April 17, 2013
The news of George Beverly Shea’s death was not a shock for me–one expects that to happen fairly soon when a person reaches the age of 104. But I do feel a loss. I can’t remember a time when Bev Shea was not an important person in my world. Well before he became known nationally and internationally as a prominent presence in Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, he was a household name in the New Jersey spiritual environs where I was raised–he sang regularly as a soloist in churches, at Bible conferences, and on local Christian radio programs.
Our family bought our first record player when I was about five years old, and my memory is that the first record we purchased was of George Beverly Shea singing the favorites for which he was already well known. To listen to a record on that device one had to turn a wind-up handle, and I was so fascinated with that new technology, that I played the Bev Shea recording over and over again, with the result that I could eventually repeat every line in the songs that he sang.
Several decades later I made effective use of that early memorization on a public occasion when someone challenged me on a theological point. It was the early 1970s–a period when the “evangelical social action” movement was emerging–and Ron Sider and I were serving on a panel at an evangelical gathering, addressing the topic of “the Gospel and the poor.” We each did our best to give a biblically-faithful portrayal of God’s concern for those trapped in poverty, but at least one member of the audience was not at all convinced by the case we were making. In the Q&A session he challenged us in angry tones, referring specifically to a comment of mine: “That’s not from the Bible,” he said. “It’s straight out of Karl Marx!”
In replying, I told him that my earliest lessons on economics came, not from Karl Marx, but from George Beverly Shea. I described my childhood experiences with our family’s record player, and then I quoted some lines from one of Bev Shea’s standards: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold/ I’d rather have him than have riches untold/ I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands/I’d rather be led by his nail-pierced hands…./I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”
And then I said this: “Once you’ve learned your Christian economics from George Beverly Shea, all the other perspectives: Karl Marx, Adam Smith, mixed-socialisms–all those other perspectives seem quite tame by comparison!”
I’ve spent decades since then struggling with the complex issues of poverty, economic development, the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” effective stewardship. But what I learned as a child from George Beverly Shea has always been my starting-point. I thank the Lord for what Bev Shea taught me!
March 7, 2013
I am about halfway through watching The Bourne Legacy during my morning exercise-bike sessions. A scene early in the film suddenly hit me as having Lenten significance. The protagonist, Aaron Cross, is having a flashback of a time when, as a member of a special forces unit, he had inadvertantly caused the deaths of innocent civilians. His unit leader recognizes the remorse Cross is experiencing, and delivers this short speech:
“Do you know what a sin-eater is? That’s what we are. We are the sin-eaters. It means that we take all the moral excrement that we find in this equation and we bury it deep inside us so that the rest of our cause can stay pure. That is the job. We are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary!”
Some good theology there. Sin-eating is indeed necessary if purity is to be achieved. The only problem is that people like Aaron Cross can’t perform the necessary transaction.
I wonder if the folks who developed the script were intentional about the name “Aaron Cross.” A high priest and God’s chosen mode for sin-eating. At Calvary the one true Sin-eater, our great high priest, accomplished the cleansing necessary for effective purity. And he could do it because he himself had not collected any of his own “moral excrement.” The sinless one took our sin deep within himself. Now, that’s a legacy worth talking about!
January 25, 2013
In the 1990s I was invited to give some guest lectures at a divinity school at a major university. My schedule for the three days I spent there was a busy one, but at one point the person managing my schedule asked if I would be willing to add one more meeting to my agenda. A group of African American students wanted some private time with me.
I gladly agreed, and was happy afterward that I had been given the opportunity. A talented group of young scholars, they had many questions relating to evangelical life and thought. They testified to the fact that while they were much more conservative theologically than most of the faculty and students at that school, they were managing quite well by meeting together regularly to encourage each other in their strong, biblically grounded faith.
But, they said, there was one big problem: the subject of same-sex relations. The school made much of being “inclusive” regarding sexual orientation, and these students felt that there was no room for them to raise biblical and theological questions about matters that were taken for granted by the rest of the community. A few of them had tried in class discussions, and they had been given the clear message that their questions were out of bounds.
We discussed the issues at length and prayed together. They made it clear that they weren’t asking me to “fix” anything—they were simply happy to have me meet them in a safe place where they could process their concerns.
The next day, shortly before I left the campus to fly home, I met with the dean. He was interested in how my time at the school had gone. One thing he asked me was about the meeting with the African American students, obviously a bit puzzled about why they had requested some private time with me. I gave him a positive account of the overall conversation, but I then added a brief word about their discomfort over the prominence of sexuality views with which they disagreed. At that point he simply snorted: “They just need to get over it! That’s the dues you have to pay to get into our program!”
I thought of that comment recently when reading about the controversy surrounding President Obama’s invitation to Louis Giglio, an evangelical pastor, to offer the benediction at the Inauguration. Giglio accepted, but then was pressured to withdraw because some people made it known that he had once preached a sermon setting forth the traditional Christian interpretation of what the Bible teaches about same-sex intimacy. No one has charged Giglio with any vicious anti-gay rhetoric. His problem is that he simply developed some biblically based teaching on the subject.
Ed Stetzer put the right question poignantly in a blog post: “Are evangelicals no longer welcome in the public square?” At the very least, it now looks like when it comes to nationally prominent events, the dues required for participation are being drastically increased. And there is no question that eventually many Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, some Jews, and a substantial number of folks in mainline Protestantism will also be required to pay the dues.
One evangelical leader who was a part of a group that met with President Obama after the president publicly endorsed same-sex marriages told me that in private conversations, Mr. Obama understands our concerns and promised to work to protect our communal rights after the election was over. Well, the election is over and we are off to a very bad start.
November 20, 2012
I get asked often about my views concerning same-sex marriage as a matter of public policy. The question is an important one, but for me it falls into territory that I find difficult to navigate. I have strong views about what to allow—and what not to allow—on this subject within the Christian community. But that does not automatically translate into clear answers about what ought to be legally sanctioned in a larger pluralistic culture. Not everything that we Christians believe to be out of bounds, given our biblical convictions, ought to be declared illegal in a democracy. So on this subject I keep struggling to make my case against same-sex marriage in a way that makes sense in terms of a broader discussion of the common good.
The question is especially complicated for those of us who are inclined to concede the case for supporting “civil unions.” In a pluralistic society there are many “living together” patterns that I do not approve of on moral and theological grounds, but I nonetheless think should be legally permissible in the larger culture. We are presently living—to use a fine phrase that I learned from John Howard Yoder—“in the time of God’s patience,” which means that we must also cultivate that kind of patience as we await the Return of Christ.
So, once I have made the concession to civil unions, why not also grant a legal status for same-sex marriage? I am not ready simply to give up on restrictions on what is called a “marriage,” for at least two reasons. One is that much is at stake in legislation about marriage. Some Christians have been arguing recently that we should simply distinguish between marriage as a legal arrangement and marriage as a ceremonially based religious union. I find that unsatisfactory, precisely because it encourages religious folks to abdicate responsibility for legal regulations regarding marriage in the larger culture.
Lisa Miller made the case nicely a while back in Newsweek, in responding to Tony Jones’s proposal that we separate the church’s marriage certificate from a legal marriage license: let the state do what it wants about marriage as a legal contract; we Christians will limit ourselves to what we sanction on religious grounds within our own communities. That proposed solution, Lisa Miller argued,
Is muddled and retrograde. It’s bad for the financially vulnerable partner (historically the woman) and for children. Marriage law has come a long way since 16th century Europe, when men controlled all the property in a marriage and held the legal right to make all the decisions.
Only over the past century have state-issued marriage certificates become a kind of insurance policy for families against the vagaries of circumstance and individual desire… Today, the marriage license conveys benefits—Social Security, pension payouts, health insurance, inheritance—from one partner to the other…
In a country where marriage is declining and those who do marry are increasingly well- educated and well-to-do (a condition bemoaned by conservatives and liberals alike), it is a poor form of social protest to decline to administer legal marriages. Everybody needs these protections; a promise to God will not make a deadbeat parent pay child support.
I find her concerns compelling. We can’t give up on the larger cultural debates about legal sanctions regarding marriage arrangements.
The second issue is closely related, and it has to be discussed, even though many who advocate for same-sex marriage want to rule the subject out of bounds. What about “plural marriage”? Once some of us are asked to grant the right to define “marriage” in ways we find to be disagreeable, what will keep the discussion from going on to even more disagreeable arrangements? In some European settings, there is already pressure to sanction three-party same-sex relationships as marriages. And in our own country, plural marriage is still a highly controversial phenomenon. If some of us are being asked to approve of the rights of same-sex couples to marry simply on the grounds that such arrangements are grounded in sincerely held worldviews, what other sincerely held worldviews will be granted the same status?
Note that in none of this have I argued that our culture ought to be guided by what the Bible teaches about marriage. I know better than to impose my sincerely held Christian convictions on the larger culture. The questions here have to do with important concerns for the common good. They deserve careful discussion by all parties to the present debates.
August 20, 2012
I’ve ordered the first couple of episodes of “Political Animals” from iTunes, but I haven’t yet watched any of it. Based on the reviews, I am guessing that I will like it enough to keep at it. But I haven’t set my expectations very high. Not after watching all seven seasons of “West Wing.” I doubt that any other TV fictional portrayal of intrigue in the White House will match the quality of that series.
Needless to say, “West Wing” also beats what we are seeing these days in real life politics. The current presidential campaign is a huge disappointment. This is a tragedy, since the issues we face these days in the US are significant ones, and many of us have a lot of puzzles about how we are going to face them as a nation. What would a fair and humane immigration policy look like? How can we work our way through the complexities posed by the future of Medicare and other entitlement programs? What will it take to guarantee our religious freedoms in a climate that seems increasingly hostile to what many of us cherish? And then, of course, there are also the big questions about national security, military budgets, the global market….whew!
I would love to be educated about such matters by a healthy national dialogue. I am genuinely eager to hear proposals from all places on the spectrum. But it doesn’t look like we are going to be blessed by such a discussion in this campaign. Instead, there is on both sides much name-calling, accusations of dishonesty, digging into each other’s pasts for gossipy tidbits–but little helpful and calm setting forth of realistic ideas that address the important issues.
I have a “West Wing” proposal that could give us the kind of discussion we desperately need. I suggest that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney take a few hours off from campaigning to watch the seventh episode of the seventh (and final) season of that series—the episode entitled “The Debate.” It was a creative breakthrough for this kind of programming. A presidential election campaign was happening, with two presidential candidates running, played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits. And they debated “live.” Not just a portrayal of a “live” debate; the actual drama on that occasion took place in real time. Indeed, even the West Coast version was “live”—they did it again in real time after doing the first run-through earlier for the rest of the country.
Here is the real breakthrough. At the beginning of this episode, the candidates were getting ready to engage in what has typically been passing in recent years for a presidential campaign “debate.” Rules had been carefully negotiated between the two staffs, guaranteeing that each candidate could stay “on message” with carefully rehearsed presentations. Then, just before it all got started, the Republican candidate, played by Alda, challenged his Democratic opponent: “When the greatest hero in the history of my party, Abraham Lincoln, debated, he didn’t need any rules.” And that could happen here, said Alda: “We could just junk the rules.”
The Jimmy Smits character was only momentarily thrown off his pace. To the chagrin of both campaign staffs he quickly responded: “OK, let’s have a real debate.” And they did. They simply talked to each other, stating their views, listening to each other’s responses, arguing back. It was a magnificent performance, enhanced by the spontaneity of the “live” programming.
Again, my proposal. Romney and Obama should agree to watch that episode. Maybe they could even watch it together, unaccompanied by their respective “spin” people. And then afterward they could talk about how to engage each other in a genuine televised dialogue, throwing out the rules that in recent years have made a real exchange between candidates a virtual impossibility.
Too much to hope for? Probably. But each of them claims to have the capacity to assume leadership in times that require much creative savvy. Surely they should want to demonstrate to us what real leadership looks like by being at least as creative as the scriptwriters for “West Wing.”
July 9, 2012
A mainline denominational leader thanked me for a talk that I had just given at a multi-faith gathering. “I like everything you said,” he remarked. “There’s just one thing that bothers me. Why do you insist on the ‘evangelical’ label? In the narrow sense it denotes very reactionary thought and action. And in the broadest sense it is a label any Christian should want to own. Why do you act like you folks alone are ‘evangelical’?”
I pointed out to him that some of the other folks at our gathering belonged to a denomination called “the Disciples of Christ.” Has he ever complained to them about using a label that any Christian would want to own? And what about “Catholic”? I regularly say, in reciting the creeds, that I belong to the one “catholic church.” And, while we are at it, what about “Orthodox,” and even “Pentecostal”?
My questioner’s response: “Hm, good points. That gives me some things to think about.”
I could have said more. In the world of politics, Democrats are not against the very idea of a republic. Nor do Republicans oppose democracy. And I grew up being taught that the original Tea Party protest was an event in American history to be celebrated.
The point of all of this is not to insist that we ought to do away with our widespread labeling systems in religion and politics. Jonathan Edwards once remarked that he would continue to call himself a Calvinist as long as it succeeded in informing others that he was not an Arminian.
Labels help us to make important distinctions. In itself a group’s label may not communicate a teaching that is the exclusive property of that group; but it does say something about what, in its origins, the group meant to highlight, usually as what the group saw as a much-needed corrective. I believe in the power of Pentecost, but I do not emphasize the gifts of the Spirit in the ways most Pentecostals do. Many of my Catholic friends are delighted by many of the significant reforms that have occurred in their church since Vatican II, but they do not go around, as I do, making a big point about being Reformed.
The important question that we do need to ask about labels, of course, is whether they continue to communicate what they were originally intended to identify. In that regard, questions about the “evangelical” label are good ones to ask today. And while I take those questions seriously, I am firmly committed to sticking with that label as a means of self-identification. That’s what I told my questioner as our conversation continued. For me evangelical identity points to such things as a firm belief in the supreme authority of the Bible and the unique atoning work of Jesus Christ, as well as to the obligation to work actively in inviting people to enter into a personal relationship with the Savior. And furthermore, it means continuing to plead with others who own the label not to pile onto those important convictions a lot of additional baggage that does not do honor to a label that I continue to love.
May 16, 2012
Someone pointed out to me that a person posted a review on Amazon of my new book on Mormonism, giving it one star. I checked it out. Here is the full review:
I have not read this yet but have read about the author’s stand on what he believes about Mormonism and he thinks Christians and Mormons have the Same Jesus. If that doesn’t say it all, I do not know what is. This man claims to know what a cult is but does not even recognise one that has been put right in front of his face!!! If you doubt me, read his blog. […] and now if that is not enough. Read his CNN article […] Now, my advice to true born again Christians to save your dollar and no worry he will get rich on the sale of this book by selling it to Mormons.
I am reminded of Rob Bell’s response to the folks who condemned Love Wins without reading it. He said something like this in an online recording: “Hi, I’m Rob Bell. I am an evangelical. I am not a universalist. And I don’t review books I have not read.”
April 23, 2012
Well, Earth Day 2012 has come and gone. I did not take part in any events specifically focused on Earth Day concerns—although I did put a bunch of things in the recycling bin. And I thought about a lesson I learned on the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
I was into my second year of full-time teaching, on the Calvin College faculty. The students at Calvin took the idea of an Earth Day quite seriously, and we all gathered—a big enough crowd that we had to use the gymnasium—for a time of worship focusing on God’s concern for creation. There was no Powerpoint in those days, but the students had assembled for viewing a large number of slides, which they showed to the accompaniment of “This is My Father’s World.” After the slide show, my colleague Nicholas Wolterstorff spoke.
Nick commented on the way the slide show had depicted “good” and “bad” scenes, with the former all consisting of rural pastoral-type scenes, and the latter all portrayals of urban blight. Then he asked some profound—and for me, unforgettable—questions: Isn’t there a danger, Wolterstorff asked, of depicting countryside scenes as somehow closer to what God likes best about his creation, with urban life as that which corrupts and distorts what was intended to be good? Shouldn’t Earth Day also look for the ways in which people are working for beauty and justice in cities? What about nicely designed buildings and spaces that promote human flourishing—are they not also ways of glorifying the God who cares about the world he created?
Again, good questions. To pose them, of course, is not to deny the importance of thinking explicitly about plants and animals, rivers and oceans. God does grieve over the ways that we pollute and abuse such things. But cities are also precious in God’s sight. Indeed, someday a City will descend from the heavens—and “there will no longer be anything accursed” (Rev. 22:3). The psalmist tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein.” Cities, and urban life, are a part of that “fulness”—a good thing to remember on Earth Day.
April 12, 2012
I have a piece on how to be a “worldly Christian” in one of my favorite magazines, from Singapore. You can read it here.
April 1, 2012
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun, Miriam, who struggles much with guilt, is hoping for empathy from her friend Hilda, whom Miriam views as a model of purity. When Hilda backs away from their friendship, Miriam offers this theological assessment of her friend’s incapacity for empathy: “I have always said, Hilda, that you were merciless; for I had a perception of it, even when you loved me best. You have no sin, nor any conception of what it is; and therefore you are so terribly severe. As an angel, you are not amiss; but as a human creature, and a woman among earthly men and women, you need a sin to soften you.”
The Incarnation is God’s softening toward us in our frailty and sinfulness. But God did not “need a sin to soften” himself. He did something much better. He took our humanity upon himself.
Already in ancient Israel, of course, God was seen as having empathy for us in our humanness.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. (Ps. 103:13-14)
That compassionate grasp of “how we are formed” is the compassion of a Maker. I may love something that I have made—and I may understand it through and through. But I do not yet know what it is like to be that thing. And it is precisely that more intimate knowledge that God gained when the eternal Son entered into our creaturely condition. He came to pay a debt that we could not pay for ourselves. But he did more than that. He came to be the likes of us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
I have often heard it said on Good Friday that Jesus suffered the deepest agonies on the Cross so that we do not have to suffer those agonies. That is a wonderful piece of good news. But in his suffering he was not only suffering in our place—again, a powerful reality—but he was also suffering with us, in the ways that we suffer. And that suffering began in the Manger: the outstretched arms of the Baby in Bethlehem are the beginning of what would happen when the Savior stretched out his arms on Calvary.
Unlike Miriam’s depiction of Hilda, Jesus did have a conception of sin. And he did not need to sin himself in order to be softened to sinners like us. There is much mystery in that. But it is a wonderful mystery!