Friday, February 27, 2015

Is President Obama Right About Islam?

A few days ago, President Obama insisted that the United States was not at war with Islam. A few days earlier, speaking at a prayer breakfast, he remarked that Christians  have also committed heinous acts in war, especially in times past. Many Americans reacted strongly to the president's remarks and believe they reveal a naiveté about contemporary Islamic terrorism as well as a bias against Christianity.

For the record, I do not believe the president is intentionally biased against Christianity or that he has some sort of soft spot for terrorists, Islamic or otherwise. His administration has conducted an aggressive campaign against terrorism, which has involved thousands of drone attacks. He also ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

What I believe the president’s remarks actually reveal is a profound misunderstanding, shared by most secular thinkers, about the nature of religion. In Formations of the Secular, Talil Asad explains this secular blind spot. Asad, a Muslim anthropologist, claims that Western leaders are incapable of understanding traditional religion and that they even define the  word ‘religion” differently than those who are actually religious.

Contemporary Western “religion” is not only unlike the other religions of the world, Asad claims; it is not even like the religion the ancestors of contemporary Western people practiced. The other great world religions are more like the religion your ancestors rejected, Asad says. For example, Muslims stop everything around them several times a day to pray. Western people once did the same thing. In Islamic countries, all commerce stops so people can attend to their spiritual lives, one day a week.  Several times a year, ordinary life stops for an entire day or even for a more protracted amount of time. A few centuries ago, Asad says to his Western audience, your ancestors did the same sorts of things.  However, movements like the Reformation and the Enlightenment secularized your culture so that  religious life moved from the center of Western community and individual life, to the periphery. In essence, you replaced your religion with your economic life.

According to Asad then, most Westerners, including Christians, are more affected by secular ideologies than by religious ones. Even if they embrace a religion, they do not expect religion to intrude in any way upon their economic, political, social or sexual lives. In the West, in other words, religious people have become indistinguishable from non-religious people except that they go to church occasionally and feel a sentimental attachment to their religious culture. Nonetheless, the ideologies that actually form Western thought and behavior are secular belief systems that emerged during and after the European enlightenment. Asad claims  this is true for the overwhelming majority of Western Christians, whether liberal or conservative.

If Asad is right, then Westerners – especially ones trained within the most aggressive institutions of secular thought  -- do not view religious life as much more than moving ceremonies and ancient communal habits. Some secular persons may enjoy those religious traditions and as a result think of themselves as being a part of religious community. However, that same person will likely think it absurd that his of her ‘religion’ will have anything to say about his everyday life. Much less would a secular person expect to inconvenience himself in any way because of the teachings of the antiquated ideas from an ancient holy book.

In that light, President Obama seems to have been attempting to calm the anxieties of the world’s Muslims by claiming that he does not view the Islamic terrorists as authentic representatives of their religion. That makes all sorts of sense to a person who accepts the secular, Western definition of religion.  Indeed, from that standpoint it was a kind, diplomatic and even wise gesture. When viewed in a secular light, the president’s remarks were as reasonable as rain and what one would expect from the head of a secular state.

The problem is, most of the world’s Muslims and Christians experience spiritual life very differently than what the president (and most secularized people) seem to understand. For that reason, his words actually disconnect him from religious people, whether Christian or Muslim.

One thing for sure, ISIS does not share the president’s definition of religion. In fact, the people who fight for ISIS find his words incomprehensible. Their media outlets repeatedly declare their position:  they view themselves as waging a religious war against secularists, against Muslims drifting toward secularism, against Muslims who practice the wrong forms of Islam, and most aggressively, against practicing Jews and Christians.

Now why do they take this position? It is because they believe God told them to behave this way. Therefore, most definitely, the ISIS terrorists are fighting as Muslims, as people devoted to and energized by an extremely fundamentalist expression of their religion. To believe they are merely using religious speech in order to gain followers and advance economic or political aims is thus naïve and dangerous. Marx made the same fatal mistake, reducing his definition of religion as “the opium of the people” instead of acknowledging that for most religious people, both living today and throughout history, religion is the core organizing principle of life. A secular minded person may not like that, and there are many good reasons not to like it, but it is the fact of the matter. People will die for religion, become poor for religion, give up sex for religion and, unfortunately, even kill for religion.

This implies that religion is incapable of being neutral or amoral. Religion may be healthy, true, beautiful and good; religion may be diseased, ugly, false and evil. It is possible that all religions are  false, that all  of them except one are false, or that all of them contain some truth and some falsehood. There are all sorts of ways to think about religion. But defining religion as a private, harmless comfort for those who need it is the most seriously deficient view of religion possible. Aggressive atheism is a more accurate view than this mild, kind secularism because aggressive atheism understands what religion is. Indeed, aggressive atheism is itself a form of religion.

So does this mean that I believe the United States should wage war against Islam? Absolutely not. Whether or not the United States should or should not go to war against  terrorists is another matter altogether. That is a political matter rather than a religious one.  But ignoring the religious motivation of the terrorists doesn't clarify the current discussion, it cripples it.

Many of the world’s Muslims are terrified at this current outbreak of barbarism. They would like us to not link them to this profoundly embarrassing evil. I think the president is right about that. And, Christians have indeed committed barbarous crimes, especially during the crusades. In fact, the European crusaders did as much damage to Eastern Christian communities as to Muslim ones. By referring to this, the president was merely reading history, which all of us should do from time to time. However, the crusades ended in 1265.   Christianity has undergone considerable development since that time. Also, and this is crucial, Christianity, unlike Islam, no longer aspires to be a state. Nearly all major and minor Christian sects rejects the very idea of theocracy --- that is to say 'ruling a political state as a religious community.' Some individual Christians get confused about that of course, which becomes apparent sometimes on Facebook. However, the official theologies of most Christian churches reject the notion of a theocratic state.

Christianity, in other words, is not the same thing exactly as it was a thousand years ago. Christianity develops. Fundamentalists of all sorts deny that, even though fundamentalists do not really hold to the original faith as it was practiced and articulated in the cultures and times in which their faith began as they claim.  Theological liberals agree with me on this, on course – that our faith develops – but they deny the supernatural elements, creedal boundaries and canonical integrity of our faith. It is orthodoxy then – that is to say those versions of our faith that both hold to that which has at all times and in all places been believed and which at the same time applies those core principle to the needs and opportunities of that particular time and place in which a particular group of believers live – it is those versions of Christian faith that remain both faithful and reasonable.

What will not work is defining religion as a private, personal, peripheral matter. Religion cannot be that. When we claim that a healthy religion is one that restricts itself in those ways, we are simply negotiating with religion; allowing it to disappear little by little so as to not unduly upset the ones who wish to hold on to their last bit of belief.  The truth is, secularized religion -- whether Christianity, Islam or Zoroasterism, is not religion at all. Asad is right about that.

Strangely enough then, this is something about which both devout Christians and ISIS will agree. But that is why those barbarous madmen beheaded the men they called “the people of the cross.” However, it is also why the men they beheaded prayed and then surrendered their lives to God with such visible peace.

The Coptic martyrs believed. They were not just going to Sunday School because they were raised to do that. That makes their view of life and religion incompressible to secular people. However, the way they died also demonstrates their fundamental difference from the murderers who slaughtered them. And that difference implies that there is a fundamental gap between the religious values and practices of the murders and those of their victims. That much should be clear, even to a secularist.

Friday, February 21, 2014

What About the Pope?

I went to Phoenix last week for three reasons: to see members of my family that live there, to preach at Living Streams church, and to meet a delegation from the Vatican.

I wanted to share some reflections about that third item.

For ten years, I pastored a church in Central Phoenix. So I have many friends there, including some of the city’s church leaders.  They were the ones who had invited me to a special meeting with Roman Catholic bishops Olmstead and Nevares; and, a Vatican delegation. The reason for the meeting was to discuss Pope Francis's request that Roman Catholic leaders meet with their Evangelical and Pentecostal counterparts.

The pope’s stated intention for such encounters is that Roman Catholics will experience a renewal in the Holy Spirit. He also believes that praying together will encourage healing between our communities.

During my Phoenix years, I worked extensively to create those kinds of connections among Christians. So I wouldn’t have missed that meeting for the world.

After arriving at Living Streams, where the meeting was held, pastor Mark Buckley welcomed us, Gray Kinneman outlined the meeting's purpose and then introduced Bishop Olmstean who read a letter from the Pope, specifically addressing the people in our meeting.

Here are some brief quotes from Pope Francis’s much longer letter.

“When people persecute the flowers of Jesus, they do not distinguish between the believers who are Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Roman Catholic. Evil views us all the same. As a result, in many places of the world, our brothers in Christ have experienced an ecumenism of blood. They suffer in a unity that evil already acknowledges. We must persevere in prayer until this unity becomes a reality for us as well.

Please pray for me that I will be guided by the Lord to do what I can to bring healing and unity to His church.”

After the bishop read the pope’s letter, he introduced two Italians, one Pentecostal pastor and one Roman Catholic. The Pentecostal leader gave his testimony about how he had reluctantly entered into these discussions, and he had been shocked to see how intense some of the Roman Catholic leaders were about the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Vatican delegate added this:  

“A few years back, some Anglican priests got a few of us Roman Catholic priests together in a room and told us that we needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They laid hands on us and I was gloriously filled with the presence of God. I was so overjoyed, I went and pounded on the door of a Pentecostal pastor in our town. I shouted out to him – “I have been filled with the Spirit!”

He told me to come back some other time!

That hurt my feelings. Then I remembered how, just a few years ago, we had bitterly persecuted Evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. I realized it would take a lot of love, repentance and forgiveness to reconcile us after such serious crimes against our brothers. So we have continued to move forward in prayer and to do all we can to mend fences.

In the meantime, God has been doing some wonderful new things.

The pope had already been meeting with Pentecostal leaders in Argentina each month before he became pope. Since then, he has only deepened his conviction that it will take a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit to bring reconciliation and restoration to the church. Intuitional structures certainly cannot do it. We are in desperate need of God. For that we need your prayer.”

I was overjoyed sitting in that room with the group of pastors I had known for twenty years. I couldn’t help but remember that fifteen years ago, a radio talk show host had denounced me on his show for ‘hobnobbing with Catholics.” A few weeks after that, had Henry Blackaby not come to my rescue in a minster’s breakfast, a group of Evangelical leaders would have joined the talk show host in publicly offering me the ‘left foot of fellowship.” Praying with Catholics just wasn’t done. It would not be tolerated.

External pressures were not the only impediment to forming friendships with Catholics. I had been a missionary kid in Latin America. I had witnessed first hand the kind of persecution this Vatican official had just publicly acknowledged.
I have had to work through a lot of internal pressure to form real friendships with Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, and even when meeting with types of Christians more familiar to us in our part of the world.

Furthermore, I am not a fan of the old Ecumenical movement. That movement seemed, to me anyway, based on the idea that our disagreements are not very important anyway, so lets just get along and be good social workers. The most disappointing partners in that movement were actually Protestants, who seemed ready at the drop of a hat to surrender every doctrinal belief they had ever professed for the sake of unity. In such discussions, it was actually the orthodox and the Catholics that won my respect.

Even so, our differences must be faced. The question is, “how?”
I believe the pope is right.  The way forward is prayer and spiritual renewal. God’s Spirit softness our hearts and opens the Word. In our Phoenix meeting for example, a major connection occurred when Gary Kinneman offered a brief reflection on Ephesians. His insight into the work of the cross in reconciliation resonated with everyone.

In my last blog, I wrote about Joel Osteen. I said that the things for which we often fault Joel are the fruit of Evangelicalism’s continual movement away from Word and Sacrament. We have gotten cute. Trendy. Cool. Savvy. Marketable.

And spiritually anorexic.

With all due respect, this brand of Evangelicalism has little to offer Roman Catholicism. In fact, I believe Catholic theology and sacramental structure is healthier and is more likely to survive into the future than the demythologized, secular, worship-as-pep-rally approach of contemporary Evangelical churches. But I do not say that they are not churches or that the people who attend them are not Christians.

Relationship allows us to critique, and helps us profit from the critique. Without relationship, it is no longer critique. It is merely criticism.

When I read John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire, I actually agreed with much of what he said about the faults of Charismatic Christianity. Then I went to YouTube to watch his diatribe. I discovered that McArthur was not sure I was even a Christian. So I realize that he thinks he is taking a stand for the truth, but what it feels like is that he is just standing on me. It’s difficult to have a healthy conversation in that position.

Prayer, reading the Word together, eating lunch, carrying one another’s burdens – doing such things over time gradually forms relationships that allow us to tackle the difficult issues that divide us.
As the Vatican delegate acknowledged this week, persecution – even verbal abuse – simply doesn’t work. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God.

So then abides these things; faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

It never fails.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

What About Joel Osteen?

People love to talk about people, especially highly visible people.

The wind of social media can whip up the opinion of a grasshopper, turn it into a whirlwind, and topple an elephant.  Someone with too much time on his hands makes an unfounded and cruel accusation about someone he doesn’t know and counts on the rest of us to pass the babble on. That has made gossip much more lethal than in years past.

Christians like participating in this shark feeding, even if the victim is a fellow believer. It is something blatantly forbidden by the faith we profess and even has a technical name: bearing false witness. We like to do it anyway. So we do.

I am afraid of participating though.

I think when Jesus said “you will give account on the Day of Judgment for every idle word” and “what is said in secret will be declared from the housetop,” he may well have had Internet gossip in mind. So I try to delete hysterical email messages that sound too much like the old National Inquirer. Otherwise, they may seduce me into a toxic pastime. Its difficult to resist sometimes. Who wouldn’t want to know more about an exotic fruit that could add twenty years to one’s life or about how the secretary of state was once arrested for streaking in a college dormitory?

(I just now made that bit of gossip up but I fully expect to watch it circulate on the web tomorrow and hear a reporter ask the secretary of state if is it true the following day. I'm testing my hypothesis by putting it out there to see what happens.)

Anyway, back to my point: what about Joel Osteen?

One the surface, one would not have predicted that Joel Osteen would have become that controversial. He is a nice person. By all accounts this is not merely his public persona moreover, but is his private demeanor as well. He is inevitably polite, civil and winsome. What he says in his sermons is encouraging, enjoyable to hear, and helpful for the journey of life.

So what’s the fuss about?

Well, the people who dislike Joel Osteen believe he doesn’t say enough. They claim his messages are not good examples of the sort of Bible teaching one ought to expect from an equipped and seasoned pastor; he doesn't take definitive stands on the issues of the day; his polished style seems rehearsed, staged and designed for the theater or political platform rather than the pulpit; that sort of thing.

When people say things like that about Joel, I am inclined to agree. Perhaps that gives me enough credibility to ask, “so?”

St. Paul told us that God placed in the Body of Christ ‘different gifts for the profit of the whole.’ He told us that we should not fault a nose for not seeing or an eye for not hearing. The health of the body depends on the interaction of its various organs and counts on each of them to do what it is supposed to do.

In that light, it seems unfair to criticize Joel Osteen for doing what he does. Unless he preaches rank heresy – and to determine that would actually require someone to understand orthodoxy – or promotes unethical, immoral or illegal practices  -- which he does not – or does something else that clearly places him outside the boundaries of Christian ministry –whining about him seems utterly unfair and unhelpful.

Does what Joel do on TV count as a sufficient presentation of the gospel? Most of the time; probably not. But is what he says compatible with the gospel? Yes. Much more so in fact than the ranting preachers who wrap up the fish of their political ideologies in Bible paper or the religious ponzi scheme marketers that constantly raise money in order to develop campuses where they can make a living raising money.  Joel actually feeds the hungry. He helps poor people develop better lives. 

Maybe he should do more but what he does are things Jesus told us to do.

Ok. I personally like Joel Olsten.  I don’t often listen to his sermons and I don’t read his books. But I like him. I believe he is a Christian trying to carry out Christian ministry. 

I am also wiling to learn from him.

Recently, I learned that a huge percentage of people attending Joel’s church are from broken families and working class backgrounds. Their testimonies to reporters and researchers are pretty consistent: the church has been a refuge and second family for them. It has helped them rise out of their circumstances and into new lives. These people believe they found the Lord in Joel’s church and that the Lord has delivered them from their old mess. That counts for something in my book and is something I want to do too.

As a pastor, it is my fervent hope that these people are learning the fundamentals of Christian faith; that they are becoming true disciples of Christ. Who, however, will determine that?

The loss of Christian catechism in the last many decades – call instruction in the faith whatever you want -- has been catastrophic. Many really good preachers now seem unaware of the basics of Christian theology, church history or even the stories of the Bible. From what I have seen, Joel may well fit into that category. But if he does, he is hardly alone. What did we expect? We have been steadily transforming pastoring into business management, spirituality into pop psychology, and worship into entertainment. When choosing a pastor, “successful” churches usually relegate the skills of scriptural exegesis and spiritual discernment to ever increasingly lower levels of hiring preference. A great pastor can get by without knowing much about the Book of Romans but he cannot survive without knowing how to tweet. Joel may be the product of this culture we raised him in but he cannot be faulted for it.

In the end, I think Joel is probably doing what he ought to do. He is giving sound encouraging words to millions of people, believer and unbeliever alike. He is helping lift people out of despair. That is a gift of healing. He is also teaching preachers to smile – that can’t hurt anything! Perhaps if the likes of John McArthur would smile a little more it would make their sound biblical exegesis a bit more bearable and appealing. If being hateful is what it takes to be prophetic and biblically faithful, then perhaps a smile might break the essential character of their gospel witness; but who knows, maybe not.

Perhaps what we ought to do is simply thank Joel for doing what he does, step up to the plate, and provide what we believe is missing from his presentation. It is entirely possible that someone who has been listening to Joel may soon be ready to study the Book of Hebrews. If so, then some teacher better start preparing himself for that moment. And it won’t help to begin that study with a diatribe against Joel. A simple “thank you’ might be more in order and might make the student think the teacher is a Christian.

If I could only prove that Joel Osteen was once an ax murderer or the member of the mafia, this blog might go viral.  That would help my writing career considerably. If I just had the stomach to go on a rant about his deficiencies, my fellow Christians might promote my words and increase my reading constituency. But then there is that scary warning from Jesus about idle words that gives me pause.

Sometimes practicing Christianity is just not very practical.

Now please excuse me while I go practice smiling.