Archive for November, 2007

A Stingy Orthodoxy

November 26, 2007

I hate the show The Bachelor, for many reasons, but here’s one: whenever the bachelor begins to spend serious, one-on-one time with his pool of potential partners, all they ever talk about is how they feel a connection to each other.  They seek to build a relationship on the idea of relationship.  It’s not surprising that matches made on that show rarely last.  Relationships are not built on the idea of relationship.  You cannot establish a connection to someone by sitting around talking about the connection you have.  I fear a similar mistake has been made in the church. 

Protestant liberalism has left an enduring legacy in the West: empty churches and rising secularization.  Because of its diffuse beliefs and abandonment of Christian orthodoxy, liberalism could not sustain vibrant churches (see Steve Bruce’s God Is Dead: Secularization in the West for further discussion).  Community cannot thrive without a shared commitment to something that transcends itself.  Liberalism offered nothing transcendent.  I fear that postmodern accomodation of the faith has made the same mistake by seeking to build community, not on something that transcends the community, but on the idea of community itself.

If this continues, I suspect the end result will be the same: empty churches and furthering secularization.  A generous orthodoxy will not sustain communities of believers.  Communities do not draw life from the idea of community.  They draw it from shared stories with shared interpretations. 

Yes, the postconservative movement rightly focuses on the shared narratives of communities, but they fall short on the “shared interpretations” part.  If we can’t agree on what the death of Christ actually accomplished, for example, then we really can’t agree on the same story.  It is not enough to say, “Jesus died and rose again.”  Unless we define who Jesus is, who God is, who we are, what the death and resurrection of Jesus means, and why it happened, then we are really not telling the same story.  Our beliefs are diffuse, just like they were in Protestant liberalism.  Diffuse beliefs cannot sustain close communities.  A faith accomodated to postmodernism can tell stories all day long (I once heard this referred to as “narrative therapy”), but without solid doctrinal consensus, stories are blind.  And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a ditch.

I don’t sense that the postconservative movement is really seeking to stay true to the historic faith of the church, no matter how much it tips its hat to tradition.  The heart of the Christian faith has been redefined by this “generous orthodoxy.”  Simple, straight talk about the human condition, the role and necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, and the final separation of the righteous and the wicked, cannot be pursued in this new postmodern climate.  Clarity on these and other issues is often deliberately avoided (see the preface to Brian MacLaren’s book that inspired the title of this post and note how he [ironically] clarifies his intent to be unclear!).  Without clarity, there is no shared story, and without a shared story, there is no real community. 

What I am saying is that doctrine is at the heart of the church’s cohesion.  When doctrinal fidelity slips, when commitment to orthodoxy loosens, when beliefs become diffuse, the church loses that which holds it together.  Doctrine divides, yes.  It divides Baptists from Methodists, Presbyterians from Catholics, Episcopalians from Pentecostals.  But doctrine also unites, defines, and gives identity and meaning by telling us what the story we hold dear actually means.  Without a strong commitment to the historic faith of the church, rooted in a commitment to the infallible authority of the inerrant Scriptures, our legacy will be the same as that of Protestant liberalism.

I don’t believe in a generous orthodoxy.  In fact, I see that phrase as a contradiction in terms.  By definition, orthodoxy must be stingy (better words for that are “firm,” “solid,” “enduring”).  There is life after the final rose.  I doubt that postconservative theology can offer enough to make the connection last.     


Global Warming: Why the Case for Radical Action Has Not Been Made

November 21, 2007

I am not on the global warming bandwagon, as I have said before.  I am not convinced that a solid case has been made by Al Gore and company that would lead me to alter my lifestyle in an effort to save the world from burning up.  It’s much more complicated than simply saying, “The world is getting warmer; let’s stop it!”  There are a number of things that have to be proven first:

1. That the world is, in fact, getting warmer.

Most everyone agrees by now that it is, so I grant this point.

2. That global warming is a bad thing.

I’m not convinced of this.  I have read that more people die from cold weather each year than from heat.  Why should we automatically assume that if the earth gets warmer, more people will die than if it stays the way it is or drops in temperature? 

3. That, if we grant that global warming is bad, it is so bad that it warrants dramatic changes in our society such that would lead to great economic burdens.

Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.  If global warming is bad, how can one make a case that it is bad enough to warrant actions that will stifle our economy and bring great suffering to the poor?  What if the negative consequences of our response to global warming are worse than global warming itself?

4. That human activity causes global warming.

There is a basic principle of scientific reasoning that says that if phenonemon Y occurs when conjoined with factor X, X may or may not be the cause of Y.  However, if one can determine that Y occurs additionally absent factor X, then X is definitely not the cause of Y.  In this case, we are seeing the earth’s temperature increase in conjunction with the widespread use of fossil fuels for energy.  But before we can say that the use of fossil fuels has caused the temperature to go up, we should ask if the temperature has ever risen in the absence of the widespread use of fossil fuels.  I think all scientists would agree that the answer to that is yes.  The earth’s temperature changes constantly, cycling up and down.  The earth warmed long before humanity was putting carbon emissions into the atmosphere.  How else could we have come out of the last ice age?  I’m not convinced that we are even responsible for this.

5. That human activity is capable of reversing global warming

It is one thing to say we have caused it, but quite another to say we can fix it.  These two should not be assumed to be the same.  Maybe we have caused it, and maybe we haven’t.  Either way, the case has not been made that says we can, by our own efforts, stop it now that it has started.

6. That human activity will have such an effect as to produce significant results in the effort to stop global warming.

Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that human activity causes global warming, and that human activity can begin to reverse it.  What are the projections for the degree of success that we may have in doing so?  If we cut emissions dramatically, in the process creating massive suffering for the poor of this world who will be priced out of the energy market, can we say for sure that the effect would be a significant reduction of the earth’s temperature?  What if the result is so miniscule that it makes no practical difference?

7. That human activity will not have such a dramatic impact that it will lead to the opposite problem of massive global cooling.

What if everything works the way Al Gore wants, and then millions of people who can no longer afford to pay their heating bills freeze to death because the temperature has cooled so dramatically?  As I said, sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

 It’s not just a matter of proving one or two of these.  All seven of them have to be demonstrated before I would be convinced to join the global warming bandwagon.  Al Gore has a long way to go, from where I sit. 

New Link

November 12, 2007

My friend Blake is blogging again.  I thought he had retired, but he’s back. 

Can a Pro-Life Conservative Vote for a Pro-Choice Candidate?

November 10, 2007

What should social conservatives do if Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination for President?  The major issue here is abortion.  Giuliani is pro-choice, but I am emphatically pro-life.  Here is how I have thought through the dilemma.

Government’s primary responsibility is to protect the people it serves.  Without protection from threats to our lives and property, society would not be possible.  Everything else government does is subordinate to this end.  That is one reason among many that I trust Republicans to lead us better than Democrats.  Republicans take terrorism seriously.  Democrats (like John Edwards, for example) call the war on terror a “bumper sticker.” 

One way that our government has failed miserably to protect the weakest among us has been by allowing the barbaric practice of abortion on demand to go on for over thirty years now.  Abortion is the second most common surgical procedure in the country, behind circumcision.  Every day, thousands of innocent lives are taken.  This kind of bloodshed is the greatest moral blight on our nation throughout its history, even worse than the slave trade.  Abortion is not one political issue among many.  It is the greatest moral battle of our time.

But what should we do when faced with one pro-choice candidate versus another pro-choice candidate?  Should we stay home on election day?  Should we vote for a pro-life, third-party candidate?  Should we bite the bullet and vote for the lesser of two evils?  I think we should begin by understanding that there are not just two positions on abortion.  There is a whole spectrum of positions.  I have invented a labeling system A1 through A7 to describe what I perceive to be various approaches to the issue of abortion.

A1–Abortion is a moral good for society.  It should be celebrated, promoted, and funded through tax dollars.  Abortionists are heroes who help women in crisis.  In some cases (such as a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome), the only morally acceptable choice for a pregnant woman is to end her pregnancy.   

A2–Abortion is morally acceptable.  It is a private choice between a woman and her doctor.  Government should make no restrictions on it, but neither should government fund it through tax dollars.

A3–Abortion is morally wrong.  However, government should not restrict it, just as government does not restrict other activities normally considered immoral (adultery, for example).  However, certain practices (like partial birth abortion) should be outlawed by the federal government. 

A4–Abortion is morally wrong.  Any government restrictions on it should be decided on a state-by-state basis. 

A5–Abortion is morally wrong.  The federal government should outlaw it except in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother.

A6–Abortion is morally wrong.  The federal government should outlaw it all cases except when the mother’s life is at risk. 

A7–Abortion is morally wrong under absolutely all circumstances.  The federal government should outlaw it completely.

My own position is A6.  If I understand Giuliani correctly, his position is A3.  Personally, he considers abortion to be an immoral practice, but he does not believe the government should outlaw it.  Giuliani is wrong on this.  The government should protect the lives of the unborn every bit as much as it protects the lives of the born.  On what basis does the government decide that some human beings are worthy of protection, whereas others are not?  Abortion is not a private decision between a woman and her doctor.  There are three parties involved, and the one scheduled to get his skull crushed has no say in the matter. 

Having said that, I believe we are in a political battle in which we must expect incremental progress.  We have seen it during Bush’s presidency.  President Clinton vetoed two bills that would have outlawed partial-birth abortion in the 1990’s.  President Bush signed a similar bill into law, and the Roberts court (which Bush shaped by nominating Roberts and Alito) upheld the law.  As of now, partial birth abortion has been ended.  That is progress. 

I believe that, given where we are now, a Giuliani presidency would be likely to bring progress to the pro-life cause.  And if not progress, it would at least hold us where we are now and keep us from losing ground.  Giuliani says he will appoint strict constructionist judges to the courts.  At this point in history, the courts are the primary battlefield in the war over life.  The next President will likely have the opportunity to swing the Supreme Court decisively in one direction or another through his/her judicial appointments.  If we have another Clinton (or an Obama, or an Edwards) in office, then we can expect more left-wing extremists like Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be nominated to the Court.  If we have Giuliani in office, then we can be hopeful for more people like Roberts and Alito. 

I doubt that any of the Democratic candidates for President would openly proclaim the A1 position.  They know that it is a hot-button issue, and they want to remain comfortably pro-choice without sounding like they are crazy about abortion.  But the Democratic Party is in league with left-wing groups that do openly proclaim the A1 position.  Planned Parenthood is just one example.  And if any Democrat gets into the White House, you can be sure that groups like Planned Parenthood will exert political pressure to push their agenda.  Giuliani is not in league with Planned Parenthood or any group like that.  He is on record as having contributed to the organization, but one of his former wives did that without his knowledge, if I understand correctly (of course, that is just one more example of how poor a family man he has been; if your wife is giving money to organizations that you find morally suspect, something is wrong with your marriage).  I believe that, if Giuliani gets the nomination, the pro-life cause should tolerate him for eight years.  That will be much better for the unborn than four-to-eight years of another Clinton presidency. 

Let me reiterate: Giuliani is wrong about abortion, but he is not as wrong as the Democrats and the left-wing groups that support them.  If it comes down to Giuliani vs. Clinton, Obama, or Edwards, I will vote for Giuliani rather than staying home or voting for a third-party candidate.  In politics we must compromise, and I would rather compromise in order to gain some ground than lose elections and set the country back.

I know this is a controversial issue, and all voters must act in accord with conscience.  If you cannot vote in good conscience for Giuliani, then please don’t.  But I hope these considerations will help you sort out the issues. 

But don’t lump me in with Pat Robertson on this.  I am by no means endorsing Giuliani.  In fact, I think this ethical dilemma should only motivate us to give more support to Mike Huckabee.  If you don’t want to have to face this ethical quandary next November, then make a donation to the Huckabee campaign, tell all your friends to do so, and vote for him in the primary.      

After Four Years in the Pastorate

November 8, 2007

Ministry (like life in general) certainly has challenges.  My previous post indicated that.  But I don’t want to give the impression that the only thing wonderful about my life in the ministry is that I’m getting closer to Heaven with each passing day.  There are many wonderful things that happen along the way as well.

In recent days I have prayed for a church member and seen him healed of cancer.  Our church is getting ready to baptize a young woman who only a few months ago was not on speaking terms with God.  The situation mentioned in the last post has improved considerably, and there are signs that all parties involved are getting a new start.  Every week I have the privilege of digging deeply into a passage of Scripture in preparation for my sermon, and God constantly opens himself up to me in wonderful ways, making me more aware of his grace.  The leaves of northern Kentucky are colorful this time of year, and I can step outside and admire them any time I want.  Some of my best friends are well over fifty years old.  People leave tomatoes on our porch (not that I’m crazy about tomatoes, but there is something wonderful about living in a community where vegetables are homegrown and spread around).  Life truly is great here.

I have heard too many ministers whine (whether in person or on the internet) about their situations.  So many of us succumb to cyncism, despair, and loneliness.  We have not eyes to see the beauty, the wonder, of what we have.  There will always be days, even seasons, of misery.  But I have found that simply sticking around, showing up, and faithfully doing what God has called you to do will eventually lead to a break in the clouds.  And then you have enough light to see what you could not see before: that all around you the signs of grace have always been there.  They’re like mustard seeds, so easy to miss at first, but so difficult to ignore later. 

One More Day…

November 2, 2007

“Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.”

I hate that song.  Not because it doesn’t express some truth, but because of what it obscures.  A generation raised on that kind of “Zippity Doo Dah” theology will abandon the faith en masse once the real world exposes the depth its naivete.  Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before.  Some days are sweet, and some days are wretched and miserable.

Last year a semi-elderly couple joined my church.  I love them to death.  They have been faithful church members and have shown me strong support in prayer and in encouragement.  Shortly after they joined, the husband told me he felt like God led him to our church in part so that he could show me the real world.  In the last year, I have seen it. 

I saw it tonight. 

I saw it through a video phone in a local jail where a man whom I baptized back in March sat, explaining to me why he was not to blame for his predicament and telling me he was done with his pregnant wife.  There’s a lot more that I could say, but I’ll leave it at that.

In ministry, we don’t get to say, “I didn’t sign up for this.”  We don’t get to say that because we did sign up for it.  We didn’t sign up for “Mr. Blue Bird’s on my shoulder” twenty-four seven.  We signed up for deathbeds and broken marriages and betrayals and jail visits and looking at human depravity up close and seeing reflections of ourselves.  We signed up for disappointment and despondency and emotional exhaustion and loneliness. 

We signed up for the cross.

The very message we proclaim is that somewhere in all of the blood, sweat, dirt, pain, and messiness of the cross, love happens.  When you’re walking with a slab of wood on your back to the place of execution, every day is not sweeter than the day before.  But radical love has a price.  We signed up for that.  We said we were willing to pay that price.  Why, then, do we whine and complain when we are asked to pay it?  It is much better to look past the shame of the cross to the hope that is to come and then to let ourselves be nailed up there with Jesus for the joy set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2).

So instead of singing “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before,” I much prefer the words of a Third Day song:

It’s all right, it’s okay, I won’t worry about tomorrow, for it brings me one more day closer than I was to You.

Maybe, at the end of some days, there’s only one positive thing to say: this day brought me one more day closer to Heaven, closer to the Savior who looked at the mess I had made and loved me nonetheless.  As long as I can say that, I know I’ll be all right.