Friday, August 31, 2012

Descriptive or Prescriptive: Who Decides?

Yesterday in Bible study I learned that Christians should not attend funerals. Well, not really. We discussed Luke 9:57-62, a passage in which three men approach Jesus expressing the desire to follow him. Jesus challenges them all and clearly rebukes two of them for having a higher priority than following him, including one of them wanting to bury his father. Our study leader took our discussion in an unusual but intriguing direction by raising the question of whether Jesus' words here are descriptive or prescriptive. He argued, correctly I believe, that things written in the Bible are not all written prescriptively. Prescriptive texts tell us not only how something happened in a given context but define (prescribe) how we should live in all contexts. Descriptive texts, on the other hand, merely tell us about events in a context. We may glean principles and illustrations from them, but they are not intended to apply as a rule of life for all time.

The leader argued that the words of Jesus in this passage are to be understood descriptively, not prescriptively. He said that a prescriptive reading of this passage would preclude Christians from attending funerals because obviously Jesus is telling one man that to do so instead of following after himself would be a failure to live in discipleship. Instead, he argued, we need to look at what Jesus' words here tell us about following as his disciple. We tossed this around a bit but ran out of time before reaching any definite conclusions.

I don't know whether I agree with the idea that this text should be read descriptively. Probably it should, but I have this nagging sense that we do so because to read it prescriptively would be too difficult for us. I think that too often evangelical Americans want to read every text prescriptively. We hold too tightly to our idea of what it means to read the text literally that we end up applying things inappropriately. We would do well to better understand this distinction between prescriptive and descriptive texts.

However, this leads me to a fundamental question concerning biblical interpretation, a question that I think haunts Protestants in general: How do we determine which texts are prescriptive and which are descriptive? What authority do we appeal to in making this determination? What happens if one person or church decides that a certain text should be read one way and another person or church choose to read it the other? Who decides?

As Protestants we don't really have a good answer to this question. By denying the authority of the church, we left ourselves open to a plurality of interpretation without a way to reach consensus. This need not be a problem, except if you believe that biblical texts do have a single clear meaning that we can all arrive at through careful study of the Scriptures. I often hear appeals to the “clear meaning” of Scripture, but such appeals rarely acknowledge that Christians – and I am thinking of Christians who whole-heartedly and unreservedly affirm the authority of the Bible – often disagree over the interpretation of texts. I could point to several contemporary hot issues, but we needn't go to such lengths when we can simply point to such matters as how we understand and interpret baptism and the event referred to as the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist or Communion.

We have to either acknowledge that biblical texts can in fact be interpreted in multiple ways (without discarding the idea that some interpretations really do violence to the text) or else we have to assert that our particular interpretation is in fact THE only correct one. This seems to be the way various branches of the Church seem to go, but it doesn't seem to provide a helpful way forward.

I regret that I didn't raise this question in our study yesterday. I would have liked to hear what the other participants had to say. Perhaps I shall opportunity to come back to it next week, although we will have a different leader so the topic will seem somewhat out of context. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Role of Government

A lot of people I know are talking these days about the proper role of government, many of them arguing that the US government should not involve itself in caring for the poor and needy and other matters of social justice. Many people I know believe that the smallest government possible is the best one (although ironically they seem willing to allow government to interfere in certain matters that strike me as intensely personal). Today's article by Jim Wallis provides a good alternative perspective on the proper role of government. Rather than commenting more myself, I encourage you to follow the link and read what he has to say.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wasted Treasure

Last night my wife and I watched the movie Mozart's Sister. I enjoyed the film as a work of art, although the storyline grieved me. A bit of internet research confirmed our questions about the factuality of the storyline. Despite the fictional nature of much of the plot, the underlying theme follows in line with what we know of Maria Anna Mozart, known affectionately to her family as Nannerl, and her early life. Apparently a young woman of significant talent herself, her father not only failed to fully appreciate her talent but actively thwarted and stifled it. He actively and fiercely promoted Wolfgang's development, but Nannerl's role remained purely a supporting one. As she grew older, even that role was removed from her because it was not seen as a proper one for a young woman of marriageable age.

This story, even in the broadest of outline, grieves me. The world lost the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the talents of this remarkable young woman simply because her father and her society deemed it inappropriate for her to display and develop them. How many times has this happened throughout history? How much potential has the world lost because societies have viewed women as inferior mentally and physically or because they have deemed that the proper place for a woman was in the home as wife and mother? Surely the loss of all the talent and potential of women throughout the centuries must constitute one of the greatest failures of human history.

I'd like to say that we have thankfully progressed beyond such narrow beliefs. Unfortunately that is not the case. Certainly we have progressed in some cultures, but that progress has been relatively recent and still not fully realized. In many cultures around the world little if anything has changed in this regard. I have lived in a culture where women were still viewed as inferior. Although in that culture they were (thankfully) allowed to have an education, they were the first ones to be pulled from school if finances were short and in many cases women were discouraged from pursuing higher education because men would not want to marry a woman who was smarter than them. After all, how much education does one need to have babies and manage a home? When I hear such views expressed my anger begins to boil. How can people think this way? And how can they fail to see the enormous potential they deprive their culture of by proscribing the talents and abilities of their women?

In American culture we have made progress. Women now have access, at least theoretically, to almost all spheres of life and all roles. But we haven't reached the point where we fully release the potential of women in our society. We still undervalue women in business, sports, politics and other fields. In much of the church we continue to define a very narrow sphere in which women can express their gifts. We rob ourselves of so much by doing so! Unfortunately conservative evangelical Christians often lead the battle against full equality for women. I hear of and know families in which the daughters are raised primarily for the role of wife and mother. Yes, they are in most cases given the same or nearly the same education as any brothers they might have, but with a stated or unstated expectation that they will subordinate their skills, talents and gifts to those of their husbands or fathers. I do not disparage the roles of wife and mother. These are important—vital!--roles in society and deserve our full respect. But a woman should not be forced into those roles simply because no other options are available to her.

In the movie, Nannerl becomes close friends with the youngest daughter of the king of France, who has lived in a cloister with two of her other sisters since early in her childhood. In the film this daughter chooses to become a nun and submit her wishes and desires to the authority and leadership of the church. When she meets Nannerl for the last time, she encourages Nannerl to accept a similar sacrifice for herself in submitting her own dreams to the plans and decisions of her father. Nannerl chooses to do so, but the movie leaves us with a strong sense that she does so with great sorrow and regret. Some Christians would argue that Nannerl made the right decision, that submission to her father was the biblical choice. I would counter that as a woman come-of-age Nannerl should not have felt nor have been in a position where submission to her father was the only choice available to her. I do not agree that the Bible places an adult woman under the authority of her father or any other man. The times in which Nannerl lived offered her no realistic alternatives. I hope that our society—particularly within the church—will do otherwise and strive to liberate and encourage the talents, skills, gifts and interests of our daughters and women. I dream of a day when no Nannerl will be doomed to obscurity because she is a woman. The world cannot afford to so casually and carelessly squander such treasures.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Not-So-Social Parable

I came across this paraphrase yesterday at this site and want to share it with you. I won't add any other comments at this point in time and let the text speak for itself.

The Lazy Paralytic
1. When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at his home. 2. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5. When Jesus saw this he grew angry, "Why did you wreck my roof? Do you have any idea how much that cost to install? Do you know how many tables and chairs I had to make in my carpentry shop to pay for that roof? The reeds alone cost five talents. I had them carted in from Bethany." 6. The disciples had never seen Jesus so angry about his possessions. He continued, "This house is my life." The disciples fell silent. 7. "It's bad enough that you trash my private property, now you want me to heal you?" said Jesus, "And did you not see the stone walls around this house?" "Yes," said the man's friends. "Are these not the stone walls native to the Land of Galilee? 8. "No," Jesus answered. "This is a gated community. How did you get in?" The man's friends grew silent. 9. Then Jesus turned to the paralytic and said, "Besides, can't you take care of your own health problems? I'm sure that you're family can care for you, or maybe the synagogue." 10. "No, Lord," answered the man's friends. "There is no one. His injuries are too severe. To whom else can we go?" 11. "Well, not me," said Jesus. "What would happen if I provided free health care for everyone? That would mean that people would not only get lazy, but they would take advantage of the system. 12. Besides, look at me: I'm healthy. And you know why? Because I worked hard for my money." The paralyzed man then grew sad and he addressed Jesus. "But I did work, Lord," said the paralytic. "But an accident rendered me paralyzed." "Yes," said the man's friends. "He worked very hard." 13. "Well," said Jesus, "That's just part of life, isn't it?" "Then what am I to do, Lord?" said the paralytic. "I don't know. Why don't you sell your mat?" 14. All in the crowd then grew sad. "Actually, you know what you can do?" said Jesus. "You can reimburse me for my roof. Or I'll sue." And all were amazed. 15. "We have never seen anything like this," said the crowd.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Eighteen years ago my wife and I moved to Arizona. Coming from Seattle and arriving in August we thought we had entered hell. (Have you ever been to Phoenix in August? If so, you'll understand.) We knew Arizona was largely a conservative state and for many years we were quite comfortable with that. In the past few years my views have become more progressive while it seems the politicians in Arizona seem to grow increasingly conservative (though perhaps it only seems that way because my own perspective has shifted.) There are many good things about Arizona and I should probably take the time to write an article about those. But at the moment I must say that the political leaders of my state continue to take actions that embarrass me and make me ashamed to be an Arizonan.

I wrote earlier this summer about the now infamous SB1070. Thankfully the Supreme Court of the United States negated most of the provisions of that bill, though some unfortunately continue to linger. Meanwhile the also infamous SheriffJoe Arpaio of Maricopa County (the county in which the city of Phoenix and most of Arizona's population lie) continues to spout his hard-line conservative rhetoric while being investigated by the federal government for policies and practices of his department over the years. As if he didn't have enough to do enforcing the laws in the county, he pushed the state Attorney General to launch yet another investigation into Barack Obama's birth certificate. I do not understand why our Attorney General even bothered to give Arpaio's query any attention, yet it fits within the weird world of Arizona politics.

Our current governor Jan Brewer leads this pack of conservative nut cases. She seems determined to take any and every action she can to thumb her nose at the federal government and in the process cement Arizona's reputation as a bunch of knee-jerk reactionary conservatives. In her latest pronouncement in response to the new policy of the Obama administration to allow children of illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria to apply for temporarily defer any threat of deportation, Brewer issued a state executive order instructing all state agencies to deny benefits and services to these young people. She claimed that the state could not afford to provide these benefits to them. I don't know what injury some immigrant did to Governor Brewer in her past, but she obviously has some deep-seated antipathy toward anyone who doesn't meet her definition of a true American and true Arizonan. I wish she would be honest enough to admit that she just doesn't like illegal immigrants instead of couching her actions in language that speaks of the economic burden such people will place on the state. Rather than posing an economic burden, the young people eligible for deferment of deportation under the new policy would likely contribute to our state's economy. They have education and initiative. They bring new life and energy to our state. Rather than denying them any benefits, we should be welcoming them.

Governor Brewer is demagoging, playing on the emotions and fears of people in our state which has been hard-hit by the economic recession. Rather than dealing with real issues, she has chosen to blame the state's problems almost exclusively on illegal immigration. In this she and those who support her see things too simplistically. While illegal immigration does create problems in Arizona and elsewhere, it also creates opportunity: opportunity for the immigrants themselves who are mostly looking for a chance at a slightly-better life, opportunity for our state and country in the energy and labor of these new immigrants and opportunity for the rest of us to choose to show kindness and hospitality to the foreigners among us rather than to treat them as pariahs and seek to exclude and expel them from our country. When we do the latter we act contrary to the values that God instructed us to live by.

Governor Brewer, as a citizen and voter of Arizona, I call on you to adopt a different approach and attitude toward illegal immigrants. I respectfully yet strongly request that you rescind your embarrassing and immoral executive order excluding children of illegal immigrants – youth who wil now be able to live and work in our country – from any benefits in our great state. Your actions and your words dishonor our state and the people who strive to make it a better place for all who live here. Should you continue your current course, you can count on me voting against you in the next election and actively speaking against your policies in the meantime. You do not represent my views but instead you bring shame on us.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Notes from a Middle Place

I recently read Lauren F. Winner's book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. The book came recommended by some respected sources and the topic certainly intrigued me, as one who feels himself in something of a mid-faith crisis. Winner's writing style in the book, a sort of personal reflection/memoir sharing of various vignettes from her life as she confronted this mid-faith crisis, caught me off guard. At first I didn't like it, though as I read further and now as I reflect on it the style grows on me. I cannot suggest a style that would have suited the topic better and perhaps her narrative style engaged me in ways that a more detached or distanced prose would not have done. She didn't leave me with a lot of concise phrases I could recite, although a few did stand out, but she did open up to me what life in the middle, as she calls it, looks like.

Although different circumstances led us to this middle place, I felt like I could relate in many ways to Winner. In the introduction she writes:

“Whether you feel a wrenching anguish or simply a kind of distracted listlessness, the middle looks unfamiliar when you get there. The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. A God who was once close seems somehow farther away, maybe in hiding....This book is about the time when the things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living.”

I find myself in a middle place like the one she describes. I have come to question many of the assumptions and habits that have sustained my faith life over the years. I have lost the sense of certainty that I once had about many things. Sometimes I feel I have more doubts and questions than I have answers. Sometimes I'm tempted to leave the whole thing and go seek a different path.

But like Winner, I'm not ready to abandon it all. I'm not ready to give up on this thing called faith. God may often seem distant and hidden, but I still experience moments when God's presence does actually seem real and near. More than any sense of God's presence though, I hold on to this faith because it still strikes me as the best answer I've found. As Winner says elsewhere in the introduction:

“In those same moments of strained belief, of now knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am better than any story I know.” (emphasis mine)

Why do I keep going to church when I often feel frustrated and out of place there? Why do I continue to pick up my Bible and read it, even though it often passes across my eyes as so much ink on paper? Why do I still attempt to pray when I feel little motivation to do so? Because of all the answers to the life's deepest questions that I have read about or encountered, the Christian one still makes the most sense and still offers the best explanation of any. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Christian message offers hope, hope for me, hope for the world, hope for the future.

At a conference I recently attended, and often these days in the Sunday morning service, I find myself singing the songs as a prayer, more as a statement of what I want to believe than what I can say with certain conviction that I do believe. Some might say that I have lost my faith. I would disagree. I have not abandoned my faith in Jesus Christ. However, I am rediscovering here in a middle place in my life what this faith means and what it looks like in daily life. I will close today with one final citation from Winner, who captures this thought quite expertly.

“On any given morning, I might not be able to list for you the facts I know about God. But I can tell you what I wish to commit myself to, what I want for the foundation of my life, how I want to see. When I stand with the faithful at Holy Comforter and declare that we believe in one God...I am saying, Let this be my scaffolding. Let this be the place I work, struggle, play, rest. I commit myself to this.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Not the Paramount Issue

A couple of weeks ago in a men's Bible study I attend, the leader of the group that week shared about a line he was not willing to cross. He said that a “line-in-the-sand” political issue for him was whether a politician opposed abortion or not and stated that he could not vote for one who did. I can respect that, even though in the context of the passage we were discussing that week (Esther 3), I felt it was rather a stretch to tie this topic into the conversation. At one point in my life I would have adamantly said the same thing. A politician's views on abortion became the single issue on which I would cast my ballot for or against him or her.

I no longer think that way. I no longer believe that one can make a single issue THE deciding factor in supporting or opposing a politician. The world is much too complex for that and the political arena has too many factors involved to make one issue the ultimate criteria. Am I being more godly or ethical to support a politician who opposes abortion but pursues wars which kill thousands of non-combatants? Is a politician more moral if she or he opposes abortion but supports policies that deprive the poor of support? Morality involves a wide range of issues and concerns and cannot be reduced to a single topic. Judging a politician simply by his or her views on abortion is simplistic and naïve.

Interestingly, someone pointed out to me that the Republican party, which has made a big point of their opposition to abortion, has in fact done very little to act on that plank in their platform. As evidence, this person pointed to the period in the Bush era when the Republicans had clear control of Congress and the White House and could have pushed through just about any anti-abortion bill they wanted. In the end they did little, despite their claims to be against abortion. The person who called this to my attention suggested that the Republicans recognize that having this plank in their platform works to their political advantage by attracting the single-issue anti-abortion voters, but if they were to actually achieve their goal, they would no longer have the uncritical support of that group of voters. It is to their political advantage to say there are opposed to abortion but to do little to work against it.

Unfortunately I think that lately this has been less the case, at least in many state legislatures. We see an increasing number of bills that seek to limit access to abortion as a means to eliminate it. We see waiting periods and forced “counseling” sessions and even had the possibility of a woman being forced to have a vaginal ultrasound. I think most of these measures are ridiculous and coercive. They do not respect a woman's individual rights, but treat her like an imbecile who is incapable of making an informed, personal decision. For this reason I oppose such measures.

Despite what the reader may think at this point, I do not favor abortion. I think it should be eliminated, but not by legal restriction. I think it should be eliminated by providing an environment in which women have better choices. This may include better adoption support, better support during pregnancy and after delivery for all women but particularly for those who find themselves in difficult circumstances, unable to adequately care for this new baby. I support the use of contraceptives so that women (and men with them) have more control over the timing of pregnancies. I want to see a culture in which women are not threatened, coerced or forced in any manner – psychologically, physically or otherwise – into sexual activity. Let's do all we can to eliminate “unwanted” pregnancies so that abortion becomes essentially a procedure used only in rare cases. We need to affirm the value of life holistically, including the lives of women.

I want to vote based on a broader ethical platform, one that recognizes that the Kingdom of God encompasses a wide range of issues and choices. For example, I'm not going to automatically support a politician who opposes abortion but promotes the exploitation of our environment. I'm not going to support a pair of candidates who oppose abortion but push for a budgetary policy that guts support to society's weakest and most vulnerable while cutting taxes for the wealthiest. These are also moral issues and I can no longer say that abortion trumps them all. The issues are too complex for that.

Abortion is certainly a political topic and if it is significant to you, then you should factor that into your voting decisions. However, I encourage you to think about other important issues as well and recognize that by supporting an anti-abortion politician (call them pro-life if you prefer), you may at the same time be lending your support to other issues that are also of significance to a voter who wants to see the values of the Kingdom furthered in our society.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Those Weren't The Days

A song I hear occasionally on the radio has stuck in my head the past couple days: The Summer of '69 by Bryan Adams. In the song Adams recalls several events from his past with warm nostalgia, capturing his feelings with the repeated refrain:

Those were the best days of my life.

That phrase has prompted me to reflect on my own perspective on life. Now that forty is in my rearview mirror, I like Adams am inclined at times to think of times in my past as the best days of my life. Our cultural mythology promotes this by refering to the time after forty as being “over the hill,” clearly implying that the best years of life come before that. Certainly I have some great memories of my earlier years, of high school and university days and I don't think there's anything wrong with remembering them with warm nostalgia. (One wonders how accurately we remember them, although perhaps its just as well if we allow some details to slip from our memories.) But I do myself wrong by choosing to live in the past. I rob myself of life when I choose to think that my best days are already behind me. I cannot recapture the past. I can celebrate it – maybe even grieve it as appropriate – but I cannot relive it, no matter how hard I try. 

The truth is, those don't have to be the best days of my life. The best days can still lie ahead. Life is not at an end, whether one is thirty, forty, fifty or beyond. Yes, the seasons of life change and the way in which we can enjoy them changes as well, but I don't want to live my life looking backward with regret, feeling that the prime of life is receding ever farther from my present. I want to embrace the present and look to the future with hopeful optimism. Life isn't over. The end has not yet come. I have a friend who is living his life as fully in his seventies as he has done in all the years before. He might even say he's enjoying himself more than ever. That's a model for me.

I would say the same to those who seem to hold to this idea on a national level. Some by their words and actions seem to believe that the best days of our country lie behind us. They would tell us that America has fallen from its greatness and that to recapture that we must return to what we once were. While there may be some aspects of truth in that, to me it is a hollow philosophy. It sees the past through rose-colored lenses and fails to recognize the significant shortcomings and failures of our society throughout its history. It's like a forty year old thinking that high school or university was the pinnacle of life and if he or she could just get back to that, everything would be great. But we're not the same nation we were in the past and we cannot go back to that point in time. Nor should we want to. Our best years do not have to lie behind us. They can still lie ahead of us.

When I say that I do not think primarily of restoring America to a position of proud arrogance in which it can impose its will on others around the world without restraint – particularly through military but also through economic influence. I certainly don't think of restoring an America in which a single group holds the majority of economic and political power. Rather I think of a nation that has learned humility – a nation that strives to uphold the equality of all of its people and to include them in the political and economic life of the nation. I think of a nation where power is used for the benefit of all but especially of those most in need, of those marginalized and crushed by systems and people that have wielded power unjustly. I think of a nation that contributes to global development not by force of arms or manipulative control but by coming alongside others to work for the common good. I think of a nation that lives for the future by taking care of its environment now. I think of a nation that lives not to consume more and more, making sure we “get our fair share” (although in fact we already have consumed more than our fair share), but which seeks to live moderately and modestly, promoting healthy, sustainable lifestyles so that others on this shared planet can also live.

No, we have not already seen the best days of our lives or of our nation. The best can still lie ahead of us. But it takes a willingness to break with outdated or false systems of thinking and behaving. It requires us to recognize and admit our weaknesses and failures. We won't progress by trying to go back to what was. We will progress as we seek to live out of an ethic of humble servanthood. We can be something of a “city on a hill,” but not by proclaiming our own self-righteousness and superiority. No, our best days are not behind us, unless we choose to try to live in the past. I don't want to live there though. I want to move forward and strive for what can yet come.

I'm probably just a hopeless dreamer, but that's a dream that motivates me far more than any call to reclaim our nation's past greatness.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Romney Shows His True Colors

I have not supported Mitt Romney to this point, but his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate solidifies my opposition to his candidacy. With this choice, Romney clearly demonstrates that his path to restoring America will come at the expense of those who can least afford it. As the chief author of the GOP's budget plan – Path to Prosperity, Ryan stands out as a staunch advocate for what Jim Wallis has described as “an immoral document.” This budget proposal and the principles that Ryan stand for run counter to fundamental principles of Scripture. God calls us to speak up for and defend the rights of the poor and needy, the widows and orphans. God does not call us to gut programs that help the poor while extending tax breaks to society's wealthiest members. For this reason the Republican budget plan authored by Ryan and the principles on which he formulated that document are immoral.

Unfortunately many other believers in this country will not see things this way. They have bought into a gospel that exalts wealth and success. Although not all would say it as clearly and directly as this, the fundamental American gospel holds that wealth is an indication of God's blessing and poverty an indication of God's curse. Consequently, those who have been blessed by God should be allowed to enjoy that blessing as they desire and the poor obviously just need to get right with God and get working so that they too can enjoy God's blessing. In adopting such a worldview, explicitly or implicitly, we forget or ignore the many injunctions in Scripture to care for the needs of the poor, to defend the cause of the weak and powerless. Yes, we need to do that first and foremost in our personal lives and in our churches, but we also need to advocate and strive to create governmental structures that do so as well. We will not achieve a just society simply by relying on the philanthrophy of individuals and private organizations. We need to reevaluate our understanding of the gospel message and speak out in defense of the poor, weak and marginalized.

I recognize quite clearly that this country needs to make some serious adjustments if we want to continue to have a healthy future. But those adjustments should not come at the cost of society's most vulnerable. We need to restrain government spending, but we can't do it primarily or exclusively on the backs of those who can least afford it. While advocating for cuts to welfare programs, Representative Ryan would expand military spending. While cutting programs to protect the environment he would extend tax cuts to the wealthy. His priorities are out of line and any progress he and Romney might achieve in reducing the deficit in this way would come at too high a cost. Yes, we need to make some hard choices as a country, but the ones offered by Romney and Ryan are not going to lead us in the right direction.

I wish I could say that President Obama offers a great alternative. Unfortunately that is not the case. The Democratic party has its own significant weaknesses. I wish there were a realistic alternative, a third party that would stand for a broad, Scripturally-sound, just society – a sort of Christian Centrist Party, although I'm hesitant to put the word Christian into the name of a party because it would be sure to be abused and misused. I am intrigued by the platform of the current Green Party candidates Stein-Honkala and may choose to throw my support behind them. But I simply cannot support a Romney-Ryan ticket that would attempt to right the American ship by reducing or eliminating support for those who most need it. To do that would be, in my mind, fundamentally unjust and immoral.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Out of the Shadowlands

I am quite fond of C.S. Lewis' writings. I'd say I'm fond of C.S. Lewis, but since I never met the man personally, that seems to be overstating my position. I've read much of what he wrote, although I cannot say that I have read everything. Like many others I enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia very much. Our children went through a phase when they loved the Chronicles also. We would listen to the Focus on the Family Radio Theatre presentation of the Chronicles so often that I felt like I could recite the lines along with the actors. Now my children seem to be in a stage of life where the Chronicles do not speak to them with the power they once did. Perhaps they will return to them. Certainly they were a foundation stone for my daughter's love of fantasy literature, even if at present they have receded from her active memory.

Of the Chronicles, I have always particularly liked The Last Battle. I love Lewis' portrayal of the end of Narnia and the unfolding of the real Narnia. I resonated with the cry to go “further up and further in,” to experience the unfolding dimensions and depths of this eternal, real realm. Certainly this was an accurate depiction of what heaven would be like.

Although I still love the Chronicles and The Last Battle, I no longer hold to the idea that Lewis has given an accurate depiction of heaven. I've long understood that Lewis' thinking was significantly shaped by Greek philosophy and mythology, as well as the mythologies of many other cultures. I even understood that this philosophy shaped his depiction and understanding of heaven and earth. What I failed to grasp though was the flaws in this. I come from a background that treats Lewis as a significant Christian theologian. But as Dianna Anderson argued very well in her recent article, Lewis did not seek to write as a theologian. He was first and foremost a philosopher and to the extent that we can consider him a theologian, we must read what he wrote with a clear understanding of his philosophical presuppositions.

In The Last Battle and throughout his writings, Lewis views the world through the eyes of Platonic (or perhaps neo-Platonic) philosophy, which sees this world as only a form of the real world. Everything about this world is at best an image of something real. Narnia, as experienced by the various children who inhabit the stories of the Chronicles, is not the “real” Narnia, but only a form of it. They only enter the real Narnia at the end of the series and find that it resembles the Narnia they have known, but yet is much larger and more substantial. It would be more accurate to say not that the real Narnia resembles the physical, earlier Narnia (an imprecise term because the real Narnia is physical as well, in fact more so, but somehow I must distinguish between the two), but vice-versa, because the physical Narnia is in fact only a form of the true Narnia.

I did not realize until recently, and Anderson's article helped me to solidify my thinking on this topic, that this Platonic philosophy had come to profoundly shape my understanding of heaven. I had come to see earth as a poor copy or image of heaven. We will only experience the true heaven when we reach it and when we do, it will seem a lot like this earth but somehow bigger, better, more solid and more real. I can say that there may still be some point in which this is an accurate description of heaven, but now, following the exposition of N.T. Wright, I've begun to understand that this earth was not a poor copy of something better. It was created in perfection. It's current condition is not due to any lack in its creation. It is not a poor copy of something more real and perfect. Rather, it is the real thing, only affected profoundly by fall and the ensuing influence of evil over the centuries. It's not that things on this earth are there just to give us reminders or hints of heaven. Heaven will be this earth but in the fullness of its created perfection as God originally intended and formed it.

To some this argument may seem purely rhetorical, but I think it makes a significant difference in how we view the world and how we understand what it means to live as people of faith in this world. In another post related to this topic, Anderson discusses this in relation to one specific and pertinent topic. I strongly encourage you to read her articles (she has three about properly and improperly interpreting C.S. Lewis.) If we adopt a Lewisian theology influenced heavily by Platonic philosophy, we end up with a sort of dualistic mindset that views this world as temporary and expendable. It's not the real thing anyway. At best (or perhaps worst) it leads us to efforts to reshape this world into our best guess as to what the “real” looks like. But since we don't know that (since all we can see is the form anyway), we end up just trying to shape things in the way that seems to best suit our own concepts. Again, read Anderson for an illustration of this.

If, however, we see this world as the pinnacle, albeit fallen and deformed, of God's creation, then we don't have to try to reshape it into some unknown ideal, but instead can work to mend the brokenness that is painfully apparent. We can become agents with God in restoring creation to the perfection that she or he originally intended for it. As Anderson writes:

God did not create this world to be a mere copy of some other better, more ideal one. This is the ideal world! All of it. It will be renewed, recreated, and reformed into the ideal, but it is not merely a placeholder for the ideal in the meantime. (emphasis Anderson's)

We're not here in the Shadowlands, just waiting to break through into the real world. I used to think that. Now I think I was wrong. We're in the real world. It's broken, wounded, deformed, but this is the real thing. This is the world that God will renew and reform as/when the Kingdom is fully established. I don't know what that renewed Kingdom will look like, but I'd sure like to contribute to seeing it realized here and now.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Is it moral to eat bananas?

I took a break from blogging the last two weeks. The first ten days or so I was entirely disconnected from the on-line world. And it was so great, so refreshing. I need to make a point of doing this regularly – except that my job requires me to be on line, so I guess I'll have to schedule it for vacation periods.

Lately I've been contemplating whether eating bananas is morally tenable. This may sound like a strange question, so allow me to offer an explanation. During my time off line I read Julie Clawson's book Everyday Justice. I discovered Clawson's blog not too long ago and really like her perspective on justice as a central part of the life of faith. In this book she looks at how some of our daily choices have global impact and challenges the reader to consider what steps she or he could take to begin to live a more just life.

I came away from this book both encouraged and challenged. I am encouraged because I see that steps my wife and I have taken recently – as well as some choices we have long practiced – correspond to her suggestions. We've made some healthy steps to living justly. We're seeking to reduce our consumption, purchase more local and healthy foods, live more simply, reduce or eliminate pesticides and chemicals from our daily lives and many other steps. We've actively recycled for years. Not doing so, especially in a city such as ours where we can recycle so many things through the city's curbside recycling program – seems immoral. We are growing in our awareness that the life of faith includes caring for the other members of God's creation as well as for the non-human aspects of creation. Readers of this blog have followed my journey this year as I've grown in this awareness.

But reading Clawson's book reminded me that there's still far more I can do. I appreciate that Clawson doesn't write to lay a guilt-trip on the reader. She encourages each of us to begin making small changes in our lifestyle, recognizing that most of us cannot radically change our entire lives overnight. She also recognizes that there are limits to what each individual or family can and is willing to do. Repeatedly Clawson asks us to consider who pays the true cost for the various products we consume. She didn't leave me feeling guilty, but did give me plenty of ideas to consider for further changes.

Which brings me back to my question: is it moral for me to eat bananas? There are various facets to this question. The first concerns the manner in which bananas are grown. As Clawson examines in her book (though not specifically concerning bananas), I need to consider whether the bananas I consume were grown and sold to me in a way that values the dignity of the growers. Or is that super-low price at the local supermarket reflective of the meager amount that the farmers were paid, while the multinational fruit company made large profits? I must also consider whether in the process of growing the bananas the farmers used toxic pesticides (by compulsion or otherwise) which harmed themselves and their local environment. Who is paying the true cost of those bananas? If in my desire to pay a low price I am forcing the farmers to pay a high one, then eating those bananas could be an immoral act.

There are various ways to avoid passing the cost of my bananas to the growers, but these involve fair-trade and organic farming. We often try to purchase organically-grown bananas at our local store, which is a positive step, one I believe Clawson would affirm. But I'm still left with a nagging doubt, because no matter how much benefit the grower sees for my organically-grown bananas, I live in a place where bananas do not naturally grow. In fact I live a long way from such places. Which means any bananas sold in my local store have traveled a long way to get here. This means that lots of fuel has been used to transport them, contributing to global climate change and environmental degradation. My purchase of fair-trade, organically-grown bananas may be a more ethical choice and bring more benefit to the growers, but it still comes with a price tag that I am not immediately paying. But if I stop purchasing bananas altogether and many others chose to do so as well, we could eliminate the market for such bananas and therefore the source of income for banana growers, leaving them unemployed. What is a banana-eater to do?

I don't have an answer to this question, and Clawson doesn't offer one either. I don't fault her for this, because it reminds us that ethical decisions are multifaceted and rarely have simply solutions. I will try to purchase organically-grown bananas and look for those that have traveled less distance, but I cannot say that I will never purchase regular bananas from the supermarket. I am thinking more about the impact of my purchases though, which I consider to be a healthy first step. Living justly is not a matter of a few simple adjustments. It requires rethinking and reorienting our entire lifestyle, which takes time and deliberate effort. I encourage you to read Clawson's book and consider what steps you can take to begin to live your life more justly.