N for Nazarene

October 12, 2016


Bob Blincoe from Frontiers, an organization that works with Muslims in the Middle East, brought to my church these tiny mosaics (useful as coasters) made by Iraqi Christians in exile in Jordan. The symbol is the letter N in Arabic. When ISIS invaded Syrian and Iraqi villages they spray-painted Christian homes with this N, standing for Nazarene. It was like being red-tagged by the building department. It meant: either convert to Islam, or get out now, otherwise you will be killed.

It occurred to me that the Iraqi Christians making these mosaics are doing exactly what the earliest Christians did with the cross. They adopted as their own the chilling symbol of oppression and violence used against them. It reminded them of what Jesus the Messiah had suffered, and of what they too might be called on to endure.

Maybe we should put these “N” symbols next to our crosses, to remind us of what they stand for.

The mosaics come from Aslan Child Rescue, an organization working to help churches in the Middle East and in Europe who have opened their doors to persecuted Iraqi Christians.

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.



National Parks

September 5, 2016


I liked this column New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posted a couple of weeks ago, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the US National Park system, and describing the delight he and his daughter found in hiking the John Muir Trail last summer.

It so happens I was on the same trail, along with three of my friends. We did the most southerly section of the trail, from Kearsarge Pass to Mt. Whitney. Being of mature ages we took our time. In younger years I did this section in five days, if I remember correctly. This time we took nine. No regrets. I noticed—though there are no official markers, nor will a google search discover any acknowledgement of it—that Mt. Whitney is considerably higher than the last time I climbed it—perhaps a thousand feet, by my estimate.

We had a wonderful trip, one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. As a result I’ve been thinking about the national parks, and the John Muir Trail (JMT) that goes through three of them. The JMT was built during the Depression, and—remarkably—it is very little changed in the more than 75 years since it was completed. I find these mountain valleys, streams, lakes and passes almost exactly as I remember them from when I first began hiking them 50 years ago.

Surely this preservation is an entirely good thing. It is one orchestrated completely by government action. Left to private actors, this glorious land would be paved and settled and commercialized. I’m leery of government’s power, but surely there are cases when it is extremely beneficial—and this is one.

I’ll go one step further. I’ve witnessed the parks and the national forests endeavoring to figure out how to preserve these beautiful mountains from the people who love them. I saw this first in the 1970s, when daily quotas were first used to allocate permits for backpacking trips. I wasn’t happy about it—it meant that I might not get to do exactly the trip I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. But it wasn’t long before I saw that the trade-off was worth it, because I wasn’t fighting for space with masses of people. Today, what with a vastly increased number of people doing modern pilgrimages on the JMT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) there are more potential stresses than ever. We saw a lot of these folks in our week-long trip, taken in a popular late-summer period. But thanks to the quota system, we were never really crowded. The system doesn’t prevent people from hiking, but it spreads them out over the summer. Only when we were on Mt. Whitney—a hyper-popular hike—did we camp within sight of anybody else. The rest of the time, we saw plenty of people on the trail, but we never had a traffic jam, and we never had competition for an isolated campsite.

There’s also the regulation of fires above 10,000 feet. I remember when this came along—in the 1980s?—and how sad I was to give up campfires. Nowadays, campfires are the exception in the high country. (Only once on our nine-day trip were we allowed to build one.) It’s not because of forest fires. At that altitude, it’s hard to locate enough wood to start a blaze. The problem is that no one could convince people to quit hacking away at the tiny bonsai-style lodgepole pines in their efforts to find wood for a bonfire. These lovely high-country trees had begun to look as though beaver had been chewing on them. I didn’t realize how bad it had become until I saw the effect of prohibiting high-altitude fires. Within a few years those alpine lakes looked the way God meant them to. I still miss the fires, but I think it was a fair exchange.

Finally, bear canisters were first required in the back country during the 1990s. I strongly resisted them. I’d been hiking and coexisting with bears for 30 years by that time, and I didn’t like adding a couple of pounds to my pack. But the bears are great learners, and they had educated themselves and their children in techniques for taking food strung up in trees by backpackers. You could no longer keep bears from getting your food. It was bad for hikers and very bad for bears. So, the bear canisters. The bears took about ten minutes to realize they couldn’t get into them. This summer I met an old ranger in Sequoia National Park who told me that they no longer have problems with marauding bears in the back country. Even in Yosemite Valley, bear problems have all but disappeared. The regulations are working.

I love these mountains, and I hope I live to take my grandchildren into them. If I do, I feel reasonably confident we will find them almost exactly as I first did when I was 12 years old. For that, I thank those who, 100 years ago, had a sense of where government could do good. And I thank those who, working for government as park and forest rangers, apply common sense to make regulations work for the common good.


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.

Schrodinger’s Immigrant

July 19, 2016

I just got back from the UK, where friends shared the delightful concept of Schrodinger’s immigrant.

In your reading you may have encountered Schrodinger’s cat–a paradox of quantum mechanics wherein a cat may be dead and alive simultaneously. (Google it if you want to be even more mystified.)

Schrodinger’s immigrant is similarly paradoxical:

“They’re taking all our jobs and living off welfare.”


Jesus and Justice

May 6, 2016

This is the fourth in a series of short reflections on justice.

Going from the prophets to Jesus—from Jeremiah, Daniel, and Zephaniah to the Sermon on the Mount—one travels some distance. The prophets speak to particular political and moral realities. Jesus seems focused on something beyond. Even when he stands before Pilate, he seems barely concerned for the cruelty, the oppression and the corruption of Pilate’s government. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight.” (John 18:36)

Jesus did launch a protest at the Temple, turning things upside down. Yet he didn’t try to change things, by, say, organizing weekly protests, or trying to influence the Sanhedrin, as typical activists would.

He had other things in mind—things wrapped up in his little band of disciples, things concerned with his crucifixion. Only after his death and resurrection did he fully explain himself, when he spoke to his disciples. (Luke 24:27) It would remain for the disciples—joined, influentially, by Paul—to work out and explain how these things went together to set the world right.

Jesus’ life challenges us to think deeply about what kind of justice we really want to achieve. His justice is not just about politics and reform. Jesus’ kingdom is not merely to set the Roman Empire right—that is too small—but to set right all the powers of heaven and hell, all the nations, all the rulers and potentates and spiritual powers. It is to bring the whole world into the joyful worship of God. That is why Jesus’ disciples do not take up the sword for his kingdom. The game is bigger than revolution, and much bigger than reform.

Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples are to make more disciples, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Those commands can be summarized in two words: “Follow me.” To follow Jesus is to live for justice. All of Jesus’ ministry fits into a justice narrative: he heals, setting right the body; he casts out evil, setting right the spirit; he teaches about loving your neighbor, setting right the social realm. Jesus lives out all that God wants his people to become. He is the epitome of justice as the Old Testament describes it. In his life, we see what justice should be. In his life, we find a pattern of justice to follow.

However, his justice for all the creation is more than what we can achieve ourselves by imitating Jesus. We need a greater power. Following Jesus, obeying his commands, puts us in his company. We go where the Lamb goes, to see the whole world converted through the power of God.

Plato and Trump

May 2, 2016

This article by Andrew Sullivan is perhaps the best summation of our political situation that I’ve read.

A Talk on the European Refugee Crisis

April 29, 2016

I gave this talk at my church a week ago, and some of you may find it interesting. It will seem a little odd, though, because much of the talk I was working my way through some photos taken by my colleague Gary Gnidovic during our trip. A lot of those photos are in the magazine article or on Gary’s blog, but putting them together with my words may require more imagination than you are willing to lend to the project. All the same, some people have indicated an interest so I am posting the audio here.

Prophecy and the Story of Justice

April 27, 2016

This is the third in a series of short reflections on justice.

We know the prophets as outspoken advocates of justice. That tradition begins with Nathan confronting David for his injustice toward Uriah the Hittite (stealing his wife, then arranging his death). It carries on with Elijah confronting Ahab for murdering Naboth in order to steal his property. Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Daniel: they speak truth to power. They condemn corrupt judges and greedy landowners; they accuse society of failing to care for the vulnerable.

An underappreciated contribution toward the story of justice, however, is the prophets’ visionary description of the future. Activists often overlook this, I think. In the short term the prophets’ predictions may be bleak, but in the long run they see a world in which all nations are at peace, the evil and violent are punished, weapons of war are repurposed as agricultural implements, the lion lies with the lamb, and so on. “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations,” as Jesus put it, quoting from Isaiah.

This exposition of the future, with its luminous vision of the world made right, transforms justice into a story. The prophetic “speaking truth to power” is not a hopeful enterprise. What can it accomplish, except to go on and on forever confronting the unjust? It represents a static body of law—God’s law—speaking into a more or less perennially corrupt social situation. The vision of the future, however, makes for a dynamic present.  The workings of transformation may be mysterious, and the present may seem discouraging, but that is much of what makes a story: facing obstacles and confronting power with the faith that there will be a happy ending—always without certainty as to how and when that will come about.

Law and Justice

April 22, 2016

This is the second in a series of short reflections on justice.


The Old Testament word translated “justice”—the Hebrew mispat—is used more than 400 times. Just as often as “justice,” it is translated “laws.” It frequently speaks to a situation where laws are adjudicated in court. So, superficially, one can easily read mispat as concerned with legal rights and wrongs, vindication or punishment, just as justice is today.

That’s what I’ve frequently noticed in conversations about justice these past years. As noted in the first post of this series, people hear justice and automatically shift to injustice. And the content is almost always legal. What is the crime? What is the punishment? What compensation should be assessed? Whether environmental destruction or family violence or embezzlement, the framework is the same.

Yet if you read through the Old Testament, you will recognize that this legal mindset misses something at the heart of Old Testament justice. The problem is not that justice is unrelated to law—it certainly is. But the difference is that God’s law stands worlds away from our modern legal environment, where murder, fraud, theft and abuse, property, contract and regulatory mechanisms dominate. God’s law is something different altogether.

The laws of Israel begin with the command to worship Yahweh only. They thus open up a whole life of praise and delight. And how does Jesus sum up the law? He speaks of love. This is proven in the particulars. God’s laws include regulations requiring care for orphans and widows, redistribution of the means of production on a systematic and regular basis, and the forgiveness of debt. The law demands generosity toward immigrants and love for neighbor.

“Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,” says Psalm 112:5 in a typical parallelism, “who conduct their affairs with justice.” Isaiah speaks for God in demanding, “Stop doing wrong! Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (1:16-17). One could add many examples where doing justice is synonymous with charity or activism on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

What emerges is not a tale of crime and punishment, but a portrait of the good life, life as God intended his creatures to live it: life full of love, generosity, and care.

When we think of the law, we think of people who have done wrong and must be punished. When Israel thinks of the law, by contrast, they think of the kind of people God has called them to be. That explains why the psalms can say, “Oh, how I love your law!” (119:97). Nobody would say that today, not even lawyers or legislators; Israel put it in their hymnal for all to sing.

So justice has to do with law—but God’s law, of love and worship. Justice is God’s world set right.