Tuesday, September 30, 2014

3 Ways Jesus Read the Bible That Evangelicals Are Told Not to Do

For Evangelicals--and I'm among them--Jesus and the Bible are high on the priority list. Not just evangelicals but all Christians believe Jesus is the Savior, and that the Bible tells us about him.
But watching how these two priorities come together--watching how Jesus read his Bible (the Christian Old Testament)--can create some awkward moments, because Jesus read his Bible in ways evangelicals are taught over and over again not to read it.
1. Jesus didn't stick to what "the Bible says," but read it with a creative flare that had little if any connection to what the biblical writer actually meant to say. 
Evangelicals are told to respect the Bible by "sticking to the text" and not go beyond it. Jesus did the opposite.
For example, in the book of Exodus (chapter 3), God speaks to Moses from a burning bush. This being the first encounter, God introduces himself (verse 6): "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." In other words, "The one speaking to you, Moses, is none other than the God of your ancestors, and I've got a very big job for you: go down to Egypt and bring my people out of slavery."
Enter Jesus. We find him in Luke's Gospel (chapter 20) debating a religious party known as the Sadducees. One of their beliefs is that after you die, you're worm food. Other Jews, including Jesus, were of the Pharisee party. They believed that God will one day raise the dead.
So to prove his point--that the Sadducees were wrong and God does indeed raise the dead--Jesus recites the verse from Exodus above, where God introduces himself to Moses.
Read the rest here

How a Black Gay Mormon Kid Lost His Faith

Growing up Mormon in rural Alabama sheltered me from many lessons that my friends and cousins had learned at an even younger age—some trivial (like how to cuss) and some more vital (like how to stand up for yourself, even when you’re afraid).

In time, life would teach me these lessons and so many more.

In the sixth grade I realized I was gay. Based on the intensity of their taunts, my classmates knew this long before I did. I was in Ms. Kidd’s fourth-period history class. “Derek” (not his real name) asked me if I was gay. Stunned by his directness, I offered what I thought was a convincing “hell naw.” But the truth was, I had no idea. That’s not the type of question 12-year-old Mormon boys ask themselves.

But when I did ask myself that question, it took only a few hours to get an answer. Despite the fact that I had a girlfriend at the time, I was gay. Suddenly my obsession with certain male actors, my secret love of My Little Pony and the relentless taunting by my peers all made sense. I was gay.

And that’s exactly what I told (actually, wrote to) “Derek” at the end of the day in a letter I sent all the way across the classroom in our last-period English class. Derek and I kissed in the bathroom a few times, but other than talking on the phone, that was the height of our preadolescent love affair. Did I mention I was dating a girl at the time?

Learning that I was gay was more than enough knowledge for my 12-year-old body and mind to process, but life would insist that I learn much more.

Read the rest here

Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

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Religion as a Social Construct

I think we’re ready to get into the philosophical arguments about religion now. This is my first philosophical post about the nature of religion, but it won’t be my last. I would appreciate any feedback you may have. With that, let’s get to work, shall we?

What I’m presenting here is the case Emile Durkheim makes. As a sociologist he removes all metaphysics and spirituality, and evaluates religion as merely a result of social context. Religions are found at the heart of societies and evolve within those societies. The system of beliefs which arise from religion are interdependent on the nature of that society. Tribal religions tend to be more focused on oral tradition and ancestor worship, whereas institutionalized Western religions tend to be more focused on written Law and the worship of God or other deities. The treatment of religions is a direct result of its evolution within a social construct.

There are two resolutions which Durkheim points to with the idea that religion is a creation of societies. The first implies that individuals develop their religious identity while being involved in society in such a way that they both maintain interdependence and maintain their individuality with relation to the deity. The other places the individual within society as a whole, whereby society itself is what is held responsible to a deity, and not so much the individual. While I would like to think the first is more true than the second, my intuition tells me the reality is that the second is more true. But there is a duality here. A person is both an individual and a member of society. Because of this, any personal relationship a person makes with his deity (namely God), it is a result of the relationship the greater society in which he belongs has with that deity. Our understanding is that religious belief originates in the mind of the individual, when it is actually a product of collective thought. The individual and the society become interlocked by this shared religious belief.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Racism, Oppression and the Hope of the Gospel

A few months ago, I sat in church with tears streaming down my face like waterfalls. Just days before, I had been utterly disappointed and hurt by someone who I considered an ally simply because they said they were committed to racial reconciliation (that was my first mistake). Though I had experienced similar situations before. the familiarity of this injustice did not minimize the pain – in fact, its strange familiarity intensified the feelings of hopelessness that threatened to swallow me whole. I began to ask myself what was the point in fighting so hard if things wouldn’t change? What was the point in striving, pushing so hard against the elephant of racism if at the end of the day the elephant remained?

As I reflected on my own experience, I likewise mediated on the words from the day’s passage in Ecclesiastes 4:1-5 where the preacher speaks about the realities oppression. In this passage the preacher, assumed to be King Solomon, offers a candid picture of oppression and the lack of hope that many feel as a result of their situation. The repeated censoring, marginalization, and exploitation of the poor, women, and people of color, leaves many feeling overwhelmed with the pain that they encounter on a daily basis. In this country, much of the oppression exists along racial lines and those of color most often the victimized. From being turned down for a job, to being profiled and harassed by a police officer, we as people of color so often get the snot kicked out of us. We try, God knows we try hard, to move the elephant of racism that is literally killing us left and right. Every once in a while, he moves – the elephant actually shifts a little. Policies are passed that offer new promises of opportunity. White people start to listen and pay attention to our stories without centering themselves in it. A pastor recognizes and repents of his/her own role in maintaining racism and commits to the work of diversity and reconciliation. Finally! We are making progress.

But then the elephant shifts right back to where he was before. Or maybe we were delusional and the elephant never really ever moved in the first place. Damn!

Read the rest here

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Health Effects of Leaving Religion

Curtis Penfold got kicked out of his apartment, fired from his job, and left Brigham Young University all in the same week.

He left BYU—a private university operated by The Church of Latter-day Saints—because he had started to disagree with some of the Church’s views, causing tension between him and school officials. His exit from the school caused him to lose his on-campus job, and he subsequently resigned from the Mormon Church. Resigning from the church resulted in getting kicked out of his religiously-affiliated private housing, and he received angry emails from old friends and phone calls from his disappointed parents who said he “lost the light” and “used to be so good.”

“I felt so hated by this community I used to love,” Penfold said.

Penfold originally went to BYU to be around fellow Mormons. But over the course of the two-and-a-half years he spent there, he started to find the lack of LGBT rights in the church distasteful and was unable to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the evil he saw in the world. This loss of faith in God went beyond his separation from Mormonism, leading to months of depression, anxiety over the prospect of no afterlife, and suicidal thoughts. He’s better now, but for a while there were days when he wouldn’t even leave his bed.

Like Penfold, many who leave religion in America become isolated from their former communities, which can make them anxious, depressed, or even suicidal. Others feel liberated. No deconversion story is the same, but many who leave behind strongly-held religious beliefs can see an impact on their health.

Americans are less religious than ever. A third of American adults under 30, and a fifth of all Americans don’t identify with any religion, according to a 2012 study by Pew Research (an increase from 15 percent in 2007). But though scientists have studied people who leave cults, research on the health effects of leaving religion is slim.

Read the rest here

Saturday, September 27, 2014

My Journey to Feminism: How Questioning Religion Started It All

I was raised as a Lutheran and my life growing up was filled with religion; I not only went to church and Sunday school every week, I also went a Lutheran school. This meant that I had religion class every day in school and also that the values my school proclaimed were based in the Lutheran doctrine. The messages I was receiving about people, society, love, acceptance, my body, sexuality and more were coming from this perspective.
You can probably guess that the messages were neither the most positive nor productive. We were taught the sex is bad and if you don't save yourself until marriage, then you is sinning against God. Women were the teachers and men the leaders of the church and we were told that's the way God intended it to be. Christianity was the only way and that if you didn't believe that Jesus died to take away your sins, you were going to hell. It was important to abstain from drugs and alcohol, because otherwise you would die or go to jail. As girls, we had to always be dressed appropriately, because showing too much cleavage or leg would entice the boys to look at us with lust (which was always bad). Jesus loves and accepts everyone, but somehow we don't.
These philosophies were things I had never bothered to question, until I was 13. I remember the exact catalyst that lead me down this journey, all the way to where I am typing now, this on my computer. I was on vacation with my family and it was the start of my absolute insatiable desire to read. Needless to say, I brought an epic amount of books with me and one of them would change my whole perspective on life; Conversations with God for Teens. The book gave a new idea of God and Christianity and emphasized holistic living and love above all else. It took liberal attitudes towards sexuality, politics and education. It opened up this whole world I didn't know even existed, full of radical ideas and a nuanced perspective on the world. I was so fascinated and curious about everything and I suddenly saw myself as a citizen of Earth instead of just one meaningless person. I saw that the world I thought I understood was in reality was completely unknown. I knew I had to keep going and I also knew my relationship to my faith would never again be the same.
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It’s Official: Religion Doesn’t Make You More Moral

Suppose you actually do have an angel over your shoulder telling you the right thing to do. That angel probably wouldn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. A recent study in Science aimed at uncovering how we experience morality in our everyday lives suggests that religious people are no more moral—or immoral—than non-religious people. Whether or not we believe that divine precepts give us guidance, our behavior is remarkably similar.
The fact that atheists are apparently as moral as believers will be counterintuitive to some. In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov famously worries, “But what will become of men then…without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?”
In late 2007, when Mitt Romney was still uncertain whether he could win the GOP presidential primary, he made a speech on religion to reassure a leery electorate. His Mormon faith was no reason to reject his candidacy, he argued. What really mattered was that he was religious, and thus had the same moral beliefs as other religious people. “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said, insinuating that a free but godless people might form an unruly mob. Later in the speech, he added, “Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”
Yet Dmitri Karamazov and Mitt Romney are likely wrong. People who don’t fear that justice will be meted out in an afterlife are apparently no more vicious, cruel, or licentious than a believer.
Read the rest here

The Myth of Religious Violence

As we watch the fighters of the Islamic State (Isis) rampaging through the Middle East, tearing apart the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq created by departing European colonialists, it may be difficult to believe we are living in the 21st century. The sight of throngs of terrified refugees and the savage and indiscriminate violence is all too reminiscent of barbarian tribes sweeping away the Roman empire, or the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan cutting a swath through China, Anatolia, Russia and eastern Europe, devastating entire cities and massacring their inhabitants. Only the wearily familiar pictures of bombs falling yet again on Middle Eastern cities and towns – this time dropped by the United States and a few Arab allies – and the gloomy predictions that this may become another Vietnam, remind us that this is indeed a very modern war.

The ferocious cruelty of these jihadist fighters, quoting the Qur’an as they behead their hapless victims, raises another distinctly modern concern: the connection between religion and violence. The atrocities of Isis would seem to prove that Sam Harris, one of the loudest voices of the “New Atheism”, was right to claim that “most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith”, and to conclude that “religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut”. Many will agree with Richard Dawkins, who wrote in The God Delusion that “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people”. Even those who find these statements too extreme may still believe, instinctively, that there is a violent essence inherent in religion, which inevitably radicalises any conflict – because once combatants are convinced that God is on their side, compromise becomes impossible and cruelty knows no bounds.

Despite the valiant attempts by Barack Obama and David Cameron to insist that the lawless violence of Isis has nothing to do with Islam, many will disagree. They may also feel exasperated. In the west, we learned from bitter experience that the fanatical bigotry which religion seems always to unleash can only be contained by the creation of a liberal state that separates politics and religion. Never again, we believed, would these intolerant passions be allowed to intrude on political life. But why, oh why, have Muslims found it impossible to arrive at this logical solution to their current problems? Why do they cling with perverse obstinacy to the obviously bad idea of theocracy? Why, in short, have they been unable to enter the modern world? The answer must surely lie in their primitive and atavistic religion.

But perhaps we should ask, instead, how it came about that we in the west developed our view of religion as a purely private pursuit, essentially separate from all other human activities, and especially distinct from politics. After all, warfare and violence have always been a feature of political life, and yet we alone drew the conclusion that separating the church from the state was a prerequisite for peace. Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.

We now take the secular state so much for granted that it is hard for us to appreciate its novelty, since before the modern period, there were no “secular” institutions and no “secular” states in our sense of the word. Their creation required the development of an entirely different understanding of religion, one that was unique to the modern west. No other culture has had anything remotely like it, and before the 18th century, it would have been incomprehensible even to European Catholics. The words in other languages that we translate as “religion” invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word dinsignifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of “religion”; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: “No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.” In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of “religion”, was also a creation of the early modern period.

Traditional spirituality did not urge people to retreat from political activity. The prophets of Israel had harsh words for those who assiduously observed the temple rituals but neglected the plight of the poor and oppressed. Jesus’s famous maxim to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” was not a plea for the separation of religion and politics. Nearly all the uprisings against Rome in first-century Palestine were inspired by the conviction that the Land of Israel and its produce belonged to God, so that there was, therefore, precious little to “give back” to Caesar. When Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables in the temple, he was not demanding a more spiritualised religion. For 500 years, the temple had been an instrument of imperial control and the tribute for Rome was stored there. Hence for Jesus it was a “den of thieves”. The bedrock message of the Qur’an is that it is wrong to build a private fortune but good to share your wealth in order to create a just, egalitarian and decent society. Gandhi would have agreed that these were matters of sacred import: “Those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

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Spirituality, Religion, and Black Women's Well-Being

A number of studies have suggested that religion plays a critical role in black Americans' mental health and life satisfaction, aiding their ability to cope with personal and societal stressors. However, a new study indicates that spirituality, rather than religiosity, may be the element that is essential to black women's psychological well-being.

University of Illinois researchers Tamilia D. Reed and Helen A. Neville conducted the study, which appeared recently in the Journal of Black Psychology.

Reed is a doctoral student in counseling psychology in the College of Education and a graduate assistant counselor with the Faculty/Staff Assistance Program on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Neville is chair of the counseling psychology division and holds appointments in educational psychology and African-American studies.

While religiosity and spirituality are related, prior research has shown that black women perceive them to be distinct concepts.

Religiosity is typically defined in terms of an individual's participation in religious institutions and adherence to prescribed beliefs. Spirituality, on the other hand, involves meaning-making and relational dimensions, such as having a relationship with a higher power and being connected with other people and the universe, Reed said.

"For black women, interpreting the significance of life experiences via one's relationships may be more critical to mental health and life satisfaction than adherence to religious doctrine or engagement in religious activities," she said.

More than 160 black women participated in an Internet survey that explored their religious and spiritual values and practices. Participants ranged in age from 20 to 75 years. More than 60 percent of participants held graduate or professional degrees and identified themselves as middle class.

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Hip Hop And Religion

For a while, during our adolescence in the nineties, it felt like hip-hop could answer all of life’s questions for us.  While it evolved spontaneously, it was nurtured by healthy doses of street corner intellect and convergent esoterica to such an extent that relating to hip-hop has often felt like relating to an all-knowing, all-powerful being.
I had these thoughts dancing in my mind when I visited an old acquaintance in a Craighall complex the other day. I remembered once, almost ten years ago, riding wild in the streets of Joburg trying to decipher his copy of Ghostface Killah’s woozy classic Supreme Clientele. Ghostface, a proclaimed adherent of the Five Percent Nation’s beliefs (they believe that Allah is the physical black man – Arm, Leg, Leg, Arm, Head), took language to extreme heights by melding the “supreme alphabet” (a coded language based on ascribing meaning to each letter of the alphabet) to his already heady, psychedelic street poems. That album pretty much cemented his place as one of the culture’s premier lyricists, even though much of his subject matter tread worn ground.
Today, Mfundisi Dlungu is a self-employed architect. When we do reminisce about hip-hop’s importance, it is with the distance and objectivity of hindsight, and arguments about who is the “freshest” are underscored by an existential urgency.
Seated on opposite ends of a work desk in his lounge, Dlungu – an athletic figure in a pale yellow shirt, cream jeans and white cross-trainers – cues tracks on his iPad as we chew the fat on our favourite subject. “What made me check for it [hip-hop] was that they were saying that Islam was a religion for the black man, and not Christianity,” says Dlungu. Emerging from the kitchen, he places drinks on wooden coasters and continues. “But when I checked both of these religions, neither belonged to us. So how could we, as Africans, lay claim to something that is not ours?”
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Public Sees Religion’s Influence Waning

Rising Number Say Religion Losing InfluenceNearly three-quarters of the public (72%) now thinks religion is losing influence in American life, up 5 percentage points from 2010 to the highest level in Pew Research polling over the past decade. And most people who say religion's influence is waning see this as a bad thing.

Perhaps as a consequence, a growing share of the American public wants religion to play a role in U.S. politics. The share of Americans who say churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political issues is up 6 points since the 2010 midterm elections (from 43% to 49%). The share who say there has been “too little” expression of religious faith and prayer from political leaders is up modestly over the same period (from 37% to 41%). And a growing minority of Americans (32%) think churches should endorse candidates for political office, though most continue to oppose such direct involvement by churches in electoral politics.

The findings reflect a widening divide between religiously affiliated Americans and the rising share of the population that is not affiliated with any religion (sometimes called the “nones”). The public’s appetite for religious influence in politics is increasing in part because those who continue to identify with a religion (e.g., Protestants, Catholics and others) have become significantly more supportive of churches and other houses of worship speaking out about political issues and political leaders talking more often about religion. The “nones” are much more likely to oppose the intermingling of religion and politics.

Read the rest here

Friday, September 26, 2014

How Lecrae Found Success Mixing Rap and Theology

He’s been crowned the “new hip-hop king” and his newest album, Anomaly, topped iTunes and Amazon charts the day of its September 9 release. He’s been invited to birthday parties for both Billy Graham and Michael Jordan and riffed on NBC’s Tonight Show with host Jimmy Fallon.

It’s the kind of mainstream success that has eluded most Christian rappers. Then again, some people are still trying to decide if hip-hop star Lecrae is a Christian rapper, or a rapper who happens to be Christian.

It depends who you ask, including Lecrae himself.

“God has also raised up lowly, kind of insignificant individuals to do miraculous and incredible things,” Lecrae, 34, said in an interview. “We’re the Gideons, we’re the Davids. Even Jesus himself made himself of no reputation. It’s when you can link it back to God doing it, I think that’s what he loves. He’s not a megalomaniac, he’s deserving of glory and honor, and to use individuals that demonstrate that it was him, and him alone, it accomplishes his mission and that’s success.”

While most Christian artists have struggled to break out of the Christian music subculture, Lecrae has found early crossover success — and a significant following among white evangelical elites. He navigates the tricky waters between rapping explicitly about Christianity while reaching a mainstream audience.

According to Billboard, he’s sold 1.4 million albums and 2.9 million track downloads. Anomaly hit Billboard’s No. 1 last week — a first for a gospel album and only the fifth for a Christian album. His acting debut in Believe Me, a film about a group of four men who try to con money out of churchgoers, received a short, positive nod from The New York Times.

Some of Lecrae’s fans are worried the success could ruin him or at least soften his lyrics. But when Christian artists like U2′s Bono or Switchfoot find mainstream success, many Christian fans often latch on for good.

In fact, while once shunning mainstream and creating its own music and entertainment subculture, American evangelicalism now values recognition and engagement in mainstream culture.

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Episcopal Church's Katharine Jefferts Schori To Step Down After Current Term

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to head a national branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, announced Tuesday (Sept. 23) that she will not seek a second nine-year term in office.
Her departure will likely set off debates over her legacy and the future of the 2 million-member denomination.
“I believe I can best serve this church by opening the door for other bishops to more freely discern their own vocation to this ministry,” Jefferts Schori, 60, said in a statement. “I will continue to engage us in becoming a more fully diverse church, spreading the gospel among all sorts and conditions of people, and wholeheartedly devoted to God’s vision of a healed and restored creation.”
Her 2006 election was celebrated as a breakthrough for women leadership in the church; delegates sported pink “It’s a Girl!” buttons after the vote. She remains the only female primate in the Anglican Communion, but last year the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America followed suit and elected its first female presiding bishop.
Jefferts Schori’s current term will end at the conclusion of the Episcopalians’ General Convention in Salt Lake City in June 2015. Church membership during her term has dropped by 12 percent, according to the most recent statistics available from the denomination.
Jefferts Schori’s time as presiding bishop has been lauded by theological liberals and bemoaned by conservatives, but both breakaway Anglicans and Jefferts Schori were instrumental to one another’s rise.
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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Provoked to Politic: The Pew Foundation, Clergy, and Public Theology

I believe that people should weigh their political opinions in light of their faith commitments. For those who are Christians, I also think that those faith commitments ought to be decisive. But we craft those views in a pluralistic society in which many will be unsympathetic to what we believe and, where people are sympathetic, they will often agree for completely different reasons than the ones that motivate us. Rightly, our Constitution protects them and us, and I am grateful for that protection.

When I worked at Washington National Cathedral some years ago, I often met representatives from countries in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East who were studying church-state relations under the auspices of the United States Information Agency. Occasionally, Muslims (in particular) would suggest that as a "religious person," I should want a religious government, and—they argued—"What better religion to guarantee the freedom of everyone than Islam?" I believe that they were sincere and meant well. But their Syrian Christian colleagues vehemently disagreed and, over a decade later, that offer sounds even less attractive than it did in the fall of 2000.

There is something that is deeply unsettling, then, in the new Pew Foundation study that indicates a larger number of Americans than in the past want their clergy to be more explicit about their political views. Even if that is true, what does it mean in practical terms for clergy across the faith traditions?

Read the rest here

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Lament and Confess: Forgive Us, Michael Brown

The past several weeks, pictures and videos of the response in Ferguson, MO to the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer have looked eerily similar to protests during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Christians from around the country got involved and insisted that the life and value of all people must be honored. While not a solely Christian movement and not one that originated in the church, the protests and voices coming out of the Ferguson case have called people to both repentance and action: repentance in the face of our country's still-present racism and action against the injustice that devalues people based on the color of their skin.
I am grieved to note, however, especially in the early voices, that many white Christian leaders were silent. Lisa Sharon Harper points out that in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, "residents of Ferguson, local and national leaders of historic black churches, and some multi-ethnic mainline Protestant and Catholic church clergy engaged. White evangelical leaders largely fell silent." One of the reasons for this silence is the structural racism still present in our culture and the identification that race issues are a "black problem" rather than a "white problem." Our segregated Sundays and daily lives make white Christians largely unaware of the realities of life in a black person's body in the United States today. When one doesn't personally experience oppression and marginalization, it is unlikely they will have eyes to see it when it happens to others. How can we act and respond to injustice when we are blind to it? It is a rare occasion in a white church when the death of a black man or woman or child warrants the attention or even mention from the pulpit; why would it when the deaths of people of color do not affect the every-day lived experience of our lives? This lack of community, this lack of connection with our neighbors, is one of the sins that we must confess and lament in order to work towards true reconciliation across race.
In my newest book, Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith (Zondervan, 2014), my co-authors Lisa Sharon Harper, Troy Jackson, and Soong-Chan Rah and I look at different sins of which the church must confess and repent. One of these is the history of racism in the United States and the church's complicity in that sin. Many others have detailed the specific racial tension and history in the St. Louis area that provided a backdrop for the outrage over the killing of Michael Brown. Here I want to encourage Christians -- leaders and lay people -- to listen and to speak. To lament and confess. To acknowledge the sin of racism that is alive in our country, and therefore in our churches, and to repent of the way that the sin of racism hinders our ability to live into the Kingdom of God.
Read the rest here

How Jesus Views Women

Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have more in common than the fact that their domestic violence has become headline news. They’re both running backs in the midst of successful careers. Both have wives and child(ren). And both men are, apparently, Christians.

Adrian Peterson, in his first “official” statement after being indicted by a grand jury for injury to a child, posted a photo of Bible verses to his Twitter account. Ray Rice, who was cut from the Baltimore Ravens once video surfaced of him punching his wife so hard she lost consciousness, reportedly became a “born again” Christian after the incident. He claims to be a “changed man.”

At face value, their crimes seem different. Peterson, acting in what he saw as an appropriately loving way, beat his son bloody with a “switch”–or, as he called it, “whooped” him… in the legs, buttocks, and scrotum. Many people, including celebrities and former athletes like Charles Barkley, have defended Peterson’s actions. Spanking is not abuse, they say. Since they themselves survived being “switched,” so can their kids.

Not as many people have sought to defend Ray Rice’s actions, which, unlike Peterson’s, were caught on video. Rice can be seen punching his wife Janay in an elevator, then standing over her unconscious body, apparently unphased. While Peterson was just suspended for his actions, Rice was (eventually) cut by the Ravens.

What’s interesting is the seeming distinction some have made between these two actions. One is seen as debatable (spanking) while the other is not (domestic abuse.)

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Michael Brown and Me: Profiling, Preachers and Tasers

Is there any fairness in the American justice system? Can people of every racial/ethnic group be confident that they will receive equal treatment under the law? The shooting of Michael Brown raises these questions and more.
Unfortunately, how you answer these questions is largely determined by your race, your upbringing, and where you grew up in the world. These factors and others shape the way we view the world. Remember the Rodney King police brutality case and the O.J. Simpson murder trial? It was amazing that people who watched exactly the same evidence often came to entirely different conclusions.
Before I say more about the Michael Brown shooting, let me share my story. It will help you better understand my standpoint.
I had just finished preaching at a church near Fayetteville, NC several years ago, when two other men and I packed into my Mercedes to began our trip back home along some dark country roads in the middle of nowhere.
For reasons still unclear to me, a police cruiser behind me activated its swirling lights in an effort to get me to pull over. Okay, you probably would have complied immediately, but I decided to continue driving slowly until we reached a well-lit gas station several miles ahead. I had seen enough questionable behavior by law enforcement officials to be a little nervous about encountering one on a narrow, pitch-black road.
To my astonishment, when I pulled into the Kangaroo gas station, I wasn't just greeted by one cruiser. The officer had called for backup and four other cruisers surrounded my car as if I was a notorious drug dealer or terrorist.
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Monday, September 22, 2014

Why "Left Behind' Should Be.....Left Behind

On October 3, theaters across the country will be lowering their screens for the much talked about reboot of “Left Behind,” a film installment based upon the popular book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins and a remake of the previous film by the same name. It's been the “year of the Christian movie” with films like “God's Not Dead,” “Heaven is For Real,” and “Son of God.” (I would include “Noah” but that was apparently condemned as heresy by the masses.) So, a reboot of “Left Behind” — especially one with a bigger budget and a bigger name (Nicolas Cage) — is not really unexpected, though it most certainly will draw the same sort of crowds as the other three movies and will find itself well within the likes of the church crowd.

Unfortunately, however, while “Left Behind” may prove itself to be a mediocre box office success, it represents a severe misinterpretation of what the Bible actually says about the topic. To put it bluntly, and perhaps to the chagrin of some readers, the idea of a “rapture” is simply not biblically based (and that's where I've lost a third of you!) It represents, instead, a theology based on escapism and in the process does damage to what the Bible really does say about “the last days.”

Of course, it's beyond the scope of this article to give a fleshed out analysis of the various portraits of “the last days” which exist in contemporary Christianity. More to the topic of this post, though, the whole idea of disappearing for seven years to a heavenly abode while the rest of the world endures some timetable of Revelation's cataclysmic prophecies of cosmic destruction, a one world order, an antichrist, a mark of the beast (watch out iPhone 6!), etc. is just not what Revelation is about.

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Jesus Was Crucified Because Disciples Were Armed

Jesus may have been crucified because his followers were carrying weapons, according to a scholarly analysis of New Testament books.

Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies at Yale University, says that this aspect of stories about Jesus, as told in the gospels, has received too little attention, but could alone explain Jesus’s execution and also show that the man from Nazareth was not the pacifist he’s usually made out to be.

The biblical books of Mark and Luke both state that at least one (and probably two or more) of Jesus’s followers was carrying a sword when Jesus was arrested shortly after the Last Supper, at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. One disciple, Simon Peter, even used his sword to cut off the ear of one of those arresting Jesus, according to the Gospel of John.

This militant behavior almost certainly wouldn’t have been tolerated by the Romans, led by the prefect Pontius Pilate, Martin tells Newsweek. For example, historical documents show that it was illegal at the time to walk about armed in Rome and in some other Roman cities. Although no legal records survive from Jerusalem, it stands to reason, based on a knowledge of Roman history, that the region’s rulers would have frowned upon the carrying of swords, and especially wouldn’t have tolerated an armed band of Jews roaming the city during Passover, an often turbulent festival, Martin says.

“Just as you could be arrested in Rome for even having a dagger, if Jesus’s followers were armed, that would be reason enough to crucify him,” says Martin, whose analysis was published this month in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament.

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MLK Jr., the Two Kingdoms and the Politics of Love

“In these days of uncertainty, the evils of war and of economic and racial injustice threaten the very survival of the human race. Indeed we live in a day of grave crisis.” (p.Xiii, Strength To Love) These are the words that begin Martin Luther King’s work Strength To Love. Although these words were published in 1963 it is certainly not a stretch to note their relevance to the state of current socio-political issues in the United States. Whether it is President Barack Obama’s recent declaration to send troops back to Iraq, the continued fight for socio-economic equality throughout the states, or the continued injustices that take place in cities like Ferguson throughout the country, we do indeed live in turbulent times. Furthermore at stake here is the survival of the human fabric. How can the Christian community address these dire circumstances? What response can theology offer up to these concerns? Although there is no comprehensive answer to this question Dr. Martin Luther King can offer some insight on the ways theology can address current crisis such as the racial injustices that happen far too often in our world today. Ultimately the solution lies in showing the love of Christ to all of the communities to which we belong. I believe to create a theopolitics of love one must understand the true nature of their citizenship in the world, incorporate the capacity for altruism, and become aware of humanities shortcomings.
As a member of the Christian community it can become difficult to navigate the world of both the sacred and the secular. Christians belong to both of these worlds. King notes: “Every true Christian is a citizen of two worlds, the world of time and the world of eternity. We are, paradoxically, in the world and yet not of the world” (p.12). Thus we are citizens of both the temporal world that we live in on Earth as well as our heavenly citizenship to live eternity with God. This is complicated because we have citizenships in both of these worlds at the same time. We are thus not allowed neglected the concerns of one in favor of the other and vice versa. This can be interpreted that because we have dual citizenship, we are also have dual responsibilities that are not mutually exclusive. That is to say, our responsibility on the temporal world is to bring about the peace that we seek from our eternal union with God. This task can only be fulfilled through the fight for justice for all of God’s creation.
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Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Concept of God

One of my biggest frustrations with religious discussion is the unestablished baseline for the concept of God. Each individual has his own concept of what God is. More times than not, these do not align. What follows is a point/counterpoint argument to what attributes God has, what ones he does not have, and how God does or does not interact in the lives of individuals.

The problem here is that each individual has a different understanding about what God is. To many, God is the Creator. He is the beginning. Since his creating the universe and life he has been intimately involved in the everyday happenings of humanity, providing guidance, righting wrongs, protecting believers, and punishing wrongdoers. To others, however, God’s interaction ceased at the moment of creation. To some, God has never existed and in time science will answer all of the questions we have about existence without invoking the superstitions of religion and theology. To others, God is not a singularity, but multiple dieties make up the divine.

Based on my experience with talking about religion with a variety of people, it seems most people’s beliefs are not necessarily their own. Religious beliefs stem from an identity which has been established through social interaction, upbringing, economic status, and other factors, most of which required little to no critical thought. Being born and raised in a particular region of the world in most cases makes you a member of that region’s religion by default. Therefore one inherits those ideas about God through no effort of his own. If you can’t verbally lay out your idea of what God is or is not, you haven’t thought about it enough to argue a claim about God.

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US v. Them: The Pitfalls of Righteous Rhetoric

On June 19 of this year, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) hosted its second annual “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C. An article posted on NOM’s website two days before the march expressed hope that the event would “encourage each of us to continue standing up without fear in the legal, political, and cultural spheres to preserve marriage and every child’s right to both a mother and a father.” In an email to supporters sent out the same day, the national lobbying group Concerned Women for America (CWA) also promoted the march, saying that “God’s model for marriage is under attack, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to stand for truth in this area.” This urgent, battle-ready language is typical of conservative Christian rhetoric on the issue, which depicts gay marriage as a force that will debase American families, victimize children, and ruin the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, supporters of gay marriage portray groups like NOM and CWA as the real threats to the nation’s values, its children, and its families. The pro-gay Family Equality Council recently filed an amicus brief in a Virginia gay marriage case, focusing on the children of same-sex couples and arguing that “the denial of marriage as an option for their parents affects their legal well-being, personal self-esteem, and sense of purpose.” On both sides of the debate, activists and spokespeople identify themselves as “supporters of marriage” and portray their adversaries as dangerous forces, not only in terms of this issue but also in terms of Americans’ well-being and the well-being of America. 

Leslie Dorrough Smith has a new name for this kind of political reasoning, which she argues has deep roots in American political history. She has coined the term “chaos rhetoric” to describe it, and she offers a rich analysis of its uses and significance in her new book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America. Smith defines chaos rhetoric as a particular kind of “emotion-laden” narrative of national decline, which focuses so intently on a perceived threat “to a beloved entity” that it draws attention away from any gaps in the speakers’ logic or any shifts in their priorities. Smith argues that “chaos rhetoric’s signature is not necessarily its connection with reality, but its persuasive value.” 

Smith takes as her case study the recent rhetoric of Concerned Women for America (CWA), the self-proclaimed “largest public policy women’s organization in the United States,” and a powerful force within the modern Religious Right. CWA was established in 1979, the same year that Jerry Falwell inaugurated the Moral Majority. Beverly LaHaye, the group’s founder, is a well-known figure in conservative evangelical circles, both for her political engagement and for her popular books on Christian marital and family life. To people outside of these circles, she is more commonly recognized as the wife of Tim LaHaye, a co-founder of the Moral Majority and author of the bestselling apocalyptic fiction series Left Behind. Over the past 35 years, CWA has grown into a powerful lobbying organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., and supported by hundreds of local chapters across the country.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

National Baptist Convention USA, and Women in Ministry

The National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. has morphed into the Southern Baptist Convention. Sadly, few have noticed. Even more disheartening is no one seems to care. When Rev. Jerry Young was elected as president of the National Baptist Convention, no one stopped to question his position on women in ministry. Young, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was elected during the 134th annual session of the convention last week in New Orleans.

Young received 3,195 of the 6,400 votes cast. He won on a platform that promises to modify the organizations infrastructure. Masses of women voted for Young despite his opposition to women in ministry. Men who serve with women on staff voted for young.

No one seems to care.

Young’s promise for infrastructure modifications was enough to entice members to place the needs of women on the backburner. Women voted against their own interest, and men made a statement regarding the power and privilege of men within the National Baptist Convention.

The national press failed to cover Young’s election. With more than 7.5 million members, the National Baptist Convention is the largest black denomination in America. At one time, half of America’s black population was a member of the convention. The lack of national coverage reflects the groups dwindling influence, and the election of Young speaks to the group’s lack of sensitivity related to women in ministry.

No one seems to care that Young has publicly denounced women in ministry. No one seems to care about the lingering message sent to the more than 10,000 women ordained by churches within the National Baptist Convention. 


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