Thursday, November 29, 2012

I resemble that remark

Bobby at Deconstructing Neverland has a very heartfelt post today, Breaking the silence. His post really resonated with me because I know a lot of the feelings that he has. You should check it out and drop him a word of encouragement, I know he (and many of us!) could certainly use it.

That Is Not My Job

Francis Chan was interviewed at the webpage Church Leaders and one of the answers he gave was thought provoking. He was asked about evangelism in the church and this is what he said..

What would you say is one of the biggest myths about evangelism in the church today?

There are a couple of things. I don’t know what the biggest one is.  I think one of the biggest problems is that no one feels like it’s their job.

I hear pastors say: “Well, it’s not really my job to go out and share my faith with people.  I’m really supposed to equip the people to do that …” 

And the people say: “Well, I’m not a preacher, so I don’t like to preach to anyone. I just try to show them by having a nice life …”

Bottom line: No one is really getting the Gospel out. The truth is it’s everyone’s job.

If pastors were out sharing their faith, then they could say: “Follow me; I’ll make you a fisher of men. Watch how I do it.” There would be a sense of discipleship where people can come along.

Instead, we give sermons about fishing and PowerPoints about fishing and books about fishing, but who’s actually out there fishing and taking someone along with them? That’s the problem. Pastors aren’t doing it, so then the sheep don’t have that type of example.

The truth is the believers should be doing it themselves and showing other believers—“This is what I do in my workplace, look at how I share with them, notice how I got into this guy’s life and how we go golfing together, and after a while, he got to see my life, and I got to lay out the Gospel.” We’re not discipling people in that.

What we do is a big church program, send out fliers, and if you have enough courage, maybe tell your friend to come to “Jesus on Ice” or whatever program we’ve got going on, but we’re still not fluent in Scripture. It’s so weird to people that Jesus is the most important thing to us yet we’re so awkward in talking about it.

We love our kids. We’ll talk about our kids all day. We love our wives. We’ll talk about our wives. We love a sport. We’ll talk about that sport. But when we talk about Jesus, it doesn’t just flow out of this natural, this is who I am. I’m crazy about God and what He did for me. It’s supernatural how He answers my prayers, and I just love Him.

I think that is something that is pretty obvious but no one will say it. Chan gets away with it because he walked away from a comfortable world of sermons on Sunday, conference speaking and writing books to get out among the lost and he equip others in a much less traditional way to do the same. It is sad and perverse that he took a lot of flak from some corners of the church for doing that, as if going out among the lost is somehow a step down in faithfulness from delivering a sermon on Sunday morning.

Bottom line as I have written before. If a guy is not equipping the less mature in the church for the work of ministry, which includes evangelism along with works of mercy and service, then he isn't fulfilling his calling. I don't care what ecclesiastical titles he carries, whether pastor or "reverend" or priest or elder. I don't care what educational achievements he has or which conferences he is invited to speak at or how many books with glowing reviews he has written.

That is not to point the finger of blame at the pastor (acknowledging that I am not anywhere near where I should be on sharing the Gospel). There are plenty of people who are quite content to "show up and pay up" and think that the pastor is getting paid so it is his job to evangelize because they "don't have the gift of evangelism". Whether you think you have the "gift" or not doesn't change that you have the calling!

We all have plenty to learn from each other, not just pastor to laity but every Christian to every Christian (for a good blog on this see Alan Knox's new post The church as a team of player-coaches). I don't think even Ray Comfort and those guys have it down pat because it simply isn't something you can have down pat. Every person has the same need, Jesus, but they also have very different experiences and backgrounds. We just need to equip people for evangelism and a huge part of that is encouraging them to actually do it. To do that we need to get out of our circles. Chan makes a point about private school and homeschool that I think overreaches a bit but the broader point is valid that many of us are cocooned within the church circles and just don't come into contact with the people who need to hear Jesus. Granted one of the largest populations of lost people that need to come to Christ are found on the "membership" rolls and in the pews of many churches but you get my point.

Ultimately we just need to spend more time together, in formal setting perhaps but more importantly in informal settings so we can watch one another interact with unbelievers and also serve each other. We see Paul often referring to others as co-workers or co-laborers, those we work and live alongside. That is something we cannot do in tightly controlled setting for an hour a week, we need to live alongside one another because you never know when a chance to witness or serve might come along. More on this later as community among the saints is weighing heavily on my mind yet again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thinking about Jubilee

In some corners of the Christian world we see the idea of Jubilee, taken from the Old Testament, presented as a framework for how Christians should think about economic and political issues in American society. Writers and speakers like Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne invoke the Jubilee on a regular basis and it has started to really catch on as model for "social justice" more broadly in the church.

Because of this I read with a great deal of interest an informative piece at the Gospel Coalition by Art Lindsley, 5 Myths About Jubilee that gets beyond the simplistic rhetoric to look at what the Jubilee was and was not and why it is not really applicable to our culture.

This redemptive-historical approach to understanding Jubilee has the advantage of avoiding the debates about capitalism or socialism. Given the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding Jubilee, the present-day applications of this practice are not immediately clear. They are not as easy to interpret and apply as those who perpetuate these myths want to maintain. But it is clear that Jubilee cannot be used to defend redistribution of wealth by the state.

Of course, even if the Bible doesn't require the state to redistribute wealth, the state may still do so. Whether the state is the best vehicle to meet the needs of poor people is a separate issue.

There is a case to be made that the state should provide a safety net for the poor. But state involvement does not absolve Christians of individual or corporate responsibility. Certainly Christians must be concerned about the poor, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan because God requires us to do so. Jesus says that whoever serves one of the "least of these" serves him (Matthew 25:45).

Biblical commands are not given to the impersonal, secular state, but to Christians to care personally for those in need with our time and treasure.

I think that hits the right tone. 

Just as those who put forth 2 Thessalonians 3:10, "For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat", as a defense of capitalism or opposition to welfare programs are taking a concept completely out of context, so too are those who see the Old Covenant national Israeli practice of Jubilee as political cover for liberal wealth redistributive policies. In some ways I think it is a cheap out for Christians to rely on the government to do what we have been called to do, a failing of Christians on the left and the right.

We need to be mindful at all times of reading modern cultures into the nation state of Israel under the Old Covenant and beware of trying to force our own interpretations into situations where it is not warranted. Check that article out, it is pretty short and I think you will find it enlightening.

Friday, November 23, 2012

When I Am Weak

I just started reading my new copy of Dave Black's newly re-released book Paul, Apostle of Weakness and it is good stuff. Likewise I read a wonderful story today by Robert Martin at The Abnornmal Anabaptist regarding his wife and her thanking God for her cancer, Boasting In Weakness. Robert writes..

So, when we are weak, that is when God shines through the most. Our clay jars show off the treasure of God’s love so much more because they allow the treasure to shine without distraction. When we live depending totally on him, we cannot help but put God first. 

Thank God for cancer. I can say it and mean it. This is not someplace I got on my own, it is only by God’s Spirit I can say this. I pray only that somehow, someway, the pain and weakness that Heather, Andrew, myself, and others deal with in our journey can point that much more clearly to God and to what Jesus has done in our lives.

Like Dave and Robert my wife too has had her own journey with cancer. While hers is not life threatening it is still cancer and over the last few months, while preparing for her scan to determine how much regrowth there has been, she has been off of her thyroid replacement medication which makes even the simplest task an insurmountable barrier and slows down the thinking process to a crawl. We received wonderful news when the doctor reported a clear scan which meant no further treatment would be required. Praise God! Yet we would have praised Him all the same if the result had been less favorable. We can do that because we know that He is always in control and the more we yield ourselves to Him, the more He lifts us up.

If only the church would heed the words of Paul and stop seeking worldly power and security. After all, as counter-intuitive as it seems, we are at our strongest when we are our weakest.

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:7-10)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Musings On Gratitude, Harvesting and Such

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Matthew 9:36-38)

On Thanksgiving Day many of us gather with family and friends to celebrate and give thanks, Today I am mindful of those who don't have a turkey to roast, who don't have family near them, who don't even have a roof over their heads. In a land of plenty it is so terribly easy to forget that for the rest of the world, to borrow the silly rhetoric of the disaffected spoiled youth of America, we are the 1%. Still we often seem bitter and ungrateful compared to an orphan in Haiti who is delighted with the simplest pleasure. We look around at the almost obscene plenty we have, give an often begrudging thanks today and then wait with eager anticipation for the opportunity to to buy even more stuff tomorrow.

Enough of the grumpiness, I have so much to be thankful for!

As always but ever in need of repeating is our thanks above all to God Almighty for sending His Son who died and rose again for my sins. If I had this blessing and no other it would be eternally more than enough, a continually flowing fountain of blessings without measure or end.

I am thankful for how God has challenged and changed me, often painfully and likewise often at some cost to my pride. I can see that He is showing me things, things that are crucial to understanding the Kingdom of God but that I have missed for so many years.

We are thankful this year for a clean scan for my wife meaning no additional radiation! A completely unexpected blessing, those are often the best kind. When we heard we were mostly skeptical but it was great news and we will rejoice in it!

We are thankful that God has placed us here where we have met so many wonderful people and have so many opportunities to serve our neighbors and minister to those in need. We feel more at home here than really anywhere I can remember, close to family and making more and more new friends. It has been a great blessing for us indeed.

Something that is largely lost on Thanksgiving is the timing of the holiday at the culmination of the harvesting season, a giving of thanks for the bounty of the table. One of the things we love about where we live presently is the omnipresent agricultural season changes. The harvest comes in and we give thanks to the one who makes the harvest happen, the one who sends the rain and made the soil and commands the sun to rise and set each day. Without His daily care none of us would have even the breath we take much less a bountiful table of food. This is especially true thanks to our Amish neighbors who live lives that revolve around planting, cultivating, harvesting, who look forward to the birth of spring foals and calves and lambs. While we can worship God anywhere, for us seeing the rhythms of life lived out in farming is an ever-present reminder of the active hand of the Lord of the Harvest. The simple act of driving around is an opportunity to glory in our Lord.

So much of the New Testament is lost on a culture that is so removed from the cycles of the seasons, winter leading to the promise of Spring and the labor of Spring leading to the anticipation of Summer and the Summer tending that leads to the bounty of the harvest in Fall, the hard work of the Fall leading to the waiting and preparing of Winter. So it goes on year after year. In fact all of life is predicated on those seasons happening the same way. Little wonder that so much of the New Testament invokes the language of agriculture, certainly for the culture they were in it makes sense but God chose that time and that place to reveal His Son. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. He is the the Vine and the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God. His death and resurrection are celebrated in breaking bread and drinking wine. How can we understand Him without understanding the harvest?

Anyway, enough random musings. I need to get my Turkey Game Face on and get ready to enjoy the turkey we raised on our farm with pumpkin pie made from pumpkins we grew in the garden and topped with whipped cream from our cow. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Different Approaches to Powerlessness: The value of Anabaptism in a post-"Christian" America

It is without question that the influence of religious groups in America is on the wane. As I have said hundreds of times I don't mourn this or even think it is a bad thing. I have come to realize that politically conservative religious moralism has about as much to do with the Kingdom as politically liberal secular libertinism. No need to hash that out again but it is the reality we are living with, as is the question of how much we have blurred the line between the two. As the weeks roll by post-election, the handwringing and garment rending shows little sign of abating anytime soon.

It can be seductively easy to think of the American religious landscape as if it is the sum total of the Christian experience when in fact we are just a short, albeit significant, dot on the map. The history of the church didn't leap from 1st century Jerusalem to 18th century America after all! For much of the 2000 years that have elapsed since the cross, the Roman Catholic church has wielded enormous power of secular affairs, from the crowning of kings to the possession of land to the starting of wars. Even after the Reformation we still see "the church" wielding enormous influence, including here in America where religious divisions led to many of the political boundaries we take for granted today. As Americans values changed, perhaps corresponding with our increasing affluence and comfort, the religious institutions of our land have lost ground which has i turn led to some strange bedfellows.

Going back perhaps to the election of Reagan we have seen former enemies joining together in a bid to cling to political power and influence. Protestants and Catholics alike have become united for the sake of politics in a way that we never saw even a hint of for the sake of the Kingdom. This was "successful" for a time thanks to the efforts of groups like Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the manifesto known as the Manhattan Declaration. For a short while it seemed that a coalition of evangelicals and Roman Catholics would prove to be a powerful voting block for some time to come, culminating in the election of George W. Bush who was one of the, probably the, most vocal Presidents about his faith in recent memory. How quickly that has collapsed. In spite of spirited attempts to raise the (rather ironic) specter of religious persecution over the Obamacare birth control mandate, Barack Obama won the presidency for a second time. Less convincingly to be sure but without a doubt he won. This has left religious conservatives scrambling.

So what does this have to do with Anabaptists?

Just this, keeping in mind that I am speaking more of the early Anabaptist than their modern descendants who seem to be split in two on opposite sides of the same myopic hermeneutic. The Anabaptists never had to learn to minister and evangelize after losing their influence and power because they never had any to begin with. From the outset they were hunted and persecuted and hated. Yet they still reached many, many people for Christ and provided a powerful witness that deeply impacts many of us today, a witness that is far more valuable for us than the great theologians of the Reformation era or more modern church leaders in America safely writing book after book from the safe cocoon of a pastoral office or a seminary campus. We can learn much from those who reached the lost with the Gospel in spite of government persecution.

In these days which seem so dark for so many Christians (for all the wrong reasons I might add), it is well worth our time to spend our efforts looking to how our brothers of ages passed ministered amidst opposition rather than pining for a golden age that never really existed. The Anabaptists provide us with a witness and example, one tempered by the fire of persecution and watered with the blood of matrydom, that Christians feeling adrift and powerless would be wise to study.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Talking about the Millennial Generation

One of the topics during an in-service meeting at the pregnancy resource center where my wife and I volunteer was the Millennial generation and how to minster to them. These so-called Millennials are the current and upcoming generation of young adults, the people that are, like every new young generation of adults, seemingly impossible to understand. There are few things that people of older generations find praiseworthy about this generation and lots of stuff we don’t like. As we talked about them I started thinking, trying to move beyond the stereotypes and two things came to mind. One, these are people that we are called to take the Gospel to and as they come to Christ we are called to lead by example and mentor them. Two, I am not sure we can pin all of the blame on this group and perhaps they are right more often than we give them credit for.

One of the biggest gripes about this group, besides their sense of entitlement, is that they reject many of the social traditions of our culture. This is seen as a major failing but can you blame them? One after another the institutions that we relied upon when I was younger have collapsed or been exposed as deeply flawed. I believe this exposure is responsible for much of the general malaise that infects America. There is little we feel like we can rely on anymore. So sure Millennials reject the institutions and traditions that older Americans grew up with. Why wouldn’t they?

The American story has always relied on a carefully crafted worldview and crucial to that worldview are certain institutions and structures that people were taught to rely upon and trust. We trust the law, the schools, the government, the church. We hold certain people up as heroic figures: Presidents, business leaders, teachers, police officers, soldiers, athletes. During the last twenty years trust in those institutions has been collapsing.

Our schools are a mess. Many students enter the building after passing through a metal detector thanks to multiple mass shootings. Seemingly a week doesn’t go by without a new story of a teacher using his or her position of trust as a means to seduce students. The public school system has degenerated into a combo of taxpayer funded daycare and prophylactic dispensary

Businesses are exporting jobs left and right in response to wildly inflated wages and the insatiable American demand for cheap products. This generation has grown up watching companies lay people off, export jobs and generally end the old order of employment where people stayed at the same job for decades. My employer is not loyal to me and I am not loyal to my employer.

Sports figures were heroes when I was growing up, guys like Joe Montana and Michael Jordan (before we knew what a total jerk Jordan was). The early days of ESPN meant we saw more scores but little else, certainly not the barrage we get today. With our contemporary 24 hour news cycles that includes the sports world, that view has changed. Today you only need to look at two major sports stars to see why athletes have become more of dark, anti-heroes in our society: Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. Both were men that we at the top of their sport and the sports world. Both were the face of their sport and without them both sports are in trouble. Viewership plummeted for golf without Tiger and who is going to watch the Tour de France now other than hardcore cyclists? Both men cheated, one on his spouse with any willing woman that walked by and the other via performance enhancing drugs. Athletics now are a morass of immoral behavior, performance enhancing drugs and mercenary behavior.

The family has always been an almost mythical institution in America. Mom and dad and apple pie. After decades of the devastation of divorce more and more people are eschewing marriage entirely. Generations of Americans, especially minorities but increasingly among Caucasians, have grown up in single parent homes, typically the mother. Some of the statistics are deeply disturbing and don’t bode well for a cohesive society in the future. Guess what? The need to reach these people is greater than ever before.

The popular culture view of family has changed more radically than virtually any other institution. Gone are the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, gone are even more contemporary (at least for me growing up!) imagery like Happy Days and the Cosby Show. The media image of family today is that family is completely optional and often counterproductive to being happy. Starting with shows like the Simpsons and Married With Children, the view of the family that Millennials have been bombarded with has been overwhelmingly negative. How many contemporary media images portray the traditional family in a positive light? Little wonder family is more of a mythical construct than an ideal to be achieved for this generation.

Even “the church”, loosely defined as the religious institutions of our culture, has fallen on hard times and again you can’t fault Millennials for rejecting the religious institutions of our culture. They have grown up with continual stories of sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic church and the Ted Haggard type scandals among evangelicals. More and more organized religion is viewed as a negative force in our culture, a hypocritical and judgmental force that seems obsessed with controlling people’s behavior and collecting money. I can’t say that this perception is incorrect. Many of the young people I talk to in sessions at the pregnancy resource center are very clearly open to and curious about God but have very little interest in traditional religious expressions.

So how do you blame the Millennials for their attitudes? For Pete’s sake even the Boy Scouts were hiding and covering for pedophiles in their midst for decades.

What does this mean to the church? Well it is certainly not something I present for us to shake our heads over and wag our fingers at in disapproval. It is what it is. What it really means for the church is that we need to reexamine our assumptions and our approach to reaching this generation for Christ. Our mission is not to whip these young punks into shape and get them to toe the American cultural line, it is to reach them with the lifesaving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

First and foremost, we cannot continue to be evangelists for church. By that I mean the presumptive method of “evangelism”, i.e. inviting people to church where they will presumably hear the Gospel during a sermon or perhaps during Sunday school. Church evangelism is convenient and easy but it says to the lost that in order to follow Christ they need to conform to the cultural institution of “church”. That may vary from place to place but the bottom line is that the specter of organized religion and all of the baggage that comes with it (most deservedly) make church evangelism untenable. Fewer and fewer people are interested in "church" and they are mostly right in rejecting it.

Second, we need to divorce (pun intended) our message from the religious culture we grew up in. In other words the message needs to be Jesus, not the American "Christian" culture. Too many of the people we need to reach associate Christianity with a particular subset of the American culture, a culture that is alien to them and often white, middle-class, politically conservative. There is nothing wrong with being a white, middle-class, politically conservative person. After all I am about the whitest person I know and far more conservative than most! It just isn’t part of the Gospel and like it or not when people who are not Christians think of Christianity the picture they get is offensive, not offensive because of the offense of the cross but offensive because, well because we have been pretty annoying a lot of the time. The church has raised up political idols that even when the position is right serve to cause a stumbling block. Just as Paul rejected getting paid for evangelizing because it was a stumbling block and a barrier to the Gospel, we need to tone down our political activism on both sides of the spectrum so that people don’t see an elephant or a donkey when they talk to us, they see Jesus.

Finally we need to learn to talk to them. Not talk at them or talk about them, we have that figured out. I mean talk to them. This is a generation that grew up and lives in a world of multiple screens. Multitasking is the norm. They are unlikely to be impressed by a 45 minute sermon where some guy drones on and on about a passage of Scripture that he spent a week dissecting. It is easy to hide behind the sermon but at some point maybe, just maybe, it is more important to reach the lost where they are than it is to prop up a cherished tradition. The church is still using an 18th century method to reach a 21st century audience with a 1st century message. Derp? For a people that love to talk about how much we love the Bible we seem to be quite content to do things our own way and woe to the rebel that suggests we do things differently.

Reaching this next generation of Millennials is not going to be easy and is going to require that we change our methods while not changing our message. Some may see that as some sort of unfaithful compromise but nothing could be further from the truth. Those who cling to the relatively modern traditions that we hold so dear at the expense of the mission of the church that was instituted nearly 2000 years ago are not stalwarts standing against the tide, they are just modern Pharisees impeding the Gospel. Those of us living in America have our mission field before us and I don’t recall that we get a vote in who Jesus is sending us to. Winning elections or filling pews while losing a generation because they won’t get in line is not a victory any of us should seek.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book Review: Bonhoeffer

A Shallow and Amateurish Look At A Complex Man

At long last I have finished the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas, a book with a title as clunky and overly wordy as the text within: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Profit, Spy.

At the outset it is important to distinguish that this is a review of a book, not so much a review of the actual man Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, while not a "hero" and perhaps not even a martyr, was a fascinating if flawed man, a tantalizing "what if" figure. What if he had survived World War II? What if the plot had succeeded in killing Hitler? What if he had stayed in America instead of returning to Germany? I am not sure that I know him better now than before but as I will note later much of what I gleaned about Bonhoeffer comes in spite of the book rather than because of it.

While the flaws in this book are plentiful, perhaps a shocking statement given how generally well received it has been in the church and even the broader literary community, there are some positives to be had.

One of the most fascinating parts of this biography had to do not with Dietrich but with the church, a church that was so entangled with her identity as the "German church" that many times it found itself on the wrong side of history, caught up with her German identity that consumed and overshadowed her identity and mission in Christ. What a profound warning for the church in America, a church that likewise has been for many years overly associated with the secular nation we find ourselves in. I am afraid that the lesson of the entanglement of the church in Germany is by and large lost on the church in America.

Something else I found fascinating was the conflict between the man that Bonhoeffer was on a path to be and the way his life ended up. It is interesting that God used a man who came from such a comfy life, a life that seemed destined for a comfortable existence in academia, in such a way. Little did the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer know that his aristocratic lifestyle in German high society would be shattered by the fevered dreams of a madman and that his life would end ignominiously at the end of a Nazi noose just days before he could be rescued. Throughout his story his semi-aristocratic upbringing comes through, occasionally in an unconsciously arrogant way. How many examples like this do we see throughout history of God using the most unlikely of men in the most unlikely of ways?

Unfortunately there are few other bright spots in the popular Metaxas biography, a book that often was more chore than pleasure to read, not because the writing was difficult or overly academic but because the writing itself was a distraction from the story.

One of the biggest negatives in Bonhoeffer is Eric's writing style. Every now and again the reader is allowed to glimpse the complex man that Bonhoeffer was but often that is in spite of the author who seemed bent on forcing his own interpretation onto the story rather than letting the reader discover the story on his own. I found the narrative difficult to follow thanks to repeated attempts to editorialize, making this book in places more about Eric Metaxas than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Throughout the biography Metaxas tends to be excessively wordy, especially when trying to use as many cartoonish adjectives to describe the Nazis as possible, preferably in the same sentence.  Here are some of the myriad examples...

The RSHA was led by the waxy lamprey Reinhard Heydrich

contorted calisthenics of sycophancy

Heydrich, the piscine ghoul,

the albino stoat

..and on and on. The Nazis were bad guys. We get it.

Trying too hard to cram "big words" into your narrative just makes for clumsy reading and is a sign of someone insecure about his intellect. Let the story be the focus, especially in a biography, not how many terms from your "word of the day" desk top calendar you can squeeze into a paragraph. It seems forced and contrived which really diminishes the reader's ability to focus on the story.

Another issue is an unabashed hero worship of Bonhoeffer. In places Bonhoeffer seems less like a biography and more like a teen-aged girl's diary. Dietrich is so smart, so cultured, so wise, so mature. Did I mention smart? Over and over again Metaxas glosses over or ignores Bonhoeffer's potential flaws using a mixture of angry rhetoric and sketchy theology. Dietrich lied and deceived repeatedly? Well he was mature enough to not worry about sin in pursuit of following God! For a man who is clearly complex, Bonhoeffer reads like a cartoonish story of a superhero, a man who's only flaw was just being so darned awesome.

The biggest flaw is the uncritical way Eric treats Dietrich Bonhoeffer's participation in the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I would hope that a lot of thought and angst went into the decision but Eric skips mostly over that, perhaps assuming that any sane person would seek to assassinate Hitler. One moment we have Bonhoeffer struggling with his decision to go back to America and the next he is knee deep in a plot to kill Hitler and depose the Nazis. What happened? I would be far more interested in reading about that transition than endless anecdotes of Bonhoeffer's idyllic youth in a wealthy, privileged family. We are left with the assumption that Bonhoeffer was not only justified but being a faithful follower of the Prince of Peace who plotted, lied and participated in a plot to murder.

I don't see it that way. Rather I see Bonhoeffer's participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime as the greatest failing in an otherwise generally laudable life. That doesn't sit well with most people, even Christians. Hitler is the ultimate exception to the rule. How could anyone not approve of trying to stop a mass murderer? This is where the skilled biographer should bring out the details, let us see what Bonhoeffer was thinking and how he worked it out theologically. If Bonhoeffer was justified in plotting to kill Hitler because he was responsible for atrocities, would an American Christian be justified in plotting to assassinate the President and working to overthrow the government of the United States because the Federal government not only legalized but subsidizes the practice of abortion? Such hard questions are left by the side of the road in the march of canonization for Bonhoeffer. My point is not to stir up a Romans 13 argument re: Bonhoeffer but to point out that the big questions are left unanswered amidst the hero worship.

I came away from this biography feeling not renewed or encouraged but equal parts disappointed and exhausted. Finishing the book felt like a chore to be accomplished, not an achievement to be enjoyed. From his inexplicable decision to seek to murder Hitler to his relationship with the certainly immature and perhaps mentally unhinged Maria to his German nationalistic pride which seemed to be as much as driver of Bonhoeffer as his concern for the Jews, the picture I took away from Bonhoeffer was not the flattering portrait Metaxas tried so hard to paint but rather a more realistic picture of a man with great ideas that never came together cohesively in spite of and not because of the book. Had Dietrich lived to a ripe old age what might he have thought of his efforts to kill Hitler? We will of course never know and unfortunately Bonhoeffer doesn't help us in that task. As much as I looked forward to reading this book I came away glad to be done with it and eager to move on to something more worthwhile to read. Someday soon I hope to read a better biography of Bonhoeffer that perhaps will do more justice to this brother in Christ.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Man Overboard!

OK, a little more analysis from the election. Last post. Probably.

Normally after a major election I spend a lot of time reading analysis and commentary. Who won and why, who showed up to vote, what trends do we see. Since I voted for someone I knew wouldn't win I was not nearly as bummed yesterday as I would have been a year ago. Even though I didn't spend a ton of time yesterday reading the analysis of Romney's loss I did read enough to get this reality loud and clear:

The Republican establishment that used to tolerate Christians and pat us on the head so we would show up to the polls will drop any pretense of being interested in the issues we care about.

Sure it might be buried in party platforms but it is not going to get any press and any GOP hopefuls from President to dog catcher are going to avoid any talk of abortion like the plague. We were useful patsies for a long time and it was a good run y'all but the days of Republican politicians sucking up to Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed are in the rear view mirror. From the Mourdock/Akin flubs/honesty to changing demographics, the Grand Old Party is going to be looking for some new dance partners. The recriminations have already started and guess who the fall guy is going to be? Richard Mourdock lost an easily winnable Senate seat in Indiana for giving an honest answer about the sanctity of human life and let down the team so we need to bury any talk of social issues. The big tent of the Republican party has room in the corner for you evangelicals but we are going to have to insist that you sit quietly and just vote for what we tell you to because the issues that are important to you and were used to drive you to the polls are losers for the party. Frankly your quaint notions about abortion are just not as important as endless military spending to "keep us safe" and lower tax rates.

This is a good thing.

The Republican Party, by and large, has done very little to earn the votes of Christians and simultaneously an awful lot of harm. We have dutifully marched to the polls election after election and Roe v. Wade is no closer to be overturned. We have been sucked into supporting every war of aggression that crops up. We see the poor and the illegal immigrant and the immoral as people to be regulated and controlled and protected from instead of the very people we are called to reach. Make no mistake, politically conservative evangelicals who are often at least on the surface theologically conservative have by and large left the field when it comes to the poor and the unwanted in our culture, abandoning "those people" to the Christian Left and their equally misguided reliance on the state. Whether we abdicate our responsibility to the poor and the orphan to the soulless incompetence of the state or to the whims of the market economy doesn't really make a bit of difference.

In virtually every possible way, evangelical Christianity being a lapdog for one secular political persuasion has done irreparable harm to our actual mission to the world

My sincere hope is that the results of this last election are the catalyst we need to stop relying on Republican politicians and "get a job" free market theories to fulfill the calling of the church. We have been predictably let down year after year and it is becoming quite clear that our place in the Republican party and our perceived worldly influence are waning sharply. What we might find, if we are willing to let go, is that our greatest influence in the world is not found in being invited to the halls of power or having fat bank accounts or ornate church buildings but rather are found in simple, humble service to others. Our greatest power is weakness and what we have long perceived to be desirable, power and influence, are actually the very things that have stifled our mission and encouraged our division. The struggle for life begins one woman at a time, not at the ballot box or the halls of the Supreme Court. We cannot subcontract the work of ministry to the state or the free market or professional clergy. The calling of ministry, of evangelism, of mercy is one we are all called to without exception and without excuse. Let the powers and principalities of the world squabble over money, ours is a simpler and eternally more important task.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

My final entry

I put up the last of my submissions to the Energion Political Roundtable, linked here for your reading pleasure: The Arsenal of Liberty: Energion Political Roundtable: Election Postmortem

What do we do?!

The election that has absolutely consumed American religious culture for the past year or so is over and durn it, it didn't turn out right!

So the "pro-life" guy didn't win. Church, will we spend the next four years scheming, plotting and fund raising for the next "pro-life" savior? Or will we spend the next four years on the battleground where life and death decisions are made every day? It is pretty easy to rail against abortion from a pulpit and to nod in agreement in a pew. It is even easier to put a bumper sticker on your car or a sign in your yard. Pulling the lever or pushing the button for a candidate is the simplest thing in the world. Looking a young woman in the eye who just found out she is pregnant and has no idea what she is going to do? That is messy. That requires time, it requires giving of yourself, it requires being willing to be vulnerable and many times having your heart broken. Investing time, money, emotions in broken, mostly unregenerate people who rarely if ever talk to Christians is scary but that is the mission field we are called to. We are not called to hide behind political slogans and empty suit candidates.

Each and every Christian lives among those who are hurting, are hungry, are broken or are trapped in religion. Many of us spend Sunday morning with them. Those people don't care much about how we voted or the capital gains tax rate or which bomber we are building next. They desperately need Christ and the only way they are going to hear about Him is if we go to them. That is hard to do when we see them as opponents in our political struggles.

Bottom line, nothing has changed. Nothing would have changed if Romney had won. Nothing will change if a Republican wins in 2016. The Kingdom is not tied to the economic health of America and if this country fades away into obscurity the mission of the church will not change one iota. God can do just fine with the stars and stripes thank you very much.

More thoughts on this to come but the angst and garment rending I am seeing on Facebook this morning is troubling although completely expected.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Living As Peacemakers In A Culture That Glorifies Violence

Christopher Dryden, "across the pond" as they say, wrote something fascinating a few days ago that I wanted to point out and expand upon. His post, Is This My Story? The Role of Violence: A Thought is a look at the violence exalting culture so many of us live in. He closes with this question:

It leaves me with the conundrum, in a world that glorifies and legitimises violence through various media, how now should I proceed?

That is a great question, one that plagues me as an American who is deeply steeped in our culture of violence. Of course Christopher is writing from a British perspective. Now I don't think of the U.K. as an especially violent place, more a nation where disputes are settled by subtle sarcastic comments over tea. I guess Downton Abbey is not representative of the general British culture but all I know of the U.K. comes from DA, Benny Hill, Monty Python and Are You Being Served?.

I assume all cowboys wore velour
America? Now there is a land where violence is glorified and perhaps even worshipped. The idea that "God, guns and guts made America great" is deeply entrenched in our national identity. Ours is a nation born of violent rebellion, kept whole as one United States by a terribly bloody civil war and during the course of our relatively brief existence we have rarely not been at war, on the verge of war or standing down from war. We conquered the West by driving out the Indians and in doing so gave birth to the towering American icon of the rugged cowboy who rode the plains with his trusty six-shooter on his hip, ready to gun down Indian, cattle rustler or poker cheat alike with blazing speed and uncanny accuracy.

While gunfights in the streets are largely a thing of the past, America still is a land where violence is celebrated. We simply have more socially acceptable outlets. An obvious example are the progressively more graphic and violent video games that dominate male culture. Video games make easy pulpit fodder but the same Christians who rail against them see nothing wrong with settling in after church to watch an NFL game where steroid enhanced behemoths hit each other, often injuring the opposing player, for our entertainment. We love the big hits and don't really care about the long term damage. Football is nearly a religion in America, one that glorifies overcoming your enemy, conquest and violence. It is also rabidly followed by many Christians, glorifying the opposite of what we should be seeking to emulate.

Even as Christians who take seriously the words of Scripture we often find ourselves in the same conundrum that Christopher runs into. The Old Testament is a book full of blood, animal sacrifices and war and even murder. Our faith was birthed in blood, launched with the murder of our Lord. Yet we are commanded to love our enemies, do good in response to evil, to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile and to be peacemakers. None of that seems to make sense in our culture so we just ignore it.

So how in the world are we supposed to live in a culture that lives, breathes and loves violence?

We need to recognize and act on the truth that what the world values is almost always the precise opposite of what Scripture tells us we should value. American values are not Scriptural values. God calls all of us to live distinct from the world to be a witness to the world while remaining in the world and that counts for Christians in America as much as it does for Christians in China or Africa. I am slowly trying to extricate myself from the American religious patriotic culture, from a culture that exalts and glorifies violence, power and wealth. Ours is not a culture that reflects Biblical values, not in any meaningful sense. Ours is a culture that needs to be transformed by the Gospel, a transformation that will lead to persecution and likely violence from the powers of the world that have for far too long hijacked the church and profaned the name of Christ. For that to happen we need leaders that see America as a mission field, not as a beacon of hope.

The world needs Jesus far more than it needs more of American culture and Christians need to lead that movement by leaving American values, American vices and even American virtues behind. The best place to start to is to reject the "might makes right" way of thinking that sees violence as an acceptable means of diplomacy and bloodshed as something to be honored. That way of thinking will not be popular but when has following a Man who was executed by the state ever easy?