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.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

PROPHETS AND KINGS

When I first read the story of Micaiah and Ahab in the Bible many years ago, I could hardly believe what I was reading - not because it sounded too fantastic or unbelievable, but because it made me laugh.  Would God record a story so hilarious in His Word?  Apparently so.

Micaiah the prophet is only mentioned in one story in the Old Testament, but for some reason his story is told twice.  It's recorded in First Kings, chapter 22, verses 1-28 and in Second Chronicles, chapter 18, verses 1-27.  Both versions are essentially the same, with small variations in the details.  Read them both.

Though I still enjoy this story as a favorite, still see the humor and irony in it, and still see its relevance, I have found it even more relevant to our present situation in America.  If the reader will bear with me I'll try to tell it in my own words.

The nation of Israel had been divided into two separate kingdoms, both populated by the LORD's covenant people.  The northern kingdom still bore the name Israel, but had begun with an apostate religion, while the southern kingdom named Judah, had held on to the worship of the LORD, at least outwardly.  As our story begins, the kings of the two kingdoms had come together for some kind of conference, Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah.  We are told elsewhere something of what these two kings were like.

"Indeed there never was anyone like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, at the instigation of his wife Jezebel.  He acted very abominably in chasing after idols ..." (1 Kings 21:25, 26)

"Jehoshaphat ... walked in all the way of his father Asa and did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the LORD." (1 Kings 22:42, 43)

Though these two were clearly poles apart in their morals and religious beliefs their kingdoms had been united by the marriage of Jehoshaphat's son with Ahab's daughter.

Anyway at this conference, Ahab made a huge feast at which he attempted to persuade Jehoshaphat to unite with him to go to war with Aram (present day Syria) at a place called Ramoth-Gilead.  Jehoshaphat was in agreement.  "I'm with you; my people are as your people."  But Jehoshaphat wasn't quite ready; he said, "let's inquire for a word from the LORD."

So we're told that Ahab brought in about 400 of his prophets to give their opinions.  And of course, as religious leaders often do when given political prominence, these sycophantic soothsayers sucked up to this narcissistic king.  When he asked, "Should I go up to battle or should I refrain?" they all of course immediately assured him of victory.  Interestingly, at first they did not use the name of the LORD (Yahweh) but said, "the Lord (Adonai) will give victory," or "God will give victory."  Were they a bit afraid to cite the LORD as their source.?

Jehoshaphat seems to have been unimpressed.  "Wait a minute, isn't there a prophet of the LORD that we can inquire of?"  Apparently he was able to see through these phonies.
 
"Well yeah" said Ahab, "there's one more, but I hate him cause he never prophesies anything good about me, only evil" ("fake news?") His name is Micaiah Ben Imlah."

Jehoshaphat said, "Please don't say that your majesty!"

So Ahab called an officer to fetch Micaiah.  He knew where to find him; was he already in jail?

The officer told Micaiah that everyone was speaking favorable (flattering?) things to the king and that if he knows what's good for him he'll do the same. Micaiah simply answers, "What the LORD gives me is what I'll speak."

Meanwhile the 400 were going through their acts, reassuring Ahab that victory was his.  One change - they began to use the name of the LORD for their assurances.

So Micaiah, contrary to what Ahab was expecting, lays it on thick.  When Ahab asks him to give his opinion he says, "Go up to battle; you'll succeed because the LORD will give you victory!"  But though his "prophecy" agreed with all the others, Ahab was not pleased!

"How many times do I have to tell you to speak only the truth in the name of the LORD?"

Catch 22!  The king wants the truth!  The king wants you to say nice things!  How does one do both?  This sounds so -well - modern.  Truth is that which I want to hear.  Truth is that which reinforces my prejudices.  Truth is that which pumps up my ego.  And yet Ahab apparently knew that all his prophets were lying to him except this one lone man standing in front of him.  And he didn't care.

The story goes on. Micaiah then cuts loose with an account of his vision of the LORD and how the LORD is using Ahab's prophets to deceive him so that he would die in battle.  A heated dialog follows:  Ahab, Micaiah and one of the other "prophets."  Finally Ahab has Micaiah thrown in jail on bread and water ... "until I return safely."

Micaiah's final words were, "If you return safely then the LORD hasn't spoken by me!  Listen all you people!"

The story goes on.  Ahab, though attempting to keep safe by making Jehoshaphat his decoy, is killed in battle.  We're not told what happened to Micaiah; apparently he spent the rest of his days in jail on bread and water.

Though the story still strikes me as humorous, with a clown king who wants both truth and flattery at the same time when this is utterly impossible, it also is one of the best examples of a follower of the LORD who is unafraid to speak truth to power (albeit with a bit of sarcasm).

When I read stories in the Bible - or anywhere else - I often picture the characters as people I know or know of.  And I must confess that my picture of king Ahab looks a lot like Donald Trump.  And some of the prophets look a lot like the prominent "Christian" leaders who gather around him

We have a president whose concept of truth, like Ahab's is that which feeds his ego.  And sadly he has many "prophets" performing for him.  He has an advisory circle of preachers and televangelists who have apparently no effect on his  ethics or morals.  Some still tell us to "give him a chance;" some assure us that he's God's man; more and more excuses.

Are there no Micaiahs around?

Friday, September 29, 2017

SOME THOUGHTS ON HONORING THE FLAG

For years Uni and I lived in a two-story townhouse in Houston.  From an upstairs' window we could look down on the street behind us which was filled with neat single story homes.  In the yard directly behind us was a large American flag flying from a tall pole.  It flew day and night, rain or shine.  When we first moved in, the flag looked brand new - bright red, white and blue.  But as the years passed, the flag grew worn and frayed around the edges.  Then it began to turn gray.  Pieces of it seemed to disappear.  After more years all we could see was a worn gray rag flying from the pole.  It grew smaller and smaller until one day it was gone.

In the mall the other morning, we saw a pleasant looking middle-aged lady carrying an umbrella that looked like an American flag, stars and stripes and all.  It was wet and dripping from the rain.

We see people today wearing garments that appear to be made from American flags.  Even shorts, so they can sit on Old Glory.  We see flags waved in TV commercials, especially preceding national holidays, which seem to be becoming nothing more than opportunities for sales.

I suppose all these folks believe they are patriotic, honoring and respecting our flag by displaying it boldly.  Are they?  I don't believe so!  I was taught as a child and later as a Marine Reserve, that the American flag is to be treated with respect, even reverence. There used to be rules for its proper display.

And then there are those who display a Confederate battle flag boldly, sometimes right alongside Old Glory.  Displaying a flag that represents a traitorous rebellion against the United States does not seem to me to be honoring the flag.  And again these folks feel that they are patriotic. Are they?

Some - mostly African American - NFL players have refused to stand while the National Anthem is being played; some kneeled; some simply sat on the bench.  They said that they were doing this to protest injustice.  Many of their white teammates have joined them.  And these people were immediately condemned as dishonoring the flag, often by those same persons who had dishonored the flag in the ways mentioned above.  They were even called SOBs by our President who said they should be fired!.

I suspect that this sort of righteous indignation is not only pure hypocrisy, but it is fueled by racism.  The men who kneeled were not dishonoring the flag but demanding the "liberty and justice for all" that that flag stands for.

I believe the flag is to be respected.  I still stand for the National Anthem, but I also believe that those who kneel have every right to do so; in fact, I believe they are honoring the flag much more than those who treat it as a rag or an article of clothing, or an umbrella.  I suppose that someday I may find myself kneeling with them.

But while the American flag is to be respected and honored, it is honored for what it stands for, not as a salute to "the military" as many contend.  Nor is the flag to be treated as an object of worship.  It should have no place in a church sanctuary.  It should not be wrapped around the cross.  I believe that when we confuse our Christianity with some sort of display of "patriotism" we are committing blasphemy.

Jesus demanded that we love Him over every other human relationship (Matthew 10:37).  I would think that includes our country and its flag.  He demanded that we take up our cross and follow Him (verse 38).  He didn't tell us to take up our flag.

Monday, September 25, 2017

I SAW IT ON TV!

As I watched television Sunday afternoon and evening, I was struck by how much the various and diverse programs seemed to strike a common theme.

First, there were the news and sports broadcasts and especially the scenes of NFL players kneeling or locking arms as the National Anthem was played, accompanied by the rants and name calling by our President , who claimed that any SOB who did not honor the flag should be fired (apparently forgetting that Melania more than once had to push him to place his hand over his heart as the National Anthem was played). Many athletes and even team owners shot back.

Then I watched "60 Minutes."  In one segment Oprah Winfrey had gathered 14 people to discuss our President and their thoughts on how he was doing in office.  Seven of these had voted for Trump and seven had voted against him.  Though there was a bit of civility, especially at first, it didn't take long before the discussion grew pretty heated.  Oprah seemed amazed! It seemed to me that she  must have been of the conviction that if we could just get folks together to air their opinions we would somehow achieve some sort of unity.  Such was not the case!  However, we were later given the assurance that some of the participants continued to stay in touch with each other.

Then I watched the 6th episode of the PBS series on the Vietnam War, entitled "Things Begin to Fall Apart."  This one was about events in the first half of the year 1968. The news coverage of the horrible violence and bloodshed of the two Tet offensives was changing the thinking of the American people and opposition to the War was growing.  General Westmoreland, whose solution to the conflict was simply to send in more and more troops, was relieved of his command.  President Johnson was in a quandary as to the solution.  He of course blamed the divisions in America over the War on negative press coverage.  (Sound familiar?)

The saying in the 1960's and '70's was, "America is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War!" The saying in 2017 is, "America is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War!" I don't know which "now"  saying is more correct; the divisions and divisiveness in our nation are hard to quantify.

During the First World War (the "War to End all Wars"), this phrase was coined, "The first casualty, when war comes is truth" (Senator Hiram Johnson).  I've seen this in the wars that were fought in my lifetime, including the current ones.  But while war may trigger bigger and bolder untruths, we now live in an age when truth seems to be no longer relevant, when "truth" is whatever anyone wants it to be, when "truth" and "opinion" are synonyms.

Oprah's - or anyone's - desire for "unity" is an impossible dream as long as people hold to their own versions of what is true.  I could see her amazement, almost hear her bafflement as she questioned her panel.  Some of the participants seemed to have little regard for facts; their opinions and feelings had become truth for them.

And we have a President who makes up "facts" and even contradicts himself in the same sentence.  I believe Mark Shields, the political commentator hit it right, "I mean, it was said that George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie, and Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth.  Donald Trump is truly the president who can't tell the difference."  And not only is he "truth-challenged," he spouts out hateful racist and misogynist remarks, and calls people whom he doesn't like or who threaten his ego by derogatory labels.

Yes, untruth and divisiveness have always been with us; America has always been divided, but today we have these traits and actions promoted as virtues by many - from the President on down.  Even Lyndon Johnson agonized over the divisions in our country; Donald Trump revels in them.

What I've been saying is nothing new; it's been said before.  I have no solution for the problems in our nation, nor does anyone else.  But I believe that we who know and claim to follow Jesus Christ are hit with a great challenge - the challenge to really be "a city on a hill," to be "the Light of the world."

We need to pull ourselves away from political parties and cease identifying ourselves with them or with certain political viewpoints.  We need to cease giving our allegiance to a man - to stop defending and endorsing the indefensible rants and actions of Donald Trump.  We need to seek to ascertain what is really truth - the facts - not simply to accept as truth whatever agrees with our personal feelings and prejudices.

Above all, we must seek to live as followers of Christ.  We must seek to build our behavior on the standards of the New Covenant as revealed in the Bible.  We must seek to build our ethics and our politics on Biblical standards.  We must be different.

Will this bring about unity? It can! Not unity of the people of America, but of Christ's church.  Will we all agree politically?  It's doubtful.  But we should be able to discuss our differences and together seek to bring them under the Lordship of Christ.  And maybe others "will see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven" and we might become agents of change.