Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Gospel Reset by Ken Ham

So there it was in my in box, because I am the pastor, and I get these sorts of things.

It was a slight little volume from Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, a free gift to me.  I assumed that pretty much every pastor in America must have gotten one, because it ain't like my sweet small church is particularly well known.

That turned out to be right.  266,000 copies, mailed out to churches in America.  That's a whole lot of printing and postage.

Answers in Genesis, in the event you don't know it, is a Young Earth Creationist outfit, the folks who brought us the Creation Museum and that great big ol' reconstruction of the Ark.

The book's claimed purpose is simple: to reconnect Americans with the message of Jesus.  It operates from the premise that America is an increasingly secularizing nation, a premise that is objectively and empirically true.  To get to that starting premise, Ham cites research that supports conclusions that pretty much every strain of Christian has also discovered.  In a society where Christianity and the broader biblical narrative are no longer a given, traditional strategies for conveying the message of Jesus are no longer viable.  We can no longer rely on the culture to automatically yield church going folk.

Something new is needed.

Oddly enough, up until this point, I was pretty much there with Ken.  He's not wrong.

Then, to set the stage for his plan for evangelizing America, Ham sets out what he views as the biblical precedent for how one successfully engages with cultures that are not your own.

As the linchpin of his argument, he lays out two contrasting passages from the Acts of the Apostles.  The first, Peter's preaching to the Judeans in Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2.  The second, Paul's preaching to the Athenians on the Areopagus in Acts chapter 17.

This was also odd, because, well, that's totally what I would do, too.  It's exactly the right parallel.

So far, Ken and I were two for two, and that in and of itself was a little freaky.  I read on.

As Ham describes it, Peter succeeds because the Jews that hear him share his culture and his knowledge of the texts of Torah.

But Paul?  As Ham initially describes Paul's engagement with the "Greeks," Paul is completely rejected.  They scoff and laugh at Paul.  He fails to reach them, because they don't have a basis of common understanding.

This comparison is the fundamental groundwork for Ham's argument, and the basic tension of the book.  To spread the Gospel, Ham suggests, we must "de-Greek" our listeners, relentlessly and aggressively tearing away all of their culture.  Christians must obliterate the idea that science is valid.  We must never compromise, or yield.

For a while it seems like Ham's argument is that we must not fail to spread the Gospel as Paul failed to spread the Gospel.


Ham assumes we will take him at his word, and not bother reading scripture ourselves.  But here, being biblically literate helps, because Ham completely misrepresents Acts 17 read in its plainest meaning.  Ham misses the point of Acts 17...and misrepresents the history of the spread of badly that it feels a mark of near-epic exegetical incompetence.

Because while the Athenians do scoff and laugh in Acts 17:18, the story of Paul in Athens goes on.  If you read the whole story, they then say, hey, we've not heard this freaky Jesus stuff before.  They're interested.  And then they invite Paul to tell them more, so he goes to Mars Hill to join other philosophers who are presenting new and interesting things.

When Paul does so, he's not stupid about it.  The Biblical account shows him both being respectful to Greek culture, using terms clearly recognizable from Greek philosophy, quoting Stoic philosopher/poets, and putting the message of Jesus in a form that was comprehensible to his listeners.

From the basis of respectful dialogue that adapts the message of Jesus to a new culture, Paul interests some of them further.  After a few more conversations, some of those Athenians choose to be Christian.

That end result...Paul's successful culturally-relevant almost completely missing from Ham's interpretation.  It was Paul's greatest gift.  He knew how to find commonality.  He knew how to bridge cultures and ways of understanding.

The conclusion Ham draws, having danced his way around grasping the plain meaning of the text, is that what Paul was doing was the opposite of that.   What is needed, Ham argues, is to double down on the same methodology that has been used by fundamentalism since this whole fundamentalist/modernist thing started.  This works great with his presupposition, but it's materially, provably, and historically incorrect.  The "Jewish" church that he presents as the equivalent of the bible-believing model we should all double down upon?  It died.  Ceased to be.

Ham acknowledges this, because you can't miss it.  And there is an admission that, well, Paul kind of did succeed...which Ham then attributes to Paul's "de-Greeking."  The same Paul who spoke in Greek, used the forms and structures of Greco-Roman rhetoric, and knew philosophy well enough to...


The church that succeeded, that spread, that shared the message of Jesus with billions?  It was the "Greeked" church.  It was the church that adapted, that used whatever language, form, and understanding was necessary to share the message of the so-close-you-can-touch-it Kingdom of God that Jesus taught and incarnated.

The very last thing evangelically minded Jesus folk need more of is aggressive argumentation in defense of rigidly held presuppositions.

Where the message of Jesus stuck, it wasn't because of the bludgeoning of combative apologetics.  It succeeded in non-Semitic cultures when those who proclaimed it lived out the message of Jesus they were articulating.  The Gospel makes you live a different life, visibly and demonstrably.  That was what changed souls in the Roman Empire.  And in Korea.  And in Japan.  And in China today.

It stands in tension with every culture, and speaks truth in ways that scripture illuminates, but that is also affirmed by the experience of every human society.

Do we really need to accede to the self-evidently false idea of a universe that is 7,000 years old to grasp the idea of human suffering and brokenness, and the need for something radical to be remade in the human psyche?  No.  Clearly not.

That the Gospel speaks powerfully to the essential experience of humankind has always, always, always been how evangelism has worked.  The great strength of Christianity is that Christ's grace is gloriously adaptable, that it finds ways to work with the idioms of every culture.  It is inherently universal and pancultural, integrating every truth that resonates with the Gospel into itself.

The maddening thing about this little book is that it is exactly and utterly the opposite of what is needed.  "Salvation made Relevant," or so the book claims.  If we did what Ham has been doing for decades, and wants us to do now, the church would fail.  It would fail as it has failed for a generation in Europe, and as it struggles in America now, as earnest but tone-deaf verbal clubbings from well-meaning but misguided Jesus folk drive hearers away.

Even the title is misleading, because Ham suggests resetting nothing about how he approaches the Gospel.  There is no awareness of the damage his theology does, and how easy it makes it for those who despise faith to cast Christians as willfully ignorant and faintly psychotic.  There is nothing at all new here, other than the call to continue down a path that has driven millions of souls from the message of Jesus.

In his conclusion, Ham recounts a conversation he has with a young atheist.  He uses his method, aggressively presenting his apologetics, and getting that young atheist to understand that at the heart of their understandings of creation they have completely different foundations.

And then he doesn't quite get around to describing what happens next.  At the end of that story, that's it.  There is no story of respect for Jesus instilled.  No common ground established.  Not even a seed of respect for Christ's compassion for the outcast planted.  Just the creation of opposition, irreconcilable and fundamental.   And this, this is meant to spread the Gospel?

So.  This "free gift" from Answers in Genesis?  While I can appreciate the old axiom that you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, I'm Greek enough to remember that didn't work out so well for the Trojans.

I do not doubt that it is well-intended.  But the road to irrelevance and evangelical failure is paved with such intentions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Evidentiary Standards

Thirty years ago, I was a first year at the University of Virginia, and she and I had spent a portion of the afternoon walking and talking.

That wandering led back to her dorm room, where we found ourselves alone.  We'd gone to high school together.  She was slight and attractive and smart as hell, a tiny dancer whose writing was intense and odd and mature.  She was also an survivor of both physical and sexual abuse, coming out of a household that seethed with violence and darkness.  It hung about her like a cloud, manifesting in a couple of attempts on her own life.   Being a young fool, that brokenness seemed romantic and lost and fed into my ego-addled desire to white knight for someone.  I had been smitten with her for a large chunk of high school, in the hormone addled monomania that can often define late adolescence.

There had never been anything real between us, other than a few interesting and intense conversations and a festering swamp of quasi-obsessive teen angst on my end.  Even at that moment, I'm not sure if we could have been described as friends.

As we sat and talked more, she became more agitated, and the conversation turned to cutting.  Which, among other forms of self harm, was something she did.

She got out her cutters kit, a neat box filled with the blades that she would use to score her flesh.  It was her intent to cut, right there and then.  I attempted to talk her out of it, to go and talk with a counselor instead, but with little success.

Not knowing what else to do, I took the box from her.  We wrestled about for a moment, as she tried to get it back from me.  But I was stronger.

And then she set back on her bed, and looked at me, and told me, eyes bright as fire, that if I didn't give her the blades and let her cut, she would start screaming.

Unless I returned her blades, when people on her hall came, she would tell them I had been trying to rape her.

I remember her face as she said this.  It was not a pleasant look.  There was no question of either her intent or her commitment.  It was not an idle threat.

After a moment of horrified paralysis, I gave her back her box.  And then I left.

In the dorm stairwell on the way out, I passed a mutual friend who was coming up to see her.  I told him what to expect, and what she was doing, and he..not expecting that...was a little stunned.

I do not know what happened when he went up there.

That was thirty years ago, and to the best of my recollection, that is what happened.

But what are you to think of this story of mine?  How do you know that it's real?

It was a very emotionally intense moment, and so it has been burned to my own memory.  I have retold that story, to close friends, on occasions over the years.  But I know that my own memory is a tricky thing, meat being the unreliable storage medium that it is.

I cannot tell you, not now, much of the detail of that event.  If you asked what we spoke of, I could not tell you.  I could not tell you what I was wearing.  Or the precise time of day.  Or even what day of the week it was.

I could not tell you, in all honesty, whether in the years that have passed the dozen or so retellings have themselves shaped the form and character of that memory.   I also cannot tell you if she remembers that afternoon, just an immaterial blip in what was a deeply traumatic young adulthood.  If she does, I cannot tell you whether her memory of it is the same as mine.

Nor could the best of forensic science prove anything meaningful about that moment. 

In your hearing of this, and in the absence of empirical evidence, what do you believe?  Your engagement with this story will, in this polarized moment, be shaped by your political and sociocultural biases.

Do you believe that this sort of thing happens often, that women as moral agents sometimes misuse accusations to serve other interests or the crass demands of political power?  That would shape your hearing and receiving of this story.

Do you believe that women's voices are to be believed, and that a narrative like this serves no constructive purpose in an era when those who have survived sexual violence are finally speaking out?   Then you may hear it another way.

I take it for what it is.  An anecdote and an intense but faded memory, one that shapes my own self-understanding and my understanding of the dynamics of addiction.  Across the span of a third of a life, it does not speak to the legitimacy of other stories or claims.  It does not, for instance, mean that I do not believe that the young woman who threatened to accuse me of rape had not previously experienced sexual violence.

But it does, for me, reinforce two things:

For acts of violence against other persons, particularly acts of a sexual nature, the culture of shame in reporting cannot stand.  If justice is to be served, reporting such events...not to college administrators, or to a social media account, but to law enforcement...needs to be something victims can do knowing that they'll receive a fair, careful, and respectful hearing. 

And for our culture, so quick to leap to an assumption of guilt or innocence on the basis of ideology, bias, and passion?

I don't know. 

I have a reasonable doubt that we collectively care for truth at all.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Lack of Magic

With the boys gone off to college and the house still and quiet, me and the missus are spending a little more time together, settling in to our now clean rec room to watch movies and shows together.

The other night, we were up for a quality horror flick, and so went to the critically acclaimed The Witch.

I'd seen the previews, and it looked good.  Meaning, not just generically scary, but with a particular director's palette and vision.  The premise: a family of recently emigrated Puritans settles in the American wilderness after getting cast out by their settlement.  As things start going ill for their farm, they run afoul of a witch.

Bad things happen.

It's a good film.  The commitment to establishing sense of place and to authentically conveying the particular language and faith of the Puritans was excellent, and the pacing was remarkably deliberate.  The actors are uniformly well cast and solid.  It was smart, well-researched, and thoughtfully done.

Was it perfect?  No.  It wasn't really all that scary, although perhaps that's just jaded me.  The striking young ingenue at the center of the story was a genuinely fine actress, but she was...well...also evidently the only one of her family with access to modern era hair care products.

But what do I know?  Shining, perfect golden tresses are probably worth the extra effort during a week-long descent into hellish demonic madness.

And the woods, for all of their eerieness, were obviously not the forests of precolonial America.  Old growth don't look that way...not that there's much a director can do about that.

From a faith angle, I'm also sure that the film wasn't well received by actual witches, as it' design...a film that evokes the mortal horrors of the Pilgrims, who understood pagan traditions as inherently monstrous and demonic.  As an artistic choice, I get it, and appreciate it.  But I'm sure someone out there took offense.

But there was something else that struck me, as it often strikes me in the premises of films evoking supernatural horror.  The Christian characters were basically helpless, their whispered prayers nothing more than the feverish mutterings of a schizophrenic in the face of a genuinely supernatural foe.  That's part of the horror, I suppose, the idea that "faith" is meaningless and the only real power lies in the dark intent of gibbering, feral things.

To be honest, though, the "Christianity" of the characters was of the sort that's most likely to fail in a crisis.  They were hard, fierce, and proud.  They prayed without ceasing.  But what they were not was loving.

When they were pressed, their trust in one another came apart in a wave of mutual recriminations.  They did not find strength in one another, bear burdens for one another, and work under the fundamental assumption of the God-loved goodness of each other.

Faced with evil...even evil that can take our lives...that's the deepest magic of our faith.  It gives us cohesion, hope, and strength, up to and past the point when all else is lost.

Instead, suspicion and accusation reigned, and they devoured each other.  They were to each other as much a horror as the strange blood-hungry things in the woods.

Good thing Christians don't do that to one another now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Forecaster


Just in and out, Jiun.  Slow and steady, Jiun.  You are modulated, Jiun.  You are focused, Jiun.  You are in control.  You are calm.  You are in control.  You are calm.  You know what the hell you’re talking about.

And she did.  Of course she did.  She had always known.  

Top of her class, or at least, close enough to touch it without stretching.   Professors who tumbled over themselves to recommend her.  Snapped up in a bidding war, almost kissing seven figures right out of her program.  Two years in at Econalytica, and the youngest senior analyst in their storied history.  At meetings, the overtalkers and the blowhards had learned to shut up when she spoke, because C suite had learned to listen.

And groomed her.  And welcomed her in, the youngest partner since the firm had been founded.  Senior Vice President of Climatometrics.   Four direct reports, all upper management, thirty two staff in her program, her work the beating heart of their business model.  And their primary profit center.

She was their best, and they knew it.

She knew it.

Still, there were the cameras.  

What was it about those cameras?

There was the studio, lights hot and overbright.  The scent of the Acela still lingered in her blouse, where it mingled with the slight but inescapable tang of stress pressing through the deodorant.  Jesus, they paid for the ride up, no Skype or ZoomMeet for her, she was a damn guest.

And there was Lamia Singh, right there in the for real, the familiar face from the best watched business program in the industry.  A little shorter than Jiun had thought she’d be, they were always shorter than you thought they’d be.  But no less stunning, and no less sharp.

Lamia had said a few words from within her swirl of production staff, so glad to have you, looking forward to your insights, heard such amazing things about your contribution to the industry.   Genuinely engaged, bright and smiling, decanting the same dessert wine flattery she undoubtedly poured for every guest.

Jiun centered herself.

“We’re on in three.”  Around her, the studio scuttled and flowed, a smooth practiced organic machine.  She was ushered to a chair, given water, a little touch up here, perhaps.  Told where to look, told she was great, thanked again, and then it was two.

Her primary.

Her primary was on.  She hadn’t checked it, had taken that vid from John about the quarterly reporting to General Electric, it was on then. And it would go off, because it always went off.

She fumbled in the deep pocket of her Gortex coverall, and powered it all the way down, as a memory of her mother’s gravel and corn husk voice flitted unbidden through her consciousness.  


“The day we finally got our damn pockets was the day the patriarchy fell,” Mother had said, and she was right.

When she looked up, Lamia was settling in.

“Ms. Kim.  Good ride up?  No delays?”   The familiar voice from the familiar face, the famous face, with it’s famously big, subtly asymmetric eyes, bright as dark polished pebbles, so large, distractingly anime eyes.

Jiun nodded, shaking off the spell.  “None.  Smooth and effortless.  No delays or interruptions.”

“Well, of course. That’s what you’re here to tell us about, isn’t it?”

Jiun’s attempt at a slightly witty response was interrupted by a producer.  “Ten seconds to live.  Ten seconds to live.”

The eyes turned away to camera, and Jiun managed a jagged attempt at a cleansing breath.  The theme and intro music was suddenly everywhere, all of a sudden everywhere, not just in her buds as she watched on the commute in.  

“This is Marketwatch Now, and I’m Lamia Singh.  I’m pleased today to have with us Dr. Jiun Kim, Senior Vice President of Climatometrics at Econalytica.  Dr. Kim, welcome.”

“Thank you, Lamia.”  Not an evident crack or a quaver in her voice.  The centering must be working.

“Looking forward to the third quarter, we’re looking at more bad news for the economy, already under stress from the catastrophic weather this winter and spring.  Dr. Kim, how bad is it going to get?”

“Lamia, it looks like the worst quarter in nearly a decade.  I’d go beyond that.  In fact, both the North American and our own proprietary New Combined Global model are showing the worst forecast in my career as a Climate Economist.”

Behind them, the screens spun up a globe overlaid with images of the anticipated storm season.  The model, there it was, her own New Combined Global, the most accurate forecast of the wildly chaotic churn of the planet’s weather.

What it showed was terrifying.

Nothing.  Not a single storm.  All along the Atlantic and Pacific, nothing.  

Jiun’s voice, terse and urgent and matter of fact.  “The impact on this year’s storm drought on the repair, reconstruction, and emergency supply industries is going to be just staggering.  This coming after a weaker than expected West Coast fire season, and only one fizzled blizzard in the Plains states this winter.”

“Why?  What’s going on to cause it?”

“It’s an entropic system, Lamia.  Obviously, we’ve had a run of great years.  Two seasons ago, Benito?  That generated nearly two hundred billion dollars of economic activity.”

Lamia interjected.  “Probably the most profitable category Seven in recent memory.  The New Shreveport projects alone pushed the markets up nearly five percent.”

“Absolutely.  What a great year.  Not at all what we’re looking at for the next few quarters.”

Lamia nodded.  “That’s exactly right.  The DOW is down nearly sixteen thousand points, and the S&P was off a similar two percent yesterday.  Weyerhauser’s stock was off almost twelve percent, and Caterpillar was down seven and a half.  What impacts are you seeing in the employment sector?”

“Obviously, huge.  General Dynamics and United Recovery Systems are already starting layoffs along the Gulf Annual Disaster Zone, which is on top of the layoffs on the Pacific coast.  In the Carolinas, Dupont is ramping down production at the Tyvek Repairboard shipping ports in Columbia, South Carolina.  Crop recovery and restoration efforts in the Midwest are at a standstill.  We’re talking hundreds of thousands of jobs now, maybe millions idled, in the sector that’s come to take up nearly sixty percent of the global economy.”

Lamia’s voice, now filled with carefully simulated human concern.   “With no homes and cities to rebuild, no infrastructure to restore, what are the prospects for the average worker in this sector?  How’s this going to turn around?”

“In the short term?  Things look terrible.  But the New Combined Global has verified multiseasonal reliability, and what we’re seeing for this winter season looks, how to say this?  Well, Lamia, it looks promising.  It looks good.   If we can run’ll see that there are multiple Eastern seaboard superstorms likely in both late December and into the…”

Jiun felt the answers pour from her, as Lamia nodded and those dark eyes glistened with admiration at her radiant expertise.  

She wasn’t nervous.  Those weren’t nerves she had felt.  That was pure energy.  She was on fire.  She was the expert.   

She was the global expert, in the world’s most important industry, and now the world knew it.

The ten minutes had flown by.  There’d been a handshake, a genuine offer of “having her on again soon,” and she was done.  A meeting with one of the NYC subcontractors, a quick snag of a bag from a vegan fazcaz place, and she was off.

Her primary hummed and buzzed.   Congratulations from colleagues, from John and Young Sik on the board, from a couple of her VPs.  Notifications from her bots, as the interview splashed and echoed across other media.  Picking up steam.

And after four days of losses, the markets, turning around.  Two point two three percent since this morning.  The chatter, as the market babblers pitched their daily rationalizations?

“Market turns after strong long term report from Econalytica.”  “Dow up nine hundred on analyst’s positive storm report.”

She was Atlas.  She was moving the world.

All of a sudden, she was hungry.  So very hungry.  The nervous tightness in her gut had unfurled and released, and now her stomach snarled and groaned.  She could smell the falafel, and lord it smelled good.  She fumbled with the bag.  

The pita was a great fat thing, thick spread with hummus and tzatziki, and she tore into it, feeling the tzatziki course down her chin.  She didn’t care.  No more meetings today, and she had always been the kind of girl who ate…

And Mother’s voice again.  “You eat like a wolf, Jiun.  Like a starving wolf.”  Not a reprimand.  Not a correction.  But smiling, the broad smile of a loud brassy ahjumma, so pleased with her fierce firstborn wolf girl.

Halfway through, she stopped for breath, took a deep quaff of her energy tea, and looked around.  The car, entirely full, rustling with the mutters and clicks of business.

Through the windows of the train, the landscape flickered bright and sun dappled behind the concrete and steel windbreaks.

Above, the sky was a perfect, cursed, unprofitable blue.

Ah well, she thought.  It'll pass. It’s just weather.