Things I Would Like To See (Part XI)

eagles-snow-game-picFootball: an American pastime.  Though I have some serious qualms and doubts about it for a couple of reasons, there is no denying the current place it holds in our society.

I live right outside of Seattle.  Trust me on this one.

So if we’re going to keep playing football, here then is what I’d like to see: a Super Bowl in the snow.  A blizzard, preferably.

To me this makes sense.  The game is, after all, played in early February.  Football is very much a cold weather sport.  And we’ve all seen snow games before.  Indeed, some of the most interesting NFL contests have, Super-Bowl-2014-Seahawks-vs-Broncosto my mind, been played in the snow.  Plus: the effect of heavy snowfall during the event could slow things down and make gameplay safer.  Imagine that.

Sadly, it seems as if there’ll be no snow this year during the game.  But holding the Super Bowl in New York/New Jersey was a good first step.  Now let’s follow through to the logical conclusion of this and have it in Green Bay.  Because THAT’S one of the things I’d like to see.

Matthew 2

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said…” (Matthew 2:13)

As I think about the second chapter of Matthew, my mind gravitates to the extraordinary things that are happening.  Learned Magi following prophecy and the stellar call of God to find the new Messiah.  Joseph having an angel tell him to leavherod.jpg w=584e…twice  First Israel, then Egypt.  God is speaking and asking some fairly drastic things.  Yet without hesitation, it seems, the Magi and the family of Joseph respond affirmatively.

It isn’t just that they hear what God is asking them.  They actually take the next step and act on it according to God’s plans.  For the Magi this meant a mysterious travel.  For Joseph and family this meant disruption and the great unknown of exile/return.  They had the promise that all of this had to do with something good, but were still required to act on what they were told.

Herod’s story is similar, to a point.  While an angel doesn’t appear to him, he does become aware of prophecy and believes it enough to act on it.  Or at least believes its implications enough to act on it.  Yet because it threatens him he doesn’t choose to go along with it or support the action of God in the world.  Instead he tries his best to stop it.  To end what is happening.  To kill the newborn king.  He tries to make his own way when God’s plan is moving in another direction.

For the Christian, it is important to know the will of God.  While magisometimes this can happen miraculously in moments of revelation, most of the time it comes through knowing God’s character as revealed in the Scripture and reflecting on it in the midst of the opportunities and difficulties posed by our existence.

A lot of times we know the righteous path, the healing path, the difficult path that God wants us to take.  There’s no debate about that.  It may save our lives (Joseph) or lead to a loss of our own power (Herod), but it is the will of God all the same.  Choosing to follow it or fight against it?  That’s the issue.  While the wholesale slaughter of a village’s babies (i.e. Herod) may not be the result, our resistance to God can be born from the same impulse.

Knowing and listening to God is vital.  But without then doing what God wants or going where God calls, having paid attention in the first place means very little.

Soul Meets Body

priscilla-catacombs3Each year our school runs its own “Faith in Humanities” conference in which students and faculty members present and discuss topics related to the integration of faith and various academic disciplines.  Recently I was asked if I would consider sharing something that I’m currently working on or thinking about, and after reflection I have decided I will.  It will be just a short 10-minute talk, with time for one or two questions afterwards.

I’m still pondering the mechanics of it all, but am planning on sharing some thoughts I’ve been having in my new course “The Church in Contemporary Society.”  Recently a question came up about how we might anchor our discussion of the Christian’s role in our society.  In response my mind went (not surprisingly) to the history of Christianity.  Specifically, a 2nd or 3rd century text called The Epistle to Diognetus.

Written at a time when Christianity was a minority faith in a pagan Roman world, the document contains some passages that helpfully frame the issue.  In some ways this is best represented by the following quotation:agapefeast05ql3

What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.

I’ve tried this quotation out in two different forums.  Some feedback has been positive, while others have been a little concerned that the model as laid out draws too sharp a distinction been soul and body.  Dualism and the utter denigration of the flesh has, after all, often been a temptation in Christianity.

While I accept this criticism and have been thinking a bit about the implications, I also know that I like the picture being painted by this ancient text.  Plus, I think that what I mean has more to do with the fact that just like the soul belongs in the body and has a vital function it, so to the Church’s role in society is meant to be a positive and constitutive one.  I like 44363bfc6318d003490f6a7067008fafthinking about the role of Christians in the world not as one of domination or control, but rather witness and conscience.  All of this, of course, not of ourselves but from God.

As Christians we live in and throughout the world and yet look elsewhere for our final home.  We have a different horizon, even while looking from the same vantage point.  Our operating principles are different. We are called to speak to truth, love, and justice despite what prevailing wisdom may say.  And, as Jesus tells us in Matthew, we exist as light and seasoning in a world that needs it.  Even when it doesn’t want it.

If we can, as the Epistle suggests, consider our interactions with civil society in these ways and stop selling ourselves short by wholesale alignment with political projects (liberal and conservative) not of our own design, I think we can then speak with more authority and authenticity. I think it is then we can begin to be the “soul” we are called to be.

Review: “Bad Religion” (Part II)

1101480308_400In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat manages to be exactly the kind of figure that he decries exists no longer: the public religious intellectual akin to Reinhold Niebuhr or Will Herberg.  Though not a theologian proper, Douthat does offer some trenchant observations in a readable and winsome fashion.

The second half of his book focuses upon the heresies he sees infecting modern American Christianity.  From Douthat’s perspective, “the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether” (145).  Among these maladies are: 1) the rise of a “do-it-yourself” biblical approach in the mold of Dan Brown and the supposedly secret and revelatory Gnostic Christian texts, 2) the infectious power of money, prosperity, and the temptation to ally Christianity with success by the world’s standards, 3) the elevation of pseudo-spirituality and the “God within” in addition to the rise of largely therapeutic forms of 1101960408_400Christianity, and 4) the heresy of American nationalism that, depending on which party is in power can manifest itself pessimistically (apocalyptic) or optimistically (messianic).  His discussion of this fourth problem alone is worth the price of admission.

For Douthat, each of these heresies are ugly aberrations from the true faith that rob us of the power of orthodoxy and more.  It is worth noting that heretical thinking can affect both liberals and conservatives.  Hear his perspective, then, on the right place of Christian teaching:

The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post-sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.

ralph_reed-the-right-hand-of-God-240x320This is wisdom for our time.  While not all of our American heresies may necessarily be represented, Bad Religion does a good job laying out the scope and stakes of the problem at hand.  Christianity–still a pervasive force within the United States–that does not embrace its birthright has little prophetic or helpful to say to the world at large.

In answer to the difficulties facing the Church in our society, Douthat proposes that a return to Christian orthodoxy would involve politics without partisanship, being ecumenical but still confessional, moralistic yet holistic, and inhabit the qualities of sanctity and beauty.  Holding onto these tensions is important.

Though probably a longer conversation than I want to have here, a not insignificant amount of this perspective is probably derived from Douthat’s Catholicism.  Protestants would be wise to listen.  It is no surprise, I think, that Pope Francis may be becoming exactly the kind of prophetic figure who inhabits these qualities.

Ultimately, Bad Religion is worth reading for its thoughtful reflections on the state of American faith and culture.  I cannot say I time-pope-francisagree 100% with everything he says, but the kind of wisdom and reflection he exudes here is desperately needed in a religious society with our problems.   Christians especially will benefit from his observations about the role of orthodoxy and heresy vis-a-vis the temptations of worldly wisdom.

Whether his critiques will lead to a revival of Christianity and any kind of return to a 1950s settlement is an open question (he does not guarantee it, and I have doubts on at least the latter possibility).  Nevertheless, naming and analyzing such heresies are valuable, even if only for the state of our own souls.  In this I am thankful for one of the final things he says in the book: “To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived, not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (293).  What happens after this?  Well, we’ll see what comes next.

Bounded

0020bqxgIt has long been a commonplace in American history that our Chief Executive serves for only two terms.  For the first 150 years of the Republic, custom and tradition well established this fact.  Since the middle of the 20th century this has been codified into law.  The Twenty-Second Amendment reads (in part):

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

The main breach with tradition and apparent reason for this amendment is one man: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Elected to four consecutive terms (though only serving for about twelve years from 1933-1945), FDR’s legacy seems to have been what proponents of the 22nd Amendment had in mind.12516_lg

The interesting thing about this amendment is that it seems to have passed fairly quickly and with little controversy.  At least none that I have ever read about.  In truth, there hasn’t really ever been much to read.  It is as if all at once the same nation that elected Roosevelt to four terms decided this wasn’t a good idea.  While FDR had his enemies, it seems strange that such a rule would be passed after the passing of a wartime leader and hero to many.  Further, while his successor Truman became increasingly less popular as his tenure progressed, this amendment as written specifically did not apply to him.

The passage of the 22nd Amendment often appears in history books as a kind of common sense moment, but I am interested in knowing more of the story.  Besides this, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it.  While on the one hand term limits protect against the calcification of unhealthy leadership and tamps down cronyism and corruption, it seems an unfortunate reality that a person who is a skilled leader (especially if we are to face crisis or wartime) must step down simply because the calendar page has turned.  We are at least in part a democracy, after all.  Shouldn’t the people decide whether someone should have a third or fourth term with having to change the whole Constitution again?

Five_Presidents_Oval_OfficeBut then of course there is this:  There was once another (somewhat) democratically elected leader that came to power in 1933 and served until his death in 1945.  A man beloved by his countryfolk for much of his time in office.  A man who took advantage of his new position to consolidate his position and make sure that the democratic process would be subverted thereafter.  A man who represented the worst of the accumulation of power.

A man named Adolf Hitler.

Though dictators can come to power in all sorts of ways in all sorts of places, something like term limits is but one of the safeguards we have to (hopefully) protect ourselves against such excess.  Even so: is the 22nd Amendment necessary?  I’ll admit I’m conflicted.  What do you think?

Things I Would Like To See (Part X)

moonbaSpace exploration.  It has been my dream for a long time.  It seemed, in the 1960s, that we were so close to spreading out amongst the stars.  Now that’s unfortunately gone.

Besides the bottom of the sea, very little exploration is left for us on Earth.  The age of discovery is closed.  Unless–and Star Trek was right on this one–we reach out and take up the mantle of the final frontier.  For this reason, space exploration is one of the things I’d like to see.

As many of you know, I am a science fiction fan.  This is both motivated by and contributes to my passion for space.  The possibilities are intriguing and, while dangerous, might nevertheless yield great new adventures and discoveries.

Before you’re too quick to judge the ravings of a pie-eyed sci-fi nerd, understand that I realize it won’t be all laser guns and Spock ears.  It will be hard work.  It will move slowly.  The warp drive, transports, food replicators?  They may never be real things.  And that’s OK.  The important thing is that we get out there.k-bigpic

Resources are limited on Earth, but are undoubtedly more plentiful out there.  Space is finite on our planet, but nigh unto infinite in the great beyond.  It will be hard to make those first steps, but once a foothold is established there is great potential.  New resources and opportunities heretofore unknown to us may be available.  Now?  They may be just beyond our reach.

We need a space elevator.  We need a moon base.  We need to figure out how to make such undertakings not only financially feasible, but profitable enough so that they become attractive to the public and private sectors alike.  Energy production (solar or possibly nuclear) might be a way to do this.  Asteroid mining might be another.  How?  We’ll, I’m not  a space engineer, so I couldn’t say.

Mission-Mars-OneThe Mars One expedition currently being planned is exciting, even if it does skip over a few initial steps.  I respect its spirit.  If humanity travels into space, settling Mars would seem to be a non-negotiable.  While we may never turn the Red Planet into a lush jungle, it is certainly a better candidate for life than the other rocks circling the Sun.

Great difficulties await us if we go into space.  Financial, political, administrative, technical, you name it.  But I think it is worth trying.  And certainly a lot better use of our limited means than making war.

I’ll admit I am probably never more utopian and optimistic (even though I know better) than when I’m thinking about space exploration.  All the same, it is one of the things I’d like to see.

Matthew 1

splash_matthew1As I pondered the first chapter of Matthew this past week, I couldn’t help but reflect on the genealogy that figures prominently in it.  Tracing a line from Abraham to Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph, it represents the long history of Israel and reminds readers of the faithfulness of God over hundreds of years.

It also features a significant list of individuals–heroes, certainly, but also (and more importantly) some very flawed and broken people as well.  I think here of Tamar, one of the few women listed.  A victim and actor in a sorry tale of abandonment and sexual trickery, she is very specifically named.  Then there’s Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, taken advantage of by King David on his journey down the path of adultery and murder.  David appears too, a man after God’s own heart who nevertheless has some serious flaws.  His son Solomon, whose vaunted wisdom is only equaled by his sometimes moral and religious stupidity.David-and-Bathsheba

Then we have a long list of the other kings of Israel, some of whom were counted by the Bible as “righteous,” but others who were simply dismissed as having done evil.  It’s a mixed bag, this long family history…but it is the adoptive family into which God sends Jesus.

Normally reflections on such genealogies end up talking about Jesus being born into our sorry humanity, and that’s true enough.  But as I was looking at Matthew 1 this week, I saw something else.  Because here, you see, it is actually Joseph who is said to share blood with this rogue’s gallery.  Not Jesus.  It is Joseph who has to cope with a family history full of greatness as well as shame.

In the midst of this, he finds out that his family history of disgrace may not yet be behind him.  His own betrothed is pregnant before they’re even married.  One more scandal.  One more sordid tale.  No wonder he has in mind to divorce her quietly.  But then an angel appears and shares with him the (amazingly bizarre) facts.  He decides to go ahead with things, even though, I suspect, many outsiders would simply say he was a chip off the old family block when it comes to messing up.

matthewYou might say I’m reading too much into this.  Perhaps I am.  But I think it makes sense to think about the way in which our past–and our family history–carries right along with us.  We like to say we aren’t defined by these things, that we can make our own way…but there is a deep sense in which the backstory is always with us and is a part of who we are.  Even as God calls and may help us transcend what has gone before, history is not erased.  Fear can threaten to rule the day.

When I consider my own past and the long story of my family history, I too see a mixed bag of success and failure.  I think everyone looking at these categories for themselves would say the same thing.  They make up a part of who we are.  But not all of who we might be.  That’s where Joseph’s story is interesting.  God’s intervention means that though the past matters, it is not all that matters.  And, if we’re willing to embrace this new thing, it may mean new history beginning right now.  That’s as true for Joseph even as it is for you and me.