Archive for August, 2007

Who has authority over scripture?

Saturday, August 25th, 2007

Who has authority over scripture?

            Last week, I spent several very intense days in spiritual reflection and dialogue with a few dozen emerging leaders from our denomination. Part of the purpose of the retreat is to find some times where everyone experiences at least a little bit of discomfort.

            I found my unease bubbling to the surface during a Bible study when someone raised the issue of the authority of scripture. In my experience, this sort of question generally leads to heated, if not intellectual, arguments about personal matters of faith. In most cases, I’ve seen very little good come from debates about the authority of scripture.

            This, however, was a rare and wonderful exception. Before offering our various points of view, we began by defining what exactly we meant by the word “authority.” In most instances, such a word evokes images of rules, consequences, intimidation and fear. But this is not the angle our group took.

            First, we began by discussing our sense of the origins of scripture. While some felt it was inerrant and perfect, others believed it was divinely inspired, yet filtered through potentially fallible human hands, minds and hearts.  Regardless of this disparity, we all agreed that scripture basically was “of God,” with widely varying opinions about what that meant.

It was enough common ground for real dialogue.

From there, we deliberated about the notion of authorship. If we all saw God as the ultimate author of scripture, either through inspiration by way of the Holy Spirit, or by divine dictation of some sort, this meant God had authority over scripture.

So what does it mean to have authority in this sense of the word?

It’s a wonderfully empowering experience engaging in the creative process of writing a book, but letting go of it once you’re done is equally terrifying. You are consumed by an intense feeling of vulnerability as editors pick apart your work, dissecting words and phrases, revising as they desire.

Once you get beyond the editors, there’s the forum of public opinion. Readers of your work post their views of your ideas, style and expertise on blogs, websites, and in letters to the editor. Discussions happen around coffee and dinner tables, of which you can only be a part from the pages of your book. You have no further control over how people interpret what you’ve written, or how they use it once it’s bound and on the shelves.

Sound familiar?

Have you ever heard it said that one can use the Bible to make any point they want? While this is moderately exaggerated, it’s not far from truth. If we all saw the same things in scripture, there would be no denominations, but only one united church. Even those who claim the inerrancy of scripture are divided over doctrine, interpretation of certain words, cultural and historical context, and so on.

It’s enough to make an author shake their head.

Claiming authority over any written word is a vulnerable place to be. Like raising a child, it’s a practice of learning to let go. After all, if God was interested in having us simply know exactly what was intended in scripture, why not have us come into the world with such data hard-wired?

We’ve use the Bible to advocate for peace, while at the same time, justifying war, and in some cases, even genocide. Some have leaned on scripture to justify slavery, and others are bent on standing upon the Word in an endless fault-finding quest against the rest of humanity.

Some people have found new life in these hallowed pages, and others have died because of them. It’s brought out both the best and the worst in humankind, and we’re far from done fighting over its contents.

Meanwhile, the Great Author waits patiently as we duke it out over who is right and wrong.

God help us.

Is your baby gay? We’ll fix that!

Saturday, August 18th, 2007

Is your baby gay? We’ll fix that!

According to some, the behavioral deprogramming of gay and lesbian people simply isn’t going far enough.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., caused a stir in evangelical circles recently when he proposed that maybe there actually is some genetic basis for homosexuality. Some would-be supporters condemned his suggestion that homosexuality could be anything other than a personal choice. However, this is not where the harshest outcry came from.

The gay and lesbian community, as represented at least by certain public figureheads, railed against his claim that even if sexual orientation is genetically determined, it’s a sin against God nonetheless. This harkens back to the old “sin gene” argument that says God tweaked our genetic code just so we would stray, but that it’s still our job to root out such causes of our sinfulness.

So what does Mohler suggest? Genetic modification, of course!

Why else would we have such tremendous advances in genetic engineering, if not to manipulate the way in which we express love to one another? Certainly the discovery of cures to such diseases as Alzheimer’s and many forms of cancer should take second chair to de-gaying your newborn child, right?

So it’s come to this: Mohler argues that it’s incumbent upon us to use every tool at our disposal to set right such genetic aberrations, even at the level of infancy, if we have the power to do so. More disturbing than his case is the likelihood that many would follow suit and carry this out if they had the means.

While some might justify something like this as an effort to make their child’s life easier by incorporating them into the cultural mainstream, so to speak, there are others who would toy with the very code of our human makeup to fulfill what they believe is a divine mandate.

For those proclaiming the inerrancy and universal applicability of every word in scripture, there is no point in deliberating, discussing or even considering the moral questions surrounding homosexuality. For those readers, I invite you to stop reading here, if you have not already.

For the rest of us, it’s worth a second look to ask ourselves exactly what it is we find so objectionable about a man or woman loving another man or woman, as I do my wife.

Some rely on the argument of compatibility for their moral objections. This generally means that sex – which is different than sexuality, mind you – is meant for the purposes of procreation, period. Therefore, anyone involved in a same-sex marriage is using God-given plumbing for an act other than the one intended.

So does that mean, by that argument, that any woman who has sex after menopause is living in sin, even if it’s with her husband? After all, she can’t have kids, right? What if I’m sterile? Do I have to commit to abstinence for the rest of my life?

There’s a sin delineated in the Old Testament known as the Sin of Onan, which is sometimes cited as justification for condemning gay people. The idea is that “seed,” or sperm, that is spilled in a manner not conducive to producing children is an abomination against God. But there’s an interesting bit of back-story that can help put this in context for us.

Whereas sometimes we can construe that certain scriptures written about “man” actually refer to both sexes, this certain context is specific to males. It was believed, at the time this text was likely written, that the entirety of the materials necessary to make a baby were contained within the semen of the male. The female simply was a repository for his “seed.”

Therefore, it was believed that if so-called seed was spilled in an act involving a partner or even just yourself, you were killing little miniature human beings that were contained within the semen.

Hopefully we’ve come a little further along in our understanding of anatomy since then, but too often, we cling to the literal words of a text, rather than placing them within the broader context of the wisdom and knowledge endowed upon us by God through the progress of humankind over time.

Put another way: It’s easier to label something as wrong and try to fix it than to raise the question about why, exactly, we think it’s wrong in the first place, short of yelling “the Bible says” at each other. Our scientific knowledge is an incredible gift, but, if we’re not careful, like the mythical Dr. Frankenstein, in our effort to play God, we’re going to give rise to a monster.

Gospel is sound according to Alfred E. Neuman

Saturday, August 11th, 2007

Gospel is sound according to Alfred E. Neuman

As a writer, I spend many hours in front of the computer every day.

If someone wants to communicate with me, e-mail and instant messaging online are a sure bet most days. Most instant messaging services use avatars or images that each user gets to pick to reflect his or her own personality. My father-in-law, Mark, has a picture of Mad magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman.

“Who’s that?” my son, Mattias, asks.

“That’s Alfred,” I tell him.

“What does he do?”

“Not much,” I answer, after thinking a moment.

“What does he say?” says Mattias.

“He says, ‘What, me worry?'”
“Why doesn’t he worry?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I guess he doesn’t have too much to worry about.”

If only we could learn from such wise words as, “What, me worry?”

The recent collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis was a tragedy, though it has resulted in the loss of fewer lives than once anticipated. Regardless, bridge-related news has dominated the national media for days, which has resulted in a ripple effect at local levels.

On “Colorado Matters,” a radio show, a structural engineer was interviewed about the flood of inquiries the incident had triggered statewide and elsewhere about the state of bridges across Colorado. When asked if he believed this was a frenzy that would pass within days or weeks, he responded dismissively.

“Of course it will,” he sighed. “Something else will come along for us to worry about and we’ll be off on that tangent.”

This spring, there was an outbreak of concern over contaminated vegetables. Then there was the story about dangerous substances in our pet food, followed by a lead paint scare in children’s toys. Before all of this came scores of other matters to occupy the worry centers in our brains, and before the year is over, dozens more will surface.

As someone who not only has a child and pets, but who also enjoys the occasional vegetable, sometimes while driving over my favorite bridge, I can find some personal connection with each of these stories. If I choose, I can use this as fuel to stoke the embers of worry that always glow within me, as they do in all of us.

If we’re not worrying about West Nile or hantavirus, then we’ll find someone else to worry about. Is Nicole Richie too thin? Is Oprah too fat? Will Lindsay’s latest trip to rehab really stick this time? Is Britney a good mom? Will Brad and Jennifer ever get back together?

So much to worry about, so little time.

It’s been said that worry is a mild form of agnosticism. This suggests that when we take on the worries of the world, we’re basically working above our own pay grade. We worry about things over which we have no control, or worse, we worry instead of doing something about those things at the source of the worry.

It’s enough to make a person wonder if, just maybe, we actually kind of like to worry.

There’s a Buddhist saying that goes, “If there is a problem and there is nothing you can do about it, don’t worry about it. If there is a problem and there is something you can do about it, don’t worry about it.” The point is, let go of those things beyond your reach, and change those causing you agitation, but worry in itself is an obsessive waste of energy.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a simple prayer seven decades ago that endures today with as much truth as the day it was penned. His three-part prayer reads, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I doubt Niebuhr was a subscriber to Mad magazine, but I bet he would appreciate Alfred E. Neuman’s attitude.

Addiction? Not in my church!

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

Churches should address addiction

One of the things that we speak about with church leaders is the importance of churches responding with compassion, support and honesty about the issues of addiction.

We presented some chilling statistics in a recent workshop about how widespread addictions – from sexual, gambling and alcohol to drugs and even debt – are among all walks of life, when this woman raised her hand.

“I’m sure this is all out there,” sighed one woman, “but I just don’t have any experience with addiction.”


Let’s consider some national trends with respect to what I’ll call an “average” congregation of approximately 100 people, 20 of whom are youth or young adults.

Of those 20 young people, two or three struggle with eating disorders that threaten their long-term health. Four or five of them have what would be clinically diagnosed as a chronic substance-abuse problem, as do about 14 of the adults in the church. At least one of these kids is hooked on illegal drugs, along with three adults.

Nine of the young people in this church binge-drink, three of whom drink heavily on a regular basis. Twelve of them will begin experimenting with alcohol before they reach age 16. Odds are that at least one of these young people will be among the 4 million people between the ages of 18 and 25 who serve prison time for crimes related to their dependence.

More than 50 of the members of this average church have an immediate family member who struggles with alcohol addiction, and nine of the adults sitting in the pews live with what would be clinically diagnosed as an alcohol disorder. Within the span of one generation, one person from this church will die from an alcohol-related incident.

Two people out of this typical 100 have a serious gambling problem, and another seven teeter on the edge of pathological gambling. Twenty or so are addicted to nicotine, more than 60 are technically overweight, and 15 are clinically obese.

Seventy percent of the men between the ages of 18 and 34 in the church view at least one Internet pornography site weekly. Ten people are Internet porn addicts, three of whom are women. More than half of the young people will have sex with multiple partners while under the influence of alcohol.

The average twenty- and thirty-something in this church carry credit-card debt of at least $4,000, an increase of 55 percent over a decade ago. Average college students carry credit-card debt of almost $3,000 a month. The average young family spends at least one-fifth of its monthly income trying to keep up with this debt, and one in five young families who make less than $50,000 a year spend as much as 40 percent of their income on such debt.

My statistics are drawn from a variety of sources, which I’d be happy to provide to interested readers.

Why don’t we know about these problems more in our churches? Perhaps it’s the climate of shame, judgment and condemnation people face if they bring their deepest problems to the fore. Somehow, somewhere, we got the message that we should be in perfect working order before coming to church, or if not, we ought to be well-versed in hiding our flaws.

It’s incumbent upon us to give people permission to bring their brokenness to church, not just to be fixed, but to be loved, even in their brokenness. And if we’re putting too much effort into appearing to be anything more than similarly broken vessels, we’re guilty of contributing to the climate of intolerance that drives so many people underground, or completely away, from church.

Finally, if by some statistical anomaly, any given church truly doesn’t have these issues in their midst, I would ask why not. If no one in your congregation is struggling with past or present addiction issues, why aren’t you out there, reaching out to those millions of people who need you?

If the face of your church doesn’t reflect that of the greater community, problems and all, it’s time for a face-lift.