Evangelicals in a United Methodist Church!” Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a right-wing institution committed to demonizing mainline Christianity. He is a longtime critic of the United Methodist Church, and the essay was predictably negative.

What was surprising was the theology he advocated as an alternative to what he sees as the non-biblical drift of “institutional Methodism.”

He tells of walking by a church that once was home to a healthy United Methodist congregation and now houses a new and vibrant Calvinist church filled with enthusiastic millenials. “I was walking by an old United Methodist sanctuary,” he writes, “and heard uncharacteristic music emanating from the windows. Curiosity drove me inside, where I was surprised to see a full congregation of almost all twenty-somethings singing fulsomely as a band performed behind the altar.”

I don’t think he really meant to say that they were singing “fulsomely.” Fulsome is defined as “offensive to good taste,” “disgusting, sickening,” and “repulsive.” On the other hand, his essay certainly was fulsome.

He is saddened, he says, that there are no comparable United Methodist alternatives. “Sometimes over the years I’ve been asked by friends where their young adult child newly arrived in the nation’s capital might find a vital and orthodox United Methodist church. I’ve told them there really are no options.”

As a pastor who feels blessed to serve a congregation where the worship service is always accompanied by the sounds of babies, I share his sadness that there are not more “vibrant” United Methodist churches filled with enthusiastic millenials. But I was immediately suspicious about what he might mean by “orthodox.”

“Think about it,” writes Tooley. “The most powerful city in the world has almost no vital, orthodox United Methodist churches. Instead there are typically small, liberal congregations that celebrate their diversity but have little capacity for meaningful outreach.”

For Tooley, the key word is “orthodox.” And by orthodox, he means a particular brand of orthodox. He doesn’t mean what most Christian theologians would have called orthodox in the mid-twentieth century. He isn’t talking about something that Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr would have called orthodox.

He quotes approvingly from the website of the church he visited: “We believe in the personal, bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”

I don’t believe in the “bodily return” of our Lord, but I can get behind “constant expectancy,” “blessed hope,” “sacrificial service and energetic mission.” I may understand those terms differently than Mark Tooley does, but the terms themselves are familiar to many, if not most, thoughtful Christians.

But we’re not done. In Tooley’s view, the best is yet to come. He quotes again from the website:

“God’s gospel requires a response that has eternal consequences. We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace. Amen.”
It’s hard to know where to begin. Given enough time and thought, I could make my way around “eternal consequences,” but do they really believe that “God will raise the dead bodily”? Do they really believe in “eternal conscious punishment”? My guess is that many Christians who say they believe in hell would still be a little squeamish about “eternal conscious punishment.” That takes it up a notch or two.

And the dividing line for these eternal consequences is between “believers” and “unbelievers”. Pay no attention that that parable about the sheep and the goats, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc. God only cares about what you believe.

Tooley seems to think that the only thing standing in the way of a massive revival of Methodism in America is our failure to properly believe in hell. When you think about it, it is a remarkably dark and narrow vision.

In contrast to the robust faith he sees in this “orthodox” church, Tooley is appalled by the mission of what he calls “diversity churches.” They have given up a commitment to orthodoxy, he says, and replaced it with “inclusiveness, community building, radical hospitality, affirmation, etc.” And then he quotes the words of welcome from the website of one of these “diversity churches:”

No matter,
– Where you’ve come from or are going;
– What you believe or doubt;
– What you are feeling or just not feeling;
– What you have or don’t have; and
– No matter whom you love
All of who you are
– is welcomed into this community of faith
– by a God who loves you passionately.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Several years ago when our daughter was doing an internship at the Smithsonian, we heard that welcome given by the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church where our daughter was attending. CHUMC was a small congregation, but wonderfully vibrant and faithful.

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is now the new Senior Pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The folks at Foundry would certainly fail Mark Tooley’s test of orthodoxy, but they are vital, and vibrant, and they are not small (in any sense of that word).

My guess is that the millenials attending the church that Mark Tooley visited are more positively engaged by the praise band than by the theology. And I don’t think that such a dark vision of Christianity will be compelling in the long run. In fact, that dark vision, supported by a crudely selective biblical literalism, is one of the major barriers to getting young people to take the Christian church seriously. But that’s not the biggest problem with Tooley’s vision. The biggest problem is that in the deepest sense it is unchristian. He advocates an “orthodoxy” which does violence to the teachings of Jesus.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tom Brady, Shoeless Joe, and the Snowplow Game

You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Legend has it that when “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, left the court building after testifying to a grand jury about his part in a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series, a young boy reached out from the crowd and pulled on his coat sleeve. As his eyes filled with tears, the boy pleaded with his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”Joe Jackson answered sadly, “Sorry, kid, I’m afraid it is.”

Accounts differ on the wording, and the more likely consensus of baseball historians is that the exchange never took place.

Although Jackson pleaded guilty, many have had a hard time believing that he did anything to contribute to the White Sox losing. He batted .375, played errorless ball in the outfield and even threw a runner out at the plate.

Unless you have been far off the grid for the past week, you have heard (repeatedly) about the long national nightmare known variously as “Ballghazi,” “Deflategate,” or “the latest Patriots scandal.” Even though I know that if you haven’t already heard about it that’s probably because you don’t want to hear about it, I’ll repeat just the briefest outline. The Patriots are accused of intentionally taking some of the air out of the footballs they used to defeat the Indianapolis Colts (45-7) last Sunday.

I know. When you see the score, it makes you wonder whose footballs were deflated. But it’s not about the final score. To paraphrase the passage from Deuteronomy, “You shall only have the full and honest pressure in the football.”

Yesterday morning, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s press conference was covered live by WGBH. That would be National Public Radio’s WGBH. At quarterback Tom Brady’s press conference yesterday afternoon he was questioned more closely than a supreme court nominee.

And Brady did what Shoeless Joe did not do; he said that it wasn’t so.

As I listened, I believed him. He was careful with his words. He was obviously nervous and upset. He was gracious. Turns out I am apparently in a very small minority on this one.

The sports commentators, including those from local media outlets, all thought he was lying. On one of the national shows, Spencer Tillman dismissed Brady’s denial with a reference to the culture of cheating in New England that goes back to the “snowplow game.”


The snowplow game has always been a personal favorite of mine. I think the Patriots were playing the Dolphins in Foxboro. It was snowing hard. The Patriots had hired a guy on work-release from Walpole State Prison (a detail that makes the story even better) to plow snow off of the line markers during time-outs. Late in the game the Patriots were getting ready for a field goal and when the snow plow guy cleared the yard markers he took a little detour to clear the spot from which John Smith would be kicking. Taking advantage of the bare ground, Smith split the uprights for a Patriots win.

Good times. Thanks for the memories, Spencer Tillman, but Tom Brady was in kindergarten when the snowplow guy cleared a spot for John Smith.

Mark Brunelle’s condemnation was less sweeping, but more direct. “I did not believe what Tom had to say” Brunelle began. “Those balls were deflated. Somebody had to do it. I don't believe there's an equipment manager in the NFL that would, on his own initiative, deflate a ball without the starting QB's approval ... That football is our livelihood. If you don't feel good about throwing that ball? Your success on the football field can suffer from that."

If you see the world as black and white, then the Patriots must have cheated. When the referees checked the balls at half-time, they were underinflated. But sports is not just black and white. There is a lot of gray. The gray area is not cheating; it is gamesmanship.

The rules on gamesmanship are a little different. Aaron Rodgers, by his own admission, prefers his footballs to be overinflated. Sometimes when the referees check before the game, they take air out to bring the inflation pressure within the rules. Sometimes, one assumes, they leave his footballs a little harder than the rules allow. No one thinks Aaron Rodgers is cheating.

So where do we draw the line?

I think that’s pretty clear. If the footballs were deflated after the referees checked them, then that is cheating. If the referees passed them and they were underinflated, then that is gamesmanship.

According to the NFL, a referee checked the Patriots’ footballs before the game and they were okay. But we don’t know what that means. Did the ref put a gauge on every football? Or did he give them a squeeze and think they were okay? That’s a big difference.

Of course, I want to believe that the ref passed on the footballs and they weren’t checked with a gauge until half-time. When I think about the alternative, I feel like that little kid questioning Shoeless Joe.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Children of Abraham at Duke

The path to parenthood was not an easy one for Abraham and Sarah. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, but he and Sarah were childless. So Sarah insisted that her servant Hagar would bear child in her place. And she did. But when Sarah finally was able to bear a child of her own, she demanded that Hagar and her son Ishmael be cast out into the wilderness. Abraham sent them away, with just a skin of water, knowing that they had little chance of survival.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.
Genesis 21:15-20

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their roots back to Abraham. For Judaism and Christianity, that line runs through Isaac. For Islam, the line runs through Ishmael.

Though they share a common ancestry, and are often linked as “the three great Abrahamic religions,” Judaism, Christianity and Islam have an uncomfortable tension built into their stories of origin.

In my last post, I wrote about how in Wahhabi extremism that tension often turns deadly.

But it also plays out in less deadly ways.

Recently the good folks at Duke University tried to foster interreligious tolerance and understanding when they announced that every Friday at 1:00 p.m. the chapel would broadcast the adhan, the Muslim call to midday prayers in Arabic and English.

The response was swift if not surprising. The Rev. Franklin Graham, whose extremist views often seem at odds with his kinder and gentler father, responded with his typical thoughtfulness on Facebook:

Ashley Pratte, writing on, saw it as part of a larger sinister pattern. “As campuses continue to foster political correctness,” she wrote, “they use it as a way to favor religions seemingly at war with Western Civilization and Judeo-Christian beliefs.” She went on to observe, “Frequently, we see students fighting for their religious freedom on campus—especially Christians. We hope that Duke University will also allow equal opportunity for Christian students to gather to pray and respect their religious freedom.”

If Ms. Pratte knew anything at all about Duke, she would know Christianity is alive and well. The chapel has regular Christian worship services Sunday mornings at 11:00 a.m., as well as at other times through the week. Every day at 5:00 p.m. they have a carillon concert, audible across the campus, that frequently includes Christian hymns. Duke is also home to a United Methodist seminary, Duke Divinity School, and Duke has maintained a United Methodist connection since its founding.

Ms. Pratte, Rev. Graham and their many allies on cable news can rest easy. Duke has reversed its decision. There will be no broadcast of the call to prayer.

David Graham (no relation to Franklin) reported in The Atlantic on line that Omid Safi, Director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center said that the University’s response was understandable since there had been "numerous verified instances of credible threats" against leaders of the University. "My disappointment is primarily directed toward people who find it acceptable to have recourse to violence, even the threat of violence, to make the point they want to make—particularly if they see these threats as being substantiated by their own religious conviction." he explained. "We all know about the Muslim community having our crazies, but it seems like we don’t have a monopoly on it."

To be clear, neither Ms. Pratte nor Rev. Graham was calling for violence, but in our hyper-sensitized times the threats are not surprising.

In the Atlantic article, the other David Graham comments, “Now, one might argue that while Duke's gesture was well-intentioned, the timing was wrong—why rile people up at a moment when nerves are already on edge about Islam? But I think it's the other way around. There's no time when it is as essential to stand on the side of a minority as when that group is under fire.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Problem Is Wahhabi Extremism

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

Genesis 6:5-6

In the preamble to the story of Noah and the flood, the narrator tells us that God was grieved to his heart by the wickedness of humankind. The prehistory of Genesis is rich in symbolism and there are times when the narrative soars with the vast possibilities of creation, but there is a recurring sub-plot of God’s deep despair at the moral failures of his human children.

We may recoil at the behavior of primitive peoples thousands of years ago, but the stories still speak to us because there are still times when it seems like we have learned so little.

The horrible killings in France and the gruesome beheadings by ISIS in the Middle East have focused our attention again on the specter of human evil. And in the wake of those great evils there has been a renewed argument about how we should confront the problem.

In the current debate, the problem has often been defined as “Islamic Extremism,” and some have argued that we cannot really confront the issue until we name it for what it is. Not surprisingly, this has led to a backlash against Muslims in America and in Europe.

Defining the problem as “Islamic Extremism” is at once both too narrow and too broad. It is too narrow because it leaves out the many other forms of religious and secular extremism that are problems around the world. And it is too broad because it shames a religion of 1.7 billion followers for the actions of a small number.

Last Sunday on “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd asked Reza Aslan, a Muslim scholar and writer, whether we should be at war “with a strain of Islam.”

“There’s no question that there has been a virus that has spread throughout the Muslim world, a virus of ultra-orthodox Puritanism,” Aslan responded. “But there’s also no question what the source of this virus is — whether we’re talking about Boko Haram, or ISIS, or al Qaeda, or the Taliban.”

And then he narrowed the focus from the world wide and diverse Muslim faith to a relatively small but very influential sect: “All of them have as their source Wahhabism, or the state religion of Saudi Arabia,”Aslan continued. “And as we all know, Saudi Arabia has spent over $100 billion in the past 20 or 30 years spreading this ideology throughout the world.”

ISIS, Boko Haram, and the 9/11 bombers are all products of Wahhabism.

Americans were outraged by the beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers at the hands of ISIS. But with exceptions like Amnesty International, we have turned a blind eye to the dozens of beheadings carried out as public entertainment in Saudi Arabia. Under current laws, strongly influenced by Wahhabism, the death penalty is allowed for such varied offenses as homosexuality, atheism, adultery, apostasy, and murder. For a thorough discussion of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia by Alistair Crooke, click here.

Wahhabism takes its name from its founder, Abd al-Wahhab 1703-1792, a preacher and scholar who led a revivalist movement in what is now Saudi Arabia. He stressed a return to a purer form of Islam and denounced more typical Muslims as imposters. Crooke writes, “Abd al-Wahhab demanded conformity -- a conformity that was to be demonstrated in physical and tangible ways. He argued that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (a Caliph, if there were one). Those who would not conform to this view should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated, he wrote. The list of apostates meriting death included the Shiite, Sufis and other Muslim denominations, whom Abd al-Wahhab did not consider to be Muslim at all.”

In terms of geopolitics, it is as if Saudi Arabia lives a double life. And the United States turns a blind eye.

On the one hand, they export Wahhabi extremism around the world. They fund world-wide terrorism. They distribute books and videos that are virulently anti-Semitic and anti-western. They subject dissenters to incarceration and public flogging. On the other hand, they have supported our interests in the Middle East and have been our allies (depending on how you define “ally”) since President Roosevelt met with the Saudi king on his way back from Yalta in World War II.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
I Corinthians 13:1-3

John Wesley cited those familiar verses from Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth as the text for his sermon, “On Charity.” In his opening paragraph, Wesley observed that although Christians believe that “All Scripture is inspired by God,” we also know that all texts are not equal. “There are some Scriptures which more immediately commend themselves to every man's [sic] conscience.” And he argues that this passage from First Corinthians is one of the finest texts in the Bible, one that commends itself universally to all persons, regardless of their faith traditions or lack thereof. Then, as he begins to explore the meaning of charity, as it is contained in Paul’s letter, he notes that “charity” is really not the correct translation of the Greek word, “agape,” which is better translated as “love.”

It is a great sermon, one in which Wesley builds on his own conviction that love of God and neighbor is central to Christian faith and that how we live is more important than what we claim to believe. It is one of the sermons that United Methodists claim as foundational to our understanding of Christian faith and doctrine (insofar as Methodists can be said to have doctrines at all).

I thought of Wesley’s sermon as I was reading Kurt Eichenwald’s long essay in the Christmas issue of Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” and the firestorm of controversy that it set off. It struck me that Wesley’s nuanced view of Scripture and his awareness of the problems with translation were light years ahead of what Eichenwald seems to assume is the perspective of most Christians. And Wesley was not an obscure scholar. He was a popular preacher more than 250 years ago.

I found the Newsweek essay on line after a friend told me about the essay and about the response to it by the defenders of Christianity on the cable news programs. I assumed that I would find myself siding with Eichenwald against the TV theologians.

In a contest of whose position most misrepresented a faithful reading of Scripture, the cable news folks win that one going away. But the Newsweek essay only looks good by comparison to something much worse.

Eichenwald has his own point of view, which he makes clear in the first two paragraphs:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

They are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch. They are joined by religious rationalizers—fundamentalists who, unable to find Scripture supporting their biases and beliefs, twist phrases and modify translations to prove they are honoring the Bible’s words.

There are many flaws in the Eichenwald analysis, but there are two that particularly stand out.

First, he speaks of Fundamentalist, biblical literalists, conservative Christians, and Evangelicals as if those were basically different names for the same group of people. He almost seems at times to assume that he is speaking about all Christians. And he does not distinguish Christians who are politically conservative from those who are theologically conservative.

Second, he criticizes the biblical literalists from the perspective of biblical literalism. He assumes (or appears to assume) that the biblical texts should be interpreted literally and the problem with those the literalists he criticizes is that they are inconsistent.

He says that the Bible “contradicts itself” by interweaving two different narratives of the stories of Noah and the creation. This, of course, is not new information. Scholars have talked about this since the middle of the nineteenth century. Every pastor trained at a major theological school in the past century is familiar with the different sources woven together in the biblical narrative.

Eichenwald misses the point. The reason that that biblical literalism is so problematic is that the Bible is not meant to be read that way. Jesus and Paul did not read the (Hebrew) Scriptures that way, and the writers of the Hebrew Bible did not read the previously written texts that way. It is not a book of history and science. It’s about ultimate meaning. As Marcus Borg points out, it’s not less than literal; it’s more than literal. The problem with literalism is not that it claims too much, but that it misses too much.