Sunday, January 31, 2010

Failing the Sesame Street Test

Back when I was a kid and Elmo was still a distant nightmare haunting the minivan dreams of America, Sesame Street was actually pretty cool. It was wild and wacky and irreverent, more inspired than the product of professional educator focus groups. And yet Grover taught us to read, Cookie Monster taught us speak a few words in Spanish, and the Count taught us that vampires aren't all bad.

One of the repeated spots was a simple pattern matching test for tots. Four squares would be presented. In three of them would be three objects that fit a general category. Three cookies, for instance. Or three pairs of pants. In the fourth, there'd be a rock. Or a donut.

Or Mr. T.

We'd be asked: Which of these things does not belong? It wasn't that the thing was worse than the other things. Mr. T may not be a chocolate chip cookie, but he's first name Mister, second name Period, third name T, and we pity the fool who says otherwise.

It was just that...other than being made of matter...the thing in the fourth box didn't conceptually fit with the things in the other three. It was dissonant. It did not belong. And over the last few days, that's been my conundrum.

Over at the fitfully active presbymergent site, I've been having a back and forth with a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament who does not believe in God. Oh, he believes in God the same way that Ludwig Feuerbach believed in God, in that he understands God as a concept. But he rejects the idea that there is any referent to which that symbol directs us. He also states that faith is unnecessary and counterproductive, least in his conversations with me, describes "people of faith" in terms that are actively dismissive. Sample quote from our exchange:
"If you need a supernatural being to keep you from robbing my house, selling drugs, starting wars, then by all means believe in one."
I've actually heard that line several times before in my online debates with neoatheists. There's a reason for this.

He is, quite simply, an atheist.

While I disagree with him, I like the guy. His blog is on my feed-reader. He's a humanist and generally open to caring for other human creatures and seeking justice for those who are oppressed. He can get a bit shrill on occasion, but I'm hardly in a position to throw stones.

Here's my struggle. He appears to enjoy the forms and ritual of Christianity. He likes the story of Jesus, and the ethic that Jesus taught. He likes the sense of community one finds in a church. But I find myself really struggling to see why he would choose to be the pastor of a Presbyterian church.

The chaplain of a humanist society who reflects fondly on some of the things he most likes about his Jefferson Bible? Sure. Heck, be a Unitarian. Unitarians are cool.

But if you conceptualize faith in the same way as Richard Dawkins (who he really likes), then...crazy would seem that leading a church is an odd vocational choice. His own congregation is open-minded, open-hearted and progressive...but they do use the word God without slapping it into the quotation marks I use with my boys whenever I describe creatures that have no connection to reality, like the "tooth fairy" or "Sarah Palin."

If you consider yourself an atheist and non-religious, being the pastor of a Christian church you're failing the Sesame Street Test. In a way that a kid could peg in a heartbeat.

And I'm not being a grouch about it. Just genuinely baffled.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

You Know A Knockoff When You See One

Earlier this week, one of my daily meanderings through the Bible...which I realize may well entertaining only to myself...surfaced something that I hadn't anticipated.

In this week's Bible Puzzlah out the book of Ezekiel, I surfaced two separate passages from the New Testament that stood in apparent tension with Ol' Zeke.

One was from Paul, writing in the Book of Romans. The other was from deutero-Paul, writing in 1 Timothy. Meaning, many scholars of the Bible look at these two books and see such a wide divergence of voice, style and theology that...for the sake of the integrity of the text...they can't bring themselves to say they're written by the same person. "Deutero" Paul means "Second" Paul...a disciple of Paul writing in Paul's name. It's a significant element of the historical-critical approach to the Bible, and, honestly, I've been sold on it since I first encountered it in undergrad. In part, that's because it just makes so darn much sense.

But more significantly, it gives Scripture a depth and richness of reality that makes the stories it tells all the more spiritually potent. That's not how my literalist brethren understand it, of course. The Bible simply is exactly what it says it is. If the book says Paul wrote it, then, by golly, that begins and ends the discussion. Messing with that absolute certitude would mess with the entire foundation of scriptural literalism.

Problem is, it just doesn't feel...real. Paul's seven authentic letters all share a recognizable voice and theology. If you read 1 Timothy 2 with an open mind, well, it just ain't the same. The passage from early this week is particularly egregious. Yeah, it ain't a favorite of mine, but it also just plain meaning doesn't jibe with the rest of Paul.

Take, for instance, the assertion that "Adam was not deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner." There's not a chance in heck that the Paul who wrote Romans ever, ever said this. It flies utterly, totally, and completely in the face of everything Paul had to say about Adam and sin. You just can't read Romans 5:12-21 and reconcile it with that statement. It undercuts the entire core of Pauline understanding of human sinfulness, which is at the foundation of orthodox understandings of salvation.

1 Timothy also makes the rather impressive statement that sinful women will be "saved through childbearing." Gawrsh, and here I was thinking that our pitch was that all humankind was saved by Jesus Christ. Guess for da ladiez it's "Jesus Christ plus babies."

This peculiar statement trivializes Paul's understanding of the role of grace and faith in reconciling us with God. It just, well, can't be Paul. It doesn't sound like him, smell like him, or taste like him. There are echoes of Paul's thought in 1 Timothy, sure. But if you are as gifted a rhetorician as Paul shows himself to be in Romans, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians, that sort of flagrant inconsistency seems...well...pretty freakin' unlikely.

It's also rather difficult to believe that the Paul who wrote Galatians and declared that in Christ gender categories no longer matter would bother with this passage in the first place.

1 Timothy seems to reflect the incursion of Roman sociocultural expectations into the church...which would be expected as the church grew and spread in the time after the Apostolic Era. As such, it makes sense. It reflects the beginnings of the devolution of the Primal Church into a servant of the state. What just doesn't compute for me is the argument that it is somehow saying exactly the same thing as Paul's writings, any more than it would make sense to say that a Geely Merrie 300 is the same thing as a Mercedes C Class.

Guess you just need a discerning eye.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Mitigating Circumstances

The ongoing abortion-doctor murder trial in Wichita is an interesting event spiritually and ethically. About the facts, there is little debate. There is no doubt that Scott Roeder walked into the church of an abortion provider. He then approached Dr. George Tiller, and in a church sanctuary shot him dead. Roeder affirms that he did this, and also states that he is not remorseful, and that he would be willing to do it again.

What is interesting is why. Scott Roeder killed Dr. Tiller because he believes with absolute certainty that abortion constitutes the taking of an innocent life. In his understanding that Dr. Tiller had engaged in that willful killing and would continue to do so, Roeder felt morally compelled to stop him. That is the entirety of his defense.

I do not agree with this, obviously. I believe that abortion is ethically difficult. It is a nasty, bloody thing. It is a sign of relational dysfunction. It should be reduced through contraception and teaching a healthy sexual ethos over and against the endless belch of self-indulgent skeeving presented by our culture. But from both reason and Scripture, I know that it is not the same thing as murder.

The challenge here is that Roeder's essential argument justifying his actions is not in any way different from the core of the pro-life movement. It is just that he has taken the rhetoric to it's logical conclusion. Though I reject his premises, I see that within the context of those premises, his argument in his own defense has integrity.

If there was a man above the law in my home town who was murdering with impunity, I would be compelled to act to stop him. Let us imagine for a moment that he was a racist in a racist society, who every once in a while killed a member of a hated and disenfranchised minority. He could be a Klansman in the South. Or, if you want Biblical precedent, an overseer in Egypt. With the power of the state on his side, and the community unwilling to act, what other options would there be?

This, I think, presents a deep ethical challenge for the pro-life movement. If you hold the pro-life position, then you must at least admit to there being significant mitigating circumstances in this case. Yes, Christians are to be non-violent. But if you hold the tenet that abortion is murder, then the long tradition of Just War theory within Christianity applies. Under those rubrics, defense of self is not permitted...but defense of the innocent Other is permitted.

When I hear the Catholic Church and other pro-life groups saying (rather quietly) that they condemn this killing, I find myself wondering: given what you say about abortion, on what grounds? If, as you say, abortion is a Holocaust, would you have condemned Bonhoeffer if he'd succeeded in killing Hitler?

It is a gut check moment. Which is why the pro-life movement is eager for this case to simply disappear.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Sour Grapes

Yesterday as I trundled along the Beltway on my way to church, I found myself meditating on one of my favorite passages from the major prophets. Beats the heck out of listening to kei$a or talk radio, let me tell you.

It's from Ezekiel. Yeah, I know, he's an odd one, what with the wheels within wheels, the nakedness and the bread cooked over burning poo. Ol' Zeke comes across as the most intense of the major prophets, a YHWH-touched performance artist/writer/priest who seems both DSM IV certifiable and authentically aware of God's presence. For all his intensity, there's a grace to his vision.

One of my favorite riffs in his mind-boggling theopoetics comes in Ezekiel 18, where he declares with typical God-fired ferocity that a saying being bandied about among the Israelites in diaspora annoys the bejabbers out of the creator of the universe. That saying is this:
The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.
Meaning, if your ancestors mess up, you'll pay the price. For an entire chapter of generational back and forth, Zeke expresses YHWH's total disapproval of this concept. Each soul is to be judged only on the basis of what it does. Sin is not something that automatically conveys from generation to generation. Zeke isn't the only one to express this concept, although he seriously goes to town on it. The prophet Jeremiah also lays in to the very same saying.

What struck me during my meditation was this: that idea seems rather at odds with the way that the concept of original sin is often articulated in Christian theology. Let's take, for instance, 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Women are to shut up and be submissive...because way back when a woman sinned in Eden. What we hear in Ezekiel and Jeremiah essentially says, no, that way of thinking has nothing to do with the way God works.

More significantly, what Ezekiel is saying also seems in rather significant tension with Romans 5, in which the Apostle Paul asserts that we are all condemned because of Adam's sin. As I view the story of the Fall as a non-literal and archetypal expression of our universal human resistance to God's grace and our calling to care for one another, this tension resolves for me. The sin of the adam is my sin, because the adam symbolically represents all humankind. Within a more progressive theology, Paul and Zeke aren't at odds.

But if you take the entirety of scripture mechanistically, this is more of a challenge. If a guy named Adam or a chica named Eve did something bad 6,000 years ago in some Mesopotamian garden spot, then Ezekiel and Jeremiah both proclaim that that thing cannot be held against us. Resolving that tension from a literalistic understanding of Paul and deutero-Paul is rather more difficult.

It would seem that from a literalist perspective, either one is true, or the other is true.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where Our Heart Is

There are, among pastors responsible for drumming up financial resources to sustain their congregations, a variety of little proof-texts that we're compelled to go to. One of the more painfully cliche Bible passages that always show up when the church needs new carpet for the youth room is the Matthew 6:21:
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Meaning, if something is really important to you, you commit of your material resources to support it. It's a practical measure of assessing what is truly important to a person. If I give money to insure orphans in Malawi have clean drinking water, I make a statement about my priorities. If I give most of my money to Jack Daniels, Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo, that also makes a clear statement about my priorities.

Jesus, of course, spun this saying in some very interesting ways, ways that radically subvert our conventional understanding of wealth. But that discussion is for another post. What strikes me this morning is how the simpler funderstanding of the saying plays against the recent talk of a federal spending freeze. From both parties, we're now hearing concern about the exploding federal deficit. So now comes the more increases in spending. Hold the line. No more growth until we get our addiction to debt under control. I'm actually fine with that principle. We need to learn to live within our means, and soon.

But there is, of course, one exception. Our spending on weapons and the coercive implements of state security will be exempted from that freeze. There are many reasons given for this. Most of them boil down to this: We are at war and facing possible dire threats from possible enemies at home and abroad, as we have been every day of my forty-one years. And every day of my parent's lives. America is always at war or preparing for war. So even though we spend more on guns and jails than the rest of the world combined, we cannot possibly even consider the possibility of not spending more on that area of our national life.

That is because, as any pastor could tell you, war is where America's heart is.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That Sound is Eisenhower Rolling Over In His Grave

Another interesting bit of collateral damage the recent SCOTUS decision allowing corporations to directly influence elections may only be immediately evident to those of us who live in the Washington Metropolitan Area. From my vantage point inside the Beltway, I see things that most Americans don't get to see.

By "things," I mean advertising. By advertising, I mean the aggressive but very localized ad campaigns run by defense contractors to influence the decisionmaking of military bureaucracy and your elected leaders.

I've blogged on this before. In no other city in the nation do you see advertisements touting the effectiveness of ships and tanks and weapons systems. Full page color ads in the Post and the Times. Tightly produced radio spots on the number-one rated station in the area. Posters with patriotic slogans, flags, eagles, and weapons systems festoon the walls in our Metro subway system, particularly at the Pentagon and Pentagon City stations.

These are not ads for you and me, because we don't tend to purchase fighter aircraft, no matter how much our 9 year old son might beg and plead. We don't buy military transports, or missile defense systems, or destroyers. But these products are all advertised inside the Beltway, by major corporations that produce systems that are only bought with our tax dollars. General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman exist in their current form not to provide products for individual citizens, but for consumption by the federal government. Their considerable profits are dependent on the largesse of Washington.

Now, lets for a moment imagine that a United States senator feels that a particular weapons system...say, the engine for the Joint Strike Fighter that the military doesn't want but that we're making anyway...should be canceled. The corporations whose profits are dependent on We The People buying this weapon already have a substantial advertising budget. What do you suppose the odds are that when this senator comes up for re-election that instead of just ads inside the Beltway, we might now see some attack ads running in this senator's home state? Or some juicy gotcha clips that seem to imply that said senator has a prurient interest in livestock? Or worse yet, that they Don't Support Our Troops (tm)? The self-dealing manipulation of the electoral process by corporations who need compliant senators and representatives is now perfectly acceptable. It's always been there, of course. Money has been funneled to oppo researchers and into the coffers of political action committees. But now it can operate unfettered in the light of day.

Looks like the military-industrial complex is going to be adding a marketing department.

Monday, January 25, 2010

All Hail Our Beloved Chinese Masters!

There's been plenty of back and forth about the recent Supreme Court decision permitting corporations to directly support or oppose candidates for political office. Some folks, mostly libertarians and conservatives, argue that preventing corporations from engaging in this sort of activity represents a violation of the First Amendment. If a business is prevented from supporting or opposing someone, and cannot run ads directly attacking or lauding that individual, then the rights of the owners and directors of that corporation are being violated.

Or so the argument goes.

Yesterday, while passing some time in good meaty political discussion with a church deacon, I realized that there was an element to this whole thing that I had not previously considered.

American corporations are not individuals, sure. They wield far more power and influence. But they are also increasingly not American. We do not live in an age when the interests of business play out on a local or national level. This is, as anyone who pays attention should have realized by now, the era of market globalization. For all of our jabbering about the importance of small business, business does not now exist on a primarily local level. It exists across national boundaries. Because of this, ownership of corporate entities in the United States does not stop at our borders. One does not have to be a citizen of this nation to own or govern an entity incorporated here. So what does that mean?

Let's for a moment imagine the 2012 race for the presidency of the United States of America. One candidate strongly favors pressing China more aggressively on their approach to human rights, and wants the United States to begin weaning itself from foreign oil. Following this last week's Supreme Court decision, there is no impediment to corporations that exist as subsidiaries of the Chinese government from throwing as much money as they want into attack ads against that candidate. There is nothing to prevent Aramco and Citgo from doing exactly the same thing.

Sure, nonprofits and associations can try to do the same. But they're drops in the bucket. Wealth is power, and an immense imbalance of power that has been created here. Sure, there have been periods in the history of the United States when business has been a governing power in the affairs of state. But the dynamics of the marketplace in the 1890s were still mostly national in scope, and the interests of the robber barons were at least tangentially linked to the interests of this nation. They were, at a bare minimum, citizens. In 2010, wealth is radically global...and the most powerful corporations no longer see their interests tied to those of this particular nation.

I'm not alone in noticing this. E.J. Dionne pitched out a very similar theme this morning. But most human beings only see what is right around them. We are compulsively parochial little critters. In a nation that is soon to be ruled not by citizens, but by the power of multinational corporations, that lack of a broader vision will bear predictable fruit. We have already allowed multinational corporations to strip this nation of it's productive capacity, which even our enemies recognized as our greatest strength. Now, they will dominate our political discourse.

But I hear that Octomom has a new bikini bod. That makes it all better.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fighting That Nasty Little Inner Pharisee

Following the successful launch of a great new service program by a member of the church, I trundled off to our local clothing closet this Saturday to grudgingly put in my monthly court-mandated community service hours. Though the lawyers for the Apple store did push for hard time. Hey, it's not my fault I thought that "open source" meant "feel free to take what you want."

Well, actually, no. I really enjoy charitable work and volunteering. It is work that clearly serves a purpose, that directly benefits those who are struggling and in need. In this case, putting clothes on their bodies. It is work utterly free of mammon's coercion, done for no other purpose than the love of it and of others. It is work that fulfills a really rather specific faith mandate to provide material care, and to be a part of the Gospel process of liberation from suffering. I'm not quite a Salvationist, like the folks over at the Salvation Army whose theology mandates volitional care for others. But I'm close. Church needs to proclaim the Gospel and transform people's lives through that gracious message. I'm down with that. But also and at the same time, it must express itself in practical care for others, in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner. If it doesn't do both, it isn't really church. If it does, it is rich and Spirit-filled.

My struggle yesterday was that I didn't bring that gracious Spirit with me when I went. For the first four years of my ministry, my congregation was so wrapped up in Korean psychodrama that it just couldn't seem to muster any service work at all. My outlaw fraternity did more community outreach than my congregation, which ain't sayin' much. Outside of giving cash from the endowment, we did jack-diddly-nothing. Finally, this last year, I started pressing for us to regularly run a food drive, which we've sort of done. I also started encouraging the church to volunteer at the local faith-based clothing closet.

There was some initial involvement. But for the past four months, a grand total of two folks have joined me in doing it. Once it was a kid doing it because he had to. The other time it was my Jewish son, who likes volunteering, and is eager to join me whenever he can.

I'm aware I'm not reaching out enough. Talking about it with lay congregational leaders, talking about it during bible studies, preaching sermons on the necessity of service, announcing it during services, highlighting it in email newsletters, and pitching it through Facebook event invites and notifications...these aren't enough. Only going from person to person, and asking each individual directly if they're going to volunteer every single time we're going to do it seems to work. After a wise soul told me early on that this was the only way people were going to come, I followed his advice. I did that for a while. I did that for a few months.

But there are limits to how far I'm willing to take pastoral suasion. If after over a year people have experienced it, and still aren't coming without arm-twisting, then the voluntary element of volunteering isn't real. If you don't serve with a free will, then it cannot possibly be what it needs to be. Yeah, I could keep noodging and hassling and guilting people into it. But I've never been interested in people faking it out of sense of obligation.

This leaves me with two troubling conundrums.

The first is having to admit to myself that I am the only person in the congregation who cares about this particular service opportunity. It's a bit vexing, because I really like it, I really enjoy it, and it's just a transparently good thing to do. It connects us with our community. It clothes the naked, which would seem like something we'd realize matters to Jesus. But I am self-evidently the only one who cares. Ah well. Egos are such irritating things, and try as I might, I can't always shut mine off. The church is, after all, finally doing other service work on site, through the calling of someone who has joined us in the last few months. So even if my efforts have proved fruitless, the Spirit is at work elsewhere in the church. I take some solace in that.

The second is not to allow my irritation to impede my own efforts. I personally need service ministry to be fed spiritually, but there is no point in doing it while ensconced in a dark cloud of pissiness or judgmentalism or smugness. And though I hate to admit it, it was getting to me this weekend. On the way to the clothing center, certain in the knowledge that it was, once again, just going to be me, I could feel that narsty little inner Pharisee embittering me. Judging others. Telling me that I, in my noble me-ness, should be Proud that I'm The Only One Who Gets It. But there is no Christ in such thinking. There are plenty of folks who live out their faith that way, governed by the demons of self and self-interest. It's a dark cloud of smug delusion.

So I resisted that pesky little demon. I challenged and centered myself. I reminded myself of the point of it all. I focused on the sorting and hanging of clothes the way you'd focus on a repeated prayer, losing myself completely in it. And the anger and bitterness and selfishness faded. And the clothes were sorted and set out for those in need.

It really is most effective.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Things

As I sit in the pastor's office on a Saturday morning, things are typically silent in the church. The halls are empty. The classrooms sit cold and dormant. The sanctuary is still. The thrums and wheezes of our heating system and the staccato clacking of my Mac's chicklet keyboard are the usually the only sounds. It can feel like a hollow, empty shell of a building, a brittle egg with no yolk and no white.

Today, though, the church bustles and hums with life. One of the folks who is joining the church tomorrow had the vision and desire to restart a culture school for adoptive parents of Korean kids. Our church had hosted a similar program years ago, but it waned when the agency we worked with changed hands and lost interest. But one eager and entrepreneurial soul was enough to get it rolling again. The church gives her the space and our encouragement and our prayers, and suddenly, there's sound and laughter and footsteps here again. I had the pleasure of offering up words of welcome to the group on behalf of the church this morning, and it was a delightful thing.

For a small church, there are three things to carefully avoid when you start up a new thing.

First, we need to avoid viewing new things as a distraction or a threat to "how things are." Many fading churches are desperate to revitalize, but only understand revitalization as "doing what we've always done but with more people." That is the path of decay and death. Life means dynamism and change and openness to the new. Vibrant and successful churches both nurture and celebrate newness. They encourage the gifts and hopes and aspirations of every soul who gathers with them. I think we've got this one down. Folks here are willing to embrace change, and my little leadership cadre has made that an explicit part of our congregational vision.

Second, we need to avoid being physically territorial. Whenever there is change in the life of a church, sometimes folks bump up against other folks. We try to coordinate times and spaces, but sometimes..well..things get moved. Or a room isn't quite exactly the way you left it. Or someone chasing down a child forgets they left a half-consumed cup of coffee on your desk. Given our not-so-distant remove from other higher primates, it's easy for human beings to get all pissy about picayune stuff like this. I know I can be that way sometimes. But that petty material gracelessness can be a surprisingly impressive impediment to renewal. For little groups who are used to everything being theirs, the whispering and puckered-lip disapproval over their use of our space and place can hamstring efforts to welcome in new opportunities for joy. I think we do OK at this about two-thirds of the time. I commit to doing it better, and to lovingly kicking the butts of folks I see falling into this trap.

Third, and this one is the hardest, we need not to be grasping. As any new program comes into being, particularly ones that serve others, it's really really hard for churches not to seize hold of them like a panicked drowning person. Every person who comes SIMPLY MUST JOIN US! We need you here! Pleasepleasepleaseplease! In our desperation to be moving in the right direction, we view every new opportunity as something that should serve us.

This gets it exactly backwards. Every new opportunity is an opportunity for us to better serve others. I know we don't have much time, and things are tough. But we need not to grasp and cling and cry out and have our future drown with us as we claw it under with us. Be calm. Don't panic. Celebrate the moments as they come, and keep ourselves open to the moments of new possibility that will arrive.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Massachusetts and Health Care

A pungent little factoid coming out of the Democrat's debacle in Massachusetts was surfaced today in a small article buried deep in the WaPo. The election is being either trumpeted or lamented as a referendum on health care reform. The people of America do not want reform. Populist anger is rising up against health care being provided by the state. This represents an unacceptable infringement on our freedoms. Specifically, our freedom to have our health care claims rejected by faceless corporate bureaucrats so that our insurance provider can make it's quarterly earnings numbers. It also impinges deeply on our fundamental right to live in our parent's basement after we're forced into bankruptcy following the surgery for little Tyler's heart condition.

It's all about liberty.

What's interesting about the Massachusetts election was what Senator-Elect Brown actually had to say about health care reform when he was on the stump. Massachusetts, you see, has already enacted health care reform. It's not perfect, but it works, and is reasonably popular in the state. So when Senator-Elect Brown actually talked about the national level efforts to provide what the citizens of his state already have, he said things like this:
We have insurance here in Massachusetts. I'm not going to be subsidizing for the next three, five years, pick a number, subsidizing what other states have failed to do.
and this:
There are some very good things in the national plan that's being proposed, but if you look at --and really in almost a parochial manner -- we need to look out for Massachusetts first....the thing I'm hearing throughout the state is, 'What about us?'
So the core of the message is not one of principled resistance to state-provided universal health care. It just ain't. It's simple self-interest. A national level plan is not in the financial interest of the people of Massachusetts, because they'd be required to provide support for people living in other states. That's clearly unacceptable.

E pluribus unum is for suckers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

American Christianity is a Low Light Environment

Many thanks to Jonathan for forwarding this little bit of AmeriChrist, Inc. strangeness:

A military contractor that provides rifle scopes to the military has apparently been inscribing Bible verse citations on the side of the scope. The Trijicon ACOG gunsight is the product of a company with an evangelical Christian founder, which has been quietly integrating bible verses into it's scopes for years. A secular humanist military organization got grumpy about this, which I'm sure will result in a Stern Letter being sent to the company by a mid-level acquisitions specialist.

Reading through the verses, I found myself thinking...hmmm. Are these the most appropriate verses for a scope? Pretty much all of them have to do with "light" as a keyword, which is unsurprising. The ACOG is a light-collecting scope. The verses selected are like little magical Bible talismans, selected to get the divine assist in gathering in photons.

So we get, among other things, John 8:12 used. Because you know, the light of Jesus Christ is intended to aid target acquisition in low-light environments. Or 2 Corinthians 4:6. Because nothing beats the light of the glory of God for helping you put a 5.56 mm round through the skull of that potential hostile skulking around the perimeter at dusk.

I think, though, this whole "light as a Bible search keyword" thing is a bit limiting. Go for the gusto! There are so many more...meaty verses one could use, particularly in context. Like, say, DT32:42. Or 2KG9:24. Or PS7:13. That's some kick-butt Bible, Marine! Hoooah!

I suppose you do have to be careful, though. You wouldn't want to inadvertently mess with the heads of the troops by slapping LK6:38 on there. Or MT5:39. Or MK12:31. The Bible can be really dangerous to the morale and focus of our warfighters if you aren't careful about censoring certain passages. Particularly those passages that get to the subversively unpatriotic and radically unsupportive-of-our-troops core of what Jesus of Nazareth taught.

Better to keep away from all of those pesky passages that seem to imply that the business of efficiently dispatching human beings in low light environments might not quite mesh with what Jesus had in mind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

One Year Shy of the Meaning of Life

Forty One, eh?

I am not, even by Presbyterian standards, a youngling any more. This strikes me as peculiar. Now and again, I'll be sitting around with a group of adults, and will suddenly realize that people who seem very much grown up and responsible are actually considerably younger than I am. Or I'll be talking with a grownup about a subject on which I'm apparently expected to know something. I'll listen to myself speak, and think, "Wow! I really do seem to know what I'm talking about. How did that happen?" I'm not sure if this happens to other people.

Shouldn't I feel different? I realize, when I think about it, that the array of data that underlies my awareness of the world around me is rather more deeply layered than it was when I was seven.

I know how to do a whole variety of things that would have baffled myself thirty-four years ago. I now know how to type, for example, which is making posting this a whole bunch easier. I'm married, which has contributed a whole bunch of of highly entertaining memories that my seven-year old self probably shouldn't be exposed to. I've got the boys, and a modest house in the burbs, which I apparently own. My body is larger, and increasingly creakier. I've been through all manner of joys and experienced some pretty impressive pain. Yet though those experiences add some...complexity of my self, the awareness that I'd describe as "me" really is the same "me" that it has always been.

I'm always a bit confused when I encounter people I used to know who have been radically changed by the process of life. I find myself wondering, who are you? What happened to that person I knew? Sometimes that new person is actually rather nicer than the old one, which is a good thing. Sometimes, that new person is closed and embittered and more selfish, which usually makes me really miss the person I knew before.

But I remain, at least to my own discernment, basically me. Which is what I plan to be for as long as I am.

It makes aging seem sort of irrelevant, or at a bare minimum, not something worth worrying about. Then again, it's nice to have the birthday wishes and the cake and the presents.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Google, China, and Market Morality

Yesterday's news that Google might pull out of China didn't come as a major surprise. Though America's corporate leadership has happily handed our industrial might to the Chinese in exchange for all that cheap crap we can buy at WalMart, China remains stolidly socialist. Not socialist in the "we provide affordable health care to our citizens" way. Socialist in the old school way, meaning repressing speech and imprisoning dissidents.

A series of recent cyberattacks targeting the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists appear to have come from proxies of the Chinese Communist party, and were part of an ongoing and aggressive campaign. It was enough to make Google decide that perhaps their corporate ethics..which are all about openness and freedom..might preclude their being able to operate in such an intensely repressive centralized state.

The response of Wall Street was also not surprising. Shares of Baidu, the search engine that is officially approved by the Chinese government, soared over 13% yesterday at the opening bell. Shares of google dropped, although they clawed back a bit by the end of the trading day. The reasons behind this are obvious. Google may be giving up potential profits and a major market. Baidu, which already has a majority of Chinese market share, stands to materially gain. If your interest is in both short-term and mid-term profit and shareholder return in the next several quarters, then it makes total sense to divest from google and buy up Baidu. That is, in point of fact, the ethic that governs our marketplace. Though the argument is often made that the movement of capital in the free market is amoral, it moves and acts according to a clear set of norms. Profit maximization is a moral framework.

This market morality is, unfortunately, often directly opposed to the values that shaped our free and democratic republic. When the pursuit of profit-maximization is allowed to stomp on the pursuit of life and liberty, then we should recognize there are often radical and irreconcilable differences between the ethic of the market and the ethic of universal human liberty. Human beings who are part of the marketplace need to be aware that when they choose market over liberty, they are not just making a business decision. They are making a moral choice, one that defines them.

They have to choose which set of values will govern their decisions.

One cannot, as a dear friend once told me, serve two masters.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti and Human Suffering

On the day after Christmas five years and a few weeks ago, Indonesia was struck by a massive tsunami. Hundreds of thousands of human beings lost their lives, killed by the onslaught of an unstoppable tidal surge. It was a time of immense tragedy and human suffering. In coming to terms with this event, many folks of a religious persuasion offered up reasons that God might inflict such suffering on humankind. Among some sections of Christianity, stories were told of churches remaining unharmed. That the vast majority of those who lost their lives were God was annoyed at their lack of Christian faith. In the conservative Islamic world, the spin was both different and exactly the same. Indonesia was being punished for being insufficiently Muslim, allowing the infidels to drink and wear bikinis and spend lots of money in beachside resorts to sustain the local economy.

Today, the news comes from Haiti that a sizable earthquake has devastated that poverty-stricken nation. Back when I was a kid, the little evangelical free church my family attended in London used to regularly provide supplies to Haitian communities. We wrote letters to Haitian kids. Things were hard there thirty years ago, and they haven't improved. It is the Bangladesh of the Northern Hemisphere. The reports coming in this morning are spotty, but the likelihood is that there are many, many thousands dead. Slipshod construction and the crowding that comes from endemic poverty makes a temblor unusually devastating. Wretchedly undeveloped infrastructure and incompetent, corrupt government make it even worse. It is going to be bad.

Over the next week or so, the eyes of our nation will be turned to that broken state. Until some juicy celebrity scandal reclaims our undivided attention, that is. During this week, I do not doubt that somewhere, someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth will decide that God is somehow responsible for this event. Perhaps Haitians were not praying hard enough. Or they weren't the "right sort of Christian." Or they were immoral. Maybe someone will decide that the practice of vodun is to blame. There has to be a reason!

We can't help ourselves. We want to believe that faith somehow gets us excused from suffering, even though our faith teaches no such thing. We want to believe that just praying hard enough will protect us from disaster and keep us fat and happy and rolling in material blessings, even though our faith shows us nothing of the sort. Our desire to come up with a theological reason for the bad things that happen has nothing to do with our Maker, and everything to do with our own egocentrism.

But the reality of existence is that we are small and easily broken, and that death comes eventually to us all. Faith does not change that reality. What it does, though, is help us respond to that reality. What a faithful response needs to be has nothing to do with explanations or justifications. That sort of speculation is actively counterproductive.

Instead, Christians need to respond with caring. We need to be providing evidence of the love that lies at the heart of our faith. That will come in the form of material aid, in doctors and medicine and food and blankets and rebuilding supplies. It will come through the presence of aid workers who give comfort.

It is that caring that matters, that work that matters, that effort to bring about good in the face of the reality of our smallness and mortality that matters.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Compassion and Business Failure

About five minutes walk from my house, there used to be be a 7-11. It had been there since before I was in high school. When I came back during my college summers, I'd often stop in late at night to pick up a bucket full of caffeine and sugar and CO2 in solution before pleasantly squandering my evening and early morning playing NES and talking with friends. Since shortly after we bought our little homestead, it had been a target destination for walks with the boys. Amazing how the promise of a Slurpee can motivate kids to take a brisk hike.

Early last year, much to the horror of my boys, the 7-11 shut down. For more than six months, the building was empty. Then, someone leased the site, and that someone began trying to start up a new independent convenience store.

It doesn't seem to be going well.

For the longest time, the interior was totally stark, with only a smattering of shelves with an assortment of oddments. No posters. No colorful displays. No fountain drinks. No Icees or Slushies or Mushies or Squishees, or any comparably icy blended beverage. The store appears to have one employee, the owner, who appears to be either Indian or Pakistani. 99.975% of the time, his battered early 90s SUV is the only one parked there. He sits at the counter. He stands outside smoking. He's there in the morning, at night, on weekends and on weekdays. He appears, quite frankly, to live there. But though he's there all the time, his business is evidently failing. What would be the best little convenience store in Islamabad just doesn't cut it in suburban America.

My boys and I have noticed and talked about it. There's real pathos in this struggling business. There's a life coming apart right in front of our eyes, as each of the lease payments come due and the unsold stock passes it's expiration date and that little parking lot stays empty, day after day, night after night. So we're rooting for the guy. We've watched as the store owner has made efforts to improve. A few ad posters now decorate the walls. There are now decorations and a few displays. My 11 year old son, whose heart beats big in his chest, actually called me on my cell the other day just to tell me that the store owner had finally taken down the little banner that passed for a sign, and replaced it with a real illuminated sign. He's trying. He really is. But still, his careworn Blazer sits alone in the lot.

Should we shop there? We could...but there's not really anything there we can't get for less money at the spanking new grocery store across the street. We could...but the only things that drew us there are no longer sold there. We could...but our business alone wouldn't sustain it. We could...but compassion isn't something that drives us to buy things we don't need or want.

And so we watch. And as I watch, I wonder whether this little store is some sort of metaphor for the thousands of tiny churches all around the country that are struggling to survive, my own included. It's not that they don't try. It's not for lack of effort, or earnestness, or even faith. It's just that they don't offer up something that people want or need.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Allahu Akbar

One of the best ways to twist the knickers of an ultraconservative Christian is to use the name Allah in a way that seems to imply that the God of Muslims is the same as the God of Christians and two/thirds of the God of Jews.

When progressive and moderate Christians seek that monotheistic commonality, it's taken as either syncretistic or naive. Allah is, like, so not the same, say those on the right. Some point out the variances between the nature of Allah as expressed in the Qu'ran and the YHWH described in the Torah...and there are, certainly, some differences. Others point out differences in ethical emphasis between the God Jesus articulated and the Allah that Mohammed proclaimed. There are certainly some significant distinctives, although ultraconservatives tend to highlight them in ways that are more polemic and intentionally negative.

But many seem...well...less sane. Allah is a pagan Moon God, or so Jack Chick's little psychotronic komiks would have us believe. Allah is an evil demon, say glazed-eye folks who unsurprisingly TEND TO WRITE IN ALL CAPS. There can be no use of that name by Christians!

What I've found interesting here is that once again, Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists seem to have ended up on the same side of an issue. An interesting snippet of faith news out of Malaysia recently involved efforts on the part of Muslim conservatives to forbid Christians from using the name Allah to describe God in their speech and in their writing. A law there forbidding that action was recently repealed on the basis of personal religious liberty, and that repeal has the Islamic right-wingers up in arms. It might...cause confusion. Syncretism. Muslims deciding of their own free will that they might want to be Christian. Or worse yet, a sense of mutual understanding and monotheistic commonality. That this is a perfect mirror image of the perspective of Christian ultraconservatives is unsurprising. The extremes always, always, end up looking functionally identical to that thing they claim to hate the most.

I tend not to use the name Allah meself, for the same reason I don't drop into an overblown Latino accent whenever I pronounce a word with Spanish origins. Like, say, "I recently vacationed in "Ghhwaah-tay-Maaal-Ah." It seems a bit forced, a bit too "golly-look-at-me-I'm-so-open-minded-and-progressive." But I'm also not willing to preclude any overlap at all between my faith and that of those who approach the Creator in ways that...while they differ...are not inherently evil.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Evidence

A standard refrain I'll hear when chatting with folks who are skeptical about the existence of God is that there's just no evidence for a Creator. The universe is a deep and cold place, almost as deep and cold as the hearts of the human beings that inhabit our tiny little speck of nothing orbiting a nondescript yellow sun in a quiet fringe of an unremarkable spiral galaxy. Where is the hand of the Maker?

Further, where is the work of a gracious God in a world in which children starve by the thousands each day, where women are raped and mutilated in the Congo, and where ignorance and self-interest govern the lives of the faithful and unfaithful alike? How could a just God tolerate this [poop]?

The challenge, then, is twofold. It seeks both empirical proof and ethical proof. My responses to that need tend not to be the same as my Bibliocentric co-religionists. What's the point of quoting scripture to folks who don't recognize it as a source of authority? It's like trying to persuade Ken Ham of evolution by quoting from the Origin of Species. Instead, I tend to feel as follows:

1) I find existence itself to be a marvelous evidence of God. In it's complexity, beauty, and deep inscrutability, the universe in which we find ourselves is an astounding thing. It evokes both awe and a bit of knee-trembling, even...and sometimes particularly...among atheists of a poetic mindset. Our spacetime is neither static nor does it appear to have come into being in a way that is scientifically comprehensible. Our physics can only go so far back. That things just plain ol' exist is a marvel, and points to a reality that transcends the boundaries of what we can empirically know.

The way that things are...the intricate interweaving of physical laws and structures...also directly speaks to the connectedness of all things. Matter and energy and gravity and light are all part of a great and complex dance.

2) I find sentience to be a marvelous evidence of God. What am I? I know I must be, because Descartes told me so. But the self that is typing this now is an odd and marvelous thing. It has its roots in a biological system, in the complex processes of an organic neural network mounted atop a slightly sedentary bipedal form. It frames its conceptual grasp of the world through an array of abstract symbolic constructions that are derived from a sociocultural foundation. Yet it is more than an ephemeral and mechanistic process. It is. It has being. I have being. As do you.

This self that I am is does not exist in isolation. My awareness is both particular to myself as an individual and formed by connection to others and to the broader universe of being. Interconnectedness does not just define the physical universe we perceive. It defines us.

3) I find the ethics shared by all sentient beings to be marvelous evidence of God. Well, with a rather significant caveat. There are competing norms governing human behavior, obviously. There are the norms of coercive power and material self-interest, which have played themselves out across the history of humankind in some rather unpleasant ways. There is the norm of tribalism, the bond formed by genetics and blood and language and culture, which has frequently involved the hatred of the stranger and the Other.

But against these destructive ethics there is an alternative, one that surfaces as a strong and consistent meme among the prophets and the mystics of every major religious tradition. For those who have a sense of the presence of God, there is the awareness that there is more to us than the mechanics and desires of individual persons. There is the heart-knowledge that the seemingly insurmountable existential boundary between particular selves is illusory. There is the spiritual insight the joys and hurts of others are not just present for us in the abstract, but a part of who we are in ways that are radically defining. It is an awareness that underlying that ethic is a broader purpose to sentient existence, one that transcends not just the particular self, but also culture and species.

I am Christian because that ethos of living into a gracious interconnectedness is absolutely central to the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. It defines his people. I see it further etched deep into the teachings in Torah, and in the prophetic call for justice...not just for "us," but for the Other. It presents an ethic that both reflects and harmonizes with the nature of being, one that is both self-evidently good and in defiance of the horrors that humanity inflicts on itself.

For some of the skeptical, the absence of miracles and wonders and signs and the mortality and brutality of humankind are evidence of God's absence. I understand and sympathize with this. Our mortality as beings, though, means little in the face of the interwoven nature of existence. It's a little daunting being so small and fragile, but then again, we're more than we seem. As to the brutality of is this evidence of God's nonexistence? We have, in all of the world's traditions that reflect an awareness of the transcendent, ethics that radically resist the hatreds that lead us to coerce and abuse and destroy.

In the annual Jewish celebration of Passover, there comes a point in the ritual meal when the folks gathered round the table remind themselves of every detail in the story of deliverance from Egypt. In response to each moment of grace, the response is: dayenu. Meaning, in the Hebrew, "it is enough." There is in that statement a thankfulness for every moment, in and of itself, as an evidence of God's being and nature.

We have the marvel that is creation, and to that I say, dayenu. We have in the heart of faith an ethic that, if followed, brings healing and hope and joy, and to that I say, dayenu.

There is more, of course. Much, much more. But even these things are enough.

Maybe I'm just easy.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Mclean Bible Church Edition

One last interesting takeaway from my megachurch experience:

That I wasn't particularly impressed with the scholarship evident at Mclean Bible Church message this last Sunday didn't mean it didn't serve it's purpose. The sermon wasn't intended to go deep into the intricacies of the text, or to introduce you to the nuances of Bible scholarship. It was meant to reinforce your New Year's Resolution to Go To Church, and to sound both warm and authoritative. It was not intended to speak to an audience that knows much about the Bible. Those sermons tend to drive off the noobs, or, rather, drive off people who don't like realizing how complex the Bible actually is. That glossy simplicity is why I found myself, on several occasions, going...HWaat?? like Dave Chapelle's Lil' Jon.

Yeah, I know, it's a dated reference. But I'm gettin' old. I can't help myself.

One of my more significant HWaats came as the sermon introduced us to the villain of the Esther story, Haman. Now, I know Haman well. He's a major character in the life of Jews, and being the proud papa of a couple of Jews, I hear about him annually at synagogue. Every year during Purim, my kids spin their groggers to drown out his name with loud clackings. He's the arrogant official in King Ahasuerus's court before whom Esther's uncle Mordecai refuses to bow, the story goes...faithful Mordecai only bows before God. Haman then seeks to avenge that slight by not just seeking the death of Mordecai, but by plotting the slaughter of every Jew in Persia. His come-uppance by Esther is the great victory in this tale, as the cruel, proud and powerful antagonist is routed by the beautiful, brave orphan girl.

That's the story that's retold every year in the synagogue and the story we get in Veggie Tales, anyhoo.

But what I heard at Mclean Bible on Sunday was different. From the pulpit came the assertion that Haman hated Mordecai not because he was a nasty piece of work whose ego had been pricked, but because Haman was an Agagite, a people who traditionally despised the Jews. And the moment I heard that, I said...Hwaat? Agagite? I'd never noticed that detail before, as it seemed essentially irrelevant to the thrust of the story.

Now, I know my "-ites" from the Deuteronomic histories. You say "Jebusite," and I'll have some clue what you're talking about. And no, it has nothing to do with Homer Simpson. But Agagite? No such people is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings. But it seemed familiar somehow.

As the sermon went on, my mind churned. Agag? Where had I heard that name? Then, it clicked. Agag, King of the Amalekites. That must be the reference, and it's one I know well. We hear about Agag in 1 Samuel 15. I know this story well, because this is one of the favorite passages of the neoatheist movement. It describes the genocidal massacre of the Amalekites at the purported command of God. The command in that story is to slaughter all of them, down to the infants and livestock...and Saul does. All the Amalekites are utterly destroyed with the sword, all save Agag, who gets executed later. But when Saul fails to kill some of the sheep, he forfeits the right to rule Israel. It's an nasty little tale, one that a Spirit-filled heart knows is utterly at odds with both the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the nature of the loving God he proclaimed.

At first, I thought the pastor must have just randomly googled this bizarre factoid. I was all prepared to get huffy and judgmental about the unscholarly nature of his message. is so often the case...I was wrong. Upon returning to my study, I discovered that the "Haman-hated-Mordecai-because-he-was-an-Agagite-racist" is a common theme in many commentaries. The pastor had done his homework.

Up to a point. Because making that claim opens up an interesting can of worms for those of us who like to actually think about the implications of what we say.

It establishes a rather interesting tension between texts. On the one hand, the Bible clearly states that all of the people of Agag were butchered, every last one of them, completely, in an ugly genocide. Then again, Haman is, as a descendant of Agag, supposed to be an Amalekite. And not just Haman. Digging into it further, it appears that after this total "genocide," there were still plenty of Amalekites kicking around. David fights 'em agin in 1 Samuel 30. I tend not to buy the argument some conservative scholars make that he's fighting a zombie Amalekite army. I like zombie exegesis as much as the next guy, but this one seems a bit of a stretch. An Amalekite also shows up at the story of the death of Saul. He appears not to be undead, either, as no mention is made of David's soldier needing to double-tap him to be sure he's finished off.

This poses a problem for both neoatheists and biblical literalists. For the neoatheists, it means that the total genocide they eagerly point to as evidence of the monstrous evilosity of our bloodthirsty Sky-Daddy probably wasn't quite the event that's described. The text is still hardly the ethical highlight of the Bible, but looking at it from a broader historical-critical biblical perspective, it also doesn't seem to be quite the thing it says it is.

Which is, of course, the problem for literal inerrancy. These texts are clearly and in their plain meaning in tension with one another. Does "completely" not mean "completely?"

Fascinating. Learn somethin' new every day!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Where Mclean Bible Church Could Use A Little Help

To begin, a caveat. Mclean Bible Church is, by every worldly standard of success, an immense and glorious triumph of a church. My tiny, tiny church hangs on to existence by its fingernails. What MBC does, people want. It is big, prosperous, and diverse, and offers a cornucopia of ministries and services that fully meets the perceived needs of those who attend it's many worships and groups and studies. If you're looking for best practices for building a successful faith organization, you ain't gonna look to the revitalization struggles of Trinity Presbyterian Church of Bethesda. You'd be well advised to look to MBC. They've got a tried and tested business model.

So with full recognition of my utter unworthiness, let me offer up the primary critiques I have following my visit to this great golden Jesus behemoth.

First, Mclean Bible Church is not a community. It is simply too vast to serve that purpose. You are as acquainted with the people around you as you would be at the Multiplex, or as you wend your way through Black Friday crowds at the mall. Observing the behavior of most of the folks in attendance, that's precisely what was going on. There were little clusters of folks who knew one another, but there was no sense of connectedness between the clusters. It's an easy place to disappear, to be both nameless and faceless. That is, quite frankly, the challenge in any megachurch. MBC's leadership knows this, and relentlessly pitches small groups and study groups and ministries to help folks connect to a sub-community within the church. But it is easy, oh so easy, to move through the church like a shadow. Or, more significantly, to have nothing meaningful to do with folks who are different from you or don't share your particular interests. That's a problem in smaller churches too, of course. But a ministry that is intentionally structured around appealing to particular demographic categories or areas of affinity...and provides little opportunity for transforming relationships in the broader life of the church...runs the strong risk of being "diverse" in the way a high school cafeteria is diverse. Or, again, as a mall is diverse.

Second, and this is a matter of aesthetics, MBC's facility really doesn't present like sacred space. It is an unquestionably utilitarian building, and well-designed for it's purpose. But it's also essentially secular in appearance. There is no significant design feature in the building itself that contributes to a sense of being on holy ground, unless you consider Nordstrom to be holy ground. Ultimately, this doesn't bother most folks. Being American and all, we like the practical and the useful and the immediate. You can worship anywhere, and God is present whereever you seek God's presence. It is, as they say, what's inside that counts.

And that brings us to a third and more significant problem.

Mclean Bible the worship I attended...did a kinda meh job of teaching the Bible. The message wasn't badly delivered, mind you. The full-head-of-silvery-hair pastor who preached (not their iconic senior pastor, but the pastor of one of their satellite campuses) was clearly comfortable and at ease with his delivery. His slice-of-life description of googling an old buddy was very engagingly presented. He spoke clearly and confidently, and with exactly the right level of emotion. He repeated the sermon title catch phrase over and over again, just like yer s'posed to. It did not bite. It was, occasionally, quite uplifting in a motivational speaking kind of way.

But if the message is meant to significantly deepen our understanding of scripture, then..ah..this weren't it.

He was nominally preaching out of the Book of Esther, chapter four. Meaning he never actually read it, but instead meandered through a paraphrase of the text. As he cranked through the message, a few factoids were dropped into the paraphrase.

Like, say, the fact that Mordecai, the uncle who adopts Esther, was a bachelor. He repeated this several times. I've read, studied, and taught Esther, and know it well enough to know that this"fact" does not occur in any translation of the Protestant Bible. It also doesn't ever show up in the expanded and far more entertaining versions of Esther produced by first century Greek-speaking Jews, which we now find preserved in the Catholic Apocrypha. Having done a bit of googling myself afterwards to figure out where on the web this factoid came from, I found that there is within Jewish Talmudic debate a line of speculation that Mordechai might have been single. I found a previous sermon by the senior pastor at MBC that uses the "bachelor uncle" phrase. But the text itself makes no such claim. Um...guys? Aren't you the ones who claim to be sticking to the plain text of scripture? Hellooo?

Or his strange little aside about Vashti, the wife of Ahasuerus in the story. She's the one who gets the boot so that Esther can come on the scene, mostly because she refuses to be paraded like a piece of meat in front of her drunken husband's friends. Our intrepid interpreter suggested...without getting the expected laugh, I might add...that perhaps she would have been more obedient if she'd listened during MBC premarital counseling. Yup. That's gonna endear ya to the ladies. But then again, this is a church that, while diverse in attendance, is run entirely by men.

As we got to the the Necessary Four Bullet Points You Can Take Home With You, things got odder. From the Book of Esther, the pastor told us from four of the big screens that our takeaway is, first and foremost, bullet point number one, that God is Sovereign over our lives. I'm down with that, being Christian and Presbyterian and all. God is the Creator, and my King.

But...from the Book of...Esther? Esther, which famously and completely lacks any reference to God whatsoever? In which no-one prays, and no-one engages in any discernable religious practice? Yeah, I know, God does get referenced in the Veggie Tales version. In fact, I seem to recall the grape playing Mordechai singing a song about God's authority. But last time I checked, that ain't canon.

Esther, read as it actually presents itself, is so lacking in theology that it almost got dropped from the Bible. It was, in fact, the only book that was excluded from the Dead Sea Scroll collection. As it appears in our Bibles, it's a folk tale. It's an entertaining yarn of a gutsy Jewish heroine, but asserting that one of it's primary messages is God's sovereignty is just too much of a stretch. You can certainly read between the lines to make that point. But honestly, if that's a point you want to make, then preach from a text that actually and directly expresses that concept. There are plenty of those. Plenty.

Several of those text snippets were brought to bear as the point was made, but the connection, quite frankly, wasn't either developed or convincing. It's a common approach to scripture in the Bible-believing world, I know. Perhaps that works for most folks. I'm sure most of the thousands of others in the room had no trouble with it. But it's always felt a little Isaiah 28:13 to me.

Outside of the Bend-it-like-Bible-Beckham interpretive approach, there was also something else that I struggled with, a story shared during the message. Let's, for the sake of the Blessed Bullet Points, call it point number four. It was, on the surface, a cute little anecdote about the pastor's wife and son at a Chik-Fil-A. A little girl was acting out in the munchkin habitrail, and bullying/lashing out at their son. The irate wife went and talked to the woman who was in charge of the unruly girl, and discovered that the woman was 1) the grandmother and 2) a Christian. The grandmother, pleased to find a fellow believer, shared then her sorrow that the girl's parents were 1) having problems and, worse yet, 2) unbelievers. Aha! That must be why the girl is a nasty little piece of work. Her parents are unbelievers! Of course they're having problems. If they were like us, well, then things would be fine.

It seemed a strangely graceless and insular little story, one that my speak to the great challenge facing much of Big Church American utilitarian Christianity. Americans come to church so that we can succeed and prosper...which, of course, is the whole point of Christian faith. We come to Jesus so that we can be strong and feel important and better about ourselves. Isn't that what the Apostle Paul taught?

And what better way to feel better about yourself than to know that you're better than others? Marital struggles and brokenness must be something only endured by infidels and practitioners of "inferior" religions.

Honestly, the message wasn't a total fumble. There was some good carpe diem stuff in there. But for just came across as a bit too predigested and a bit too simplistic and a bit too smug.

I came away from my Mclean Bible experience in much the same way I came away from my reading of Joel Osteen's "Your Best Life Now." Meaning, I found in it more that was graceful and good than I'd expected. The essential teachings of Jesus were there, up to a point, most likely in enough quantity that lives are being transformed and conformed to His grace. Westboro Baptist it most certainly is not. But while it made for an interesting and very, very different Sunday, I cannot imagine attending a church like Mclean Bible, nor would I use it as a model on which to build ministry.

Ultimately, it felt too conformed to the world. In skillfully using the tools of the marketplace, it has wildly succeeded according to the terms of the marketplace. the early church learned when it conformed itself to the power of the state and reaped worldly prosperity...sometimes that comes with a cost.

What Mclean Bible Church Does Right

Being open to the positive is important, so let's take a look at what MBC does well.

The first moments of my arrival at Mclean Bible surfaced the first thing they do right: parking. They have parking down to a science. They have to. When you're trying to transition thousands of people out of the 9:00 AM service and transition in thousands of people for a 10:45 AM service, things need to go like clockwork. That's some serious believer volume to turn over. I arrived a tick early, so finding a spot was easy. It was a bit of a zoo when I left...I'm not used to sitting in traffic for five minutes just to get out of church...but the whole experience had a "leaving the stadium after the big game" sort of feel. The combination their parking lot volunteers and the law enforcement folks directing traffic for the church out on Route 7 make things work as well as you could reasonably expect.

As I walked into the campus from the two-level parking garage, I noted the next thing they do right: facility. It's highly functional, and very familiar. From the exterior, the building gives off none of the classical visual cues that would make you think "house of worship." Honestly, it looks more like a Nordstrom. When one enters, the interior is instantly familiar to any American. It's like some combination of a Cineplex and a Mall. There are nicely produced displays everywhere. The smell of coffee from the coffee bar fills the air on the lower level. Wending your way upstairs, the large airy lobby has arrays of volunteers sitting behind an elegantly curving information desk. It's like the rental car booths at a nice airport, only nicer. Entering the cavernous primary sanctuary is like entering a theater. It is an immense windowless auditorium, festooned with a half dozen large screens. At the front of the sanctuary, diaphanous scrims were illuminated with simple images of vines. On the walls of sanctuary, crosses were integrated into the sound damping elements. The sanctuary was designed by the same architectural firm that created the Strathmore theater. The firm lists Mclean Bible Church as one of it's "performing arts" clients. It's very well done.

The displays tastefully distributed throughout the building told the story of another MBC skillset: breadth. They do everything. There's a ministry for everyone. There are ministries of service. Ethnic ministries. Cultural ministries. There's a gigantonormous hippity happenin' youth ministry. There are small groups and a "university," there are umpty-zillion support groups and book groups. I suspect they may be lacking a Gay Men's Chorus, but outside of that, there's something for almost everyone. They have a ferociously entrepreneurial approach to ministry...and it clearly succeeds in building up the church.

As I settled into a seat in the upper tiers, I waited for things to begin, and when they did, I discovered the next thing that MBC does right: music. The guitarist who opened up with an acoustic version of a hymn precisely five minutes before the service was really very solid. The praise team that came out to begin the service with several Christian Contemporary tunes was also solid, and not nearly as overbrimming with weepy-emo Jesusness as I'd feared. Unlike many of my Presbyterian comrades, I know this music now. The only song I didn't already know was one that had been written for the church, and it was melodically simple enough that I could follow it even on the practice run-through. CCM is not and will never be my first preference in worship, but I like it well enough, and sang along robustly. It worked.

With the service now cranking into full swing, another MBC strength surfaced: choreography. I'm not talking about dancing, although there was a troupe of multiethnic munchkins who came out and did an It's-A-Small-World-After-Jesus routine that wouldn't have felt out of place at Disney. I mean the seamlessness of the event. Everything worked. The timing of transitions between one element of the service and another was perfect. The transitions between worship leaders was without flaw. The highly complex presentation used to augment the service...which required coordination of varying images across multiple screens...were sharp, seamless and thoroughly professional. MBC openly declares excellence as a primary governing ethic, and it shows throughout their worship. It exudes a sleek competence. As toight as a toiger, as they say.

Related to this focus on excellence is another evident strength: brand identity. The service I attended was running simultaneously with an EXTREEEME youth service in a smaller, 500 seat venue on site. Other services on other campuses in two neighboring counties were also cranking at the same time. But when time comes for the message, it's exactly the same everywhere. Outside of the primary sanctuary, MBC worshippers look up at the big screen at the appointed time, and get the same perfectly produced and packaged message that you'd get at the auditorium in the mothership. It's all MBC...and that's smart branding.

As the service progressed, I looked around at the now-packed sanctuary. Here, I saw yet another strength, one that's a serious kick in the ovaries for progressive Jesus people: diversity. MBC is a poster child for the multiethnic church. The largest group in attendance was Anglo...but just barely. There was a large Asian contingent, many African-Americans, and an impressive array of families that mixed ethnicity. There were young adults, young families, and middle-aged folk. The only group that seemed underrepresented were old white people. Guess we oldliners have to have some niche. It was as diverse as the throng you might see milling about in a mall in a major metropolitan area.

Let's see. Hmmm. Anything else? Possibly...but those are the primary strengths I observed. Next up:

Where Mclean Bible Church Might Need A Little Help.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Resolution Number One: Mclean Bible Church

With Twenty Ten now a whopping three days old, I have today fulfilled one of my resolutions for the year. That resolution was a pretty straightforward one. I vowed to at some point attend Mclean Bible Church.

That congregation is the 800 pound Jeezilla in the Washington Metropolitan Area. It's a megachurch in every way, shape, and form. It's got a huge honking main campus near Tysons Corner. It has several satellite campuses. It has scores of ministries, and scores of pastors. It has tens of thousands who attend regularly, or, at least, semi-regularly. They are the AmeriChrist Inc. Industry Standard, as ranked by J.D. Power and Associates.

I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about MBC. I freely admit it. But for all of my kvetching about their odd take on scripture, snarking at their fundamentalism and grumbling at their fungally spreading immensitude, I've never been there. That seems, at a bare minimum, unfair. How can I criticize something I've never experienced? How can I claim to have knowledge of a place I've never been, or make statements about a worship in which I've never participated?

Well, to be honest, one can talk about things one hasn't experienced. But I felt like adding some basis in reality to my perceptions of the place. Heck, up until today, I'd never even been to anything that could be described as a megachurch. I've been to biggish churches, sure, with attendance in the high hundreds or even close to a thousand. But the Jesus MegaCenter experience was not something I could claim to ever have had.

So having returned from vacay just a tiny bit early, and with a Sunday morning ahead of me, I decided to descend into the MBC vortex. Before I went, I spent some time getting myself centered and focused. Do not prejudge. Do not enter with preconceptions. Cleanse your mind, and enter as if you had no knowledge of this place.

I spent some time in prayer. I spent some time reading scripture. I girded my loins. Or at least took a shower and put on some fresh underwear. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

I got in my car, and trundled off to meet Goliath.

Tomorrow: What Mclean Bible Church Does Right.