Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Courage and intolerance

Not being a follower of professional basketball I had never heard of Jason Collins or Chris Broussard until today. Yesterday NBA veteran Collins broke new ground by "coming out" as a gay man. This was almost universally hailed as the brave and courageous act of a civil rights pioneer. But then ESPN commentator Broussard showed what real courage looks like by appearing on ESPN's "Outside the Lines" and forthrightly stating his belief that homosexual sex is called sin by the Bible, and that the unrepentant practice of same is incompatible with following Jesus. From the immediate reaction it appears these views are too outside the lines for even OTL.

I haven't watched the interview, but I've read the transcript of his remarks, and as far as I can tell Broussard didn't advocate stifling Collins' ability to use his platform as an NBA star to exercise his free speech or continue to make a living playing pro ball. Maybe Broussard could have been more nuanced -- and there's more that could have been said about the issues surrounding Collins' announcement than the format of a 60-minute TV program allows -- however, simply by refusing to affirm what the Bible calls sin Broussard has been tarred as an intolerant hater.

Who is the real hero here? Who's the courageous one. Is it the public figure saying the popular thing, or the one bringing an unpopular message that may well get him fired before all is said and done? And who's being intolerant? Broussard, or the people calling for his head?

Tony Stone of Reformed African American Network makes this point exceedingly well. Be sure to click through and read the whole article.

Speaking of boldness, all this talk about Jason Collins’ announcement being brave and courageous (to millions of cheers and a call from President Obama) makes no sense when it’s really Chris Broussard who’s the media underdog. Jason was saying the popular thing. Chris said the unpopular thing. What I find particularly interesting are the comments being left on blogs. In one blog, a person said that Mr. Broussard should leave his religion out of basketball and only talk about sports. He said this to almost 3 dozen “likes”. What’s ironic about his sentiment is that everyone is completely ok with Jason Collins using his NBA platform to unveil his sexual preferences. What this shows us is that we all know deep down that sports, media, etc. all exist for greater purposes. Nobody is even satisfied with “good basketball”- we all want our platform to make a mark and change the way that people think about all areas of life, even the most private ones. As Christians, we can navigate these waters with accuracy because we know that the most private thing in this life is my desperate heart’s faithful gaze to Christ. This private thing also exists at the same time as the most publicly beneficial news known to mankind. May we all find strength and courage in Christ to preach the Gospel with delight and conviction.

I join Stone in that prayer, and I'm reminded of Jesus' words to his disciples: Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

Friday, April 26, 2013

George Jones (1931 - 2013)

If I ranked my favorite genres of music country would be near the bottom, but there are certain artists that transcend genre and exude greatness that has universal appeal. Country music legend George Jones was one such artist. I saw Jones live years ago at our local fair. He was an hour late (of course) but once he took the stage under the tent-lights all was forgiven.

Jones died earlier today at the age of 81. The tributes are coming in, including this one from Baptist minister Russell Moore: "George Jones: Troubador of the Christ-Haunted Bible Belt". Moore touches on the paradoxical genius of a musician with one foot in the honky-tonk and the other in the church-house.

Some may see hypocrisy in the fact that Jones sang gospel songs. The same emotion with which he sang of drunkenness and honky-tonking, he turned to sing of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus Makes Things Right.” He often in concerts led the crowd in old gospel favorites, such as “Amazing Grace” or “I’ll Fly Away.” But I don’t think this is hypocrisy. This is not a man branding himself with two different and contradictory impulses. This was a man who sang of the horrors of sin, with a longing for a gospel he had heard and, it seemed, he hoped could deliver him. In Jones’ songs, you hear the old Baptist and Pentecostal fear that maybe, horrifically, one has passed over into the stage of Esau who, as the Bible puts it, “could not find repentance though he sought it with tears.”

For me and for many others Jones' 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is the archetypical country music song, and arguably one of the great American songs of all time. It's representative of a kind of music that grew organically from the stories and soil of this great land, just as jazz and blues did. A song like this will never die. Sit back and enjoy.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Inspired by Wendell Berry to connect the dots

Food writer/crusader Michael Pollan talking in The Atlantic about the influence of Wendell Berry. . .

It was in reading Berry that I came across a particular line that formed a template for much of my work: "eating is an agricultural act." It's a line that urges you to connect the dots between two realms—the farm, and the plate—that can seem very far apart. We must link our eating, in other words, to the way our food is grown. In a way, all my writing about food has been about connecting dots in the way Berry asks of us. It's why, when I write about something like the meat industry, I try to trace the whole long chain: from your plate to the feedlot, and from there to the corn field, and from there to the oil fields in the Middle East. Berry reminds us that we're part of a food system, and we need to think about our eating with this fact—and its implications—in mind.

 Pollan cites the example of the recent public backlash against "pink slime" as an example of what happens when someone gets curious enough to do the hard work of connecting the dots. Imagine the impact if a significant portion of American food consumers began to see a connection between what we eat and where it comes from? Of course, as Pollan notes, there are powerful forces intrinsic to our capitalist system that don't want us making those connections, forces that want to keep us in the dark. Here's Pollan again. . .

Because, in recent years, as more people have been wakened to questions about how their food is being produced, we're seeing all kinds of obfuscations. We're in a race between getting good accurate information out there and the obscuring brilliance of marketing. They're showing you a package of eggs with a farmer and a picket fence—what I call "supermarket pastoral"—but behind that beautiful image, and your belief that you're supporting that kind of agriculture, there's really a factory farm. These ag-gag laws? The fact you're not allowed to take pictures of these places and expose their brutality? It's a remarkable assault on the First Amendment. This is all about who gets to tell the story of how food is produced, and the industry wants exclusive rights to that story.
All this makes it difficult to act on Berry's injunction. In fact, capitalism depends on erecting these screens, strives to defeat efforts to see the lines of connection between you, and the farm worker who picked your strawberries, and the corporation that delivered them to your door. This is an important insight capitalism tries to keep us from: that whatever you buy implicates you in a series of relationships. That may be a lot to walk around with everyday—that someone halfway across the world was exploited to produce the iPhone you're enjoying—but we do need to start thinking that way, at least sometimes, to bring about change. So when Berry says eating is an agricultural act, it follows that eating is a political act, too.

Here's the complete article -- "The Wendell Berry Sentence That Inspired Michael Pollan's Food Obsession". It's a great read!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Surprised by grace

I just finished reading The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. If I could buy cases of this book to give away I would. As it is I've given away one copy (to my pastor) and I'll be passing it along to others. This book is revelatory and potentially life-changing. It's simply one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. Not because of how well-written it is -- though it is that. Not even because of the amazing story it tells -- though it is amazing. It's extraordinary as a testament to the grace of God in Christ Jesus that saves sinners, even sinners that haven't the slightest interest in being saved.

This post is titled "Surprised by grace" as a nod to C.S. Lewis' spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy, a book I'd compare this one favorably to on account of both's depth and sophistication. It's probably not an accident that Lewis and Butterfield are English professors -- trained practitioners of the art of digging into texts for all they're worth. It was this process of digging for meaning, applied to the collection of ancient texts that Christians believe to be God's written word, that led the author to what she describes as a conversion that felt like a "train wreck"; in which everything Butterfield had built her life on was swept away in "comprehensive chaos."

She tells her story bluntly, honestly, but without any hint of sensationalism. That would have been too easy. One chapter chronicles Butterfield's months as a professor at a Christian liberal arts college, this after leaving a prestigious tenured position at Syracuse University. The author writes with insight and considerable humor on the difference between the ultra-secular academic world of Syracuse and the evangelical Christian subculture she found herself in. Once Butterfield's past began to be known she was approached by the campus chaplain who asked if she was ready to share her testimony. At first Butterfield said no. Here in her own voice she explains why.

All of the testimonies that I had heard up to this point were egocentric and filled with pride. Aren't I the smarty-pants for choosing Christ! I made a decision for Christ, aren't I great? I committed my life to Christ, aren't I better than those heathens who haven't? This whole line of thinking is both pervasive among evangelical Christians and absurd. My whole body recoiled against this line of thinking. I'm proof of the pudding. I didn't choose Christ. Nobody chooses Christ. Christ chooses you or you're dead. After Christ chooses you, you respond because you must. Period. It's not a pretty story.
"Pray about it," the chaplain said.
I did pray about it, so that I could with good conscience say no. I was reluctant to make myself a poster child for gay conversion. I felt and feel no solidarity with people who think their salvation makes them more worthy than others. I didn't want to call attention to myself. I didn't want every wacko on campus to confess his or her feelings of same-sex love or homophobia or refer for counseling their gay aunts or neighbors. I thought about the bumper sticker once popular in the gay community as a spoof against evangelical Christians: "I killed a gay whale for Christ!" Or the other bumper sticker, "Lord, please protect me from Your people!" I still felt ambivalence about my disloyalty to my gay friends. And I knew that I could not write a neat, happy, schmaltzy, G-rated, egocentric testimony if my life depended on it.
But, I wondered, could I write an honest testimony? Could I, in the Apostle Paul's words and tradition, write and deliver a testimony that reveals repentance as fruit of the Christian life? In English studies we have a mantra: a culture is comprised of its stories. "We are the stories we tell," I've said to my students year after year. I was critical of the stories I heard from my churchy friends and my evangelical culture. But could I be more than just critical of the stories that encompassed me? Could I start a new conversation? What would happen if I just told the truth? Was anybody else out there ambivalent about conversion? Did anyone else see it as bittersweet? Did anyone else get lost in fear when counting the costs of discipleship? Did anyone else fell like giving up? Did anyone else tire of taking up the Cross daily? Did anyone else grieve for death to one life that anticipates the experience of being "born again"? Did anyone else want to take just one day off from the command that we die to ourselves?
I told the chaplain the next day that I was ready to give my testimony to the campus. . . .

Butterfield relates the painful (and prayerful) month-long process of writing that testimony. This book must be one of the fruits of that labor, and it affirmatively answers the hard questions she posed to herself. The story she tells contains a message of love, truth and grace that the church and our confused late-modern Western culture desperately needs to hear. I hope you'll check it out for yourself.

Quote from pp. 81-2 of Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith (Crown & Covenant, 2012)

Thursday, April 11, 2013


I'm not against online dating/matchmaker sites. Over a decade ago I met a girl on one such site, and that girl and I are about to celebrate our ninth year of marriage! Back then meeting this way was something of a rarity, but now I know lots of people who have met, or are trying to meet, a mate this way. As this trend gains steam it's worth considering the impact this technology might be having on the way we view love, dating and marriage.

A recent Christianity Today article has some interesting critical interaction:

Wheaton College media ecologist Read Schuchardt is concerned about the implicit messages that dating sites send, especially those like eHarmony that claim to find your "ideal match." These sites feed the illusion, Schuchardt said, "that the perfect one is 'out there' and all you have to do is find them through this fine-toothed comb called online dating. The reality is just the opposite — no matter who you find, it will take a lifetime of sacrifice and accommodation to learn how to tolerate living with the other while they attempt to learn how to tolerate living with you."
Beth Felker Jones, a theologian at Wheaton College, expresses similar worries about dating websites' claims to help an individual find the "right person" with freedom to be more "picky."
"Marriage is not about being fulfilled by the right person but about joined service to the kingdom of God," Jones says. Matching formulas or even personal lists of must-haves in a spouse, "really blinds us to the wonderful strangeness of people."
Jones also cautions that the underlying messages of dating websites can perpetuate the unhealthy Christian mythology of marriage, especially for women.
"'You should open yourself up to this medium, because marriage is what you're for,' is the implicit logic that some site creators employ to get people over the hurdle of trying online dating," Felker says. "But marriage is not the purpose of our life. Relationship with God is."

Read the rest of the article here.

That deafening silence

The trial of Pennsylvania abortionist Kermit Gosnell has opened an unprecedented window into America's "dark Satanic abortion mills" (a phrase borrowed from Blake via First Things). That is -- it would open a window if it was being reported by our big media guardians. Kudos to USA TODAY contributor Kirsten Powers for courageously blowing the whistle on their shameful silence.

This from her piece published yesterday:

Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven't heard about these sickening accusations?
It's not your fault. Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell began March 18, there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page. The revolting revelations of Gosnell's former staff, who have been testifying to what they witnessed and did during late-term abortions, should shock anyone with a heart.
NBC-10 Philadelphia reported that, Stephen Massof, a former Gosnell worker, "described how he snipped the spinal cords of babies, calling it, 'literally a beheading. It is separating the brain from the body." One former worker, Adrienne Moton, testified that Gosnell taught her his "snipping" technique to use on infants born alive.
Massof, who, like other witnesses, has himself pleaded guilty to serious crimes, testified "It would rain fetuses. Fetuses and blood all over the place." Here is the headline the Associated Press put on a story about his testimony that he saw 100 babies born and then snipped: "Staffer describes chaos at PA abortion clinic."
"Chaos" isn't really the story here. Butchering babies that were already born and were older than the state's 24-week limit for abortions is the story. There is a reason the late Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called this procedure infanticide.
Planned Parenthood recently claimed that the possibility of infants surviving late-term abortions was "highly unusual." The Gosnell case suggests otherwise.
Regardless of such quibbles, about whether Gosnell was killing the infants one second after they left the womb instead of partially inside or completely inside the womb — as in a routine late-term abortion — is merely a matter of geography. That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.

Read the whole thing and follow the links if you have the stomach for it. I can only speculate on the deafening silence of the big media. Are they all moral idiots? Perhaps. More likely they see that reporting on the details emerging from this trial exposes the moral absurdities of our pro-choice regime -- in which nail salons are regulated more tightly than abortion clinics, and employees plead the Nuremberg defense.

God have mercy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The marks of revival

Yesterday I listened to a talk Tim Keller gave at The Gospel Coalition conference on a Biblical theology of revival. By revival Keller doesn't mean a programmedc event, or one that can be worked up by a method -- contrary to Charles Finney and his many imitators -- but a spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit characterized by a recovery of the gospel and a deep sense of repentance. Interestingly, he said that revival is often a quiet affair -- quiet in that the church gets quiet before God. This is contrary to revival-ism which tends to be noisy.

In looking at various revivals down through church history Keller sees that they look different but have several common denominators, including the two mentioned above -- recovery of the gospel and deep sense of repentance. Elaborating on those common characteristics of revival Keller said something that I think is worth latching onto -- revival is always accompanied by "sleepy Christians waking up" and "nominal Christians getting converted."

First, sleepy Christians waking up -- these are people who are genuinely saved but for some reason have lost the joy and power that should be their's in Christ. All the promises of God in Christ are objectively true for them but they aren't experiencing the fruit of those promises. Keller illustrated it this way. Imagine a father and his young son walking down the street side by side. Suddenly, in a spontaneous gesture of affection, the father picks up his son, hugs him to his chest, and says "I love you!" What's happened at that moment? Objectively the father's love is the same as before, but now the son is experiencing that love in a fresh subjective way. This is part of what happens when sleepy Christians wake up.

Secondly, nominal Christians are often people who have gone to church all their life. They may be leaders or officers in the church! Keller picked out the example of a former church treasurer who came to him and confessed that he had never understood the gospel until now even though he'd been serving in the church for years. Our churches are filled with such people -- faithful churchgoers who've never experienced the transformative power of the gospel, many of whom are clinging to some form of works-righteousness to get them into Heaven.

You might be saying: "What about the unconverted outside the walls of the church? Doesn't revival affect them?" The neat thing is that when you have a local church, or denomination, or parachurch movement, full of sleepy Christians waking up and nominal Christians getting converted, the world can't help but notice. Those once sleepy and nominal church members have the "savor of Christ" on them and channels are opened for extraordinary operations of God.

As an elder charged with the oversight of a local church I can't think of a better prayer than this -- that the sleepy Christians in our pews are awakened and that the nominal Christians (and only God knows exactly who they are) will be converted. That's how revival starts.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert (1942 - 2013)

Today we said farewell to a fabulous movie critic and a courageous human being. What struck me most about Roger Ebert as he battled debilitating disease the last several years was his steadfast optimism and honest seeking after truth. Anyone reading Ebert's blog could see that this was someone unafraid to ask the big questions as he faced death square in the face. All one can do now is hope that his search was rewarded.

Several years ago Ebert penned a tribute to his longtime partner Gene Siskel to mark the ten-year anniversary of the latter's passing (you can read it here). Siskel's favorite movie was Saturday Night Fever. It seems appropriate to post this iconic clip in celebration of the life of his friend.

Dance on, Roger Ebert.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Introducing Second Nature

Recently I've started paying more attention to the role of technology in our lives. This is partly due to discovering writers such as Wendell Berry and James K.A. Smith, and partly from my own experience of how every-day technology is impacting myself and my family. As a disciple of Jesus I don't see a lot of critical Christian engagement with technology, and it seems the church in general has bought into the lie that our technological artifacts are simply tools, not realizing that the tools we use have the potential to change the kind of people we are even when used for ostensibly "good" purposes.

I think that's beginning to change, though, and I'd like to commend a new online journal called Second Nature. I'd encourage you to read about their mission, "to be the definitive place for critical thinking about technology and new media in light of the Christian tradition, with written articles, images, videos, poetry, and links." From what I've seen and read so far they've made a good start.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The film that killed the Biblical epic

On Sunday Turner Classic Movies was running a series of Easter-themed movies. Just by accident I came across George Stevens' 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. I generally avoid Hollywood costume dramas of the type made famous by Cecil B. DeMille and others -- just not a big fan of the genre -- but I couldn't stop watching this glossy retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, which climaxes with his crucifixion and resurrection.

As a believer I found it affecting, and as a film buff I found it surprisingly effective cinema -- surprising since I'm familiar with the scathing reception this massively expensive production received. Stevens was a highly successful director in his day, but fairly or unfairly this project pretty much wrecked his reputation. The movie was a commercial disappointment, and at the time was considered an artistic failure. Intervening years have been a bit more kind. The tastes of the filmgoing public were changing in the mid-60's and after Greatest Story the major studios concluded that expensive Biblical epics with big stars and thousands of extras were a losing box office proposition.

The Swedish actor Max von Sydow played Jesus as a rather remote figure, tall and with piercing blue eyes. That on its face is risible. The Jesus of the gospels is an earthier, visceral individual firmly rooted in the rough and tumble of first century Palestinian culture. Nevertheless, the reverent unironic approach of director Stevens and his leading man is quite moving, and their Jesus is tethered to the gospels by liberal use of dialogue straight from the King James Version. Perhaps it was this earnest lack of irony that many critics found so off-putting.

I have no idea the spiritual beliefs of Stevens and screenwriter James Lee Barrett, but they tell the "greatest story" with nary a wink in the direction of casting doubt on its veracity. When Pontius Pilate, played by a smirking Telly Savalas, finally condemns Jesus to death we hear a voiceover intoning an article of the Apostles' Creed -- "suffered under Pontius Pilate/was crucified, dead and buried." Whether intentionally or not this little touch drives home the point that the Christian faith is rooted in history. This minor Roman official achieved a sort of immortality because of his brief encounter with a Jewish prophet claiming to be the Son of God. Over two thousand years later his name is still on the lips of Christians each Sunday as they affirm the central tenets of the faith.

The Greatest Story Ever Told isn't a great film, but it's a worthy final chapter of a distinctive American film genre.

The marriage gap. . . and the income gap

An excerpt from the 2010 report by The National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America:

Given the current trends, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that the United States could be heading toward a 21st century version of a traditional Latin American model of family life, where only a comparatively small oligarchy enjoys a stable married and family life—and the economic and social fruits that flow from strong marriages. In this model, the middle and lower-middle classes would find it difficult to achieve the same goals for their families and would be bedeviled by family discord and economic insecurity.
This is why the nation must now turn its attention to reviewing and renewing the economic, cultural, and civic conditions that sustain strong marriages and families for moderately educated Americans, who still constitute the majority of citizens and have long been a bastion of conventional family life in the nation.
We cannot (and should not) simply turn the clock back, trying to recreate the social and cultural conditions of some bygone era. But if we seek to renew the fortunes of marriage in Middle America and to close the marriage gap between the moderately and the highly educated, we must pursue public policies that strengthen the employment opportunities of the high-school educated, cultural reforms that seek to reconnect marriage and parenthood for all Americans, and efforts to strengthen religious and civic institutions that lend our lives meaning, direction, and a measure of regard for our neighbors—not to mention our spouses.
The alternative to taking economic, cultural, and civic steps like these is to accept that the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.