LE Blog General

Am I my brother's Keeper?

We try here at LiberalEvangelical.org to avoid knee-jerk reactions. So often our immediate impulse, when faced with shocking events, is simply to lash out in an emotional and habitual manner. We strive to avoid this kind of impulsive action, though I’m sure we sometimes fail. All of us sometimes fail.

When the Arizona shooting occurred, I fought the impulse to run to my keyboard. Many other commentators did not, and I can understand the fact that many of them work on deadlines that do not apply to me so I won’t offer recriminations. Recriminations abound in our society, adding to them seems fruitless.

But I’m glad that I had the opportunity to think and listen for a while before responding.

As both of my loyal readers know, I’m not a terribly partisan fellow. I’ve voted for Republicans, Independents, and Democrats in my voting life. And as this blog has shown over the years, I’m interested in politics primarily as a source of lessons and metaphors regarding the challenges of living with difference. I look to the political realm to help me reflect on the ecclesiological world: How can we worship and work together as a single Body of Christ even as we maintain our doctrinal, social, and stylistic differences? With this in mind, I can’t and won’t respond directly to the tragic deaths and injuries in Arizona. Any second hand analysis that I might offer would be useless. Instead, I’ll merely talk about personal responsibility and re-ask Cane’s questions, perhaps the most profound question ever put to God in the Bible. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Unlikely Headline of 2011…”2011, The Year of the Moderate”

Like many of you I had a little extra time this past month. I listened to some new podcasts and radio shows and TV news shows as I shopped for gifts and did some home improvements. What struck me as I encountered nearly a dozen “year end round up” type news programs was the fascination among pundits and analysts with President Obama’s impending “move toward the middle.” The consensus among Conservatives was that Obama, fresh from licking November’s electoral wounds, would attempt a Clintonesque tack toward the right in the hopes of reclaiming momentum among independent voters in time for the 2012 elections. Liberal commentators agreed that such a move was likely and spent considerable time thinking of ways to keep pressure on the Whitehouse from the left.

But “the middle” was also a topic that came up over and over as political prognosticators looked toward a 2011 in which GOP Presidential hopefuls will announce their candidacies and establish offices in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Yes, they all recognized that the right leaning folks like Huckabee and Palin will garner big headlines, but the serious analysts were perhaps more interested to see which Republican moderates might emerge as candidates and suitors of moderates and independents. In other words, would the GOP field include a candidate who might plausibly fight President Obama for the independent—read non-ideological—voter?

Among the gems I (re)discovered over the holidays was KCRW’s “Left, Right and Center.” It’s an interesting show, and noteworthy in part because it doesn’t ignore the possibility that there might be interesting opinions in the Center. In one of their recent shows they discussed the problems of centrist politics and the notion that perhaps the middle is not itself a distinct place but is, rather, simply as a location between the two ideological extremes. The name of the show tells you something about what the panel decided, but it may be worth our time again as Liberal Evangelicals and Moderate Christians to reconsider the question of what it means to be a Moderate.

The challenge is that the middle doesn’t seem to offer its own content in politics or doctrine!  It seems merely to be a locale identified by what it isn’t. My father-n-law’s culinary specialty is “refrigerator surprise.” He takes all of the leftovers, puts them in one dish and microwaves them…SURPRISE! Of course the dish tastes as bad as it sounds and even if it’s composed of two or more delicious meals, a mere mishmash of these once great tastes is much worse than the sum of their parts. What do moderates offer beyond “refrigerator surprise?”

We offer an emphasis on process, dull, often uninspiring process. Let’s get inspired again!

Did Mary and Joseph ever have to put him in "Time Out"?

My boy doesn’t like Mark or John primarily because he doesn’t like how they begin. There are no birth narratives! Luke may be doubly exciting since we hear about both John the Baptist and Jesus as babies—twice the fun! Think for a moment about this odd fact. 50% of the Gospels tell us nothing about Jesus’ birth. Imagine if 50% of the Gospels didn’t have anything to say about Jesus’ death and resurrection, how would this effect our view of Easter? As a religion and as a culture strongly associated with a particular religion, we Christians and Americans love Christmas, and our love for this most sentimental of holidays is predictable. A good friend of mine from my grad school days has a new book coming out just in time for Christmas: Revelation of the Magi: the Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem. Brent Landau has always had an ear for popular culture and I would be shocked if his book doesn’t fly off the shelves and into stockings across North America. We love Christmas, not just because of the lights, food, presents, food, vacation days, food, and did I mention the food!? Even if Christmas were only a sacred holiday, even if it were entirely purged of its secular accretions, we would still love it because at its heart lies a tender story of an infant.

This will not, however, be a tender post. I want something from the Gospels, something that they aren’t giving me. I want to see Jesus the toddler, Jesus the teenager, and Jesus the young adult. Mark and John aren’t actually all that different from Luke and Matthew when you think about the insight they give us into Jesus’ growth and maturity as a literary character. Matthew and Luke jump almost immediately from the manger to the mature man gathering followers and preaching the Kingdom of God with only brief stops in Egypt and Jerusalem for anecdotes. They don’t give us the full story either. It’s like someone took the biography of Jesus and ripped out the middle chapters. Where is the character development! Hamlet didn’t return to Denmark and immediately kill his uncle, why the rush to the climax and dénouement of the Jesus story?

I’m certain that there are many good theological reasons for the narrative intermission in the Gospels, but I’d like to take some time to re-imagine some of the missing chapters. Maybe we can learn something or at least reconsider the meaning of the Christmas stories in the process.

What follows are several fragments of lost chapters of the Gospels…

GREAT NEWS LIBERALS! DEMOCRATS WON in a landslide! Small print disclaimer to follow...

logoIf we only counted the youth vote (read: the potential votes of those who didn't come to the polls this past election day), the Democrats would have laid a solid whoopin' on the Republicans. Oh, but that's a big "if." The data is as frightening as it is clear. Young folks clearly prefer Liberal politicians and policies, they just don't prefer them enough to make the trek to the polls. Weary Liberals everywhere knit their brows and turn to the young and ask, "WHY?"

The young don't vote. It's a dependable fact. And so politicians see no real need to listen or pander to the wishes of the young. "Get back to me," they argue, "when you've got a mortgage, a few kids, and a reliable record of turning out on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November." If the youth of this country would vote, Liberals would almost always win. So why don't they?

The world is full of professional pollsters who can answer the above question better than I, but I do see some common trends in youthful behavior that lead simultaneously to low voter turn out and low church attendance among the young. Young folks (I guess I'm beyond that category now, sigh.) tend to see only immediate consequences and insofar as politicians and churches deal in distant benefits and delayed gratification, the young are having none of it.

"Keep the Christ in Christmas and the Hallowed in Halloween!"

logoAs a good Pentecostal-Evangelical child I remember my horror at seeing signs for "X-mas trees," but also my disappointment at missing Trick-or-Treat so that we could be at the church for a more wholesome candy-based celebration. My parents weren't the kind of Evangelicals who panicked when "the world" trod heavily on Christian holidays, but I certainly knew many kids from Sunday school who were forbidden to talk about Santa or to hunt for Easter Eggs. My mother's style was much more subtle. She simply wore a small "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" pen and did not worry about

duck-rabbit/santa-jesus"X"ing out Christ when spelling X-mas. Among many Evangelicals there was and still is a real paranoia about having distinctive Christian practices watered-down by the surrounding culture. Watch Fox News for a few hours and see if you don't hear the phrase "War on Christmas." Why the paranoia and is it justified?

To the extent that a super-tiny minority of radical-secularists would like to see our society purged of religious references and content, there may be a war on Christmas, but it's about as threatening as the movement to get us all to speak Esperanto. I think something else is going on here. Evangelicals are worried about a far subtler danger, but we don't often do a good job of recognizing that danger or articulating a solution. What we're actually worried about is as assimilation. And some historical perspective might help us along the way.

"Conversing about Conversos" or "How to tell if you or the President are crypto-Muslims"

logoThe world is uncomfortably sloppy. We want clear lines but we frequently get muddied borders and blurred boundaries. We want black and white and get an infinite variety of grey (or is it gray? See what I mean!) We long for simple narratives of good and bad and clear rules. 65 mph is ok, 66 is speeding! But frequently the universe refuses to acquiesce to what David Tracy calls our "blessed rage for order." And we demand this order of the universe and ourselves most emphatically in our religious stories. Look again at Exodus 19. Just before Moses receives the 10 Commandments from God we have several passages about the sacred mountain. Touch it at the wrong time and you must die, but when the trumpet blows everyone should run up on the mountain. Here is the world cut, dried and arranged into clearly defined realms: Sacred and Profane.

This sort of clarity may not necessarily be a bad thing. Perhaps such clarity is a fine aspiration, but when the real world we face is ambiguous and we try to force an ambiguous world into our simple categories, we do violence to the world and lie to ourselves. I think most readers of this blog can agree with these general claims. The challenge, as usual, comes with applying this logic to our lives as Evangelicals. And the wingnuts who argue that President Obama is a trojan-Muslim aren't helping much either.

Evangelicals and Muslims, who do we think we are?

logo First, a plea for pity.

As the blogger here at LE.orgI'm faced with the task of constantly sifting the religious and political news and thinking about how I might thoughtfully respond. I try to avoid spouting off and often purposefully stay away from events and ideas that create particularly emotional reactions in me. If I react quickly, I find that I react emotionally and uncritically and there is already plenty of uncritical and emotional content out there on the web.

I write this only to let my loyal readers (Hi mom!) know why it is that the Glen Beck rally on the Washington Mall, the Tea Party and the Lower Manhattan Islamic Center have not yet received comment. Additionally, I have decided not to speak in depth about the plan by some Evangelical to burn copies of the Koran on September 11. I find that it is best to let the furor surrounding these events die down so that I might formulate a moderate response. As Liberal Evangelicals I think that most of us value a more circumspect approach. I know I do.

So today I'm going to venture into these troubled waters, but I hope to do so with a self-critical eye. And so, with that as prologue...

A specter is haunting Evangelical discourse and it is one we should all be familiar with: hypocrisy. I don’t mean good old fashioned “say one thing and do another” hypocrisy. That is too easy to spot to worry me much. There is a deeper form of hypocrisy pervading our discourse and it is all the more dangerous because it wears the mask of modesty. I’m talking about the ways in which we define ourselves and the methods we sometimes use to characterize others. I guess it’s sort of a “plank vs. mote” issue, but I’ll have to use a few examples in order to make my point. Hang in there with me for a paragraph or two and see if you don’t agree.

Reimagining Judas One Pint at a Time


logoIt’s hard to believe that the two year anniversary of one of my favorite brewing days is almost here. On August 24, 2008 I brewed a 5 gallon batch of a beer that would come to be known as “Election Wheat.” I planned to allow the beer to ferment and age for the three or so months leading up the Presidential election and enjoy it on tap as my wife and I watched the election returns come it. For my fellow home brewers I’ll include the recipe below, but as I prepare to remake that recipe in anticipation of the 2010 mid-term elections I’m struck by the tremendous shift in the political winds that a single year can bring. “Yes we can!” ® “No we can’t.” “Drill baby drill!” ® “Spill baby spill.” “The Democratic Party” ® “The Tea Party” “It’s the Economy Stupid!” ® “It’s this Stupid Economy!”

Have we as a nation really done a 180° or are we just half way through a full 360°? Have we decided that we really do miss President Bush? Should we pull out and dust off those old “Don’t Blame me…I voted for Bush” bumper stickers. These questions haunt me, but I can’t quite bring myself to think that we as a people are so schizophrenic that we would elect a professed Liberal to the Whitehouse, only to turn around two years later and repudiate that same Liberalism. Now, maybe we will do just that with our votes. Maybe the first Tuesday after the first Sunday in November 2010 will swing the Legislative branch back in a Conservative direction, but I doubt that this will tell us very much about the long term ideological arch of our country. I don’t think the nation is suddenly swinging in a conservative direction. Rather, I think we’re simply seeing an inevitable yo-yo reaction to change. Just as a young kid runs off from mom and dad to explore the new world and then runs back to familiar arms whenever she encounters something new, we may be simply freaking out about this strange new world that Obama is leading us into and are retreating to the protective and Conservative arms of mommy and daddy. This is an inevitable reaction to Liberalism. Liberalism brings change. Change is frightening, so we react by retreating: two steps forward, one step back (I’ll stop now before I go on quoting Paula Abdul.)

With this psycho-social dynamic in mind, I present you with a purely fictitious re-imagination of Judas. What if he was just scared? What if he followed Jesus because of his vision, but then "freaked out" as he saw just how radical Jesus' vision was? What if Judas simply reacted as many of us do when we are faced with too much change too fast--he became frightened and lost his nerve? He took the coward's way out.

Loonies on the Left, Wingnuts on the Right…Whose responsibility are they?

logoMany, many years ago, when I was a young boy in Kentucky, I had my first real encounter with someone who had lost touch with reality. This event happened at a video store in Florence, KY and it was so long ago that the video store was still an actual video (VHS) store. Our family was on the way into the store to rent some harmless Disney production in the Old Yeller genre when a woman asking for money to use the payphone approached my father. She had, she claimed, broken down in the parking lot and needed to call for help—note please that these were also the pre-cell phone days! The First Tea PartyDad gave her some money, mentioned something to us boys about always helping a lady in need, and we went on our way. However, when we later returned to the car Dad noticed that the woman he had just given money to had gone into the video store and rented a tape. We then proceeded to watch from the car as she approached another man and his family and asked him for money. My father was livid and he shouted to the other man to hold onto to his cash. My father confronted the woman, asking why she had lied to him about “needing help” with her broken down car and before he could get two sentences out she went into a full blown tirade.

“How dare you accuse me of lying! I am a member of the -------- Pentecostal Church and I know you when I see you Satan! Get thee behind me!”

She went on like this for some time, invoking the name of a well-respected local church and its pastor and accusing my father of being the Devil, arisen from hell to confront her here on the sidewalk in front of the video store. Finally, when it became apparent even to me as a grade school child that this woman had only the loosest of grips on reality my father walked to the payphone and called the police. The woman then ran to her (miraculously?) operating car and sped off.

The fact that I still remember that incident all these years later is testimony to the profound effect it had on me. Dad assured us that he would still continue to help strangers and contended that there were worse things than being conned out of a few bucks. But the other thing that stuck with me was the fact that my dad made it a point to contact the local minister whose name the disturbed woman invoked and let him know that someone out there was misusing the his name and besmirching the reputation of his church.

In light of recent events, I ask you, what kinds of responsibility do we bear for the behavior of those who do evil or harm in our name? What responsibilities do we have for the actions our governments do in our name? Most importantly for us here at LiberalEvangelical.org, I ask, must we or can we answer for those who do harm in the name of Christ and the Church?

Answers? I have none, so I’m legitimately asking for your help in thinking this one out, because recent events in American politics are thrusting this same question to the forefront.

What Does "Winning" Mean?

logoOne of my favorite sports writers, Dan Shaughnessy, recently penned a piece for Sports illustrated where he tells about some of the old time ball players and how much they cultivated a sense of hatred for their rivals. They would avoid engaging one another socially in order to keep one thing clear: these men are not my friends, they are my rivals and my job is to destroy them on the court, the field, or the diamond. Shaughnessy’s point, of course, is that this attitude has largely disappeared from professional and even college sports. Almost all pro players are members of the millionaire’s club, so they have much more in common with one another than they do with any of the common schlubs (myself included) who attend their games and buy their jerseys. With this new attitude dominating the professional leagues, it should come as no wonder that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (rivals a few months ago) would collude to form a partnership in Miami for the sake of “winning.” Why the scare quotes? Because I’m not sure that “winning” means any more, and judging by the attitude of many of our most "successful" churches, I think many Christians are having similar difficulties.

Reflections on the Life of Senator Robert Byrd 1917-2010

As the blogger here at LiberalEvangelical.org I often find myself in conversations with Liberals and Evangelicals who cannot understand how and why I am willing to identify as both a Liberal and an Evangelical. When I talk with Evangelicals, many of whom are conservative, I point to the life of Jesus and many other markers along the history of Evangelical Christianity to defend my identification with the goals of Liberalism. However, when I talk with Liberals, especially secular Liberals, I find that many of them want me to explain the value that I see in religion. Why, they ask, need we be religious, much less Christian and Evangelical? Today I turn to the life of the late Senator Robert Byrd as an example.

I'll cut right to the point. I do not have the miraculous power--a power President G. W. Bush once claimed to have--of looking into a person's soul, but I know that a religious conversion can lead to a radial change, so radical that Jesus called this kind of change being "born again." I don't know that Senator Byrd was born again. I don't know anything about his religious life, but I do know that over his career in the U.S. Congress as a Representative and a Senator from West Virginia he went from being a leader in the KKK and an opponent of the Civil Rights Movement to being a champion of Civil Rights and a leading Liberal voice in the Senate. He served for 58 years and over that time underwent a nearly complete transformation.