Is Isis Islamic?

February 26, 2015

I thought Tom Friedman’s column in today’s NYTimes nicely caught the nuances. Yes, ISIS is certainly Islamic. It’s a version of Islam with its own claim to historical legitimacy. (See the cover story in this month’s Atlantic.) Its appeal, however, is deeply rooted in the dysfunction of Middle Eastern governance.

So for a couple of reasons, we are not at war with Islam. First, because ISIS represents one school of Islam. There are others with a very different point of view. (We know a little about this, don’t we?–Protestants and Catholics, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptists and Episcopalians?)

Second, because most of its supporters are there for non-religious reasons, mainly that they see no good alternatives. There are misanthropic individuals who have latched on to extremist rhetoric as a way of validating their existence; there are Sunni clan leaders who hate the corrupt and intolerant Shia governments they live under. When they get tired of ISIS–and they will, because religious extremism is not a very pleasant thing to live with–the movement will wither.

If you want to expand ISIS’ sway, accept its claim to stand for true Islam. Then you will push all Muslims to defend it.

Providential History

February 22, 2015

I am in the midst of writing a book-length journalistic history of Biblica, a 206-year-old organization. I won’t go into detail here—you’ll have to read the book—but suffice it to say that Biblica has gone through its highs and lows, its ins and outs, its days of triumph and unmitigated disaster. That’s probably true of any 200-year-old organization (there aren’t all that many) or for that matter any life.

My explicit purpose in writing this book is to tell the story truthfully but in such a way that a thread of purpose is revealed. That is to say, I am trying to marshal the facts in such a way that somebody who lived through them will recognize as accurate, while at least suggesting a note of redemption even in the catastrophes.

Some would look askance at the effort, as shamelessly manipulative. I grant you, it is not the same thing as an academic history, which ideally tells a story without fear or favor, as it were, and does not present God’s purpose except as an idea residing in someone’s brain. (Though even academic historians may look for themes to emerge from their telling of the story, and suggest what can be seen beyond the facts.)

But even granted that my purpose is a good one, it is not all that easy. Life is messy. Sometimes it appears to be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The only thing I can prove is that Biblica survived its crises. Whether they had meaning, whether God was overseeing and protecting, and more importantly, how God was overseeing and protecting, I can only theorize cautiously and hopefully. It’s never absolutely clear. Sometimes you have to use considerable ingenuity to see some purpose in what happened.

I tell you this because it makes me think of an old and important question: whether there is such a thing as “providential history,” and whether Christian historians are obligated to write it. We have some very noteworthy historians who are Christians—George Marsden, to mention just one. But he, and many of his Christian colleagues, are sometimes assaulted by their fellow Christians for their failure to write “providentially” about subjects like Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. That is to say, they don’t attribute what happened to God. They focus on the mechanics of events, the human activities, rather than the divine purpose that lies behind them.

I’ve always sided with the historians on this one, mainly because I like to make up my own mind about what God was doing. Just the facts, ma’am. But now I find myself writing a sort-of providential history, and it feels very reasonable to me. I’ve concluded, tentatively, that there are two layers to history, and that it’s possible to write one or the other with perfect grace and integrity.

I get this from something important I learned while writing Miracles: everything is natural and supernatural at the same time. People desperately attempt to separate them, demanding to know, for example, “Did God heal that boy? Or did the doctors do it?” I learned that is not an either/or question. God is involved in everything that happens, sometimes obviously, sometimes subtly. When it’s obvious, and surprising, we call it a miracle. But God is no less involved at other times. (Yes, this does lead us to the problem of evil. What doesn’t?)

At the same time, even what we call miracle happens at a natural level. It happens to stuff, which is composed of particles, and the behavior of those particles is a natural phenomenon subject to scientific description and analysis.

So with history: it is at the same time both natural and supernatural.

Just as it is appropriate for scientists to describe the behavior of some organism without ascribing purpose to the organism, so it is appropriate for historians to write “just the facts,” without bringing God into it. On the other hand, there is a place for writing history through the eyes of faith. This kind of history will always be tentative, for the only fully trustworthy providential history is in the Bible. (That is, it is for those like me who believe the Bible is inspired by God.) But those who bring faith to the facts may venture hypotheses about what makes sense of the facts. (That is how Hebrews 11:1 describes faith: “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”) The ultimate point of history is surely to make some sense of what happened. We can as well try that using the idea of God’s care as any other.

This applies to making sense not just of history but of our own lives. The unexamined life is not worth living, someone said, and whether or not that is true, there is beauty and nobility (and inevitability?) in trying to see some sense in your personal history. Is there a pattern? Is there meaning? Those questions will always lead to the question of God, in the end: is there one? Does he care? Is he involved? And can we have any idea at all of what he would care about, and how he might be involved?

The Case Against Assisted Suicide

February 4, 2015

We are once again experiencing a wave of heartfelt appeals for assisted suicide. Two reasons for it are usually cited. One is that a prolonged death is painful and horrifying; the other that a person’s individual autonomy includes the right to choose when to die.

Against the first reason stands hospice, which enlists both medical science and personal compassion to ensure that death is not painful or horrifying. Many people have awful ideas about the process of dying, but hospice is extraordinarily effective in alleviating suffering and indeed encouraging a sense of meaningful care. Nobody has to have a dreadful death. On the contrary, as many, many families who have relied on hospice can testify, my own included.

Take that fear away, and the argument is really about suicide. Is it an acceptable option? Should each individual choose whether to go on living at any moment?

One strong argument against assisted suicide is the “assisted” part. It is impossible to be sure that relatives, doctors or friends are not giving a sad and frightened person a little push; not just assisting but enabling. There exist many reasons why those closest to the concerned person may want to get on with it—financial reasons, emotional reasons. None of those should be reasons to end a life, but under what regime of safeguards can we be sure they are not in fact the true underlying motives? Older people are often obsessed with “not being a burden.” It might not take more than a slight suggestion, a mere tone of voice, to convince them that they would be less of a burden if they put an end to themselves.

But suppose you hedged in the act of assisted suicide with laws that made it unlikely for such suggestions to overwhelm a person’s choice. Then you have the question of suicide, period. Is there a right to suicide?

If you have had any involvement with someone who ended their life, you know the horrible ripping it does to the fabric of family and society. It is a terrible act of violence that does not affect just the one who ends their life; it changes everybody, forever. Of course it is most violent when done by the young, but who is to say it is benign when done by someone old or sick? This is not to blame the suicide—but it is to suggest that we ought never to encourage self-inflicted death, and always to put as many barriers in the way as we can, at any age and in any condition. In this we are voting not just for the life of the potential suicide, but for the life of the community he or she will leave behind in the wake of choice.

Ultimately, we face a fundamental clash of values in assisted suicide. Do we love life, all of life? Or do we love autonomy more? Life is what comes to us: we open our eyes on it each day, not knowing what great or awful things it will hold. We do not choose life, only how to respond to it. Autonomy, when held as the highest value, asserts that life is material for us to mold, or not to mold. We can turn off the game any time we like. In the final analysis, the choice of values is about God. Who rules? Someone or Something who gives life, and to whom we owe a response? Or Me, the Maker and Destroyer of Worlds?

People will commit suicide, with or without the assistance of others. We cannot help that, and they are our fellow human beings, to be treated with compassion.  I would never, however, pave the path for their self-inflicted death.


February 3, 2015

I like David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times, in which he gently prods secularists for the gaps in their belief system. I only take issue with a short section in which he disavows any sense that truth is involved:

“The point is not that secular people should become religious. You either believe in God or you don’t. Neither is the point that religious people are better than secular people. That defies social science evidence and common observation.”

I’d say there are reasons to believe in God, or not. It’s not fated. People choose, for reasons (articulate and inarticulate) that make sense to them. And while it’s true that religious people are not necessarily better than secular people, certain kinds of religious faith (and secular faith?) do lead to certain kinds of results. Are Quakers no different from Islamists? Is Donald Trump no different from Bill Gates?


January 30, 2015

I started thinking about police and their relationship to the community long before last year’s events in Missouri and New York. No credit to me: it was hard to avoid thinking about it when, nearly eight years ago, a 16-year-old in our community was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy who had been summoned by the boy’s parents to help restrain him. The boy had a history of mental illness, and had threatened his younger brother with a small knife. The first officer to reach the scene climbed into the back seat of a van where the boy (now unarmed) was tussling with his father, and shot him to death.

In my county any such incident is investigated by a neighboring police department. Not surprisingly they found—as they always do—that the police officer was not at fault. The also-predictable lawsuit was settled for $1.75 million dollars. The county sheriff asserted that, contrary to any appearances the settlement might leave, the sheriff’s deputy’s actions were “legal and reasonable.”

After that I paid much closer attention to police reports. There were other alarming deaths in my community involving police who shot to kill when they “felt threatened,” but nothing quite as horrifying as the death of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old boy who was shot by a sheriff’s deputy in October, 2013. Lopez was carrying a plastic pellet gun made to look like an AK-47 when the officer spotted him by a vacant field, stopped his patrol car and ordered Lopez to drop his weapon. Lopez’s first and only reaction was to begin turning toward the officer—he had his back to him when the order came–whereupon he was struck by six bullets and killed.

The investigation by a neighboring police force absolved the deputy of blame and he was subsequently returned to his regular duties. But the incident has divided our community. Protests have been non-violent if not always entirely civil.

On one side are those outraged by what they perceive to be a shoot-first approach of the police, and the impunity they receive. On the other side are those who sympathize with the split-second responses required of the police under such circumstances, who believe that respect for law and order entails giving the police the benefit of the doubt. Some police defenders are hardest on Lopez’s parents, who did not prevent their son from carrying an apparently real gun in public, nor did they train him to always, absolutely obey a police officer’s instructions. (Though it is not clear that Lopez had time and opportunity to know that the instructions came from an officer.)

Is there any middle ground here? I think there is, though given prevalent attitudes it will be hard to find.

We will find no satisfactory middle ground so long as police maintain their absolute circle-the-wagons response to all questionable incidents. No doubt it is a natural response, but it is also toxic to the reputation of the police. When life and death mistakes are made, sorrowful apologies are a proper response, whether or not there is legal culpability. We want such apologies from doctors and lawyers who make mistakes; so too with police. In the two cases I have described, there has not been a hint of apology or regret from anyone associated with the police. Perhaps I or anyone would have made the same tragic mistakes under the circumstances. Nevertheless they remain tragic mistakes, and their horror is heightened by the unwillingness of anyone in authority to state the obvious: it ought not to have happened, and we ought to do everything in our power to see that it never happens again. That seems like a bare minimum for civilized response to the unnecessary death of children.

On the other side, we must show respect to those in authority, and teach our children to do the same. Exactly how common it is to disrespect the police I don’t know—but it ought never to happen, even under provocation. The police take risks on our behalf, they do dirty work for us, and we desperately need their help in times of need. In some places and times they are all that stands between us and chaotic lawlessness. As my father used to tell me he learned in the army: you salute the uniform, not the man. When we show respect to the police, we demonstrate that we are a nation ruled by laws. The laws mean nothing apart from their enforcement. And there is no enforcement without people to enforce, however prone to failure they may be.

Recently I was moved by an essay from novelist Ann Patchett in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Writing years before Ferguson, Missouri, she wrote a tribute to her father, an LAPD cop. For Patchett, a transparently decent person, to salute her father’s decency, reminded me that the vast majority of police officers do their job with ingenuity and courage, and for their pains often feel alienated from the community they serve. There is a deep-seated natural tendency to despise those who wield punitive authority in society; that is why executioners are hooded. All the more reason for us to humanize our relationships with police officers at every opportunity, making a point to reach out for kindly contact.

All the more reason, too, for us to insist that the police accept that “to err is human.” They will never be treated like human beings if they insist on impunity for tragic errors.


January 27, 2015

Just a note to encourage you to see Selma. I’ve spent some time in Selma, visiting relatives and also doing research for my civil rights novel Birmingham, and it was good to see that big ugly bridge on film.

Yes, the movie does distort history rather badly regarding Lyndon Johnson and his response to the Civil Rights movement.

On the other hand, it’s strikingly accurate regarding the events in Selma. For one thing it portrays M.L. King as something less than an absolute hero of the movement. Selma was not King’s finest hour and the movie shows it as such. It also accurately portrays King as the indispensable leader of the movement, a man whose voice and reputation could draw reporters and move the masses. There’s an open-ended quality to Selma’s storytelling that leaves you in some doubt as to what actually happened–why did King turn back?–and who were the people most to admire.

Also, the movie doesn’t underplay nor overplay the role of faith in the movement. It clearly shows it as a church movement, with ministers leading the way. It doesn’t make them any better or any worse than they were, nor does it overly dramatize their faith struggles. It’s just factual: this is where it happened (in church); this is who led (the ministers); this is what they said (God cares about our treatment). This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, any big deal, but think about all the ways that Hollywood could play this. They were willing to distort Johnson’s role in order to make a better story; they could have done the same with matters of faith.

All that aside, it’s a pretty good movie and tells an important chapter of our history. The acting is good, the cinematography is good. The faces of the many extras they recruited in Selma are wonderful to observe.

New Birth

January 14, 2015

The week after Christmas I got to hold my newborn grandson, Micah. He was less than a week old when I met him, and at that age babies don’t make eye contact. Yet Micah seemed to be looking around in every direction, trying to make sense of what he saw and heard and felt. After all, it was all new. Until a few days before he had never taken a breath, swallowed a mouthful of milk, seen a color or felt cold air on his skin. He had emerged from utter darkness to discover the pain and the joy of our world—and to begin to try to sort out what was going on. Good luck, Micah.

I was still swimming in the backwash of that reality when I had dinner with an old friend, Ginger. Something like a year ago she fell from a horse and smashed her head, fell into a coma, and very nearly died. This was the first time I had seen her since. She has recovered quite astonishingly, but—as she described it to me—she is still fearfully exploring her world, learning so many things that she once knew. Carrying on a dinner conversation, for example, has an element of novelty tinged with dangerous uncertainty. She cannot remember anything about her accident or the days that followed. She has, like Micah, the sensation of emerging from darkness, except she is discovering a world that she once knew.

How poorly I notice this amazing thing called life, at least compared to Ginger, who is finding out the fine points of daily living like a skater testing the ice. And though none of us remembers what Micah, and every baby, is experiencing, we all did once, and I suppose nothing we have experienced since has been so dramatic.

All of us will, I understand, one day enter a new world, where elements we remember (dimly?) have been transformed. I attended a funeral yesterday in which one of the relatives said that her mother, just that week, had looked forward to running again. She said it was difficult to imagine her 90-year-old mother running, but she had a photograph of her running down a Dutch sand dune as a child. That was what her mother imagined for herself.

Like Micah, like Ginger, we may be surprised and challenged as we emerge from darkness.

Home Town

January 14, 2015

I’m so (irrationally) proud of Kevin Jorgeson and his ascent of the Yosemite Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell. I’ve been aware of Jorgeson for years, because he comes from my home town of Santa Rosa. (As this story reveals, he still lives here.)  I have a longstanding attraction to rock climbing, since my college roommate, Dwight Olsen, once led me up a Yosemite wall. (Royal Arches Direct, to be exact.) I’m very proud to say I climbed a Yosemite wall, but I haven’t forgotten the terror. I never climbed again, but every time I am in Yosemite I stop at the El Capitan meadow to see if I can locate some climbers.

If you want to experience a tiny slice of fear, google Dawn Wall and check out some of the pictures and videos of the climb. For example.

A Good Local Newspaper

January 8, 2015

A friend’s father was murdered a few weeks before Christmas. He was shot at a trailhead after a botched robbery, with his wife witnessing his death. The murderer drove off to shoot another person a few miles away (though not fatally) and attempt another robbery before he was apprehended.

When I heard of this awful crime (through email) I immediately googled it to learn more. In subsequent days I searched the internet repeatedly. All I found, however, was one short, incomplete story from a television station. It gave no names and only the sketchiest information. Apart from that, it appeared that the crime did not exist.

I think there is a simple reason for the blackout: the area has no local daily newspaper.

I live in a community that has an excellent local newspaper, The Press Democrat, thoroughly covering local crime, local sports, local business, local politics and any other local news you can think of. I guarantee you that had my friend’s father been killed in our county, there would have been several detailed stories, with followup pieces on the subsequent prosecution and trial of the murderer.

There are many reasons to worry over the demise of newspapers. For me, most important is that the number of reporters assigned to national and international stories has plummeted, and with it the supply of in-depth understanding of complex stories. Twitter feeds are great for updates on spectacular ongoing dramas, but they don’t make up for the loss of experienced reporters.

Local newspapers don’t contribute much to this kind of investigative journalism, and never have. They have always depended on feeds from AP or the New York Times or other big media outlets for their national and international news. What local newspapers uniquely do, however, is create community. In particular, they assure us that nobody’s murder goes unnoticed by the community at large.

Speaking of Truth

January 7, 2015

For Christmas, my friend gave each of his grown grandchildren a book on Christian faith. He hoped they would read it; he communicated how important he believed this matter to be. One of his grandchildren wrote back, very thoughtfully but sadly. He admitted that every time he received his grandfather’s Christmas letters, which inevitably communicated about faith, it made him feel bad. He was unsure what message his grandfather meant to convey. If it was a matter of ethical living, then implicitly he felt judged as not good enough, whereas he believed that he was a good person. If, on the other hand, his grandfather was concerned about religion, didn’t he understand that there are different ways? He didn’t hold it against his grandfather that he was a Christian; why should his grandfather hold it against him that he wasn’t?

It was a classic misunderstanding, endemic in our era. Faith is understood to be about ethical living or about spirituality. It’s almost unimaginable that faith has anything to do with truth. That it might be a matter of urgent news.

David Brooks gets at the same concern in a recent column in which he writes of meaning. Meaning goes beyond material success or happiness, and is undoubtedly a proper object in life. But the quest for meaningfulness has devolved into a warm feeling devoid of meaningful standards. You get meaningfulness from doing something that you deem meaningful. There is no lesson for anybody else. You couldn’t argue about the right way to find meaning. You could only share what you find meaningful.

My generation of Christians certainly has contributed to this state, for we have communicated a message that is fundamentally individualistic and utilitarian. We have not said: we must answer to the God who made us, who has revealed himself in Jesus. We have said: come to faith, you will feel better.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, God is humble enough to take us on our own terms. If our motives for coming to him are selfish and short-sighted, he welcomes us nonetheless. That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no consequences for speaking of the gospel as though it were centered on our desires.

Does Christian faith makes you feel better? Does it teach you ethics? Yes and yes, but only because it announces truth. This truth is that we did not make ourselves but were created by a Power and a Personality to whom we owe gratefulness, if nothing else. Furthermore, that Power has shown himself. He has indeed offered to be in relationship with us. And so we can find peace with our very nature and with the nature of the universe of which we are part. And so we can know how to live meaningfully.

A Roman governor in the first century asked, “What is truth?” That’s a difficult question, and always has been. But it’s something even grandparents and grandchildren can discuss.


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