Matthew 10

 “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

-Matthew 10:7

kingdomofgodseries-e1344704455581And so Jesus asks them to go, moving forward into the world in His name.  Healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons.  Something new is afoot, it seems, and the disciples get to be in the forefront.

I like what I see here, this manic picture of the effects of God’s kingdom when it breaks in on the world.  It’s strange.  It isn’t normal.  It is shocking.  But it is God.

As this new reality approaches, things start to get turned around.  The effects of sin, death, and darkness begin to be radically and powerfully reversed.  The ways of the world are suddenly turned back.  For a flickering moment, we get a picture of something radically different.

It doesn’t take more than a moment for me to be reminded how much I yearn for this kingdom to break into my life and our world in a lasting way.  How much I need it.  Yet I’m also reminded how far off it can sometimes seem.

Experiencing such a moment of brightness can cause us to look back on our present darkness with more than a tinge of sadness.  But before we despair, remember: this isn’t the end of the story.  What Jesus describes here is merely what happens when God’s kingdom comes near.

Imagine what will happen when it actually arrives.

Don’t Call It Persecution

christian-persecution-rosary-martyrs-bloodA friend’s Facebook recently alerted me to an article from TheDailyBeast.com concerning American Christianity and the concept of persecution.  More specifically, it discussed the seeming inanity of the use of the word “persecution” for anything Americans experience when compared to the dire religious threats and danger are faced by our fellow believers on the world stage.

The main target of the article’s ire was an upcoming study trip/luxury cruise with R. C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries.  The topic?  “Christ’s call to endure persecution and suffering faithfully.”

Oops.

The Daily Beast article appropriately excoriates the nonsensical combination of thinking about suffering while sipping pina coladas in sun-bathed excess.  As the author notes in his conclusion, “It’s unclear if this latest seaborne iteration of American Christian navel-gazing makes the attendees oblivious twenty-first century Marie Antoinettes or if this is just one big [expletive] to those non-American, non-white Christians being killed in the Middle East. Either way, it’s in tremendously bad taste.”  iraq-christiansWhile I’m pretty certain the truth lies with the first of these reasons, I agree it is bad no matter what.

The main issue here, of course, isn’t Sproul himself, but any notion that perceived “persecution” of American Christians deserves to be called that in the first place.  And–if you take my meaning–it doesn’t.  Among the sad lessons that ISIS has taught us, one of the most important for American Christians is that we don’t have the first idea what real persecution is.

When the stories of persecution in Iraq broke a few months ago, I hoped that the reality of religious violence against Christians and others would finally put to rest American Christians’ use of the persecution language and orientation.  And I do think that, by and large, there is greater understanding about the inappropriateness of such thinking.  So–the Sproul cruise notwithstanding– I hope that in a certain sense the criticisms The Daily Beast makes are outdated by at least a few months.  Perhaps the recent chain of world events, tragic as they are, has made us begin to own up to our reality and start to care more about those who are really persecuted.  Or maybe not.

atheistThough it is certainly true that Christianity (whether in forms orthodox or largely superficial) no long occupies the same role in American society that it has at points in ages past, this does not mean we are persecuted.  God on our money, “Merry Christmas” on our lips, respect and preference given to churches and ministers?  These things may pass away, but the simple fact of their passing does not persecution make.  Just because Judeo-Christian privilege in our society is beginning to fade does not necessarily mean that we are being attacked.  It might just mean that we are started to be treated without any preference.  After 1800 years of favor in the West, Christianity is entering a new day as secularization is on the march in the centers of cultural power.

For people of faith such developments can be a cause for concern.  But this is not the same as persecution.  Call it something else.  But don’t look Iraqi Christians in the eye and dare call it persecution.

The Daily Beast article notes: ” Rev. Sproul says that “wherever you find God’s people, you will find persecution to some degree,” he may be right, if we take “to some degree” to its absolute extreme.”  I agree.  It can be a little tough for Christians in an America that cares less about traditional Christian morality.  But that toughness does not equate to the endurance of persecution.  And even in those places where 9elements of government or society are legitimately attacking the actions of some religious people or wanting to curtail perceived rights, must we really place this in the same category as the saints of Iraq who are being devastated and murdered by a ruthless regime?  If a minister  is denied a housing allowance benefit, a church has to start paying taxes because they disagree with governmental policy, or a Christian is called an ignorant obscurantist and derided by her culture despisers, is this the same thing as persecution?  Losing rights and privileges is not a good…but living with constant fear of destruction is much, much worse.  I’m not saying American Christians don’t face any challenges.  I’m just saying it isn’t persecution.

Ultimately, the questions engendered by articles like that in The Daily Beast should reveal to us the danger of language defining a reality that isn’t even real.  Our Christianity is in a dangerous state indeed when we gaze inward so much that we make our own plight ppp-4as important as (or, the case with this cruise, more important than?) our brothers and sisters.

We are rich and comfortable here, so sometimes–indeed, most of the time–the first thing we need to do is shut up.  I know that some American Christians are frustrated with hand-wringing over our wealth and position, saying that we just have an overdeveloped guilt complex. OK, fine.  Maybe so.  But something like this cruise, so apparent and flagrant in its excess, calls into question not just this little study tour and its poor, poor choice of topics…but points some big questions at all of us who sit and complain in relative comfort while the world burns.

Who Runs the World?

indexIn just one week, my recent post on the Jennifer Lawrence photo situation has become my most popular  of 2014 and the second most-viewed of all time.  It seemed to strike a nerve.  Lawrence is a star, of course, and the issue has been percolating for a while.  So it makes sense that such reflections might catch fire.

Even so, I think there’s more to it.

Jennifer Lawrence is not merely an actress but a symbol of a rising new kind of female empowerment.  Both widely accessible and confident in identity, this new feminism finds its foundation not at the periphery of pop culture but rather at its center.  Lawrence, then, is just one in a vanguard of voices like Beyonce’s and Taylor Swift’s whose careers and trajectories make them heroes to many women.taylor-swift-money-makers-990

I realize, of course, that these women are pop stars.  That they do not carry deep philosophical or political weight on their shoulder.  That they have no graduate degrees and have authored no lengthy tomes.  But therein, perhaps, lies their widespread appeal and accessibility.

They are a highly visible part of a new generation who have been able to build upon the advances of their mothers before them, stepping forward in confidence even while they advance the cause further.

As I think about the lives of such women, I understand their main influence to be in modeling what an empowered person might look like.  To be sure, there are very few young women out there who will rise to become a top musical act or win an Academy Award.  But the fact that those with such lofty achievements can inspire others onward is vital.  While it is legitimately to be debated whether everything these women do should be imitated, they at the very least provide confident and self-assured options for women to consider.  Wilting submission to older societal conventions and unfortunate silence on important issues need not apply.

b87b8a1ee88366ecc1ceea9487a4fd77I think about the power of such modeling when I consider the young women of the Church.  For while broader society has its Beyonces, Lawrences, and Swifts to look up to, the Church has not done a very good job providing a wide range of options for its women.

To be sure, there have been some notable figures throughout the history of Christianity and–thankfully–we now live in an age when many denominations support and affirm women in ministry.  I laud both of these facts.  But masked behind history and present understanding is the hard truth that there aren’t nearly as many heroes available for Christian women to admire as there ought to be.

Women have not often been allowed–by society or Church–the same kinds of leadership roles as men.  Church historians of the past have focused upon men, sometimes exclusively.  And in today’s world of churches, even denominations (like my own, the Assemblies of God) that support women in ministry have relatively few serving in pastoral roles.  It is one thing to say we support the ordination of women; it is another thing to have their ordination be realized in service to the local church.

The effect of such realities continues the tacit limitations placed upon women within Christianity.  Think about it: if a teenage boy feels called to ministry, he will probably come to understand some of that call through the lens of all the male ministers he knows.  Maybe he’ll feel led to live into his purpose in youth ministry, missions, or church planting.  There are lots of men in those imagesfields for him to imitate.  For the 15-year old girl, however, the picture looks much different.  If she discerns a call to ministry and looks around for models of what that might look like at the pastoral level, all she might see is a room full of men.  Even though all of those men might philosophically agree that women can be ministers, the tacit message we send is somewhat different.

Ministry roles for women in many churches–even those that support the ordination of women–can take the form of ministry spouse, women’s group leader, Sunday School teacher, stay-at-home mother, and the like.  For young girls called to serve, those might be some of the only options deemed worthy of consideration.  Now please: don’t get me wrong.  None of these things is bad.  I affirm anyone called by God to live in these roles.  My point is not to criticize them.

Rather, I’m simply saying that they should not be the only roles open to women.  That when God leah-at-the-pulpitcalls a young woman to full-time ministry she should be able to reflect upon all her options as she discerns which direction that call to ministry might take.  I’m convinced there are probably many women out there that could and should be serving in lead roles in our churches who have not embraced that potential simply because it never even seemed  like an option. This is not just unfortunate; it is tragic.

I’m not going to spend time here debating the idea of women in ministry; as a matter of fact, I grow tired of debating it at all.  As a Pentecostal, Acts 2:17 tells me that the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh; I’ll just leave it at that.  As a seminary graduate and academician, I have studied with and know women who are serving our churches faithfully.  As a professor I teach ministry classes to many gifted, mature, and empowered women.  And, to be honest, I tend to be more impressed with the quality of my female students’ work and personal maturity than I do their male counterparts.

I’m excited for their potential, and I don’t for a second want them to feel limited in their options. (Which, sadly, they do.)  In light of this, questions persist.  Which of their fellow students will actively and vocally support them008_exploring_woman in their call?  Which churches will hire them in visible roles?  Which organizations will e-mail me looking for a candidate, and not specify that they only want a male?

There are great women serving in our churches today, but there are few if any Jennifer Lawrences, Beyonces, or Taylor Swifts out there in terms of ubiquity and influence.  I’m convinced that the generation of women ministers represented by the students in my classes can be such leaders.  We need to help them do so; not just for their sakes, but for the sakes of our daughters and their daughters after them.

There is still a lot of work to do, of course.  But it is work worth doing.  Work that is achievable.  After millennia of male dominance by means of tradition, brute strength, and biology in basically all parts of culture, I will welcome a coming age of women.

Not that 49.6% of the world’s population needs my permission or blessing.

 

An Historian’s Hope

HistorianWe are now deep in the middle of the college term, which means (among other things) that semester projects ought soon to start taking shape.  This is the case in my “American Religious History” course, where each student has recently submitted a prospectus for an original research paper.

As I was working through each of their proposals, I began to appreciate the varied topics students were interested in discussing.  Because I let them choose whatever they wanted relative to American religion, there are a really wide range of themes to engage this semester. Among their selections are:

  • Buddhism and the Beat poets
  • Indigenous peoples and colonization
  • A. B. Simpson and the Christian Missionary Alliance
  • Mormonism
  • George Whitefield and slavery
  • Swedenborgianism and American culture
  • John Witherspoon and the American Revolution
  • New Age religion and America’s postwar generation
  • Islam in modern America

funI am excited about this diversity.  My hope is that by allowing students to write so broadly, they will be able to connect the main contours of the course to their own passions.  Moreover, the unique research into a number of areas not even covered by our lectures or readings will help them engage in active learning far beyond what I could do by myself.  And lastly, of course, if done well these papers might also represent a learning experience for me.

While I realize that my idealism will likely not be met by reality in all cases, even the steps they have taken in proposing such topics encourages me.  Any opportunity for learners to actively engage with history is a “win,” however small, for me.  May such engagement continue as we move forward.

Matthew 9

But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”

Matthew 9:6

paralytic-9It is a familiar scene: a paralytic being brought in on a mat.  We know what he is seeking.  What most, if not all, in his situation would seek: physical wholeness.  And yet Jesus chooses not to acknowledge that tacit request at first, instead telling him in verse 2 that his sins are forgiven.  An unexpected initial outcome both for paralytic and reader, but there it is.

Some of Jesus’ opponents took umbrage at such a divine claim to mercy, however.  Blasphemy, they call it in verse 3.  And blasphemy it would be were this not Christ.

Yet rather than extensively debating this point with those arrayed against Him, he offers only a few words before simply upping the ante.  He does something undeniable: he heals the paralytic.  What gets me about this is not so much the healing itself (miraculous as it is), but that Jesus almost seems to do it as an afterthought.  Kind of like: “OK, fine.  I’m not up for debating this today, folks.  How about I just show you?  See.  How about that?”  I paraphrase humorously, but the point is taken.

God in Christ has so much power at His disposal that even things which are completely impossible for us are done by Him without the bat of an eyelash.  His relatively nonchalant healing of this man implies the rich wellspring of God’s authority and might.  Knowing as we do from the rest of the Scripture that this is all tied to the deep love of God for His broken Creation makes it even better.

Things I Would Like To See (Part XIII)

x-files-believeEarlier this week the news broke that a beloved cult TV hit was returning after a 25-year hiatus.  Twin Peaks will be coming back in 2016.  Rather than a reboot, this “third season” will be a continuation of the original show.

The occasion of the announcement reminded me that I’ll need to actually finish the old series (I only got so far watching it online before I decided to turn my attention to other things).  It also made me wish for something I really miss: The X-Files.

For a period in the 1990s, the show was not only one of my favorites, but widely known and popular as well.  Midway through its run it sparked an ambitious movie, and the show’s conspiracy-laden plot intrigued many.  While the eventual resolution of said conspiracy left a little to be desired and the show ended up hanging around for a few seasons too long, I will say this: when it was good, it was good.  Smart, slick, and built around the unique relationship between FBI Agents Mulder and Scully, The X-Files was truly “appointment television.”

The series ended on a relative down note in 2002.  While there was a somewhat forgettable film made some years later, other than telling us that the dynamic duo were still around and had apparently gotten together romantically, it didn’t let us know as much about their continuing story as we might like.  In the unknown are possibilities.  Of course, I’m not suggesting a full, 90s-style season of 24 episodes.  Instead, let’s kick it up to our friends on cable for consideration.  Drama has done well there in recent years and could be just the place for a show of its tone.  Perhaps AMC, which will beTHE X FILES SEASON PREMIERE looking for something to fill the time slot soon to be left open by Mad Men?  Something like a season of 10 or 12 well-crafted episodes?

A chance to rekindle some of the old magic would be interesting to see with a show like The X-Files.  Yes, it might end up seeming dated or out of step, but I’d definitely like the-powers-that-be to give it some thought.  And even though we’re deep in the age of the full reboot, it would be nice to have some familiar faces inhabiting or at least kicking off a story that would take us somewhere new.

The X-Files was once great.  Considering all the water under the bridge–especially the apparent change in the Mulder/Scully dynamic–it might very well be unable to get there ever again.  But I’d still be willing to have them try.

A revived, top-quality X-Files?  That’s just one of the things I’d like to see.

Jennifer Lawrence the Theologian

JENNIFER-LAWRENCE-JON-STEWART-618-618x400By now, most people are aware of a recent episode involving actress Jennifer Lawrence and others.  Basically, personal iCloud accounts were hacked and private nude photos of famous stars published on the Internet.  These images were never meant to see the light of day, and their distribution on such a wide scale has often been called a “scandal.”

Just yesterday, Lawrence responded to the situation in an article in Vanity Fair.  She spoke directly:

“It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime…just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this.”

She’s right, of course.  Such photos were never meant for public distribution.  They represent a violation of her privacy and constitute an unwanted public invasion into her life in a way that took matters out of her control.  She didn’t have a choice whether or not the world would see these photos.  She has become unwitting and unwilling pornography in a digital world where such things never go away.

From the Church’s point of view, the question of pornography has taken on increasing importance with the rise of the Internet.  Many people (including an unfortunate number of ministers) have found themselves caught up a culture heretofore relegated to the seedy shop on the other side of the tracks.  Addiction is a serious word, but for some if not many pornography has become a kind of drug.

The Church, often focusing on those caught up in the cycle of addiction and shame, has rightly addressed the issues of sin, purity, and faithfulness that are involved with pornography.  Words like “moral failure” get tossed around as a euphemism for some of what is happening.  This is all fine and good as far as it goes, but I think that a situation like Jennifer Lawrence’s reveals that such a view of sin is far too limited and–dare I say–selfish.  Pornography and the TIME-JENNIFER-LAWRENCEaccompanying objectification of women is not just a problem for the man who “dirties” himself and gives into lustful thoughts and actions.  It is a sin against the subject of those pornographic thoughts as well.

The Atlantic has an interesting article that clarifies Lawrence’s concern as being one of consent.  She never had a say about whether these photos would be made public.  In this way she was violated.  Consider: it would be a transgression of sorts for any of her private photos to be published online; that they were nude photos makes it much, much worse.

I would agree with the Church that everyone (let’s be honest, mostly men) who has been viewing those images to satisfy their own lusts has been sinning.  You’ll get no argument from me there.  But the sin doesn’t simply stop at a person making themselves guilty.  It also means that we’ve sinned against this woman.  Violated her privacy.  Gone against her wishes.

Such considerations go beyond photo-hacking, however.  They have to do with a whole culture of objectification.  While publication of private nude photographs is one of the worst examples of this, living in a world that often values people for how “cute” or “hot” or “sexy” they are offers implicit and potentially pseudo-pornographic objectification everywhere we turn.  How many friends have we seen on Facebook post pictures of themselves looking for positive feedback? How many times have we simply commented how good they looked and left it at that?

So even in those instances where people seem to “share” themselves of their own free will via the selfie, magazine cover, or photo shoot, I would submit that at least some of this is because our culture has told us this is the way to be.  Made it a mark of value and worth.  Indicated to us that this is how you know you’ve arrived.  It is an alluring lie.  But it is a lie nonetheless.  I’m well aware that there is a school of thought in which volitional expressions of female sexuality and celebration of the body by choice is a way of pushing back against a society that robs women of agency.  Yet to do so in the same way the offense comes makes me wonder if the dynamic has really changed that much. (For more on this re: Jennifer Lawrence, read the Atlantic article referenced above.)

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-–-Part-1-Jennifer-Lawrence-7In the end, I hope that a situation like Lawrence’s shows us that sins of lust, the use of pornography, and the like do not belong in some dark and private personal category.  Why?  Because they are sins not just in our heart alone; they are sins against a fellow human being.  Whether such images or actions are available for all to see because of a person’s overt decision or not, it is still all symptomatic of a world that removes agency from the individual and places it in the hand of the consumer.  You don’t have to have your iCloud photos stolen to be trapped in the world of objectification.  Sometimes that world can lead people to objectify themselves because that’s the only option it appears to permit.

I’ll bring this to a close with the words of Lawrence herself:

“Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside…Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame.”

When it comes to pornography, it isn’t just about the wrong we did.  It is about the people we’ve wronged.  With Lawrence that wronging is much more obvious and direct, but it doesn’t change the numerous ways in which we devalue others and keep our world–defined by supply and demand–locked in such a destructive pattern.