Why I Won’t Be Reviewing Fire and Fury

Fire and FuryThere has been a flurry of coverage this week about Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which, from what I gather, is a largely uncomplimentary portrait of our current president. Questions have been raised about how the author gained such access, and the reliability of some sources. There has been a huge falling out between the president and a former adviser, who has had to step down from his leadership of Breitbart News. There was a “cease and desist” order which the publisher has ignored, selling out their first run of the book. [By the way, I think this is an unconstitutional attempt to abridge First Amendment press freedoms, to which the president, like all other citizens, is subject.]

While I fully support the right to publish this book, I won’t be reviewing it. Here’s why:

  1. Fundamentally,  I have to make choices about what I think is worth reviewing for the purposes of this blog, which is about what promotes the good, the true, and the beautiful. There are so many good books I want to read and review (some waiting to be read), and I honestly don’t think I have time for this “take down” book, whether accurate or not, which I will leave to others to debate.
  2. This is the kind of book, no matter what I write about it, that will confirm the views of those who oppose the president and arouse the ire of those who support him. It’s not a book that will change minds. Frankly, I don’t want to host an argument about the book on this blog.
  3. I think the more important discussions right now have to do with how we make this country work for all of its citizens, “red” or “blue.” I want to pay attention to voices articulating a bigger vision for our country. That’s why in the past year I’ve reviewed books by John Kasich and Ben Sasse, as well as by activists like Matthew Desmond and Bryan Stevenson.
  4. I suspect that many people who care about this book are already reading it, long before it would be possible for me, and you already have your opinions and don’t need mine.
  5. Finally, I don’t think this book will be part of our national discussion for very long. I have a sense that by the time I get to reviewing it (because of books already in my review queue), it will start turning up in the bargain bins at second hand stores.

For now at least, I’ve done all the reviewing of books on this president that I want to do in the one book I’ve reviewed bearing his name, Choosing Donald Trump. I like this book’s call for people of faith to exercise “prophetic distance” with this and all presidents. That’s different from unquestioning allegiance or hidebound opposition and calls us to a greater and more generous vision of our country and for our world. Those are the conversations I want to uphold.

Your Favorite “General” Posts of 2017

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President Donald J. Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

The tagline on this blog is “thoughts about books, reading, and life.” A great deal of my posts are reviews of books and I previously have posted my “Best of 2017” book recommendations as well as my “Most Viewed Reviews,” the ones my followers are most interested in. This blog has also been the home of my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series of posts on my home town of Youngstown, Ohio. I recently posted a “Favorites of 2017” list for this series as well.

The rest of my posts, which I term “general” here are on “reading” and “life.” The posts that garnered the greatest attention generally concerned matters of faith and politics, particularly the scandal of evangelical political captivity, and trying to articulate how Christians might engage political life in a way consistent with a biblical faith. There were also a few posts on reading that you liked, which is gratifying since a major purpose of this blog is to encourage reading, particularly works of worth. So here is the list of your favorite “general” posts, ordered by number of views.

10. Two posts tied for this. Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon? focused on the isolation of theology as an academic discipline from other disciplines of study and the mutual learning that could occur if these were permitted to engage with each other. My Response to #MeToo was my attempt as a white male to respond to this growing movement of women (and some men) speaking out against the sexual harassment and assault of women by men, evoked by the fact that some #MeToo posts were by close friends and colleagues.

9. The Battle to Read? picked up on author Philip Yancey’s observation that he was reading far less, and fewer works that demanded focused attention and was the lead off post of a three part series on how to make substantive reading a greater part of our lives.

8. The Dangerous Practice of Reading in Bed explores the once-reputed dangers of reading in bed and explores what kinds of reading might be helpful or unhelpful in our last waking moments of each day.

7. Christian Scholars Review was a feature on one of the journals whose articles and reviews on the connection of faith and scholarship I’ve long appreciated.

6. The Evangelical Penumbra? reflects on a phrase in a recent Ross Douthat op-ed in the New York Times, in which I realized that the way I understand an evangelical faith is on the margins of American evangelicalism as it presently exists and how I come to terms with that.

5. The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two was the second of a two-part series (the first appears appears below) on the divided American church which mirrors the country’s divides and what I believe must be done if we are to become a people who help heal the country’s wounds rather than deepen them.

4. Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent considers the movement of many who in the past identified as “evangelicals” to distance themselves from this identifier either in language or affiliation as a result of the finding that 81 percent of Whites identifying as evangelicals voted for President Trump.

3. Legal But Immoral; Moral But Illegal explores through the lens of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the dilemma of what we do when faced with the choice of obeying immoral laws or engaging in acts one would believe moral, but are illegal. Many who aided fugitive slaves faced this dilemma, as do those in the contemporary sanctuary movement. This was one of those posts that continues to get a number of views.

2. The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One focuses on the deep divides in the American church and recalls another time when this was so, the years leading up to the Civil War and proposes that we have a role to play, one way or another in America’s divisive civic life, either to inflame or to heal.

1. Praying for a President You (Don’t) Like was posted shortly before the inauguration of Donald J. Trump to the presidency. This was not the person I wanted in the presidency (that person didn’t make it out of the primaries) and yet scripture commands me to pray for political leaders. I expressed how I would pray, then wrote a follow-up post for friends who struggled with praying for this president titled “When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like.”

For the most part, pretty serious stuff. But I suspect you might agree that these are serious times–that it is vital to understand the times we live in and how then we shall live in those times. As a Christ-follower, I believe my calling is to be found faithful and vigilant in such times and to help others live such lives. I hope this blog serves in part to fulfill that calling, through what we read, and how we live. I have no clue what 2018 will bring, but I hope to keep writing about worthy books, ideas, and lives well-lived. Thanks so much for reading and following in 2017!

The Rose of Christmas

The Rose

Photo by Robert C. Trube, Own work

On Christmas eve morning, a small ensemble of which I’m part sang the beautiful old German carol, “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming,” the English translation of the German Est ist ein Ros entsprungen. It is one of the most beautiful of Christmas carols, set to harmony by Michael Praetorius, a German court composer. It is not difficult music to sing, and yet Praetorius’s chordal harmonies make it joyfully satisfying to singer and listener alike.

It is the words, however, that I am thinking about, translated by Theodore Baker (verses 1 and 2) and Harriet Krauth Spaeth (verse 3). The image of the rose is not one I often associate either with Christmas, or with the Christ child. Here are the words with a few reflections:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flow’ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Where does the image in the first two lines come from? Isaiah 11:1 speaks of “A shoot come up from the stump of Jesse.” I have usually thought of the stump as a tree stump, and perhaps this what was in mind. But if you have ever ordered roses in the mail, it comes as a “stump” with roots. When you plant it it appears dead, as did the kingly line of David, Jesse’s son. For centuries, Israel endured exile and foreign rule. Was this stump dead? The carol speaks of a stem and a “Flowret bright.” In the cold winter of Israel’s life under Roman rule, this baby, a stem, a rose from Jesse is born, a flowret bright!

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
The Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The carol writer confirms that Isaiah is his inspiration. Some have suggested that the rose was in fact the virgin Mary, and there is some discussion that this may have been the carol’s original intent. But these words have the virgin, who is indeed blessed as well as kind, beholding the Rose. The image is that of a mother gazing upon a child who is not only the object of her love but the demonstration of God’s love to a humanity living in the half-spent night. She bears this child into life who will be her Savior, the one who gives her life.

This Flow’r, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor
The darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
From sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

The carol writer reflects on how the scent of this rose dispels all that is fetid, all that is of death with “fragrance tender” and “sweetness” that fills the air. But there is more. Have you seen flowers that almost seem to have a light, or luminosity of their own? This rose is like that, replacing darkness with glorious splendor. We also see how he saves us. As true man, he could stand in our place, bear the load of our sin. As very God he could do what we could not and effect our salvation.

Christmas Day 2017 comes amid the winter of international danger, political strife, seeming intractable problems of gun violence and slavery to addictive drugs. The times can seem dark, and one wonders whether the work of God in the world is no more than a dead, lifeless stump. The Rose, the shoot of Jesse, the one who brings fragrance and light reminds us that the long awaited King has come, that the one who is life has broken into the culture of death, and has already delivered his people from the power of sin and death. This Rose will not wilt, or fade but is the Rose ever (e’er) blooming. Jesus is born!

Merry Christmas!

Windows 10 — Home of the 10 Hour Update!

pexels-photo-209734 (1)Now I know why they call it Windows 10. It is the home of the 10 hour update. That was my experience last Sunday when I waited for Window 10 to install its Feature Update, version 1709.

Actually the fun began on Saturday. My wife does not use her laptop very much and so it had not been on to receive updates. When she tried to use it to visit some websites, it ran slowly because it was trying to update in the background. So on Saturday, I set about to get it updated. There were four or five significant updates Windows Update was downloading to install including the major Feature Update, version 1709.

One defect is that Windows just doesn’t handle multiple major updates well, and usually one or more fails to install. I managed successively to get the others installed, running Windows Troubleshooter several times to do so. At last, all I had left was the Feature Update to install, and it was time to go to bed, and I figured it would do better on a fresh boot. To get to this point took about six hours, which I’m not including in the ten for the actually Feature Update.

So I came back to it Sunday afternoon, about 2:45 pm. I simply turned the computer on and let Windows Update do its thing. I shut off my virus software. It took about 45 minutes to download the update. I thought, not too bad. Then it was about another eight hours “preparing to install.” All afternoon and evening I went about tasks and checked in every hour or two. Successively it went from 9 percent to 21 percent, to 35, percent, to 48 percent–you get the drift. Since it was progressing, I didn’t mess with it, which usually means starting all over again. Finally, at 11:30 pm, it was ready to install which requires several restarts of the computer, the first initiated by the user, which I did as soon as it was ready. That took another 75 minutes, finishing at 12:45 am–ten hours later.

I don’t know about you but I think it is unconscionable for a company to release a product that performs (or doesn’t) like this. I did this update on two other machines with six to eight hour wait times to finish. It’s a good thing I could stagger this, but how a company can think this is good business practice, particularly on such a “mission critical” product is beyond my ability to understand. A Google search suggests that many Windows 10 users have had similar experiences.

Some users have apparently done better doing a “clean install” which means backing up all your data and files, re-installing the operating system, which may then only take an hour or two, plus all the time re-installing your software and files, an operation not for the faint of heart. And sometimes software no longer works properly, though this is not a problem I’ve run into.

There does not seem to be a way to stop these updates, which often slow down anything else you are doing if done in the background. Also, I know users in other countries on metered connections where these bloated updates are a huge cost. Not updating also exposes you to security problems.

Furthermore, it is often unclear that an update is actually working because of how slowly the percentages update. Sometimes, an update hangs. Other times it is working and but it is hard to tell the difference without waiting, sometimes hour or more, to see if your update is progressing.

It also seems that when a computer needs multiple updates, the update software should include instructions to sequence updates so they don’t “fail” which often requires troubleshooting, uninstalls, etc. to remedy. Once an update fails, it will keep trying to install, but won’t succeed unless you go in and clear out failed installations.

Windows 10 has been touted by Microsoft as the last version of Windows. For me, who has used Windows since 3.1, and DOS before that, this could mean something very different from what Microsoft is thinking. Unless this changes, I’m ready to walk and buy a computer with their primary competitor’s system. Only thing is, I just upgraded to a new computer recently. Microsoft, that means you have a little time…but you’ve got to fix this or you will lose me.

[Rant over…I feel so much better, at least until the next Feature Update]

 

The Evangelical Penumbra?

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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Ross Douthat, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” proposed that evangelical intellectuals and writers and their friends might be part of an “evangelical penumbra” that has overestimated the role of serious theology (and thought in general) to evangelicalism’s sociological success. He raises the question in light of the 81 percent who voted for President Trump whether this “penumbra” might leave evangelicalism, and what this would expose about the movement that is left, one predominantly white and racially segregated, and perhaps more committed to American greatness than the kingdom of God.

In case you are wondering, a “penumbra” is the outer region affected by an eclipse, that is only in a partial shadow or weakened light. In the recent eclipse that crossed North America, central Ohio, where I live was in the penumbra of the eclipse while areas to the south experienced total eclipse. As it happens, I also live in the penumbra Douthat writes about and I deeply resonate with Douthat’s concerns. I’ve lived in a world where we read the Bible cover to cover and discovered a gospel that transcends racial, economic, gender, and national boundaries and a God who loves the world he created and wants us to love and care for it as well. I’ve lived in a world where the transforming work of Christ calls me to not only personal but social holiness–a life pursuing personal integrity and justice in society. I find myself far from perfect in all of this, but unwilling to rationalize my imperfections or the ways our communities of faith fall short. I’ve lived in a world of “taking every thought captive to Christ,” where knowing Christ leads to a kind of intellectual renaissance in which every intellectual endeavor is immeasurably enriched by knowing it is shot through with the glory of God.

It stings to wake up and find that what one assumed to be authentic evangelical Christianity is in fact marginal to much of this movement. No wonder so many of my friends are disenchanted and have decided either to drop the name or leave altogether. I find myself wrestling with what to do about that myself. It seems like a futile thing to say that the evangelicalism of Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress is not really evangelicalism when it appears that a majority of white evangelicals identify with that evangelicalism. Yet what disturbs me more is that if I am living in the penumbra, to pursue Douthat’s analogy, then these folks are in the umbra, the place of darkness. I have to admit that it really looks dark to me–politically captive as opposed to being captivated by Christ, considering national greatness more important than the kingdom of God, willing to perpetuate and deepen our racial wounds rather than to heal them, and turning a blind eye to sins they would preach against in their own churches to advance a narrow political agenda.

Dean William Inge is perhaps most famous for his remark that “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” I tremble when I consider what is happening right now because I see a movement that is destined to be a bereft widow–abandoned both by the young and the powerful in the years to come. I also haven’t got a clue what will awaken those I see pursuing this destructive path, apart from a Damascus road-type encounter with the Lord himself. It seems this group has no interest in listening to those in the “penumbra.”

So what does one do? Yesterday, I reviewed a book titled Faithful Presence, and I think the author is onto something. I see many local congregations (including my own) that embrace the beliefs that have been a part of my life, who are practicing this kind of faithful presence where I live. They’ve neither departed from an evangelical faith, nor embraced the truncated version of that faith about which Douthat writes. I don’t despair when I look at them. They aren’t trying to wield political clout or stack “the court.” They are too busy feeding the hungry, visiting prisons, finding ways to collaborate with our state’s leaders in addressing our opioid crisis, and forging relationships across racial and economic lines to engage in such stuff. They are too busy thinking about the nations of the world to think about making only one nation great. And they still believe that the good news of Christ’s redeeming work is far more important than the latest “tweet.”

One thing that must also be observed. The people I’m talking about are often part of neither the intellectual or media “elites” within evangelicalism nor the “court” evangelicalism about which Douthat is concerned. Many are thoughtful people who are less interested in writing or talking about their faith than simply living it in their congregations, communities, and workplaces. My hunch is that if anything will endure the winnowing (and widowing) of evangelicalism, it will be these people, who quietly have been the presence of Christ in their communities. And that’s where I think I must remain.

Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving

 

Memories of “over the river and through the woods.”

Of dinner’s at grandmother’s house,

Where we had to go for long walks to work off all the food.

Of mom’s turkey stuffing, and cranberry dressing and a big drumstick on my plate.

Men cleaning up in the kitchen afterwards, hand washing mountains of dishes,

and then gathering around to find out how badly the Lions would lose this year.

 

Memories of later years of dinners at the Timberlanes,

Of three hours, sometimes stretching to four or five in traffic,

All worth it to see loved ones once again,

and to give thanks for one more year of having them in our lives.

 

Those years have passed, as have those loved ones,

We still gather with family and friends,

No longer the youngest, nor yet the eldest,

but increasingly aware of the blessings of life, and health, and friends.

 

To remember opens one up to the fleeting character of our lives,

And yet also to the goodness of that life in all its brevity.

Family recipes and shared stories,

Delicious smells and inside jokes,

Grandpa nodding off while the children play, quarrel, and make up,

A tear for grandma who is no longer with us,

News of a baby on the way.

 

For a day we set the world’s troubles aside,

for the goodness of turkey and dressing,

pumpkin or sweet potato pie.

Shared in a circle of love.

 

Thanksgiving

 

Goodbye Charlie

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Charlie Rose interviews Barack Obama, 2013. Photo by Pete Souza — White House, Public Domain via Wikipedia

There may be some who remember this as the title of a somewhat strange 1964 comedy in which Charlie (Tony Curtis), a womanizer, is shot “in the act” with another man’s wife only to be reincarnated as a woman (Debbie Reynolds). For most of us though, “Goodbye Charlie” is what many of us are saying as we learned Monday of the latest set of accusations of sexual impropriety against talk show host and journalist, Charlie Rose.

This one hit me hard. I always thought of Rose as one of the good guys, hosting at his table some of the most fascinating conversations one could find on television. Everyone from Broadway stars to religious figures to political and thought leaders sat at his table, and he unerringly seemed to draw out of them the very best they had to offer. As of Tuesday, it appears it is goodbye for good as both CBS and PBS have terminated their contracts with Rose.

While I wish this were not so, I fully support these actions. Termination of employment is one of the possible consequences of sexual harassment in the organization I work for and as a director in that organization, I have responsibilities to take complaints seriously and to adhere to our organization’s procedures to investigate complaints and take appropriate corrective action. Similar policies are on the books in most organizations and there are both moral and legal obligations for leaders of those organizations. Yet until recently, many thought they could sweep such obligations under the carpet or ignore them. Only as women have found and joined their voices in collective action has it become clear that such complaints cannot be ignored, even or especially by the rich and powerful.

But someone may say, “this is such a talented person who cannot be replaced.” Some might pity Rose because he is out of at least a couple very lucrative jobs. I suspect Rose has a fortune that easily will secure him for the rest of his life. The greater loss for him is losing the chance to do something he has said he deeply loves.

That is what has been happening to sexually harassed women in the workplace for years. Many had jobs they loved, for which they were highly trained. Due to sexual harassment and the lack of complaints being taken seriously, for many, the only alternative (other than giving in or living with the harassment) was to leave. I’ve known of women devastated by this experience, some who sacrificed careers they loved and significant income to escape harassment. Sadly, this behavior is so pervasive that often women had no good place to escape to.

The difference between Rose and these women? One is without a job because of what he did, his use of position and power to sexually impose on women. The others are without jobs or have had to find other employment through no fault of their own, but only to escape situations that were personally threatening. So, while saddened by Rose’s actions, and their consequences, I would much rather have him off the air than for women to be unsafe in their workplaces. My hope is that this will serve as a wake up call for men everywhere that similar harassment or sexual imposition is wrong. Period. [And yes, I know that women may also harass or create threatening environments, which is equally wrong, albeit much more rare.]

Rose’s “sort of” apology evidences the self-justifications men must face about their behavior. He said, “I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior. I am greatly embarrassed. I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate. I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken.” The most revealing phrase here is “I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings….” Men often justify efforts to sexually impose on women with the idea that “she wanted it” or “she liked it.” Besides the fact that Rose’s statement is oblivious to the power dynamics in such incidents, he also ignores the simple realities that only “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no.”

Rose, along with a number of others in recent weeks, has been made an example of the consequences of the misuse of power to sexually harass or exploit women. Rose strikes me as someone with great empathy and emotional intelligence. I hope he turns this in the coming months to understanding what was really so wrong about his actions, and perhaps the wellsprings in his own life for why he acted as he did. I hope he won’t turn to further self-justification. My hope is that the day will come when he will be a different kind of example — one of a guy who finally “gets” it.

 

 

Waking and Sleeping

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By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve come to think of those first and last moments of consciousness, before I rise in the morning, and before I drift off to sleep, as important bookends of my day. Too easily, I pick up the phone at the beginning of the day to check the news. Too easily, I end the day drifting off to sleep mid-sentence in whatever I’m reading.

So I’ve started two simple practices:

  1. When I awaken, before I do anything else besides shut off the alarm, I lay still and give thanks for God’s protection through the night and offer him myself and my day, including the specifics of it I know as well as all the things that will occur about which I don’t.
  2. And before I go to bed, rather than read, I simply take the last moments of consciousness to review the day, to thank God for all his mercies, to offer anything up that remains undone even though I am for the day, and to trust myself to his care.

I’ve been thinking more of late of how much of my days I go through without consciously being aware of God. I still find myself far from the Apostle Paul’s “praying without ceasing.” Sometimes perhaps, it is just a brain that finds it hard to be engaged both with the matters of the moment and to engage with God. But I suspect there are deeper habits of being that play into all this.

For now at least, I want to get the bookends in place. Then, perhaps, I can work on what is between them.

 

Could One Be Both Spiritual and Religious?

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By Sebd – Own work, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

For some time now, I’ve noted the growing distinction between being spiritual and being religious, including this recent Vox article noting that at least one in five Americans identify as “spiritual.”. Like so many things, this is framed as a binary–you are either one or the other, and increasingly the choice is “spiritual.” It is true, as the article notes, that many who identify as spiritual maintain some religious affiliation, but participate much less in the religious observances of that tradition, and do not find “religion” as meaningful in their lives.

Those who are “spiritual” describe some kind of sense of a higher power and connectedness to the world, often experiencing spiritual experience in art, nature, music, personal rituals like yoga. It’s striking to me how importance beauty is in this contemporary spirituality. It seems that for many, their experience with formal religion was one laced with ugliness–rigid uniformity of belief or practice, hypocrisy, or simply dullness.

What I find interesting in all this is that I’ve never felt I had to make a choice. I am religious in the sense of worshiping weekly with a community that I’ve been a part of for twenty-seven years. We break bread together, sing together, wrestle together in figuring out how to apply the teachings of the Bible in our daily lives, and serve together. It’s not been perfect, because none of us in this community is perfect. We’ve fought, we’ve differed, we’ve sometimes parted. But we’ve prayed for the sick and brought in meals, we’ve fed the hungry, helped needy schoolchildren with lunches during the summer and school supplies. All of this is “religious” in the sense of being “bound” (from which the word religion derives, related to the word “ligament”) to a group of people with whom I share beliefs, practices, and life, and to the God we worship together.

I’m also “spiritual” in some of the senses described in this article. I believe we encounter God in everything from the very ordinary practices of brushing our teeth and caring for our homes to creating a painting or singing “Messiah” or other transcendently beautiful pieces of music. I find wonder in the creation, whether in the coneflowers in my own garden, or the particular beauties of oceans, forests, and mountains.

At the same time, my “religion” nourishes and enriches my spirituality. As Dorothy Sayers once asserted, “the dogma is the drama.” My faith tells me that the beauty I rejoice in in the world is the artistry of a Master, and that it would be folly to worship the artistry instead of the Artist. My faith doesn’t just tell me to love people in general but binds me in a particular community, challenging me to lean into the hard work of loving real people who stubbornly remain themselves and not the people I want them to be. My faith faces me with the ugliness of my sin and all the ways I deceive myself into thinking I’m better than I am, and shows me the way to forgiveness, and what I might become through grace.

I’ve also come to appreciate the specificity of the things my faith tells me about my God who is not a vague “higher power” but a personal being. I love and care about words, and it makes eminent sense that a personal being might be able to communicate God’s self in words as well, as the source of our own communicative abilities. And with this is the capacity for real relationship, and one that, perhaps even more than in human relationships, I cannot simply conform to my wishes.

In the end, the religious ties that “bind” me actually free me to engage with a God to whom I may speak freely or be silent and who I cannot make in my image. I am freed to be in a community where I have a group of people to whom I belong. I am freed to tend and serve a world of beauty. All the beauties and transcendent experiences of life make greater sense in pointing to a reality of which our present day is but a glimmer.

So, if a pollster asks me whether I would define myself as “spiritual” or “religious” I guess I would just have to say “yes.” I’ve never felt I had to choose, and I’m not about to start.

Leave the Label But Not the 81 Percent

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By Flofor15 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Popular blogger and theologian, Scot McKnight, argued recently on his blog that it is time, and past time to bury the identifier “evangelical.”  Recently the former Princeton Evangelical Fellowship changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship, citing the confusion and negative associations the term has with students. Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical publication, now uses the language of “beautiful orthodoxy” to describe its vision. What it comes down to is the term is now associated with the 81 percent of voters who self-identified as evangelical who voted for our current President, and that essentially “evangelical” equates with a certain kind of Republican, and is a divisive and alienating term if one doesn’t identify with those Republicans.

I find I have to agree with McKnight, albeit with great sadness. This is the death of what was once a good word, literally. It has been corrupted by making it politically captive to one party whose policies and practices many thoughtful Christians find impossible to reconcile with a biblical faith.

McKnight is not one who is leaving what would be defined as an evangelical faith in abandoning the term, unlike others who have changed their beliefs along with their identification, some leaving Christianity altogether, others finding a home in mainline Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox bodies. What I hope for McKnight (and I would include myself along with him) is that he doesn’t leave behind the “81 percent” who still use the identifier.

I think there is a great danger for the “19 percent” to fall into the same error of the Democratic elite in this last election, who lost touch with their base, particularly in the working class and perhaps even looked down their nose at them as the “great unwashed” or “the basket of deplorables.” I would argue that there is an evangelical elite as well–academics, writers for national organs like Christianity Today, who would identify as “socially progressive” on many issues while remaining theologically orthodox. And this elite has its own “echo chambers.”

In his book Just ImmigrationMark Amstutz observes the progressive position on immigration of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and the disconnect between these evangelical leaders, and many of those in the denominations and ministries they represent. What this suggests to me is a telling lack of influence by those charged with teaching and shepherding their flocks. Amstutz also notes a troubling disconnect between biblical principles and policy recommendations reflecting a very thin biblical and theological analysis of the issues. When evangelical leaders fail to root their teaching in careful biblical argument, and promote a policy position that looks very much like a party platform, is it little wonder that there is a disconnect between shepherds and flock?

It is probably not uncommon for those in the “19 percent” to bemoan the divisive politics in our country. But what are we doing to heal the deep fault lines with the “81 percent”? I found it deeply troubling to read the uncharitable things written by those in the 19 percent about those who voted for the current president. Dropping the term “evangelical” helps shed what is a negative identification. But if it means dropping identification with those who share our core convictions, who we would call brothers and sisters in Christ, then we mirror our country’s political divisions in the body of Christ. What place have we for complaining about our nation’s divided house when we cannot even restore our own?

Scot McKnight represents a significant group within the 19 percent–those who are the teachers and pastors of the church. Ultimately, if the flock of God has entered into unholy alliances that have compromised our identity in the world, at whose feet must this be laid but those who are teachers and shepherds of that flock? Will we then distance ourselves to preserve our progressive theological purity and simply say “they” are the problem. How far from the prophets of old who identified with the sins of their people, or even Christ, who accepted a “baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin” even though he had no sins of his own to repent.

What is the responsibility of teachers and pastors when they believe their people in error? The apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

I wonder if we might need to spend less time in our echo chambers and more time with the people we serve, exercising kindness, able teaching, patient endurance, and gentle correction?

I also realize that some evangelical leaders are among those who have strongly supported the President. I’ve seen them decried in numerous blogs, but I wonder how many efforts have been made to “reason together” face to face.

Beyond all this, I wonder if there might be value in laying aside the politics to re-affirm the defining essentials of evangelicalism, even though we may need to find another name for it? Classically, we have been committed to the authority of the Bible in all of life, the centrality of Christ’s atoning work, the promise of new life through conversion of once lost persons, and activism in both witness and social concern. While we squabble about politics, a generation is embracing a secular ideology and a variety of alternative spiritualities, we face a rampant opioid crisis and growing disparities of wealth and poverty, education, and even life expectancy. We are witnessing militant extremists deepening our racial divides and promoting violence.

If we really believe the gospel in its wholeness is very good news and is a message of transforming power, why aren’t we coming together to consider how we might fulfill our Lord’s commission in our day? Why are we looking to the political order to deliver us, whether we are the 81 percent or the 19 percent? I wonder what would happen, and how many of our differences might either be resolved or set aside, if we came together across the spectrum to get about the Lord’s business.

Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, wrote an article critical of Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright for his support of right wing causes. Bright was deeply hurt and the two didn’t speak for many years until they were staying at the same hotel and Wallis approached and apologized for failing to mend the breach between the two. Another meeting followed, Bright affirming that the Great Commission included care for the poor in doing all Christ commanded. The two prayed for each other’s work. Some time later, Wallis received a $1,000 donation for his work from Bright, along with a personal note,  at the same time that he had learned Bright had just died. He realized this gift and note were among the last things Bright did.

Might we give ourselves to healing such breaches and come together around our shared calling once more? It would be a sad thing if we gave up hope for that kind of healing along with the name “evangelical.” To do so would be to give up on the gospel.