Saturday, November 18, 2017

IN DEFENSE OF A NAME

"But if you are called an Evangelical Christian and boast in God ... being confident of yourself that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, having a form of knowledge and of the truth in the Bible.  You then who teach the other, don't you teach yourself?  You who preach not to steal, do you steal?  You who say don't commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  For God's name is slandered among the unbelievers because of you ..."
- Paul the Apostle (Romans 2:17-24 - I changed a few words.)

An accused pedophile is a candidate for a Senate seat from the state of Alabama. Numerous women have come forth with allegations of his attempted relations with them when he was in his thirties and they were teenagers.  We are told that he was banned from the local mall around the same time, because of his coming on to teenage girls.

Many of his constituents are defending him in various ways, besides blaming the liberal news media, the Democrats and the establishment Republicans.  A couple of the weirder defenses are:
            "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter, so what he (the would-be senator) did was no different."  (There is no mention of Joseph's age in the Bible, nor any mention of his being a carpenter at that time; and he didn't have sex with her till they were married and she had given birth to Jesus.)
            "This man is being 'persecuted like Jesus Christ.'"

Of course. the late night comics are having a great time with this and even the more serious newspersons seem to have problems keeping from rolling their eyes.  But, whether comics or newspersons, whether of the left or right, all refer to him and his supporters as "Evangelical Christians."

This title of course is nothing new in the public discourse.  "Evangelical Christian" is understood to be a voting bloc of the extreme right.  They stand for "values," "family values" and extreme moralism.  They are opposed to gay marriage (actually anything to do with homosexual behavior), abortion and birth control.  They want to "bring America back to God."  They are often seen (by friend or foe alike) as angry.  They feel they are being persecuted.

Wait a minute!  I object!  I have for many years considered myself an Evangelical Christian and I take exception to the accepted descriptions above!  I do not want to be identified with these.  I know that some who once would have referred to themselves as Evangelical Christians, have dropped the name, and I confess that I have been tempted to.  It's difficult having to explain that I'm not one of those guys.

So I believe we need to look at the history of these two words.  First the word "Christian."  This word is only used three times in the New Testament.  And it is not a name taken on themselves by the followers of Christ.

The first usage is in Acts 11:26:  " ... and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."  This was a formation of the name "Christ" and meant something like "followers of Christ."  Before this they had never had the label pinned on them.  The church in Antioch was the first church with a large number of Gentiles (non-Jews) and the label was apparently given by non-believing Gentiles to this new group.  It may have been a name of contempt, or at least disdain like the term "Jesus-freak" back in the 1970s.

The second time we encounter this word is in Acts 26:28.  The apostle Paul had been imprisoned for over two years with no clear charges made.  Finally he had made an appeal to the supreme court of his day, to Caesar himself.  Porcius Festus, the Roman governor scheduled a hearing to determine his actions and called in Herod Agrippa II to aid him in his determination.  Paul in making his case and giving his testimony began to preach the death and resurrection of Christ.  Though Festus accused Paul of being crazy, Paul pressed his case to Agrippa (who of course claimed Jewish ties.)  "King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets?  I know that you do."  And Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian" (Acts 26:27, 28). Again, this may have been a contemptuous use of the word. Agrippa couldn't  escape the logic of Paul's argument and so, as many do today, resorted to sarcasm.

The third use of the word is in 1 Peter. Peter in this letter is urging his readers to "Keep your behavior excellent (or beautiful) among the Gentiles" (2:12a).  He admits that "they slander you as evildoers" (2:12b).  And then he tells them, "if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.  By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evil-doer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God" (4:14-16).

The label was apparently used derogatorily by those outside the faith in New Testament times and continued to be used that way for some time; to be a Christian was even considered a crime.  All this changed with the legalization of the faith by Constantine and somewhere the word Christian became a word used with pride.  If we fast forward a thousand years or so, we find that the word had become an adjective.  All Europe had become "Christian," if only in the cultural sense.  Today much of the world, including America considers itself Christian.

And what about the word "Evangelical"?  Well the earliest use I know of is from the 16th century.  It was originally used of the followers of Martin Luther and then spread to the other Reformers.   It seems to have been essentially synonymous with "Protestant."  But the roots of the word go way back before the word Christian, even before the Christian era.  It is derived from the Greek word euaggelion, which means, simply "good news" and is found around 75 times in the New Testament.  Also used in the New Testament are the words euaggelizomai, "to tell or proclaim the good news" and euaggelistes, "a bearer (or preacher) of "good news."  (By the way our English word "gospel" - god spell has the same meaning.)

Though the word "evangelical," like the word "Christian" has become more of a cultural term in Europe.  In the United States it has kept much of its original flavor

My Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition defines evangelical in a number of ways, but I believe the following definitions describe how we have historically understood ourselves.

"Evangelical:  1) of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel esp. as it is presented in the four Gospels. 3) emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual."

There is no mention of a voting bloc, or of anything political.  I'm sure the 12th Edition will correct that oversight?

So I will continue to refer to myself as an Evangelical Christian.  And I will use it in the sense given above.  I am a Christian - a disciple - a follower - of Jesus Christ.  I am an Evangelical - one who has been saved by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and who believes in the authority of Scripture.

To my friends and others on the right:  Please make sure your Evangelicalism has to do with your faith in Christ and your desire to live by the authority of Scripture and not with your Pharisaic moralism or right wing politics.  Please try to live your lives by the example of Christ and the leading of the Spirit.  And when you fail please don't make excuses, don't hesitate to repent and confess your sin.  And please don't accuse your accusers; don't play the martyr!

And to my friends and others on the left:  Please recognize that there are many Evangelical Christians who attempt to live as Christ would have them live.  And when you see or hear of some who call themselves Evangelical Christians but fail to live up to Christ's example, remember that we, like you, are still imperfect sinners.  And when you see some who are behaving in open hypocrisy , if you must label them as Evangelical Christians, at least put quotation marks around the label! 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

THOUGHTS ON RACE BY AN OLD WHITE GUY

Nine years ago, on November 3, 2008, the United States elected our first African American President, Barack Obama.  Uni and I were overwhelmed with excitement that Tuesday evening as we watched the acceptance speech of the man we had voted for.  We had been ministering across racial lines for years and had felt that in our own small way we had made some contribution toward what was then known as "racial reconciliation."  We felt that Barack Obama's election was a great step forward for our nation and the church in America.  We soon found out that we were overly optimistic in our assessment; in  fact we found out the very next evening as we attended our (all white) church's Wednesday evening service. 

We had mixed emotions over the negative comments we heard; our joy became mixed with grief and anger.  What we had seen as something beautiful was perceived by many in my (white Christian) circle as something ugly.  By Friday I had assembled my thoughts enough to publish the following post which I am here republishing in its entirety:

IS GOD STILL ON THE THRONE?

Back in 1960, I was a fairly young believer and attending what I regarded then as a Bible-preaching church. It was an election year, my first in which I’d get to vote for president. The Democrat candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic was running against Richard M. Nixon, a Quaker and well-known Communist hunter.

Meetings were held at various churches, fundamentalist and others, including the one I attended, denouncing the evils of Catholicism and foretelling the horrible dangers that would befall our Protestant nation if Kennedy were elected. Not only was He Catholic, but also a liberal!

Rumors were circulated by mail and tract (I wonder what would have happened if we’d had the Internet).

Well, of course, all of us true believers voted against this horrible evil, but to no avail. Kennedy won! Fear struck our hearts! America was doomed! But few, if any, of our fears were realized.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for election, rumors were spread, only now we have the Internet.
-- He’s a secret Muslim.
-- He’s an Arab.
-- He “pals around with terrorists.”
-- He’s not even an American.
-- He’s going to promote gay marriage.
-- He’s going to take our guns away.
-- And, of course, he’s the anti-Christ!

And a few truths:
-- He’s a liberal (so were the signers of our Declaration of Independence).
-- He’s black (actually, he’s mixed-race)!
-- His middle name is Hussein.

The evening that Obama gave his acceptance speech huge crowds gathered in cities across the nation. Uni and I were moved to tears when we saw the images on our TV screen. Blacks and whites embracing; tears rolling down the cheeks of older black people.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, after the demise of Jim Crow (our American version of apartheid), an African-American was elected President of the USA. We felt it was a great moment in the history of our nation, a demonstration that “all men (really) are created equal.” It was truly historical. Here was a moment all Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, whether black or white, no matter whom they’d voted for, could celebrate.

But such was not the case. Instead, we were told by our Christian friends (and others) that the reactions we witnessed were the same sort of reactions that the anti-Christ will get when he appears; that America may no longer be a “Christian nation” (whatever that is!). A friend of mine was told that the second coming must be near because of this.

This strange mixture of fear, eschatological zeal, far-right politics, and I believe, downright racism is unbecoming to those who name the name of Christ.

And even those who claim that they are not afraid say something like, “Well, we have to remember, God is still on the throne.” Apparently though in their thinking, the throne is wobbling and God is barely hanging on!

Our God is Sovereign! He reigns! He sets up rulers and takes them down. He has a purpose in setting up Barack Obama. Perhaps the church through this will learn a little more tolerance, as some of us did 48 years ago.

Bill Ball
11/7/2008

Knowing that very few of my friends and acquaintances read my blog, I felt that I needed to get these thoughts out to as many as I could,  so I e-mailed it to everyone in my address book.

I waited in fear and apprehension for the replies.  Though only a small number replied, I felt relieved when I read them.  Very few were hostile;  some expressed agreement;
some even seemed to share my feelings; most of them expressed what I at the time optimistically considered "qualified agreement" (See:  YES HE IS.)  I now feel that I was incorrect in this assessment.  Today, as I re-read these replies I understand most of them as attempts (sincere or insincere) to be irenic or conciliatory, perhaps out of respect (or pity?) for me.

I believe that the last nine years have demonstrated that my early optimism was misdirected.  We have made little, if any, progress toward racial reconciliation in America and in the church;  in fact I fear that we've actually gone backward.

For the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency we saw animosity toward him running high, and I strongly believe that much, if not most of it was racially motivated.  Why else would congressional leaders state that their goal was to see him fail?  Why were there so many conspiracy and "birther" theories?  Why the increase in the number of racially motivated and white supremacist hate groups - the Klan, the neo-nazis?

And the situation has not improved since Barack Obama left office.  Racism now seems to have become official American policy.  White supremacist groups are more open and even accepted. And the church at best looks the other way.

Many of my white Christian (and other) friends will sincerely deny that all of these people and actions are or were racially motivated. Perhaps some weren't, though I suspect that many people are simply refusing to look inside.  We fear what we may find.

Uni and I are brokenhearted!  And please do not accuse me of being "political."  This is not simply a matter of politics, but a matter of right and wrong.  It's a matter of the church being the church, of actually loving our neighbors.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

WOMEN, MEN AND JESUS

It seems that lately we are being regularly subjected to reports of sexual misbehavior of prominent men.  Women are becoming more and more open to relating tales of sexual abuse by men, especially those in authority or power over them (These are only the latest.):

            A network executive.
      
            A network commentator - one who has often spoken with "indignation" of the misbehavior of others.

            A beloved comedian - one who has in the past been held up as an example of "family values."

            A movie mogul.

            The President of the United States - who has boasted of sexually assaulting women and calls it simply "locker room talk."

            And, of course, various lesser personalities - politicians, preachers, coaches.

Sadly, while women are seemingly becoming bolder and more open to tell - even to bring lawsuits - this masculine behavior itself is nothing new.  I can remember hearing boasts from my high school acquaintances and fellow office workers. We tend to accept this behavior as "just the way things are."

But while this may be "the way things are," it's not the way things should be!  And when it gets close to home, when we hear or read reports even from those women dear to us, then perhaps it's time for us men to examine our own attitudes as well as our behavior toward the "opposite sex." Are we behaving as though we lived in a patriarchal society. Do we condescend? Do we regard women as somehow simply there for our own pleasure and convenience? How should we behave toward women? What is the proper Christian view on a man's treatment of women?

I've been leading two Bible studies at our church.  One is a study of the family in the Book of Genesis, which I've entitled, "Dysfunctional Family Values."  We've been looking at man/woman and family relationships in this book and find the characters just as broken as those of today.  I've studied and taught this book before, but this time I was hit with the frequency of the appearance of tragic (abused?) female figures:

            Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, forced to have sex with the aged Abraham and to become the "surrogate mother" of his child, only to be rejected and driven away into the desert.

            Leah, the unattractive older sister forced unloved into a polygamous relationship.

            Dinah, the 11th of 13 siblings and only girl. Raped and then given in marriage (apparently without her consent) by her brothers who then slaughter her husband and all his family.

            Tamar, who lost two husbands and then resorted to prostitution, and after being impregnated by her own father-in-law, threatened with death for becoming pregnant.

And again we tend to accept these stories as "just the way things are."  After all, the society of those days was patriarchal.

But my other Bible study is in the Gospel of John.  It is here we find the One who treats women with respect and dignity, at times revealing truths about Himself to them that He had not even revealed to the 12 men in His inner circle:

            The Samaritan woman he meets at the well - a woman considered by Jews as of an inferior race and a false religion - a woman who had apparently been bounced from one man to the next and was currently on her sixth.  Besides breaking tradition by talking to her, Jesus asks to drink from her water jar, breaking taboo after taboo.  It is to this woman he reveals that the worship of God is a spiritual matter not to be confined to a particular location. And He told her that God was seeking such worshippers. God was seeking her!

            The woman caught in adultery, brought to Jesus as a test case. After silencing and sending off her accusers ("Let the one without sin cast the first stone.") He turns to her and asks "Where are your accusers?" and sends her off with assurance that He does not accuse her.

            Mary and Martha whose brother Lazarus, Jesus raises from the dead. It is to Martha he makes the amazing claim, "I am the Resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even if she dies..." Then he personalizes it with, "Do you believe this?"

            Later it is Martha's sister Mary who anoints His feet with expensive perfume. And Jesus defends her action to Judas and the others.

            His own mother Mary, for whom He takes concern even while dying on the cross.

            And, of course, Mary Magdalene, the first person to whom he appeared after his resurrection in a tender moving scene.

I don't believe we men need a book or a list of rules telling us how to relate to women. I believe we simply need to follow Jesus' example, to ask, "What would Jesus do?" - and then do it!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

FANTASYLAND

Kurt Andersen, the author of Fantasyland - How American Went Haywire appears to believe he's put his finger on why we in America think and behave the strange way we do.  When I first started reading the book, however, I had mixed feelings.  While I felt that this book brought out some accurate analyses of American culture, I also felt like I was sitting around with an old curmudgeon who was mainly complaining about America's slippery slide.  I felt that the book would be best subtitled, "A Cynic's Guide to American History."  However, as I continued I found it a fascinating read and felt compelled to carry on through its 400 plus pages.

Kurt Andersen has impressive credentials:  a novelist, a contributor to The New York Times and Vanity Fair, a host on Public Radio and many others.  He is well-known as a cultural critic.  Andersen claims somewhere to be an agnostic and has a low view of Christianity, which he feels is based on fantasy.  This, I feel, is actually rather encouraging, because if a book such as this were written by a Christian, it would probably be ignored by most, except for the Pat Robertson types.

The thesis of the book is pretty clear and is brought out in the title:  we in America live in a fantasy world and have been moving in that direction since the beginning.  Interestingly, though our modern situation with a president who treats his office as that of a reality show host and who appears to have little understanding of truth is the epitome of "fantasyland," this is not where the author begins.  In fact, he lets us know that he began his studies and writing long before the Trump era.

He credits (or blames) the beginnings of this slide with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (hence the subtitle "a 500 year history").  By making "belief in the Bible's supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus ... the only prerequisite for being a good Christian," Luther started people on a course of believing whatever they chose to.  "The footings for Fantasyland had been cast." (page 17)

The settlers of America come next; they are of two kinds:  the gold-seekers and the heaven-on-earth-seekers, i.e. the Puritans.  Both believed a fantasy; one group believed the fantasy that wealth for the pickings was to be found in America; the other that some sort of Millennial Kingdom could be built here.  And both were wrong.

And so we continue through the history of our nation.  Credit is given to those of our Founding Fathers who were "reality based," such as Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. The Enlightenment is not seen as a step in the right direction; rather it "gave license to the freedom of all thought ... the absurd and untrue, as well as, the sensible and true:"  The Great Awakening religious revival is a step backward into fantasy and led to even greater fantasies, such as Mormonism and the other weird religious movements of the early 19th century.

And on it goes from P. T. Barnum and the snake-oil salesmen to the California gold rush and on into the 20th century, the Fundamentalist movement and so on.  The hippy movement.  Always underlying much of his history are his digs at the "fantasies" of Christianity.  It's a discouraging history.  The red scare.  The plethora of conspiracy theories.  The economic bubbles.  Even liberal intellectuals with their post-modernism making truth optional and personal, subjective rather than objective.

Then there are the Hollywood versions of Fantasyland:  Disneyland and all its imitators.  The X-files.  Though these make no claims to reality, we are less and less able to tell where reality leaves off and fantasy begins.

And we finally end up in Trump's America, dominated by "alternative facts" and "fake news" and Fox News.  An America where "truthiness" is more pleasing than truth.

So how do we Christians take this book?  I suppose many, even most of my fellow believers will either ignore this book, write it off as the rantings of an agnostic curmudgeon or resent it as one more attack on the faith.  For sure, like many unbelievers, Andersen at times shows little knowledge of the Christianity he attacks.  And yes, he himself appears to have his own fantasy bubble.  As one reviewer said, he suffers, in short, from "the fantasy of the intellectual that of all the rival systems competing for our attention, his alone is reality-based."  (James Bowman in The Weekly Standard quoted in The Week, 9/22/17).

And yet I believe that this is an important book for any Christian communicator, for a number of reasons, the first being, as Robert Burns said long ago, "to see oursels as others see us."  And this should lead to confession of our complicity in the decline in thinking in America.  Andersen sees any belief in the supernatural as fantasy thinking and while we may not be able to prove him wrong to his satisfaction, we can at least attempt to rid ourselves of the fantasies that cling to us: imaginary miracles, supposed signs of the second coming, reading all disasters as signs of God's judgment, the prosperity gospel, seeking solutions to our moral problems in immoral political leaders.  At times (most times?) we who consider ourselves orthodox appear just as loony as the rest.
Also - though unwittingly - Andersen's book illustrates some truths that are essential to our understanding of the  faith:  the doctrine of original sin ("the only doctrine of Christianity that is empirically verifiable."), as well as humankind's propensity toward religious and superstitious error.  Or as the Apostle Paul said, "they (humankind) became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened."  (Romans 1:21)

And this book teaches us the danger of uncritical thinking.  Of all people, we who are committed to the One who claimed to be the Truth, should also be committed to discerning the truth in every claim and to not be eager to follow the path to Fantasyland.