Archive for the ‘evangelicals’ Category

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.

Clash of creeds?

June 10, 2014

I’m confused.

The story, summarized in today’s New York Times, can be told as a simple tale. The most obvious story line–at least obvious to me–is the Orwellian fable of liberal universities banning religious groups from campus in order to protect diversity. That is surely the practical impact of new policies coming into play at both public and private schools. The universities demand that all student groups sign a pledge not to discriminate in any way, including religiously. The Christian groups say they welcome everybody but must have Christians in leadership. So the universities say, sorry, you’ve got to go, we can’t allow discrimination.

Another story line, though, puts the universities in a nobler light. It sees Christian groups that discriminate against gays. They want to have the privileges that go with recognition by a university, but they also want to stay stuck in their medieval conceptions of sexuality. The university has crossed that river and won’t go back. So, Christians can hold their opinions but they can’t hold university privileges.

This story has been playing out at many schools over the last decade. Most of the time it has stayed out of the headlines. At different schools it’s been resolved in different ways. Harvard notably resolved it in favor of letting the Christians stick to their principles. But more and more universities seem to be trending in the other direction.

Though it is a low profile story–I don’t think Fox News has yet exploited it–it’s symptomatic of a larger cultural debate and potentially significant.

I’m confused, though. It’s hard to put your finger on what the issue is for either side. Why do universities have to cast the issue as one of discrimination? Why couldn’t they see it as a matter of qualifications? In order to be an officer in the organization you must have certain qualifications, one of which is religious belief. Nobody is discriminated against; anybody can choose to hold those beliefs.

And that question works the other way: why can’t the Christian groups pledge that they don’t discriminate? Is this all about semantics?

I don’t think it’s just semantics. I suspect that hiding somewhere down in the depths of this dispute is a question of creeds. Can a group on a university (read: civilized society) be creedal? That is to say, can membership depend on your submission to a written statement of truth? For all kinds of reasons, creeds are at odds with the modern university–and with modern culture.

Even deeper down, I suspect, is a clash of competing creeds. Because of course the modern university does subscribe to a creed. Some of the creed is written down, usually in very bland language. (“Openness, spirit of inquiry, diversity, etc.”) A lot of it isn’t written down, but it’s pretty well established. And Christians who claim to find their truth in an ancient book are not entirely in harmony with that creed.

All the same, there must surely be some way to square this circle on pragmatic grounds. I expect that university administrators feel intensely uncomfortable with reducing diversity in the name of protecting diversity. Banning groups that won’t sign your pledge sounds a little bit McCarthyesque, dontcha think? On the other side, I believe the Christian groups involved in these disputes truly want to be a respected part of a diverse and non-discriminating university community. Somehow both sides have written themselves into a corner, and don’t know how to get out of it.

I should say, lest this be painted in the starkest terms, that the consequences of the university bans are not that great. They generally amount to Christian groups losing the possibility of university funding (which I don’t think most Christian groups receive anyway) and the loss of privileges for booking meeting places. I don’t think there’s any attempt to root out their existence on campus.

But symbolically and culturally, there may be a lot more at stake. Can a liberal, material, post-Christian society find ways to include and accept those who hold to another creed? Can Christians (and other creedal groups) find ways to accommodate their practices to a post-Christian America?

I am not personally optimistic about the status of Christianity in our society for the near future. I think religiously we are likely to look more like Europe than like Africa. But whatever we are becoming (and after the meteoric rise of gay marriage, the future seems to be closer than we thought) we are going to do it in a patently American way. And that way, we haven’t discovered yet.

Death Before the Fall

April 30, 2014

My review of Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering has been posted on the Christianity Today website. The book is a very interesting and rather fierce critique of literalist readings of Genesis, from a quite orthodox and conservative perspective. Osborn’s concern to understand the meaning of animal suffering relates to those interpretations of Genesis.

Here’s the link: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/april-web-only/reading-genesis-without-philosophical-blinders.html?start=1

Christian America

February 24, 2014

This excerpt from historian George Marsden’s latest book is worth reading if you want to understand the Christian right. He traces in a fairly brief fashion how an apolitical group became, during the Reagan era, highly politicized. The most interesting part, I think, is his analysis of how the Christian right mixes an absolutist puritanism with classic liberalism–usually without acknowledging or perhaps even understanding that the two streams do not really fit together. Thus the rhetoric may sound scarily autocratic, but actually works to defend certain freedoms. This rather dense paragraph sums it up:

The complex heritage of the evangelical religious right, as shaped, among other things, both by biblicist bornagain revivalism and broader principles developed during the eighteenth-century American enlightenment, helps to explain some of its paradoxes, apparent contradictions, and blind spots. The biblicist side is often absolutist and militant, invoking stark choices between serving the Lord of Hosts or the Baal of secular humanism. The enlightenment heritage allows militantly conservative fundamentalists to in fact affiliate with the wide coalition represented in the Republican Party and to participate in the give-and-take of practical politics, despite all the compromises that inevitably requires. In the strict biblicist view, the American nation can be seen as having forfeited any claim to God’s blessings and as being under judgment for its open sins, so that the only hope is to trust in Jesus to return to set things right. But the enlightenment heritage tells the evangelical religious right that the American principles of civil freedom, self-determination, and free enterprise are the best there are, and that evangelicals can therefore unreservedly embrace the American civil religion and condemn anyone who questions that America has a special place in God’s plan. The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights. The enlightenment heritage means that the leading motif in their politics is the necessity of protecting freedoms, especially the personal and economic freedoms of the classically liberal tradition. So when members of the evangelical religious right speak about returning to a “Christian” America, they may sound as though they would return to days of the early Puritans; yet, practically speaking, the ideal they are invoking is tempered by the American enlightenment and is reminiscent of the days of the informal Protestant establishment, when Christianity was respected, but most of the culture operated on more secular terms.

Fox News!

February 15, 2014

Another milestone in life: I appeared on Fox News this morning, talking in an interview format with Michael Behe, one of the scientists I profile in The Adam Quest. I think it went pretty well: I didn’t drool, nod off, or forget my thought in mid-sentence.

Here’s the clip–almost ten minutes:

http://video.foxnews.com/v/3203351374001/author-science-and-faith-arent-mutually-exclusive/#sp=show-clips