Category Archives: Evangelical and Pentecostal Stuff

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Painting Ourselves into a Corner at “The Shack”

If our political chaos isn’t enough to upset everyone, now we have the film version of William Taylor’s The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity.  It’s created a great deal of controversy over its implied universalism, it’s decidedly LDS portrayal of God as three embodied beings, etc.

Personally the heart of the matter centres around the work’s theodicy.  I covered the same ground back in January in my piece on Bart Campolo, where I took a swipe at Evangelical Christianity’s lame attempt to “solve” this problem.  In that epic, Campolo’s critical moment with God came after a hard bicycle accident.  As the NYT pointed out, Campolo had been raised in world where “his religion told him that a benevolent God controlled every last thing that happens on earth.”  When things didn’t turn out as he had been led to believe, he bailed.

Fortunately, the secular side of my upbringing immunised me from this kind of thinking:

For me personally, it’s an entirely different ball game.  If I had ever asked the question at home  (and I can’t recall I ever did) “Why do bad things happen to good people,” the answer I probably would have gotten was, “So what? You just have to tough it out, and if you can’t, it’s too bad.”  And, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog, the home I grew up in was anything but an “ideal” Christian home.  The difference between the two is significant.  While Campolo’s concept on the existence of evil focused on God, the one I was presented with focused on me.

Faced with adversity, Campolo left Christianity; Taylor’s response, in effect, is to reinvent Christianity to solve the theodicy problem of Evangelicalism’s own making.  But from my standpoint the reality of life doesn’t justify either one:

But hurdle I did, first because God came to me, and second because I never saw in the Scriptures the idea that this world was going to be perfect, and that eternity was the most important goal and would overshadow the pains of this life.  Eternal life was one the one thing that God could give me that the world could not.  But perhaps that all was because I looked at the Scriptures informed by the secular framework I was raised in.  The theodicy issue, such an obsession with so many, was never a big deal for me.  If these humanists were such great people, why didn’t they solve the problem of evil in the world?

Better answers are called for here, but better answers are in short supply in our culture today.  Evangelicalism has painted itself into a corner on the theodicy issue, and it wants to get out of the shack it needs to do more than just mess the floor up on the way out.

Some Lessons for Pentecostals from the “Recent Anglican War”

Those of you who are regular followers know that I have followed/participated in what I call the “Anglican Revolt,” a term which comes from a North American perspective.  Brewing for years, in 2003 it was detonated in full force by the ordination of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man who subsequently went into and out of same-sex civil marriage, as Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.  That event was the major impetus in ultimately birthing the Anglican Church in North America (ANCA,) and many of the events between those two were well covered on this blog.

Those of us with roots in Anglicanism and who have attempted to suppress amnesia on the subject know that the left bent of the Episcopal Church is of long-standing, that we’ve been through (and been a part of) a membership bleed before, and that the Episcopal Church’s abandonment of the basics of Christianity–both those about sex and those which don’t–has been a major reason the church has shrunk and continues to shrink.

Now, it seems, those same disputes have come to the Pentecostal world, with Urshan College giving the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS) the boot as a venue for their gathering because the SPS had the bad taste to allow a prominent LGBT activist on the program.  (Pentecostals will have to excuse my Palm Beachy characterisation of things, you like to celebrate roots, those are mine.)  This has led to a firestorm on the “online trash fire” that Facebook has become.  For those of us who have marched through this battlefield with the Anglicans, it’s “déja vu all over again.”

I think at this point it would be worthwhile for Pentecostals to draw some lessons from the experience of others, while at the same time highlighting some differences too.  I dealt with this issue from a more general Evangelical perspective two years ago, but some more thoughts are as follows:

  • The Christian sexual ethic is non-negotiable.  People find this difficult because they think that Christianity is a popularity contest, and since we live in a society where people are defined by what they do with their genitals and how often they do it, we must go with the flow to survive.  But Our Lord and his Apostles laid down a standard which is really higher than the one we see counselled in our churches; we either have to make a serious attempt to live it (I’m not talking about politics at this point) or stop professing and calling ourselves Christians.
  • Don’t obscure the issues with gaudy rhetoric.  In the Anglican world that means the infamous “Anglican fudge,” and I’ve called that out more than once.  The Anglicans have tried to paper over their differences with it, and it hasn’t worked.  In the Pentecostal world we see a similar thing where people adopt a “spiritual” form of rhetoric, which obscures the substance (or lack of it) of what they are really saying and what they really believe.  In addition to opening oneself up to the charge of being duplicitous, this kind of thing only delays getting to the bottom of the issue, it doesn’t avoid it.
  • Don’t let academia rule the waves.  I grazed over this issue from a Roman Catholic perspective in my review of Christ Among Us.  Their idea was that seminary academics would work to redefine the doctrines of the church.  Needless to say, that got a smackdown under Pope John Paul II, much to the relief of the #straightouttairondale crowd.  I’ve seen the same idea unspoken (usually, sometimes verbalised) by many Pentecostal seminary academics, and some of these are in turn in the SPS.  But that’s not the job of the academy, and that comes from a PhD holding academic.  The primary job of the academy is to train our future ministers to be effective preachers and stewards of the Gospel.  Irrespective of the serious authority issues in Pentecostal churches, there is no Biblical sanction for moving that to the academy.
  • Don’t let academia waive the rules, either.  One lesson from the Episcopal Church’s experience that bears repeating is that their drift from orthodox Christianity began in their seminaries with the introduction of “higher criticism” and other new ideas that undermined the faith of the church.  By the time of the critical moment in the 1960’s, the church folded when confronted with the likes of James Pike.  That process is much slower in Pentecostal churches because, overall, the educational level of our ministers is lower than that in Anglicanism (as is the case with the laity, that’s the preferential option of the poor in action.)  But it’s something that need not be ignored.
  • Don’t be an institutionalist.  This cuts both ways.  One of the perennial frustrations I have with the ACNA is its fixation on being in communion with Canterbury.  The recent Church of England synod should put paid to that obsession, but I wouldn’t count on it.  They have the chance to both make a gain for orthodoxy and to break a racist-colonialist structure by making GAFCON the “real Anglican Communion,” but they can’t bring themselves to do it.  OTOH, it is silly (and dangerous in the current circumstance) for people to insist that the institutions they work for accept their idea just because they have it and it looks trendy.  As I noted in this piece, it’s their institution, not yours; deal with it.

I hate to see this issue come to haunt Pentecostal churches, but I guess in my gut I felt it would sooner or later.  As I said before:

Before he went to trial, suffering, crucifixion and death, Our Lord exhorted his disciples in this way: “I have spoken to you in this way, so that in me you may find peace. In the world you will find trouble; yet, take courage! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33 TCNT)  That has not changed.  Neither should our response.

The Perils of Repealing the Johnson Amendment

One of Donald Trump’s promises to the Evangelical community–and one which he’s gotten much enthusiasm about in return–is his promise to repeal the so-called “Johnson Amendment,” the provision in the tax code which prohibits 503(c)3 tax-exempt organisations–and that includes churches–from explicitly endorsing candidates for public office.  I say “explicitly” because churches on both sides of the political–and racial–spectrum have been implicitly doing this for a long time.  And the polarisation of our society has only made this easier.

It’s for that reason that I think the real impact of this will not be as widespread as people think.  Whether it is beneficial is another story.  One thing that this country has been “about” is that freedom is something to be used responsibly.  If and when this restriction comes out of the tax code, our ministers will have some serious choices to make.  Based on my experience with our ministers, this may not work out as anticipated.

Most ministers of the Gospel are called, trained and set forth to lead their congregations or, to use Our Lord’s pastoral analogy, feed the sheep.  The interests of the sheep are for the most part local: raising a family, doing the work to make a living, and being a part of their community.  The gifts and skills of the ministers, which admittedly vary, are geared towards that kind of life pursuit.  That’s especially true with Evangelical churches, with their focus on the salvation experience and (hopefully) the later spiritual growth.

To properly operate politically, however, requires a broader view of life.  That’s where the problem comes in.  Most of our ministers, by training and temperament, are unprepared to properly address the broader issues facing our society, and thus are unprepared to properly inform their congregations about how best to respond to those challenges.  As a result of this there are two mistakes our ministers make in addressing political issues that can significantly impact their congregations.

On the left, we have those who basically “flip” the message of the Gospel, putting the broader social issues ahead of the personal ones.  That’s a major reason left-wing churches are in decline: they’re political all right, but they don’t address people’s life issues in a meaningful way.

On the right, we have various forms of “prosperity teaching.”  At the core of prosperity teaching are two underlying assumptions.  The first is that Christianity is the “way up” in this world, and second that moving up is the principal goal of life.  Today we principally associate prosperity teaching with the likes of Paula White, who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration.  But we’ve had this before.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Episcopal Church experienced tremendous growth, basically by telling people that they had the nicest religion and that people could move up by becoming a part of it.  The taste of the two results is quite divergent, but the ultimate goal is the same.

The danger of the left-wing mistake is obvious: declining churches.  The danger of the right is the same as Harry Reid’s doing away with the super-majority filibuster for nominees: if the political wind reverses, you’ve given yourself the shaft.  In both cases the reality of the Gospel is obscured by our desires of the moment.

I think that political activity needs to be the province of the laity.  And I’ve heard Christian politicians show a stronger grasp on what the Gospel is all about than ministers about political issues.  To put our ministers in the “driver’s seat” of political activity is to cede yet another function of the laity, reducing the latter to passive consumers of the church’s product.  And we have enough of that unBiblical kind of thing going on as it is.

As I said at the start, freedom is something that needs to be used wisely.  If you get it, be careful: you may end up losing it all if you blow it.

If I Started the way @BartCampolo Did, I Wouldn’t Believe in God Either

One of the more baleful pieces that has recently appeared in the “Old Grey Lady” (and there are many) is their article on Bart Campolo and his decamping from Christianity to atheism.  I am sure that some secular progressives have toasted each other (probably multiple times, with the predictable result for them) on this catch.  And I am sure that many evangelicals have lamented his departure; one of those reflections is here.

For me, something of a perennial outlier in Evangelical terms, the thing that struck me about his “deconversion” (strange term in and of itself) was this:

His faith had already begun to falter by the next summer, while he was working at a camp for poor children in Camden, N.J. Some of his campers had been sexually abused, yet his religion told him that a benevolent God controlled every last thing that happens on earth. He had a hard time squaring these two thoughts.

His own bicycle accident iced his Faustian moment:

Now, after his near-death experience, his wife told him — more bluntly than she ever had — what she thought was going on. “You know,” Marty said, “I think you ought to stop being a professional Christian, since you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in heaven, and you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead three days after dying — and neither do I.” He knew that she was right, and he began telling friends that he was a “post-Christian.”

It strikes me that his entire journey in and out of faith centres around the theodicy issue.  For someone who came out of an Evangelical background, the concepts he was taught are normative, especially if the church you’re in is Reformed to some degree.

For me personally, it’s an entirely different ball game.  If I had ever asked the question at home  (and I can’t recall I ever did) “Why do bad things happen to good people,” the answer I probably would have gotten was, “So what? You just have to tough it out, and if you can’t, it’s too bad.”  And, as I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog, the home I grew up in was anything but an “ideal” Christian home.  The difference between the two is significant.  While Campolo’s concept on the existence of evil focused on God, the one I was presented with focused on me.

And why not?  Christians were routinely portrayed by their opponents as weaklings in need of a “crutch,” never mind that same opponents spent much of their time high or drunk.  There were always those whose secular success, especially in business, went forward without any clear help from “the man upstairs.”  We lived in a world where the state-sponsored atheists, when they beat us into space, didn’t find God, and had nuclear weapons to boot.  That was a high bar for someone not in the cocoon of the Evangelical system to hurdle.

But hurdle I did, first because God came to me, and second because I never saw in the Scriptures the idea that this world was going to be perfect, and that eternity was the most important goal and would overshadow the pains of this life.  Eternal life was one the one thing that God could give me that the world could not.  But perhaps that all was because I looked at the Scriptures informed by the secular framework I was raised in.  The theodicy issue, such an obsession with so many, was never a big deal for me.  If these humanists were such great people, why didn’t they solve the problem of evil in the world?

Unfortunately I find myself as always an outlier in this culture.  We live in a consumerist mentality where those who mean anything to us are those who do for us, and only those who do for us, even if we have to pay for the service.  Three score ago Jack Kennedy could challenge Americans to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  Today such a challenge would be met with derision, either by the country or by anyone else.  And that applies to God and his church too.

As is their custom, Evangelicals are always chasing the culture’s trends, and moulding their message accordingly.  But the price to pay in this case, easily predictable, is that when things don’t go according to our plan–and sooner or later they won’t–the first impulse is to bail.

I think it’s fair to say that Bart Campolo is ultimately both a victim of that Faustian bargain and a perpetrator of one of his own.  But here’s where things turn unexpectedly: if a consumerist mentality is corrosive to Christianity, it’s also corrosive to the secular left.  Gone are the days when the likes of a Nikolai Ostrovsky gave everything (and he suffered tremendously in his lifetime) to make the world a better place as he saw it.  Today we have a deeply rooted entitlement mentality, where the arc of history will always bend out way no matter how slovenly or inept our effort is.  (Or how good we think it is.)  This past election cycle is a good example of how that kicked back hard.

That, in a sense, is the silver lining in the cloud of Bart Campolo.  Those who carry the banner of atheism aren’t like their predecessors; they’re in a different part of the food chain, and for people who believe in evolution and natural selection, that should be the ultimate insult.  That fact that it isn’t should tell us something, and be good news for us, if it isn’t–in more ways than one–for Bart Campolo.

@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?

Avoiding Evil Just Isn’t a Top Priority Any More

In The Worse Plotting Against the Better, XLVIII, Philo Judaeus observes the following:

On which account it seems to me that all men who are not utterly uneducated would choose to be mutilated and to become blind, and not to see what is not fitting to be seen, to become deaf and not to hear pernicious discourses, and to have their tongues cut out if that were the only way to prevent their speaking things, which ought not to be spoken. At all events, they say that some wise men, when they have been tortured on the wheel to make them betray secrets which are not worthy to be divulged, have bitten out their tongues, and so have inflicted on their torturers a more grievous torture than they were suffering, as they could not learn from them what they desired ; and it is better to be made an eunuch than to be hurried into wickedness by the fury of the illicit passions : for all these things, as they overwhelm the soul in pernicious calamities, are deservedly followed by extreme punishments.

Our Lord made some similar statements, albeit in a less philosophical vein:

If your hand or your foot is a snare to you, cut it off, and throw it away. It would be better for you to enter the Life maimed or lame, than to have both hands, or both feet, and be thrown into the aeonian fire. If your eye is a snare to you, take it out, and throw it away. It would be better for you to enter the Life with only one eye, than to have both eyes and be thrown into the fiery Pit. (Matthew 18:8, 9, TCNT)

Some men, it is true, have from birth been disabled for marriage, while others have been disabled by their fellow men, and others again have disabled themselves for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him accept it who can. (Matthew 19:12, TCNT)

Commenting on the first passage in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, John McKenzie observes:

The fact that the saying is couched in a rather intense hyperbole does not entitle interpreters to reduce it to a vague form of spiritual detachment.

It’s an interesting parallel between the teaching of Jesus and the philosophising of Philo.  In Philo’s case, the philosophical world was very strong on reason (the higher powers) controlling the passions of the soul; it puts living a pure life in a different context.  It’s easy to contrast this with the teachings of Our Lord, but it’s noteworthy how similar a conclusion they both come to, at least in this case.

Unfortunately, in our emotionalistic age, the idea of the “higher powers” ruling is considered a sign of weakness at best.  Following our passions is the order of the day, and little wonder we have the tumultuous world we live in.

Three Sheets to the Wind: Seminary Academics and Orthodoxy

Way back in 2003, Christianity Today ran an article that began like this:

Elaine Pagels, the famous historian of early Christianity, once told a revealing story about the social world behind the scenes of high-powered biblical scholarship. As a young up-and-coming professor at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, she was invited to a closed-door, after-hours smoker. The men there (Pagels was the only woman) were all prominent Bible scholars. Many of them didn’t even believe in God, and those who still called themselves Christian were anything but orthodox.

The liquor flowed freely, and as these men got in their cups, they began to sing old gospel songs. To her astonishment, they knew all the tunes and words by heart. Then it dawned on her—these atheist and liberal Bible scholars must have grown up in evangelical churches.

I wonder what our own left-leaning seminary academics do in their closed-door “smokers.”  One thing for sure, though: like Elaine Pagels, as someone who grew up outside of Evangelicalism (both ecclesiastically and socio-economically,) I’m always amazed at the staying power this culture has, even on those who are bailing on its orthodoxy.

God as Mathematician? Why Not?

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku lays it out:

“I have concluded that we are in a world made by rules created by an intelligence,” Kaku said, as quoted by the Geophilosophical Association of Anthropological and Cultural Studies. “To me it is clear that we exist in a plan which is governed by rules that were created, shaped by a universal intelligence and not by chance.”…“The final solution resolution could be that God is a mathematician,” says Kaku.

That idea–which may come as a shock to many Christians–is the basis for My Lord and My God, which has been on this site for most of its existence and which uses mathematics to solve problems that theologians have messed around with for centuries.  The whole business of transfinite numbers was inspired in part from Georg Cantor’s interest in mediaeval thought.

Mathematics is the mother science; without it science is but a toy.  The connection between it and God is one that needs more exploration than it gets–for both scientists and theologians.

The No-Win Position of @BethMooreLPM (and Others)

She’s taken a stand, all right:

On Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016, popular Bible teacher and speaker Beth Moore broke her silence on political issues and posted a series of tweets that sent waves through the evangelical community. Moore’s tweet-sized messages called out Christian leaders who have turned a blind eye to the plight of women who have been objectified, sexually abused and sexually harassed.

But is it as helpful as it looks (to some people, at least?)  Not really.

This is an election.  We get to choose between two or more candidates.  None of those candidates (yeah, I’ve heard the Evan McMullin crowd) is a really “proper” choice for Evangelicals.   And nobody in real Christianity is really happy with someone who reaches for what he shouldn’t.

But by calling out Donald Trump on this, Beth Moore is doing two things that really aren’t correct.

The first is legitimizing Hillary Clinton.  For reasons that long predate this election, I don’t think she’s suitable for such support.  I should also mention that the recent email eruption over Huma Abedin’s computer is just a reminder that Hillary Clinton has serious problems of her own.

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.

Beyond that, both Moores (Beth and Russell) and the Trump cheerleaders are both working under the same shared assumptions.  They both think that politics is a legitimate, transparent process which Christians can take part in without danger of moral hazard or having to settle for “second best.”  That’s never been the case and certainly isn’t now.

There’s a movement to repeal LBJ’s prohibition of our ministers endorsing candidates from the pulpit.  There’s also a movement for our ministers to actually run for office in a big way.  But honestly Evangelical leadership, with few exceptions, has shown itself too naïve to constructively engage in politics.  Leave it to the laity; they have to make hard choices all week.