The Christian Workarounds

In my work as a communications adviser, one of my primary tasks is to help people let go of their workarounds. Sure, it takes 10 extra steps, 3 more documents, and 1 sacrificed squirrel to get it done – but it’s what they know, it’s comfortable, and change is scary. I totally get it. I hate change too.

What I recognized early on as a pastor is that Christians have these workarounds too. At a “book study” one night at my house going through whatever popular Christian Living book we were using at the time, a new Christian asked: “Is it really this hard to be a good Christian?” She was referring to all the “simple steps” articulated in the book. Why does being a “good Christian” take reading all these books?

I had had enough. I looked at my group and said, in my overly brash/arrogant early 20s way, “No. It’s not that difficult to understand. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor. Defend the poor. Give up all you own.” But that’s terrifying. It requires actual sacrifice. So Christians in America have spent the last 50 years developing dozens of workarounds, ways to be “good Christians” without actually having to do the hard things Jesus talks about.”

Was I arrogant? yes. Was I wrong? I don’t think so.

As Kierkegaard says, “Being alone with God’s Word is a dangerous matter. Of course, you can always find ways to defend yourself against it: Take the Bible, lock your door – but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty-five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read newspaper advertising. Can’t we be honest for once! It is only all too easy to understand the requirements contained in God’s Word. The most ignorant, poor creature cannot honestly deny being able to understand God’s requirements. But it is tough on the flesh to will to understand it and to then act accordingly. Herein lies the problem. It is not a question of interpretation, but action.” – For Self-Examination & Judge For Yourself 26–35

Some of us evangelicals have more of an academic bent, so we tend to create workarounds that involve defending esoteric doctrines that no one has ever heard of. Others of us evangelicals have more of a contemplative or pragmatic bent, so we tend to create workarounds that involve those aspects of our lives.

Are these bad practices in themselves? Probably not. As always, it’s about the heart.

Why do we defend doctrine rather than the poor? Why do we grow in learning to be kinder and more patient but not growing into solidarity with people who make us uncomfortable? Because the former increases our comfort and control while the latter decreases our comfort and control.

But to admit that we just don’t know how to love well would be devastating, our fragile egos often cannot handle it. So, we create a workaround. We create a new system where Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says and where defending doctrine is a wonderful substitute for defending the poor. All the reward without any of the sacrifice.

It’s like the Christian version of the diet pill, putting money in the manufacturers’ pockets & helping people find a solution for their dilemma of wanting to change without the pain that change causes. Sounds like a win-win. Is that bad? I am not interested in right or wrong, good or bad. I’m just saying that if we want to be like Jesus, increasing comfort and control doesn’t seem to be a good tactic. There is no Resurrection Sunday without the Death of Good Friday.

My Father

A Short & Personal Parable*

The One

There was a boy who loved his father. He loved him so much and wanted to be just like him. Not only was the father all powerful, all wise, and all good, at least in the eyes of the boy, but the father always told the son what to do and the best decisions to make. The boy had a wonderful childhood. Anytime he came to a tough decision he simply ran to his father, who hugged him tightly, and told him exactly which road to take. The boy was so comforted knowing that it was not his decision but his father’s. He was glad to give up the responsibility for his life, placing it in the hands of someone who knew so much better. When the boy was a man, his father became ill. And fear struck. I am lost without my father. I cannot make a single decision without his clear direction. And in that moment came the most devastating revelation: he was nothing like the father. He was neither wise, nor good, nor powerful. The father recovered, but the son never did.

The Other

There was another boy who loved his father. He loved him so much and wanted to be just like him. The father was all powerful, all wise, and all good, at least in the eyes of the boy, but it was often frustrating to be the son. It was difficult to understand why his father acted in the ways that he did. When the son would ask (I admit, sometimes he demanded) for the best path to take, the father would most often shrug his shoulders and simply say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” while pointing to a particular book on the shelf that the father had written many years before. It was an autobiography of the tallest order.

Time and time again the boy would come to him with a decision to make, a crossroads in life and the father would simply say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” How arrogant. How frustrating. This was such a different world than the world in the book. “I don’t want to know how my father acted, so long ago. I want to know right now what I should do,” the boy would often say.

After reading the letter over and over again, searching for the answer to the question that lay before him, the son would slam it shut in disgust and say, “I guess I will just have to make my own decision.” And so he did.

When the boy was a man, his father became ill. And he asked his father, “Before you die, I need to know one thing. Why did you never tell me what to do? Why did you never give me a clear answer to my questions? Why did you give me nothing when I most needed your direction?”

His father replied, “Any father who gives his son the answers robs him of the gift of the struggle. There is no one who becomes strong physically by having someone lift weights on his behalf. To desire to be like me without desiring to suffer is a contradiction. It cannot be done. Forcing you to take responsibility for your own life is the spiritual exercise required to be like me.”

The son thought, and said, “But why risk it? I could have made all the wrong decisions!”

The father chided the son, “Did you not read the book? Do you not remember who your father is? You have a father who will always be with you, even to the end of the age. The balance between Love and Power does not stop you from making mistakes, it redeems them.”

It was then that the son understood. And resentment melted away and was replaced by inestimable gratitude. And the father remained with the son, even to the end of the age.

Sunday School Observations*

I teach Old Testament at a university. My kids are now old enough to be in Sunday School on Sunday mornings. Add those two things to my own years of experience being a kid in Sunday School and I have noticed a few things about the Sunday School system that worry me (as I have experienced it in my own evangelical tradition). Specifically, there are three common themes I see in many Sunday Schools that seem to give kids a distorted view of the Bible and the Christian faith, a view they carry with them through college and into life. I will call these The Noah’s Ark Problem, The Goody Two-Shoes Problem, and The Disney Problem. Now, perhaps I am overreacting (it’s my job as a parent and perennial over-analyzer). Or perhaps I am just reading things wrongly. But perhaps I am not doing either.

The Noah’s Ark Problem

One of the more disturbing things about Sunday School is that it teaches kids to view Bible stories in a way they were never intended. If left to many Sunday Schools, my kids are going to grow up thinking Noah’s Ark is about cute animals getting on a boat made by Fisher Price. We always seem to leave out the whole ” torturous death by drowning to all living things as a judgment for humanity’s utter wickedness” punchline. In fact, we just change the punchline to be about a rainbow and how God keeps his promises. Considering much of the Old Testament is filled with sex, violence, and concepts difficult for kids to grasp, I am not sure how much of it is suitable for teaching to kids in a group setting. But we do anyway. And in our attempts, we inevitably water it down to the point where our kids leave thinking the Bible is like a fairy tale or Aesop’s Fables. And when we do, not only do our kids grow up missing out on what’s really going on in the story, but we teach them to read the Bible as an edited collection of stand-alone moral stories, looking for that story’s “valuable lesson” to me, rather than teaching them the entire story so that they find themselves in its ebb and flow, context and all.

The Goody Two-Shoes Problem

When I was a kid, the point of Sunday School seemed to be to teach me how to be a polite American citizen who doesn’t cause trouble. The lessons were all geared toward my behavior: “Jesus wants you to be happy. And to be happy you need to be nice to your sister, clean your room for your parents, and register to vote (<–that’s hyperbole for dramatic effect).” There was no emphasis on how strange the Bible can be or how counter-cultural it shows Israel and God to be. We never focused on Israel or how Jesus was related to that story. And no mention that sometimes God wants us to be troublemakers by standing up to authority and our culture. No, the lessons were all about me. And more specifically, they were about me being good. Well, I don’t want my kids to just be polite. I want them to be wise and courageous. I want them to learn to think for themselves and be confrontational when such is called for. I don’t want them to be good. I want them to be faithful. And I don’t think those are at all the same thing.

The Disney Problem

This is probably the thing that makes me cringe most when I hear Sunday School lessons. They often focus on external cultural influences rather than how culture is internally influencing my kid’s identity, goals, dreams, and expectations. How many Sunday School teachers advise their children not to watch certain Disney movies because they objectify women and portray the object of life as finding your soul-mate? I have never heard of it. But I have often heard that my kids need to steer clear of listening to lyrics with bad words or watching movies that portray violence. Now, perhaps both aren’t advisable for impressionable young kids. But for our family, Sarah and I have decided that we will screen our movies based primarily on how it presents what we should aspire for and how it presents the roles of women and men.

I am much more concerned that my boys learn that love does not end after 10 minutes of emotionally charged music when the credits roll, that there is more to life than women, and that their princess doesn’t need to look like a Barbie doll than I am that they hear a few shit’s or damn it’s. Those aren’t shaping my kids identity, just their vocabulary.

I see this in my college students all the time. They strive so hard to be non-confrontational, to behave in the right Christian ways, to not say curse words. But it’s not until we discuss cultural influences that they begin to see how much the movies they watch and the music they listen to influences something much deeper than silly curse words. They shape the overall trajectory of their life, the things they desire and believe will lead to a happy life, the things they strive for and the things they try to avoid. I recommend Rated R Braveheart over Rated PG-13 “Insert Almost Every Romantic Comedy Here” any day.

What would I do differently? I have no idea. And I do not blame Sunday School teachers. I was blessed by many wonderful teachers as a kid. They have inherited it from others. And others before them. I have volunteered in the past to teach large group at my son’s Wednesday night church group and recently volunteered to teach my son’s Sunday School class. Did I or will I do things differently? I hope so. My only hint for how to move forward is that perhaps Pete Enns is right, we need to spend our time focusing on the life of Jesus so that when they are older, they are anchored in the person and work of Jesus rather than a list of moral stories. Sounds like a good first step to me.

3 Ways Human Jesus Saves Me*

We all have different pictures of Jesus in our heads. There’s White European/American Jesus who generally just creeps me out. And I have sweet Baby Jesus, who I admit, hasn’t done much for me spiritually, but did great things for my toy collection as a kid. But then there’s Human Jesus. Human Jesus changed everything.

I used to be afraid of Human Jesus. Not in the same creepy way as European/American Jesus, but because of what having a God-who-became-human might mean. Of course, I was taught to admit there was a Human Jesus . . . just make sure to quickly add that we all agreed God Jesus is what’s really important. After all, we had to admit Jesus was human, but that didn’t mean we had to like it. I mean, liberals, progressives, and even secular ego-driven, anti-god academics admitted to a Human Jesus. It’s God Jesus that really makes a difference. But in seminary, Human Jesus moved from being an embarrassment in my life to being a savior.

Human Jesus saved me at a time when I needed saving. I had come to the place where I was about to divorce God altogether. Once I started admitting to myself that Jesus didn’t make me a super-human, that most of the world couldn’t care less about theology, and that I was still just as broken (if not more so) than my non-Christian friends, God and I just didn’t seem to have anything in common anymore. He seemed too distant, so intolerably perfect and Stoic. I couldn’t even relate to Jesus, what with all his white clothes that never seem to get dirty, Buddhist monk-like poise and patience, and I-know-everything attitude.

I desperately needed a Human Jesus. And thankfully, while in seminary, I got him. And I’ve never looked back. Over the years, Human Jesus has helped me undo a lot of the fantasies I had constructed about Christianity. Here are a few things Human Jesus has taught me:

God gets that we are a mess. Jesus entered into the shit and the beauty of human existence. He was able to experience the love of his mother and the betrayal of his best friends, the beautiful sensuality of getting his feet wiped with the hair of a young woman and the tortuous pain of getting his feet nailed to a cross. It was through seeing Jesus as unapologetically human that I was able to see that God doesn’t want me to become superhuman, he accepts me for me. He doesn’t expect me to be anything but human and he demonstrates this by becoming human himself. Christianity isn’t a rulebook for how to be perfect like God, it’s a story about how God became like us. And that’s an important difference.

We have a very human-looking Bible. Human Jesus shows me we have a God who doesn’t mind “looking bad” for the sake of humanity. If the same God that came as Jesus also gave us a book, I would expect it to look very human. It would have to speak, as Calvin would say, in baby-speak — imperfectly, through language, culture, and customs we as very limited humans understand. Does it run the risk of looking, well, ordinary, unrefined, and altogether human? Yes. And that’s the point. My Bible looks a lot like Jesus.

Love is not about fixing people it’s about being with them. If you want to truly relate to and talk to broken humans, you run the risk of looking broken yourself. Get over it. The streak I see in Human Jesus and Human Bible is this: the One in power giving up that power to become one of us. It is not the rich “helping out” the poor, but learning to be with the poor. It is not the holy instructing the unholy, but the holy becoming so involved in the lives of the unholy that people are uncomfortable with how, from the outside, it’s hard to tell the difference. The God I see in Jesus is a God who threw caution to the wind in the name of love. Damn it all! For the sake of love I will throw off my royal robes, my power, and my reputation, and instead be called a glutton and a drunk, a nobody who dies without notice, a traitor to my state.

That Jesus saved me once and continues to save me almost every single day.

3 Christian Arguments Against Gay Marriage & Why They’re Inconsistent

In full disclosure, I am a Christian who supports gay marriage. An evangelical even. I’m also a professor of philosophy & ethics. That means, at least in part, I’d like to think I think pretty logically. So when I hear some of the arguments from Christians as to why they are against gay marriage, I often scratch my head. These are 3 arguments that, if taken to their logical conclusion, end in inconsistency, at best, and hypocrisy, at worst. At least, in my opinion.

1. The “It’s a Sin” Argument

This is probably the most popular. The argument is this:

I believe gay sex/marriage is morally wrong because the Bible is against it.
I do not think the government should allow what I believe to be morally wrong.
Therefore, I do not think the government should allow gay sex/marriage.

The problem with this argument is that it’s hypocritical. How so?

According to this argument, if I am going to be against gay marriage, I should also be against the freedom of religion.

Why? Because the freedom of religion says that anyone can worship any god they choose in this country. And what does the Bible have to say about worshiping other gods? Well, let’s put it this way, there are 11 instances (if we’re really generous) against gay sex and over 250 instances where idolatry is condemned. Oh yeah, and pretty much all of Israel is destroyed because of it. So, you’re okay with allowing our country to endorse something condemned over 250 times in our Bible but not something condemned 11 times? Of course, the main difference is that the former affects you & benefits you while the latter doesn’t. Sounds like textbook hypocrisy.

2. The “The Bible is Clear that Marriage is Between A Man & A Woman” Argument

Many people like to start in Genesis, as though God creating Adam & Eve and telling them they’re perfect for each other, now go have sex (which, interestingly, we aren’t told they do until after they are kicked out of the Garden), is somehow the beginning of the institution of marriage. But if the Old Testament counts as what God had in mind for marriage, gay marriage might be more at home there than in our culture. After all, the most common pictures of marriage we have are

One Husband + Many Wives (Polygamous Marriage) – This list includes Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, Elkanah, Ashur, Abijah and Jehoiada. There are a lot more but they were the “bad guys” so I’m assuming they don’t count as much.

One (Dead) Husband + One Widowed Wife + One Brother-In-Law (Levirate Marriage) – the brother-in-law of a deceased husband should impregnate (Ruth & Gen. 38:6–10) the widow so that she has an heir.

One Husband + One Wife + One Slave – Abraham, the Father of our Faith (Gen. 16:1-6) & Jacob, his grandson (Gen. 30:4-5).

One Husband + One (or more) Wife + Some (or hundreds) of Concubines – Nahor (Gen 22:4), Abraham (Gen. 25:5-7), Jacob (Gen. 35:22

Do you notice how many of these are from the same book as Adam & Eve? What gives? Why don’t these count as “foundations for modern marriage”? After all, the Fathers of our Faith practiced almost all of them, with not a word of condemnation from Genesis.

But that’s not all. If we follow the law, which, after all says that gay sex/marriage is an “abomination to God,” then we should also adhere to the following laws regarding marriage.

One Husband + One Prisoner of War – Deuteronomy 21:11-14

One Rapist Husband + One Victim Wife – Deuteronomy 22:28-29 describes how an unmarried woman who had been raped must marry her attacker.

Of course, there is also monogamous, heterosexual marriage in the Bible, especially if you like arranged marriages.

3. The “Procreation Argument”

This argument is as follows:

Marriage was intended for procreation (making babies)
Gay sex/marriage can’t produce babies
Therefore, gay marriage is wrong.

Welp, okay then, time to condemn those poor couples who can’t or won’t have children.

What’s my point? I guess it’s that unless we are willing to be an opponent of the freedom of religion, to account for which examples of marriage in Genesis we should still hold to today, or deem illegitimate the couples who cannot have kids, we shouldn’t use these arguments.

Why I Stand for Gay Marriage as a Christian

It’s been a year since I first wrote why I was an Evangelical in support of gay marriage. This week seemed like a good time to reiterate my reasons.

So many Christians will use this time as an opportunity to “stand up for their faith,” while I will use it as an opportunity to stand up for people without rights. We will both have our arguments and our proof-texts. We will likely never agree. And that’s okay. We’re still family. But here are a few reasons why my faith in Jesus compels me to support gay marriage.

Number One: To Love is to Empty Ourselves of Power. We cannot legislate people into the Kingdom of God, we cannot politically strong-arm people into becoming Christians. To think we can is to misunderstand the emptying of God in Jesus Christ, the most powerful one who shows his power in powerlessness, the one who was God in his very nature but didn’t take advantage of that power but instead emptied himself and became a servant (Phil 2), even to his betrayer, even to the point of dying as a traitor to his state. Does love mean legislating a person’s morality according to a worldview they do not share? That does not sound like love, that sounds like a paternalistic power trip.

I would rather show people the love of Jesus by supporting them in their fight for equality, to stand with them, even if they are gay, hell, even if they are my enemies. My main goal as an evangelical Christian is to reflect the resurrected Christ and his Kingdom, not put it into law. It is to invite people in, not force them in against their will.

And while many Christians believe the “Christian” thing to do is to keep Christianity in power, I believe the “Christian” thing to do is empty ourselves of power, to give up our legislating and to take up our cross. I believe Jesus is on the side of those without power and his kingdom is one of equality, where no one is a second-class citizen, whether that be conservative Christian, drug addict, GLBT, atheist, or politician. We all bear God’s image in this story.

Number Two: When in Doubt, Go with Equality. Not many Christians realize that we were, for the most part, on the wrong side of the slave issue and, to a much lesser extent, the civil rights movement. The Bible was used regularly during the Civil War to support slavery as morally acceptable. It was so “obvious” that the Bible supported slavery. . .

And, lest we forget, it was a Christian culture that kept women from being able to vote until only 100 years ago. I am ashamed that a “Christian” culture didn’t support or even acknowledge the equality of women until . . . well, in some Christian circles, they still don’t. By the way, in many circles, the same oppressive structure presents itself with women as with gays. We love you emotionally and even personally, but not enough to actually give up my privileged position as the man/straight in power.

Number Three A: My Bible Compels Me. The way I see the text of the prophets, the life of Jesus, and the trajectory of the New Testament, I would much rather be held accountable to God for fighting for someone to have the same rights I enjoy (sorry God, I assumed I should fight for the rights of those who didn’t have them) than to be held accountable to God for excluding rights from people for the sake of religious rules (sorry God, I thought I was supposed to tell the world how sinful they are and that my government should privilege Christian culture at the expense of other people). For those who are thinking, “Yeah, but the Bible is against gay sex,” keep reading.

Number Three B: Supporting Gay Marriage is not Supporting Sin. I know it is hard to grasp, but this matter has nothing to do with whether or not homosexuality is a sin. If it did, then I still have to question your reasoning since you are very likely being prejudiced and inconsistent considering the fact that there are lots of things that Christians consider “sinful” that they do not legislate against. For instance, if God wants us as a nation to live by his laws, why are we okay supporting the freedom of religion? Shouldn’t we be out trying to ban other religions? If we are okay with freedom of religion,which is a law that basically mandates that our country allow for idolatry (according to the Christian), aren’t we being hypocritical?

Now, if this were about gay folks in church leadership or even church membership, we would have to address whether or not gay sex is a sin (which is another issue entirely on its own). But Paul seems to make it very clear that Christians have absolutely no place to judge the behavior of non-Christians:

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral . . . . In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sisterbut is sexually immoral . . . 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. . . .” -1 Corinthians 5:9-13a

Instead of focusing on “judging those inside” and creating a “city on a hill,” evangelicals are very good at making sure people who are not Christians know that they are “breaking the rules” of Christianity. And as such, we have gained the reputation for being judgmental, a moniker well-deserved for the most part. It is God’s place to judge the world, it is our place to love it. And just like the story we find in Adam & Eve, when we put ourselves in God’s place, we make a mess of things.

I might be wrong. We all might be. I am well aware of that and take responsibility for it. But for now that’s a risk I am willing to take for the sake of people knowing that there are Christians who stand with them in their struggle to be seen as equals in the eyes of their government.

If the Church wants to keep marriage between a man and a woman because of their religious convictions, so be it. But I will not support using the government’s power to coerce powerless non-Christians into behaving like Christians. That, to me, seems thoroughly un-Christian. It is the Spirit of God who transforms the heart, not the laws of the powerful.

As always, I welcome all critiques and dissenters. I do ask that you present actual arguments rather than just emotional rants about how wrong I am, but I will read those as well if you feel you must.

On Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks, Gay Marriage, and Jesus

Last year, there was a media kerfuffle when Chick-Fil-A COO Dan Cathy said he supported “traditional marriage,” the codeword for being opposed same-sex marriage.

Well, believe it or not (<–sarcasm), there has been another media kerfuffle around a company’s stance on gay marriage. This time, it’s Starbucks, for being “committed to diversity,” the codeword for being supportive of same-sex marriage.

What I have witnessed around these two instances is just another affirmation that Christians have been drinking the Kool-Aid of American media polarizations. In response to the Chick-Fil-A stance, conservative Christians held “Support Chick-Fil-A Days,” where they would support a company’s stance on gay marriage by eating a lot of chicken nuggets (doesn’t that seem strange to anyone else?) and where progressive Christians boycotted Chick-Fil-A, protesting by not eating a lot of chicken nuggets.

The same cry has gone out this week. “Forgo your daily latte for the cause of traditional marriage!” “Learn your Starbucks-speak & order a tall, skinny, double latte for the cause of marriage equality!”

Leaving aside the fact that we live in a strange world where activism is reduced to whether or not we click a button a social media site, eat chicken nuggets, or drink lattes (#firstworldproblems), I am also troubled by how we are only presented with these two options, how polarized we are as a Christian community. Instead of the voice of conversation, dialogue, and a heart willing to listen and engage with people we disagree with, we just throw a tantrum, pick up our ball, and go home. Something tells me that’s not what Jesus meant when he said we should love our enemies.

Instead of engaging with the Other, we are told that the “righteous” thing to do is not to support people who disagree with us. Don’t give them our money. Don’t buy things from them. Forgive me if I am missing something really simple, and I mean that sincerely, but why not? I thought I was supposed to love my enemy, not try to hurt their business? Or, to put it another way: how is hurting the business of my enemy loving them? Why can’t I disagree with someone in a way that shows the world what it means to love our enemies? Why is the godly thing to do to give them the cold shoulder, economically and relationally?

I do not think that is the way of Jesus.

And so, I have decided, I will have my latte and eat my chicken nuggets too. Not for the cause of traditional marriage, gay marriage, or any type of marriage, but for the cause of Christ.

And yes, I do realize that might be the most bombastic, overly dramatic, two sentences I’ve ever written.