Thursday, March 27, 2008

Is Forgiveness of Sins the Crux of Christianity?

What is it exactly that is at the heart of Christianity? What is the one issue that defines this faith above all others, that makes its adherents believe it to be so true and full of good news? As a pastor, I wonder often what those in the pews need to hear the most. Do they need to hear that their sins are forgiven? Do they need to hear about the Kingdom of God? Should I focus on their context – affluent America? Or maybe how to become a better person, one curtained bad habit at a time, is what they need to hear. One issue, for sure, has come to be seen as the crux of Christianity more than all others: the forgiveness of sins. This act of love, made possible by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is, for many Christians the central, and almost the only focus of the faith. It was central to Jesus’ teaching, and is even part of the succinct teachings of the Lord’s Prayer and the Words of Institution. But once convinced of this fact, where do we go from there?

There’s a number of reasons that this prominent theme of the faith could use some vetting. For starters, this is an intellectual fact for the believer. You know your sins are forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is in your mind, and hopefully, it finds a place to reside in your heart as well. But once one generally comes to understand the concept of sacrifice, of the way Jesus takes our place because he, as a sinless man, is the only person who can stand before God on our behalf, most people pretty much accept that. While this is the core message for the Billy Grahams of the world (or preachers without a congregation), for most pastors and congregations this is Christianity 101.

But what does the forgiveness of sins actually look like? This is the bigger question that must be answered, especially given the somewhat awkward reality that before the concept can be preached, you must first convince someone they are a sinner. And there are two cultural norms that make this difficult.

1. To tell someone they are a sinner is not exactly the best way to hit it off with a non-believer. But if forgiveness of sins is the crux of the faith, then that’s where one must start. I wouldn’t be particularly attracted to a faith that first had to convince me of my guilt, only to offer the solution. This is a business-like equation – “you have a problem, I have a solution” – I find lacking in the real life-giving power of the gospel.

2. In a postmodern context, sin is relative, and it may actually be quite hard to convince someone that they are truly a sinner, much less, that they need to be relieved of it.

Essentially, if this is only what Christian faith is about, it relies on this beginning block: to preach this word, you must convince them of their sin first. Certainly, we are all sinners, and to live in denial of that fact is tragic. But making it the banner headline of faith will likely be Greek to people who aren’t aware they sin to begin with. I can just imagine missionaries traveling the globe, or Christians speaking to a neighbor, and making this the beginning point of their evangelism. There’s certainly nothing theologically wrong with it. It just strikes me as rather unappealing.

In other words, how many of us go to church with this question on our minds: “How do I get these sins of mine forgiven?” I would say very few. The question is likely more like this, if I had to guess: “In my mind, I know my sins are forgiven. But why don’t I live like it? What difference does it make?”

Forgiveness itself is a rather esoteric concept. The idea that a man (and a divine man at that) took punishment and experienced death in my place must be a foreign idea to many. The idea that we are not justified by good works is clearly counterintuitive, even to many Christian Protestants, who live as though our salvation does not depend on “alien righteousness” as much as good behavior. (This is one of the truly delicious ironies of the Reformation’s aftermath; it is many Protestants who give lip service to, but reject in daily life, the concept of justification by grace through faith.)

In addition to forgiveness, there are other major themes of Jesus’ teaching and preaching that can be lifted up. The Kingdom of God/Heaven, for example, is a constant theme of the New Testament. Yet, I rarely hear pastors, myself included, really talk about what this means today for us, especially given that we live in a free democracy, not a kingdom. Or joy as a part of life in the Spirit…this was one of Jesus’ main thrusts in the Gospel of John. The theme of reversal is heavily present as well, as in the beatitudes (Matthew 5), or in many of the parables about the Samaritans, among others.

Let me be clear. Cheap grace is the most abhorrent theological tenet the liberal mainline churches face. And at the heart of it, Jesus preached about, and died for the forgiveness of our sins. But the goal of the church, I don’t think, is to dwell on this fact, at least as a mere fact. While it should never be ignored, the church must take the question further, to push the congregation to ask, “So what? So what if my sins are forgiven? What difference does that make?” When the answers start to flow, the real preaching has begun.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tunnels and Skybridges: Street-killers or an Enhancement to City Life?

Dallas can be often insecure about itself. Many people in my home city seem to feel that their city gets no national respect nor is it the recipient of much aprobation from outsiders. Maybe I get this impression from hanging out with my own kind too much, such as other architects who love to bloviate more about the problems of cities than about the art of building. Admittedly, many architects are stimulated by idealized images in their minds of the perfect place to be in. Some are so confident as to what makes a great place that they are often willing eliminate essential means of transport (cars) and modes of building to achieve their goal. As you can imagine, bring up the topic of Dallas to a bunch of designer and urban planning types it will almost always be met with groans. For these people, Dallas can do nothing right and is guilty for having ignored all the valuable lessons of sound city planning.

For young designers fresh out of school, Dallas is an unattractive place to begin one's career. Its image embodies little of the urban values they were taught at school. As I have recently learned from my experience trying to recruit new graduates from architecture school, Dallas does not have a desirable 'cache'; it is not 'hip' and the only major reasons a person would consider moving there are mostly pragmatic (its low cost of living and affordable real estate, its abundant job opportunities and good wages, etc.) Although they offer scarcer jobs, inflated housing costs, and even fewer parking spots, cities such as Boston, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle adhere to the principles that, to them, makes great places to live in. They also presume that such cities are much more hospitable to progressive (i.e. not exclusively functional) design.

In contrast to those much older and beloved cities, Dallas is distinctly twentieth century. Except for the historic core which spans several blocks, most of that city's fabric was developed after the main-streamed use of the car. Its structure and scale is reflective of an anti-pedestrian auto-dependent approach to city planning. There are many neighborhoods with no sidewalks and driving on its seven-lane boulevards criscrossing the city ensures swift point-to-point travel. It has experimented and applied many of the innovative urban planning ideas that emerged in the early twentieth century, ones that endorsed the Modernist notion of breaking away from historical tradition. Urban spaces would be scaled for the automobile, from the abundant freeways and wide traffic arteries, to large half-acre residential lots beginning not far from the city center and even larger more minimal iconic office towers. Classic notions of the street from the point of view of the pedestrian, such as the proportions of buildings to sidewalk, the engagement of storefronts, more welcoming hardscape and landscaping and the placement of residential units within downtown blocks were almost completely neglected for a span of about fifty years.

More interesting are the kind of distinctly twentieth century urban fads that Dallas did embrace. Downtown Dallas features an extensive underground city, with labyrinthine tunnels connecting many of the major office towers as a subterranean network of pediestrian 'streets'. There are also numerous skybridges that especially tie together all of the major office and hotel towers in the eastern half of downtown. Together they enable a person to walk through a great swath of downtown without ever going outside. They represented less a complete rejection of the traditional street than an supplementation of it beyond its normal spatial limits of a ground plane framed by buildings on both sides. A remnant of piecemeal efforts from local building owners to maximize leasable area add thru-traffic at the base of their properties, sympathizers of the tunnel argue that it was a practical response to the long hot summer days where temperatures average above 90 degrees for about 6 months out of the year, since no one seems to want to go out in the heat in their business suits.

In spite of the ignorance of most Dallas residents who do not work in the central business district, thanks to deliberate efforts by city officials to never mention they exist, the tunnel and skyway network is the lifeblood to convenient life downtown. All kinds of retail and restaurants are located in the tunnels, including large food courts catering to every taste as well as shops that sell opticware, office supplies, tax consulting, pharmacies, haircuts and even massages. National chain tenants are more likely to be found underground than on the street, which is defined mostly of independent family-owned delis that are often run-down and struggle to fill their tables. Unlike the stampede of office workers that pack the downtown sidewalks at lunch hour, Dallas at the street level is by comparison nearly a ghost town. A quick ride on the lobby escalator going to the basement level reveals where all the people went, as long queues of people form outside many of the eateries, and packs of working women put on their sneakers to do their walking exercises during the lunch break. This is not a 24-hour city by any means, since everything closes at 6 in the evening, but it is quite efficient, since the businesses open only for the predictable rush of foot traffic and close as soon it ceases for the day. For new workers in the central business district, the tunnels and skybridges are a revelation and quickly take advantage of the convenience, even though few explore the extent of the tunnels beyond their building. Not having to deal with the elements and not having to look out for cars and wait for red lights makes the tunnels an attractive option when trying to meet some simple needs quickly.

But they also suck the life out of the street. After many years of standing by and observing the continued commercial success of the tunnels, city leaders are determined to restore to prominence the relatively vacant street storefronts. Lovers of cities such as the planners and concerned architects encourage a policy of either ignoring the tunnels or outright demolishing them. It is hoped that the rapid growth of residential living in downtown (where it has become common to convert long-vacant office buildings into apartments) will help revitalize street-level businesses and achieve the ideal of a 24-hour neighborhood. The city government actually subsidizes a grocery store to ensure that this crucial amenity will attract more downtown residents. It seems obvious that the tunnels make it twice as difficult for street-level businesses to succeed. With the fundamental unit of the urban experience (the street) having been euthanized by an invisible network of secret tunnels, the disgruntlement of urban planners and architects is justifiable.

Dallas at the beginning of the twenty-first century finds itself trying to catch up on some belated classic urbanism after having permitted a few of the more modern alternatives to thrive. An urban renaissance of sorts is indeed currently taking place with numerous constructions cranes dotting the skyline. Pockets of open-air walkable districts have recently been built or are on the drawing boards. It has allocated tremendous resources into establishing a fairly extensive light-rail sytem in the hope of generating tranportation oriented development (TOD). Urban parks are being planned (including one to span over a major freeway underpass) with its overlooked drainage ditch of its central waterway, the Trinity River, being due for a major transormation into a supposedly world-class park system. Most Dallasites welcome these changes, even as the inevitable improvements in liveability will only continue to gentrify the city as a whole at the expense of the middle and lower-middle class.

In trying to ensure that these plans succeed, it is still important to consider why the extra-urban systems like tunnels and skybridges seem to work well and remain popular to local downtown workers and even residents. In particular when, even though tranditional urban life is trending in the positive direction, it is still struggling to establish itself. Apartments and condominiums continue to sell slowly, with some proposed new towers being put on the shelf due to a lack of committed tenants. Convenience is important in attracting downtown dwellers, especially when it fosters an advantagious ease of mobililty. It's hard to beat a pedestrian pathway that is air-conditioned year round and that transcends the sometimes frustrating coexistence with car traffic and urban noise. Since they are private, they bypass much of the urban riff-raff and no obstacles such as construction fences, litter or tripping hazards. It very much is reminiscent of the early Modernist obsession of the separation of uses, of eliminating the unpleasantness city life, of isolating pedestrians form car traffic. Visionaries like Le Corbusier (the interior street in the sky), Sant'Elia and the filmmaker Fritz Lang all envisioned a future where people would perform many of their pedestrian functions in enclosed paths and spaces in multi-functional giant buildings while leaving the rest of the car/ship traffic to physical or virtual super-highway systems.

The dynamics of the 'unpleasantness' of the city has indeed changed, as contemporary cities are now much cleaner now that the traditional nuissances are more regulated. Street-life has become sanitized to such a degree so as to become appealing to many people. It's obviously a benefit to city dwellers to be able to enjoy the street. But it is in my view an additional benefit to make use of tunnels and skybridges, in that they add an additional dimension to urban life with regard to innovative ways of circulating and connecting blocks together. They provide an important additional choice in how one moves throughout a dense area and the degree to which convenience and time becomes a priority. They also supplement new perspectives, allowing the pedestrian to view the kind of things that are visible only from a bridge as compared to a sidewalk, or to explore and discover a secret world below ground. To better enhance this choice, I would favor that the tunnel systems and the street complement each other rather than compete as they currently do. By expanding the choice of mobility and experiences, it will distinguish Dallas from other cities that rely on streets. It is this very complexity of paths that make life in the big city rich in experiences but also liberating in their ease of mobility.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Mr. Obama's Neighborhood: An Inside Look at Hyde Park, Chicago

Now that we have ample time to consider exactly who Barack Obama is, I’ve been compelled to revisit my old stomping grounds: Hyde Park, Chicago. Known for being home to controversial figures like Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson and institutions like the University of Chicago, Hyde Park is also the most dense center for theological education this side of Rome. The prestigious University dominates the neighborhood economically, culturally and politically, having essentially taken the neighborhood over since the 1960s and housing thousands of students, professors and staff. And Hyde Park can boast to being one of Chicago’s truly unique cul-de-sacs, a mixture of history, beauty and eclecticism, an attempted safe haven surrounded by the seedier parts of Chicago’s South Side. But at its heart, Hyde Park is a paradoxical neighborhood, promising intellectual rigor and diversity on the exterior, but still falling prey to a tired ideology born in the 1960s on the interior. I couldn’t define Obama’s politics any better.

I recently lived in Hyde Park for 3 years while attending seminary, and generally enjoyed my time there. I taught guitar lessons at the University’s private school, I tutored professor’s students, and I studied theology with students from a host of schools. I got to know the neighborhood, and through work, many of its residents as well. To say the least, it is a very liberal neighborhood, standing out even in a liberal city like Chicago. There was certainly no shortage of visible support for prominent Democrats like Barack Obama, as when he ran against a hapless Alan Keyes in 2004. It was not uncommon to see pictures of Hyde Park residents posing with him at University or neighborhood events. And as I mentioned before, several African-American activists and politicians grace the neighborhood within blocks of each other, notably Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, and Carol Moseley Braun, who ran for president in 2004.

To me, this can offer wonderful clues about the neighborhood. Though the University did its best to polish Hyde Park’s image, I found the neighborhood to be heavy and defensive, a place of constant and unspoken tension, especially among the races. My wife, a friend, and my roommate all experienced this tension separately as eggs were thrown, guns were drawn, and bottles were hurled. There were frequent urgings not to walk along 53rd Street alone as gangs were choosing random white males to beat, presumably as part of a gang initiation ritual.

Suffice to say, the neighborhood was not a safe one. And who should have expected it to be? While million-dollar homes and condos were the norm in Hyde Park, poverty of the worst sort surrounded it on every side, save for Lake Michigan. This irony was what many conservatives have come to expect: the liberalism so often championed by professors, politicians and theologians within the street boundaries of Hyde Park and practiced by Chicago’s politicians did nothing to alleviate the real suffering around it. Consequently, the violence and tension spilled out into Hyde Park’s tree-lined streets. Even Carol Moseley Braun was not immune; she was mugged at her home before a University students ran off her attacker in 2006.

The predominant theology in this heavily theological neighborhood was liberation theologies of various stripes. (If you’re not familiar with the term, liberation theology is a highly political and social view of Jesus Christ and his redemption. It is championed by the poor and by minorities who hold poverty and oppression as virtues, for which Jesus had special appreciation). In Hyde Park, it was black liberation theology that was the norm, although queer (this is the politically correct term), Hispanic, feminist, and womanist theologies demanded attention as well. But the black liberation theology gives us the most real insight into Hyde Park’s most famous resident, Barack Obama. It is this theology that defined the culture of Hyde Park in the 1960s, a decade Hyde Park has had trouble leaving. And it is this theology that dominates his own church, several miles south of Hyde Park on 95th street. (Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, received his Doctorate from my seminary.)

To put it simply, Hyde Park is a racially-driven neighborhood. It prides itself as a neighborhood that fights white authority and prestige. Whites are seen as a great impediment to black improvement and the cause to the problems to begin with. It is whites who have invaded the neighborhood and populated its university, usually with presumed snobs who have the money to afford the U of C to begin with. Ironically, the academics that do this (as a professor, Obama would have be considered a part of this) do so with the financing and intellectual protection of the largely white university system.

And I believe this defines Obama as well. While he has shrewdly and masterfully run a campaign that transcends his race and plays into white guilt, he is at heart as racially-driven as his neighborhood of choice. His wife’s thesis demonstrated this, Obama’s controversial church demonstrates this, and if he is anything like Hyde Park and the general culture of the University, there’s no denying that race is one of his most notable motivators. You would think a neighborhood that was home to Milton Friedman for 30 years would have learned to think more objectively; in fact, Obama and company in Hyde Park are predictably and ideologically leftist.