@AndyStanley and his own “War on Christmas”

Or, more precisely, the Virgin Birth:

Andy Stanley, founder of North Point Ministries, a network of six congregations across the Atlanta metropolitan area attended by 30,000 worshipers a week, said in a message Dec. 3 that one of the challenging things about Christmas is the “unbelievable” nature of stories in the Bible describing Jesus’ miraculous conception.

“A lot of people don’t believe it, and I understand that,” Stanley said. “Maybe the thought is they had to come up with some kind of myth about the birth of Jesus to give him street cred later on. Maybe that’s where that came from.”

There are three parts of this debate.

The first is Stanley’s follow-up statement:

“If somebody can predict their own death and their own resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world, because the whole resurrection thing is so amazing,” he said.

It never occurs to Stanley that someone who rises from the dead had the same power leading up to that event, including but not limited to being born of a virgin, and the power to do miracles that Stanley’s fellow Baptists have fought to deprive the church of after the death of the apostles.

Second, we live in a day where alternative methods of procreation other than male-female union, including but not limited to cloning, are being discussed as within our reach.  That being the case, how people struggle with the “scientific” problem is beyond me.

Third, Stanley is playing into the modern and post-modern mentality that nothing happens without sex.  That, I think, is the biggest stumbling block to the Virgin Birth on a practical level.

The Greco-Roman world, however, had a pretty wide-open society when it came to sexual morality, including the adventures of their gods and goddesses.  The Virgin Birth, where something really important took place without sex, broke into that world.  That among other things put the Christian sexual ethic at odds with society in general, something we are experiencing today.

Although it’s counter-intuitive now, that was part of the appeal Christianity had.  That might still be the case were it not for popularity seekers like Stanley, whose appeal in the Evangelical world is likewise beyond me.

Today many are saying that Evangelicalism is losing its appeal, and that it’s harder to get people to admit to the label.  It’s getting hard for me to admit to it too, but that’s because of bottom feeders like Stanley who do not understand that while grace is free, living for Jesus is costly.

Russell Moore Loses His “No Win” Position

He’s certainly in trouble:

Now Moore himself, as the ERLC leader, is under attack from some of the religious right figures he criticized during the campaign…

“There are a number of churches that I have heard of in the SBC, fairly large churches, that are going to withhold their funds from the ERLC,” Harrell says, “until this gets straightened out.”

This was predictable, and I did so for both of the Moores (the other being Beth) who are in the doghouse over this.  Back in October, I made the following prediction:

The second is that it puts her (Moore) in a classic no-win position.  If Trump wins, she’s on the losing side, and Evangelicals are too busy running a popularity contest to want to be there.  If Hillary wins, she’s going to eventually have to explain the bad consequences of an inevitable kulturkampf which is coming in a Clinton presidency, or that  the neocons are mostly behind her because they think she’ll get us into another war.

Given Trump’s nature, a more sensible approach would have been for Christian leaders to have made the decision on practical grounds and skip the gaudy rhetoric.  (After all, choosing the candidate least likely to throw you in jail isn’t insignificant, is it?)  But Moore on the one side and leaders like the Jr. Jerry Falwell on the other couldn’t resist grandstanding the issue; since Moore is on the losing side, he will have to bear the worst of the blowback.

The biggest threat to Evangelicals of a Trump presidency is the one not verbalised: the nature of success.  Evangelicals have told the country for years that their clean-scrubbed ideal is the best way to run lives and nations.  Trump may well prove successful, but it won’t be clean-scrubbed by any stretch of the imagination.  Being put in the situation where the Evangelical way isn’t the “way up” on either side of the street is a dangerous place in these United States.  (Mormonism is in the same place, which is why they waited so late to break for Trump; Mitt Romney is the first casualty of that situation.)

Which leads me back to another question: after this boffo performance by Evangelical leadership, you guys sure you want to repeal the Johnson Amendment?

Mirroring Our Creator

Not too long ago, while grading homework for a course I was teaching, I saw a “better than usual” performance from one of my students.  I noted that, if she would consistently concentrate on what she was doing, she was capable of very good work.   The response I got to this was as follows:

I just stumbled across the feedback you gave me…Thank you for that. It’s nice to hear those things once in a while, and especially from a professor of your calibre.

My response to this was as follows:

At the beginning of his poem Paradiso, Dante wrote the following:

The glory of Him who moves all things rays forth
through all the universe, and is reflected
from each thing in proportion to its worth.

Our first task in life is to point the mirror in the right direction.

I’m sure that it’s the rare professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science that would quote Dante in a communication with a student, but doing so brings up some things that need to be said.

Today the concept of “equality” is endlessly paraded before us.  In practice, however, equality is a tricky concept.  It’s one thing to pass some legislation and give each other the high-five that we’ve moved towards a more just society. It’s another to achieve real equality.  To do that would require either that we accept that everyone have the same outcome (which was an goal of Communism) or abolish any kind of reward for performance, and frankly we’re not near either one.

No where is that more evident than in education.  In spite of the levelling efforts of the last fifty years, we still don’t have real equality, not only among the students and faculty but among differing institutions.  There are many reasons for this but the most important one is that people are not the same; thus, inequality is built into the system from the start.

A teacher is presented with a varied lot each time class assembles.  In addition to differing levels of intelligence, there are other things that vary.  Students learn differently one from another.  Some take too many courses in one semester.  Some work full-time jobs and/or have a family.  Some do both, which can be a real disaster.  Some experience personal tragedy, either going into their studies or during them.

It’s tempting for an academic to focus on their “best” students.  Having worked in industry first, I am aware that there is more to life than academic performance, and I’ve seen in class that the “smart” students aren’t always the ones who come up with the best solutions, especially on projects.  That tells me that, as one of my own professors observed, testing may not be the best was to gauge performance, but it’s the best we’ve got.  We need to understand its limitations, along with those of the whole academic system.

Getting back to Dante, he lived in a world where inequality was accepted as a fact of life.  But he also lived in a Christian world where each and every human being had worth to his or her Creator.  Each of those creatures should reflect whatever glory their creator put in them; if they did so, they fulfilled their purpose, and found their value in doing so.

Today our obsession with “equality” leads us to try to do all and be all.  But our God doesn’t expect that, and neither do I.  As a professor, what I want to see from my students is their best, to bring out that which their God and their creator has endowed them with.  If I get that, I’ve succeeded and they’ve succeeded.

That is what I meant by my comment: our first task is to direct ourselves in such a way as to reflect the glory of our Creator best, and that first is towards Him.  But that leads to another point of the Paradiso: we get to the point where we realise we cannot achieve our true goal without God’s help and presence in our lives.  To fully reflect the glory of our Creator and to fulfil his purpose for us requires that step, and for that the provision is his, not ours.

To make that step, click here

Tillerson for Secretary of State? Of Course!

Donald Trump’s anticipated choice of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State already has people riled up.  What could a dirty oil man–especially one who has “relations” with the Russians–do for this country’s foreign affairs?

The first thing Donald Trump has doubtless found out is something this blog has said for a long time: you can be a great American or you can be good at foreign affairs, but you can’t be both.  We are simply too self-contained and provincial.  That’s one reason our foreign policy veers from cave to conquer, with disastrous results following.

But the oil industry provides an interesting exception to this.  As I pointed out a long time ago, from the perspective of a participant:

Liberal pseudo-sophisticates may sneer at the idea of “dirty” oil men (those of us in the business, like Barack Obama, do take regular baths in places where the plumbing permits) doing anything but going to Mickey Gilley’s after a day in the oil patch, but the truth is that the oil industry has been one of the most internationalised businesses out there, forwarding globalisation long before upstarts like computer technology related businesses were even in the game. Although most people think of the major oil companies in this effort—and they certainly took an interest in China when opportunity became apparent—another vanguard is the oilfield supply and service business. This includes everything from drill bits to disaster response such as Red Adair to construction services for platforms and refineries.

(The business about Barack Obama and baths comes from Joe Biden’s inept comment about him being a “clean” black guy; I am amazed that he ever became Vice President after that.)

Oil is a very international business.  It was made up of people from Third World countries long before the left thought to import them to change the electorate.  But oil is also the American left’s chief bête noire because oil brought prosperity, fuelled cars and made suburbia possible, and they’ve hated it ever since for that.  (That’s another reason they don’t like Ben Carson as HUD Secretary, but that’s another post…)

That hatred antedates the climate change debate.  They have used every environmental misstep the industry has done to attempt to drive it from our shores, as if such problems are better if they’re somewhere else.  (The oil industry, to its credit, has made many advances in “cleaning up its act.”)

That puts oil people in a unique position.  On the one hand, they’ve been dealing with different nations, cultures and religions (not the least of which is Islam) for many years.  On the other hand, they’ve done it “beyond the pale,” i.e., beyond the usual diplomatic circles, and often with people not formally trained in such things.  Thus they also have the natural enmity of the diplomatic corps.

That puts those of us who have participated in the industry in a unique spot.  That has miffed frequent commenters such as David Lloyd Jones, aware of my international experience, who then don’t understand my conservative politics.

When I went to China in 1981, I was well aware that the élite leftists didn’t like what I did because of what it was, i.e., furnishing equipment to the oil field.  I was also aware that the “cold warriors” of the day didn’t like the idea of us doing business with the Communist Chinese.  But we went anyway and helped the balance of payments–which badly needed some help–in the bargain.

As for the Russians, it was either them or the neocons.

I hope the Senate sees as much wisdom in this choice as I do.  My wish for Tillerson is that he puts the country he’s representing first priority.  But first we have to keep the team together in the Senate, and that may not be easy.

My Thoughts on Donald Trump and the Chinese

The incoming administration is doing many things that put their opponents–and some of their supporters–in a lather.  That’s not hard to do these days in the US, it seems that everyone pretty much lives that way.  One of those is with the Chinese–taking a call from Taiwan’s president, his threats regarding trade, etc.

I have a little commercial experience with the Chinese, albeit a long time ago.  Here are my thoughts on the subject:

Much of the Advice People Give on China is Rubbish

At the end of my series on the subject, I state the following:

One of the lessons we at Vulcan took from China is that “experts” seem to gravitate towards the country. We found these experts in the U.S., too. They’d appear at international trade events, going on at length about how to deal with this exotic Chinese culture and how different it was from ours, and how with their advice we would do business.

The problem with many of these people is that they’ve never “done the deal.” Many of them have never sold or leased anything to the Chinese or anyone else for that matter. We found that such advice not to be as helpful as it looked. However, the one thing that those of us who have done the deal must avoid is to represent our specific experience as the only way to do business in China, then or now. But there are some useful lessons that can be learned.

Anyone who speaks of “doing the deal” must have Donald Trump in the back of their minds, and I must confess I did when writing that back in 2007.  But a lot of the whining about how he’s about to ruin our relationship is rubbish.  It’s on par with those who never thought China would get anywhere without “democratic” institutions.  Many of those people are crying about the result of our own democratic institution, so they shouldn’t complain.  (If you don’t like our result, you should first consider this before you tout another “band-aid” solution.)

The Chinese are Superb Negotiators

Lu Xun, the famous Chinese author, makes an illustration of people in a dark room.  He says that, if you propose to cut some windows, you’ll get opposition, but if you propose to take the roof off, you’ll get agreement on a more sensible solution.

In the first contact with our Chinese representative, he advised the following:

The Chinese are not frivolous. They will not invite you unless they plan to buy…The Chinese are good bargainers. It is wise to add 5% to gracefully give away in contract discussions as a discount.

Many things Donald Trump says are characterised as “promises,” especially on immigration.  They are in fact first negotiating positions, and the Chinese will see them as such.  The fact that Americans don’t only shows what poor negotiators we are.  I wouldn’t panic about his initial statements about anything, and those about the Chinese are no exception.

He Needs to be Careful on Taiwan

I noted the following about Taiwan:

The Americans were in a more difficult situation, mostly because of the Cold War. In addition to the export restrictions and complete lack of government support, there was always the matter of Taiwan, which sticks in the Chinese government’s craw just about worse than anything else (although the commercial activities of “Overseas Chinese” such as those from Taiwan and elsewhere also helped to re-open China for business.)

It’s still true that Taiwan is a sore subject for those on the Mainland, because it goes to national identity.  Which China is the real one?  The Communist one on the Mainland or the Guomindang one on Taiwan?  Both our relationship and theirs with Taiwan is complex, because they are an important trading partner with the US, and in fact one for the Mainland as well.

It wasn’t a mistake for him to speak with Taiwan’s President.  For him, it’s part of the negotiating process.  But he needs to be careful on this issue.

The Chinese Can’t Afford to See Us Fold

One thing that people say is that the Chinese can punish us severely through cyber assault, calling debt, etc.  But as I pointed out here:

Let’s consider our situation with the Chinese.  Back in the last decade, when we were borrowing so much and importing the stuff they made, people would say that they’re going to “call the note” and take us over.  That idea was ridiculous because a) their trading partner would hit the wall, crashing their exports and b) it would take the main reserve currency with it.  Both of these would make repayment of the debt impossible.  Currently the Chinese are using their new-found financial power to expand themselves throughout the world.

But there’s another thing to consider, one that is more important now than before: if they do crash the place,  who’ll pick up the pieces?  The world has become a more prosperous place overall; our shrinking part of the world pie is not only because we are less prosperous, but because others are more.

China will take a greater place in world affairs as time progresses.  But in the meanwhile they cannot afford to see us fold.  Both sides have been dealt a hand; it is important that neither tries to overplay it.

Chinese Expansionism is Their Response to American Weakness

Many wonder “what will Trump do with the Chinese islands in the South China Sea.”  The answer is probably “not much.”  They have done this because they rightfully perceived American weakness, done by a President who basically felt that American power was injurious to the state of the world.  The first thing that Trump will find out, to expand the card analogy, is that the hand he’s been dealt is not as strong as his predecessors. Much of his task to “make America great again” is to first make America itself great and then let the rest of the world size itself up.  This is as opposed to the neocon approach of beating down any challenges that come along through military action.  If he sticks with this he will play to the traditional strengths of the country.

It’s All Risky

Donald Trump has frightened many.  But, like Barack Obama, electing him was a risk.  That reminds me of a rather humorous incident earlier this year:

One of the more amusing moments I’ve had here at UTC has been the visit of the new Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, Dr. Daniel Pack, to the SimCentre, where I just finished my PhD.  He wanted to meet with the students; it’s been a rough road for the program, and he wanted to “cast a vision” for the future.  Towards the end of his talk, he threw out the old B-school meme that, in Chinese, the character for “opportunity” is contained in the character for “crisis.”

However, as is the case with most gatherings of engineering students (and faculty) these days, the Chinese are well represented.  Once he said that he paused in puzzlement for a second, looked at the Chinese and asked, “Is that really true?”  The Chinese, after looking at each other, confirmed that it was true.  Needless to say, the Dean sighed with relief.

Liberals want a world which is free of uncertainty.  So does everyone else, but that isn’t what we have.  Letting things slide down has its own risks.

Recently I visited an art gallery where Jean-Paul Laurens’ portrait of the Roman Emperor Honorius was on display.

He became Emperor at the age of ten.  The portrait conveys the message that the job was too big for him.  The sword and orb certainly are, and his feet don’t reach the floor.  His growing up didn’t help; Honorius’ reign was a disaster.  He had his most capable general Stilicho executed, and it was downhill from there, starting with the first sack of Rome in 410.  With that Britain separated itself from Roman rule and the Western Empire began its march to the end.

The United States of American isn’t a perpetual motion machine.  The arc of history may be continuous but it is not everywhere smooth or differentiable.  To keep things up we need to take chances now and then.  When we sat down with the Chinese we didn’t know what the outcome would be, just as Richard Nixon didn’t know when he started his initiative.  But the results were and are beneficial.

Whether this chance will work with China or anywhere else remains to be seen, but it must be tried.

An interview with Abu Daoud about “Sharing Jesus with Muslims in America”

Almost five years ago I interviewed Abu Daoud, the legendary Anglican missionary and scholar on Islam.  (You can see Part 1 and Part 2 of that interview.)  Well, praise be to Allah, he’s emerged from the shadows with a book entitled Sharing Jesus with Muslims in America.  This interview was conducted at an undisclosed location.

  1. What was your primary motivation in writing Sharing Jesus with Muslims in America?

I was speaking with a colleague in South Asia some time ago and we were both disheartened about our experiences when speaking in American churches. We felt like the churches of the USA needed a solid, easy-to-read, practical book on sharing the Gospel with local Muslims. So he, a Baptist missionary, and I, an Anglican, worked together on this.

For security reasons I could not use my birth name on the book, and he decided not to be listed as an author at all. Between the two of us you have over three decades of cross-cultural ministry experience though. I decided to use the name Abu Daoud since I’ve been using that name with my blog and other publications (also here) for a long time.

  1. There is a great deal of material on Islam aimed at a Christian audience. Is it useful in helping people share their faith with Muslims? Why or why not?

You are right that there is a huge amount of material out there. Unfortunately, most of it falls into one of two errors. The first is to overemphasize the commonalities between Islam and Christianity, and suggest that an authentic conversion to a whole new way of life is not needed. The second is to tell you all the nasty stuff about Islam (and trust me, I know that stuff). But knowing everything wrong with Islam doesn’t really prepare you to actually do something positive about Islam—which is to share the Gospel with them.

  1. What sets your book apart from others?

This book has a hopeful voice. The book is a quick and easy read, and we’ve received very positive feedback so far. Christians in the USA are often not sure what to make of our quickly growing Muslim population. And guess what, it ain’t gonna stop growing! We give a gospel-centered, confident approach that will help individual Christians share Jesus in the context of personal friendship. We also have a whole chapter on what churches can do to reach out to local Muslim populations.

  1. What kind of education or training do Christians need to help them share their faith with Muslims?

Let me be clear, you don’t need to know anything at all beyond your own Christian faith. That having been said, it really is good to have some basic knowledge about Islamic cultures, societies, and the Qur’anic worldview, and how Muslims in general are trained to respond to Christianity. There’s no magic formula of course, but for such a brief book you get a lot of down-to-earth, practical pointers.

  1. How do you recommend Christians approach the Qur’an? Can it be used to help share the gospel with Muslims?

This is a good question. Personally, I am clear with my Muslims friends that I don’t believe in the Qur’an, but if we can use the Qur’an to begin a conversation about Scripture, then why not?

  1. Islam is frequently characterised as a monolith, and yet the Islamic world is diverse. How do you recommend that Christians and their churches deal with that?

This book has a full chapter on how churches that can engage with the local Muslim populations in their cities, and my first recommendation is do your research. Where are they from? There is a big difference between a Pakistani Ahmadi community and an Egyptian Sunni community and an Iranian Shi’a community, of course. Read up on the history of the people, their form of Islam, check out the world news websites about their home country. All of these things will help you to build credibility with them and communicate better.

  1. How should Christians accommodate the cultures Muslims come out of to aid them in sharing the gospel?

Ultimately we’re working towards evangelizing and sanctifying entire cultures. What does it look like for Yemeni culture to know Christ? What does it look like for Libyan culture to be baptized and sanctified? The challenge is that these cultures are so inextricably intertwined with Islam that it is hard to know where Islam ends and a given culture begins. All of this to say, it is a lengthy, hard work, and we should not expect to be able to answer the question in the lifespan of a single generation of believers. Use Scripture, draw on your own denominational tradition, and be patient as new believers stumble along by the grace of God figuring out how to construct a new convert identity in Christ and his Church.

  1. What is the single most important thing that Christians need to do when interacting with Muslims with the object of effectively sharing their faith?

I’m torn between two things: First, model it. Second, ask questions.

  1. If a Muslim does come to Christ, what should the church do to help them in their new life?

The church needs to provide them with a new family. That is hard to hear, but once they embrace Christ it is likely that their whole family and community will reject them. They are all alone in the world. They will need a new family and to build up a new identity.

  1. What are you doing now? How has that changed since the last interview?

I have been thinking a lot about the word impact lately. So I’m investing a lot of my time and energy right now in teaching local churches in the West and the Muslim world too about how to engage in this ministry. This book comes from that desire for impact. I’m also helping to train workers and mobilizing people for long term mission. Also a number of writing projects.