A Long, Hard Slog

Today we grieve with those who lost loved ones and property, and pray for those digging out.

The oncoming storm.

Flooded subway station.

A street in New Jersey.

Seaside, NJ.

Train cars washed onto the NJ Turnpike.






The Politics of the Walking Dead (Spoilers)

The third season of AMC’s The Walking Dead is in full swing, and with it the world of zombies has returned to us.  As many of you are no doubt aware, the show is based on the series of graphic novels of the same name.  The plotlines are generally parallel to those laid out in comic form, while the specifics can vary somewhat drastically.

Last night we met a well-known character from the books, and his entry hearkens the beginning of a new chapter for show.

That character’s name?  The Governor.

One of the taglines for  this season is simply this: “Fight the Dead.  Fear the Living.”  With the Governor in the picture, this has never been more true for the characters on the show. The character is essentially a petty lord that has managed to protect survivors behind a walled-off town.  The civilization that exists behind these walls might be a little rustic, but is paradise compared to wait lurks–and feeds–out in the open.

In last night’s episode, the Governor at first appeared to be a benevolent leader of the small community.  Only as the show progressed did we find out about his murderous and mentally imbalanced shadow side.  Because the storyline often diverges from the graphic novels, I wondered early on if the character would be different–perhaps better–than his comic counterpart.  Considering the tranquility of the safe haven he created, I honestly wished he had been “good.”  This would have been a real ray of light in a very dark world.

As I was watching, though, I began to consider that if I lived in that universe–with the living dead constantly trying to kill me–how much I would care about how my leader acted…as long as I was safe.  Whether his immorality or vicious heavy-handedness would stop me from wanting to be a part of his community.  From wanting him to be my leader.  When everything else is stripped away, don’t we just want someone to keep us safe, regardless of the cost?  It is a dark  and uncomfortable question.

Considering the recent actions of Rick Grimes in protecting his band of survivors, this just might be one of the major themes of the show this season.  It is certainly one worth exploring.  For while we in the modern West don’t often have to make such stark decisions, our answers to the questions of safety, security, justice, and righteousness may tell us a lot about ourselves…and what we really believe.

Historically speaking, humanity has tended to feel much better about a dictator that keeps them safe than a just government that might not.  In the end, our desire for our own self-preservation remains.  Most people would assert this “self-ish” desire over all else.  On an individual level there may be exceptions; societally, however, this is probably a rule.  Theologically we might call this a sign of our fallen world…yet it is all human history has known, save for that little bit at the very beginning.

What this has to do with modern American electoral politics?  With our world today?  Well, for that I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.  For now, I’m going to continue watching The Walking Dead.

Religion and Politics, Part III

For Christians, what role ought faith to play in our public lives?  From the days of Jesus being asked about the giving of the imperial tax to Caesar (Mark 12), people of the “new covenant” have been wrestling with this very question.

Faced with a hostile pagan empire that surrounded them in the first centuries after the ascension of Jesus, the earliest Christians had little problem differentiating themselves from the “world,” even while persistent questions continued to be asked about the combined role of the State, religion, and the viability things like military service.

Following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 and the slow Christianization of Rome, believers entered into a new kind of Church/State relationship that we in America are now only slowly exiting.  Some see this linkage as the worst thing that happened to the Faith, others as more of an encouraging success.

Whatever the case, questions of faith and politics remain.  So my short answer to the question I posed at the outset is this:  our faith must be central to our understanding of our political selves and our subsequent actions.  In other words, if my Christian faith is not central to my politics, I ought to question how central it is to my life in general.

This is not to say, however, that just because my faith exists as the base of my politics I ought to vote in a predictably “conservative Christian” way.  Political choices are rarely that simple.  It has become axiomatic of late for the mainstream of Christianity in the United States to affirm that “God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat,” and on this point I would tend to agree with my coreligionists.  I do not believe that one party is necessarily holier than the other.  To say that one of them is seems foolish and reductionist.  But then that is the trouble with our binary, winner-takes-all system.  It forces us to assert imagined perfection when the best we ever have is a political corpus permixtum.

Yet affirming the Lord’s lack of liaison with any one of our two main parties also can obscure things…because we as citizens of faith are regularly asked to pick one of them to lead our nation.  On this point I would simply say that in order to vote based on our faith, we must be clear about how we understand the core content of our faith.  Of what our operating theology consists.  Discerned through Scripture, meditation, prayer, personal experience, and the community of faith, we must be aware of those things we perceived most central to the Christian faith.

In some areas, all Christians can agree. Justice, for example, is a major and core theme of Scripture.  Economically speaking, I would say that both Romney and Obama desire to see prosperity in our nation and the uplift of the poor and downtrodden.  Neither of them wants to crush the poor.  They simply have different plans for achieving their goals.  As people of faith, then, we also have to use wisdom to determine which of these plans will work best…while acknowledging that there may be some big things about international economic inequalities and justice that neither candidate is willing to address.

On sticky social issues, matters are more complex.  Many Christians will tell you that abortion is the single issue upon which they will vote.  I understand this position.  I do.  But surely (as our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters remind us), a theological emphasis on life means more than just eliminating abortion, doesn’t it?  It has to do with issues of healthcare, euthanasia, our care of the elderly, capital punishment, and the myriad questions of war.  Similar complexity exists on most of the issues upon which Christians may feel strongly.  How individual Christians discern the basis and major emphasis of their faith and the teachings of Christ will therefore influence the direction they vote in these areas.  If one believes Jesus is against abortion and capital punishment…they will have weigh the relative importance of each as well as make a judgment call as to which party or candidate will effectively work to address these concerns in society–even if neither of them run on that particular platform.

In the midst of this messiness we are called to participate.  To choose.  I am and will continue to be loath to tell others which candidate to select, because I feel that in some ways both have some good to offer mixed in with the bad.  Both affirm Christian ideals even as other parts of their policies negate them.  Instead of throwing our hands up in disgust, I would encourage believers to ask themselves what they really believe and know about the teachings of Christ…and vote, informed by the best wisdom our world has to offer, as best they can for those principles that God has placed closest to their heart.  Even if their vote is different from mine, if it is honest, well articulated, independent of any outside influence, and keeping with a portion of the heart of God–which never can be exhausted by one political party or candidate–I will be happy.  Well, happy, that is, if we as Christians will then choose, after the election, to remain engaged as citizens working for the same principles we vote for.  That’s a lot harder for me and all of us than simply checking a box on a ballot.

Religion and Politics, Part II

Yesterday I polled the students in my classes regarding their upcoming electoral choices.  Students were not required to participate and there were some absences, so my sample size was only around 42 people.  The results were generally as expected for the population of a Pentecostal school, but the percentages for the minority positions held were larger than you’d likely find at many of our sister Assemblies of God institutions.  The climate of the Pacific Northwest may, as I posited yesterday, have something to do with this.

The results:

Presidential Election:

  • Mitt Romney: 71%
  • Barack Obama: 24%
  • Other: 1%

While Mitt Romney has a very slight advantage in national polls right now, the 3-to-1 lead he has here on campus is rather extreme.  The students I polled overwhelming favored Romney for President.  The identification of the Republicans with the conservative Christian positions remains strong, it seems.

Legalization of Marijuana:

  • Against: 77%
  • For: 23% (67% of these votes came from ONE course, where it passed)

By similar margins, the legalization of marijuana–which I just heard is quite possible to pass here in Washington–was rejected by my students.  Again, this is not necessarily surprising.  What I did find interesting was that of the 9 votes cast in favor of legalization, 6 of them came from one individual class, where the measure actually passed!  Perhaps they are my class of libertarians?

Legalization of Gay Marriage:

  • Against: 76%
  • For: 24%

Once again, the traditionally conservative position won the day by a 3-t0-1 margin.  It would have been interesting on this point to see why students voted the way they did, as my own thoughts about the issue are a bit complex.In the end, I’m not sure that I discovered much groundbreaking information in this small survey.  By similar margins, students embraced the conservative option in all three cases–again, not an unexpected finding for a Christian college.  What was notable, I suppose, is that a not insubstantial minority chose the other option and for whatever reason embraced a position or candidate that is often not favored by the evangelical or Pentecostal community at large.  I would be very interested in learning the way at which my students arrived at their various positions, as well as how their faith informs their politics.

Along these lines, tomorrow I’ll be sharing some personal thoughts about the interplay of faith and politics as we continue to barrel towards November 6.

Religion and Politics, Part I

Just a brief post right now in anticipation of some polling results to be discussed tomorrow.  I’ve decided that I’m going to conduct a poll of all of my students today in an effort to partially understand the political tone here on campus.  I will probably see about 50 students today, which is around 5% of the student population here at Northwest University.  Numbers will be roughly split between those in the College of Ministry and elsewhere.  To conduct the survey I will be using what looks like an excellent (and free!) tool for this type of thing: the website Poll Everywhere.

I’ll be asking about my students’ choice in the presidential election in addition to two high-profile voter initiatives here in Washington State: 1) the legalization of marijuana and 2) the legalization of gay marriage.

Traditionally, white evangelicals and Pentecostals tend to be on the conservative end of politics, so my suspicions are that the results I find will broadly indicate the same.  Even so, complicating factors such as the Pacific Northwest culture and the unique generational perspectives my students bring may push them in some different directions.  Libertarian influence may also have some impact on the marijuana initiative.

I look forward to sharing my results tomorrow.  Until then, anyone care to guess how and why the students of Northwest University will vote the way they do?

Osama bin Laden is Dead: Does It Matter?

Because I was en route from Texas to Washington last night, I ended up only being able to watch the debate in snippets and follow along with some live blogs.  The consensus is that this was again Obama’s night, while Romney did manage to appear as a viable option for the job of commander-in-chief.  In a few days we will see how the polls sort themselves out, but without a big win last night, I still say that Romney’s chances of being elected trail the President’s.

No grades or in-depth analysis today, except to comment briefly on the issue of Osama bin Laden.  Ever since the terrorist leader and driving force behind the September 11 attacks was killed by American forces, the President has lifted up the action as a real sign of his success in foreign affairs.  As expected, bin Laden appeared again in last night’s debate.

While the issue of whether or not President Obama’s foreign policy has been a success is a good question upon which Americans ought to reflect, I’m not certain that pointing to bin Laden helps us that much.  To be sure, the man is dead…but by the time we killed him how important was he to the proliferation of terrorist activity?  Was he really able to do anything anymore?  Did we, in other words, take him out at the moment his power to hurt us was the weakest?  If so, why is it so important that we did it?  And, for that matter, does anyone really believe that any American president would NOT want to get bin Laden, if only for the political points?

If one believes in such actions, the time for killing bin Laden was not 2011, but before the planning and implementation of the 2001 attacks.  Then it would have made a difference.  Now?  It is simply a notch in our belts and a bloody moment of self-congratulation.

President Obama indicated that the symbolic power of the actions taken against bin Laden project an image of American strength and determination around the globe, and what happened was positive because of it.  I understand this.  Even so, our nation had by that point taken about 10 years of “symbolic actions” around the globe…and I don’t think the world felt that the United States was a pushover.  Killing bin Laden has always seemed to me to be a strange feather in our caps, especially since there are, at present, other worse threats out there.  Ones that actually matter.

Imagine if Hitler went into hiding after the Second World War and Americans finally found him in Brazil and brought him to trial in 1955.  A moment for justice, surely…but our real enemy at that point in history was the Soviet Union, not some washed-up old fascist. What real good would it do for us to have killed him then?

Last night Romney’s performance was certainly less than perfect, but one thing he said makes me think: “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” referring ostensibly to Obama’s waving of the bloody flag vis-a-vis bin Laden.  A corollary to this is the notion that there are many more dangerous threats to our nation than represented by this momentary “victory.”  Foreign policy is about a lot of things all at once, and ideally an articulated and effective philosophy that holds them together.  Romney and Obama ought to be judged on this (the former is behind in this count, it seems, even though the  job is admittedly easier for a sitting president who has spent four years working  it all out) rather than debate zingers or who wanted to kill who when.  If you vote based on foreign policy, think about all of this, not just who killed Osama bin Laden.

Thoughts on “Practical Theology: An Introduction”

Tonight I’m heading out to Dallas for the annual meeting of the Association of Youth Ministry Educators.  I’m looking forward a nice few days connecting with fellow workers in the area of practical theology and adolescence.

I’ve also recently finished reading Richard Osmer’s 2008 monograph Practical Theology: An Introduction.  Though parts of the book are a little obtuse and difficult to wade through, Osmer’s pastoral sense and basic operating procedure are clear.  The most important contribution he makes here is his four-step process for walking through the task of practical theological reflection–and informed pastoral action.  The following are my reflections on their meaning (for a more detailed summary, check out this link.)

  1. The “descriptive-empirical task“: in other words, how we first attempt to understand the main contours of what is taking place.  Though seemingly common-sensical, there is often the temptation to shortcut this task in favor of what we think is going on.
  2. The “interpretive task“: asking the “why” question is vital, because it attempts to take us to the heart of the matter and use the best of what we have available to us to help provide answers.  Theological reflection means focusing on the expertise contained in the world around us as well as the divine truths of Scripture.
  3. The “normative task“: a discussion of those things which should be taking place.  A task that should be done humbly and carefully, with a clear eye towards seeking the best from a variety of different perspectives.
  4. The “pragmatic task“: in other words, so what do we do now?  I like that this is the fourth and final step in the progression, because so often we ministers want to act quickly and decisively without being reflective and careful.  Make no mistake: the people to whom we are ministering need real answers and deep pastoral care, and this step is essential.  But without carefully reflecting on their state, interacting with the best wisdom our world has, and meditating the teachings and ethic of Scripture we run the risk of shortchanging them in favor of an easy or “obvious” answer that might be quite wrong.

Though separated into linear steps and clearly meant to be a deliberative exercise, the author admits there is a sense in which these steps can often interact with one another and proceed in various ways.  Moreover, it is my contention that after spending enough time thinking through the practical theological task in these terms, a slavish adherence to them is not necessary.  The more they become natural and interior to ourselves as ministers, the more we understand the way they operate vis-a-vis the practices we undertake.  Whether they have read Practical Theology or not, the best and most effective ministers of today would probably line up quite well with the ideas established here.

As a system Osmer’s method has a great deal to commend it, and I look forward to utilize it with my students as I help them understand some of the qualities needed in our continued efforts to minister effectively.