Having it Both Ways

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Photo by kathryn “Eating cake” (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Perhaps it doesn’t puzzle me that we don’t like to talk about this. Remember when you were a kid and someone said, “you can’t eat your cake and have it too.” That almost seemed to be a dare to try to do both. Usually, this ended with you full of cake and wanting more and frustrated that your share is gone. Sometimes you end up filching someone else’s cake. And making yourself sick. And so the spiral goes.

So perhaps I don’t wonder why there isn’t more of a conversation about our highly sexualized and violent culture when we rail against sexual assault, threatening atmospheres, and gun violence. We really like our sex and our violence. Except when we don’t. Except when it hurts us or someone we love.

This is not an argument that those who are victims of these acts ever in the least deserve it. And I applaud those who have had the courage to say #MeToo, to testify against sexual offenders, to press for better work environments, and reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of those who would do harm.

But I wonder if we will make real progress as long as we celebrate a culture of “friends with benefits,” casual hookups, marketing that makes both women and men consciously obsessed with the appearance of their bodies? Will we make any progress until we understand how the use of pornography re-wires the brain, and undermines real relationships?

Will we make any progress as long as television and movies give us the vicarious thrill of the kill multiple times in an evening, even if most of us never go beyond that point? And how do violent video games rewire the brain? Nearly all the best selling video games, sold in large measure to young men, major in violence. I won’t make the argument that these videos cause violence, but I can’t help but believe that they are an ingredient in the toxic stew of our violent culture.

I suspect that steamy and casual sex is easier to write than a restrained relationship where love grows and deepens to real intimacy. I imagine that violence rivets the attention much more easily than non-violent means of seeking justice and resolving conflict. It’s faster, easier.

And I can’t help but wonder if it fosters the notion that it may be faster and easier in real life.

It also wouldn’t surprise me that some would label me hopelessly naive or prudish or an anachronism. Fair enough. But I would ask in reply, how do you explain why more young people have died of gun violence than in our overseas conflicts in recent years? How do you explain the pervasiveness of the revelations of sexual misconduct of all forms (yes, some may that more people feel empowered to speak out about it)? Why do universities wring their hands about campus sexual assault, much of it by acquaintances, and struggle to find ways to overcome “the walk of shame”?

There is an old saying that if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. I’d propose that when it comes to both sexuality and violence, two very potent forces, we cannot sow to the wind and reap a peaceful summer day at the beach. We want to, and often our media in its various forms prospers on our belief that we can have it both ways.

But I find myself wondering if we can…

 

I’m in the PhishTank

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I learned yesterday that Bob on Books is considered a “suspicious” or “malicious” site by Twitter. I can no longer post links to the site there, although I can make other posts.

A chat session with WordPress support (who I’ve always found helpful) indicated that I’ve been listed as a “phishing” site on PhishTank.com. Here is the link to the actual listing. WordPress itself found nothing on the site that is malicious or violates its terms of service and asserts that third parties can’t embed code or links on sites they host. No one who has visited my site has reported an actual problem. Phishing involves attempts to deceive you into providing sensitive information like passwords or credit cards under false pretexts in order to defraud. There is nothing like that on my site.

Apparently, on April 10, someone going by the username “prodigyabuse” listed Bob on Books as a phishing site. This individual has submitted over 11,000 sites. I found out that others “verified” that my site is a “phishing” site even though WordPress has examined the site and found nothing wrong, and it shows up trusted on Microsoft and Chrome browsers. I subsequently learned someone on a university computer couldn’t access my site, which I suspect is not an isolated incident. It’s likely that Twitter has based its “block” of content from Bob on Books on this site.

I’ve submitted “tickets” to both Twitter and PhishTank to rectify the situation. No response so far.

I find this deeply disturbing, because the effect of this is to suppress free speech. Apparently:

  • This can be done by a few individuals, working together or in sympathy.
  • There appears to be no actual verification by PhishTank or those who use their listings of the website. They rely entirely on user reports.
  • Site owners receive no direct notice of this action.
  • I could find no way to talk, even via chat to an actual person either on Twitter or PhishTank.
  • There appears to be no protection against this.

No doubt there are actual phishing sites, but as it stands now, the burden of proof is on site owners that they are not phishing, when they learn this is going on.

If your register as a user at PhishTank and go to my link and click, “something wrong with this submission” and follow the instructions you can submit a report they say they will take “very seriously.” We’ll see, but I’d be glad for the support.

I’m wondering why this happened. There seem to be a few possibilities:

  • One is that some people just don’t like what I’m posting, which is particularly troubling.
  • A second is some spammer I’ve blocked is having his/her revenge. There is a lot of spam commenting, some of which contain links to “phish-y” sites.
  • That leads to something more sinister. It does appear that it is fairly common for hackers to hide files deep inside the WordPress software and files. I found a number of articles like this one describing the problem. Both the software in my version of WordPress’s JetPack and my own virus and malware software do not show anything, and I don’t use plug-ins that are most vulnerable to this. There are expensive services that will clean your site, and more robust security options are available with more expensive WordPress plans. WordPress.com asserts that it is not possible for malicious entities to embed phishing code or links on blogs hosted on their site (which is the case with my blog), but leave it to their end users to deal with false reports. Seems like they would have more clout than I do.
  • Maybe this has to do with the cover photo (see above) I recently posted on my Facebook page, taken at our local aquarium. Maybe my fish tank picture got me in the PhishTank! Probably not but one must maintain some humor with these things.

Needless to say, this is unsettling. I love looking at fish in a tank or aquarium, but am not particularly crazy about being in one.

Stolen Identity

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“I’m a patriot, I will help the President build the Wall, I have an A+ rating with the NRA, I’m pro-life and I am a conservative Christian.” This is a mash-up of language I’ve heard in our most recent primary election and it deeply offends me. I feel like I’m a victim of identity theft.

My real beef is with the very last word of this statement. Why? I am a Christian. And I feel like my identity has been stolen, or at least misappropriated in statements like this.

Sure, while logically you can argue that such a statement doesn’t intend to identify all these positions with Christian orthodoxy, there is the implication that if you are the right kind of Christian, you will believe in these things and vote for this candidate.

Please understand. I do not question the Christianity of those who would affirm these things, or the genuineness of the faith of candidates who use this language. I even agree with them on some things. But I do not like the implication that this version of patriotism, or being pro-gun, or pro-life, or anti-immigrant is what those who are truly Christian will embrace at the ballot box.

Sure, I get it. “Conservative” Christians are perceived as a significant constituency for a particular political party. And for the person wanting to get elected, winning the favor and the votes of this constituency is what it takes.

What troubles me most are not the political positions of the candidates, which they have every right to advance, but the identification of those issues with being a real Christian. The reason I’m so troubled is that I have literally known people who have turned away from exploring the teachings of Jesus because they assume that they will need to embrace these issues along with Jesus. This language may win elections but it loses converts to the Christian faith. I work in ministry with college students and watch kids leaving churches over these things. I work as part of an international fellowship of Christians who often wonder if we love America more than the global kingdom of God.

I’m disturbed by how such language limits both the issues I can care about as a Christian, and how I think about those issues. I don’t like how this rhetoric makes at least a certain group of people captive to a political party. Instead of being able to support on some things and challenge on others, there is a party line that must be adhered to if you are to maintain influence and stay inside the party’s tent, and in some cases, the good graces of one’s congregation.

What do I want instead? I want people to stop using their “faith identification” to get votes. Certainly it is not wrong for voters to know what a person’s faith is, but the identification of Christianity with a set of political issues and positions needs to end. Every time politicians do this, they misappropriate the identity of Christians.

I also believe the church needs to stop allowing itself to be played by politicians. The truth is, we are being used by politicians for the one simple thing politicians care about–getting elected. We’ve allowed leaders inside and outside the church with a political agenda to have greater influence than the whole counsel of scripture from Genesis to Revelation that challenges the positions of every political party and calls us to a far more radical life.

Above all, I want both politicians and leaders in some segments of the church to stop stealing my identity as a Christian for political ends. What it all comes down to is that this is not why Jesus lived, died, and rose. However, the wedding of religion and political power was the major reason why he was killed. Will we continue to sacrifice Christ for political ends?

 

“Friendly Fire” at Your Neighborhood Church

“Please don’t talk to our children anymore.” These were the words to a scientist who believed in creation, the incarnation, the resurrection and the return of Christ. They came from an elder in his church. Why? Because he is a biologist who also believes in evolution and does not see his science and faith in conflict. He and his family never went to a church for more than a few weeks for the next ten years,

It’s a story I heard the other day. It’s a story, variations of which, I’ve heard for years. The professor who is suspect in her department because she is a Christian and suspect in her church because she is an academic. The bright high school student who asks too many hard questions when everyone else wants to talk about sex, and is shut down. The successful woman executive who is not permitted to exercise her leadership and management skills on the church board because only men can lead. Some of you can add your own painful stories. I hear a lot of those stories from students and faculty who have walked away from their churches and, in some cases, their faith.

Why do we do this to each other?

I don’t know but I wonder if we are so accustomed to fighting culture wars, battles for the courts, and fights to take back America that we keep fighting anyone who is different, even in the church. And sometimes we are so used to distorting the truth to achieve good ends that we  distort the Bible to justify our friendly fire.

It’s funny how we sometimes talk about finding a church “home.” Robert Frost had this definition of home: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It strikes me that in most places, when someone shows up at church, they are looking for home, for some kind of rest. Jesus says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” He didn’t say, if you do the right things, believe the right things and oppose the wrong ones, I will give you rest. He says this is a place where you can come and lay your burdens down.

I’m not writing this as a rant against my church. Actually, it is a place that lets people be different. Political parties, skin color, what we wear, what we do for recreation, the kinds of songs we like to sing, vegetarians and meatatarians. We do hold some things in common–Jesus, the resurrection, trying to live by the Bible, caring for our neighborhood. Actually, it’s quite simple and unsensationally beautiful at times and we are far from being an exception to the rule.

I simply wish I didn’t have to hear stories like the scientist told. Recently, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods said they would stop selling assault rifles. He said they did not want to be part of the story of another school shooting. When will we decide that we don’t want to be part of a story of friendly fire at a church?

 

Is It Time For A New Name?

Factory near Gary, IN. Photo by Robert C. Trube. All rights reserved.

The other day I drove past this scene (actually as a passenger) in Gary, Indiana. Recently I’ve been reading a collection of narratives titled Voices from the Rust Belt. My journey through this region, and listening to these “voices” from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit and other cities leads me to wonder if it is time to retire that name. Is it time for a new name?

The name arose with the decline of the steel and manufacturing industries that had been the lifeblood of these cities. Thousands lost jobs and the impact rippled through the communities. Those who could moved away to find jobs. Populations declined, factories rusted away until torn down. Rust belt seemed an apt term.

I wonder if it still is. It’s not that many of those places still suffer the effects of those plant closures. But I also know that cities have redefined themselves in a variety of ways. Some, like Pittsburgh, have become hi-tech centers. Others, because of low overhead costs, have been ideal locations for business startups. Some manufacturers have remained, leaner and more competitive.

I’ve thought about alternative terms but they all seem schmaltzy or simplistic. More than that, they don’t capture the stories of each of these cities as they are now. So my proposal? Let’s stop talking about the Rust Belt and begin talking about Youngstown, and Cleveland, and Detroit and all the others on their own terms. Rust Belt is about the past. It’s time to talk about what each of these cities are…or could be.

I’d love to know what you think, and if you have a good name for this region.

Let’s End This War!

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Andrew Dickson White, President of Cornell, who contended there was a war between science and Christianity, Photo Public Domain via Wikimedia

This week on the blog I will be reviewing several books on science and Christianity. A theme that runs through all of these books is that science and Christian faith needn’t be in conflict. That is my own conviction as well. John Calvin, and others, have spoken about God revealing God’s self through two books, the Bible and the Creation. God has authored both, and they do not conflict with each other, properly understood.

The language of “warfare” came from two critics of Christianity, John William Draper, who wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell University, who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Sadly, many Christians, rather than recognizing that many of the “conflicts” were simply ones of interpretation, were only too happy to join the battle, either arguing how science had gotten it wrong or offering forced explanations that shoehorned science into scripture, often resulting in both bad science and bad biblical interpretation.

Sadly, there are a number of people on both sides who have continued the conflict down to the present day. The cynic in me wonders how much money has to do with it, as key figures have built empires around fighting for creation or science. There is money to be made in perpetuating this war, as in many others. What troubles me is to see the casualties of this war. There are some who have turned their backs on a science that sometimes offers seemingly total explanations but cannot offer meaning and purpose. There are others, often who began as enthusiastic believers, were presented with the false dichotomy of choosing either faith or science, and seeing the beauty of science, turned away from their faith. Finally, I have friends, Christians in science, who often get shot at from both sides. Scientists question how they can be serious about their science if they believe, and believers question how they can be authentic in their faith if they do science.

Here are some suggestions I would make for those interested in a “cease fire” proposal:

For Christians:

  • I would start by reading your Bible more carefully. A good friend who is an evangelical and was an English major in college said, “I don’t read the Bible literally, but rather literarily.” Many of our conflicts have to do with trying to answer questions the biblical writers had no interest in answering. We don’t do our homework to understand what scripture might have meant to a people 2000 to 3000 years ago in very different cultural settings.
  • Resist the effort to try to “prove” Christian faith by science, when theories change and evolve. Also, if Christianity has to be proved by science, we end up suggesting that science is actually prior to and more important than our revealed faith. Far more constructive is to observe where Christian belief and scientific finds are consistent with each other.
  • It helps to understand that most actual science is very evidence driven, and not driven by some “godless agenda.” I have friends (a number are believers) who have literally gone to the ends of the world collecting data about changes in the earth’s climate, and documented effects of warmer climates on glaciers and the water they provide to communities, and are mystified when fellow believers accuse them of liberal political agendas. They are just doing research and reporting their findings, which are very concerning to them.
  • Instead of fearing conflict or getting uneasy when something doesn’t jibe with our beliefs, why not view this as a doorway to a greater understanding? The Reformation began when Martin Luther struggled to interpret Romans. Anomalies lead to breakthroughs. Instead of defending one’s current understanding against something in science that seems to challenge that understanding, why not ask of science, “tell me more” and really listen. And then keep studying and digging in the scriptures as well. The truth is we often are woefully illiterate in our knowledge of our faith.

And a few words on the science side:

  • The big one is to honestly acknowledge when you are making statements that arise not from your science but from beliefs or even axiomatic statements that cannot be scientifically demonstrated. Take off your lab jacket when you make these statements. It’s not wrong to make such statements. Even statements that disagree with Christian belief. Just don’t use the aura of science to add weight to them. It gives science a bad name.
  • Avoid reductionistic or totalizing statements that convey that your little slice of the scientific pie explains all reality. Truth is that this makes other scientists in other disciplines angry as well as those who believe in other, including religious, ways of knowing.

Perhaps for all of us some humility would help, and truthfully we don’t have to go far to find it. Our own disciplines should be enough. As a student of scripture, I have walls of books, many of which I’ve read, and have read and re-read the Bible cover to cover, and I’m constantly surprised both with new insights and new questions. Any honest scientist will say the same.

What I love, and I think all too rare, are the conversations where scientists and believers come together, not to fight, but to learn from each other. I know of conversations where environmental scientists and Christians who believe they have been entrusted by God to care for his good world learn from and teach each other. I can envision conversations where neuroscientists and Christian philosophers and theologians talk about the science of the brain, the nature of consciousness, and the soul. I’ve watched the collaboration of linguistic researchers and Bible translators in preserving languages that could be assimilated and lost. I’ve delighted to listen to astrophysicists describe the wonders of the cosmos as well as the things, like dark matter, that perplex them, and I share their perplexity as I meditate on Psalm 8:3-4:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them? (NIV)

In all this incredible vastness where we are mere specks, how can it be that we are known by God–and yet we are!

I will not be enlisted for this war. Scientists are flesh and blood people and not the enemies we are to fight (Ephesians 6:12). Through history many great scientists have in fact been great believers. For example, it was Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian Catholic priest, known as the father of the “Big Bang,” who used Einstein’s theory of relativity to show that the universe was not static but expanding, contrary to Einstein who argued for the static model. Later Einstein said Lemaitre’s theory was “the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” Why fight wars when you can have a conversation like that, one that at times was an argument, but eventuated in a larger understanding of our world? Let’s end this war!

Power, Passivity, or Partnership?

men-1979261_1920I’ve just returned from a regional leadership retreat with the team of leaders for the segment of collegiate ministry I work with in our part of the country. The team of which I am a part is led by a woman, with three men and four other women as team members. It is a gifted team of people highly dedicated to advancing on our ministry in university campuses. We all are committed to bringing our “A” game to this work and to our time with each other. I am a better leader of my particular area of ministry because of the other members of our team. My supervisor, who leads our team, is skilled at keeping our focus on “the main thing,” using our time well, and I have regular sought her counsel on situations where I need wisdom and another perspective.

The sad thing is that the team I describe is not possible in many ministries and church communities. I grieve, because I think of all that would be lost if my women colleagues weren’t at the table with me. One of my female colleagues has stretched my thinking about the use of digital tools to extend ministry into places we cannot physically go. Another has opened my eyes to ways to better work with ministry donors and to help the team I lead with that. I could go on and on.

My purpose in writing is not to send another volley into the hotly contested discussion about gender roles in the church. Many scholars and other writers have probably said all that may be said, and I don’t want to argue this further. To state what I think succinctly:  I believe gender distinctions are real, but that the patterns of dominance and subordination between genders are a consequence of the fall, and neither God’s intention in creation, nor within communities of the redeemed. I have deeply respected friends who think differently about these matters, and if you see things as they do, I’ll suggest what I say to them: let us pray for each other and continue to seek the light of God’s word.

What I wanted to do is share a few observations around two unhealthy places we often occupy and a vision for something better. I especially want to speak to other men (other than to express deep thankfulness to God for the women colleagues I work with, and my most important partner in life, my wife of nearly forty years). There are three words I want to reflect on: power, passivity, and partnership.

Power: Sadly, it is often a case of who has it, and who wants more of it, and our fears of losing it. I wonder if it is often the case for men that there is a fear that we may no longer be able to do things the way we’ve done if women are in the picture. What also strikes me is that when we try to hold onto power, we set up weird dynamics where parties try to control, while others try to manipulate or “game” the system. No one is particularly happy. Whenever I have relinquished power to others rather than fought for control, I find we are more “powerful” together than I could be by myself.

Passivity: One of the fears I’ve heard among men is that if women lead more, men will lead less and become passive. Male passivity is a problem at times, but men, I would like to suggest that it is our problem, and not that of women with gifts and insights they can exercise for the good of Christ’s people. Why must women step back for men to step forward; or men step back when women step forward? Why cannot we move forward together, spurring on one another?

Partnership: This leads me to the vision I would propose, one of partnership, of men and women leading together, encouraging, and allowing each of us to bring the best of what God has given us to advance the work of God. While our team was together, we studied 2 Kings 22, in which King Josiah orders renovations to the temple to encourage the worship of God, high priest Hilkiah finds and reads the book of the law, and prophetess Huldah confirms that Judah is facing judgment but that it will not come in Josiah’s lifetime because he humbled himself before God. The three subsequently lead the nation in revival and reform that lasts the lifetime of Josiah. We noticed what happened when these three came together, and that no one questioned the word of the Lord Hulda brought because she was a woman! There is something powerful and catalytic that happens when this team comes together around the word of God and the purposes of God.

I’ll touch on one other matter before I conclude, and that is the fear men express about sexual temptation if they work closely with female colleagues. I don’t think this is to be laughed at. But neither should our “stuff” as men stop women from the full exercise of gifts God has given. It’s our problem, not theirs. The truth is that both egalitarians and complementarians succumb to sexual temptation. While not temptation-proof, when we see those we work with as whole persons, fellow “kingdom professionals,” that serves as a powerful disincentive to even go the first step in one’s mind toward an illicit relationship. Of course, in the end, our daily dependence upon the grace of God must be the first and last word in these matters.

As in so many things, what we fear often keeps us from seeing and entering into what may be gained. To my brothers in Christ, I would say there is a richness that I hope you will discover. Finally, I would say thanks to my sisters in Christ, for all the ways you have stepped forward, and shown me what an exhilarating journey it can be to press into the call of the kingdom together.

The Billy Graham Century

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Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Publishers Weekly story called to my attention that this is Billy Graham’s centennial year. If his health holds, he will turn 100 on November 7, 2018. The article noted that there are new or updated books that will be released this year by scholars William Martin and Grant Wacker and more popular books by his grandson William and former Graham associate Lon Allison. Edit Blumhofer is working on a book on Graham’s use of gospel music at his crusades, and Ann Blue Wills will publish a work on the life of Ruth Bell Graham titled An Odd Cross to Bear. Martin’s book apparently will also explore the impact of Graham’s son Franklin on his legacy.

At a time when many are questioning whether evangelicalism has a future, or whether to identify as an evangelical, it is oddly fitting and paradoxical that this attention is being given to the figure who as much as anyone defined American evangelicalism. His educational journey traced his journey from fundamentalism to the beginnings of evangelicalism, leaving Bob Jones University after a year because of its legalism to attend Florida Bible Institute and then finishing his education at Wheaton College. He started out as an evangelist with high school ministry Youth for Christ and launched his first “crusade” in Los Angeles, gaining national attention due to William Randolph Hearst’s decision to “puff Graham.”

His crusades reached across denominational lines, drawing criticism from fundamentalists. He pioneered use of media with his Hour of Decision radio broadcasts (to which I listened growing up) and with his television broadcasts of crusades. He helped found Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism. He de-segregated seating at his crusades and included black leadership in his crusades as early as 1957. Joining with British preacher John R. W. Stott, they worked together to host the 1974 International Conference on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, propelling global efforts from every nation to every nation to advance the Christian message, making evangelicalism a global movement.

For better or worse, his close relationship with American presidents also established a pattern of engagement between evangelicals and politicians. It was clear in later years that he felt betrayed by Richard Nixon’s behavior in Watergate, including his profanity. They reconciled in later years. He spent extended times in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and prayed with every president from Truman to Obama. This was remarkable in a way after the rise of the Religious Right. It will be interesting to see the judgment of history on his involvement with Presidents.

Graham’s ministry had a shaping influence on my own life. His Hour of Decision broadcasts that we listened to every Sunday night during my childhood made it clear that there was a decision to be made about Christ, and that this was the most consequential decision in one’s life. While I did not “go forward” at one of his crusades, having made my “decision” at a Vacation Bible School at age 10, I saw him speak on seven occasions. The first was at the 1970 crusade in Cleveland at the old Cleveland Stadium, with a busload of kids from our church. On five occasions I heard him speak at InterVarsity’s Urbana Missions Conventions in 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1987. (Altogether, he spoke here on nine occasions. Here is a short video clip from his 1961 message). The last time I heard him speak was at the old Cooper Stadium in Columbus in 1993. I still have a poster from that in my office. When his associate evangelist Leighton Ford spoke in Youngstown, in the 1970’s, I was a counselor and the training they offered helped me in leading others to faith.

He continued to minister to my family even in retirement. My mother passed in 2010. My father was struggling with the loss and how to make sense of what was left of his life. In 2011, Graham published Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. My dad always had deeply respected Graham and he read the book over and over again and spoke of how much it helped him. My dad finished his own race in 2012 and Graham’s book helped him in his last couple years to finish well.

It remains to be seen the course the movement he nurtured will take in coming years. Historians and religious scholars will no doubt have differing opinions on his personal influence on that movement, and I suspect not all will be favorable. It’s the lot of the best of us to both hit our limits and prove our fallibility. Perhaps all any of us can do is to be found faithful in our callings. By this standard, Graham is finishing out his century well. Not too long ago, commenting on his Parkinson’s disease, he said,

“Someone asked me recently if I didn’t think God was unfair, allowing me to have Parkinson’s and other medical problems when I have tried to serve him faithfully. I replied that I did not see it that way at all. Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to him in trust and confidence.” (Source: 40 Courageous Quotes From Billy Graham)

Personally, while recognizing aspects of his life that might be criticized, at the end of the day, I find myself saying, “thanks be to God for Billy Graham.” I suspect for him, though, the only praise that matters is the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Update 2/21/2018: Little did I think five days ago when I published this post that we would be saying farewell to Billy Graham so soon. This morning, Billy Graham discovered the truth of the hope he preached for over 50 years and heard his Master’s “well done” as he passed through death to life everlasting.

 

 

 

James W. Sire (1933-2018)

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The Christian world lost a wonderful scholar and apologist Tuesday night. And I lost a friend. James W. Sire passed into the more immediate presence of the Lord he so deeply loved on Tuesday evening.

I first came in contact with Jim’s ideas long before I ever met him. I was a college student at a leadership camp in 1974. One of our sessions was on this idea of “Christian world view.” One of the presenters shared material he had heard in a seminar with a university professor by the name of James Sire. He included seven “world view questions” that became a valuable tool whether reading a textbook on counseling psychology or talking with someone who was not a Christ-follower whose view of life I was trying to understand. His questions were:

  1. What is prime reality—the really real? To this we might answer: God, or the gods, or the material cosmos. Our answer here is the most fundamental. It sets the boundaries for the answers that can consistently be given to the other six questions. This will become clear as we move from worldview to worldview in the chapters that follow.
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?Here our answers point to whether we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit; or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us.
  3. What is a human being? To this we might answer: a highly complex machine, a sleeping god, a person made in theimage of God, a naked ape.
  4. What happens to a person at death? Here we might reply: personal extinction, or transformation to a higher state, or reincarnation, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side.”
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and rationality developed under the contingencies of survival in a long process of evolution.
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Again, perhaps we are made in the image of a God whose character is good, or right and wrong are determined by human choice alone or what feels good, or the notions simply developed under an impetus toward cultural or physical survival.
  7. What is the meaning of human history? To this we might answer: to realize the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare a people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.

Eventually, he added an eighth question as he understood that world view wasn’t simply about ideas but also how we lived and oriented our affections and commitments in light of them.

8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

I was delighted a few years later when this list of questions on a handout was turned into a book, The Universe Next Door. By that time, I had begun working in collegiate ministry and this was one of my “go to” books as I engaged with people from all sorts of backgrounds, and as I sought to help Christian students confidently engage others with different ideas.

Meanwhile, Jim had left his teaching position to work for InterVarsity Press. Even before his own work was published, he played a key role in editing a number of the works the Press published by Francis Schaeffer. He served for a number of years as Senior Editor at the Press and played a key role in its growth in the world of Christian publishing. All during this time, he continued publishing his own works, including Scripture Twisting, Discipleship of the Mind, and one of my favorites that actually was mocked by Jimmy Fallon, How to Read Slowly (about which I subsequently wrote). He eventually published four more editions of Universe Next Door, selling over 350,000 copies. (I understand from an email I received from him in December that he was working on a sixth edition at the time of his death.)

That would be enough for many people, but not for Jim. His next career was as a campus lecturer. I had the privilege to host him several times at Ohio State, and what I appreciated was not only his winsome and witty engagements with students and faculty, but how he would delight in personal conversation with someone seriously questioning.

It was during this time that I had several opportunities to get to know Jim more personally. One year, I was assigned as one of the staff leaders in a seminar called “Agents of Transformation.” I had never gone through the seminar before. The person leading became ill just beforehand and the powers-that-be decided that they wanted me to lead the seminar. I would have been lost had it not been that Jim was with us that week as a “resource.” What so impressed me was how he supported me in leading sessions that he probably knew backwards and forwards while I was making it up as I went. We ended up having a marvelous time with the 40 students on hand, often just one step ahead. His humility and support was an incredible encouragement.

Jim never stopped learning and growing. Habits of the Mind and Naming the Elephant both reflected his own evolving and deepening understanding of the idea of worldview, and how we think. A couple of his last books, Why Good Arguments Often Fail and Apologetics Beyond Reason (review) reflected his experience as an apologist and a deepening understanding of the spiritual dynamics of engaging with people in their journey to faith.

We saw each other regularly over the last twenty years at our InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry meetings. Jim always cared deeply about the university world and our efforts to connect the love of God and the love of learning. One of the talks I remember him giving spoke about the divide between the humanities and the sciences, and his belief that this, too, was reconciled in Christ.

Because so many of Jim’s books had to do with topics related to the life of the mind, people may not have been aware of how much Jim loved God, and loved what he saw of God in the scriptures. He wrote a number of Bible studies and Learning to Pray Through the Psalms and Praying the Psalms of Jesus. In Learning to Pray Through the Psalms he wrote:

“How can I not begin without thanking our great God who inspired the psalmists and gave us those marvelous records of the prayers of the ancient Hebrews! This book is a meditation and an encouragement to meditation prompted by the texts of those who poured out their souls to God. So thanks quickly go to those hearty souls who wrote the psalms and displayed for us such a vast panorama of human thought and emotion, thus freeing us so many centuries later to bare our heart and mind before the God who fashioned us and intended us to be like himself.”

This man’s work touched the arc of my adult life. He helped build a publishing house with a sterling reputation for evangelical conviction coupled with fine scholarship. He engaged with countless seekers and sceptics. He gave valuable advice and support to a ministry seeking to reach the elite world of scholarship. And all of it was with grace, wit, and humility. And now he joins the “hearty souls” of the ages in the more immediate presence of the God to whom he spent his life pouring out his heart. Further up and further in, my friend!

Still Evangelical?

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I follow different publishers on Twitter as one way of learning about their latest books. On Saturday, I saw and responded to this tweet from InterVarsity Press:

Bob Trube on Twitter Yes I am still evangelical Evangelicals who have become ensnared with the politics of the Left or the Right have left in sacrificing the centrality of Christ …

I sent this reply:

“Yes, I am still evangelical. Evangelicals who have become ensnared with the politics of the Left or the Right have left [evangelicalism] in sacrificing the centrality of Christ [for political access and influence].” (Bracketed words add clarity for what was an abbreviated, tweet response.)

The tweet is no doubt part of a campaign to promote a new book, Still Evangelical?, that wrestles with the question, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, whether they still want to identify with the evangelical tribe. The book is on my “to read” pile, so look for a review in the near future.

My response reflected a “moment of clarity” earlier in the week. I was participating in a retreat of faith leaders involved in collegiate ministry at the university where I have worked in collegiate ministry over twenty years. The majority of those in the room were mainline Protestant, Catholic, or representatives of other religions. In the course of the day, exercises moved from fun, but relatively non-threatening discussion to the point of sharing about our religious identity. I was paired with a woman from what I would characterize as a “progressive Protestant denomination” and her views reflected that. Do I play coy, go vague, or tell the truth?

I went for truth with the qualification that evangelicalism for me had nothing to do with political captivity to the Left or the Right (and I do think both have occurred in recent American religious and political history). I went on to say that for me, this identifier goes back to the root of the word “evangel” as good news, and that David Bebbington’s “Quadrilateral” is still a useful rubric for what I consider near and dear, and in what I believe this good news consists:

  • Biblicism doesn’t mean for me a wooden literalism but that God hasn’t left us in the dark, but in a variety of ways from poetry to prophecy to history, God has spoken a trustworthy word to bring us the light of God’s grace and how we might live in consequence of that grace, and that the Bible is crucial in defining the character of the new community of God’s people and how they live out the life of faith together.
  • Crucicentrism,  that God has broken into our estrangement from him in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, what we desperately needed. As I said in my tweet, Christ is central to my faith, the focal point of all of scripture and my hope in life and death.
  • Conversionism. The good news is that because of what Christ accomplished, we are no longer left to efforts to try harder to be better, struggling against the tyranny of self. We are “new creations” in Christ, people in whom life has begun anew, cleaning the slate of all our wrongs, and providing a new capacity, the indwelling Spirit of God, enabling us to live into that new creation life.
  • Activism. The grace of God moves us to a life of pursuing the beauty and goodness that reflects that grace, while making known in our words as well as our deeds the extravagant love of God revealed in Christ and the offer of new life in him for all who believe.

This movement, with all its flaws led the way to the abolition of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic, provided the basis of social work in our cities, has fought human trafficking on a global basis, as well as provided the impetus for a missions movement, flawed at times, but also resulting in indigenously led Christian movements throughout the world, including one in China that may soon be the largest in the world.

In sharing this, I came to a moment of clarity that “evangel” and “evangelical” are good words, and there is really nothing quite like them as identifiers for a life shaped by this good news. I have also been reading To Light a Fire on Earth by Bishop Robert A. Barron, one of the leaders of the “New Evangelization” in the Catholic Church and have been impressed by how unashamedly he uses the terms “evangelism,” “evangelical,” and “evangel” throughout the work.

No doubt these carry some distinctive valences for Barron, and yet what strikes me is not only his unashamed use of these good words that so many evangelicals are fleeing from, but also that in the effort he is leading within Catholicism, one can detect some of the same distinctives one sees in Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, distinctives I will elaborate in my forthcoming review.

All this leads me to the conclusion that it is time to reclaim this identity, and this good word rather than to slink away from it, either in identification or affiliation. It’s time for us to say to those who have co-opted this identity for a politically captive idolatry that they have lost their way, they have strayed from their first love, and we would love for them to repent, but that they should not use “evangelical” for what is a type of “national” or “political”  or racially homogeneous religion.

My fear, and it is a temptation I recognize in myself, is that in walking away from the identifier “evangelical,” whether we leave the “tribe” or not, is that we will also walk away from the good distinctives that are part of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. (I am aware that some, like Timothy Gloege have advocated that we ought to abandon these, and I think John Fea has responded well to this contention.) This temptation to mute our identification and what makes it distinctive seems to leave us with a vague religion defined by what we are not, perhaps some form of personal piety, and maybe an impetus toward do-good-ism.

My sense is that instead we need to press more fully into that identity in ways that address our present crisis. I could see us pressing into listening hard to the whole counsel of God in the Bible rather than our selective readings. I could see us pressing into the way the work of Christ is for all without distinctions of gender, class, race, or national origins and the implications for a society deeply riven by these divisions. I could see us pressing into the transforming power of conversion and what that means for so many in our society without hope. I could see us pressing into an activism that explores how each and all of us might live out callings that pursue beauty, goodness and truth in a world where there is far too much ugliness, evil, and lie.

All this lies behind my response to InterVarsity Press’s tweet. Yes, I’m still evangelical. And unashamedly so.

[I would also commend a great article by a colleague that explores this same landscape, Evangelicalism: It’s a Brand but its Also a Space.]