Saturday, May 29, 2010

There's mixed martial arts and ultimate fighting and then ...

there's this. Don't look if you're squeamish. The connection between evangelicalism and attempts to revive, rehability, redeem, or rescue masculinity from an assault in contemporary society is something I could write a few skeptical blog posts about but I've done that. This is just something I stumbled upon because Bill Kinnon linked to it on the BHT.

have a few entries planned over the next few weeks

Because I'm drafting them in advance they may not appear (or have appeared) in the order in which they were written, or the order in which they were posted. They will, however, be broadly published in the sequence for which I deem them to make the most sense as a progressive case. Yes, dear reader, Apologies for Hell will continue.

I still have job-hunting to do and I also have a compositional project I want to undertake with slightly more-important-than-usual personal purpose. After fifteen or twenty years of composing as a hobby you sometimes get a project that takes on a more "personal" than usual dimension.

If you're curious to locate the entries on Hell and notice they are earlier than recent entries, just scroll through June and May blog entries until you see the posts with orange text.

Friday, May 28, 2010

HT to Mockingbird: God and sports--a free-written ramble

The god of mixed martial artists is a god of victory but as the author so cogently notes, the evangelical athletes who talk about their faith sure don't seem that interested in sounding off on pervasive steroid use or racism against minority coaches who are trying to get into leadership roles.

I am not against athletic events so much as I am indifferent to them. You could guess that I was more of an artistic and literary kid all my life. I still pretty much am. Baseball is a useless waste of time to me but God bless those people who somehow find it interesting. Football doesn't interest me. Basketball is vaguely interesting but I don't follow it either. Martial arts sounds more interesting as an actual martial art rather than a sport. See, despite the popularity of martial arts with certain demographics the whole point of the martial arts is to KILL PEOPLE. Let's not forget this. I have a great deal of respect for soldiers who use martial arts for what they are supposed to be used for and I can respect the discipline of martial arts. I am not so enthusiastic about it as entertainment. I am less enthused about the popularity it has with some evangelical Protestants who see it as displaying spiritual principles.

A few years ago a friend of mine suggested that a few guys who went to a mens' retreat do some bare knuckle boxing. This met with the approval of all sorts of guys who made haste to engage each other on the field. While most people who described the event described it as fun and the fights as interesting to watch, and some even described the event as demonstrating that the participants were willing to fight to defend the rights of widows and orphans the man who came up with the idea had an entirely different point to make through the proceedings.

At the end of the fights he pointed out that these guys were trading blows for nothing more than nothing. There was no greater point or purpose to what they did than just being able to say they did it. If they put that kind of effort into their Christian walk and being there for their families and friends what would their Christian walk look like? The answer, apparently, was that a few guys took more away about it being fun and manly to fight each other than to recognize that the whole thing was really a "how much greater" parable. If you don't follow what I mean check out Klyne Snodgrass's Stories with Intent.

It is not just the hyper-macho Christian who is in danger of overextending a metaphor. The pacifist just as frequently overextends the metaphors he or she prefers at the expense of other biblical metaphors. The remedy for this is not necessarily to overcompensate in reaction to the biblical language and metaphors you don't like. If you don't like biblical language about substitution, ransom, blood sacrifice, and propitiation the answer is not to hang all the weight of Christ's work on moral influence theory and emphasizing the frailty of Jesus' humanity so far as to become Nestorian. I tried making this point several times over the years at a church I used to attend--when American evangelical Protestants talk about the threats of dualism and gnosticism they often fumble because they mistakenly think there is only way errant form of dualism. For instance, a person may be on the lookout for Arianism without realizing he or she is slipping into Docetism. As an author put it years ago, in response to the realization that doctors can make terrible mistakes the solution is not necessarily to renounce the Hippocratic oath.

If I had to explain my preference for combat metaphors over athletic metaphors it is because there is a wider testimony to the value of martial metaphors in scripture. There is nothing in the long run that makes a baseball or football metaphor more useful than a martial metaphor because at some point there won't be baseball. The time when there won't be baseball is probably coming sooner than the time when there will be no more war. One is freighted with the power of an eschatological promise from Yahweh ... and the other will come whenever the United States of America undergoes some kind of cultural shift so that America's game is no longer of interest to Americans.

'For those who value sports I am glad there are sports analogies. We just have to be wary of how our favorite analogies often blind us to the strengths of analogies we don't like. I can probably benefit from appreciating athletic analogies where as someone who appreciates athletic analogies might actually need to learn from metaphors that derive from anatomy. People who fancy themselves the heads of local bodies must remember that if the ankles are broken the head is powerless to accomplish walking forward. If the groin is pulled then the body isn't going anywhere from a sickbed. As Paul put it, the parts of the body that are less presentable are treated with greater care and honor. The most conspicuous parts of the body are the ones that need the least regard and attention.

Link: Internet Monk--my issues with evangelicalism part 2, pastoral ministry

I'm not sure I have anything to add about this at this time. Maybe later. An interesting link.
Well, okay, I was at a church where the pastor was a combination of drill seargant, CEO, visionary leader, and spiritual technician. At some point he was a shopkeeper type and figured out that was harming his health (though in many ways he probably didn't shake that off for a while). He also has master of ceremonies elements. Though many parishoners viewed (and view) him as a professor type actual professors have taken issue with his handling of biblical texts (not that I necessarily agree with those).

Every pastor may have dribs and drabs of each of the qualities Chaplain Mike outlined but the pastor at a church I was at earlier was a heavy mixture of drill seargant, CEO, visionary, and technician. Those are all potentially immensely positive qualities. Over time, though, the qualities that became most prominent to me were the drill seargant and the technician.

With these sorts of gifts come these sorts of weaknesses. I don't pretend that those qualities aren't gifts but they come with a price tag and the price tag can be that after a decade it's easy to see a slogan like "it's all about Jesus" read as though it really says "it's all about numbers" when annual reports essentially amount to a "look how much we've grown" sales pitch. I know that is something people can get excited about but I'm not the kind of guy to have much enthusiasm for that. My enthusiasm lights up when I see people are learning things about the scriptures they didn't know before and seeing them strengthened in their faith. Seeing people challenged by the difficulties of the biblical texts but not being thrown off by them is what encourages me. I suppose a person might rightly suggest that that all suggests my gifts are less with preaching (amen) and more in something like teaching (yeah, I guess so).

What Chaplain Mike's post points to, and especially comments in response, is that evangelicalism in America has a propensity to go for a type or to search for a pastor who fits the all-in-one label. The megachurch pastors tend to have all or most of the elements Chaplain Mike talked about. There's vision-casting (double ugh for me), there's the drill seargant rebukes of the cadets who aren't passing muster, there's the technician to explain to them the five simple steps to get `er done, and, well, those are theoretically nice qualities but the all-in-one pastor risks setting a precedent by example of being the body when the body should be the body.

Of course I still consider myself evangelical. I just find it immensely useful to be more aloof to evangelicalism and aspects of it than others who still identify themselves by that jargon.

Apologies for Hell: part 6, if you are even angry with your brother ...

Having noted there is a problem with the idea that a sin against an eternal god warrants eternal punishment and having noted the the problem with the free will theodicy is that the sheer epic scale of evil seems too steep a price to pay the allowance of free will I considered that for the Christian the most biblical and Christ-like response to the world we see is to consider the cross that Christ took up for us. Atheists have said that if a god of any kind existed humans are too small to be worthy of even the slightest thought as the accidental side effect of evolutionary processes in a universe too grand for us to be even considered. What egotists humans must be to believe in a god that they have fashioned in their own image.

Well, yeah, and that's why the atheist isn't any better, since they imagine that they aren't necessarily of the same race of beings by dint of being more knowledgable, or at least not part of the same beknighted gaggle of goons that comprises most of the stupid, superstitious race as a whole. Atheists view believers in a beautifully ironic way, with the sort of condescending superiority with which whites in Christendom looked with pity upon blacks and yellows and reds. Perhaps after centuries of colonialist superiority complexes white atheists have not realized that they didn't supplant the club, they just changed the terms of the club of elitist holier-than-thou white folk. Every human solution to a human problem inevitably creates new problems. As South Park so crudely but beautifully illustrated a future without religion will not be a future without war and destruction. Science be praised!

But we humans are, despite a few variations, eager to see right rewarded and wrong punished. Atheists point out that humans are capable of being moral entirely apart form the postulation of any god. Actually, a Christian can entirely grant this point without any problem. That there will constantly be changes in the nature of ethics at a theoretical and practical level is attested for the Christian even within the scriptures itself. Whereas the Torah permits servitude and the early Christian writings reveal the continuation of slavery as an equivalent to bankruptcy we can see in the letter to Philomen that Christian teaching about unity in Christ slowly begins to undercut the foundational assumptions about slave and master. While in the Torah divorce was permitted on the ground of grievous offenses Jesus' teaching reveals that divorce is never what God intended and that remarriage of any kind makes the divorced spouse an adulterer, which was not formally articulated within the Pentateuch itself.

And it is here in Jesus' teachings we get to His words about anger. He tells us that we have been told to not commit murder but He tells us that if we are even angry with our brother we are in danger of judgment. If we insult our brother we will be guilty before the tribunal and if we call him a fool (a worthless person in any variations you care to think of) then we are guilty enough to be thrown into the trash heap of Gehenna. Notice that when the Lord speaks this way he is not saying that the guilt for which we are worthy to be thrown into the trash heap is necessarily just guilt before an eternal and infinite god. No, in fact it seems that all we need to do to be guilty of being thrown in the trash heap is to call our neighbor a "fool". This is concrete guilt toward our flesh and blood neighbor for a disposition in our heart.

To back up a bit, after the flood God instructs Noah that if anyone sheds blood his blood shall be shed because to kill someone is to kill someone who is made in the image of God. The murderer kills God in effigy, destroys someone who bears the divine image. Even an atheist who does not believe that humans bear the divine image and even one who does not believe in the death penalty will largely agree that the murderer and the serial murderer should be excluded from society by some forceful (not to say forceable) means. There are those who can grant that if some kind of garbage disposal of the human society exists it should exist for those who have decimated populations, those who have committed and orchestrated genocide. No one would be likely to dispute that Hitler and Stalin should go to Hell if such a thing as Hell existed, well, most people anyway. There are people on the left and right who consider those men to not be quite so bad as others but I'm not discussing those sorts of people here.

Now to call someone "raca" in that time and place might as well be considered equivalent to the oft-avoided Russian put-down of "go to Hell". We don't live in a society where this put-down means anything but perhaps it will help to provide some perspective here--Jesus can be seen to say that if you're willing to consign your neighbor to Hell with your words by saying he isn't really worthy of the life God has given him then you have consigned yourself to Hell. If you are angry enough to dismiss your neighbor as not being worthy of life at any level for any reason then you have passed judgment on yourself. At the risk of putting this in a hyperbolic form if you're willing to even consider consigning someone to whatever Hell is you just consigned yourself to whatever it is.

This is one of the most pressing teachings of Christ regarding judgment and gehenna. The basis of the judgment turns out to be a disposition in our hearts, to say nothing of actions that reflect that heart. If you begrudge anyone that God has permitted them to live or to prosper rather than us then you are liable to judgment. I have seen Christians speak of other Christians in profoundly terrible ways. Sincerely wishing someone at your church was dead is bad. Claiming that so and so at the church is like a condom that was used three times in a row and barely deserves the breath God allows that person to breathe is NOT going to be salvaged by claiming you just said "barely deserves" instead of "doesn't deserve". Deciding that someone is a traitor to whatever social or political cause you have in mind and deserves to die is also bad.

By Jesus' teaching we are all guilty of murder to the extent that we think that someone doesn't deserve to live and that this is a measurement of whether we ourselves are guilty enough to be thrown away as we would throw away others is very telling about the nature and purpose of the trash heap itself. The trash heap of Hinnon is where garbage gets burned, where the maggots that feed on the dead never run out of food, and where God's people sacrificed their children and each other's gifts and legacies to the gods of their own invention and preference rather than sacrificing to the Lord. The significance of this and Christ's life and work needs to be fleshed out more thoroughly than even this but that will require the time and attention of other posts.

Apologies for Hell: part 5, if God is found guilty of creating a world that has become full of death what if God agrees?

There will be Christians who reject substitutionary atonement is unappealing. There will be Christians who reject any explanation of Christ as ransom. There will be Christians who dislike the notion that Christ suffered in our stead because of our sins. A person may object that there is too much emphasis on these aspects of the faith (which I am going to consider an entirely separate topic) but to reject any aspect of Christ's death as serving as a ransom and substitute for sinners is to reject fundamentally the core of the Christian faith. The most articulate atheists I have come across in person or by virtual contact have universally agreed that the essential offense to them of Christianity is that it is built on the idea that the shedding of innocent blood atones for the guilty. People must pay for their own crimes not those of others.

Atheists have also argued that if a god exists who made all things and knows all things and knows the future then that god is inevitably and ultimate responsible for the existence of all evil. If this god knew humanity (given "free will" in soft quotes, hard quotes, or no quotes at all) was going to choose death, decay, and destruction then any god that would permit that is responsible for the creation of such a cosmos. To this a Christian has no need to be defensive. It is true. That Christ suffered on the cross for our sins show that God has revealed this to be true. Are there other religions in which the god who created a universe in which evil exists chooses to suffer with creation to bear the penalty of death for that evil so that it may be ransomed from death? `

What makes the Christian conception of god unique is that we understand that god went to the cross. As Bonhoeffer put it, the scandal is that God in Jesus counts himself guilty of our sins so that we may be considered righteous. As Athanasius described it, He became as we are so that we might become as He is. A Christian who disregards the substitutionary and ransom elements at work in this is not taking his or her faith seriously, or the words of Christ passed down to us by the apostles through the scriptures.

Jesus said He came to offer his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 28:20). When the Lord newly defined Passover around Himself and gave us communion He proclaimed that His blood poured out marked the doors as the Passover lamb so that God would deliver His people. The Passover lamb was slain so that the firstborn of Israel would not be taken by the angel of death. The lamb was a ransom and Christ is the Lamb. Israel, as God's firstborn among nations, still needed a Passover lamb. Ultimately God the Son Himself chose to die on our behalf so that we have been given a reprieve from ultimate destruction. Daniel wrote that in the age to come many would be resurrected to everlasting glory and others to everlasting shame. The basis for this, Christians understand, is that Christ is risen from the dead and is the pioneer, author, and perfecter of our faith.

In other words, Christ counted Himself guilty of our sins so that we might be counted as having His righteousness. Christ participated in our death and shame so that we might participate in his life and glory. When the unbeliever says that a god who creates a cosmos with evil in it bears the responsibility of that wickedness and death we as Christians can truthfully say that by going to the cross Jesus, God the Son, bore the penalty of death and judgment as God Himself on our behalf.

Now what is called in the technical jargon substitutionary atonement is not the only way to understand the atoning work of Christ in a context that allows for a theodicy of Hell but it is necessary for an actually Christian understanding of a basis for God's judgment. The reason an unbeliever can't really say that the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that innocent blood cannot be shed to atone for the sins of others is because if they take their own argument seriously then they must at least grant that the Christian understanding of who the one true god is in Jesus of Nazareth entails a belief that God Himself bears the penalty for our sin Himself. In other words, to the rhetorical flourish of not believing in a God that would punish the sinner a Christian can point out that if God is guilty of creating a world in which evil exists as the atheist alleges the Christian God granted this point so far as to become flesh and blood and die Himself to atone for that evil. Christ therefore bore the brunt of evil so that He shared with us the weight of sin and death. It is actually on the basis of this and something else that a Christian may make a case for eventual punishment.

As I have said a few times over the years in different settings all of the above is why too many Christians who proclaim the "scandal of the cross" do not realize how scandalous the cross really is. In fact I would say it is the atheist who rejects the cross altogether and the mere concept of atonement within it who, often, understands what he or she is rejecting more profoundly than the Christian who proposes to profess it. There is a sense in which a Christopher Hitchens has a clearer grasp of what makes Christ on the cross so scandalous more than a preacher in the church on Sunday. As Mark Twain once said, it was not the parts of the Bible he didn't understand he objected to but all the parts he DID understand.

In the next part of the series I will get to a few reasons how punishment for sin can be understood that does not depend quite so much on shortcut theodicies. I am a theological amateur so I certainly can't propose to field more than a little but I can try. Certainly I, for the moment, have plenty of time for this project.

Apologies for Hell: part 4, which hell are we talking about again?

When we discuss a subject like the doctrine of Hell we have to bear in mind that we are discussing a fundamentally eschatological subject. But we must recall in saying even this that we have different definitions of what people would now broadly call "Hell". The valley of Hinnon, the underworld, and the lake of fire all take on elements of this general meaning in modern usage but the concept developed over time.

The valley of Hinnon(m) was a place where children were sacrificed to Moloch. The place was considered cursed on account of the child sacrifices that happened there and over time developed a folkloric association with curses for wickedness. There is considerable debate about exactly what worship of Moloch entailed. Some consider ritual immolation of children to have been customary while others think children were ritually passed through fire as some form of dedication to the god. In any event the Jewish prophets and partisans of the Torah all had a spectacularly dim view of such practices in worship of such a god. Some even propose that moloch refers not to a particular god but to a particular worship practice in which children are sacrificed as a way to avert calamity. There are variations and disputes as to whether Moloch is unique or whether there is overlap with Milcom and Chemosh.

There is general agreement that the moloch was depicted as a bull with humanoid arms and that a child would be placed in the arms of the idol which would mechanically "ingest" the child into the fire and burn them as a sacrifice. Since some dispute whether moloch sacrifice actually existed to a particular god there is some possibility that the practice itself can simply be seen as broadly passing children through fire in the above-mentioned sense. For the purpose of this discussion those details of debate are not so important. The place where sacrificing children was described was the valley of Hinnon.

Over time this area came to be associated with abomination after abomination. Beyond worship of moloch (or moloch style worship) it came to be associated with the worship of Ba'al--understandable given that since in the Torah it was mentioned that Israel had a propensity to worship idols cast in the image of livestocdk. After the exile the valley stopped being known for idol worship and began to be known as the place where trash, carcasses, and filth were dumped. It was like a cultural/national garbage disposal. Christ warns that if we are angry with our brother and call him a fool we are in danger of being discarded as though we were this level of trash to Gehenna, the place where everything despicable was cast off to be burned up.

Now for those who have no familiarity with apocalyptic idioms in apocalyptic literature, you have probably heard anything figurative about fire treated in a very literal way. That's because sometimes there's a basis for the literal take on things (the Petrine epistle talking about how the coming end of life in this age will come not with a flood as before but with fire). In parables and teaching, however, Jesus uses more than one image to explain the nature of the judgment God's people are in danger of. He speaks of the trash heap valley of Hinnon by way of allusion, he speaks of the place where the fire is not put out and there are no end to the maggots who will feast on the flesh of those who have come under Yahweh's wrath. In Revelation, of course, Death and Hell are cast into the lake of fire.

In other words, while Christians may presume X, Y, and Z about the nature of Hell and punishment this is not as central as the proclamation that Christ is the true king. Jesus, it is true, taught about coming judgment like many prophets before Him. Even though some pastors have avoided teaching much from a book like Revelation on the grounds that it is dangerous to teach on things that haven't happened yet anyone who has read this blog before may guess what I have to say about that, that such a view is overly dismissive of the partial preterist position.

Even if we apply this to the coming judgment then if this principle is taken seriously then to make sweeping proclamations about what the nature of the coming judgment is is problematic not because it isn't coming (the apostles assure us that it is coming) but because just as those who anticipated the coming of an annointed one often could not grasp or accept the surprising form in which that annointed one, in Christ, arrived, so in a similar way we may discover at the end of the age that whatever God's divine judgment is it is not at all how we imagined it would be.

It is important not so much to defend any particular vision of Hell as it has developed in the popular imagination or even in systematic theology so much as it is needful to consider God as just judge. If God decides to annihilate the unbeliever at the end of the age we are not in a position to complain, are we? If, however. God sanctions some kind of resurrection to everlasting shame as Daniel makes plain near the end then we should consider what the basis and nature of that shame will be and how, if possible, we may understand the justness of that since we trust that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all just and true.

At this point I will point out that Jesus' warning about judgment and anger are instructive as to the basis for judgment. I His warnings about gehenna hinge on His warnings related to murder. It has been said "Do not murder" but the Lord says that if you are even angry with your brother you are liable to judgment; if you berate him you stand guilty before the council; and if you call him a fool you are worthy of being thrown into the fires of gehenna--the trash heap. The term translated "fool" can be considered in light of other biblical passages such as "the fool has said in his heart, `There is no god'." Additionally, in the context of Jesus' warning to not judge and that we will be judged in the measure of judgment we judge others helps to establish a basis for understanding the nature of judgment. But before I get too far into that I think it's best to stop here and proceed to an observation about atonement, sacrifice, and substitution. What makes a Christian understanding of the basis for judgment unique is that Christ went to the Cross and the significance of that is paramount in understanding how a theodicy of Hell could actually have any Christian component to it whatsoever, e.g. something to do with Jesus.

Apologies for Hell: part 3, free will theodicies by themselves always fail

In the earlier part of this series I explained why the theodicy of Hell being justified on the nature of the offended party is an inadequate defense of the doctrine. The reasons are that 1) sins and sinners are finite and eternal torment would violate the biblical principle of lex talionis 2) that God by His nature cannot actually be harmed or offended by the sins if He has the omni-qualities Christians traditionally ascribe to Him and 3) that in any event there's nothing actually Christian about such a theodicy anyway.

In this part I will discuss another theodicy which holds that Hell is explicable on the grounds that God will not violate our free will and that therefore Hell is necessary and sin as a possibility is necessary so that we have free will/free choice. To this the unbeliever has historically replied that that is a useless defense. The most ardent and eloquent argument against this whole line of reasoning came from a Christian, Dostoevsky no less, in his great work The Grand Inquisitor. Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov argues that the great and ultimate harmony of the cosmos is not worth the tears and suffering of a small, innocent child. In other words the unbeliever cannot grant that the sheer scale of suffering and death we see around us would actually be worth the alleged price of having a "free will" that we often don't seem to actually have.

Even if Hell were not eternal and had limits the unbeliever would argue that Hell is an unjust doctrine on the grounds that freedom is only valuable if it is informed and can be made with informed consent. If you give your child the freedom to touch a burner on a stove to help them learn to avoid the stove that makes sense. If, however, you let the child burn his or her hand on the stove and refuse to provide medical care you have overstepped the bounds of decency in the name of giving your child the freedom to so severely burn himself or herself that the child cannot recover from the destructive power of what the child ignorantly chose to do. Unbelievers would argue that Hell is writing this so large as to have God knowingly permit children to choose lethal actions without giving them sufficient warning. We'll set aside for the moment all debates about general revelation and human moral capacity to consider the nature of the unbeliever's case.

The case is, in many respects pretty compelling. An atheist I was friends with in college put it this way the problem with the free will defense is not in the abstract. You can't possibly argue as an atheist against the free will defense because even if free will is illusory people generally refuse to grant that people are not morally culpable for their actions. What you CAN argue is that the moral cost of free will is too high for a just god to have given it to humanity.

The problem with the free will defense is in the concrete and it is to the concrete that Ivan Karamazov appeals. It's easy to say that free will as the reason it is just for God to send people to Hell for any reason whatever when it isn't your child dying as the price for people being given that freedom. A god who was all-knowing, made all things, and was actually just, the atheist argues, if such a god truly existed would know better than to create moral agents with free will who were just going to choose evil for which that god would then damn them for eternity. It is for this reason that atheists find it impossible to suppose that if a god DID exist that that god would not be culpable for all evil in the universe simply by virtue of creating all things and knowing everything. The open theistic soluion essentially posits that god doesn't know everything that can be known and that this is what necessarily preserves our free will. To that the unbeliever replies that such an entity would no longer be much of a god.

There is a problem with the objection to the free will theodicy. Though its critique is legitimate and illustrates that an unmodified free will theodicy does not really explain Hell any better than the "God is offended so God makes a God-level punishment" one. The problem with the objection to the free will defense is that evil is still with us even if gods do not exist and injustice is even more ineradicable than it would be if a god did exist. The unbelievers' case against Hell can rest on some misunderstandings and misappropriations about what the actual role of prospective punishment is.

Link: Mockingbird--"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

seasons are cliche in Christianese and this is not a pleasant season

Of all the forms of Christianese I have become a teensy bit jaded about the use of the word "season" is one of those words where if I don't hear it used I won't feel bad. Mind you I'm not talking about literal seasons and I'm not talking about the church calendar. No one is going to offend me if they mention that this last Sunday was Pentecost. I did a bunch of work on a set of variations on Veni Creator Spiritus earlier this year. Trust me, I'm not going to be bugged by "season" talk if it has something to do with the liturgical year and public worship!

Naw, what I find annoying is "season" as just some generic way of talking about what's going on right now. To say that you're going through a difficult season is just a Christanese way of saying things are really shitty right now for you. Or, if you prefer a less coarse expression, things are bad.

If I were to go with the season-talk, though, I would say this year has been a season of death. I don't mean that figuratively. Someone I used to be acquainted with was murdered earlier this year. Someone else I'm related to died of cancer even more recently. One of my favorite bloggers of all time died of cancer. Plus I have no job and have often struggled with depression. This is not what Christians would call a pleasant season.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Link to Theology for Women: biblical restraints on spiritual authority

It is strange that when I was considering the healing of memories over the last week and particularly considering how there seems to be a terrible double standard in conservative Protestant churches that dismiss reports of real sexual abuse while fishing around to verify memories of events that never happened. Wendy's post and the article she links to fits in with these observations.

Something else I have been considering is that in American Christianity (and perhaps elsewhere) it seems that we get in arms about sexual sin and feel that something. must. be. done. That is good when our response is Christ-like and supportable by scriptural precedent. Yet when scandals have happened in churches they are so often about sex one response Christians can have is to see scandals that are NOT about sex as being pretty good because, hey, at least the pastors are not getting fired or having to step down for infidelity or sexual misconduct.

First of all this is no consolation to a Christian who thinks it through because the Todd Bentleys of the world will keep trucking on in ministry even after they should step down either permanently or temporarily. The Benny Hinns of the world will keep on trucking even though their wives file for divorce citing irreconciliable differences and we're supposed to not judge the leaders because we like them while the same sorts of things in ordinary members become grounds for avoidance or shunning.

Second of all, to decide that a scandal not involving sex is a step up forgets that when Jesus rebuked spiritual leaders he didn't rebuke their sexual immorality--the Lord rebuked their abuse of authority and their love of money. In my mind a massive property purchase by a church that turns out to be a boondoggle is at least as controversial and scandalous as a sex scandal. I can certainly forgive but just as someone who faces an unrepentant abuser need not continue in relationship if there is no repentance so a person who faces a person who does not repentant of fiscal irresponsibility does not have to keep giving that person money. There may be many spiritual leaders who we are happy to defend as needing more understanding who may have actually disqualified themselves from spiritual service because of thorough-going character flaws.

The scriptures remind us that a hot-tempered man must pay the penalty--if you rescue him once you will have to do it again. There comes a point where people in spiritual authority think they are okay because they haven't been cheating on their spouse while they have imperiled their ministry on other grounds. We don't know that Benny Hinn has ever been sexually immoral, for instance, but that his marriage has fallen apart means that something has been going off the rails and this still presents a risk to his ministry even if, by his account, he hasn't done any cheating. Maybe Hinn had three Tivos and two home theaters in addition to his private jet?

There can be things that imperil the qualification of spiritual leadership that might seem mundane to us. For instance, suppose a person is not sexually immoral and is a shrewd investor but constantly employs nepotism as a hiring criteria? This could at length be revealed to be a character flaw because the leader in question hires people on the basis of family relationship. It can become a fatal flaw that leads a man to hire people who are completely unqualified simply on the basis of feeling comfortable with the sense of order and control of knowing everyone in the enterprise or church is related to you in some way. This could be particularly tempting for fathers. After all, your children and in-laws are part of your legacy so why WOULDN'T you just bring them formally on to the team? This can and often has worked well, actually, and in most families over time having family investment in family projects is a great idea ... except, maybe, when we're talking about the church.

We should consider that even with all of his numerous sins and failings David is still a positive example here. David was forced to flee from his son Absalom, whose insurrection was part of a discipline God warned would happen. This did not mean David was no longer the annointed king over Israel then any more than it meant that he wasn't the annointed king for years when he hid from Saul. We live in a time like any other where a person who is sure of God's appointment for him or her will pull rank for it and invoke that as the reason to be obeyed when the king after God's own heart refused to pull rank in that way and refused to depose Saul forcibly even when he had popular support. David's reign was long and relatively healthy because in spite of his selfish streak and penchant for collecting wives and his bloodshed he was at heart still eager to serve the people rather than insist that the people serve him. His son, unfortunately, did not share that aspect of his father's heart. I suppose at this point I have just been rambling.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I don't really like faith healers

One of the things atheists are happy to point out is that Jesus said that if we ask anything of the Father in Jesus' name that it will be given to us and then point out that nothing like the kind really happens. Therefore whatever Jesus said (if, indeed, Jesus said it) cannot possibly be true and that any answered prayers prayed by Christians are pure coincidence at best and self-deluding nonsense all around. For the unbeliever this is all merely proof that prayer has no meaning and purpose other than some kind of placebo effect. Unbelievers also cite things like double blind studies that show that prayer has no effect on any medical conditions.

There are times when I wonder if there is more meat to this criticism than Christians feel comfortable admitting to. I certainly don't feel comfortable admitting it or granting it for as much time as I have spent praying for friends and family but when I see faith healers in action I am tempted to half-way agree.

I don't like faith healers. I really, really don't like them. I don't enjoy the idea of some self-described preacher being at the deathbed of a relative with a posse of fans inviting people to receive the baptism of the Spirit or to be slain in the Spirit or experience holy laughter and talk about how the spirit of Pentecost is the Holy Spirit power to have someone physically healed while that person is on his or her deathbed and not getting any better. I don't feel comfortable with the prospect of a third stream Rick Joyner style Third Wave charismatic anything dog and pony show going on in front of the deathbed of a family member while the family are actually not able to spend any time with the person on the deathbed who is already unable to speak, body so ravaged by sickness that the person is a shell of who he or she once was.

I don't appreciate people who don't really know the family showing up and rebuking sickness and death and telling the dying person with shouts that the person will get up and dance before the Lord with shouts of joy. What does it matter to that person if the person on the deathbed dies the next day? It's one thing to ask if people share songs or hymns or scriptures as they felt led by the Spirit and another thing to actually let that happen. The songs in the litany of faith healer activities tend to be songs cut from a certain musical mold. I won't get into that right now but there are aspects of musical affect to those songs that I have always meant to avoid in my compositional approach.

In a setting where not everyone who professes Christ really throwing open the doors to Christians saying whatever songs or scriptures come to mind might lead to things that don't feel comfortable to some holy rollers gathered with the intent of praying healing of physical disease. There might be someone claiming the promises of physical healing based on some tangential application of a promise given in the scriptures. There might be someone who considers that the strength of Christ is made perfect in the weakness of the flesh when it is not taken away. Another might consider the scripture that says that through the Spirit we receive the comfort of the Comforter and are able to comfort others with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted. Who said that? Oh, I suppose that was the apostle Paul but in a setting where people are angrily rebuking sickness that passage might not readily spring to mind or seem especially welcome when the visiting faith healer is inviting people to get slain in the spirit.

Suppose there is an Orthodox Christian there who wants to chant the Troparion? There might be a couple of people who on a day like Pentecost might think to sing Veni Creator Spiritus. Should they sing those songs? In an ardently Pentecostal setting there is an order to things even to those who do not think there is an order and some Christians who aren't from that liturgical tradition (notice I said Pentecostals actually have liturgical traditions) . As J. I. Packer once recounted decades ago, an Ethiopian Christian who recites the Lord's prayer in his native language might discover a Western charismatic interprets that as a prophecy or something entirely at odds with the actual meaning of his words.

God is sovereign and can do what He will but I have had more reason to be skeptical of claims of healing than if not most then many. When I hear some guy declare that someone was born without eye sockets and that one day someone prayed over the person and they miraculously got eye sockets and that it was reported in the news I want a headline, a by-line, and a copy of the newspaper that reported it, not just a statement made by someone working a small mainly self-selecting crowd. When someone tells me that everyone they pray for gets healed some wayor another I believe that that is loading the issue so much in advance that the person would credit their prayer as having accomplished anything, including a medical recovery done with the aid of medical procedures.

Years ago I had a catastrophic macular break. I had twenty to forty percent of the macula of my right eye tear loose. I can't read with the left eye and so, some seventeen years ago, I suddenly discovered I was unable to read. My family had been planning a trip to Montana for some time and had cancelled it due to lack of funds, which was disappointing for us. Days after this decision had been made my vision in my good eye began to fail at an alarming rate. We headed over to a clinic where a few tests were given and we were told that what was happening was either a cataract or a retinal detachment. One of my relatives who is not given to Pollyanna sentiments said, "It's probably cataracts." He was scolded by the parents. He didn't know what else to say, I imagine. I said that something told me that this WASN'T cataracts.

We were referred to our doctor who dealt with my vision in the past. He looked at my eye and said that not only was it a retinal detachment it was a pretty big, scary one. He would have to refer me to a specialist because it needed attention. I met with the specialist who told me that between 20 to 40 percent of the macula on my right eye had torn loose. This happens often in cases of severe scarring on the retinal wall from oxygen poisoning of infants who were born prematurely. That was of academic interest (fortunately, I suppose, I am often one for academically interesting things) The real nub of the situation was that if I did not get corrective surgery within 24 hours I would be blind in the right eye, completely blind in that eye. Knowing that I could not (and cannot) read with the left eye this forced us to face facts. The surgery had a one in three chance of failure. Copmared to 100% blindness a 33% chance of blindness sounded amazing!

The night before the surgery was scheduled (literally the next day) my parents took me to another town where a house church met on Friday nights. A fellow was there who agreed to pray for me and he said confidently that every person he ever prayed for was healed. It might take a while in some cases and in other cases it was instantaneous but they were always healed. I proposed that in my case healing might come about through surgery. He said without missing a beat, "It could be. All I know is that when I pray for people to get better God heals them." I remained unconvinced in that moment, to be honest.

If God was going to heal me, I thought, it was going to be because I agreed to surgery! Still, I must at least give this one guy credit for saying that God always healed people when he prayed for them but that he had no idea how God might do that healing. That was at least some measure of humility that I never see or have seen in the other ones. Since the surgery worked and I am even able to write this blog entry I suppose I can somewhat grudgingly thank that man whose boasts seemed so absurd. Still, I remain convinced that I got better because I sought the best medical care I could.

Once I was taken to a Benny Hinn crusade. The whole thing was well publicized and advertised as an opportunity to powerfully feel God's annointing and presence through Hinn's ministry. I didn't particularly WANT to go but I was still living as a minor around that time and felt accomodating to the wishes of my parents. After all, it wasn't THEM I was skeptical about. I had been hoping that perhaps God would heal my eyes but was coming to the firm conclusion that my eyes were never actually going to get better and was trying to reason through why after years of praying my eyes weren't getting better. It would not be long after that time of my life when one of them got drastically worse.

The best explanation I could come up with aside from the options that God didn't exist and that God was just not going to answer prayers at all (neither of which I considered tenable as a Christian) was that Paul wrote about a thorn in the flesh that he pleaded with God to remove three times. The response the Lord gave Paul was that His strength was sufficient for Paul, that power is made perfect in weakness. A person I shared this with said that I was really arrogant to imagine that I was as spiritual as the apostle Paul. That was not where I was going with that passage from Paul but I realized, with some disappointment, that the person I shared these thoughts with just didn't get where I was headed with the question of why God declines to answer prayers for physical healing after years of pleading.

Well, back to the Hinn crusade. The music had a weird, almost soporific, mind-numbing aspect to it. It was like something that could drone you into a frenzy. My mind was a haze amidst all the organs and shouting and singing and when the music died down at a critical point Hinn blew a puff of air into the microphone and announced that the Holy Spirit was present.

That was when I was jolted to a level of wakefulness and alertness I had never experienced before. And I felt absolutely nothing that suggested that God was at work. Something about the whole thing felt profoundly wrong, like I was wasting my time and that no healing of any sort was going to happen to me. Some family urged me to consider going forth for healing. A strange old lady named Doris I knew from the church I attended saw me as I walked forward and then just when I got there after having decided that, well, uh, maybe I "could" try going up anyway to see if this healing thing might really happen I had a firmer resolve. I realized that I not only didn't believe that God was going to heal me through this event but that if God WAS going to heal me there was no need for some famous travelling guy to be the means of that healing. If I let that be the medium then it was like I was saying I DIDN'T really trust God to heal me through some mundane, nameless person. If I was going to be healed of something it was going to be through some nobody nobody had heard of and never would.

Well, in a way that was true. You'll probably never find out the name of my eye surgeon who performed the scleral buckle that repaired my eye.

Meanwhile, I notice that for some reason Benny Hinn's wife has filed for divorce in California. I suppose the details may not ever be forthcoming but as someone who has doubted that healing comes through the likes of Benny I can't say that it's particularly heartbreaking for me. Even when I had more Pentecostal leanings I found people like Hinn problematic and I was positively skeptical about Third Wave and Brownstone and Toronto stuff. Unpublicized irreconcilable differences aren't my business, admittedly, but since I once declined to go forward and have the man with the annointing hit me with his jacket I suppose if I ever do find out I will admit to being curious.

But as my life has gone on I have found that too much of the time people who claim that God uses them to heal people are grand-standers. They often distract from the cause of Christ and end up being a discredit to Him in some way or another. The sort of healer who shows up when you call for them and is willing to dispense holy laughter or slaying in the spirit at the deathbed of someone ends up taking attention away from the dying. I suppose the person could say that the person on the deathbed may soon rise up and walk but I have not heard that this has happened. Instead I have seen the reverse, that a fellow called in to pray for healing ends up devouring time that could have been spent by family in the last hours of their loved one's life working a small posse into some kind of frenzy while the dying person looks on in mute detachment.

I don't wish to propose that no one should call on anyone for prayer. I have prayed for people who were dying in the past and will no doubt do so in the future. Part of my point is that you're not going to know when I do that and I don't wish to ever advertise services of that sort. If you are my family or you are my friend then my prayers are with you even if you're not a believer. But the point where I admit my inability to take faith healers seriously has come from direct contact and indirect contact. I believe that as a general rule these are people whose ministries are a sham and who have the brazen capacity to exploit the fears and angers and anxieties of those close to the dying and infirm as a way to gain attention for themselves. I do not contest that they are persuaded that they can pray prayers that are effectual. I have just seen those prayers given and still seen a person die the very next day after Christians forcefully and angrily rebuked sickness and death.

In such settings I keep my peace even though my convictions about the harm of such "ministries" is firm. I do not want to bring grief to those who are avoiding it and would be angry at being told that their loved one is dying and that the Lord will take that person home. Let's say that it's someone I did not want to die and wish were not dead but who is, nevertheless, dead. It is not my business to claim that a particular person should not have called in a faith healer and a posse. I would, however, never wish that anyone would do such a thing for me if I were on a deathbed. The prayers of family and friends and brothers and sisters in Christ would be sufficient. Christ who was able to heal a servant from a long way off is able to heal without recourse to those who advertise their services.

There comes a point where a person may cite a passage about how a king in Israel did not seek the Lord but consulted the physicians but that would miss the overall commentary about that king and miss that the problem was not that the man sought physicians but that he did not seek the Lord in that time. Just as those who would insist on promises from God about physical healing for individuals so those may also wrest scriptures from any literary or historical context to insist that consulting allegedly non-spiritual means of healing would be wrong.

I believe that in virtually all cases and all allegedly publicized cases of faith healers that we are talking about men and women whose conduct denigrates the cause of Christ and exploits the dying and weak for the sake of an empty end. The Spirit who comforts us in our affliction and is the Comforter in our continuing infirmity is not the spirit that these sorts of men and women will ask to be present in their midst.

They may see themselves as powerfully annointed, or they may see themselves as messengers of good news of physical healing but as I have seen them they are ultimately a great discredit to the name of Christ I am sorry that there are men and women out there who in the name of the Jesus or "Spirit power" offer ineffectual prayers and consume the last hours with a loved one being brought in to present some kind of dog and pony show. If there are people who really need that then I don't have the heart to insist they not embrace this folly ... but I don't have the heart to give assent to it and am often upset at the brazen nature of such so-called healers. I would rather they invoked the Spirit who is our Comforter in affliction than to presume upon what the Spirit will or should do in the hour of death.

Healing of memories and recovered memories as a form of deception and counseling abuse

Back in the 1990s there was a fad in a subset of American Christianity called the healing of memories movement. The idea was that there were great opportunities and great need for healing from the wounds caused by forgotten memories and that recovering the memories and praying through them and giving them to God would bring a great deal of healing. People would feel called into special ministries to deal with the healing of past wounds. Heresy hunters jumped on this movement as dangerous because it was the sort of thing where there was no need to deal with the past because in Christ we are new creations and setting aside what is behind to push forward to salvation was the goal of real Christians, not all those worldly compromisers.

Well, that response was itself problematic and distorted. It is not as though people can just shove the past into a corner and move on with their lives. There is a need for the renewal of the mind and seeing our lives in light of the story of who Christ is is necessary for spiritual growth. By spiritual growth I mean being more and more conformed to the likeness of Christ, not some self-measured nebulous measure of spiritual progressed based on what in a Boston song could be described as "more than feeling".

Now for people who are skeptical about all those sorts of things it may be easy to cite with suspicion how charismaniac preachers and teachers invoke wounds from a forgotten past. We are discovering more about how prone to suggestion people really are and that memories can at length be fabricated. It is possible with enough prodding and poking for the grand-daddy of all confirmation biases to produce memories of events that never happened. It is perilously easy for us to remember with the kind of 20/20 that is self-exonerating instead of self-implicating, or alternately to have a 20/20 that is self-implicating. As the apostle warned, their consciences sometimes accuse them and excuse them.

Even in a church setting where such mystical mumbo-jumbo would be rebuked sternly there can still be a metanarrative that sets you up for failure of the same kind. You won't even realize it. A Christian community that takes itself seriously and insists on being the hardcore of the hardcore can establish a paradigm in which a person who is zealous for the faith even in a fairly orthodox context can nevertheless see one's family as essentially adversarial. I once knew a fellow who felt that his family were not Christians at all, or not really real Christians. He leaned a lot on his church family but after he got married and enlisted, at length, his church family completely failed him and the family that he at one point lamented was not very serious about the faith turned out to be supportive.

I have wondered over that time if the kind of church he was at made it easier to believe that family was somehow inadequate to the task of helping him be the sort of man he wanted to be. There was, almost, a metanarrative of how this church was full of people who would not fail to be men and women in the way the prior generation had. Each generation is called to repent of its sins and to take a stand against the sins of the fathers. This is attested in the scriptures and throughout the generations. Yet it often seems as though rather than sifting through the good and the bad we American Christians have appointed ourselves judge and jury of everything and found everything wanting in the generation that has passed and the generation to come. The generation that preceded us was full of fathers who somehow failed us and the generation that is rising up has no fathers or vision ... even though those are theoretically or literally our children about whom this indictment has been made.

The most pernicious setting in which recovered memories has been discussed is sexual abuse. This is where even the professionals have recognized they have done irreparable harm creating memories of sexual abuse that never happened by way of old methods, empathy-building combined with leading questiosn. Mental health specialists who have toiled in this realm of treatment have begun to conclude that in most cases of allegedly recovered memories of sexual abuse the content of the fantasy is indicative of catastrophic failures in PRESENT relationships as they are perceived and not from past events. A mental health specialist once put it this way, if you were really sexually abused the event would be so horrible you would never STOP remembering it rather than repressing the memory. Increasingly mental health professionals have taken this perspective rather than supposing that memories were suppressed.

Over the years I have met some Christians who sought "Christian counseling" and confided that they sometimes felt the unavoidable conviction that the Christian counselor was steering them with questions toward a particular conclusion and over time I began to realize that that particular conclusion was some past with sexual abuse. This can be the case with men. In our time there are plenty of pastors who are upset at the war on boys and the assault on traditional masculinity as though traditional masculinity were somehow not in need of redemption!

Feminism is held up as an adversary to be vanquished more than as a response with positive and negative elements that came about in response to problems. As Fr Ernesto Obregon put it over in his blog, there are a lot of evangelicals who need to be reminded that even forty and fifty years ago preachers were publicly going on record saying that women ought not to be able to vote because they were not as rational as men and should not be guiding politics. I wonder what those sorts of conservatives would make of the candidacy of Sarah Palin.

By contrast, it can often seem as though sexual abuse of women can be ignored. A young women may be made the prey of a pastor and when the sin is made known the woman is shamed rather than any disciplinary action or legal action being taken against the man. There are churches where a man will have an affair, renounce Christ, and leave the church and then the woman is held responsible for the failure of her marriage by the church authorities on the grounds that had she been a better wife these things would not have happened and that the Lord has punished her sin of pride by letting her husband do these things. Imagine how the daughter of such a woman would grow up and what her feelings about church leaders might be? It can seem as though churches spend time suppressing wod of real sexual abuse while imagining sexual abuse incidents from the past that never actually happened as part of some kind of therapeutic deism, sometimes practiced by those very people who would most repudiate therapeutic deism given the chance.

I am an older brother and when I hear stories of Christian women who were ignored in the wake of real sexual abuse by church leaders or prominent church members I can't help but feel that chemical castration might be part of a disciplinary procedure. Since sexual abuse is more often about power rather than sex, though, such extreme measures would perhaps miss the point of the possible motives for the sin.

Meanwhile men have confided that they believe a Christian counselor is determined to see a sin he struggles with persistently as rooted in childhood sexual abuse that either didn't happen or to a degree that does not correspond to memory. It baffles me that so many in so many churches seem eager to dismiss the sexual abuse that actually happened because it would make things tough for the church as an organization (whether we're talking about the Catholic church or allegations that a Reformed pastor a bit east of us knowingly permitted a convicted sex offender manage childrens' ministries) while in other settings Christian counselors seem dead set on ferreting out the implications of sexual abuse that never actually happened at all!

I myself have been on the receiving end of such enquiries and I decided rapidly that I did not trust a Christian with a high school education and some history of drug abuse and no real knowledge of my family history to make it his business to suggest or propose at any level that I got this or that form of abuse. Even if such allegations via suggestion had any merit my skepticism is founded upon the realization that many memories we think are real are not only not real but are complete fabrications that we can spin to ourselves to convince ourselves things happened a certain way.

Paradoxically digging for repressed memories of abuse, fabricating memories of abuse that didn't happen, and suppression of word of real abuse all amount to the same thing, forcefully grasping for power. That power is often illusory and invariably destructive. Suppressing the truth about sexual abuse is destructive, wielding imagined memories is destructive, and believing that a forgotten past sexual abuse must be uncovered to make a breakthrough in a Christian counseling setting are all forceful things. When the Spirit truly speaks He speaks unbidden. We can ask Him to speak to us, through us, and for us, but the times in which the Spirit providentially illuminates our understanding often come at times that are ineffably unexpected. The times when the Lord made things painfully apparent to me it was not something possessed by someone coming to me with a confrontational chip on their shoulder or a counseling axe to grind. These things were words shared in loved by a loved one whose unobtrusive observation was convicting because the Spirit used those words to convict me of things and to persuade me.

So I am deeply skeptical about healing of memories in the charismatic sense, but also in the sense that more ostensibly evangelical Christians seem to have it. I have at rare times in my life been accused of seeing things in black and white but that is the last thing I would say is true of me. I am often paralyzed by the observation of varied hues of gray. Things like a healing of memories session where someone who just displayed the symptoms of a pyschotic break (or demon possession) may provide a panacea but the underlying problems may still remain.

Someone I knew who ended up the subject of an impromptu exorcism later turned out to be borderline schizophrenic and had to be institutionalized twice. This was not some simple, clear-cut case of someone being demon-possessed and nothing else nor someone who was mentally ill in a way that precluded the possibility of spiritual problems. To this day I hesitate to settle firmly on merely one or the other where others were confidently saying it was demons and others were confidentally saying mental illness. When the person is someone you've seen at church for a good stretch of your life you share just enough of your life with them and they with you that you begin to suspect that a lot of what passes for solutions among Christians are quick fix mentalities masquerading as discernment on either side of a person's very messy life.

I get the more I get the troubled sense that Christians frequently seem to think they know better than "worldly" studies while unwittingly and bluntly replicating some of the very techniques and metanarratives they supposedly stand against. What good does it do to reproach a healing-of-memories fraud if you still work on the assumption that the problem some young man has in his life was that he had no godly role models or that he's avoiding some repressed memory of sexual abuse? You might as well break out the books that talk about the Jezebel spirit. Doesn't that concede total defeat in practice to the so-called Freudian approach or of "pop psychology"?