Thursday, January 29, 2015


[NOTE:  Most of the following thoughts were written before I wrote my post FRANCIS & CHARLIE.  In that post I strongly disagreed with Pope Francis on a particular issue, but that disagreement does not negate what I have to say here.]
Pope Francis is undoubtedly the most popular living human in the world.  Just being the head man of the Roman Catholic Church would automatically qualify him for that label, but his popularity goes way beyond that granted to him by those of his church.  He seems to be a man who takes his position seriously - who is striving to be the representative of Jesus on earth.  And he is admired for that.
A few years ago I could not have imagined myself saying the above words.  After all I'm a Protestant - and from a "Fundamentalist" background.
My mother's side of the family was Roman Catholic.  She had come to this country from Austria as a child with her parents and older siblings.  Roman Catholicism was part of their culture, even though most members of her family were non-practicing.  So it had little religious influence on me.  I had never considered myself a Catholic.
When I committed my life to Christ it was in a fundamentalist Baptist church.  In this sphere, Roman Catholics were not consider "saved"; the Catholic church was "apostate" and my early attempts at witness were often aimed at refuting Catholic doctrine.  In my studies of the Scripture and theology, I came to even greater disagreement with Roman Catholicism.  I found the doctrine of transubstantiation to be not only unbiblical but logically bizarre.  Putting tradition on the same level as Scripture, the exaltation of Mary and the saints were also problematic.  I still believe these are incorrect teachings.
Gradually, however, as I grew as a follower of Christ I began to realize two things.  The first was that while correct theology is important, the theology I had been taught was often laced with rigid legalism and not all those who were properly "saved" were living out their salvation as Jesus and the Bible taught.  Second I found that many whose theology was in my understanding, deficient were living out their salvation in Christ-like fashion often more so than many of my fundamentalist friends.  So my fellowship with brothers and sisters became less bound by theological or denominational restrictions.
Then along came the "Religious Right" - a political movement.  At first it consisted of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals opposed to various perceived moral evils in society - primarily abortion and homosexuality - but soon this movement was joined by other groups of similar moral persuasions - Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons and others.  To some, myself included, this was puzzling; how could these groups, often at each other's throats, unite without compromising some basic theological convictions?
Though many of the issues with which the Religious Right were concerned were certainly serious moral issues, their big mistake was in assuming these moral issues could be dealt with through political means.  In order to achieve their goals politically they united themselves with the political right and in doing so found themselves wed to other issues - the issues the Republican party holds sacred.  (See:  SHE'S A GOOD HEARTED WOMAN.)
So now the Roman Catholic Church has a pope whose moral pronouncements are sometimes opposed by many American Catholics.  He still holds to the essential Catholic doctrines; he is still opposed to abortion; he apparently still believes that homosexual behavior is sin.  So why is he opposed by many American Catholics even while he is beloved by most other Catholics and is accepted by many non-Catholics?
Well, for starters, he extends the forgiveness of Christ toward sinners - even homosexuals, divorced persons and others.  If that's not discomforting enough, he speaks against the death penalty, he speaks against the evils of capitalism (not capitalism itself); he speaks against the imbalance of wealth; he preaches responsibility in caring for the environment in the face of global warming.  This flies in the face of the positions held by the right.
And so he is opposed by American Catholics as well as Evangelical Protestants, though not on theological grounds or moral or ethical grounds based on Christian teaching.  He is rather opposed by those who base their morality and ethics on the tenets of the Republican Party.
However, I suspect that those of the secular (and religious) left will soon grow weary of Pope Francis as well.  He has already shown himself extremely conservative on many moral issues.  As I mentioned above he still opposes abortion and homosexual behavior.  Extending grace and forgiveness to those one considers sinners is not the same thing as endorsing their behavior.  He has not ex cathedra begun to revise the Roman Catholic Church's position on divorce or birth control.  I doubt he has a desire to do so even if we'd like him to.  He is not as many on the left seem to want to believe, one of them.
And so I find myself, while still theologically an Evangelical and still in disagreement with many Roman Catholic teachings, siding more and more with the Pope than with many Evangelicals and Catholics.  He wants to be like Jesus.  I think I do too.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Uni and I just saw the movie by this name.  It tells the story of Alan Turing, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest mathematical minds who ever lived.  But his story is not merely the dull story of a brilliant mathematician; it is the story of a man who is credited with saving millions of lives and bringing WWII to a close two years earlier than it might have been.

Along with other men of genius, Turing was recruited by British intelligence to crack Enigma, the German code, which changed daily.  The main body of the movie tells the story of his struggles with his superiors and co-workers in his plan to build a computing machine that could accomplish this task.  Of course, as is well known, he did just that; his "Turing Machine," as it came to be known - a monstrous device with whirring wheels and gears - cracked the code and became the ancestor of our modern computers.

This, however, is only one part of his story.  The movie actually begins in the 1950's with a police investigation into a robbery that occurs in the home of the eccentric professor, which uncovers some strange secrets.  Turing's life and struggles are shown through a series of flashbacks, not only to his work during WWII, but also to his preteen experiences in an all-male boarding school.

Alan Turing as played sympathetically by Benedict Cumberbatch, comes across as an odd, antisocial eccentric.  Though a brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst and logician, he has no social skills.  He seems unable to understand normal human communication.  And we find out through the three parallel tales that he is a homosexual.  As a preteen in the boarding school, he is mocked and harassed by his fellow students simply for being "different," and he turns in love to his friend Christopher - the only person who understands him.

The police investigation ultimately reveals his condition and Turing is arrested as a pervert under the existing British laws of his day.  Apparently no consideration was given to his heroic acts during the war; they had never been made public.  At the close we see him as a confused sickly man, no longer able to function, alone with his beloved machine, which he knows as Christopher.  He was being chemically castrated - a choice forced on him as an alternative to prison.  A note at the bottom of the screen tells us that he committed suicide shortly thereafter.  And another note tells us that years later he was posthumously pardoned by the Queen.

As Uni and I drove home still wiping tears from our eyes, we both agreed that this was a great, though tragic story.  I even mentioned that this was a genuine tragedy in the same sense as the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies; it contained all the required elements.  Just to be sure, when I got home I looked up "Tragedy" in my old copy of The Reader's Companion to World Literature (1956, 1973, The New American Library).  It is described there as "a type of drama in which the chief character undergoes a morally significant struggle which ends disastrously. ... In Greek tragedy (and in most great tragedies written since) the hero is essentially a superior person and is treated sympathetically; his destiny or choice is to go down fighting rather than submit, and thus to pluck a moral victory from a physical defeat.  The hero's recognition of his role and his acceptance of his destiny constitutes the climax of the tragic structure.  His 'tragic flaw,' as Aristotle calls it, is some defect which helps to involve him in ruin, for the spectacle of entirely undeserved suffering would be merely depressing. ...  Ironically, the noblest efforts of the hero involve him in guilt and lead to his misery.  The struggle may be between one character and conflicting forces which he can in no way control.  In the greatest tragedies, however, there is also conflict within the character himself ..." (pages 529-30).  This description is an almost perfect fit with Turing's story as presented in the movie.

I suppose some of my evangelical Christian friends would moralize.  They might see this movie as advocating homosexual behavior.  I admit that I had a bit of that fear myself before I saw the movie.  It doesn't!  In fact, the only sexual reference that I found offensive was a crude heterosexual joke told by one of Turing's co-workers.  I believe that this little bit was added to show how Turing was totally oblivious to the meaning of this type of humor.  No, the movie doesn't advocate homosexuality any more than Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King advocates incest.  Nor for that matter, are the countless biblical tales of rape, incest and murder, advocating these acts!

I believe that this movie is the type of movie Christians should see.  It takes us outside of our box and shows us the struggles and feelings of some of our fellow fallen human beings and should arouse empathy rather than condemnation.  And it should also arouse compassion for those who are "different."

To use Aristotle's words, it should be a "catharsis," causing us to "thrill with horror and melt with pity."  And it'll give you a good cry.

Monday, January 19, 2015


I have been observing Pope Francis over the two years he's been in office and have admired him almost from the beginning.  The other day I finally sat down with my yellow pad and wrote out some thoughts which Uni and I discussed.  Uni types them and publishes them on the blog.  She had not yet done so when not long after this, she awoke me from napping during the evening news.  She informed me that I might not want to publish the post I had written; Francis had just said some things I may not like.

Well we got online and found his comments about the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.  Though he had previously condemned the act of violence, he now apparently felt that he needed to do a little "blame the victim."  And though he seemed to be attempting to be congenial, he rather came across as crude.

Some of his talk:  "You have an obligation to speak openly.  We have that freedom.  But without causing offense.  It's true we cannot react violently, but if Dr. Gasbarri here, a great friend, would say something insulting against my mother, a punch awaits him.  But it's normal ...  You cannot make provocations.  You cannot insult people's faith.  There is a limit ..."

So is Francis correct?  If so, is he justifying the behavior of the Islamic terrorists?  Is he making the religious views of others off limits for satire?  Much of our humor in America seems to be composed of just that.

Perhaps he has forgotten that many Christians, including Roman Catholics are suffering, even being put to death in Moslem lands.  Their crime?  Blasphemy - insulting the Prophet Muhammad by claiming that Jesus is greater than he.

Or has he forgotten that during the Middle Ages and the Reformation, those of his own church tortured and put many to death for speaking out against them?  Is he justifying their actions?  And yes, Roman Catholics suffered at the hands of zealous Protestants?

Or perhaps he has not read of the Old Testament prophets who mocked the competing "faiths" of their day?  Isaiah draws a verbal cartoon that is definitely a lampoon of the idol worshippers of his day:
          "The ironsmith takes a cutting tool ...  The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil.  He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass.  He shapes it into the figure of a man ...  He cuts down cedars or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak ...  Then it becomes fuel for a man.  He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread.  Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it.  Half of it he burns in the fire.  Over the half he eats meat ...  And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol and falls down to it and worships it.  He prays to it and says, 'Deliver me, for you are my God!' ... No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, 'Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten.  And shall I make the rest of it an abomination?  Shall I fall down before a block of wood?'"  (Isaiah 44:12-19 - ESV)

There are plenty more where this came from!  Of course, the prophets frequently suffered the same kind of holy wrath that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo suffered.

Move into the New Testament.  How about John the Baptist referring to the religious people of his day as a "nest of snakes"?  (Matthew 3:7)  Wasn't he mocking their faith?

And then Jesus used that same expression at least twice on those same religious people (Matthew 12:34; 23:33).  In fact, the first 33 verses of Matthew 23 are filled with scathing pictures of those religious people of Jesus' day - the same religion that Jesus belonged to!  The hyperbole and metaphors He uses bring up pictures in the readers' minds that could be perceived as cartoons.
          " ... they make their phylacteries (Scripture boxes they wore on their foreheads and wrists) broad and their fringes long" (Matthew 23:5).
          " ... you travel all over land and sea to make one convert and whenever he converts you make him into twice the son of hell you are" (verse 15).
          " ... blind guides ... " (verse 16).  Elsewhere He says, " ... if the blind guides the blind, they'll both fall in the ditch!"  (15:14).
          " ... straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel" (23:24).
          " ... you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence!"  (verse 25).

And of course we know where this kind of sarcasm got Jesus.

I've been warned by nice people of all persuasions - fundamentalists, atheists and others in between - that sarcasm and satire should not be used, that it signifies a weak argument or that it is hurtful.  Sometimes I simply reply, "Tell it to Jesus" or "Read the Bible" or "Read any good literature."

Our American culture is filled with sarcasm, satire and lampooning.  Admittedly much of it may seem crude and tasteless, though you may want to read Ezekiel 16, where Israel is compared to an old whore who is so undesirable that she has to pay her "lovers."

In many ways the cartoonists and late-night comedians of today fill in the space that was once occupied by the prophets.  They point out to us the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of our politicians, pundits and preachers.  Most of their sarcasm is spent not on our faith but upon its practitioners, and much of the time we deserve it and could even learn from it.  Sometimes they seem to understand the requirements of our faith better than we do.

I even attempt satire at times, though apparently I'm not succeeding very well; I've received no death threats!

Friday, January 2, 2015


Occasionally in conversation, correspondence or reading, I come across sayings like, "I used to be a Christian," or "I was raised as a Christian, but ...," or "Back when I was a Christian ...."  This seems to happen more and more often lately.  In the past people might have referred negatively to "church" or something like that, or spoken of their "church background" (such as "my grandfather was a preacher" or "my grandmother was religious").  I don't recall people often speaking directly, either negatively or positively, of Christianity itself as something in their past.
Times have changed.  Those who refer to themselves as "Nones" on religious surveys comprise the fastest growing "denomination" in America today.  I can understand that.  Those who never made a profession of faith of any kind are bolder today.  But when people claim that Christianity is something in their past, I am troubled.

First of all, I have a theological problem.  The Bible tells us over and over that those who are followers of Christ - those who have put their faith in Him - are chosen by God.  We're even told that this choice was made in eternity past, long before we born - "before the foundation of the world."  Did God make some wrong choices?  We're told that we've been "born again."  Can a person get un-born?  We're told that we're secure in God's hand and that "no one can pluck (us) out."  So based on my understanding of the Bible and the theology derived from it.  I'd have to conclude that the "used-to-be Christian" either never was in fact a Christian in the biblical sense, or that this person still is, but is for some reason denying it, perhaps even to his or her own self.  We're not always able to tell the difference.  Ultimately only God knows.

I recognize that there are those who believe that a believer can "lose his salvation" and that this dispute has been going on for nearly 2,000 years.  I don't desire to enter here into a theological debate with my friends of that persuasion.  I believe that what I'm speaking of is a different matter that should trouble them as much as it troubles me.

So who are these who claim that Christianity is something they once held to but have since turned away from?  I believe that there is no single profile of the "used-to-be Christian."  The profiles that follow are from my own experiences with people I have met or read.  I am not attempting to be judgmental.  If I offend any reader, I ask you to please let me know.

I suppose that for a great number of used-to-be Christians, Christianity was assumed as part of the family tradition.  Their families attended church regularly or occasionally.  They may have attended Sunday school or catechism class.  They were labeled by some denominational title.  They were culturally Christian and as they grew older, they simply turned away from something that was never internalized.  This turning away may have come about for any number of reasons or any combination of reasons:
·       Dogmatism of the parents or church leaders, possibly accompanied by an inability or unwillingness to answer disturbing questions.
·       Perceived hypocrisy - a "do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do" attitude on the part of those parents or leaders.
·       Some traumatic event or events that occurred, especially if tied to the religious environment.
·       Intellectual problems - an insistence that Christianity has to be tied to ideas that contradict current scientific (or perceived scientific) data.
·       A study of comparative religions that reveals similarities and seems to negate the exclusiveness of Christianity.
·       Legalism - the insistence that Christian behavior must be confined to burdensome rules and seemingly senseless regulations.
·       Political positions - these are, to many, so directly tied with their Christianity that when a political view is abandoned the accompanying faith is jettisoned as well.

I recognize that there are many other factors.  And yet there are many who have experienced many or all of the above factors and more, and have not rejected their faith in Christ.  Some have actually grown stronger in faith in spite of - or because of - any or all of these (I would place myself in that group).  Some too have abandoned institutional Christianity without claiming that Christianity is a matter of "used-to-be" (I've found myself at times close to joining that group).

I also recognize that "used-to-be" can simply be a debating technique, a sort of protection from having to listen to Christian witness.  Christians want to tell unbelievers stories about their conversion.  Unbelievers can counter with their stories of "un-conversion."  It can just be about winning the argument.  But I don't think this is usually the case.

I am not writing this to win an argument.  I do not in any way feel that my faith in Christ is threatened by any of the above factors or arguments.  But they do trouble me and I would like to know more about used-to-be Christians.  So I'm asking any readers who can make that claim or who share my concern to send me their stories.  It can be done as a comment on this post or more privately by e-mail.  Just click "contact me" above.  I will not share any private comments without permission.