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.