Archive for the ‘evangelicals’ Category

Eugene Peterson

November 1, 2018

Gene Peterson died yesterday. If I didn’t know him well, it was because I didn’t get enough time. Gene was extremely easy to know, even though he was hopeless at small talk. When the situation required it, he would just grin. He had a terrific smile and a lovely gangly way. He was generous at heart and could say difficult things in a way that wasn’t aimed angrily at anybody.

He was distressed by what he saw in the American evangelical church. This quote from his New York Times obituary expresses a lot of it:  “American culture is probably the least Christian culture that we’ve ever had, because it’s so materialistic and it’s so full of lies. The whole advertising world is just intertwined with lies, appealing to the worst instincts we have. The problem is, people have been treated as consumers for so long they don’t know any other way to live.”

He loved small churches, struggling churches. He loved the Pentecostal churches he grew up in because they were fervent in their faith and humble in their self-image. That was Gene, fervent and humble.

Also smart. He had studied the deep books. Yet he talked like an ordinary person.

I encountered him first as a reader, through his wonderful book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Later we were fellow members of the Chrysostom society, a group of writers that met annually. Popie and I hit it off with him and his wife Jan, and one summer we visited them overnight in Montana. They fed us bountifully, sent us off in kayaks on the beautiful lake where they lived, and treated us like they thought we were genuinely important guests who had favored them with a visit. This was so upside down it confused us!

I didn’t get enough time. I suspect a lot of people would say that.

 

Evangelicals for Trump

July 20, 2018

I’ve repeatedly circled back to the puzzle of why white evangelical Christians are so enthusiastic about our president. Certainly his promise to appoint pro-life judges is a prominent motivator, but virtually any Republican president would have done the same. And no other Republican president could have matched his lack of moral character, a fact that has been reinforced again and again during his time in office. Despite his lies, his cruel treatment of the vulnerable, and his personal nastiness, his evangelical support has been not grudging or hedged but enthusiastic. Why?

Here’s a possible explanation drawn from the Middle East. The region has significant Christian minorities. Syria is about 6% Christian. Jordan is 2%. Egypt is almost 13%. Most of these Christians are from historic churches, Catholic or Coptic or Orthodox. Living as they do in a rough neighborhood, often targeted by Islamists, they almost invariably seek political protection from the local despot. Christians in pre-2003 Iraq strongly  supported Saddam Hussein. Christians in Syria are cheerleaders for the murderous Assad. Christians in Egypt love the dictator Sisi. They have made a deal with the devil: you protect us, and we will support your regime. It’s hard to fault them. When they look at the disastrous fate of Christians in Turkey or in Iraq, where they went unprotected, Christians are motivated to love the strong man.

Perhaps something of the same dynamic has led to evangelicals’ enthusiasm for Donald Trump. Many feel threatened by liberal forces in our society. They fear being forced to say and do things that they believe are wrong: to swallow evolution in schools, to employ LGBT activists in their schools and churches, to participate in or support gay marriages, to prescribe abortions in their hospitals and pharmacies.

Some will scoff at these fears, questioning whether Christians in America really have much to dread. But they’ve been fed a steady diet of alarmist news for at least a decade—think about the “war on Christmas.” Maybe American Christians aren’t going to be truly persecuted in the foreseeable future, but many are sincere in feeling like an endangered minority. To have a president who’s rude and abusive to your tormentors, a man of great power who will take your side in any dispute, feels secure. Trump promises the robust protection that vulnerable people seek.

There’s a cautionary lesson from the Middle East, though. I was talking to the head of a mission agency that reaches into Muslim countries. I asked him whether the historical Christian churches in those countries practice any evangelism. He said no. Part of their deal with the despots is that they won’t. “They are like submarines,” he said, with protective walls to keep out danger, but also to keep their faith safely inside. In return for safety, they only look at the surrounding world through their periscopes.

Our situation is parallel. In exchange for a president who promises protection, white evangelicals are willing to give up their witness to millennials, to immigrants, to gays, to non-whites. We’re building our own kind of submarine.

 

 

How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.

Billy Graham

February 21, 2018

Some time back I wrote this piece on Billy Graham for Outreach Magazine. I never met the man. I heard him speak multiple times, beginning when I was seven years old. In this article I try to get at the question of his relevance, long after the vast crowds have vanished. And I re-tell his story, which I find truly fascinating.

After the Nightmare

November 10, 2016

 

The election results were a nightmare to me. I mean a real nightmare, the kind where you flee shape-shifting monsters and can’t escape. It took me a long time to get to sleep after the result sank in. The sun did come up this morning, and I feel better. Numb, incredulous, but pretty sure I am going to live.

I have no wish to rehearse all the reasons for fear. Better commentators than I have done that ad nauseum. Almost half of America chose to ignore those reasons. We live in a democracy. We honor our constitution. Time to move on.

But how do we do that? How do we behave, going forward?

I don’t want to duplicate what Republicans did to Obama. The quest for power through tearing down and obstruction is an approach I can’t respect. I want our country to prosper, whoever is in power.

I plan to pray for President Trump, persistently. It is not impossible or unknown for someone to become a better person.

Also, I think it’s imperative that we stay politically engaged, because there may be places where constructive engagement can result in positive action, and there may also be places where vigilant, forceful opposition is necessary. For example, maybe we can fix our roads and bridges. For example, I will do anything in my power to ensure that our authorities do not return to the practice of torture.

Finally, the practice of our personal lives will be, I believe, the most potent of all our responses. We all have the opportunity to care for poor people in our communities. We can strengthen our neighborhoods through cooperation in everything from Little League to hiking clubs. We can treat each other with kindness and respect despite our differences. I’m a believer that the political regime ultimately reflects the people’s character, lived out locally. We build from the bottom up. If our communities are rotten, degraded, violent, addicted, angry, that will be reflected in our leadership.

I’ve toyed with the thought that our troubles as a nation—our divisiveness and rancor, particularly—stem from the fact that we have abandoned God. I realize that’s old-fashioned. In the past I’ve tended to scoff at sermons that treated every problem as a symptom of religious failure. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no doubt that much of America—the left, in particular—has discarded faith and looks on religion with condescension and suspicion. It became obvious in this election that conservatives also—evangelicals in particular—have abandoned God, else they could not possibly go against everything they say they believe to support a serial liar and bragging adulterer for President. The truth is, I think, a lot of us have abandoned God. Some of us want him to disappear, others to co-opt him as a useful prop in our quest for power.

If things are going to change, it’s useful to review what God says that he wants from us: “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) That applies under all political regimes, and it is primarily local.

Publishing Woes

September 23, 2016

Everybody knows that the digital revolution has changed publishing. You can read long analyses of what is new and where the industry is going, if you want to. A lot of that will bore to tears anyone who isn’t directly involved. For most people, only two questions matter: are good books being written, and can I get them? The answers are yes and yes.

However, I think you might find it interesting to gain a close-up view of the problems of publishing as I experience them—problems that mirror some of the problems of American society today.

I’ve published many books over the decades, and I have absolutely no reason to complain. However, I’m writing a different kind of book than any I have in the past, and I’m experiencing a different reality.

I’ve written a novel, and it is far-and-away the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with confidence because I’ve had six or eight readers review it and they’ve been strikingly positive. Besides, I feel it in my gut.

It’s a contemporary story based in an urban gospel mission. In fact, that’s my working title: Gospel Mission. It focuses on a handful of people involved with the mission’s residential drug and alcohol rehab program. The ethos is fundamentalist/evangelical. It’s a story of addiction and recovery, life and death, God and destruction, plus a developer trying to move the mission out of a neighborhood he wants to gentrify, and his skullduggery that almost wrecks the mission. It’s a compelling read, by all accounts.

The problem is getting somebody to publish it. Sure, I know, that’s a problem for most novelists. But this is an interesting case, best summed up in an email I recently received from a literary agent.

She liked the book, a lot. This agent can be blunt, but everything she wrote was laudatory. After considerable prose devoted to the book’s virtues, she wrote:

“Having said all that, I am stymied as to what sort of publisher would be interested in the project. It’s told mainly from men’s point of view, and [Christian publishers] struggle to make books written mostly about men work. It’s hard to find the audience. I don’t, by any means, think this is a book that would only appeal to men. (I certainly enjoyed it.) But women have to be given encouragement to read such books, and publishers seem inept at finding readers for novels that don’t have a “just right” sort of hook. A summary of the story wouldn’t drive women to the book, nor does the title. I couldn’t think of an angle that might work.

“And it’s not a general market book–way too much religion in it.”

According to her, I’m stuck in a publishing black hole. General publishers won’t give the time of day to anything so evangelical. And Christian publishers only know how to publish inspirational women’s fiction.

Isn’t that a reflection of our post-Christian western world? Religion remains an important reality to a great proportion of society, but that reality doesn’t make the cultural mainstream—except, maybe, in some exotic or historical form. People of faith are cordoned off—or cordon themselves off–into a cultural ghetto.

And when you turn to specifically Christian institutions, they have become extremely narrow. They only embrace a small slice of society, and they don’t have the money or the imagination to take chances on a wider audience. They stay in their ghetto.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but I think it’s gotten worse with the changes in publishing since Amazon became the biggest player and bookstores fell on hard times. There is less bandwidth in books that get published, and less willingness on the part of publishers to take on risk.

Fortunately, another change in publishing means that I can publish myself. I will, if that’s my best option, though I would far rather leave the publishing to somebody who knows what they are doing. Leave me to write! One way or another, Gospel Mission will get published. I’ll let you know when that happens.

 

 

What Happened to Evangelicals

July 28, 2016

I have been thinking a lot about this quite remarkable fact: according to polls the great majority of self-identifying “evangelicals” support a presidential candidate whose world view seems to be borrowed from Nietzche. (This article by Peter Wehner does an excellent job summarizing Trump’s approach.)

Most of my life I’ve been very happy to call myself an evangelical. Without my permission, though, the word has taken on a different definition. To some it now means “right wing bigot,” but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more accurate to say evangelical now means “Republican.”

In the days of the Solid South, before Lyndon Johnson’s voting rights bill spoiled the party, people spoke of a “yellow dog Democrat.” That referred to Democrats who would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican.” Given that evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump, I think it’s fair to call them “yellow dog Republicans.”

How did this come to be? How did a largely non-political movement that emphasized Christian conversion and the Bible come to be so closely tied to a political party? The answer begins with one word: abortion. Though it took a while for evangelicals to join Catholics in opposing the permissions of Roe v. Wade, they eventually did so with fervor. The plight of the unborn captured hearts very much as the plight of slaves did before the Civil War. Most people were happy to brush these lives aside, but once slaves or unborn babies got into someone’s moral conscience they found them impossible to forget. In both cases, Christian faith was the primary gateway into this moral conclusion.

Evangelical opposition to abortion was not initially political, but pretty soon the two parties aligned their positions for and against abortion. From that point on, it was difficult for an evangelical to vote for a Democrat.

Whether you agree or disagree with the evangelical view on abortion, I don’t see how you can avoid seeing it as a principled stand. So when you think of Donald Trump (whose concern for abortion or any other moral issue is squishy) you have to ask: how did evangelicals get from a principled stand that aligned them with a political party, to a stand for a political party that has abandoned all principles?

The logic works this way: Trump is running as a Republican; we have every hope he will support Republican positions on social issues (probably because they do not matter very much to him). Thus, opposing abortion and defending traditional marriage involves holding your nose and voting for Trump. (I am willing to ignore evidence suggesting that some evangelicals are actually enthused about Trump for less attractive reasons.)

Politics often involves such compromises. Ask the supporters of Bernie Sanders who are asked to vote for Hillary Clinton. I can’t fault anybody for making their voting decisions on the basis of such calculations. At the same time, there must be some line we will not cross. Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world, you may recall, for a mere token of support. He declined the offer. I can’t imagine holding my nose tight enough to eliminate the stench of Donald Trump.

Which makes all the more egregious the eager and specifically religious support for him from some Christian leaders.

When I was growing up, Christian pastors didn’t endorse candidates. They drew a line between themselves and politics; it was considered unseemly for pastors to fall into political advocacy, as it mingled a political mindset—full of compromises–with the purity of the gospel.

For evangelicals, those days are long gone. A political endorsement might possibly be acceptable if it favored a candidate whose character measured up to evangelical moral standards. But when the candidate is Donald Trump, the endorsement tells the world that evangelicals are no longer people of conscience whose lives are dominated by the message of the gospel. We have become a political interest group, and there is no limit to the compromises we will make for a share of power.

Going to Church

April 17, 2015

My friends Dean and Mindy took us along on their excellent adventure visiting churches all over California. (They are warming up for a 2016 odyssey visiting 50 churches and 50 bars in 50 states.) Since they are doing urban churches right now, we went to an Oakland church (ACTS Full Gospel Church of God in Christ) that just happened to be within walking distance of the Oakland Coliseum. It turned out that the A’s were playing, so after church we attended the game, which the A’s sadly lost in extras. Here’s Dean and Mindy’s blog, in case you are interested in the church. They forgot to write about the game.

Robert Schuller

April 14, 2015

Christianity Today Magazine has published my lengthy retrospective on Robert Schuller.  (He died April 2.) Schuller was an important figure in 20th century American Christianity, with enormous influence. My best line: “He did for church what Disneyland did for amusement parks.” That may sound snarky, but if you think about how Disneyland changed the image of amusement parks (formerly seedy, dirty, morally dubious) you’ll understand that it’s not. For a certain generation, Schuller rehabilitated church, making it a happy, light-filled, positive place. But did that transformation really work? Thinking  about Schuller makes you consider seriously whether the Christian faith can be managed through a marketing campaign. He wasn’t the first or the last to try, but he was purer than most–and more skillful than most–in his wholehearted commitment.

Regarding polls on evolution and creation

June 13, 2014

Deborah Haarmsma of Biologos has an elegant post on recent Gallup polling of people’s views on evolution and creation. While the poll suggests that factions supporting young earth creationism and atheistic evolution are stable and unyielding, when you break the questions down with more detail you find a far more nuanced situation. Worth reading if you are interested in these questions, regardless of your point of view.