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Post-debate musings

I’m trying to understand the reactions to Monday night’s debate and failing.  Polls, the real ones not the ones that Trump quotes or even makes up, seem to show that most people believe that Hillary Clinton won the debate and I am not sure why.  Let me be quick to say I am not claiming that Trump won so don’t congratulate me on my ability to see that “the media is biased” or excoriate me for supporting him (which I don’t).

To me it seemed that Trump was his normal self with his bombastic content-free claims, his distant relationship with and/or disregard of facts, and his rude interruptions and comments.  Indeed, his funniest moment was when he congratulated himself for his restraint in not mentioning Bill Clinton’s marital indiscretions because Chelsea was there.  Not only does he think it is laudable for not making noxious comments that most civilized people would never make; he manages to mention them by openly stating he is not going to mention them.

Clinton too was pretty much what I expected.  She had clearly prepared what she was going to say and how she was going to say it.  Her calm “stick to the script” demeanor would have easily won a homeschool debate club contest for 12-year-olds.  But in the Trump-filled alternate political universe we have stumbled into they seemed as artificial and pre-packaged as a box easy-cook macaroni and cheese.  Her funniest moment, well moments because it happened several times, was when she gave an artificial laugh at something she clearly did not see as funny.  You could almost see the instructions “If Trump says this, laugh.” on her notepad.

The general consensus is that, if anything, Trump was under-prepared and Clinton was over-prepared.  I’d agree if it didn’t sound so much like Goldilocks’ assessment of the 3 bear’s porridge.  But whatever the cause I’d say that each missed a golden moment or two.  Trump took one half-hearted shot at Clinton’s e-mails and then simply let the matter drop.  I’ve yet to hear a coherent answer from Clinton on that issue.

Clinton missed two golden moments.  Trump called his paying no taxes “smart” and on his profiting from the collapse of the housing market said, “That’s called business by the way.”  Clinton just let the comments pass.  I have trouble believing that Trump’s working class white voters, many of whom took a beating in that collapse, would be cheered to learn that he made a killing on that misery that collapse has caused or feel that it was a great thing that billionaires didn’t pay taxes.

I doubt the next two debates will be any better.  (I’m not including the VP debate where we try to decide who is best for the job of being sent to places the President doesn’t want to go herself.)  In the meantime I will keep working on my growing list of “How does this compare to what Jesus would say?” moments.

Why is it?

I saw this article, the results of a survey on global warming (or climate change if you prefer) yesterday.  In particular it asks the question whether we humans are causing the earth to warm.  The results show that 71% said yes, either absolutely or possibly; 21% said no, either probably not or definitely not, with the rest unsure.

The article then goes on to break down the demographics of the poll.  It seems like the younger you are the more willing you are to believe we are the cause, with millenials the highest and elders the lowest.  The more educated you are, the more likely you are to believe, with college grads the most and high school or less the least.  To nobody’s surprise liberals are more likely to believe than conservatives.

But the most interesting result is that evangelicals rank at the bottom as the least likely to believe humans are at fault.  I am trying to understand why that is.  Contrary to what some may believe I don’t think evangelicals, on average, are either dumber or smarter than the population at large so that can’t be it.

I can’t think of any theological reason why this should be so.  You might try and make the case that our ever-growing love affair with reformed theology would mean  we think that our sovereign God is the cause but that sovereignty could easily be exercised through humans.  Plus there are all sorts of things where you could make the case that human actions (medicines, fertilizer, etc.) interfere with the sovereignty of God and we are fine with it.  So, no, our unbelief can’t be theological.

So what is it based on?  Why do we lead the parade on climate change denying? Frankly I don’t know.  I suspect it might be a result of a growing feeling among us that science, government, and other voices that we deem to be secular, are hostile to our faith.  If that is the case we’d tend to oppose anything that comes from those perceived enemies.  In other words, since climate scientists and Obama say global warming is real our automatic reaction is to believe the opposite.

But, as I said, I don’t know.  Any ideas?  (Note:  Please don’t send me links to articles from climate change deniers “proving” it is a hoax, conspiracy or fabrication.  I am not asking whether it is real or not, just why evangelicals are the most hostile.)

A Bowl of Skittles for Everyone

A few days ago, during what was an apparent lull in controversial and/or provocative comments made by his father, Donald Trump Jr. decided to step in and fill the void.  He posted to his Twitter account a comparison of the Syrian refugee problem to a bowl of Skittles.  His point was stark:

“If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you that just three would kill you.  Would you take a handful?  That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”  (The boldface was Trump’s.)

As he most certainly expected there were many people outraged by his callous attitude.  Equally expected, to be sure, was that many people gleefully re-tweeted his comment.  Indeed, it appears that polarization was his goal.

Among the outraged several pointed out that the conservative Cato Institute had calculated that the odds of the average American of being killed by a refugee terrorist is 3.4 billion to one.  It would take a bowl of Skittles the size of three Olympic swimming pools to make the analogy accurate.  While that statistic, and other reasonable responses, shows that Trump was off base they have not lowered the fear that many Trump supporters feel about Syrian refugees.

But, other than the one that the manufacturer of Skittles says (“Skittles are candy. Refugees are people.  The analogy is inappropriate.”), there is an issue that we, particularly as Christians, need to consider.

We all have a bowl of Skittles.

Good Christian, do you work to feed the hungry?  It is possible that a tiny portion of those you feed might want to harm you.

Do you want to help the widows and orphans?  Yes, some of them too might strike out at you.

Do you want to visit the sick?  Beware, a tiny portion of them too might be your enemy.

Indeed just about everyone that the Bible teaches us to serve, and the sojourners in our land would fit in that group, presents some small degree of risk.  The simple truth is this – if we are going to care about anyone but ourselves; if we have any sense at all that our faith calls us to reach out to those who are less fortunate, we need to repudiate Trump’s comment with vigor.

A (Possible)Sermon

Lately I’ve been thinking more about what the Bible is not than what it is.  I’ve got a list that is growing.  Here are a few:

The Bible isn’t…

…a supermarket where we roam the aisles (books and chapters) picking and choosing the ingredients (verses) that will let us bake the cake (construct the theology) we want, while leaving on the shelves the ingredients (verses) that don’t fit.

…an owner’s manual with detailed and complicated step-by-step instructions for building the perfect Christian life, fearing that leaving out, or messing up, one step will cause catastrophe.

…a magic book from which we can pull verses and use them to predict our future; force the specific results we want; or tell us precisely what to do in every little situation.

…a legal contract where we must be careful to read and follow every word of the fine print or find the contract (salvation) will be voided by a legalistic lawyer-God.

…a collection of “big dog verses” through which we have to read all the rest of the Bible to be right.

It’s that last one that I find most interesting and at times puzzling.  Do I understand Paul’s interaction with women through his teaching letters?  Or his teaching letters through his actual interaction?  Do I think verses that seem to endorse or encourage speaking in tongues over-ride verses that seem to warn about it or even prohibit it?  Or is it the other way around?

Since I have returned to New York and once more come into day-to-day contact with Jewish neighbors I have been reminded of how much more tolerant they are of puzzles or inconsistency in their Scriptures.  We Christians seem relentlessly determined to “figure everything out” and indeed almost define spiritual growth as being more and more certain of things.  But my Jewish friends seem comfortable with what might appear to be contradictory teachings sitting side by side and define maturity as increasingly being willing to ponder such things.

In a few weeks I am doing my first pastoral fill-in the pulpit of my new home church.  I’ve been considering taking a “Jewish” approach to an Old Testament story that is odd, even a little troubling.  There are a lot to choose from, some even in the New Testament.   I might then give different ways that it could be interpreted.

I wonder what will happen if, instead of ending in a “Christian” way with a detailed explanation of what the verses teach and specific application, I end with “I am really not sure but I am OK with that.”  Who knows?  Maybe they won’t ask me to preach again because, after all, saying “I don’t know” isn’t comfortable is it?

Medes and Persians

Bible students know what we mean by “the law of the Medes and the Persians.”  They know, primarily from the book of Esther, that these laws could never be changed.  Even the king could not over-ride the death sentence he gave to the Jews so, when he realized his error, he had to work around it by giving the Jews the right to fight back.

Many of us use that phrase whenever we want to (usually tongue-in-cheek) chide someone for being unbending on some stance, even when it has nothing to do with religion.  I sometimes find myself saying things like “this isn’t the law of the Medes and the Persians you know” with my non-Christian friends only to realize my error when I see their blank stares.

But it seems that the law of the Medes and the Persians is still with us.  Crossway Publishing, owners of the ESV translation of the Bible, recently made a small number of changes to the ESV. In doing this they made the following statement:

“All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the [new] Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.”

It kind of makes you want to say “Amen” doesn’t it?

It is also both arrogant and silly.  The reality is that as language changes, and it is changing faster all the time, you simply have to change your translation to keep the meaning you intend.  Just look at the snarky jokes that will come when you sing “now we don our gay apparel” next Christmas.  Crossway defends its position by referring to the KJV, saying it has been unchanged since 1769.

But the ESV is not the KJV, which has sort of an entrenched following that has nothing to do with clarity of meaning. The ESV is one of several good modern translations.  Further it, like many others, tends to finds that certain theological patterns define its fans.  The ESV is the favorite translations of complementarians, in the same way that the TNIV is favored by egalitarians.  Both these translations, and many others, are pretty darn good and should be checked in our Bible studies.

Further, Crossways newly permanent translation seems to shamelessly cater to its complementarian followers.  Here are two translations from its previous and permanent versions.

Genesis 3:16:

Previous:  “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”

Permanent:  “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband but he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 4:7:

Previous:  “It’s [sin’s] desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Permanent:  “It’s [sin’s] desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”

For complementarians these verses are prescriptive. Which means this is God’s curse on all women for all time.  The “desire” of the women in Genesis 3:16 is understood, as the result of the fall and God’s curse on them, to be a desire to rule or dominate. Women will want to usurp the man’s authority. The man’s task — as part of God’s prescriptive design — is to rule, guide, and lead the woman.  Switching from “for” to “contrary to” supports this view.

But this translation also does something far worse.  Not only does it equate women’s desire and sin’s desire, it makes men and women adversaries by divine fiat.  To punish women for Eve’s sin God has declared a permanent war between the sexes to be the norm with men being the God-ordained winners.  Men will always rule and women will always be contrary.

Isn’t it more realistic to agree with other translators that the verses are descriptive?  That, yes, fallen women and fallen men will at times be in a war of wills but that this is not divine order?  Isn’t it possible that this is really a tragic and accurate prediction of what life will be like now that all of us, both males and females, have chosen to be like  God rather than servants of God?  Doesn’t history prove that not all men and women fight?

If we assume this is possible then the “gender wars” that we have had since the fall aren’t solved by declaring men the winners.  They are solved not by having men rule and women desire but something altogether more beautiful.  Maybe the Song of Solomon has it right where in 4:7 the man says “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”  (I’ve used the ESV there just for fun.)  Maybe the answer is not that one sex rules and the other desires. Maybe it is that they both desire each other and don’t need or want to rule to express it.


Salvation Inspectors

It seems that mega-church pastor Andy Stanley is in trouble.  Something he said in one of his sermons has triggered a howling from a slew of critics.  In his message he asserted that the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection, and not the written document that records that event (the Bible), is the foundation of the Christian faith.

Anyone even slightly familiar with Stanley knows his affirmation of Biblical inerrancy and the authority of Scripture is without question.  Are his opinions on theological issues infallible?  Of course not.  Has he ever made statements that deserve to be challenged?  Yes.  But many, like this guy, seem ready to hang the dreaded title of “liberal” on him for the assertion above.  To be sure others have come to Stanley’s defense, taking note of the dismaying reality that “conservative, Bible-believing Christians stormed social media with their polemical pitchforks and torches, eager to do battle with this ‘heresy.’ “

This overwhelming urge to go to war over the slightest perceived misstatements reaches its peak when, here as so often, questions about the salvation of the target are raised.  It seems that conservative Christianity is plagued with “salvation inspectors” who believe their calling is to be ever vigilant to cast out those who fall short of their standards of what it means to be a real, true Christian.

At best, we don’t know our own hearts all that well and ought to be very slow to judge the hearts of others.  Certainly it should take more than one misstatement to give someone the boot.  I’ve always tended to accept an assertion “I am a Christian” at face value.  I figure that over time we can be more (or less) confident in that assertion as we know them longer.

Not so with the salvation inspectors. They smugly make judgements on the salvation of others.  I met one man years ago who said he had “the gift of rebuking” of those who fall short of his exacting standards of faith.  He went from church to church identifying those within it, or in some cases everyone within it, as not being real, true Christians.

I recently stumbled across an online article with the intriguing title What Churches Can Learn From Jane Austen.  Curious about the subject, I read it and found that it started with this qualification:

“Don’t worry – it’s not soteriology or anything. There is no evidence that Jane Austen possessed saving faith, so taking theological tips from her doesn’t make sense.” (Boldface mine.)

Are we now so diligent at salvation inspecting that we feel free to question the faith of the long-dead novelist and pastor’s daughter?  Do we think that we have the ability to judge whether someone who has been dead for 200 years was a Christian?  More to the point, where do we get the idea that we are supposed to make such judgements?  The tenor of the article, in particular the “Don’t worry” at the start, makes me feel that the author was at least as worried that salvation inspectors would come down on her for quoting  Austen as she was about Austen’s eternal state.

From what I’ve seen, Andy Stanley has enough “fruit” in his ministry to give me confidence he is “one of us.”  And Jane Austin?  Well, there is this quote of hers that makes me think she might be on the team too:

“Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore thee to quicken our sense of thy mercy in the redemption of the world, of the value of that holy religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name. Hear us Almighty God, for his sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray.”

For me, and I’d like to think the salvation inspectors too, we should be too busy examining our own hearts to be quick to pass judgement on the faith of others.

We want what we want

One of the most common, and most annoying, things about political campaigns is selective outrage.  For weeks now I’ve been hearing Donald Trump and his surrogates and supporters expressing outrage over the ties between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary when she was Secretary of State.  In response, Clinton and her surrogates and supporters have been giving responses essentially saying “nothing to see here.”

This morning I saw a report saying that (a) Donald Trump has a foundation too; (b) the foundation donated to a Florida politician; and (c) this was to buy influence that favored Trump.  Wonder of wonders, Clinton and her surrogates and supporters are expressing outrage while Trump and his surrogates and supporters are sure there is “nothing to see here.”


Meanwhile, over in the Christian corner of the internet, we are not immune to selective outrage.  One of our primary stomping grounds for this outrage is the subject of religious liberty.  For some time now conservative Christians have been outraged that their religious liberty is being abused by such things as forcing merchants to serve LGBT events.  Progressive Christians have just rolled their eyes over what they perceive as using Constitutional Amendment 1 (religious liberty) to deny the equal protection clause of Amendment 14.

But it now seems like selective outrage affects us too.  A Massachusetts church, First Parish of Bedford, a Unitarian Universalist church, has sued the Bedford Historic District Commission for allegedly violating its religious rights when the board denied a permit application to install solar panels atop the 1817 meetinghouse.  Progressives are outraged, citing the 2006 Unitarian Universalist Association statement urging its members to “instigate sustainable alternatives” to practices that fuel climate change.  To nobody’s great surprise this is triggering a great deal conservative eye rolling.

This would be hilarious were it not so distressing.  The reality is that our evolving culture has to come to grips with the whole question of religious liberty in new and difficult ways.  In particular the clash between religious freedom and equal protection, two long-cherished amendments, gets greater every day.  If my religious freedom infringes on your equal protection, particularly when an entire class of people, like the LGBT community, is impacted this is not an easy-to-resolve matter.  Of course, the selectively outraged like to pretend it is; telling us we can just ignore that other amendment.  Equally of course, they reserve the right to switch sides on whether outrage is the correct response on the next issue.

Political outrage is cynical and self-serving.  Wouldn’t it be great if we Christians were just as outraged about things that don’t affect us as we are when we perceive our rights and causes are infringed upon?