Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Manger's Complaint

The Manger’s Complaint

By Jon Trott (Dec. 2006, edited again after posting, still needs more work)

Your judgment seems flawed, your reasoning strange
To want to live there in my smell and wet straw
Your beauty, your wisdom, your heavenly power
How can my wooden ugliness hold You without flaw?

Your taste in surroundings leaves much unexplained
The waste of the beasts, their bleats, brays, and moos
How can "I Am Who I Am" shrink down to this?
A stable, a hovel, why here Your Good News?

Your love for the empty, the broken and small
Brings tears to the simple but seems wrong after all
You’re Lord of Lords and King of Kings
Not Master of Mangers and all Worthless Things.

I was used to the straw, each animal’s face
Why choose me to cradle You, Child of Light's Grace
I hold the small limbs of Creation's Head;
God's Little Lamb Who makes all hearts His bed.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

O Little Town of Bethlehem: Barrier Wall Strangles Christian Community in Birthplace of Christ

If there is any doubt that Palestinian woes should haunt the Christmas season with the suffering of Christians where the holiday began, consider this news item from Catholic Relief Services:


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Barrier Wall is Strangling Palestinian Christian Community
in the Birthplace of Christ

By Elizabeth Griffin and David Snyder
Catholic Relief Services

Just over 2,000 years ago, the Holy Family made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to prepare for the moment that would change history forever. If they were to take that same route today, however, they would be greeted by a 25-foot barrier wall, armed guards, and a huge steel gate resembling those found on nuclear shelters. They could also be harassed for their identification papers, their belongings could be searched and it's quite possible they could be turned away, never allowed to enter Bethlehem. How different the story would be.

On a recent journey to the Holy Land, we witnessed this reality and the unfathomable results it has wrought. Before this trip, the full picture of this crisis was not clear to us. What we hear and read in the U.S. media is too filtered for us to really know the whole truth or to know how much the Palestinians in Bethlehem — and throughout the West Bank and Gaza — are suffering.

Some Israel-based human rights groups agree. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, which comprises prominent Israeli academics, attorneys, journalists and Israeli parliament members, says, "In areas where the barrier has already been built, the extensive violations of human rights of Palestinians living nearby are evident."

In November of 2005, the birthplace of Christ was sealed off from Jerusalem — just in time for Christmas — depriving people of freedom of movement within their land, annexing entire communities and crippling the local economy. Amid security procedures locals say are growing more and more invasive, tourists and religious pilgrims, who are the major contributors to Bethlehem's economy, have stayed away in ever-increasing numbers. Those who do visit are encouraged by Israeli-led tour groups not to stay in Bethlehem. Rather, they are encouraged to support the hotels on the outskirts of the city, on the other side of the barrier wall.

Faced with constant and ever-changing restrictions on their movement by Israeli Defense Forces, residents of Bethlehem are finding it harder and harder to get to nearby cities like Jerusalem to work. The movement of goods and merchandise in and out of the walled-in area is completely controlled and taxed by Israeli authorities. All of these factors are contributing to an increasing unemployment rate, which the Bethlehem municipality says now stands at about 65 percent. Two millennia after the birth of Christ, this ancient, holy city is quite literally being strangled in the shadow of the barrier wall.

If it continues on its present course, the wall will eventually grow to 439 miles in length — more than four times the length of the Berlin Wall — standing as high as 26 feet in some places. Consisting of hundreds of miles of barbed wire and thousands of tons of concrete, it is the largest infrastructure project in Israel, with a price tag to match. The United Nations estimates that the projected cost of the wall will exceed $1 billion — for which the United States is at least partially willing to pay. According to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization that tracks the barrier wall's progress, the United States has diverted $50 million from $200 million slated for the Palestinian Authority to construct 34 high-tech, militarily secure crossings in the barrier wall.

Israel says the barrier wall will protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. Despite elaborate precautions on the part of the Israeli government, suicide bombings became a common occurrence in the restaurants and buses of Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem after the outbreak in 2000 of the second intifada. Wall proponents hope that building a physical barrier and forcing potential terrorists through designated checkpoints, like those that surround Bethlehem, will be an effective deterrent for those wishing to carry out such attacks.

Wall opponents recognize Israel's right to defend itself, but argue that the route of the wall creates serious moral problems, and many say it masks intentions far less benign than self-protection. Critics state that the barrier wall intrudes as far as 12.5 miles into the West Bank from the Green Line — considered to be the de facto eastern border of Israel — established in 1949. They say it encloses valuable water sources, precious farmland, and — most notably — 99 Israeli settlements on the Israeli side of the barrier.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which also closely monitors the progress of the barrier wall, more than 75 percent of the wall's total length is being built inside the West Bank. In July 2004, the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, ruled that the construction of the barrier wall in Palestinian territory was "contrary to international law." And a report released in November 2006 by Israeli advocacy group Settlement Watch states that "39 percent of the land used by Jewish settlements in the West Bank is private Palestinian property." According to a November 22 Washington Post article about the report, this land "includes some of the large settlement blocs inside the barrier that Israel is building to separate Israelis from the Palestinian population in the West Bank." Despite all of this, construction continues.

In Bethlehem, the barrier wall has created a prison-like existence for the dwindling Christian population there. The residents are beleaguered, and the merchants we spoke to feel the world does not understand their plight. Others blame fellow Christians overseas for not doing enough on their behalf.

For us, we will continue to tell everyone we know about the present-day story of Bethlehem — a sacred place now enmeshed in concrete and barbed wire. We will continue to relay our fears about the deteriorating humanitarian situation and how it not only compromises human dignity, but also puts at risk the long-term welfare of both Palestinians and Israelis who long for a just peace. We will continue to share our stories and photographs, and we will continue to raise awareness through as many avenues as possible. And over and over again, we will be reminded of Luke 2:15, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened." This Christmas season, the story of a miracle birth in a quiet manger seems impossibly distant from the little town of Bethlehem that we know today.

Elizabeth Griffin is the Director of Communications at Catholic Relief Services. She recently hosted a group of journalists on a visit to Gaza and the West Bank for the Agency’s annual Egan Award for Journalistic Excellence competition. David Snyder is a freelance photojournalist who for the last nine years has documented the work of Catholic Relief Services all over the world.

Thursday, December 07, 2006 is UP - with this blog!

I am a minimalist coder, but enlisted my son Christopher to help me figure out the nicieties of having this blog appear as the main feature on my site. As mentioned earlier, has links to various other writings and a couple other blogs I do / have done. Ideally, I'd like people to use the URL for links and so on. But whatever, it is what the old school called a "kludge" -- a sort of jerry-rigged setup that seems to work for now. Maybe I'll fine tune it and "slick it up" one day in order to fake people out about who they're dealing with. Unless it is already too late for that... Hmmm. Guess you're on to me.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Movies, Mike, and Me

Even if that is bad English...

Mike Hertenstein, co-author with me of Selling Satan and friend and neighbor in our shared communal life for more years than either of us care to admit, has posted some fascinating stuff on movies. No wonder. Mike is submerged in movie-dom, as Flickerings (both the Flickerings website and the annual "event" at Cornerstone Festival) illustrates.

Rather than rattle on, I'll merely point Blue Christian readers to Mike's latest:

What Mike calls the Dionysus thing is, for some of us at least, one of those many points where movements, movies, history and personalities come into new configurations. C. S. Lewis and Apocalypse Now? Whoa. How about a mega-showdown between Apollo and Dionysus? Sounds like an action flick, right? Well, Mike's major mind candy will, like all the best hard sweets, stick with you for a long time. (And I hope the producers of the Narnia movies read it very carefully...) In fact, here's a taste:

It would, for example, be most enlightening — or should I say intoxicating — to survey the landscape of the Gospel and Christian history for clues to locating a more Dionysian faith. In so many places you can actually feel some ancient, even primal energy straining against whatever cultural container barely holds it back, ready to explode into something sensual, even (dare we say it?) sexual. The Passion of the Christ. The ecstasy of St. Teresa. The throbbing beat of that ancient prayer, the Anima Christi: "Blood of Christ, inebriate me." John Donne's poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God… Except you enthrall me, [I] shall never be free. Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." You can almost hear the hypnotic rhythms of drums, the seductive melodies of the flutes, the sighs of the maenads, lost in their mad, whirling, self-forgetting dance...

And we could certainly talk more about C. S. Lewis in this connection, who throughout his writing divides human knowledge and ways of looking at the world into a division that coincides very well with the Apollonian-Dionysian opposition. Like Lewis the popular theologian, Lewis the literature teacher makes it clear that learning to engage with art requires wrestling away from Apollonian control a way of seeing that is closer to (he doesn't put it quite this nakedly) sex — as in "knowledge in the Biblical sense" — than in the abstract, practical, utilitarian, even scientific sense that some people approach art. Perhaps the very real relation between Dionysian seeing and Biblical knowledge is why RUSH pairs Apollo with Reason and Dionysus with Love, and also why N. T. Wright can call for Christian approach to knowing that makes knowledge not a subset of power but of love.

Fresher than the latter is Mike's CIFFBLOG from the Chicago International Film Festival this fall. Mike saw all the good movies (well, a lot of 'em), and offers his take. He didn't take me, and I'm in a snit over it. If you are a hardcore movie buff, or just interested in this coolest of Windy City alternative film options, make sure and check Mike's blog out.

But I really like Mike's Roberto Rossellini riffs (Mike loves that word) from last summer's Cornerstone Festival "Flickerings" program. Actually not quite finished, the multi-part set of postings is entitled "The Post-War Journey of Roberto Rosellini." Mike delves into what WWII did to the sensibilities of artists, and this great Italian director in particular. From Flowers of Saint Francis to Stromboli, Rossellini's early career, post-war vision offers some deeply faith-affirming, along with faith-wrenching, moments.

For instance, in his Flowers of Saint Francis treatment, Mike begins with a Merton quote and immediately begins making the reader uncomfortable:

The Plaster Saint, the stereotype of sanctity, is but a caricature, says Thomas Merton. Shaped by the unrealistic conventions of hagiography and pious art, that which offers itself as a divine pattern is generally a pious fraud: sinless perfection, immunity to temptation, pristine motivations, all the pat answers, right actions, and edifying clich├ęs — all of which could almost be chapter titles in a book on screenwriting for a Hollywood film about a saint. The Plaster Saint of the movies tends to stand above the world, abstracted from it, without humor, wonder, curiosity, or doubt.
They are always there kissing the leper's sores at the very moment when the king and his noble attendants come around the corner and stop in their tracks, mute in admiration...
Worse than this kitschy perfection, says Merton, is that most of us secretly think this model is the right one, that in our hearts we believe that the supernatural is equal to the denial of the human. Therefore, it should be no surprise if filmmakers can never seem to get it right. Especially in Hollywood, where the sanctimonious glow of celebrity has already baptized a dubious culture, the litany of saints and Messiahs, religious or secular, range on a continuum from stiff to fluff.

Well, I haven't done Mike justice here... but what can he do about it other than walk by my desk and stick his toungue out? Nothing... that's what. Or maybe cough up a copy of that Rossellini movie, Blaise Pascal, which I didn't hear of from Mike but sure want to see.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

December Darkness and Christmas Hope

December Darkness and Christmas Hope

Doubt is at the heart of faith. This statement is no abstraction to me but a center bit in what I believe about God and Jesus and love. I look at my dear wife's brown eyes and face that seems as open to me as a flower or God's heart and remember nights twenty years ago where my heart was cold with sadness after being left by my first wife. And I am reminded to trust in Love, place my hopes in Him, my faith in His work still progressing despite all exterior signs to the contrary.

I remember last week sitting with others doing something quite liturgical for such a low-church mutt as me, a "Lectio Divina" in which a passage of Scripture is read, discussed, read again, meditated on, discussed, and read yet a third and fourth time -- each time causing one's own heart to burn with the truth and beauty of the words / Word's meanings.

We read from Lamentations 3:21-26:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

My heart leapt up in me not for joy but for pain as I read the last verse. My doubt makes it so hard to deeply accept the goodness of waiting for the salvation of the Lord when… well, a for-instance: an Iraqi mother kneels in the dusty remains of her house holding her dead seven-year-old son and crying out (tears come to my eyes as I mentally replay it) "God---Where is God?---where is God?!?" The cynic answers he was in the bombs from a Christian nation that was making Iraq safe for democracy. The young men, many of poorer families of my own country, are given lip service and sent into a war fewer and fewer of us believe had any purpose or any merit. My heart melts in me like wax from a cheap church candle.

Yet… another voice read the passage from rightly-named Lamentations and my resistance gave way to slow understanding. I realize that to see as God sees is indeed an act of faith rather than complete understanding and that God is Love if anything or anyone is and that he alone sees all and mourns all and has -- is -- and will draw history and humanity toward him as we are willing to be so drawn. In the mystery of Christ's suffering is the only answer for our sufferings and the sufferings of others. We participate in it, or we remain in denial, or we cave in to rage and despair.

Heaven is like the baby in the manger, here but not recognized, as my wife's eyes of gentleness are here but not recognized as being God's eyes in proxy. Her hands are likewise His hands doing me good all the days of my wife / life and her heart yearns over her children now grown as the Father Heart yearns over his children but will not force their love for then it would not be love.

And I do not know what is to become of that Muslim mother who mourns and cries out to her God. Perhaps it is like C. S. Lewis' "The Last Battle" where the earnest young Tash worshipper finds out that he has in fact loved the real God even if he didn't really understand fully who that God was – God is Love and He will know what to do. I identify with her suffering, which is of course so much greater than mine has ever been. I see Christ's sweat and blood in Gethsemane, his tears at the tomb of Lazarus (because he mourned not just Lazarus' death, but the reality of death itself, which would eventually reclaim Lazarus despite Jesus' miracle). I see the blood on the cross, which is the only way meaning can be given to that Muslim mother's screams of agony.

I do believe that Jesus was no televangelist and had no handsomeness or blond hair or blue eyes to attract a Hollywood producer. More likely he had olive skin and dark hair and perhaps wholly unremarkable (to us) New York Arab cab driver face so that none could come to him except they see as God sees: the character of a man singularly striking and wholly desirable.

It is nearly Christmas and the carols are sung and trees lit and stores making billions of dollars. None of this is wholly good or wholly evil and the heart of faith beats slow but steady in the breasts of Love's people. The child lies in the manger and in the mangers each of us knew were empty until His Advent became not a past event but a present knowing and future promise. For those who desire it, the baby takes up residence in our barren hearts making them fruitful mangers of Love.

Rejoice always it is said and again rejoice as the wealthy find their God today and lose him tomorrow and the poor bleed and despair -- their God is Despair -- Apollyon the Destroyer who steals their personhood and creates of them an army of ghosts invisible to the wealthy and even to many of God's people. Yet rejoice -- and work -- which is also rejoicing in the belief that Love has conquered through the manger and the cross is conquering through the Risen Christ and will conquer through Love's visible return.

Christmas is the promise of Messiah fulfilled and the surprise that God chose to fulfill it through the poor couple in that stable. I hope to go to that stable, holding my dearling’s hand, to find Jesus -- the place He has always been is with the poor -- and to worship and love Him in the Holy Faces of "the least of these" (Matthew 25:31-46).

My Carol -- my wife's name -- is indeed a "Song of Joy" to my heart's downward turnings, and a signpost toward that for which we patiently wait. I hope you are there to wait quietly with us for the salvation Love brings in Jesus—and to be a labourer for Love in a loveless, hopeless, faithless world.

Merry Christmas season!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Rev. Louis Sheldon Admits He, Other Christian Leaders Knew About Ted Haggard's Homosexuality

I've long been aware of, and irritated by, the Christian Right's Traditional Values Coalition. But recent comments made by its head, Rev. Louis Sheldon (left), are more than irritating. They are, to put it bluntly, infuriating.

In an interview with Larry Kohler-Esses, editor-at-large for Jewish Weekly, Sheldon said that he and "a lot" of others close to Ted Haggard knew about the latter's homosexual leanings "but we weren't sure just how to deal with it. Ted and I had a discussion,” Sheldon told Esses, and stated Haggard revealed his struggle at one point: “He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that.”

There's plenty I could say about that last sentence. But I'll hold myself in check for now on that score. If you knew, Rev. Sheldon, he was covering up, why didn't you confront him? Did you push him toward getting counseling? Did you insist he confess these temptations to his Church board and his fellow leaders amongst the National Assocation of Evangelicals? Did you ask him if he struggled with porn use, internet porn, or had ever acted out sexually? Did you urge him to join, and monitor his progress in joining, Sexaholics Anonymous or another such group that helps those struggling with sex addictions?

I do happen to believe that gayness is not genetic. I have seen real gays change, including my friends John Smid and Mario Bergner. But I also don't believe it is easily battled or even easily discussed. Yet not discussing it can result only in the many who struggle with same sex desires within the Evangelical Church being left in a double-bind. "Don't ask, don't tell" -- that's the way we do it, huh? Leave the Haggards of the world in a situation where everything is okay on the surface, but don't let me see beneath the surface to who you really are as a human being in all your darkness and pain and hurt. After all, that might reveal my own hurt and darkness. Better to leave all this untouched, while advocating a moral America which never did, and never will exist.

And what does this teach the watching world about our attitude toward temptation -- any kind of temptation? Is it wrong for someone to be tempted homosexually? The answer is no. Yet if we make it dangerous even to mention that we are tempted, what will be the inevitable outcome? Temptation undealt with leads to failure -- sin. If we cannot even be honest about homosexual temptation -- heck, sexual temptation period! -- how can we hope to model in our actions and lives a morality that is anything more than the most hypocritical puke?

This all makes me angry. And to you, Rev. Sheldon, along with all the others who knew and allowed this struggle to remain a secret, shame. Ted's sin may be less than yours. I ache for the day when this sort of "super-spiritual offal" is finally shoveled out of our pulpits, radio shows, and maybe even lives. Real Christianity can't even get started while the centerpiece of our lives is all about appearances. Why? Because real Christianity is about shedding them.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Soren Kierkegaard's Warning Regarding Politics & Eternal Truth

"The crowd is untruth. Therefore was Christ crucified, because he, even though he addressed himself to all, would not have to do with the crowd, because he would not in any way let a crowd help him, because he in this respect absolutely pushed away, would not found a party, or allow balloting, but would be what he was, the truth, which relates itself to the single individual. And therefore everyone who in truth will serve the truth, is eo ipso in some way or other a martyr; if it were possible that a human being in his mother's womb could make a decision to will to serve 'the truth' in truth, so he also is eo ipso a martyr, however his martyrdom comes about, even while in his mother's womb. For to win a crowd is not so great a trick; one only needs some talent, a certain dose of untruth and a little acquaintance with the human passions. But no witness for the truth - alas, and every human being, you and I, should be one - dares have dealings with a crowd. The witness for the truth - who naturally will have nothing to do with politics, and to the utmost of his ability is careful not to be confused with a politician - the godfearing work of the witness to the truth is to have dealings with all, if possible, but always individually, to talk with each privately, on the streets and lanes - to split up the crowd, or to talk to it, not to form a crowd, but so that one or another individual might go home from the assembly and become a single individual. 'A crowd,' on the other hand, when it is treated as the court of last resort in relation to 'the truth,' its judgment as the judgment, is detested by the witness to the truth, more than a virtuous young woman detests the dance hall. And they who address the 'crowd' as the court of last resort, he considers to be instruments of untruth. For to repeat: that which in politics and similar domains has its validity, sometimes wholly, sometimes in part, becomes untruth, when it is transferred to the intellectual, spiritual, and religious domains. And at the risk of a possibly exaggerated caution, I add just this: by 'truth' I always understand 'eternal truth.' But politics and the like has nothing to do with 'eternal truth.' A politics, which in the real sense of 'eternal truth' made a serious effort to bring 'eternal truth' into real life, would in the same second show itself to be in the highest degree the most 'impolitic' thing imaginable."

A portion only, from Soren Kierkegaard's "On the Dedication to 'That Single Individual'"; thanks to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, where many lovely and painful and true things can be found.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Blue Evangelical Expresses Hope... and Anger

Well, as both Montana and Virginia (unless dirty tricks impede) will fall to the Dems, in my giddiness I thought I'd just go ahead and give this new Congress my wish list. I know they're waiting with baited breath to hear from me (uh-HUH!). And I will also offer a second wish-list to the Christian Right... who really, really want to hear from me (No, SIR!).

One preliminary note, just to remind everyone... I alone am responsible for this post. It is not an "official" position by any religious or Church group with whom I am affiliated.

For the Congressional Dems (and any Republicans willing to help) here's my list, without any real order or priority:

* Mr. Rumsfeld... oh, never mind. I'd just told a friend that he'd go "within two weeks." I'm a week and six days behind already.

* Can we finally see some humility in Washington? If the past six years have taught us anything, it is that arrogant, deaf-to-reality leadership is not the way to accomplish realistic goals or win over the American Public. Some pundits expect the Dems to go after Bush with investigations and so on... which part of me would love to see. But the saner part says, "Nah. Let's try to get some positive things done. Like..."

* Can we finally get some help on creating truly affordable housing? This wasn't all that great under the Dems, but under Bush housing in Chicago for the poor has practically dried up. Our Cornerstone Community Outreach Shelter programs in Chicago deal with so many poor families who are unable to find housing anywhere within walking distance of the services they so desperately need. As the inner cities are filled with condos (many of which are vacant) the poor are forced into decrepit older suburbs where they basically live only to work for minimal wages and extra hours, travel to work and home again via public transportation, all making their world more and more like the old domestic servants of the 1950s and earlier. Call it classism or racism or whatever... it exists as a blight on many lives. Housing must become a real issue again.

* End the War in Iraq. Do it sensibly, but get our people out of there. We were lied to about why we went, Washington's execution of the war was almost Keystone Cops, and American soldiers are at risk in a failed attempt to impose western democracy on a nation with no history in that regard. Will more Iraqis die with us gone than are dying now? I used to think so, but now have my doubts. It's botched! Get out.

* Can the Dems (a few of whom I note are pro-life) work with conservative but realistic Republicans to come up with a compromise on abortion? I think the time of "all or nothing" is likely past on that issue. But I also think that as long as Roe v Wade's incredibly broad permissions exist, the Right will use abortion to beat otherwise viable Democrats and to push the nation to the Right. This election does not mandate Roe v Wade, in case anyone was dubious on that score... and the Right has not lost all its vigor by any means. The Dems themselves have moved to the Right... gun control, anyone? (sigh)

* Make massive changes as regards public school funding. "What, you mean socialism or something?" Whatever you want to call it. Jonathan Kozol has done some of the best work on this issue. My favorite observation of his is that if you want to find the poorest, most ill-equipped, least educational, and most dangerous public schools, look for the ones named after Civil Rights Movement heroes. Oh, the other prime indicator of a bad school on almost every level? The darkness of the students' skin. Kozol's "Race and Class in Public Education" talks (apparently hard to find without paying for them) are stellar, and should offer a basis from which the Congress can make meaningful changes to hundreds of thousands of students' lives.

* Public (as in National) Health Coverage. "What, you mean socialism or something?" Uh, whatever you want to call it. I can testify that in Chicago, the very poor have such coverage via Cook County (Stroger) Hospital. Will that change? I certainly hope not. And I only wish it were so for the rest of the nation.

* And I'd love to see (and perhaps am seeing) some attitude adjustments for Democrats regarding evangelicals. Look, while polls last night seemed to indicate that three quarters of evangelicals were voting republican in, for instance, Ohio, it was noteworthy that one quarter of evangelicals were NOT voting that way. Evangelicals are increasingly on board when it comes to Global Warming, for instance. Evangelicals are on board when it comes to AIDS in Africa (and more and more, AIDS and HIV in America!). Evangelicals increasingly "get it" that though homosexual marriage is not something they want, some sort of legal union for gays should be part of our wide-open democratic process. The day of the New York Democrat who looks down his nose at the "rubes" who believe in Jesus is gone, or at least going. While a blue Evangelical minority works on becoming a majority, perhaps the Democrats could make our job easier by not being ignorant of the whole "God thing."

* And that leads to a three-book required reading list for Democrats wishing to understand Evangelicals. Ready? Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (being an intellectual isn't contrary to being Christian). Cost of Discipleship by WWII martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a very brave Christian's deeply thoughtful expression of faith). Born Again by Chuck Colson. Wait.... did you say -- Yes, I did. I am no fan of Mr. Colson's politics, as he seems to me to have (using Christian parlance) backslidden in that regard to his Nixon days. But his book reflects a far different Colson, a man newly made aware of power's dangers and his own hubris. It also helps a non-believer grasp some of why we who do believe find our faith so central.

Alright... NOW for that wish-list to the Christian Right.

* Stop confusing America's well-being with God's will. Really. Nationalism, last time I checked, was a form of idolatry. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that America is "God's chosen nation." Heck, it doesn't even say that about the modern state of Israel. (Whoa! Did he say that?!) Now that doesn't mean we shouldn't pray for our nation. But it does mean we shouldn't keep living in the false myth that America was at one time a Christian nation, and will be restored to that state by an active Christian Right. False premises lead to false conclusions.

* Stop telling us what the will of God is... frankly, you do not know and sometimes appear to be on the wrong side, supernaturally speaking. The War in Iraq, for instance, is so obviously Satanic I cannot find the words to express my disgust for Christian spokespersons' support of it.

* Stop using homosexuality to rally voters to a party which only cynically uses Evangelicals to get themselves elected. Can you understand how your entangling Christ with Rove's use of "hot button" issues targeting gays destroys any Christian witness we have to this culture? Homosexuality demands nuance and wisdom, not hacked together political assaults upon gays only serving to put them on notice that we hold them in contempt. They are our neighbors. "Love your neighbor as yourself."

* Stop linking abortion to the Right's agenda. By doing so, you only underscore what pro-abortion forces believe about Evangelicals. Namely, that we teach: women are lesser than men; Women belong in the home, men on the job; Women are to submit to men, be under men, be directed by men. Well, many of us do NOT teach or believe those things, nor do we view women and men as defined by (pseudo-biblical) "roles." Yet we are against abortion on demand. And we are more than a bit irritated by your continual attempts to use abortion to coopt us politically. It so happens that, apart from abortion, we think the feminists basically understand reality better than you do.

* Stop fronting as "God's men" white males who actually are more gifted in the realm of corporate enterprise than they are in hearing the Voice of God. (Sure, there are a few women, and leaders of color, who also qualify in this dubious category.) These people more and more seem to speak a language we cannot hear, dance to music we do not like, and present a version of God foreign to either what we read in Scripture or what we experience Him to be in our own lives.

So please. Stop being "Right" and start being biblically Christian.

More Montana on CNN

Was I right? CNN still needs that lesson on Montana -- both geographically and politically. But they did this morning have a reporter interview the Dem's Senate candidate, Jon Tester, by phone. Maybe that's the best way to do it.

Choteau County, where my birth home town of Fort Benton is the county seat, did go narrowly for Democrat Jon Tester. Sure, he came from Big Sandy, also a small town in Choteau County. But for a Democrat to take that county is a major event. It has almost always been hard-core Republican country. Likewise with the rest of the state, until now. It appears Montana may end up being "blue" except for its lone Republican representative in the house...

Unless the message is received by Washington, I'd say Montana may be a bellweather of things to come...

It is possible the Republicans may still win the Senate seat. Right now, Tester is only 1,500 votes or so ahead. I think he takes it, though. And inside, this Chicagoan-once-Montanan is smiling.

Hey, CNN, What About Montana?

I am watching CNN at nearly 2 am Chicago time. And I'm fascinated by how little anyone at CNN knows about my home state of Montana. As someone born and bred in and near Fort Benton, less than an hour's drive from Democratic Senate Candidate Jon Tester's home in Big Sandy, I was bemused to observe how little they knew about the state.

One commentator sent to Billings talked about how the "east side" of Montana favored incumbent Conrad Burns while the "west part" of the state favored Tester. I was bewildered by these designations. Montana, as anyone remotely familiar with the state will tell you, is a huge and elongated state in which "east" and "west" would be very poor designations to describe anything. There is northwestern Montana, with Glacier Park and Flathead Lake; there is eastern Montana, with... well, not a lot of anything except vast expanses of Great American Desert. And then there are the many other portions of Montana, including North-Central Montana, from where both Jon Tester and myself originated. It is a beautifully understated sort of geography and a fiercely independent sort of person you'll find there.

CNN? Most painful was their ignoring the data I was pulling from their own website. The race between Tester and Burns was heating up, the Democratic challenger's lead slowly being eaten away. While they prattled on about Virginia (which was, after all, looking close most of the way until an over 10,000 vote lead opened up for the Democrat in that race) Montana's race was getting very hot.

Right now, two percentage points and only 7,000 odd votes separate the two Montana candidates. Ah. They just mentioned the Montana race, giving it half a sentence. And why? Because they don't know thing one about the Treasure State, that's why.

I'm giving them a few more minutes before I go to bed in disgust.

Or maybe not.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006 & up and running -- Plus, what election returns so far tell us

It seems appropriate this election day to announce the launch of a very bare-bones page -- inspired by this blog -- which will in the future serve as a front end for much if not most of my writing online. and both point to that page. Stay tuned.

As the election returns come in, one thing is very obvious. No spin, no equivocation, no alternate reality can protect the current occupant of the Whitehouse from what Americans think of his war in Iraq. Perhaps the Republicans will barely hold on to the Senate. But a sea change is in progress, one very promising to me as a "blue" evangelical. I see a number of Democrats, for instance, being elected to the House on a pro-life platform. Fascinating stuff! Frankly, I'm thrilled.

Those are my very rough notes, and I will certianly follow the blue pro-life folk as they enter the nation's political bloodstream. I'm hoping they're not just red-staters wearing a Democratic Party button, but instead are truly rounded folks with a new, break-out agenda focused on "the least of these" wherever such are found.

I also must admit I get a kick out of seeing Illinois Democrats so prominently part of the national scene right now, from Barack Obama to Rahm Emanuel.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Ted Haggard's open letter to his home church answers much, but not all

This letter from Ted Haggard was released to his New Life Church family this morning. The below copy is typed in by me from a fax copy, so any errors of spelling or typing are likely mine rather than Ted Haggard's. I offer it without commentary, except to say it is moving, honest to a degree unusual in these sorts of cases, yet does not answer what exactly it is he is confessing to. (Having five children who such information couldn't help but impact may have something to do with that decision at present.) I trust those questions will be answered in the near future. Ted Haggard indicates there has been a long-term problem with sexual sin, which may involve additional revelations. That also one expects will be explained in time, and would I hope kindle a deeper, more intense conversation among evangelical on how to create both transparency and accountability.

The letter (again, with potential errors due to my typing):


November 5, 2006

My Dear New Life Church Family,

I am so sorry. I am sorry for the disappointment, the betrayal, and the hurt. I am sorry for the horrible example I have set for you.

I have an overwhelming, all-consuming sadness in my heart for the pain that you and I and my family have experienced over the past few days. I am so sorry for the circumstances that have caused shame and embarrassment to all of you.

I asked that this note be read to you this morning so I could clarify my heart's condition to you. The last four days have been so difficult for me, my family and all of you, and I have further confused the situation with some of the things I've said during interviews with reporters who would catch me coming or going from my home. But I alone am responsible for the confusion caused by my inconsistent statements. The fact is, I am guilty of sexual immorality, and I take responsibility for the entire problem.

I am a deceiver and a liar. There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I've been warring against it all of my adult life. For extended periods of time, I would enjoy victory and rejoice in freedom. Then, from time to time, the dirt that I thought was gone would resurface, and I would find myself thinking thoughts and experiencing desires that were contrary to everything I believe and teach.

Through the years, I've sought assistance in a variety of ways, with none of them proving to be effective in me. Then, because of pride, I began deceiving those I love the most because I didn't want to hurt or disappoint them.

The public person I was wasn't a lie; it was just incomplete. When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased and finally dominated me. As a result, I did things that were contrary to everything I believe.

The accusations that have been leveled against me are not all true, but enough of them are true that I have been appropriately and lovingly removed from ministry. Our church's overseers have required me to submit to the oversight of Dr. James Dobson, Pastor Jack Hayford, and Pastor Tommy Barnett. Those men will perform a thorough analysis of my mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical life. They will guide me through a program with the goal of healing and restoration for my life, my marriage, and my family.

I created this entire situation. The things that I did opened the door for additional allegations. But I am responsible; I alone need to be disciplined and corrected. An example must be set.

It is important that you know how much I love and appreciate my wife, Gayle. What I did should never reflect in a negative way on their relationship with me. She has been and continues to be incredible. The problem was not with her, my children, or any of you. It was created 100% by me.

I have been permanently removed from the office of Senior Pastor of New Life Church. Until a new senior pastor is chosen, our Associate Senior Pastor, Ross Parsley, will assume all of the responsibilities of the office. On the day he accepted this new role, he and his wife, Aimee, had a new baby boy. A new life in the midst of this circumstance--I consider that confluence of events to be prophetic. Please commit to join with Pastor Ross and the others in church leadership to make their service to you easy and without burden. They are fine leaders. You are blessed.

I appreciate your loving and forgiving nature, and I humbly ask you to do a few things.

  1. Please stay faithful to God through service and giving.
  2. Please forgive me. I am so embarrassed and ashamed. I caused all this and I have no excuse. I am a sinner. I have fallen. I desperately need to be forgiven and healed.
  3. Please forgive my accuser. He is revealing the deception and sensuality that was in my life. Those sins, and others, need to be dealt with harshly. So, forgive him and, actually, thank God for him. I am trusting that his actions will make me, my wife and family, and ultimately all of you, stronger. He didn't violate you; I did.
  4. Please stay faithful to each other. Perform your functions well. Encourage each other and rejoice in God's faithfulness. Our church body is a beautiful body, and like every family, our strength is tested and proven in the midst of adversity. Because of the negative publicity I've created with my foolishness, we can now demonstrate to the world how our sick and wounded can be healed, and how even disappointed and betrayed church bodies can prosper and rejoice.
Gayle and I need to be gone for a while. We will never return to a leadership role at New Life Church. In our hearts, we will always be members of this body. We love you as our family. I know this situation will put you to the test. I'm sorry I've created the test, but please rise to this challenge and demonstrate the incredible grace that is available to all of us.

Ted Haggard

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ted Haggard: New Life Church acts quickly on grounds of "sexually immoral conduct"

This tonight from New Life Church, where Pastor Ted Haggard has been pastor.

November 4, 2006
New Life Church
Colorado Springs, Colorado

We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard. Our investigation and Pastor Haggard’s public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.

The language of our church bylaws state that as Overseers we must decide in cases where the Senior Pastor has “demonstrated immoral conduct” whether we must “remove the pastor from his position or to discipline him in any way they deem necessary.” In consultation with leading evangelicals and experts familiar with the type of behavior Pastor Haggard has demonstrated, we have decided that the most positive and productive direction for our church is his dismissal and removal. In addition, the Overseers will continue to explore the depth of Pastor Haggard’s offense so that a plan of healing and restoration can begin.

Pastor Haggard and his wife have been informed of this decision. They have agreed as well that he should be dismissed and that a new pastor for New Life Church should be selected according to the rules of replacement in the bylaws.

That process will begin immediately in hopes that a new pastor can be confirmed by the end of the year 2006. In the interim, Ross Parsley will function as the leader of the church with full support of the Overseers.

A letter of explanation and apology by Pastor Haggard as well as a word of encouragement from Gayle Haggard will be read in the 9:00 and 11:00 service of New Life Church.


I have nothing to add to this. Obviously the accountability structures set up -- many by Ted Haggard himself -- are initially working. Let's continue to pray for the New Life Church family, Ted's family, and Ted himself.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Come clean, Ted: My advice to Pastor Haggard... and to myself

This story continues to be amended as new facts come to light...

As many folks by now know, Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and head pastor of the Colordao Springs-based mega-church, New Life, stepped down yesterday from both positions after being accused of homosexual liasons with Mike Jones, a self-admitted gay prostitute. The meetings allegedly took place over a three year period, approximately once a month. These encounters also were said by Jones to involve the use of amphetamines, and at least one phone message was produced by Jones which appears to contain Haggard's voice asking Jones to purchase $100 to $200 of something unspecified.

Initially, I hoped and suspected these accusations were similar to false accusations made by a man against Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago in the mid 1990s, accusations which Bernadin handled with grace and patience until they were exposed as being lies.

But I was wrong, according to an email sent to members of New Life church by acting pastor Ross Parsley regarding Pastor Haggard being accused:

It is important for you to know that he confessed to the overseers that some of the accusations against him are true. He has willingly and humbly submitted to the authority of the board of overseers, and will remain on administrative leave during the course of the investigation.
That admission has only further fueled the controversy, especially as initially Ted Haggard denied having anything to do with Jones or even knowing him.

As of this afternoon, Pastor Haggard says that he met Mike Jones once to buy amphetamines but then "threw them away" without using them, and has never used amphetamines at other times. He additionally said he went to Mike Jones for a massage. Asked by an NBC reporter (see video) if he'd had sex with Jones, he said "no." Pastor Haggard said he met Jones through a "referral" at the hotel he was staying at at the time.

But back to those tapes. One of two tapes Jones provided offers an individual called "Art" (Haggard's middle name is Arthur) who sounds very like Pastor Haggard saying: "Hi Mike, this is Art.... Hey, I was just calling to see if we could get any more. Either $100 or $200 supply." The second tape, which is of a call a few hours after the first, indicates the two men had in fact met before: "Hi Mike, this is Art, I am here in Denver and sorry that I missed you. But as I said, if you want to go ahead and get the stuff, then that would be great. And I’ll get it sometime next week or the week after or whenever."

The italicized-by-me portion of the above indicates -- to me, at least -- that this was not the first time Ted Haggard had purchased drugs from Mike Jones. His low-key manner when affirming that he can "get it... whenever" is also an indicator the two have dealt with eachother before. And that would indicates Haggard caught in a problematic pattern of lies. First, he doesn't even know the name Mike Jones. He denies the story altogether. Then he says he bought but did not use the drugs, and it was only one time. He also says he got a massage but not sex.

My advice to Ted Haggard is to come clean, do it now, and accept whatever consequences befall. There is zero chance the whole story will not emerge. There is zero chance that stonewalling or "spinning" of any kind will work. The absolute worst thing anyone in Pastor Haggard's position can do is think there is any way to hide sin.

The biblical referent is an obvious one. King David seduced Bathsheba (or perhaps just outright ordered her to his bedroom, using his position and power). She got pregnant. He panicked, and when he couldn't get her faithful soldier-husband, Uriah, to go to bed with her (to make it appear the baby was Uriah's), he had Uriah murdered on the battlefield and married Bathsheba himself. God is not mocked, however, and sent Nathan the prophet to confront David. In the end, this great sinner repented. "I have sinned against the Lord." David was forgiven, yet he also reaped great consequences.

Not the least of which was having his sins published! Throughout the centuries, believers both Jewish and Christian have read about David's sin as instructive toward confronting our own. And of course, David wrote Psalm 51 as a prayer of repentance, in which he summed things up (verse 17):

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Pastor Haggard cannot afford to practice the unbelief of concealment. Exposing his own faults fully is the only avenue through which healing and restoration can come. He cannot allow himself to think that telling a few trusted friends is all it will take. Flinging the phrase "board of accountability" around as some sort of instant incense of forgetfulness has been tried before, unsuccessfully.

By entering the national and even world stage, Pastor Haggard has also become accountable to those outside the evanglical camp. He owes them honesty. (I would argue all we evangelicals owe such a debt, but that is for another time.)

Rock Throwing Begins at Home

As those who've read my blog in the past know, I'm sometimes quite critical of Ted Haggard. (His touting, for instance, of evangelicals' prayers being behind American troops' killing of Saddam Hussein's sons.) But when it comes to sexual sin, I've got no stomach at all for assaulting another guy's weaknesses and failures.

Instead, I have a number of thoughts which will irritate everyone, I hope.

* The evangelical model of ministry, based on the American corporate model of one person (usually a white male) as founder and boss, seems only more flawed the longer I watch it. There's a lot of noise about accountability... but the proof, I suspect, is in our pudding. Sure it works as far as building giant ministries. But it also sucks as far as horizontal accountability goes. The "type-A" hyperactive, energized go-getter is a prime candidate for immorality, and least likely to cultivate mature relationships with others. Yet we continue to stick these corporate types into our major pulpits and presidencies.

* Male leaders are at tremendous risk to sexual sin these days. It is not a matter of if they will encounter opportunity to transgress, it is a matter of when. The resistance of many evangelicals to women in leadership seems all the more obtuse when considering how vulnerable males apparently are in such roles. (I'm thinking of Swaggart, Bakker, apparently Haggard, as well as a plethora of lesser-known pastors and parachurch leaders).

* All of us are at major risk for sexual sin. I am sitting this instant in front of a machine that can take me to triple X rated film, pictures, or text in the matter of seconds. And no one will know. I could, for all you know, be sanctimoniously telling you about Ted Haggard's indiscretions and -- in another browser window -- have open pornographic images so grotesque they'd make Haggard's alleged sins look tame. I do not have that window open. But... how do any of us find accountability in such a world of instant gratification of our worst desires and instincts?

* The evangelical / charismatic world is a breeding ground for sexual sin. (See, told you I'd make folks mad before we finished here.) Why? Because within this world is cultivated the model of strong, massively male leaders who have submissive wives, 1950s-era families, and pretty much a direct pipeline to God. What a set-up for sexual misconduct! Why not cultivate instead a world where strength and dependence on others are not mutually exclusive? Why not rethink the hierarchical male models of church leadership and marital dominance? Imagine what might happen if we conceptualized leadership as a communal rather than individualist enterprise!

In the end, I find myself saddened greatly. I do pray that Pastor Haggard, his family, and his fellowship at New Life church find the clear path toward restoration and healing.

Getting Real Personal

And finally, I admit this: If I were placed in Pastor Haggard's position, with all that power and prestige and all those people looking toward me for spiritual answers to their burning questions... if I were looked up to as one of those powerful, dominant, forceful males our evangelical culture seems partial to...

I would sin. I would sin sexually. It might take me a month, a year, a few years. But in the end, the unreality of that strength I allegedly had would take its toll. And I would fail. I am no better, and perhaps worse, than Ted Haggard. My only plus is that I am loved and known and accountable to so many others. Though that is no guarantee against sin, of course -- especially due to the power of this lust magnet known as the computer -- it is a powerful disincentive.

Self-perception for me more and more has to be about letting go of power, strength, and righteousness of my own. I can say those words, but doing them is an ongoing process I don't expect to complete in this lifetime.

So please, if you've read this far as a non-believer, chuckling at the newest mess we evangelicals have gotten into, take a moment more to ponder the miracle that not all of us fail. Sometimes we really do live what we preach, remain honest and true to our spouses, love our neighbor as ourselves, and even -- our starting point, really -- love God.

If you are a Christian, especially a somewhat critical one such as I am who views Pastor Ted Haggard as part of the Christian Right, do not allow yourself for a moment to think you're any different than he is. We don't yet know the full extent or nature of his transgressions, or if his accuser is totally truthful. What we do know is that he, his family, his fellowship, and his accuser need our most humbled and broken-hearted prayers.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Persecuted Iraqi Christians Pawns in Midterm Elections?

This is going to get me in trouble.

No doubt there is persecution of Iraq's tiny (and quickly getting tinier as many flee) Christian minority. The growth of radical Islam in Iraq, thanks in large part to America's failed attempt to force a western-style democracy there, has insured persecution of Iraqi Christians.

But is it coincidence that only two weeks before the mid-term elections, viewed by many as a referendum on the Iraq War, my wife and I recieved a thick, colorful, and magazine-sized flier emblazoned with this headline? "Persecution Alert: Helping Iraq's Persecuted Church." A smiling boy holds up what appears to be a bible in Arabic, and beneath his picture the caption reads "Hope for the Future."

Inside things quickly get grim. A litany of extremist violence against Christians includes the beheading of a 71 year old nun, the death of a 13 year old boy by car bomb (though it is unclear whether he was targeted, or merely "collateral damage" to the country's overall violence), and a young man's beating by police for daring to ask they stop insulting Christians.

Now how can I complain about such a flier, which appears to be only a plea for monetary help in supporting the ministry of Christian Freedom International (CFI)? After all, commentators liberal and conservative have noted that persecution of Christians in Iraq is absolutely real and likely on the increase.

Well, it is all about timing. Perhaps thinking as cynically as political architect Karl Rove, I couldn't help but wonder if the flier was timed to come out right at a moment when some evangelicals are likely pondering their continuing alliance with the Bush administration and Republican Party, especially as it relates to the Iraq War. The flier to me appeared a "reminder" to the evangelical faithful that "staying the course" is a primary way to save our sisters and brothers from radical Islam. So, being a skeptic even though I am an evangelical, I gingerly poked around.

Why not start with CFI's president, James Jacobson? Jacobson does indeed have a political background, as his CFI bio notes:

Before founding CFI, Mr. Jacobson served as a policy analyst in the Reagan White House, served as political appointee in the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, and was a senior legislative assistant in the US Senate.
Jacobson has also been (and may still be) a member of the controversial conservative umbrella organization, the Council for National Policy.

Now those facts don't insure what my skeptical mind is suggesting. But they do add a bit more weight to the question. Was the message of this flier and its being sent to a probably large number of evangelicals -- right before the elections -- coincidence? Or was it done in concert with other Christian Right spokespersons? Asking these questions sounds almost sacreligious. How can I do it, when Christians are dying in Iraq?

Maybe I feel that being truly faithful is the opposite of being gullible. "...Test everything; hold fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21, NRSV) seems to me a pretty good rationale for being skeptical these days.

Jacobson's history isn't the only linkage between CFI and the Christian Right / Republican Party. In an aside that was part of a lengthy blog comment to a post on another topic, "Matt O." writes:

As of April 2005, among the list of "directors" for CFI is Robert Reilly, the former director of the Voice of America (VOA), who was criticized for being "too ideological." (The New York Times reported on the ideological bent in October 2001. Subscription required.) After Reilly resigned "abruptly" from the VOA, the April 21, 2003 edition of the Christian Science Monitor, it was reported that he now heads the Pentagon's broadcasting efforts in Iraq.
I have not yet found a larger list of CFI's directors. If I do, or if someone else does, please let me know.

But as to Reilly's background... Whoa. Coincidence? Sure, it really could be. As someone looking for the ministry with greatest integrity to support in efforts to aid the persecuted Church, am I just supposed to uncritically swallow these linkages? Because while it could be coincidence, it also could be cool calculation.

There is no doubt about it that Christians are being persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere by radical Islamic forces. And we should make that fact known. It is very painful for me to recieve such a flier in the mail, then find myself unable to believe the motivations behind it being sent. Here is another illustration of why it is so, so very important for evangelicals to disentangle themselves and their ministries from the Right. Various forces of the Christian Right count on us to salivate every time the bell is rung, not realizing that sooner or later we'll see through the machinations and become skeptical. Even worse, we will be tempted toward inactivity and apathy, leaving our sisters and brothers alone in their struggles.

As I say, I may well get in trouble over this post. But in light of the real connections between CFI and the Right, and in light of the first question I had when I received this mailing, I felt obligated to publish my meager findings. The subject will remain open, of course.

And for now, I will remain sadly skeptical.

A few related links:

Article from Atlantic Monthly in which James Jacobson takes the reporter on a tour through the slavery-ridden areas of Sudan, questioning the idea of "redeeming" slaves with money.

Another article from John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International (from which Jacobson and Christian Freedom International split), questioning Jacobson's positive role in the above article (see footnote 4) and defending the practice of "redeeming" slaves.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Friday, October 20, 2006

"Jesus Camp" movie invokes painful ambiguity

A cardboard President recieves prayers
from the children at "Kids on Fire" camp.
Image from "Jesus Camp" (c) 2006

Most Christian commentators seem highly irritated by the movie "Jesus Camp," calling it "hateful" and propagandist. And at least some secular reviewers have, via the movie, decided that brainwashing children is a common evangelical distinctive.

I found the movie, and its message, somewhere between those extremes.

The movie's subtext is undeniably a political one, set up from the first few moments where we watch cars whiz down a typical American highway and listen to a news blurb that Sandra Day O'Connor has stepped down from the Supreme Court. That is followed up by a radio pastor's voice talking about Christians need to be involved in the "culture wars."

The stage is set.

Perhaps many readers already know the basic storyline of Jesus Camp. "Pastor Becky" Fischer started a bible camp called "Kids on Fire" at Devil's Lake, North Dakota. Movie footage comes from there but also from various kids' families who attended that camp and also another in Missouri. The first half hour or so of the movie sets up a cultural context of the world some of the kids live in by following their family life, their schooling, and their own church life. The latter parts of the movie take us through "Kids on Fire" and follow a few of the kids to Washington where they protest abortion and do some witnessing.

As we travel through their lives, we encounter the evangelical subculture through its own radio, its own textbooks, its own movies and even video games, all laden with scientific, political, and cultural baggage which might or might not be biblical (or scientific). Yet it is a confusing, ambiguous journey for a Christian to watch. For one thing, just because these children are in a religious subculture does not mean their faith, understanding, and experiencing God are not real. Yes, they often parrot their parents and other authority figures. Don't our own children also parrot our political views?

I am not at all sure that the film was meant to be anything more than a skeptical (verging on cynical) take on evangelicalism. But what the film makers meant it to be and what it actually is -- sorry to go post-modern here -- are two different things. I'm not frankly interested all that much in why the movie was made, or with what motivations. What interests me most is that, whether or not the movie had any malevolent or hidden agendas, most of what we get comes direct from the mouth of Christians, some well-known. As an evangelical, I was most saddened by the movie's unblinking focus upon our idolatrous nationalism, an idolatry draped in piety.

There is a pervasive sense throughout that the movie camera does introduce a stiffness and propriety in the kids that might not otherwise be there. But this isn't a sign their reality is not rooted in something beyond what one secular reviewer of the movie called "brain washing." For me, it is part of the pain of this movie that one cannot delineate between the false idols of rightist politics and the true hearts of children who (Lord willing) will continue to hunger after Christ into their adult lives.

What Jesus Camp does do is inflict pain on the viewer -- a pain caused by ambiguity. Where is the border between belief and action, faith and politics, the Bible and culture? And where is the border between Christianity and America? Over and over again, we see the red, white, and blue American flag behind or in front of the cross. We hear various Christian pundits talking about that mythical "return to Christian values," and urging their flocks to fight for those values.

Ambiguity between God and cultural falsity is reflected in such comments as this one by Pastor Becky: "The devil goes after the young...."

I happen to believe that is true, whether the young are being aborted in America or taught to carry an AK-17 in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

But Pastor Becky then takes the whole conversation into a cultural cul-de-sac. "Harry Potter! Warlocks are enemies of God!... had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death!" A child's voice goes "Amen." Yet later on, a few kids left alone around a table start joking with one of them that he looks a bit like Harry Potter (which in fact he does). Their knowledge of Harry indicates things are -- again -- more ambiguous for them even as children than we might imagine.

During a time of prayer and repentance, a child prays a prayer my own heart resonated with:

"It's really hard to do this [he kneels]. To believe in God is really hard because you don't see him... you don't really know him much. Sometimes I don't even believe what the Bible says. It makes me a faker. It makes me feel guilty..." Then he raises his hands in silence, and no one speaks.

Was the above a statement for show, part of child's obedient sort of play-acting? Or was it a statement of real doubt? Or was it a statement mixing child-like play-acting with real doubt and real faith? If the latter, which I think it was, I'll take that kid as a representative for myself, and a faith I hope is also childlike in the best sense.

The political dimensions of what the children at Jesus Camp are taught also create ambiguity in me as a viewer. It troubled me to see kids given a hammer and told to break a glass cup called "government"; violence symbolically could cultivate the idea that the way to gain one's political will (in God's name) is to use force and aggression. Are the kids being taught a sort of Christian version of radical Jihad? But of course, like the Muslim concept of Jihad, spiritual warfare to the Christian is usually about the inner war against one's own darkness and woundedness rather than an outer war against other individuals.

That brought up one area worthy of close and thoughtful discussion among Christians. The language of spiritual warfare, especially among charismatic Christians, can lead down some really odd and even scarey paths. The whole business of "binding and loosing" spiritual powers, mixed with politics, seems a mixture guaranteed to lead bad places. Yet even there, I find myself stuck in ambiguity. I do believe there are spiritual powers in high places -- the idea is very biblical, though the first century writers' meaning is not easily grasped or understood by twenty-first century minds. But Rove and company are smart, and have and will continue to use the language of spiritual warfare to push an agenda which deep-down may even be anti-biblical.

I, however, digress from the movie.

I was disappointed with the movie-makers when they introduced Mike Papantonio, who to my mind was a deficient representative for non-Right wing Christianity. Perhaps it is because I grew up within a washed-out version of Christianity, where Christ may or may not have existed, much less have been the God/Man who died for our sins and historically rose on the third day. The movie's great mistake to me was including Papantonio for a counterpoint rather than someone who overtly held evangelical theology dear, but rejected the incursion of Karl Rove and company. Like me. (Snark, snark, snark.)

I think there's another reason Panantino was a bad idea. His predictable quacking gets in the way of the movie's artistic strength: its raw commitment to let the kids and adult Christians speak for themselves. If the movie makers had clung to that vision and not allowed the lense to waver for an instant from their primary subjects... this would have been a far more powerful movie.

In the midst of the shrill goings-on at "Kids on Fire," along with commentary from Papantonio, we are left with the idea that brainwashing may be going on here. Mr. Papantonio complains that evangelicals are pushing non-scientific theories re seven-day creationism. Yet he then pushes an equally non-scientific theory regarding brainwashing, a concept with no scientific basis. Faith, whether true or false or an admixture of reality and rationalizations, is far deeper and more complex than the idiotic cartoon "brainwashing" creates in a viewer's mind.

Again, what gets lost are the deeper issues beyond politics. Are these children's cries, tears, and emotions simply produced by the Christian adults around them? Is there a real God Whom these children may in fact be in contact with? That's where the movie-makers fail, in my opinion. The movie is too much about politics.

But if the movie is about politics, so is evangelical Christianity these days. And that is where the movie-makers are the most believable as they chronicle the admixture of right-wing politics and Christian piety. In one of the more startling moments at her "Kids on Fire" camp, a cardboard cutout of President Bush is produced by Pastor Becky, and all the children gather around it to pray for him. Some lie on the floor at his feet, a rather creepy moment.

In an interview with the film makers, Pastor Becky makes explicit what is heavily implied in the above scene:

"There is a friendlier atmosphere toward Christianity in the past few years than there has been in my lifetime. And a lot of it has to do -- just in the past few years -- with President Bush. He has really brought some credibility to the Christian faith."

I found that idea astonishingly naive. Sure, the Christian Right may feel more empowered. But power is not warmth and acceptance. In fact, many of us "renegade" evangelicals who refuse the Right's overtures find that their use of power has made our task of winning others' interest and friendship toward Christ all the more difficult.

Though Pastor Becky's rather extreme methods with kids are not the evangelical norm, the spiritual warfare motif and its political ramifications certainly are. The movie's penultimate scenes take place at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, a mega-church pastored by Ted Haggard. Pastor Ted is the head of the National Assocation of Evangelicals. And here is what Jesus Camp captures him saying:

"The point I want to get across is that in your home you need to make sure that you have a few core beliefs. And we who are Americans, those of you who are citizens of the United States, need to make sure that our nation has a core belief, and as we settle those philosophies correctly then our freedom is guaranteed."

And he prays:

"Lord let us not waver. Let us not be talked out of it. Let us not be negotiated out of it. It's massive warfare every day. Let the battle begin."

Depending upon what Ted Haggard means by this, those are quite properly frightening statements. I've been frightened and disheartened for a very long time myself. But as I, too, believe in spiritual warfare, the reality of the demonic, the silver-tongued power of the Lord of Lies but the even greater reality of the Lord of Love, Joy, and Suffering, I will continue working and praying both for my own darkness and my Church's darkness. Whatever Jesus Camp means to others, what it means to me is that we have been seduced by the Spirit of the Age, and that Spirit is of Fear, not Love.

Related links:
Ted Haggard's response to Jesus Camp
A thoughtful, if quite negative, pentecostal's response (6,000 Words!) to Jesus Camp

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Moving soon to

I've had the URL for for some time... but it is parked. I'm thinking of moving the blog from here to there, where I can also do audio posting and (who knows?) maybe some video posting as well. I'm also going to be doing some teaching here in Chicago at my home community, Jesus People USA, for the new "Project12" discipleship school JPUSA is sponsoring. So I'm not at all sure of a time table for all this. But do stay tuned. I've also got at least one more prominent Christian feminist on board for an interview, as I promised. She wants it done via phone, so maybe I'll have to bone up on Skype and record the whole thing as an mp3 as well as doing an edited version for readers.

Anyway... where have I been? On vacation. I'll try to get right back in the saddle, honest.

A few topics I hope to cover (which is not a promise):

* The "Jesus Camp" movie.
* N. T. Wright's "Judas and the Gospel of Jesus"
* A book by Henri Nouwen with fairly profound implications for this site's purpose... at least I will post some quotes, but I'd like to do a lot more than that.
* The afore-mentioned Christian feminist interviews.
* My wife and I journeyed through the giant garage sale that is "Spoon River Days" in Central Illinois. We had some amusing adventures with potential implications beyond the silliness.

And more... by God's grace...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 reposted poetry, prose

I reposted some of the mushgoo over on my site. The site's poetry page was down for a while, including my Song of Solomon stuff (Parts One and Two), but it is now back due to massive demand (at least one email). Snark, snark, snark...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Woman Be Free! Interview with Patricia Gundry

In what will hopefully be the first of a string of interviews with women leaders in the evangelical Church, I’m honored to present a dialogue with Patricia Gundry. Pat is one of the founding leaders of the evangelical world opening up toward women. Her book, Woman Be Free (which is indeed free, along with her book on marriage, Heirs Together, on Pat’s website) was the first evangelical book I and many others encountered on the topic. (The other for me was Elaine Storkey’s 1985 What’s Right with Feminism, along with the very non-evangelical Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women.) These books in some ways ratified my “Jesus movement” understanding of women and leadership, while challenging me regarding marriage, “static” gender roles, and my privileged position as a white male in America and the church. I hope you enjoy Pat’s responses to my brilliant questions. Perhaps, if demand calls for it, we’ll have her back on blue christian for another go.

[Patricia Gundry, 2006. Photo copyright Pat Gundry.]

Patricia, your name is synonymous with evangelical feminism. Maybe we can start with the “evangelical” in that? How did you become an evangelical Christian?

I was born to a Southern Baptist mama who taught me the song "Jesus Loves Me" when I was very small, and took me to church and Sunday school wherever we lived. At age six I was attending some sort of after school thing for children in a woman's home in the Los Angeles area, and was told that Jesus stood at the door knocking and wanted to be invited into my heart. I invited him in, and consider that my conversion experience. I remember the inner joy I experienced at that time, that continued onward.

At age thirteen I went forward during the Invitation at the end of a hell fire and brimstone sermon at a Missionary Baptist church in Corcoran, California to make sure it was clear that I had really been converted, and was then baptized. Unlike most Baptists, though, I was immersed twice. Just as I was catching my breath, the pastor dipped me under again. Later, he explained that he'd not immersed some part of me completely, and he knew there would be objections if he didn't do it again. I don't know what kind of Baptist that makes me, maybe a DuoBaptist.

Well, I’m glad you survived your baptism—er, both of them! Evangelicals emphasize Scriptural authority. How central to your life is the bible, and how “authoritative” is it as far as matters of faith or practice?

I bought my own Bible when I was a child, at what we used to call a dime store. I think I paid a dollar and a half or maybe even two dollars for it, which was a lot of money to me. I read it continuously from then on, and became a whiz at odd bits of Bible info, such as, I can name the three daughters of Job and give you the lineage of Queen Esther's persecutor.

The Bible has always been the most important book I own, and I consider it authoritative, Inspired, and the rulebook for matters of faith and practice.

What first made you aware of feminism? Were there secular feminists whose articles or books affected you?

If you mean the modern feminist movement, it was reading Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, which I thought had major flaws. I thought she used a straw man (woman in this case) argument. But it did alert me to the movement.

Previously, while still in High School, I'd discovered Simone De Beauvoir's The Second Sex on a public library shelf. I found that book to be interesting, well presented, and when compared later, much better than Friedan's.

What was the first previously held belief of yours that you began to rethink regarding women?

That's hard to answer, because I was raised to feel free to notice, challenge, and seek to solve and understand contradictions and paradoxes. I remember wondering, in high school, how to reconcile certain Bible passages that appeared to contradict each other. I assumed there were answers that would make sense, but didn't know where to find them.

And where did that take you next?

I began to ask questions of those I thought would know the answers, and was surprised at the answers I received. I'd be given some brush off non-answer, or my respondent would make a joke about my asking, or give me an answer I knew wasn't valid. I thought I'd have to keep asking until I found someone who knew more about it.

How did your husband respond to these discoveries of yours?

He didn't know the answers to my questions either. But, I thought, well, he's young, he just hasn't studied that well enough yet. Later, I found to my surprise that hardly anyone had. It didn't seem to be an important area of study to the Bible scholars of the past.

Did he accompany you intellectually as you made your journey, or did you go there first and then explain to him what you’d found?

I went there first. And, in fact, it took him a long time to come to the same conclusions.

I'd been very informal and casual about my questioning until I had a sort of "light bulb" moment that set me on a path to seriously study the Bible passages in question.

While serving a meal to a visiting preacher I asked him how he interpreted the passage [regarding women in the church] in I Timothy. To my shock and surprise, this man, who was usually very friendly and gracious, snapped at me, "Why do you want to know?!" He was sitting at my table, eating my spaghetti, and being obviously rude to me about a simple conversational question.

That's when the light bulb moment came to me. I thought, He doesn't know. None of them know. But, they are willing to limit all women's lives and participation on the basis of Bible passages they know are problematic and they don't know how to interpret. I determined to someday search and find the answers to my questions, and to share them with all other women who wanted to know too.

How did you describe these new ideas?

It was simply sharing information I'd discovered while searching for answers about the Bible passages that had puzzled me.

When did you write Woman Be Free?

It was published in 1977, took a year from acceptance at the publisher to publication, and I worked on it steadily for at least a year, so it must have been 1974 and 1975. But, I'd been informally researching it for a long time.

[Patricia Gundry in the mid-seventies, the Woman Be Free era. Photo copyright Pat Gundry.]

Were you a “feminist” or an “egalitarian” or what?

I had always been a feminist and egalitarian, before I knew those terms. I'd been raised to be an independent thinker, confident in my ability to do and be whatever I set out to do or be. It came as a shock to me as an older child to realize that some people would want to limit my opportunities solely because I was female.

Labels are so quickly affixed within the evangelical fold, what did others call you?

I don't think I had a label. I thought of myself as a biblical feminist, when someone asked me to give them some descriptive term, that's what I'd tell them.

But, most people didn't know about Woman Be Free for some time. So, no one was giving me any labels, they didn't know I existed. The book didn't have an easy entry into Christian bookstores, many bookstore owners being quite conservative, and some of my publisher's own salesmen even advising booksellers not to stock it.

I smile here because as a man, I’m not sure if I get to call myself a feminist legitimately or not, but have been called “a goddess worshipper” among other things by anti-feminist critics...

I like the term "feminist" because it has great historic origins. The first feminists were Christian women working to gain voting rights for all women. If I'm going to have some label attached to what I believe, I think I should get to define that label. I like Alan Alda's definition, "A feminist is someone who believes women are people." Feminists believe that women are fully human, and if they are, then they need to have full access to human rights and opportunities.

Your husband worked for a conservative evangelical institution. What transpired there as a result of your embracing feminist / egalitarian ideas?

It was a very interesting situation, and different from what many probably think.

Stan and I were guests at the home of Moody Bible Institute's Dean of Faculty, Sherrill Babb. As we were conversing in their living room, Stan said to Sherril, "There is something you need to know," and proceeded to tell him that I had an upcoming book, and what it was about. Stan said he wanted to know if Sherrill thought that subject and my approach to it, which he said he substantially agreed with on most points, would be a problem either to him or at Moody.

Babb said, no, not at all from his perspective, but that if it ever did become an issue at Moody, that Babb would defend Stan, and if he couldn't successfully defend him in the matter, Babb, himself, would resign. Which he did, after unexpected elements and events caused Moody's administration to change their position away from toleration of diversity of opinion on the interpretation of Bible passages regarding women.

However, for two years after the book was published, there was no problem at all.

During that time I was invited to be one of the main speakers at an all day women's event at Moody, speaking on the subject of the book.

I was also a participant on Moody Radio shows at least twice, again on the subject of my book.

I'd been asked to present the book's ideas, with full approval, at Moody, until we were targeted by a political action group (STOP ERA) that had been putting pressure on Moody to make a policy statement opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, and their efforts led to a letter writing campaign denouncing us to Moody administrators.

I'd been invited to speak at a local meeting of Housewives for ERA (HERA, founded by Methodist minister's wife Anne Follis) on the subject of my book (not on ERA at all). In the newspaper announcement of the meeting it mentioned that my husband taught at Moody. Interestingly, I'd not wanted to include that info on the vita sheet I'd prepared for the newspaper. But, Stan had seen it sitting on an old pump organ we had, read it, and insisted that I add to where I'd just said my husband was a teacher that he was a teacher at Moody Bible Institute, saying he was proud of working at Moody. I said I didn't want to ride on his coattails. But he said he really wanted me to add the Moody bit. I included it, against my better judgment. If I'd followed my own inclination, he probably would not have been fired.

See what happens when you submit to your husband? (Okay, another pathetic attempt at humor gone awry...)

I thought that was pretty ironic too.

Once, when we were having a social evening at our home for Moody students, I noticed a couple of the male students talking animatedly to each other in front of the bookcase where I kept my cookbook collection (It will no longer fit into a single bookcase, but it did then.) One of them finally asked me, doubtfully, "Mrs. Gundry, are those *your* cookbooks?" They'd had a hard time believing a feminist could be interested in such things.

But, I've been, and am, quite domestic. I have four children, and was always a stay at home mom, there before and after school, and the children also came home for lunch when they were in grade school in Wheaton, Illinois. I'm also a scratch cook, an organic gardener, and can sew, crochet, and knit. I've compiled and had a cookbook published, by Zondervan, and reprinted it myself later via my micro publishing house Suitcase Books.

So feminists can cook after all, huh? Then what’s my excuse? Never mind… So what happened next at Moody?

Local STOP ERA members reading the newspaper announcement saw an opportunity for them to get leverage to use on Moody. So they attended, and then wrote letters to Moody administrators denouncing me, and my husband too, by association. The letters were full of distortions and downright lies, which Moody administrators said they knew were fabrications. One of the letter writers also sent a copy of her letter to a radio preacher who broadcast an impassioned plea for listeners to write to Moody and object to their having a man like that on the faculty.

As Moody began receiving a volume of letters demanding to know why they had such a terrible teacher on their staff, and saying they would not contribute as long as that was the case, certain administrators decided it might be a problem after all.

Moody's solution: they simply forced him to resign, and then could say he was no longer there, eliminating the need to do anything further.

Ouch. More on the up side, were you involved in the founding of any of the egalitarian women’s groups that came into existence in the seventies or eighties?

I was involved in the founding of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) but did not become a member until a few years ago. I helped write most of the founding documents, and provided the name for the CBE journal, Priscilla Papers.

How did you react to the split between Christians for Biblical Equality (or was it their immediate predecessor – I’ve forgotten the history on some of these names) and the pro-gay group now called Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus?

I thought it was a foolish thing for the EWC pressure group to do, to try to railroad something into the charter that would inevitably hurt the group and its members in conservative churches.

I guess the secondary issue in this is homosexuality and its role (real or imagined) in the overall debate over gender mutuality.

The issue of homosexuality has absolutely nothing to do with equality for women. They are two distinctly different rights issues, and I've always insisted it's a mistake to combine them. I know that some feminists and many anti-feminists attempt to link the two issues, but I believe it is a forced connection, usually for the purpose of furthering their own particular agendas.

Have the arguments against mutuality / egalitarian ideas changed much from the 1970s / 80s til now?

I don't know. I've never tried to persuade anyone to agree with me or become egalitarian in their outlook. I'm happy to allow traditionalists, whatever they currently call themselves, to continue to believe what they do about women. There are so many people who want to have answers to the same questions I had that I figure the best practice is to share the information with them and allow those who aren't interested to go their own way in peace.

Who in your opinion are the most articulate egalitarian voices today?

Oh, that would be me [large smile]. There are some very articulate voices online, which is where I do most of my egalitarian issue reading and writing. But, they aren't well known outside the forums and discussion lists they frequent.

What books would you recommend for someone really wanting to dig into the theological questions surrounding women, men, and the biblical framework regarding their interrelationships?

Because my books are pretty foundational, I always send people to my web site: where I've posted the full text of my first two books, Woman Be Free and Heirs Together. And, additionally, I'd recommend they surf around on CBE's site:

What is the most destructive book / argument in your opinion regarding women?

It would be hard to choose one book. I guess I'd have to say it would be a toss-up between Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas, and the Malleus Maleficarum, by Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer.

As for the most destructive argument, I think that would be that there are "patterns" in the Bible that must be used as absolute hierarchical models, such as the argument that woman being created second in the Genesis account proves that women are to be ruled over by men.

The use of "patterns" that supposedly prove hierarchy absolutes was a most destructive part of Medieval theology and Bible interpretation. Most contemporary Christians have rejected those Medieval hierarchical beliefs, but traditionalists still cling to the one placing males over females.

You deal with abuse fairly extensively in some of your writing. Do you think the hierarchalist (complementarian) viewpoint contributes to abuse in marriages or/and the Church? If so, how?

I disagree with some of my fellow egalitarians in this regard. I do not believe the hierarchicalist viewpoint causes abuse. Abuse is caused by the individual who chooses to abuse. I believe abuse is an addiction, that the addict changes his or her uncomfortable emotional state by creating it in a chosen vulnerable person, then the abuser feels better.

But, I do believe that the hierarchalist viewpoint, applied, creates an environment that is sheltering and enabling for abusers. It provides a cloak for them, and more opportunities to abuse than would be available in a non hierarchical environment.

Thank you so much, Patricia, for your witness and your family’s witness for women and men in the Church.