The Idolatry of Family

026My wife and I have the privilege of driving to work together most days of the week.  In the morning, the radio is often tuned to a local Christian radio station.  Depending on what time it is, either Focus on the Family or Family Life will be playing.

Both are evangelical Christian organizations dedicated to helping people bring healing and health to those relationships closest to home.  Though our current culture wars have their place on the airwaves from time to time, most of what we’ve listened to (especially on Family Life) has to do with issues of parenting and marriage.

A lot of what they have to share is worthwhile, and I applaud them for their efforts.  It represents good advice whether one is a Christ follower or not.  And yet, after a few weeks of listening to this material day after day, I have some concerns.  Not so much about the details of what they are talking about, but the fact that having (for instance) a healthy marriage seems to be such a persistent theme in the evangelical world.

I know that must sound a little strange…and believe me, I want a healthy marriage myself.  I believe that God’s nature is inherently relational and that he wants all of our relationships to be filled with love.  But at the same time, I know that God’s main goal is not just for me to have a good marriage.  God’s plans are deeper, wider, and more profound than this.

To elevate marriage to such a high and lofty place within the evangelical Christian subculture is understandable in our traditional_marriagebroken world, but it runs the risk of missing the point.  The purpose of Christianity is, after all, not a good marriage.  It is about much more than that.  I believe that secondary relationships such as those between husband and wife can indeed flow out of our relationship with God, but we should be wise not to reverse this.  To do so would be to search for effects rather than cause.  Or seek the cause only because we want certain effects.

I have no doubt that my radio friends would tell me that they understand this principle, and would never claim that we are Christians just so that we can have good marriages.  They even played a sermon last week that intimates the same thoughts I’ve been thinking in this area.  But because of their constant focus on this theme combined with so much of what we hear coming out of the evangelical world, the God of relationships intermixed with our therapeutic culture has the potential to, in a strange theological alchemy, made “God’s plan for marriage” a bigger thing than God in the eyes of some.

This is a problem.

God-medtopper2To elevate anything above God–even implicitly–is an idolatrous action.  A disordering of our worship.  It makes the universe about us in ways that can be awfully self-serving and stagnantly inward focused.  We ought to be careful, in light of this, to put first things first.  While the holistic nature of God’s love means that all God does is not exhausted in the moment we enter into a salvific relationship with the Lord of the Universe…it does start there.  God can heal marriages even as God is concerned about peace, justice, righteousness, suffering, and the like.  But this begins as God heals people first.

In the end, I only write what I have to serve as a warning about the implications of an over-emphasis on  family and/or marriage.  A reminder, in other words, that despite our human inclination to worship things other than God, it is God alone Who deserves our focus.  As for my wife and me?  We’ll keep listening to some of these radio programs as we travel to work, but I hope that while doing so our focus remains on God who is above all else.

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An Ode to the Star Trek Novel

105043It’s Friday, so I’ll take a break from my normal subject matter to make a confession:  I’m a big Star Trek fan.  I’ve seen every episode ever made (except for some of  Enterprise), attended an actual Star Trek convention, and own a host of related merchandise.

For years, I’ve also been a fan of the “Star Trek novel.”  Now probably numbering in the hundreds, this collection of books represents the ongoing work of numerous authors over the course of more than three decades.  Based on characters from the various series (and other new creations), they continue to expand the journeys of the “final frontier” beyond what we’ve seen in television and film.  While the books are escapist in nature and relatively unchallenging reads, I have to admit it’s exciting to revisit beloved characters and explore new stories with them.9781416525448.225x225-75

The novels, however, are of varying quality.  The best are compelling and thoughtful with great character moments.  The worst are simple and unoriginal or, even worse, bizarrely experimental, otherwise off-kilter, or boring.

I’ve read quite a few (good, bad, and ugly) in my time as a Trekkie, so I thought today I’d give my take on five entries that are worth taking a look at.  In no particular order, then, here they are:

  • Prime Directive:  The book begins with the Enterprise heavily damaged and Kirk and crew having been punished for breaking the Federation’s most sacred law.  How did we get to this place?  Is this the end for our heroes?  A worthy Star Trek novel and one of the earlier ones I read.
  • Masks: Though it has been years since I read this one, I can still remember the almost anthropological way it related the story of a planet that interacted via the use of masks. All this to say that Captain Picard and the Next Generation crew have yet another adventure on their hands.  Even though I can’t remember a thing about the plot, the unique culture it relates makes the book a very enjoyable read.217860
  • The Entropy Effect: One of the earliest Star Trek novels published, and an interesting transporter story.  Would be worth adapting into a film or episode.  Plus, it is the first time we learn Sulu’s first name (Hikaru!).
  • Provenance of Shadows: Part of a trilogy that examines Kirk, Spock, and McCoy over the course of their lives, this is a powerful and moving story about everyone’s favorite country doctor.  A rare Star Trek novel I’d consider reading again.
  • Destiny Trilogy: Do you ever wonder what happened with the Borg and the Federation after the end of Voyager?  So did the authors.  In the process, they put together a page-turning three-part series involving various characters that is literally  Star Trek-universe changing.  There are some other novels leading up to this that should be read as well, but it was the Destiny books that kept me up reading all night!
  • Bonus: Terok Nor Trilogy: I couldn’t resist a sixth entry in the list.  These books are rather different than the others in 1807636that they utilize a lot of new characters as they tell the story of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor in the years before Deep Space Nine.  Even though it’s imaginary history, I still loved it.

These are, of course, only some of the ones worth looking at.  There are a host more.  If you’re a Star Trek fan and haven’t ever read any of the novels, you are missing out.  My advice: make an effort to correct this oversight soon.  There are, after all, only so many times you can watch “Measure of a Man,” but new stories of Trek are being published every year.

I’d love to hear your favorites and/or recommendations!

Money is the Reason

CrazyAboutMoney1This semester I’ve been asked to speak in chapel.  I’ve been assigned I Timothy 6.

Rather than attempt to cover the whole chapter at once, I’ll be focusing on a particular portion of the text.  More than likely, it will be this section that will be highlighted:

Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (I Timothy 6:9-10)

Though I have a Bible commentary ready to go, I’ll admit I haven’t really begun my study of the passage or the Book of Timothy in earnest.  Right now all I’ve got are some impressions.

The biggest thought I have as I read “the love of money is the root of all evil” is how, very quickly after reading it, we qualify it.  We note that it isn’t talking about money as being evil, but rather the “love” of it.  Whew.  Only elevating money beyond its proper pace is bad, therefore.  In doing so, I think we so protect ourselves from having to ask questions about whether or not our possession of money is having any negative effect upon us or could leave us globe_money_articlemorally culpable in any way.  Because, globally speaking, we who live in the West are rich.

As I further ponder “the love of money,” I’m beginning to think that, despite our protestations, most of us do love money.  I do.  Most of you do.  We think about it a lot–how much we have or do not have, how we can invest it, how we can make more, and what we can buy.  Governments and societies (including our own) are often predicated upon the value we place upon money.  Our whole way of life, in other words, works the way it does because we all love money.  We value it.  We hold it dear.

If every American stopped loving money, the entire framework upon which our country is built would be torn asunder.  For us to prosper (i.e. have more money) we need to buy/build/invest in more things.  If we don’t, the economy is “stagnant,” and society doesn’t flourish (i.e. get richer).  For America, it seems, greed is good.  After all, who doesn’t want a golden iPhone?

69031_5_If these realities are true, if our whole national (and perhaps world) economy is built upon the love of money, then I Timothy 6 has something to say to all of us.  It says that we are all walking a path containing the roots of evil.  That our world so conspires to force us on this path of money-love that there’s almost no way out.  It also reminds us, yet again, that God’s world is completely different from the one we’ve built.  And, by extension, that only God can rescue us from this mess we’re in.

Bad news and good news.  Yes and no.  That’s where I am at with this passage right now; we’ll see how things progress.

The Heart of Pentecostalism

300px-AFM_on_azusa_streetOver the next few months I will be working on a writing assignment about “The Charismatic Renewal” for Brill.  The piece will be but one chapter in a larger volume on World Christianity.

Broadly conceived, “The Charismatic Renewal” (CR) constitutes all those elements of Christianity in the past 150 years or so that are Spirit-based or pnuema-centric.  This mix therefore includes traditional Pentecostal denominations and the Charismatic Movement within the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches as well as independent and/or non-denominational Christian groups with an emphasis on the active role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

At present, I’ve been considering a few different approaches to the chapter.  I think that it makes sense to choose an organizing theme or idea that will encompass what the editor wants.  An effort to settle on such a “catch-all” category for defining the rather broad “Charismatic Renewal in Christianity” has therefore led me to a number of different (and insightful) ideas already considered by various scholars.  Here are some:

  • Primitivism: Not in the Modernist sense of backwardness, but rather the idea that the revival sought to restore the early (or primitive) aspects of Christianity (i.e. the Book of Acts).11623353-indoor-fire-pot
  • Piety vs. Pragmatism: A notion of Grant Wacker’s in Heaven Below.  Speaking of early Pentecostals, he notes that they were simultaneously caught up in the Spirit and deeply realistic about the realities of life around them.
  • Eschatological: The corollary to the primitivism motif.  The idea that even as the Church is being restored to its earliest days it is being prepared for the end times.
  • Center/Periphery: The notion that the movement is often one at the margins, rejected more mainstream elements of the world and/or traditional Christianity.  It works well to describe early Pentecostals, but also emerging elements of the revival in the Majority (i.e. developing) world.
  • Encounter/Experience: Keith Warrington has written an entire book on Pentecostal Theology with the subtitle “A Theology of Encounter.”  Because living in the Spirit is, to a person, a very deep individual and communal encounter with God, such a description makes sense.   There is more to the movement that this, however.

I could go on and talk about globalization/indigenization, anti-denominationalism, or parse Pentecostal scholar William Hollenweger‘s numerous “roots” of Pentecostalism.  All are helpful markers for understanding this “third stream” of Christianity.  For brevity, though, I will simply reveal the theme I upon which I am slowly settling: ecumenism.  As a thing of the whole Church, ecumenism has been an idea and movement that seeks to consider the ways in which Christians are not only theologically one in Christ but how this unity may take place in our world.

Within the Church, much time has been spent in the past century in the broader Ecumenical Movement, as various parties have discussed theology and practice while reflecting on unity.  Within the “Charismatic” side of Christianity, however, a new reality of ecumenism has become possible: one of shared experience of the Holy Spirit that implicitly rejects nearly two millennia Christian division.  As Allan Anderson writes, “Pentecostalism in the western world was an ecumenical group of people claiming a common experience rather than a common doctrine.”

indexWhat was true of believers in the West is also true, I would contend, of Charismatic Christians the world over.  Deep and profound experience of the Holy Spirit–no matter the outward trappings–is both the sine qua non of the revival and that which gives it a kind of unity.d  Experience is important here, but the shared experience the movement brings carries even greater weight.  While many branches with the CR have shown a tendency towards division and they can be contentious one with another, the idea that God has “shown up” and the “Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8) is a powerful idea and experience.  It is at once a sociological reality for Charismatic believers even as it is something that really unites–and has the potential to unite–all of those within the amorphous and ever-growing movement.

Though the idea of an “ecumenism of experience” will by definition be theologically difficult to work through (especially because academic theology is NOT its starting point), it is the place that I will probably begin.  It provides a central theme around which “lived religion” and the moving of the Spirit–historically, in the present day, and in the future–can be described and, at least partially, explained.   My hope is that it will provide a helpful window into the topic that will be both accurate and compelling.

More on this and related ideas as I continue my work on the project.

Number Nine

Some laws are direct and active in orientation.  Others establish principles.  The Ninth Amendment is definitely one of the latter.  As written, it reads:

Number9fullbandThe enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Not as groundbreaking as the freedom of speech, Prohibition, or female suffrage, this amendment has a power all its own.  From my non-legal perspective, it establishes the principle that we as human beings have a host of rights and freedoms within our person (to use the language of the Declaration, we might say “God-given rights”) which can persist even if the founding document of our nation does not list all of them.  Some of these might be deep and profound, like the freedom of enterprise or self-determination.  Others might be more mundane, like the freedom I have to wear a red shirt or a blue shirt.  Either way, they can be said to be there whether named on a piece of paper or not.

By establishing that it was not the ultimate authority on all possible rights, the Constitution guarantees that its list (or “enumeration”) of rights would not limit us.  It would also seem to prevent, in principle, the federal government from having to list every single right we have.  To do so would be a practice as picayune as it might be too deeply personal.  Besides, if we were only allowed to have the rights named in a document, said document would have to be VERY long.  Otherwise, we would be VERY upset.red-white-and-blue-american-eagle-t-shirt-2-366x366

Yet in spite of this amendment’s guarantee, there are a number of others that follow it that further enshrine certain rights.  Why do so if these rights are simply naturally there?  Why have a Bill of Rights at all?  Well, here we see one of the reasons these first ten amendments were argued for in the first place: whether by prejudice, inaction, or oversight, the actual practice of a national government can be to limit our God-given rights…some of which are so important that they need to be specified and protected (ie. the right for African-Americans to vote).  Others, at least for a time, are seen as self-evident to the majority (i.e. the right to not be forcibly euthanized in old age).  But: when common perception changes (as it can) or long-held rights are threatened, new specific guarantees or prohibitions are sometimes called for.  That is the story of further amendments and law over the course of our nation’s history.

The question for the contemporary Americans, then, is this: are there more rights we need to enumerate or that are so in danger of being violated that they must be further guaranteed?  If so, what are they?  What, in other words, is the consensus on what must be codified (or, conversely, prohibited)?

It’s Your Funeral

funeral-and-weddingOver the weekend a video was making the rounds that showed a brief clip of a wedding ceremony.  As it began, everything seemed normal: gathered guests, eager yet nervous bride and groom, and gentle minister guiding them through their vows.

And then all of a sudden things change.  The minister, for some reason quite irritated with the wedding photographer and videographer, turns around and tells them to move.  To leave.  To get out of the way of the ceremony he feels they are disrupting.  The visual professionals seem to want to argue back, but the officiant will have none of this, telling them that “this is about God.”

As the altercation takes place, the guests sit watching.  The bride and groom grow increasingly uncomfortable, and we the viewers are tempted to get rather angry with this minister.  Some would say that this outburst ruined the wedding ceremony.  Two questions are likely to emerge in our minds while watching this: “How dare he!?” and “What gives him the right!?”  Though I have some questions about whether I as a minister could ever do the same, I do (and I’ll tip my hand here) have certain theological and ministerial sympathies with his reaction,

While the minister may simply be badly in need of some anger management (and in any case needs to learn some tact),princess-bride-priest I’m not so quick to reject his response out of hand.  First, we don’t know the back story.  The videographer and photographer may have engaged in a host of disruptive and distracting actions before he turned around.  He may have politely asked them numerous times to stay away from the area in which they insisted they must stand.  Some of the message boards I was reading even indicated that in the Episcopal church, a couple must sign a contract that specifically states photographers must stay away from the front/center of the ceremony.  If these things are the case, our angry friend doesn’t seem so crazy after all.

But beyond even this, I think what happened during the ceremony–and our reaction to it–speaks to the fact that our cultural understanding of marriage is rather different from the view long-held by the Church.  We think that a wedding is all about the bride and groom.  The family.  The aesthetics.  The party afterwards.  Many times the idea that marriage is a sacred covenant hardly enters into the equation.  And so if a wedding photographer dictates the terms of the ceremony, standing where and inigodoing what they want, it doesn’t matter.  The officiating minister is just one more in a string of hired hands to perform a role and contribute to the certain “feel” of a wedding in a traditional church.

As a Christian minister, I reject this approach and would argue that for followers of Christ, preferential aesthetics need to fade from view in favor of the importance of the ceremony as a solemn  and profound covenant before God and gathered witnesses.  As much a time of sober honesty and commitment, in other words, as it is about joyous love.  To ignore these realities in favor of a pretty ceremony devoid of meaning is to drain the rite of its importance.  Having a wedding in a church by a minister ought to mean something…and our friend in the video is simply guaranteeing this.

If someone wants to be married in the Christian context (minister/church/etc.), they ought to be prepared, I think, for the Church to have some say in the matter.  If not, they are free to be married by other officials.  But under the auspices of Christianity, they ought to be ready for the Faith to say something about what is taking place, why it is important, and where the focus ought to lie.matrimony

While the minister’s tone and demeanor may be all wrong, his resolve and actions should be understood somewhat differently.  We talk a lot about “destroying the institution of marriage” in our culture today, and I’m not angling to get into all of that right now.  But consider: doesn’t the commodification and commercialization of weddings (the same things rejected so forcefully by this minister) insidiously pollute the institution from the very moment of its inception in our lives?  I don’t hate wedding photographers.  I appreciate what they do.  But, ultimately, they are not even close to the most important thing in a wedding…and that’s worth remembering.

The Hipster Pope

2012-04-28_Hipster_TrekAccording to the Urban Dictionary, a hipster is defined as:

a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter…Hipsters reject the culturally-ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers, and are often be seen wearing vintage and thrift store inspired fashions, tight-fitting jeans, old-school sneakers, and sometimes thick rimmed glasses.

Hipsters therefore reject the “mainstream” in favor of what they perceive to be unique, “cool,” and authentic in life.  Think: well-educated hippies with trendy fashion sense.  Hipster Christianity is even a thing these days: those who “attempt to burn away the kitschy dross of the megachurch Christianity of their youth,” in the process caring deeply about both Christian aesthetics (both within the Church and in the way it interacts with the world) and the emulating that original rejecter of the “mainstream,” Christ himself.

Like every movement of “cool,” hipster faith is itself in danger of turning in on itself or becoming more about style over FXRIPANH0A0BUOK.LARGEsubstance.  And yet, they can offer some interesting and surprisingly old-school (again, a hipster hallmark) and authentic takes on the faith.

Enter Pope Francis,  representative of some of the most “old school” Christianity around.  Though the 76-year-old pontiff is by no means a contemporary hipster, his actions and words since his election earlier this year have excited many.  Whether it has been forgoing the papal apartments in favor of a simpler dwelling, washing feet, calling up random people on the phone to minister to them, or personally paying his own hotel bill, Francis has staked out a style and position that is a clear departure from the papacies that went before him.  Smaller in scope than that of Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Francis’ approach is nevertheless wider and potentially more influential than either.

36284502It is ironic in this way that the man who literally is “the Man” of the Catholic Church seems to be rejecting the mainstream in favor of a different, more stripped-down approach.  In an interview published yesterday (of which I’ve read only part), he was clear, for instance, on what Church was:

“I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

He goes on to say that:

The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.

Think want you want about his words (which, by the way, Relevant Magazine, that newsletter of hipster Christianity, was sure to highlight), but they definitely seem to be peeling back layers of theological and bureaucratic accretions in order to get at the genuine heart of Christianity.  Even Francis’ choice of papal name is an attempt to reach back to something more authentic: the medieval monk now known as St. Francis, who literally stripped off all of his clothes and offered himself up when he felt the call of God.  Francis went on to be a person of great piety, preaching and ministering to people (and birds) far and wide and reflecting deeply on the person of Christ and work of God in our world.  If there ever was a hipster saint, Francis of Assisi was surely him.pope-1

In the end, Pope Francis’ style and approach may very well make him the first “hipster Pope,” and that’s interesting…as far as it goes.  But if that is all he is, if he is just a man of style without substance or some creation of the fawning media, I would be disappointed.  If, in other words, he set out to be the hipster Pope of trendy Catholicism, he would be discredited.  If, however, his piety and authenticity are simply such that they cannot be ignored and must be given attention because of Christ living through him, I welcome such a moment in the history of the Church.

And yet we know that, like all men, Francis is imperfect.  That despite how inspiring he may be to Christian hipsters (in this category I might perhaps include myself) and countless others, we ought to observe some caution.  Francis, like any human being, can fail.  Yet even in this, we are given hope by the fact that he himself may be more aware of this than all his fawning admirers:

“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

Food for thought as we head into the weekend.