Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Universalism is White Privilege

I am not generally prone to call things “white privilege”. That’s probably because I am white and would prefer not to draw attention to its reality, or perceived reality. I don’t deny it exists, of course. But I do deny that it surely doesn’t exist every time and in every place someone says it does. Whites on the left tend to cry it the most, perhaps to shield themselves against the possibility of engaging in it, or to virtue signal so they can’t ever be accused of a sin so great.

But it struck me recently that one of the chief claims of liberalism at large - and in particular theological liberalism - is truly guilty of white privilege. Universalism, or the belief that all people of any faith have heaven available to them, is a linchpin of liberal thought because it allows for the erasing of classical boundaries that are now thought of as “judgmental”. It is necessary that the end game of life is as free from judgement as our own politically correct and relativistic earth-bound life. Universalism, of course, is the only game in town that allows for such an end game.

While there are official Universalists, the truth is that many Christians - who should not be universalists - have embraced it to avoid confrontation or, again, to virtue signal their boldness in throwing off old categories. They have absorbed this de facto aspect of our culture and, in an effort not to come across as judgmental, they’ve incorporated it into their false Christianity. They think they are being kind by accepting the faiths of others and they see it as a no-lose scenario.

But what is universalism really if not a denigration of the beliefs of others? It claims to solve the problem of religious judgment. It pretends to be a lack of such judgment. It tries to be an affirmation that all faith claims are correct. But this, in fact, is a logical impossibility and it doesn’t take seriously the real diversity of other truth claims. Rather than being non-judgmental, it is really the height of arrogance. It is telling everyone that their religious claims - provided they are exclusive - are wrong.

Why? Because religious truth claims necessarily cancel each other out. They can’t all be true, so universalism cannot possibly be true. To put some meat on the bones, if you tell a Muslim that Christians will go to the same heaven that they will, it’s not hard to imagine that they would be offended. The same for Christians all over the world. Perhaps Hindus or Buddhists wouldn’t as their religious claims regarding the afterlife and a singular God’s judgement are significantly less clear.

What has this to do with white privilege? Well, it strikes me that universalism is a relatively modern and Western idea, and it rises in popularity just as traditional Christianity wanes. It is held more commonly by whites who have the luxury to pontificate on life’s mysteries from the comfort of a home library or perhaps even a hammock. Most people of color around the world continue to hold fast to their traditions and want nothing to do with universalism. They simply don’t have the luxury of such harmless daydreaming; they’re too busy fighting and dying for their faith.

So proclaiming that universalism is true is just as offensive as proclaiming that Christianity - and only Christianity - is true. You may have bought yourself some good will with your own psyche, but you’re really just refusing to listen to those who continue to be firmly Muslim, Roman Catholic, or Jewish, etc.

In short, universalism is a luxury that the non-committed opt to employ to prevent an expression of judgment from exiting their mouths. Ironically, it is itself a judgement, for it ignores the real religious claims of others. Of course, in a free society, its certainly fine to be a universalist and to defend it and proclaim it. But if you do so while believing that you are taking the high road, think again. It is absolutely as offensive a claim to, say, a Muslim as saying that God can become flesh.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Only Two Questions You’ll Ever Need to Ask a Theological Liberal (To Quickly Come to Your Impasse and Win the Debate)

Another tragedy has occurred in our nation and the dividing lines are clear once again. It doesn’t matter what the tragedy or issue is because the dividing lines are the same every time. On issues of sex and sexuality, abortion, race, poverty, and economics, the claws come out on all sides. 

Society is divided…that’s not exactly breaking news. And so are Christians. Given that I come out of a theological liberal “tradition” (I was never a "theological liberal", but I was surrounded by it), I hear from that side as well as my own. And because I like a good argument, I like to think I consider all sides and come to conclusions based on sound reason. 

But since the society will always be fractured, and so will these two Christian traditions, there comes a point of futility in argument. I know what I believe and why, and so do they. Or at least we think we do. And for years I’ve tried to consider what are the absolute core of the differences to end the debate about the pressing issue (abortion, sexuality, white privilege, etc.) and get on with the debate about more foundational things. Because if our foundations are not shared, let's debate that instead of the heat-of-the-moment tragedy. And if I can persuade a theological liberal to agree with me on my answers to the questions below (or if they can persuade me), then progress may be made. 

I think there are two questions to ask a theological liberal to get to the foundational issues. This isn't breaking news, either, but they are easy to remember and so central that they are incredibly useful. The first question is simple:  What is your source of authority? If there is a theological liberal who will state and can then defend the assertion that scripture is his sole authority, I have yet to meet him (or her). Of course, theological liberals want the authority of the Bible to support their views and they always claim they hold the Bible out as an authority. Just as with legalists and moralists, the Bible is cherry-picked to justify their views. But inevitably, other sources of authority play a competing role. 

Experience is always the first alternative source of authority. While the human experience is important, and we shouldn’t overlook it for fear of perpetuating sin, experience just isn’t a source of authority in a Christian worldview. In a strictly theological sense, it doesn’t matter what injustice, cruelty, or joy a single person or group of people has ever experienced. No amount of any of those experiences will ever change the truth about God. I realize that sounds cruel, and that’s why theological liberals latch on to experience: because to deny it will bring about an accusation of apathy or indifference. But if theology is going to be theology, it has to be rooted in God’s revelation, not in our experience. Once our theology is rooted in scripture, then we can work to better the lives of others as their servants in Christ, as disciples seeking to be faithful to his commandments. But not before. 

Another possible source of authority is the Tradition, though is used less often because the Tradition more often than not disagrees with the modern theological liberal. But for the careful liberal, the Tradition can become a vague pool from which to draw. Church Fathers, Mothers, obscure writings, and more modern scholars can become bedrock on which to help build liberal theology. To the extent this “Tradition” differs from scripture is rarely if ever questioned. If they say they’re a Christian, that’s good enough for them, and they become an authority for the liberal. After all, if someone else thinks the same way I do, it must be right. 

Perhaps Christian traditions other than generally Reformed traditions can cite other authorities. But you can’t be Lutheran (or Reformed) and have other authorities than scripture. You can pretend to, but you cease being Lutheran the moment you do. Which shouldn’t really bother the liberal since we all know what a bigot Luther was anyway, right? So unless I can be convinced that any other source out there is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), I’ll cling to the scriptures as my one and only source of theological authority. When the question becomes a matter of your interpretation of scripture versus mine, then we will have to examine who is being the most consistent. Inevitably, liberals cannot and do not consistently use the scripture to defend their views.

The second question, of course, is related to the first, but it is critically important to understand. The question is simple: What is the Gospel? Like every patriot wants to wrap themselves in the American flag, every theological liberal wants to wrap themselves in the Gospel. The Gospel (at this point undefined) becomes the justification for the theological liberal’s convictions even if and when they refuse to limit their authority to the scriptures. So once they’ve left the Reformed world of the “solas” (scripture, grace, faith, Christ), they can still cling to the unassailable Gospel to justify their theology as God-stamped and God-approved, even if not God-breathed.

Now, maybe some or much of the theological liberal’s agenda is approved by God. But I have absolutely no confidence that God would approve any view that is contrary to the scriptures and only nebulously connected to the Biblical Gospel. So I want to know how the theological liberal defines the Gospel so I know how he uses that word when claiming that God agrees with his view of the world. And if his definition includes vagaries about justice, equality, and fairness, but nothing about reconciliation, forgiveness, and a cross, you know you’re at a crossroads. You can be certain that while the word “gospel” will be used, it will now be divorced from its Biblical context and will thus become meaningless in any real sense.

Now, I realize that the biblical Gospel has consequences. It does not operate in a vacuum. You can’t believe the Gospel and then carry out injustice. You can’t be a Christian and an adulterer or pornographer. You can’t be a Christian pharmacist and proscribe abortifacients, or be a Christian dating site that “matches” homosexuals, or a Christian university that allows gay men or women to cohabitant as a couple. Therefore, if you want to say that the Gospel doesn’t only deal with a cross, some blood, an innocent man, and the forgiveness of sins, fine. The Gospel also deals with real life and real situations. 

But the Gospel isn’t about a fair world. It is about reconciliation between God and man. And that reconciliation was only won one way: through the blood and resurrection of Jesus. It assumes sin, and the forgiveness of sins. And if those things are not discussed, it is a good sign that what is biblically described as sin (in our context homosexuality comes up most prominently) will be ignored for a different set Gospel goodies. 

For the biblical theologian, sin doesn’t have to be whitewashed because there is no special pleading. We (I place myself in this camp now) recognize that humanity is broken, our society is broken and we are broken. It is only through God’s grace that we are saved and sanctified, and we place ourselves at God’s mercy every bit as much as we implore others to as well. This is the advantage the biblical theologian has over the liberal theologian, and it is why I am one. 

So the next time you are in a debate with a theological liberal (if they will dare to debate you at all), use these questions to put to the side the heated exchange of the day and get to the foundations of why you disagree. You probably won’t change minds, but at least you can point out to the theological liberal that he plays fast and loose with the sources of authority he borrows from to justify his worldview. With any grace at all, his foundations will be righted, and the two of you can work together for a better world from the same foundation. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Am I A Racist if I Don’t Like Rap Music?

As much as I fight against it, political correctness has taken over my mind. I find myself having what used to be perfectly ordinary views, but I now challenge them on the basis of thought police brainwashing. I’m not even sure what I’m allowed to think anymore because I am told that my views are corrupted by forces outside of my control, floating through our society’s ether. Normal meanings of words have changed so dramatically that I now have to ask if we are able to assess anything at face value, or if everything is up for debate. More to the point, I now genuinely question who is in charge of my mind: me or the utopians who believe they know better? 

For example, I used to understand that being a racist was believing that - on the virtue of your skin color - you believed you were better than those of a different skin color. Naturally, this could apply to anyone. Somewhere in the mess that is the American academy, it became way more than that. Racism became limited only to whites (because they have the power), and more about institutional oppression than individuals beliefs. Fortunately for us, the academy got to define all of those social institutions and rewrite history along the way. 

Suffice to say, I don’t believe I’m a racist. (The academy is jeering right now, “Said every racist ever.”) But really, I don’t. But in the last few years, I have noticed a change in the way that I think and speak about my own society because I’ve essentially been brainwashed to believe my racism was inevitable. Because, you know, I’m a white man. 

For example: I do not like rap music. There was a time when I felt free to say that without worrying about what others might think. Rap just isn’t for everyone, right? Just like country (not a fan of that, either) isn’t for everyone. Just like classic rock isn’t for everyone. Just like jazz isn’t for everyone. To me, rap has a synthetic sound that is grating. I prefer music played on real instruments, not beat machines. While I can appreciate the talent it takes to create rhymes, especially on the fly, it isn’t poetry that does anything for me. (17th century Christian hymn writers are more my style…if that isn’t racist, that is!) Rap is often angry and even vile, promoting many things the thought police would have us be rid of: homophobia, mysogany, violence, etc. And, well, it simply doesn’t speak to my milquetoast upbringing and experience, so I can’t relate to it and won’t pretend as if I can.

But I now even question if I’m allowed to say what I just said without being an abject racist pig. After all, rap and/or hip hop is generally associated with the African American community, even though many whites perform and consume it as well. So if I say I don’t like rap music, am I really expressing a personal animosity towards blacks? Is it just another example of white privilege? 

Or in order to prove I am not a racist, do I have to approve of all tangential aspects superficially connected to that culture? Nevermind that many African Americans also detest rap music; the question is, can I without being a racist? What about other admittedly stereotypical identifiers of hip hop culture? Saggy pants, for example. If I don’t like that any young man, white or black, would wear their pants well below their waste exposing their underwear. Yes, I know that some believe this is a testament of solidarity (at best) to those in prison who have no belts, etc. But does not liking sagging pants make me a racist?

Here’s another example. I like watching NBA basketball, especially when the playoffs get interesting. And I want to talk about basketball with other people who might be fans. If I’m in a situation where relatively light conversation makes sense (say, a repairman or technician is at my home or office and we’re waiting for a phone call or a part to arrive), I might want to ask if they have watched the games. But I don’t. Why? Because I’ve been trained by the thought police not to assume that a black man would be watching basketball. “Don’t you know that black people have varied interests?!” I might answer, “Well yes, of course, but I like basketball, too. It’s no judgment.” But for assuming anything about someone else becomes a symbol of oppression, even if I would take no offense if anyone assumed anything about me. I would be glad to gently correct them in an actual conversation. 

Now there are three temptations I would normally want to use in my self defense. 

First, I’d want to point out that it could work the other way, too. For example, I’d like to offer counter-examples of black people not being fans of traditionally white or Euro-centric aspects of culture. But such a counter-example would quickly be labeled “white privilege”…I think. Because for me to even have the power to not like a counter-cultural art form like rap means I have more privileges than those in the minority whose music is a testament to their struggle. 

I’m also tempted, of course, to justify myself on the basis of my black friendships. Since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was that we would judge one another on the content of our character and not on the color of our skin, I am tempted to use that as a defense of all my friendships with those whose skin is darker than mine. (This would include people of dark skin of non-African descent as - if this is really about skin color - that would be the consistent thing to do. But the thought police would say that ignores the unique history of African Americans, so that option is shut off.) But we all know that having black friends is no protection against racism. Maybe I’m just using those people as a salve to my conscience. Or maybe I’m only friends with blacks who suppress their culture, who are more “white” like me.

Oh, and another temptation. I have many critiques of “white culture” too! Can I share those in an attempt to demonstrate that I am an equal-opportunity critic of my society? I’m guessing not because, again, it’s white privilege to be able to assess and critique one’s own culture from an ivory tower while those of darker color are trying to overcome centuries of oppression.  

This whole race thing has gotten so confusing. Here’s my bottom line: Can I love people as they are, as God made them, but still be a critic of some elements of our culture-at-large without being a racist? Can I be a critic of rap music as both an aesthetic art form and as social commentary without being a racist? Can I desire that all young men - regardless of the color of their skin - wear their pants on their hips without being a racist? Or do I have to learn to approve of all elements of “black culture” in order not to be a racist? Are these elements of “black culture” (if such a thing as “black culture” exists, and I’m happy to say it does not if you’ll allow it) synonymous with all black people? And do I have to accept or like them to avoid being a racist? 

If so, I will inevitably have to be a racist. But if I am allowed to offer critiques of all elements of my society (atheism and homosexuality for example, are generally more common among whites than blacks), then I am free to have honest and loving relationships with people of darker color than me. It would sure be nice to simply interact with people on such an honest basis. But the thought police have probably made that option impossible.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Should I Perform This Marriage Ceremony? On Ministering to Sheep Without Shepherds

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. Mark 6:34, ESV

Pastors often find themselves in positions to minister to those who are in need of congregational and/or pastoral help, and yet have good reasons not to offer it. While it is not true that the soon-to-be-married, new parents, or those in crises find their way back to church in the numbers they once did, an occasional Millennial or Gen Xer still feel the tug back to church when such normalizing rites as baptism and weddings are called for. And when they do, pastors are caught in the crossfire between serving those who come to us at a time of need and the real prospect of being taken for granted or, worse, performing a service for what may turn out to be filthy lucre.

Here are some examples that probably every pastor has dealt with more than once: the death of a church member’s sibling, cousin or friend, who died with no church affiliation and perhaps no sign of faith; a young couple seeking marriage, but already living together; a couple seeking marriage wherein one or both parties are divorced; a couple seeking marriage where both are not believers (the “unequally yoked” problem); a couple with a Roman Catholic past but without an available Roman Catholic priest or parish due to previous relationship divorce complications (the “you’re not Catholic but you’re close enough” problem); baptizing the grandchild of a member, even though that child’s parents will likely never attend church again; communing those who are not Lutheran, but read the notice in the bulletin and came forward anyway.

These are all situations the pastor faces on a regular basis. Some, of course, are longstanding sources of disagreement and even schism (open communion, for example). Some are points of disagreement even within denominations, seeing that they are matters of pastoral discretion.

But what pastors face in each situation is the prospect of administering the means of grace either too loosely (and not taking into consideration proper boundaries and discipline) or too tightly (and acting as the disciples did when they shielded Jesus from the Syrophenician woman or the little children, not to mention the Pharisees who would have kept him from the prostitutes and tax collectors.

So when these opportunities present themselves we want to be neither the wonton liberal who treats God’s grace like “cheapjack’s wares”, nor the Pharisee who protects God from himself by holding too fast to our rites and sacraments. In some of these situations, it is obvious that the pastor should not comply, for some folks are looking for religious cover for outright sin. But in many situations, especially in 21st century secular America, where fewer and fewer even have a church background to rebel against, should we say “no” too quickly to those who make an effort to return to the church, even under less-than ideal circumstances? And then, if we charge for services rendered (say for a non-member wedding), at what point are we basically whoring out the church in the faint hopes of restored lives?

At what point do we work with a couple to get married who is already living together instead of refusing to dirty our hands? If it is best that they get married, shouldn’t we facilitate it? At what point do we marry the couple that is “unequally yoked”, warning of the pitfalls and predictable arguments in their future, but hoping a heart can change? At what point do we work with a Roman Catholic who is ready to be catholic without the ritualistic legalism they’ve found in Rome? At what point do we baptize those who agree to the promises in the baptismal rite, even if we are 51% sure they will not keep those vows?

I don’t think there is a uniform “yes” or “no” to most of these situations, but it strikes me that ministry in the 21st century is ministering mostly to sheep without a shepherd. Of course, Christianity has boundaries. But what I see in the next generation is not as much willful disdain of Christ’s Church, but a genuine ignorance of what even goes on inside of one. I recall working with a young man to get baptized as an adult several years ago. He asked me during one of our meeting how church’s “made money.” The language of offering, stewardship, and sacrifice meant nothing to him. He was genuinely curious how bills got paid, and amazingly, he had no clue that the brass offering plates were for collecting volunteered funds to support Gospel ministry. If he is more and more the norm among his generation, we should begin to presume that we are not ministering among those who hate us, but among those who know nothing about us.

Therefore, perhaps moreso than in previous generations, perhaps our “yes” should be said more often, even in compromised situations. Because it may be that these rites are the only chance we will have to introduce these sheep to their shepherd. I know that there are good reasons to say “no” a lot, and it is usually a safer bet among our more conservative peers. And sometimes, for the sake of Christ, a “no” must be said. But I have decided to work with more and more people where they are, even as I hear my more conservative brothers and sisters in my ear telling me I have sold out or even encouraged sin. And yes, for my troubles, I have been burned and used more than once. But in the best of cases, some sheep came home. And in the worst of cases, I was used in the service of introducing sheep to their shepherd, and I’m happy to be abused for such a service.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Going Atomic on Oppenheimer

After the June 26 SCOTUS decision, many conservative Christians were worried their tax exempt status would eventually be in jeopardy. After all, if same sex marriage became the law of the land, how could one deny it without facing some legal or punitive cost? In this fear, Mark Oppenheimer's Time article made a lot of hay. While I'm over two weeks late in responding, I finally sat down with the article with the plan of analyzing it piece by piece. What's below is his entire article with my comments (in italics) interspersed. I also recorded a podcast today that focuses only on this article and I should be releasing it soon. You can subscribe to that podcast here. Pardon the shameless plug. On with the direction!

Now’s the Time To End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions
Mark Oppenheimer @markopp1 June 28, 2015

Mark Oppenheimer writes the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and is editor-at-large for Tablet. He also reports for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere.

The Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn't be subsidizing religion and non-profits

Two weeks ago, with a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on the way, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, which ensures that religious institutions won’t lose their tax exemptions if they don’t support same-sex marriage. Liberals tend to think Sen. Lee’s fears are unwarranted, and they can even point to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Friday’s case, which promises “that religious organizations and persons [will be] given proper protection.”

Let’s stop there. Justice Kennedy’s rebuttal was not what many think it was. Let’s read that in its full context: 

“[I]t must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”

Notice what is missing. Chief Justice Roberts puts it this way: “The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.”

So for Oppenheimer to glibly put off legitimate concerns by citing Kennedy’s single paragraph doesn’t exactly quell the fears of many who realize he left out an awful lot of available words. You see, religion is not just about teaching, worshiping and advocating. To truly have religious freedom, you must be able to live out the consequences of your convictions so you conscience is not violated. It is quickly becoming, though, in the eyes of liberals it seems, what people do privately in their worship space. 

But I don’t think Sen. Lee is crazy. In the 1983 Bob Jones University case, the court ruled that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy.” So far, the Bob Jones reasoning hasn’t been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but someday it could be. I’m a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday’s Supreme Court decision — but I honor Sen. Lee’s fears.

I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.

Can I ask an obvious question? How is what Oppenheimer proposes a solution? Am I missing something? Mike Lee is offering a solution for a legitimate fear. Oppenheimer isn’t offering a solution. He’s just offering a devastating blow to scores of non-profits that are already hanging by a thumbnail. The problem is precisely rooted in claims of discrimination and losing one’s tax-exempt status. So how can just getting rid of said status be considered a solution? The problem is losing one’s tax exempt status. Taking it away pre-emptavely isn’t a solution. That’s like popping a kid’s football before loses it. 

The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes. In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. Since then, state and local laws nearly everywhere have exempted nonprofits from all, or most, property tax and state income tax. This system of tax exemptions and deductions took shape partly during World War I, when it was feared that the new income tax, with top rates as high as 77%, might choke off charitable giving. But whatever its intentions, today it’s a mess, for several reasons.

Why would we blow off the intentions for the law? It seems to me understanding the intentions of the law are critical to understanding his “solution.” Why would the government end encourage this kind of giving? To spread the workload! What has happened since is that the government is so involved in every kind of social activity, it now doesn’t need the church’s charity. It is the welfare that the church once provided. But the intentions were to encourage charity, and they still are. At least in theory, don’t we still believe in charity? Perhaps more importantly, don’t we still think the society benefits from worshiping and obeying God? Now we’ve hit the raw nerve. We don’t believe that anymore, really. To people like Oppenheimer, a life with or without God is equally valid, no difference at all, no reason to encourage the church. They just view it all as one big marketplace. Once we lose the view that the society at at large is better off with God, you had better believe that churches will lose their tax exemptions. 

First, the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way. Since the world’s great religion scholars can’t agree on what a religion is, it’s absurd to ask a bunch of accountants, no matter how well-meaning. You can read part of the IRS’s guidelines for what’s a bona fide religion here; suffice it to say that it has an easier time saying what’s not a religion. The site gives the example of the rejection of an application from an “outgrowth of a supper club … whose primary activities were holding meetings before supper, sponsoring the supper club, and publishing a newsletter” but which professed a religious doctrine of “ethical egoism.”

Well, I agree its a hard position for the IRS to be in. It does have to draw lines. And we used to be able to agree! There was a time when Scientology would never have received recognition as a religion. But as a society, we caved. We have refused to draw the line of what at least attempts to recognize the true God…because we don’t believe in God anymore. We don’t link him to revelation and history. That’s all up for grabs. And this is what we get Scientology…er science fiction…getting a tax break. It is an offense to be sure. 

On the other hand, the IRS famously caved and awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. Never mind that the Scientology is secretive, or that it charges for its courses; or that its leader, David Miscavige, lives like a pasha. Indeed, many clergy have mid-six-figure salaries — many university presidents, seven-figure salaries — and the IRS doesn’t trouble their tax-exempt status.

Yes, and aren’t many of those universities public institutions? What about a group like Planned parenthood, who apparently sells the “tissue” of aborted fetuses?

And many churches and synagogues sit on exceedingly valuable tracts of land (walk up and down Fifth Avenue to see what I mean). The property taxes they aren’t paying have to be drawn from business owners and private citizens — in a real sense, you and I are subsidizing Mormon temples, Muslims mosques, Methodist churches.

Okay, here is where my head explodes. This is said by someone who assumes that the taxes these churches aren’t paying ought to be paid and therefore have to be made up by other businesses. How is this even logical? Did it ever occur to him that the government could simply do with less? Did it ever occur to him that the government, since these laws were enacted planned budgets around the income they received, not income they wouldn’t receive, then having to raise taxes to make up the difference? 

Does he realize exactly how little it matters that a church is on a valuable tract of land? It only has value if you’re selling it, or climbing a property ladder. Being worth a lot doesn’t do anything for a church, except make them targets of lawsuits and drastically raise their insurance premiums.

But his assumption that taxpayers are subsidizing these charities because they don’t pay taxes is simply false. It’s not like these churches don’t pay for water or electricity or gas. They simply don’t pay property tax on property that they owned before the taxes even existed. Therefore, no city or state has ever planned on revenue from them. Therefore, there is no lost revenue. Therefore you are not subsidizing anything. 

Let's think about it another way. We complain about corporate greed, about the Enrons of the world, etc. Should we force churches and synagogues on Fifth Avenue to close if those institutions are the very thing that might prevent corporate greed? Is he so stupid as to not realize the role that religion plays in the lives of many "corporate titans", that religion in the city is a very good thing for us all? Oh sure, New York would get a few more tax dollars to squander, which would make no difference in the lives of anyone. But don’t be surprised when the guy who used to go to the Reformed church on Fifth Avenue runs a stock scheme later because his religious voice was taxed into oblivion.  Oppenheimer is way too optimistic that human beings will do the right thing without a religious voice and conscience in the world.

We’re also subsidizing wealthy organizations sitting in the middle of poor towns. Yale University has an endowment of about $25 billion, yet it pays very little to the city of New Haven, which I (as a resident) can assure you needs the money. At the prep school I attended (current endowment: $175 million), faculty houses, owned by the school, were tax-exempt, on the theory that teachers sometimes had students over for dinner, where they talked about history or literature or swim practice.

Okay, Yale university has a lot of money. So what? Does this guy not understand that the vast amount of churches and non-profits are barely getting by? Does he care? To compare a congregation to a university with a $25 billion is a laugh. 

Meanwhile, although nonprofits can’t endorse political candidates, they can be quite partisan and still thrive on the public dole, in the form of tax exemptions and deductions.

Churches don’t thrive on the public dole. Not paying taxes is not the same as receiving money unless in your warped world you believe that money not given to the government is the equivalent of the government paying out. That is a frightening mindset if that is Oppenheimer’s. 

Conservatives are footing the bill for taxes that Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit, doesn’t pay — while liberals are making up revenue lost from the National Rifle Association.

No, his assumptions are totally backwards! The government actually does fund Planned Parenthood. Does it give money to the NRA? Exempting the NRA from taxes is not the same thing as footing the bill for Planned Parenthood. At least, not on the planet Earth. Perhaps that is Pluto's fiscal policy. Can NASA tell us that? His assumptions are so backwards that he cannot possibly come to sane conclusions. 

I could go on. In short, the exemption-and-deduction regime has grown into a pointless, incoherent agglomeration of nonsensical loopholes, which can allow rich organizations to horde plentiful assets in the midst of poverty.

Perhaps there are some rich institutions that hoard money and they are surrounded by poverty. Like where Oppenheimer got his degree which led to him getting his job at Time Magazine. In my world, that would make him a hypocrite. But it isn’t the right of some people to determine how much money is fair and proper for private institutions to have. At least, that used to be true in America. 

Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argue that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.

Is he really so naive? As if that money would go anywhere but into an unaccountable government slush fund. By the way, we’ve been housing the homeless for 50 years in this War on Poverty. We’ve spent trillions and the poverty rate has stayed the same. Bang for buck, there is no doubt that religious charities that hold the recipients of their good will accountable have a far higher and more humane success rate. 

Exemption advocates also point out that churches would be squeezed out of high-property-value areas. But if it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it. They can afford to, more than millions of poorer New Yorkers whose tax bills the synagogue and church exemptions are currently inflating.

Again, the assumption that no paying taxes automatically requires others to pick up the slack is false. There are other options, like the government doing with less. And these are not average congregations. Most congregations have budgets of around $200,000, with 1-2 staff people, a ton of volunteers, on land that is probably not worth close to $500,000.

So yes, the logic of gay-marriage rights could lead to a reexamination of conservative churches’ tax exemptions (although, as long as the IRS is afraid of challenging Scientology’s exemption, everyone else is probably safe).

And I guess that is our saving grace, isn’t it? 

But when that day comes, it will be long overdue. I can see keeping some exemptions; hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good.

Oh really? Does this guy know how much money doctors make? What about hospital administrators. They practically swim in their money like Scrooge McDuck! Is he really saying we should let them keep their exemptions when doctors make so much money? Is that really moral, Mr. Oppenheimer? 

And localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need.

And who determines that? What a lame olive branch here at the end. He begins by saying end all tax exemptions for non-profits. Except for hospitals. And nonprofits their communities need. Did it ever occur to him that communities need churches? For what will “solve” the problems of this world is faithful Christian discipleship. There’s my assumption. A right relationship with the holy revealed God of the Bible is a cure for social problems. But he thinks the only non-profits that matter are those that try to end homelessness and abort children. Is that about right? So as long as they’re non-profits that you like, Mr. Oppenheimer, they’re cool? Boy, that’s a lot of religious freedom! Thanks! 

But it’s time for most nonprofits, like those of us who faithfully cut checks to them, to pay their fair share.

Gotta love the ol’ “fair share” line. Mr. Oppenheimer, Stalin, Mao and Huey P. Long called and they wants their propaganda back. 

Let me say this. There is no divine right to tax exempt status or charitable deductions. For that matter, I don’t think there are rights to lots of things. But it is a question of what we want to encourage. Taxes are like the gas pedal and the break in society. Cigarettes = bad. Churches = bad. Planned Parenthood =

good? Do I have that about right? 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Three Cheers for “Boyhood”, the Movie That Keeps Speaking

Only after living with Boyhood in my head for a few days did I realize that I had watched the movie all wrong. This review will give nothing away, but perhaps it will help you watch it if you haven’t yet or re-consider some aspects of the film if you have. Essentially, my very watching of the film illustrated what the film wanted me, the viewer, to realize: that you have to live life in the moment and stop looking for what is going to happen next. 

Now, I know how trite that sounds. And I only half agree with the premise. Christians do live for today, but in a certain sense, “carpe diem” is overrated, for we also live for tomorrow. The mantra of Dead Poets Society is true when the day that needs to be seized has come; but not every day is such a day. Indeed life is full of ordinary days, but days that are special beyond words. This film must be watched in a certain way, because what it depicts is a series of vignettes, none of which in themselves are especially interesting. The modern film audience is always waiting of the next shoe to drop, the next thrill, the next twist. As I watched the film, I realized I had an impending sense of doom or disaster because, well, fiction has programmed that into me. 

But that isn’t what this film is. It is much closer to a documentary that, because of its incredible 12-year shooting span, follows an ordinary boy in ordinary times with ordinary problems. There really is no climax and the twists and turns are likely no more ironic than the twists and turns in your own life. If I watched the film again, and one day I’m sure I will, I’ll watch it very differently. I’ll try to appreciate each scene and vignette for what it is, not for what utility it serves for the plot. Because there is no plot. The only forward movement is the unending beat of time. 

Only later does the film’s genius emerge. In a way no ham-fisted or even good coming-of-age tale can do, it will begin to tap into your own childhood. (While I am a man, the son of a single mother, much like the main character, I do believe women will find much to relate to in the film, even though the subject is boyhood.) You will recognize the scenes in the film as scenes from your own life. And not extraordinary scenes. Indeed, I recalled moments in my life that I had forgotten. But this film thrives not on the arcs of life, but the times in between, the times when life is really happening, and it gives them back to us. We had forgotten them, you see, because we were too busy worrying about the next event. 

The film will also highlight the true innocence of childhood and the subtle ways that innocence is lost and adulthood begins. It really is hard to know when boyhood ends and adulthood begins. And for most of us, it isn’t one moment that gets us there. It’s many. And most of them are hard, but some of them are great; seeing violence, falling in love, breaking up, sharing a parent with a new person, stern talkings-to by mentors, and finally, leaving home. All of these bittersweet moments chip away at our innocence and usher us into the adult world. What Boyhood does is cause you to relive those moments or even identify them for what they were. It will help you to see how you came to be you. 

It will also help you to appreciate the ordinary times. As the father of two, I can tell you it is way too hard to appreciate the time when children are young. They are a love and joy that is comparable to nothing else And yet, it is the hardest job in the world and you are often ready for the day to end. You’re glad when they move from the crawling phase to the walking phase, the diaper phase to the toilet phase, preschool to Kindergarten, in part because they rely on you less and your days get a bit easier. You find yourself constantly thinking, “I can’t wait until I don’t have to change diapers anymore” or “I can’t wait until they can bathe themselves” or “I can’t wait until bedtime.” That is normal, because children and their messes and their crying is exhausting. But Boyhood - and I’m not even sure how it did this - was a reminder that those are precious moments passing you by. How foolish to dread them! Now I know why everyone always told me to enjoy them because they go fast.

Perhaps, because in 2.5 hours, you see the passing of 12 real years (i.e. a different actor doesn’t play the older version of a character), you are reminded that time is the one gift given that is completely beyond our control. And because it is told from the child’s point-of-view, it is a reminder to parent’s how children see the world. In the rush to get on to the next thing, this is often forgotten by parents. 

We are always looking forward to the killer vacation, the greatest birthday party ever, the next big event. But as a pastor, I’ve been thinking again what family members say about someone when they die, and it is rarely those big moments that are ever mentioned. It is ordinary things about ordinary people. “He always used to do this…” for example. That is the stuff of life. And Boyhood captures it, and it took this kind of filmmaking to capture it well. The 12-year shooting wasn’t a gimmick; it is a critical technique to communicate this reality. 

So if you haven’t seen the film, see it. But don’t watch it like you do other films. Open your mind and your memories and let the film really become your own story. Because that’s what it is. Don’t worry about what is going to happen next or what plot lines are developing. They don’t matter. Life doesn’t work that way. 

A final thought as a Christian pastor. This film - perhaps not immediately, but in time - can cause one to think about life and appreciate it anew. It can lead to some bittersweet recollections, memories of those times in your life that you couldn’t wait to get through but now you see you wouldn’t be you without them. It seems to me, that without an ultimate, without hope for reconciliation in the future, these memories would not be bittersweet, but just plain bitter. Life is full of difficulties and joys. Without the hope - rooted in historical events and the ministry of Jesus - that my family and our life together is not truly sacred, such a film might lead me to despair. But because I have a narrative of hope buried within, I dread less the passing of time. Indeed, I might appreciate it more now. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Do We Need More Mission Congregations?

What I am about to ask is about as controversial a question as one can ask in the Church. But because I’ve rarely heard it asked, I’ll ask: Do we need more mission congregations? For those who aren’t familiar with all this language, a mission congregation is a new church plant, an upstart. They are organized to serve gatherings of underserved Christians, or to try to make new Christians in secular areas. Church denominations frequently have goals of planting new congregations in new housing developments or suburbs where a church with their “brand” is not yet present.
     Without a doubt, many areas do need church plants, so it would be quite silly to suggest that there is not an absolute need for more church plants. As the population naturally increases, some areas will have enough Christians to merit a congregation of one brand or another. But how many do we need and what church plants are legitimate, if I may be so bold to ask?
     With a few exceptions, mission congregations that aren’t absolutely necessary, can easily do two things that are harmful to the body at large: they market themselves to a particular demographic, creating a competitive atmosphere in the Church; and they create overhead for new congregations, a burden when so many small congregations are struggling to survive and could benefit from partnership. Unless a congregation is one of the exceptions, mission pastors should strongly consider whether they need to be involved in a church plant.
     What are the exceptions? First, if there is an area that does not have a Christian presence, clearly a congregation is needed. Much more discernment would be needed to decide if a particular brand (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc. and various versions therein) is needed, or if a partnership between congregations can be worked out. Second, if an ethnic group that does not speak English (assuming an American context), it will likely need to be served by a pastor of its heritage for a generation or so. Third, if your brand has very particular theological issues at stake, and no congregation in a good distance (say, a 25 miles radius) shares them, a mission congregation may be needed. If there is no confessional or sacramental congregation in 50 miles, a mission congregation may be needed for sure.
     The problems with too many mission congregations are rarely said –who wants to be opposed to mission! – but they should be. Notably, too many mission congregations inevitably create a competitive atmosphere, because they are rarely planted out of pent-up demand. Graduates from seminary want to lead a congregation, so one is organized. This can lead to a less-than-catholic view of worship and fellowship: people are marketed to by demographics and felt needs. All of a sudden, mission congregations are appealing to the very people established congregations are losing. But instead of restoring people to catholic worship and teaching, they are recruiting them to something new that may be perilous to their spiritual health, i.e. Purpose-Driven, seeker-sensitive versions of Christianity.
     All of this marketed, demographic research and certainty that “we can reach who others can’t” is happening while churches are hallowing out. Leaders and people that could be engaged in already-established congregations, helping them grow or resurrect, are beginning from scratch somewhere else. And when they do, they take on overhead that the other church already has covered: a building, property insurance, utilities, hymnals, and so on. Instead of the Church coming together, it is breaking apart and competing with itself…all in the name of mission.
     What fuels all of this? The easy answer is typical American methodology: bigger is better and numbers are king. We want to say we have planted so many congregations. I think we also look at the megachurch superstars - Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, et. al. - and we believe we can be the next guy to start a church as a Bible study and grow it to a powerhouse.
     But what if the Church at large is contracting in the West? What if, no matter how many mission congregations we plant, the Lord is shrinking his Church, turning it into a mustard seed? Why should we resist it? What makes us think we’re so special that we must grow? Or more to the point, is God’s Kingdom always growing? That seems to be the assumption in all of this, but I know of no reason that it is necessarily true.
     I guess to put some meat on the bones, if I were a bishop and a young man contacted me about starting a mission congregation, I would have to really think about it. Unless it were an ethnic situation or a totally barren community regarding the Church, my answer would probably be, “No.”
     A final proposal: among like-minded (generally like-minded, but not always exactly like-minded) church bodies, it seems that congregations should share as much as they can, but create ordinariates within one congregation. For example, Rome has done this with its Personal Ordinariates, where Anglicans retain Anglican liturgy and practice, but in some cases, have reunited with the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps a variety of ordinariates can be one congregation for elements of worship, Bible study and outreach, but separate for sacramental purposes. This isn’t a perfect solution, but at least it shares the burden of overhead, saving resources. It also encourages cooperation in the Church instead of competition.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

On Thomas’ Theology of Usefulness

When my former church body issued a new hymnal (or “worship resource” as such things are now called), it contained an iconic image of people in the act of worship. This was not meant to be a literal depiction, but something intended to depict people in worship. Basically, it was stick figures of people with their arms held up, because people holding their arms up has become the ubiquitous image for worshiping God. Anyway, all of that was fine. But then I noticed that one of these iconic images was a person in a wheelchair. 

Now, I’m not against people in wheelchairs. Indeed, some of my best friends are in wheelchairs, as the saying goes. But it struck me as an especially politically correct attempt to prove that this hymnal would espouse diversity. No potential worshipper would be left out of the imagery. There would be no possibility of exclusion or insult. It made me wonder if the disabled community asked for such an inclusion or if they even cared? It certainly didn’t bother me; it just made me chuckle because it seemed such a naked attempt to be politically correct. 

I say that to let you know a little about me. I like to think that I value people enough that I don’t believe iconic artwork should go out of its way to represent every possible human group, disabled or not. My lack of sensitivity on this issue - if you want to see it that way - should give me some credence for what I’m about to say regarding a blue train and his friends, Thomas the Tank Engine. You see, because I’m not all that worried about hurting the feelings of one group after another (because I know that I do indeed love them through Christ), I can speak honestly about more serious offenses, or deeper rooted problems in our understanding of relating to the disabled. 

As the father of a three and a five-year-old, I have watched my fair share of Thomas and Friends. It seemed harmless enough - and I guess it still is, in spite of this blog - and seeing that an Anglican priest wrote the books this is based on made me feel good about it. But a clear theology/philosophy creeped into the program through the years, and this became an outright assault on the senses as time went on. The show became obsessed with usefulness. A good engine was useful. A bad engine was wasteful, lazy, or didn’t share. Virtue, it seems, is totally wrapped up in one’s ability to be useful, for when Thomas was scolded for not being useful, he felt very bad about himself. Likewise, he was proud when he accomplished all that Sir Topham Hatt wanted for him to do. (A quick Google search revealed that several others have pointed this out. Here’s a nice piece.)

Is this what we want to teach our children? That usefulness is the highest ideal? I suppose at best this encourages children to be hard-working and/or helpful to adults, responsible even. In the worst light, it smacks of utilitarianism, eventually communism. The usefulness of a person to others is what gives them value in the eyes of society and when a person is not useful they should basically be ashamed. This, if actually believed and implemented, would naturally lead to the acceptance that “useless” or “inconvenient” newborns or fetuses could be destroyed. Certainly, this would put the physically or mentally disabled in the crosshairs as well. And don’t forget about the elderly who can’t pull their weight. They aren’t useful at all! Shame on them! 

I may be making a mountain of a molehill, and I know that every children’s program has one kind of emphasis at the expense of others. And even though a priest may have begun this program, it is now marketed to people of all stripes, certainly non-Christians who do not share a Christian worldview. And I don’t know if children actually pick up and internalize this sentiment. I still am hoping my children volunteer to be more useful around the house as they grow. 

Still, it’s not as though one episode was about the value of usefulness. The entire program is obsessed with it. And given the liberal lean of most in the media, I have to wonder after a while why this virtue is singled out above all others. Surely a “Christian” program, or at least one inspired by the writings of an Anglican priest, could point out the realities of suffering and the intrinsic worth of all trains, even those who cannot always be useful. As for me and my household, we’ll be mixing in some other programming to stave off my children’s inevitable march towards Marxism. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Sister Act Skewed Real Urban Congregational Renewal

If you’ve never seen Sister Act, you probably should. It’s funny and charming and relatively innocent. If you haven’t, here’s a three sentence summary: a lounge singer enters a convent while in the witness protection program, only to bring new life into a moribund, lifeless and hopeless religious community. Her zany antics revive the church and the neighborhood. What would they have ever done without that crazy lady hiding from the mob?! 

The film pokes fun at the stodgy order or nuns, but it is never particularly hostile to them. It’s not the fault of the nuns that their congregation is dull and dying. After all, they’re nuns! What could they possibly know about vitality in church life? Everyone knows nuns aren’t good for much but praying and slapping the wrists of delicate schoolboys. But for not being hostile and for only portraying the nuns as out-of-touch and not outright evil (or possessed by demons), this Hollywood film deserves credit.

As a pastor of a small, urban congregation, however, I often think about the subtle judgment this film offers on traditional ministry in the city. While I wouldn’t expect a Hollywood comedy to offer sincere insight on the struggles of inner city religious work, I do find the film to be typically American in all the worst ways. The underlying message is that you can’t expect old traditions to have value in the modern age. Times have changed. Chant is out, hip hop is in. If you don’t adapt, you die. In the film, it only takes 90 minutes for a dead church to become the life of the party, all thanks to this crazy sister who wasn’t afraid to buck the trend and shake things up. 

You have to ask if life isn’t intimating art. While I seriously doubt anyone would ever directly admit it, I would bet this film had a subtle - if not profound - impact on a generation of young pastors and church leaders. This film singlehandedly made hanging on to the tradition embarrassing and passé. Every pastor wanted to achieve what Whoopi did; no one would defend the previous life of the convent. 

In the 20 years this film has been out, there has been a revolution in the American church. The assumption is now that there is no room for the tradition in worship - especially in a city - if the church is to have a future. As Hollywood is the de facto culture shaper in America, there is little doubt that films like Sister Act have served as the template for how to do ministry: young, hip, and relevant are the defining hallmarks of nearly every major movement in the church, from the Postmoderns emergents to the megachurches to many black churches to mainline churches, and most of all, in church plants. 

When this film came out, these “worship wars” - which are really philosophical, cultural and missional wars - were still in their infancy. Today the war is really over, and the “contemporary” side has claimed almost total victory. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox continue to retain the historic liturgy. But in the evangelical and Protestant church, the liturgy is becoming obsolete about as fast as the nation itself turns from Christianity at large. (Yes, I know Sister Act took place in a Catholic community, but this was merely superficial in the film.)

What has helped me see this is several meetings with young mission planters who hail from traditional Protestant churches with deep liturgical backgrounds. But both regard liturgical worship as a hopeless ally in building a church of young men and women. They may retain the order of the liturgy - commonly defined now as Gathering, Word, Meal and Sending - but the music is guitars, djembes and the genre of praise. It has even been said to me, as though I might not take any offense at all, that our church couldn’t possibly reach the next generation of Christians and/or seekers, because no one could relate to traditional hymns out of a hymnal, chanted music, or formal liturgy. 

Of course, they may be right. But I’m not sure that’s a judgment against the liturgy as much as our expectations of future Christians. Following in the Sister Act mold, the mantra seems to be that an urban parish cannot possibly be attractive to those in their neighborhood without shaking things up and being iconoclastic. Because in America, we love iconoclasts, change and rebellion.

It’s just a shame that mission planters so rarely consider that in giving these urbanites what they want has created a competitive environment with the historic church. They have also exploited American consumerism in what should be a catholic and apostolic endeavor.

It isn’t the church’s job or calling to appeal to anyone. Persuasive? Yes. Welcoming? Sure. Liked? Maybe. But the church doesn’t have to appeal to anyone. The calling of the church is to be honest and to draw men and women into a formative process, wherein they are discipled. Their emotions and musical preferences have nothing to do with that process, at least not necessarily. And superficial changes to music also symbolize nothing, at least not necessarily. The church is supposed to form people into the image of Christ, people who freely choose to be conformed by the Spirit, not the world. 

Am I saying that contemporary worship is evil or that Sister Act is some kind of bane of existence for the church? Of course not. I am saying, though, that in subtly ridiculing the traditions of the church in the way it did, it made it almost impossible in its wake to be an urban parish holding fast to traditions. It has obviously become far easier to try to look cool than to defend the tradition, asking new Christians to learn from it and be formed by it instead of lampooning it for the new shiny thing. So while Sister Act may be a fine family comedy, it did nothing for those of us who aren’t yet ready to give up on men and women coming to church on its terms, not their own.