Hell Has Indeed, Apparently, Frozen Over

Eugene Peterson.  Screenshot from Youtube

Eugene Peterson, perhaps wistfully wishing he’d never granted that recent interview.

At least, I suspect it must have, because I find myself in the extremely rare position of agreeing with Albert Mohler.

Well, kind of.

Mohler is the current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, and a high-powered bullhorn for conservative Evangelical Christian theology. Without giving a list of particulars – it would be long – let’s just say that it would be hard to find someone whose understanding of Christianity differs more from my own.

Still, I will give Mohler credit for at least one statement that he made that I think is absolutely spot-on, even while I disagree strongly with his ultimate conclusion.

In recent days, the best-selling Evangelical author/retired pastor Eugene Peterson created a stir in religious and some broader social circles when he gave an interview to Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service. Peterson has recently announced that he’s leaving the lecture circuit, slowing down, and taking life easy from this point on. And at 84 years old, why not? The man has clearly earned it.

Given that, and his long string of best-selling books, this interview should have been a fluff ball – a victory lap of sorts for Peterson; a nice, feel-good piece that offered no big news or controversy. What actually transpired, though, was something else entirely.

Merritt asked Peterson about his views on homosexuality in general, and same-sex marriage in particular from the context of the Christian faith, and whether his views on these issues had changed at all over time. Even though Peterson’s popularity has largely been within conservative Evangelical circles, he was actually a long-time pastor and is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), one of the most progressive of mainline denominations and one that, thanks be to God, has affirmed LGBTQ individuals’ place in the full life of the church – including ordained positions, and the appropriateness of church-blessed same-sex marriages.

Merritt’s question arose out of comments that Peterson had made in recent years that he’d changed his mind and had become affirming of LGBTQ people – including in this appearance at Western Seminary in 2014.

To be honest, I thought Peterson’s answers to Merrit’s questions in the interview were a bit lukewarm in their support. His comments were couched in phrases like “I didn’t have much experience with that,” or referring to a lesbian couple in his congregation that “didn’t make a big deal out if it,” and so on. I could almost imagine him saying that he could accept LGBTQ parishioners as long as they “didn’t shove it down my throat;” that great cliche that seems to mean “It’s OK if you’re gay; just don’t do anything that might publicly show that you are. Don’t say or do anything, either as an individual or as a couple, that straight people do with regard to their lives and relationships without any problem. Don’t talk about your significant other, don’t hold their hand, and certainly don’t kiss them where anyone else could see you.” That was the sort of tepid support I heard in most of Peterson’s answers. Still, they were several steps ahead of the typical conservative Evangelical party line. And he did, simply but clearly, say that he’d officiate a same-sex wedding if asked.

Of course, to have someone as influential as Peterson come out (sorry) and say these things was big news for conservative and progressive Christians alike, for obvious and opposing reasons.

Within 24 hours, though, Peterson felt forced to release a clarification and retraction of what he’d said in the interview. People across the full spectrum of American Christianity were confused by this bizarre flip-flop, what had led to it, and whether it was a good or bad development. Had an 84-year old man simply gotten confused in the moment and said some things that he didn’t really believe? Had conservative backlash – he was blowtorched by conservative Evangelical mouthpieces within hours –  and threats to book sales (LifeWay, the largest U.S. retailer of Christian publications, and an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to stop sales of all of Peterson’s books) led to his overnight reversal?

In the wake of this bit of theological whiplash, many people have offered their thoughts about the issue. And here’s where Albert Mohler enters the picture.

As would be expected, Mohler firmly occupies the conservative, traditional, exclusivist, non-LGBTQ-affirming understanding of the Christian faith. Mohler himself would define his views as the “biblical” position. I refuse to grant him that semantic bit of theological high ground, since it incorrectly assumes that the Bible “quite clearly” calls for anti-LGBTQ theology; and that those who have reached LGBTQ-affirming understandings of the faith have done so without, or in spite of, the scriptures, a position that is categorically false.

But I digress.

In an article he wrote about the Peterson kerfuffle, Mohler criticizes Peterson for what he sees as indecisiveness – not offering clear-cut, definitive, conservative Evangelical answers to LGBTQ questions, and sticking to them. Perhaps Mohler sees Peterson’s initial answers as having been an attempt to curry public favor by adopting more socially acceptable positions; a situation of society inappropriately influencing one’s understanding of the faith. Maybe he sees it as a legitimate theological struggle within Peterson’s heart and mind. Or maybe he sees it as something else. Whatever the explanation, Mohler says that indecision is a problem, and not only for Peterson. He writes:

“First, there is nowhere to hide. Every pastor, every Christian leader, every author  — even every believer — will have to answer the question. The question cannot simply be about same-sex marriage,” he says; at its core, the real issue is having a decisive understanding of what one believes to be the will and purpose of God with regard to human sexuality and gender, based on sound scriptural interpretation.

“Second, you had better have your answer ready. Evasive, wandering, and inconclusive answers will be seen for what they are. Those who have fled for security to the house of evasion must know that the structure has crumbled. It always does.”

And on this score, he’s absolutely right.

Mohler and I would clearly disagree on what “sound scriptural interpretation” would be. In fact, I couldn’t even agree with some of his wording in the quote above; hence my partial paraphrasing. But we both agree that we need to have studied and prayed about the question of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church, and we need to reach a solid, scripturally consistent answer to the question, and then be willing to stick with it. Of course, Mohler and I diverge radically from that point on, but on this, we agree.

This isn’t a question about which a person can be ambivalent, ambiguous, both/and. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit affirming (or non-affirming). Affirming theology hinges on a person’s core beliefs about God, creation, human anthropology, and the nature of the divine-human relationship. In order to work out where you are regarding LGBTQ people, you need to have first determined in your heart and mind whether homosexuality is a sin. If it is sin, is it a sin of choice, or a part of so-called “original sin” and therefore, impossible to eliminate from human existence? If it is a type of unavoidable “original sin” as a result of “the fall,” what is the proper response of God and humanity to that? Or, is homosexuality merely a normal variation within the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and therefore of having been created in God’s image? And if this is the case, is refusing to be accepting and affirming toward LGBTQ people refusing to accept and affirm the One in whose image they were created? If you believe that homosexuality is a sinful choice, is it possible to affirm same-sex marriage? How about if it is part of “original sin;” can same-sex marriage be accepted and affirmed as the best possible “option B” for people who don’t have opposite-sex marriage as an option to still have loving, committed, sacrificial unions that are blessed by God? And if you believe that homosexuality is just another variation in human creation, can you somehow not accept and affirm same-sex marriage?

There is no meaningful way that individuals or faith communities can accept these divergent theologies as equally valid options for believers. Each one inherently negates the possible validity of the others. Just as it is impossible for a person, or a faith community, to claim that it’s equally valid and acceptable to both accept and reject slavery, or segregation, or the subjugation of women, so it is also with this issue. It goes to the fundamental way that we understand God and human creation, and whichever way you believe, logically, it’s a package deal – you’re either all in, across the board, or you aren’t in at all.

There really is no middle ground with regard to affirming LGBTQ people, except as a transitional place while moving to a final position. For virtually everyone who has adopted affirming theology, myself included, the process has been a journey with several interim stages.  That’s understandable. But to be partly affirming of LGBTQ people, accepting this part of them – whether in the life of the church or society in general – but not some other part, just isn’t viable long-term theology. On this score, Mohler is absolutely correct.

He’s also correct in saying that a person needs to be ready, when asked, to give a decisive, consistent , cohesive explanation of what they believe about LGBTQ people – because if you try to voice some waffling middle-of-the-road theological stance in order to try to please everyone, it will be immediately obvious to everyone, and you will end up being rejected by those on both sides of the issue.

The price that Eugene Peterson has paid in the last week shows how fraught with risk the transitional, middle places of such a journey toward LGBTQ affirmation can be, and how important it is to  move toward the final destination as quickly as possible. Ironically, I don’t think Peterson himself is still in the process of making that journey at all – I think that in his own way, he’s already completed the journey to full affirmation, despite his written retraction. If Eugene Peterson has indeed retired from the public eye, and if this was his last interview, the final lesson he seems to have inadvertently offered the faithful is just how important it is to have the courage of  one’s convictions, and of standing up and voicing them clearly, boldly, and publicly even in the face of opposition.  It’s an important lesson for all of us. I hope we don’t have to wait for hell to freeze over again before Peterson learns it for himself.

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“What Concern Is That to You and to Me?”

(Sermon 1/17/16)

wedding at cana icon

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11

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The party had been going on for some time, apparently. The best man had offered up his awkward toast, the couple had had their ceremonial first dance and smashed cake in each other’s faces a couple of hours earlier, and the celebration was still going strong, when the unthinkable happened – they ran out of wine. Maybe the couple didn’t have much money, or they’d limited the amount of alcohol to keep some of their rowdier friends in line, or maybe everyone was just thirstier and happier than anyone had anticipated, but for whatever reason, the party had suddenly gone dry, and it was a problem.

And when it did, Mary went to Jesus about it. Who knows what she thought he’d do about it. Maybe some of the non-scriptural stories of Jesus’ childhood were true; maybe Mary had seen Jesus performing miracles before, as he was growing up. Maybe she knew that he’d be able to conjure up a good Merlot without breaking a sweat. Or maybe she was just voicing her concern, what a pity, what a shame, recognizing the social fallout this major faux pas would have on the couple and their families. However she said it, maybe Jesus was just about to give the punchline of a joke he was telling to some friends, or maybe he was just about to have another bite of chicken parmigiana, and without hardly thinking about what he was saying, he blurted out his answer to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?”

In my own mind, I can picture it happening that way. And I can also picture Jesus recognizing almost before the words had left his lips that it probably wasn’t the best thing to say. Seeing some hurt and I’ll bet even some anger in Mary’s eyes. And in that moment, I can picture him asking himself, wait a minute – is it my concern? I mean, granted, this certainly wasn’t any life and death situation, but still, these people were in a bind. And I can imagine the gears turning in his head, asking himself who, exactly, has God sent him to proclaim good news to, and what that was really supposed to look like. Who was he supposed to speak with, to work with, to minister to? Who had he been sent to help? A bunch of bloated, pompous, overpaid religious leaders wearing silly robes and ridiculous-looking hats? Or people like the ones he was sitting with in that moment? People who were struggling to just get by in life, people who needed some kind of good news for a change, people who needed to catch a break in any number of ways. I don’t imagine it took Jesus long at all to see that these people’s problems – and not just the big, cosmic, theological issues of their lives, but also how they lived and got along in life, right then and there, was indeed his concern after all. And so, maybe feeling a little embarrassed for his first response, and maybe feeling a little ornery as he thought about how to make amends for it, with a smile and a wink he told them, fill the water jars; then call for the wine steward.

Almost two thousand years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail for organizing non-violent protests against racism, segregation, and discrimination in Birmingham, Alabama. While he sat in jail, eight local clergymen wrote a letter to the local newspaper denouncing the civil rights workers’ efforts and denouncing Dr. King for, among other things, being an “outsider” who had come to Birmingham and only stirred up trouble, making things worse than they already were. In short, in this criticism of Dr. King, they were asking, “What concern is the situation in Birmingham to you?”

Dr. King replied to their criticisms by way of his now-famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” one of the most powerful writings to ever come out of the American church, and America in general, for that matter. In the letter, Dr. King reminded these clergymen that when one person suffers, we all suffer; when one person isn’t free, no one is free. He reminded them that beyond secular law, that the same point that we see in Jesus’ actions at the wedding in Cana is an essential tenet of their shared faith- that God has made a place at the table for all of us; that God cares not only about big, eternal matters, but also our immediate, day-to-day needs and struggles; our need for justice and peace and equality; and because God cares about these things, we need to care about them, too. Dr. King reminded them that in God’s eyes, there is no longer any such thing as “outsiders.”

Of course, this is the weekend that we recognize the life and work of Dr. King, and I hope you’ll try to be part of the special worship service this afternoon, and the celebration at the Auburn Public Theater on Monday. Whether you attend those events or not, I think the most important thing we can do to remember Dr. King’s legacy, and what it means to all of us who profess the same faith in Christ along with him, is to think and pay about how we can faithfully make other people’s concerns and struggles our own concern. Jesus didn’t have to be part of the wedding party in order to make their problem his problem. And we don’t have to be black, or female, or gay, or an illegal immigrant, or a victim of human trafficking, or a Syrian refugee, or a homeless person, in order to make their problems ours.

But how can we walk with them in their struggles? What can we do, how can we help them in the best way we can – in the way God calls us to? And just as importantly, once we know what we should do, are we ready to do that if it means it will come with consequences? For example, could we stand together with, say, the local African-American community to oppose some racist government official, if that same person happened to be a neighbor of ours, or if our kids were friends with their kids, maybe on the same sports team, and we saw each other socially all the time? Or could we, as a congregation, take a public and vocal stand for some social justice position – whatever the actual example might be, you can fill in the blank any number of ways – that was unpopular in the community; something that would result in people turning against our church? I mean, we’re no different than anyone else; we like to be liked and held in high esteem; we like some organization or another recognizing us with plaques and proclamations and so on; that’s perfectly normal and natural. Could we take a stand about something we know is right in the eyes of God if we realized it would create friction between us and the influential people in town? Would we be willing to take a stand about something that could end up resulting in having a brick thrown through our front door? We need to always remember that these are the kinds of things that happened to people and congregations who stood with Dr. King back then. We have to ask ourselves these questions, friends, because the people and situations that God has called us to stand up for, and to take on as our concern, are almost always those people and situations that are, almost by definition, going to be unpopular, and sometimes even risky to ourselves.

When considering this story about Jesus at the wedding in Cana, someone once said that it was important to notice that when Mary told Jesus that the wine had run out, he didn’t just write a check and send someone to the liquor store. He actually took matters into his own hands; he put down his fork and rolled up his sleeves, and did something about it himself. His point for the church is clear enough, that while giving money to various causes is good as far as it goes, it isn’t all that Christ calls us to. God has called us to ante up not just our money, but our actual efforts, our elbow grease, and to do so not just as individuals, but together, identifiably, as the church. Because if all we do is go out and volunteer our time with various causes as individuals, then what does anyone need the church for? How do people outside our church family get to know anything about what we, the church, stands for, what the church is all about? Taking these kinds of stands, taking on these tasks, these missions, and taking them on specifically as an intentional group of the people of God – that’s how we avoid becoming seen as a meaningless institution in people’s daily lives. And that’s how we avoid falling into the trap of asking that question, “What concern is that to you or to me?”

So think about that question – how can we continue Dr. King’s legacy, how can we live out Christ’s commission to us, working together to help those in the world who need us to stand up for them in ways large and small? If you think about that question, and come up with an answer, then maybe the next time you’re at a wedding reception, making small talk at the table about some situation in the news, and someone next to you says “Oh, what concern is that of yours?” you’ll be able to say “Well, let me tell you – but better yet, let me show you.”

Thanks be to God.

A Literal Problem

Article originally published in the Auburn (NY) Citizen 11/8/14, titled “Westminster Presbyterian: The Bible Wasn’t Always Taken So Literally”:

Pope Francis

In a recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, Pope Francis boldly restated the Roman Catholic Church’s position that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, and the origin and diversification of life through evolution, is not incompatible with the Christian faith. As he put it, God was not “a magician with a magic wand.” I’m very glad that he weighed in on this subject.

This can be a sensitive topic. A significant number of Christians in this country would claim that the Bible must be understood in a highly literalistic way. This leads to the belief that in order to be a good Christian, a person has to believe in a literal reading of the accounts of the creation of the universe found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible: God created every aspect of creation distinctly and uniquely, with no reliance on evolution. Many of them hold that the universe was created by God in six literal Earth days. Others grant that the “days” may be metaphorical and not literal 24-hour periods, but that otherwise, the Genesis accounts are a literal accounting of how we all came to be.

I empathize with and respect these fellow Christians. In fact, I used to be one of them. Over time, though, I’ve come to understand the Bible differently — and, I’d suggest, in a way more consistent with the overall history of how the Bible has traditionally been understood.

The belief that the scriptures must be understood to that degree of literalism — that they are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the way that these Christians would define those terms — is actually a relatively new development. It only started to take off in this country in the 1840s. My own Presyterian denomination was a major proponent of this understanding of the Bible in the late 1800s, until it renounced the viewpoint in the late 1920s.

In reality, from the very beginnings of the faith until now, the vast majority of Christians have not understood the scriptures to be read and understood that way. Of course, some portions were, and are, considered literal, but overall, the Bible has always been understood to be in many places allegorical or metaphorical. It was never intended to be as factual as the morning newspaper or a technical report. The Bible is the collected traditions and writings of a number of pre-scientific cultures, all trying to convey great, transcendent truths about God and us. These days, my own denomination puts it this way: “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.” (from the Presbyterian Church (USA) “Confession of 1967”

Why does any of this matter? Simply this: studies have shown that American students continue to lose ground in overall education levels compared against their global counterparts. There are multiple reasons for this, but one important reason is that some groups demand that high school curricula and textbooks minimize teaching of these scientific concepts that are for all practical purposes universally accepted as fact, while also demanding that other, far less scientific theories are taught — “pseudo theories,” as Francis put it — all stemming from a desire to bolster a highly literal reading of Genesis. Constitutionally, this is bad because it imposes the religious beliefs of one subgroup of one religion upon the entire, diverse student body. It’s also bad because it hobbles these students’ academic development — something that our country needs, and that they themselves will need in order to compete in the ever-shrinking global village.

Pope Francis is absolutely correct. In accordance with the way that most Christian traditions — Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — understand the Bible, there is no inconsistency or conflict with being a Christian and accepting the reality of the Big Bang, or that life began and diversified via the process of evolution. Our human drive to understand our universe more deeply, and the knowledge gained through scientific endeavor, are gifts from God — not something evil designed to confuse us or draw us away from God. It’s been said, rightly, that God works in mysterious and wonderful ways. I believe that’s correct — and that the Big Bang and evolution are two of those ways.

God and the Gay Christian: Some Thoughts

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A few years ago, Matthew Vines faced a major life crisis. He’d grown up as part of a very conservative Presbyterian church congregation in his native Wichita. Now, as a twenty-something Harvard undergrad, he’d reached this moment of painful truth. For years he’d been more or less blissfully oblivious to it, and later, as discomforting realization began to creep in, he tried to repress it. But on this particular angst-ridden evening, standing in the toothpaste section of a convenience store, Matthew Vines finally admitted to himself, “Oh crap – I’m gay.”

This kind of self-realization poses enough worries and resultant problems for anyone, but for a devout Christian who is deeply ensconced in the conservative Evangelical branch of American Christianity, it’s all the more difficult. In the midst of this newfound self-awareness, and the inevitable opposition to the news that he encountered from family and friends – all of whom loved him deeply, but who, based on their interpretation of the Bible, were not open to the possibility, let alone the acceptability, of being simultaneously a deeply committed Christian and gay.

This led Mathew Vines to do something drastic. He put his undergraduate studies on hold, and began a lengthy and very detailed scholarly study of the biblical texts which the church has traditionally interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Not a biblical scholar himself, he turned the work of many very well-regarded Bible scholars, from across the full spectrum of Christian thought. In the process, he discovered that the traditional, “non-affirming” position, which has been the prevailing interpretation of these texts for most of Christian history, is far from the only interpretation of them. He discovered that not only was the non-affirming interpretation not the only theologically and scholarly rigorous interpretation, but he came to believe – as others have – that all of the best and most rigorous biblical scholarship shows that the traditional interpretation of these passages has been simply wrong. In this process, not only Matthew, but also his deeply conservative and traditional parents, came to accept the validity of the non-traditional, affirming interpretation of the scriptures.

Following up on this in-depth research, he gave an hour-long presentation summarizing his findings to an audience gathered in a local Methodist church (his home congregation denied him a venue). This presentation was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY  where it went viral – to date, it has been viewed by at least three-quarters of a million people. It was this video that first introduced me to Matthew Vines. And now, Matthew Vines has written a book, God and the Gay Christian, in which he details the arguments in favor of an affirming interpretation of the Bible and weaving in parts of his own personal story, while he makes his larger point: that a person can identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian, holding to the full authority of the Bible, while also ascribing to an affirming interpretation of the scriptures.

I was especially struck by his scholarship and the video because his research regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality very closely paralleled my own. Matthew Vines grew up in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a congregation that has since, sadly, voted to leave the denomination largely over its decision to allow openly gay and lesbian ordained ministers, elders, and deacons. I am a long-time member of the same denomination, albeit in a significantly less conservative congregation than his. My original entry into Christianity was via a very conservative, non-Presbyterian strand of the faith, and I’d retained this conservatism, and the traditional, non-affirming stance toward gays after becoming a Presbyterian. I’d been disturbed at my denomination’s gradual movement toward an affirming, inclusive stance with regard to LGBTQ issues. At the time, I thought that the denomination was being unfaithful to the Bible, throwing out the scriptures in favor of a position defined more by current secular thought than the Bible. In my mid-forties, I discerned a call to the ministry, first as what the Presbyterians called a Commissioned Lay Pastor, and later as a seminary-trained Minister of Word and Sacrament. During the coursework to become a CLP, I’d dug into the scriptures, their origins, and the interpretive methodologies that we Presbyterians had historically adopted more deeply than I ever had before. At the same time, the denomination was loudly arguing about “the gay issue” and whether to amend our constitution to be more affirming. It was also around this time that I first encountered a person who was simultaneously deeply Christian and openly gay, and the cognitive dissonance that this set off in my brain led to many questions. Still very conservative theologically at that point, I set out on an in-depth study to refute the non-traditional, affirming biblical and theological arguments that were being put forth. At the end of my efforts, however, I ended up at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of the matter, and I had to grudgingly and sheepishly admit to myself, “Oh crap – they’re right.”

Since that time, I’ve moved from identifying as a conservative Christian; to a Christian with progressive beliefs, but who still valued the “conservative” label to the point that I argued that my views were actually the “truly” conservative views; to now, as an ordained Presbyterian pastor who proudly identifies as a progressive Mainline Christian. In that regard, I am not like Matthew Vines, who continues to identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian – and it is precisely that fact that makes his new book so remarkable, and so threatening to a number of conservative, non-affirming Christians. Still, our research, and our conclusions, were almost perfectly parallel. I actually remember being so amazed at his video, which laid out almost precisely my own research and beliefs like no other single source, that I pointed a number of people to the video, via Facebook sharing and other avenues. This sharing was not universally appreciated; by the time the video was uploaded, I had already been serving as pastor to a small congregation for a number of years, and I remember one parishioner in particular who was especially perturbed by the video by this young gay man, who apparently was claiming that “we can say the Bible means whatever we want it to,” and complaining that watching the video resulted in losing an hour of her life that she’d never get back.

I had the pleasure of actually meeting Matthew Vines in October of 2013 in Chicago, while attending a conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. He presented one of the many workshops that I attended there. I was lucky enough to bump into him a couple of times during the breaks, and I shared a dinner table and some very enjoyable conversation with him and three or four others one evening. Since that time, I’d been very much looking forward to the release of his book. Now that it’s arrived and I’ve finished reading it, I can say it was definitely worth the wait. God and the Gay Christian is a very good, and very important, book.

By his own admission, the scholarship presented in Matthew’s book is not new, and not original to him. The interpretations and arguments presented have mostly been around for quite some time. The magic of this book, though – and which I suspect will cause it to have a major effect on attitudes within the conservative Evangelical world – is that it’s probably the single best source for all of these interpretations to be presented together in a single, cohesive location. It does so in a manner that is immensely readable and accessible to the general reader, without diminishing the depth and logic of the arguments. And he provides an abundance of footnotes for even further depth, to satisfy the exegetical/theological nerds among us.

As mentioned earlier, part of the importance of this book is that it’s someone who is still within the conservative Evangelical tent making the case for affirming biblical interpretation. Of course, Matthew isn’t the first to do this either, but in some of the previous instances, the Evangelical movement largely considered these people to be poor deluded souls at best, or liberal turncoats at worst, and in either case effectively shut them out of the Evangelical identity. Only time will tell if the same thing happens to Matthew.

In a number of ways, Matthew has written specifically for the Evangelical – wherever possible, he cites scholars who are more popular within traditional Evangelical circles, rather than others who may be seen as being aligned with progressive Christianity, and whose opinions would be held suspect. Also, most of his biblical citations are taken from the NIV, a translation favored by Evangelicals, with only occasional citations from the NRSV translation officially favored by the PCUSA and other Mainline traditions (both are actually very good translations, with only minor differences where translators were faced with a kind of linguistic fielder’s choice – still, one of the quickest ways to know whether a PCUSA congregation is more progressive or conservative is to see which of these two translations has been chosen for the pew Bibles). These are relatively minor things that a general reader may not even notice, let alone care about, but they make the arguments within the book somewhat more potentially acceptable to a conservative Evangelical than might have otherwise been the case. This is a very good thing.

Another very good thing is his detailed discussion about the dreaded two words in New Testament translation and exegesis, malakos and arsenokoitai. These two words show up in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the passage that has traditionally been interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Their translation has bedeviled people for centuries, and while many non-affirming Christians may cede the field regarding the Old Testament same-sex “clobber verses,” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, containing these two Greek words, is perhaps the non-affirming “ground zero.” Matthew makes a very strong and succinct presentation of the scholarship regarding the meaning of these terms – and especially their meaning when paired together – and the reality that they were not being used to denote the meanings applied to them by twentieth-, and twenty-first, century non-affirming Christians. And the subsequent chapters regarding biblical arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, and the significance of humans – all humans, straight and gay – having been created in the imago Dei, are equally powerful and particularly timely given the ongoing legal and judicial environment, as marriage equality and other LGBTQ equality issues continue to move across more and more states.

As I’ve said, this is a very good and important book. It is very well written and in all likelihood its publication will become a major milestone in the changing of many hearts and minds within conservative Evangelicalism. Without taking anything away from that, there was something that I noticed that I thought was a bit unfortunate. On the very first page of the book, Matthew refers to Christians who currently hold an affirming interpretation of the scriptures, and who support LGBTQ inclusion in the church and same-sex relationships:

To be fair, many Christians now support same-sex relationships. But those who do tend to see Scripture as a helpful but dated guidebook, not as the final authority on questions of morality and doctrine.

That is not my view of Scripture.

To be frank, neither is that the view of scripture held by most progressive Christians, or Mainline Christians in general, whether they hold LGBTQ-affirming views or not. I consider myself a progressive Christian, and I travel in circles of other progressive Christians – including some who are far more progressive than I am – and I may have bumped into one or two people who held out the extremely loose view of scripture that Matthew describes. But it’s simply not true that progressive Christians view the Bible as little more than a quaint book of ancient poetry and fairy tales. In fact, the vast majority of progressive and other Mainline Christians believe that, to use Matthew’s words, “…all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life. While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)” The extremely small number of extremist progressives who hold such a highly dismissive understanding of the Bible are no more representative of all progressives than are extremist Fundamentalists who hold an absurdly literalist view of the Bible representative of Evangelicals. Portraying progressives in this cartoonishly flat and inaccurate manner does a disservice to both progressives as well as the spirit of civility and unity, in the name of our common Lord, that I know Matthew strives for. It is doubly unfortunate because while having the Evangelicals’ ear, he could have used the opportunity to dispel this unfortunate caricature, but instead, he reinforced it.

In truth, the way that progressive Christians and conservative Christians understand the nature, authority, and even the interpretive methodologies of the scriptures, are very similar. In most cases, it is only a difference of how and where the interpretive methodologies are considered applicable or appropriate. A progressive Christian would not say that the scriptures are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the sense that these terms are defined in our current society. But virtually all progressive Christians would agree that all of scripture is inspired by God, not only in its writing, but in its redaction, editing, and compilation into the canon – and that scripture is indeed authoritative for our lives. In fact, we PCUSA Presbyterians would say, as we state in our Confession of 1967, that “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” And this is found in the confessional statement that some deride as being the most “liberal” of our confessions. The ironic evidence of how similar the two camps view the scriptures is this book itself: the vast bulk of the scholarship and interpretive arguments presented by Matthew in the book, which he holds out as being consistent with the Evangelical understanding of scripture and interpretation, are exactly the same arguments made by progressives, who also consider them completely consistent with their – our – understanding of the nature, authority, and interpretation of scripture.

Some people within the world of Evangelicalism have said that God and the Gay Christian is a dangerous book. They’re right. Anyone who holds a non-affirming interpretation of the scriptures should feel extremely discomforted, possibly even threatened, by this book – just as countless others in the past who held interpretations of the Bible that were subsequently shown to be not just incorrect, but harmful, felt threatened. Ultimately though, the arc of the moral universe spoken of by Dr. King will continue to bend toward justice, and therefore, toward a higher understanding of God, a truer living out of God’s will, and a more accurate understanding of the meaning of scripture. Most likely within a generation, certainly no more than two, conservative and progressive Christians will look back on our time and wonder why we were so slow to comprehend the more true, more loving, more scripturally correct, understanding of the relationship between God and the gay Christian. We can only wish that day were already here, but I’m sure that Matthew Vines’ book will help to get us there sooner.

Whose World Vision Is It, Anyway?

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(Image shamelessly lifted from World Vision website)

Yesterday, World Vision – an Evangelical Christian organization which does truly great and meaningful work with children around the globe – announced that in the spirit of recognizing theological diversity within the church, and in an attempt to foster Christian unity within diversity, it had revised its discriminatory employment regulations to allow the hiring of individuals who are part of a legally married same-sex couple. Conservative Christian backlash was immediate and vitriolic, full of claims of apostasy and threats to withdraw financial support. Read that again: these people who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ were so worked up that the organization would merely allow the hiring of gay people who are legally married, that they would choose to withdraw funding for the food, clothing, and shelter of the poor, the starving, the diseased, the crippled, the neediest of the needy in the world in order to protest the new hiring policy. As a result of this appallingly misguided and hateful blowback, World Vision reversed its decision today, claiming that they had erred, and that effective immediately, they would resort to their original position of engaging in legal discrimination against people in the name of religion. This is simply tragic. I pray for the day that World Vision would have the courage to take the stand it took fleetingly yesterday, but this time for good. I pray for the day that the admirable, genuinely Christlike concern that they have for, and extend toward, others around the world, would also be extended toward those fellow Christians in the LGBTQ community who feel called to work in mission as part of the World Vision organization.

This situation is absolutely mind-boggling to me. It’s a perfect illustration of precisely the kind of self-righteous, Pharisaic hypocrisy that throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus saved his most vehement criticism for.

Of course, the organization also gained new supporters yesterday – people who support LGBTQ equality and who wanted to simultaneously do something good for poor children as well as show support for this Evangelical organization which had stood up against conservative religious conventional wisdom and made a stand – a proper stand – and for all the right reasons. However, in contrast to the obscene decision to defund the organization – no, that’s too sanitized; the obscene decision to defund starving children, supposedly in Jesus’ name – I’ve noted not a single call for the new supporters to engage in a similar defunding in the wake of the reversal. To the contrary, I’ve only seen comments that register disappointment in World Vision’s decision, while simultaneously calling for continued support for the good work that they do in spite of the organization’s return to its discriminatory policies.

The hypocrisy here is just overflowing. First, there’s the hypocrisy of every single one of the self-righteous people who feel it would in some way taint their supposed holiness to help children through an organization that didn’t discriminate against married gays and lesbians. I wonder how many of them work for companies that hire LGBTQ folk. Is their holiness besmirched, are they complicit in immorality, if they engage in commercial operations with gay and lesbian coworkers? Does helping to earn a profit for a company that hires and therefore financially supports people engaging in such supposed immorality mean that they’re working to advance godlessness and impurity? How many of these people work for companies that sell their goods and services to members of the LGBTQ community? Should they renounce somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of their annual salaries, an amount commensurate with the percentage of the population that’s LGBTQ, so they aren’t enjoying financial gain through providing those people goods and services, and thereby supporting their supposed decadence? Should they demand to know the sexual orientation of everyone who provides them with goods and services, so as not to be in league with Satan by patronizing these people or their organizations? I mean really, if these people are so dead-set on maintaining their purity and not being complicit in supporting what they view as a grave sin against God and their faith, let them take a stand just as rigid as they demand of World Vision. Let them refuse to pay their taxes, and refuse to accept any governmental and public services, since some portion of those taxes would go to pay the salaries of LGBTQ government workers, including police, EMTs, and firefighters. Let their houses burn to the ground so they can remain holy by not having to worry whether some of the firefighters are gay. Let them refuse any help from the police force when their homes are robbed, their spouses raped, their children abducted, so they can remain theologically pure by not having to rub elbows with a lesbian police officer or social worker. Let them refuse to accept anything – any healthcare, any professional services, any consumer products, any performing arts, any sports, any retail operations, any food service, any hospitality, any… anything – where people who are LGBTQ are actively employed, because such engagement equals complicity.

And the hypocrisy of World Vision is almost as bad. If they truly think that their short-lived experiment in non-discrimination was actually an error, and that they must discriminate in order to be properly Christian, then the organization should, despite any wishes to the contrary of the actual donors themselves, refuse to accept any contributions from donors who are LGBTQ, or who support equality and non-discrimination. Accepting money from the likes of these supposedly awful sinners, giving them even a bit of moral cover to their sinful lives, just makes the organization complicit in shoring up and supporting what they have stated is an  immoral lifestyle choice.

Of course, neither World Vision, nor the hypocritical conservative Pharisees who brought the hammer down on the organization, will do anything remotely like that, because neither group is wiling to confront the absurdity of their self-righteousness by taking their position to its logical extension. Neither group really believes the full implications of what they claim to believe; they only want to apply the alleged religious/moral principle asymmetrically in order to justify discrimination against a particular group. Neither side would really apply the moral principle they claim to be upholding, because on all fronts, it’s really all about money, and not about a moral principle at all. Maybe that’s the driving world vision of the organization, and that of the conservative Christians who would rather pull the funding of children than accept the reality that there are indeed LGBTQ Christians, and that a Christian mission organization can do its job effectively and faithfully with some employees who might happen to be gay. That might be their world vision. But it sure doesn’t seem to be the world vision of the Jesus I meet in the gospels.

(Note: the original blog post mistakenly identified the name of the organization in question “World Vision International.” It has been corrected to its actual name, “World Vision.”)

 

 

 

The Greatest Commandment versus the Duck Commander

At the moment, it’s hard to avoid the dust-up over Phil Robertson’s comments made during a recent GQ interview. Setting aside the questions of why Robertson would ever even want to be interviewed by GQ, or why GQ would want to interview him, his comments have unleashed a torrent of criticism, and a corresponding torrent of criticism of his critics. Robertson’s opinions led to his being placed on indefinite hiatus from participating in Duck Dynasty, the A&E “reality” show that’s made the Robertson family famous beyond merely those looking to buy a good duck call. In return, the Robertson family has said that they aren’t sure they can, or will, continue with the show if patriarch Phil isn’t part of the process.

Robertson’s controversial comments were twofold. In one direction, reflecting on his early life growing up in Louisiana, he makes incredibly insensitive and inaccurate comments about the status of African-Americans before the civil rights movement:

“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

 Of course, it doesn’t take Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock to notice that, if his self-described status as “white trash” meant that he was being treated more lowly than other whites – even as  lowly as blacks, for goodness’ sake – then by definition, he most certainly did see, with his own eyes, blacks being mistreated. But to be so culturally oblivious as to not understand why, as a white man in Klan-saturated, Jim Crow Louisiana, he may never have heard blacks put voice to their problems and discrimination is a bit mind boggling. Phil Robertson may or may not be many things, but he didn’t become a multi-millionaire by being stupid.

In the second troublesome direction of his comments, Robertson offered his opinions regarding homosexuality:

“Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “Sin becomes fine.”

 What, in your mind, is sinful?

 “Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

According to Robertson – a self-described “Bible thumper” who strongly stands for his fundamentalist version of the Christian faith – homosexuality is a core factor in the godlessness and immorality plaguing this nation, by definition in the same category with all manner of sexual promiscuity, even bestiality, along with a shopping list of other moral deficits. This opinion is hardly unique to Robertson. In varying degrees, it’s an opinion held by a large number of Christians in the world – at least, according to the official doctrines of the various strands of the faith, if not the actual beliefs of their individual members, it’s the belief of the majority of Christians worldwide.

But this is by no means the only view within the Christian faith. There is a substantial minority within the faith, both in terms of official denominational doctrine as well as individuals’ beliefs, that this traditional understanding of homosexuality has been wrong – and not just wrong, but  the cause of terrible human tragedy, the justification for the spiritual, emotional, and physical abuse of millions of gay and lesbian people over the course of the past two thousand years, inside and outside of the Christian Church. This traditional interpretation of the Bible – arising out of only a handful of verses across both Old and New Testaments – has been used to justify the shunning, public humiliation, scorn, discrimination, violence, and even the murder, of countless people merely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Even the mildest of expressions of this traditionalist view – the cliché “hate the sin, love the sinner” – really does nothing but offer this same type of discrimination, only in warmer, fuzzier terms to make it more palatable to the hearts and minds of those doing the discriminating. To tell people who are by their very nature drawn to love those of the same sex that they are inherently disordered, and therefore, in a significant way inferior in their very being to others, is a devastatingly harmful thing to claim. It isn’t just harmful; it’s an utterly un-Christlike thing, and a thing contrary to the Christian belief that all human beings, in all of our many variations, are created in the very image of God. As James V. Brownson, Professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary writes in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality, “[T]he emotional burden imposed explicitly or implicitly by traditionalists on contemporary gays and lesbians – not just to avoid same-sex behavior but to renounce their own persistent impulses and desires, even when those desires are not excessive, simply because they are “objectively” disordered – creates a profoundly difficult and duplicitous message of acceptance interlaced with rejection.”

Indeed it does. All that a person has to do is to sit with a group of LGBTQ people and have them share their personal stories, and you’ll hear a near-universal thread of rejection, abuse, and damage caused to them by their respective religious bodies. You’ll find that LGBTQ people are at least as spiritually and religiously inclined as the general population, if not more so – contrary to the stereotypes and twisting of scripture that paint them as godless, immoral idolaters. And in that spiritual journey, they have, almost to a person, been horribly harmed by their churches. The spiritual carnage caused in the lives of LGBTQ people by traditional church doctrine is appalling, gut-wrenching.

Without getting into the detail that a discussion of biblical interpretation of the handful of so-called gay “clobber verses” would require, the reality is that the very best of biblical scholarship today indicates that these texts that have traditionally been used to condemn homosexual orientation and action have been misunderstood – by inaccurate translation from the original languages, as well as an incorrect understanding of the historical context and actual intent of the original authors. These supposed condemnations are actually referring to a number of types of same-sex activities that were considered wrong because

  1. they were quite often forced, non-consensual situations, often between slaves and their owners, or between adults and adolescents;
  2. they were expressions of out-of-control lusts, perpetrated by those who were not by nature homosexual, but who were by nature heterosexual, acting contrary to their own nature;
  3. they were examples of prostitution, or expressions of actual worship of pagan deities or other expressions of idolatry;
  4. they were seen as denigrating the patriarchal, male-dominated society of the time in which females were seen as something less than males, so anything that supposedly made a man more like a woman was seen as shamelessly “degrading” the man and the entire patriarchal structure of their society; and
  5. the pre-scientific culture in which these writings occurred did not have the understanding that we now have, regarding the inherent and unchangeable nature of human sexual orientation.

According to contemporary biblical and historical scholarship available to us now, and not available at earlier times in the history of the faith, these few New Testament passages that Robertson and others use as a basis for their beliefs (for a Christian, the Old Testament snippets regarding this issue are so clearly no longer applicable that they really don’t even merit discussion here) are really not referring at all to the issue that we face today – that of people whom we now understand are, by nature, oriented to be drawn to those of the same sex, and, extending the issue to the question of marriage, who wish to engage in loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

Of course, this is only the latest, but certainly not the first, time that Christians have erroneously applied scripture to a social/cultural issue and caused great harm to many people. Usually (but not always) with the best of intentions of honoring God by honoring the scriptures as they understood them, we Christians have royally botched our understanding of the meaning of scripture any number of times. Certainly, we see this in past issues of slavery, women’s equality, and civil rights, and there are other examples as well. In each of these cases, Christians have eventually learned the error and terrible harm caused by their misapplying scripture to these situations, and we have adjusted our scriptural interpretation accordingly. The current situation regarding homosexuality is just the next issue regarding which Christians are gradually learning to adjust their beliefs.

And it can’t come a moment too soon. While Phil Robertson’s form of anti-gay rhetoric seems relatively mild on the surface, it’s actually the exact same rationale used to justify laws in Uganda calling for life imprisonment for being gay. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who has beaten the crap out of, or even killed, a gay person in a hate crime. It’s the exact same rationale offered up by nearly every person who discriminates against an LGBTQ person in employment or housing, or even as silly a situation as refusing to sell them a wedding cake. Phil Robertson might not personally treat someone badly because of his erroneous views, but given his near omnipresence in our culture at the moment, and his general likeability, his words will only encourage those who would indeed harm others in ways small and large.

Phil Robertson’s being smacked by A&E for his hurtful words is not a limitation of his First Amendment rights. He has the right to his beliefs, and no one has imprisoned him since the interview. But he has been criticized, rightly, for the harmful nature of his words. Neither is this a battle for “the Christian point of view,” since there is no single “Christian point of view” regarding homosexuality. But related to both of those issues, hateful, harmful speech is properly subject to criticism and condemnation, regardless of whether it stems from a person’s religious views or elsewhere. I’m sure that Bull Connor justified the evil of his actions against African-Americans as part of his religious views. If he didn’t, countless Klan members, skinheads, and Neo-Nazis certainly have. In perfect parallel with the Robertson dust-up, many people in the past who were denounced for their pro-slavery, anti-woman, or anti-civil rights beliefs claimed the right to those beliefs as a matter of their religion. But that didn’t get them off the hook. Simply claiming that hate speech is part of one’s religious views doesn’t earn that speech a free pass from criticism, consequence, or rejection.

Of course, the rub here is that the Robertsons’ TV show is very popular. For my own part, I can only take the show in limited doses – I’m not a fan in general of supposed reality TV – but in those doses, I’ve usually enjoyed most of what I saw. And if I met them in person, or were their house guest, I think I’d genuinely like the Robertsons (I’m not sure about Phil himself, though; he seems to have that scary, “something’s not quite right” intensity in his eyes that you see in, say, old engravings of John Brown, for example). And I want to like a show that espouses morality and a strong sense of family, along with healthy helpings of comedy.

But despite their personal likeability, and my wish for a fun, morally healthy show, I can’t give their patriarch a pass when he espouses outdated beliefs regarding race or human sexuality, especially when claiming to base either or both of those beliefs in the Christian faith. We’ve all learned a number of things at our parents’ or grandparents’ knees that, while not diminishing our love for any of them, we’ve come to realize have been mistaken and that we’ve rejected. The same is true of some of the earlier traditions of our faith that we’d been taught. As we move forward, we discover the truths of our faith more deeply, in ways that differ from earlier understandings, and applied to situations never dreamt of by the original authors of the scriptures. And I believe that it’s quite clear that that’s the situation here. The older, traditional understanding of homosexuality in the Christian Church has been wrong, and harmful, and needs to be rejected – not because spiritual beliefs are supposedly being diluted by godless secularism, but because we simply understand more about the realities of the situation now than people did 2,000 years ago, and we can see how to apply the principles taught by Jesus himself to these newer realities. Surely, this process is occurring more quickly now, with more and more people within our own families and close circles of friends who are finding the courage to come out as LGBTQ, allowing those around them to recognize that this is not some abstract theological issue. Rather, it’s one that for most people, has a well-known name, and face. It’s a brother or sister, or aunt or uncle, or parent or grandparent, or maybe even one’s own self. And it’s obvious that the people in question aren’t godless, immoral, shameful, idolatrous, or destructive to society. And they certainly aren’t an “abomination.” Odds are, they’re just as moral, and good, and upstanding, and spiritual, as anyone else. It’s time we Christians stopped villifying LGBTQ people, and started asking forgiveness for the damage our earlier misinterpretations have done.

So people shouldn’t “stand with Phil” just because they like the TV show, or because they feel the family, or the faith, is being attacked. They shouldn’t stand with him when he says things that, even if he didn’t personally intend them as hurtful, nonetheless are very hurtful – potentially even physically dangerous – to others. No matter how likeable the show is, or the family is, Phil Robertson’s views on race and homosexuality are simply outdated and wrong. Every day, more and more Christians are coming to realize this truth. If there is any redeeming value to this whole situation, I hope that would be that even more faithful Christians would think about this issue and would come to realize that we need to reject the traditional positions of the church regarding homosexuality if we truly want to be more faithful to the teachings of the bearded man that we follow and call Lord, the one who calls human beings – not the bearded man who calls ducks.

Prayer List

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While I was rummaging around in the office for something the other day, I found maybe a dozen copies of a small book, “Letters to a Young Doubter,” by the great William Sloane Coffin. According to a note written on the inside, they were originally intended as gifts to recent high school graduates, but these few copies were either extras or for one reason or another went unclaimed by the graduates. I snagged one of the copies for my desk, and in the spare moments I’ll pull it out and read a few pages of the book, which is formatted as a series of letters from Coffin to an imaginary young university student – kind of a much more thoughtful, but sometimes almost as funny, literary version of one of Bob Newhart’s one-way telephone call routines. Coffin certainly didn’t invent the genre, but as far as I’ve gotten into it at this point – which, admittedly, is not very – it’s pretty good.

One thing that Coffin writes early on struck a familiar chord. He’s been asked by his imaginary friend to explain his personal journey into faith. As he lays out his story, he writes of having lost his youthful innocence and naivete as a result of his military experience during and just after World War II, and his entrance into college immediately after that:

Once in college I searched hard for answers. I read the French existentialists – “crisis thinkers” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Malraux, and especially Albert Camus, all professed atheists. Also I steeped myself in Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich, all profound theologians. My mind went toward the atheists, but my heart was pulled toward the theologians. Both had a tragic sense of life, both knew what hell was all about, but in the depths of it the theologians found a heaven that made more sense out of everything, much as light gives meaning to darkness.

Sensing a troubled soul, a small band of Christian students came to convert me. But their answers seemed too pat; their submission to God, too ready. It occurred to me that as with parents so with God; too easy a submission is but a facade for repressed rebellion. Besides, they didn’t look redeemed!

Actually, I was right about their repressed rebellion. When I told them it was time for us to part company, their leader said with a sweetness that thinly veiled his hostility, “Well, Bill, you’ll always be on our prayer list.” I couldn’t help but ask, “And how does your prayer list differ from your shit list?”

Aside from nearly causing me to spit my coffee across my desk from laughter, he hit on an incredible insight. I saw this same hostility and smugness camouflaged as compassion while socializing with a group of fellow Christian students as an undergraduate, just a few years before the Great Extinction that killed off the dinosaurs. As repulsive as it was to see it in them, it became even more repulsive when I realized it wasn’t just in them, but in me as well. Since at that time I hadn’t been exposed to any other way of understanding Christianity, it caused a crisis of faith: Was the Jesus of the four gospels, whom I was intrigued by and drawn to, really trying to create a worldwide following of self-righteous pains-in-the-ass?

Unfortunately, that’s been the case all too often. In situations like the one Coffin describes, to say “I’ll be praying for you” is pure hostility, nothing more than saying “Go to hell” in Spiritualese, and we’ve all probably found ourselves engaging in it any number of times in our lives. To be clear, I recognize that most people who say, “I’ll be praying for you” to another person in some kind of real or perceived distress offer the sentiment with good, maybe even the best, intentions. But even in those times, and even if unintended, there’s a kind of hostility in the words that, if we really do care about the person, we should recognize. It’s very possible, to be honest, that the person may not want your prayers, at least at that moment in their faith journey, for reasons that you’ll never be aware of – and your unsolicited prayers for them in that moment will be considered a personal invasion, a kind of spiritual mugging. Maybe, in cases like that, and if we know that it’s a person of faith, it’s best to ask, “Would you like me to pray for you? And if so, just what would you want me to pray for?” Or maybe – again, if it’s a person of faith – “Would you like to pray about this now, together?” Other times, maybe we just decide to pray for the person without making the public service announcement about it.  Telling someone “I’ll pray for you” can very easily make that person – and us as well – feel that when we do offer those prayers, we’ll be doing so from some position just a bit loftier than the person who is the object of our prayers. We have some better, more reliable track to God’s ear than they do; that Jesus loves them, but he loves us a little bit more, so we’ll use some of our own spiritual mojo to get this person’s application moved higher up in the Inbox on Jesus’ desk.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all anti-prayer. Some of the times in my life of deepest spiritual significance, and spiritual growth, have been times when I’ve shared in prayer with another person or small group of people, either as the person praying for another or as the person needing the prayer. Sometimes, though – and I’m not talking about the obvious hostile prayer-curses mentioned earlier – even with the best of intentions, the way we speak with others, the way we offer our prayers for others, inside the faith or out, can automatically reinforce the feeling of our difference instead of common humanity and brokenness. If we aren’t very careful, we can give the dangerous impression that we think we have all the answers, instead of humbly acknowledging that we don’t have many more answers than the other person – and often enough, even fewer answers – and are in need of prayer just as much as they are. Maybe instead of putting a spotlight on ourselves by announcing that we’ll be praying for the presence of Christ in the person’s life, we should just be it.