Dec 27, 2013

Dec 26, 2013

Where are the angels in evangelicalism?: Thursday links

Disenchantment in evangelical churches:
In all my years in evangelical churches, I cannot recall hearing much teaching about [angels] except from one Sunday School teacher who was oddly preoccupied with mysterious phenomena. She would close each class with an 'angel story' that she'd read from a magazine, where men suddenly appeared, did some good deed, and then disappeared again.  
I loved her stories, but my understanding of angels never grew up. Angels remained frozen on Sunday School felt boards or in pageants at Christmastime (Christianity Today).
The cross is a Christian symbol:
Attempts to remove the 59-year-old cross have been unfairly vilified as attempts to wipe all signs of religion from public spaces. Of course, crosses have a proper place on public land. One example is the large cross in a corner of Camp Pendleton that marks the site of the first baptism in California. In that case, history and religion are inextricably bound. The crosses that mark the graves of Christian war veterans are an appropriate way to honor both their service and their beliefs. But we doubt anyone would say that such a symbol belongs on the graves of Jewish or Muslim war dead. A cross is not a universal symbol for memorializing the dead. It is a Christian marker (Los Angeles Times).
St. Augustine and sexual orientation:
When I was in my early twenties and just beginning to allow myself to face up to my sexuality, I remember a wise pastor friend telling me that anyone with an Augustinian anthropology -- for those playing at home, that's a dim view of natural human ability to be virtuous and an uber-high view of God's slow-moving, unpredictable grace -- should have no time for the notion that gay people (or anyone else!) 'choose' whom they'll be attracted to (Spiritual Friendship).
Reject the sin, don't dehumanize the sinner:
It does not matter if you think homosexuality is a sin, or if you think it is simply another expression of human love. It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Because people are dying. Kids are literally killing themselves because they are so tired of being rejected and dehumanized that they feel their only option left is to end their life. As a Youth Pastor, this makes me physically ill. And as a human, it should make you feel the same way. So, I’m through with the debate. 
When faced with the choice between being theologically correct . . . as if this is even possible . . . and being morally responsible, I'll go with morally responsible every time (In The Parlor). 
Financial mismanagement at the American Bible Society:
From 2002 through 2011 [the American Bible Society] overspent its budget by $250 million . . . The organization watchdog found that in 2012, 30 percent of the ABS budget was spent on fundraising, 'an amazing five times the average fundraising cost ratio of ministries covered in the database.' Another watchdog, CharityNavigator, gives the ministry an overall three out of four stars, but only two out of four for financial efficiency, and MinistryWatch gives it only one star out of five.

Staff compensation also raises eyebrows, totaling $29 million for its 220 employees in 2011. That's an average compensation of about $130,000 per employee, with at least 10 senior staffers making more than $200,000 per year. By contrast, grants to other organizations such as foreign Bible societies -- a primary way the ABS facilitates Bible distribution -- came to less than $8 million (World (behind a paywall)).

  American executions in decline:

Dec 25, 2013

The Puritan war on Christmas

Puritan theologian William Perkins, considered a moderate in 1595 Cambridge, decried the practice of Christmas. It was, he wrote, a basically heathen day of "rifling, dicing, carding, masking, mumming" and assorted "licentious libertie":

In New England, where dissenters worked to establish a truly Christian society, Christmas was frowned upon, and actually illegal for some years. Anyone caught celebrating in Massachusetts would be fined five shillings.

As Michael D. Hattem writes,
Due to the penchant for disorder, immodesty, gluttony, and the (temporary) breakdown of the social order, it should come as no surprise that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English dissenters began to take a very dim view of the holiday. Indeed, the hotter the Protestant, the stronger the aversion to Christmas. But their opposition to Christmas was not just due to the overtly social nature of its celebration. Puritan faith derived wholly from scripture, and, in 1645 and again in 1647, the Long Parliament declared the abolition of all holy days except the Sabbath, which was the only day described as such in the Bible.
It's common to hear contemporary Christians make claims about the missing "true meaning" of Christmas. The Puritans of Early America might have countered that, if you understood the true meaning, you wouldn't celebrate the sham holiday at all.

Update: Things Not Seen radio has a segment on this topic today.

Dec 23, 2013

American church

Independent Christian Church, McDonough, Ga.

Dec 19, 2013

Harold Camping, 1921 - 2013

Harold Camping was committed to the conservative Christian doctrine of Biblical inerrancy that was articulated in the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of his youth, and followed his understanding of that belief even when it lead him into the wilderness.

Only if the Bible is accepted on its own terms, Camping taught, as entirely self-sufficient, could it be rightly understood. It is its own interpreter. The Bible is its own context. Most methods of reading the scripture err because they don't rely on the text completely. As Camping wrote,
We can do almost anything we wish with the Bible. We become free to read the Bible and make our own personal judgments as to what God means in every verse ...
Read the full obit at Religion Dispatches: Harold Camping, Prophet of Apocalypse, dies at 92. 

No monument for Satan: Thursday links

The goal of announcing a Satanic monument is not to promote Satanism but to demonstrate why government endorsements of religion are undesirable ... While this tactic of prank-as-protest is clever, these invented religions never win their day in court. The Supreme Court case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009), in which a new religious movement called Summum sought to erect a monument listing the 'seven aphorisms' of their religion in a park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, virtually guarantees that Oklahoma will not have to erect a monument to Satan (Religion Dispatches).
Contraception is a compelling state interest:
In the Hobby Lobby case, the Court will consider whether the provision of contraceptive services meets a compelling public health need. We believe, along with an Institute of Medicine committee that reported in July 2011, that it does. First, appropriately prescribed contraceptive services prevent unintended pregnancies without promoting promiscuity. Preventing unplanned pregnancies, more than half of which are currently terminated, averts these induced abortions and their attendant financial, physical, and psychosocial expense (New England Journal of Medicine).
St. Augustine, therapist:
Perhaps the most puzzling (false) dichotomy is [David F.] Wells's emphasis on the objective versus the subjective. This would confuse Augustine, for instance, who wrote: 'Do not go outside yourself, but enter into yourself, for truth dwells in the interior self.' Yet no one would confuse Augustine with Oprah. 
Indeed, Augustine's Confessions recount the interior journey of a soul toward the majesty of God, culminating in the meditations of Book 10: 'Through my soul I will ascend to him.' By turning inward, Augustine's self-confidence is destabilized ... in this internal vertigo, he also finds the One who is greater: 'You are my true life.' 'Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you' (Christianity Today).
It's time to change Christian television:
Some people might say this is not the time to have this discussion. But I think Paul Crouch’s passing signals the end of an era -- and it is time for a reformation. 
Crouch’s generation built monolithic organizations with autocratic leadership, and broadcasters who began their networks in the 1970s created a showy, bigger-is-better style that included endless telethons, sensational preaching and celebrities in spotlights. That may have worked in 1975 -- and it still appeals to a segment of the market. But my generation and my children's generation tuned out long ago because Christian TV came off as fake, campy and spiritually out of touch (Charisma Magazine).
The mystery of the C.S. Lewis industry:
Why all the interest in the man himself? His life wasn’t boring, exactly, but most of his great adventures were interior: his learning, his adult conversion, his grief, his joy. Lewis didn’t travel much. He was born in Belfast and spent much of his childhood shut in the house for fear that he would take sick from the damp, cold weather. After his mom died of cancer, Lewis’s father shipped him off to a series of dreary boarding schools. Second Lieutenant Lewis spent about as much time during World War I in the hospital as in battle. He then lived the bulk of his adult life at Oxford, learning and teaching and drinking and debating with his friends. He decamped for some years to Cambridge, took ill, returned to his old Oxford home, and died ... Lewis himself would be flummoxed and embarrassed at all the attention (The American Spectator).
Atheist in the public square:
When I spoke recently with [Rep. Barney] Frank, he told me his decision not to come out as an atheist wasn't a matter of political expedience. 'Atheism didn't come up,' he said. 'It wasn't relevant to policy.' He mentioned his contributions to secularism and the separation of church and state -- such as his fight against Sen. Rick Santorum's bid to make faith-based organizations eligible for tax funding. Frank told me that for many years he had 'affirmed' instead of swearing an oath. 'I haven't said 'so help me God' in a very long time,' he said, 'but no one notices' (Politico Magazine).
Comedian Pete Holmes goes surfing with Rob Bell:

Dec 17, 2013

Converting alone

In the second half of the 20th century, Americans stopped joining things. Where Americans had previously been enmeshed in numerous social networks and had, further, shown an affinity for affiliation, that ended. Now Americans disengaged. Now they hesitated before signing on to anything or joining up.

Now, increasingly, people chose isolation.

Whether it was a lodge or a union, a social club or a political organization, in the '70s, '80s and '90s, group membership and participation dropped off sharply.

Robert D. Putnam writes,
Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tends of thousands like them across American began to fade. 
It wasn't so much that old members dropped out -- at least not any more rapidly than age and the accidents of life had always meant. But community organizations were no longer continuously revitalized, as they had been in the past, by freshets of new members. 
Those would-not-be members were, increasingly, as Putnam's title famously put it, Bowling Alone.

This is true of religion, too. Part of this social shift and this trend was and is the increasing number of those who don't identify with any religious organization, the "nones." Part of this change is Christians who don't want to identify with any denomination. There was 400 percent growth of non-denominational Christians between the 1970s and the 2010s. Part of this shift is the emergence of the category of people who said they were spiritual, but disliked "organized religion." People are still religious in America, but they're more likely to forgo the communal aspects of being religious. They avoid the social networks, the enmeshing.

There are even cases where people "join" a religion, undergo a conversion in their own minds, and yet remain in isolation. Their religious identity is detached from the "denser personal relationships" that, in Putnam's research, seem to matter so much. Their new-found faith is, so to speak, all personal belief and no church suppers.

People bowl alone. People convert alone.

One notable case of this is Terry Lee Loewen.

Loewen is 58 years old, a Kansas native who lives in Wichita. He is white, divorced and remarried, and has a son. He takes blood-thinner for his heart. He has a career as an avionics technician, working for a contractor at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

He is also a Muslim convert.

As a convert, Loewen is inspired by the idea of "my Muslim brothers + sisters." He is inspired by the idea of "Ummah," an Arabic word he learned online that means "nation" or "community." He feels a great love and compassion for his fellow religionists, even though he actually doesn't know any of them.

In fact, it would appear that the only Muslim Loewen deeply engaged with was an undercover FBI agent pretending to be a radical Islamic jihadist online.

Dec 14, 2013

The apocalyptic vision of Christian TV

The world's largest Christian television network was conceived as a short-term project. That's because when the first TV satellites began broadcasting, founders Paul and Jan Crouch were anticipating the apocalypse. 

They had their hopes, actually, that their network would be the fulfillment of the prophecies necessary for Jesus Christ's second coming and the end of human history.

Paul Crouch died last month, 40 years after he and his wife began Trinity Broadcasting Network. He was 79 years old and at his death TBN reportedly had 84 satellite channels and about 18,000 television affiliates. According to industry website TVNewsCheck, TBN has the third largest reach of American broadcast networks. By that measure, it's bigger than CBS or FOX. TBN's broadcasts are available all day, every day, in about 46 million US homes. The network is continually beamed across the globe and has been since 1978, when TBN's first satellite TV station was anointed with oil from Israel. It broadcasts to every continent except Antarctica in fulfillment of the vision Crouch had when, he said, God spoke one word to him in 1975, and the word was: "satellite."

That vision was an eschatological vision -- a dream of the return of Christ, the rise of the antichrist, a final clash of cosmic good and evil -- of the end of human history heralded, if not prompted, by the beaming broadcasts of evangelical TV around the world.

Crouch claimed, in fact, that the TBN satellite was foretold in Revelation 14:6-7:
Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth ... saying with a loud voice, 'Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come.'

Dec 12, 2013

Dec 11, 2013

Lanny Moody, 1959 - 2013

Lanny Moody, a Christian comedian from the Atlanta area, died last week at the age of 54.

Moody, who operated a crane for 25 years as his day job, was reportedly standing next to his semi truck on the side of Interstate 285 when he was struck by a swerving vehicle. The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide and failure to maintain a lane, according to WSBTV, an Atlanta news station.

Moody's family has forgiven the driver. They said Moody would want his death to serve as a reminder that one never knows when life will end and should be ready. Moody was a youth minister at Solid Rock Baptist Church in Covington, Ga., a member of an evangelical motorcycle club, Run With the Son Christian Motorcyclist Association, and had recently received a B.A. from Anderson Theological Seminary. His obituary notes his passion for "sharing the gospel and bringing people to Christ."

Even his comedy, though it didn't focus strictly on religious themes, was used for evangelism.

During a stand-up set at an evangelical festival in 2012, Moody explained how his comedy and his Christian witness were connected. "Life is too short not to have fun, man," he said. "This is my belief, that if we as Christians looked like we were happy with what we had in Jesus, more people would want what we got in Jesus. That's just the way I think about it."

Dec 10, 2013

Songs of the silence of God

Taylor Muse decided he'd lost his faith on the way home from work.

A Southern Baptist from East Texas, Muse had been struggling with his Christianity. Since college, at least, when he moved out of home and read Kurt Vonnegut and just got away from the all-encompassing context of praise teams, choir practice, youth group, church-all-the-time, he'd felt an increasing distance from faith.

Had he ever even believed?

Maybe once it had seemed like God spoke to him, in his heart, while the band played four chords and the preacher asked everyone to bow their heads. But now he wondered. That didn't really seem like what it would be like if God spoke. Or even like it should count as "speaking," really. When he had really needed God to say something in his life, there had only been silences.

Then Muse had a daughter. He thought about what he wanted for her and the question of belief became more acute. The Bible and his Baptist beliefs, he felt, had been a source of anxiety, depression and shame -- especially shame -- in his own life. He didn't want that for his daughter.

"I don't want her to be ashamed," he said, "based on a 2,000-year-old book that has no relevance in our lives."

So he came home from his day job as an insurance adjustor and, as he recounted recently on NPR, he told his wife, "I think I'm having a little bit of a crisis of faith. I just realized today that I can't make a case for Christianity that would convince myself."

Then he wrote some songs about that crisis.

Then Muse and his band, Quiet Company, made that into an album:

Dec 3, 2013

Alas, and did my savior's death symbolize something secular?

When does a cross communicate a religious message and when does it not? This is, legally, a contentious issue. In more than one First Amendment fight, the religiousness communicated by certain symbols is the central dispute. 

Is a cross on a hill religious? In a school? On a teacher? In a square? On a mountain?




If the symbol is on public space and communicates a religious message, it would seem that the government is endorsing a religion. But just because a symbol could be religious in some contexts doest mean it is always, everywhere. The problem, though, is in the US courts there's no really well-worked-out method for determining what a cross or another symbol communicates, according to two legal scholars who've just published an article on this topic.

Frederick Mark Gedicks, of Brigham Young University, and Pasquale Annicchino, of the European University Institute, write,
the legality of government display of a religious symbol depends on whether the symbol possesses non-confessional significance or, at least, lacks meaningful confessional significance. Yet both the United States Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights lack a workable approach to the crucial determination whether the required secular meaning is actually present or the prohibited confessional meaning is really absent.
The two scholars argue that courts should turn to semiotics for the answer. They recommend the work of American pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce, who developed a semiotics of icon, index, and token. The idea is that these are three different ways in which symbols communicate, and the courts would need to ask three different questions, about icon, index, and token, to really get at whether or not a symbol is communicating religion and thus endorsement.

Gedicks and Annicchino:
Consider, again, 'This chair is broken.' It could constitute a warning, if directed at someone about to sit on it: 'This chair is broken,' don’t sit on it! But at a garage sale it could instead be an explanation: 'This chair is broken,' I don't want to buy it. Or an accusation, from someone who has fallen from it: 'This chair is broken,' you should have told me! Although the linguistic meaning of the sentence remains the same in each example, its performative meaning changes according to the context in which it uttered. As these examples illustrate, the performative meaning of a sign depends on the context in which the semantic meaning of the sign is deployed.  
The meaning of confessional signs likewise depends on the physical context in which they are displayed. Given the ordinary meaning of the Christian nativity as a sign of Jesus’s miraculous birth, its placement on the lawn of a Protestant church identifies a place of Christian worship. But a nativity displayed by itself in the lobby of a courthouse might additionally imply Christian bias in the administration of justice. And yet, the identical nativity in a commercial shopping district surrounded by secular signs and symbols may find its ordinary Christian significance diluted or entirely absent, displaced by another, secular meaning according to which the nativity is simply a marker of the 'winter holiday season' celebrated by Christians, some non-Christians, and most unbelievers. The significance of a religious sign displayed by the government is not necessarily its ordinary confessional meaning.
I'm not convinced of all the details of their suggestions, but I find the basic outline of the problem and general recommendation for the solution compelling. At very least, it's worth thinking about, in the context of the First Amendment, when a religious symbol communicates a religious message, and when it does not, and why.

Dec 2, 2013

Can you give without God? Yes, but religion makes a difference

Religious people give. They give more, they give a lot, and they give frequently. They give because they're religious.

Kind of.

The give "because they're religious" if one understand that to mean something other than whether or not they hold to certain beliefs. If religiousness is measured as individuals assenting to propositional statements, then religiousness has little to nothing to do with charitable giving in America. Religious people give more because they're religious only if that is understood to mean that, in their lives, being "religious" means being connected to a community.

A new study, the National Study of American Religious Giving, reconfirms that there's a significant correlation between the importance of religion in your life and the likelihood you give money. About 40 percent of Americans said religion was very important to them. Of those, 74 percent gave to charity. About 25 percent said religion was somewhat important. Of those, 60 percent gave. There are also about 22 percent of Americans who say they're neither spiritual nor religious. Less than half of those -- 42 percent -- give to charity.

The study noted an even sharper break if they measured for frequent religious attendance, instead of self-ascribed religiousness. Among those who infrequently attend a religious service, 49 percent give. Among those who frequently attend religious services, on the other hand, 75 percent give. This includes 60 percent who give to organizations without religious affiliations.

The study suggests this tendency for the religious to give more is not due to beliefs, though. It's a combination of opportunity and social pressure.