Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Theology Is Important

One of my favorite children's books is Fables by Arnold Lobel. It is full of wonderful stories but one of my favorites is The Bad Kangaroo. In it, the child's teacher is visiting the bad kangaroo's parent to talk with them regarding the unruly behavior of their child. The teacher quickly learns that all of the child's behaviors were learned from watching the parents. While many of us would bristle at the thought, our behaviors are deeply influenced by our families of origin, sometimes because we don't want to be like them, but more often, and usually unconsciously, because we fall into long established patterns that we learned from them.

A few weeks ago, my friend Jon put a post u on his blog - Substitutionary Atonement - It's Just a Theory. I commented and said that our theory of the atonement is important because of the ways it effects our behaviors... our thoughts about discipline, child rearing, even crime and punishment. Jon asked me to follow up on that so here were are...

Let me propose that our views of and relationship to God are critical in shaping the way we live. If God is vengeful, then there is always a justification for vengeance. If God's love is always unconditional, then ours must be as well. And the list goes on. The crucifixion of Jesus is at the very center of the Christian story and how we interpret that event tells a tremendous amount regarding our image of God which, in turn, will influence the way we live our lives.

The most popular understanding among right of center American Christians is that of "substitutionary atonement," the idea that there must be a punishment for our sin and the only punishment adequate is death. So, in order that we don't have to suffer eternal death, Jesus who is without sin, dies a brutal and painful death in our place. He substitutes himself for our punishment. So what does this imply about God? God's forgiveness is overcome by the need for vengeance. God's love is never unconditional. It is OK when the innocent suffer for the guilty and that somebody has to suffer. We even have a strong argument for "the end justifies the means."

If that is our understanding of God and we learn how to behave by "watching" our heavenly Father, the results are obvious in every issue from corporal punishment of children to the death penalty to collateral damage in warfare.

But that is not my experience of God and indeed, it is not my experience either as a child or as a father. I would never makes such requirements of my children and my father never made them of me. If I truly believe, as I do, that God is a better parent than I am, that God is all loving, all forgiving, and as Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor said in A Heretics Guide to Eternity, that there are free floaties for all, then I must find a different way to understand that central event in the Christian story. If Jesus did not die as a substitute for me required by God, then why did he die?

As I said in my comments, I much prefer the moral influence and expiation theories. The moral influence theory is just that, Jesus death is a way of influencing humankind to live more closely to God. He gave himself so we might learn how far God will go to show us what we can be... and so we will give ourselves. Expiation is a term used in the Orthodox churches. In it, the act of Jesus is not a legal act but a transformative one... we are changed because he gave himself.

Now, I think we can argue backwards here and ask first, who is God and how do I understand and experience the Holy One? Then, go from there and ask, what would this lead me to think about the death of Jesus? Whatever answer we come up with, theology matters because it gives us a foundation upon which we live.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


On May 8 I posted a piece regarding planning a worship service that I called Constructing an Experience. As I've been listening to the Stephen Prothero book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't, I've been thinking a bit about that blog entry. Is constructing an experience what I'm really doing each week... or should it be?

Prothero goes through the history of religious literacy in the United States and presents a model with a clear shift from head to heart over the years. He says that in the early days of the United States, sermons were doctrinal, almost like theological lectures. Faith included a serious helping of knowledge. Almost all early colleges/universities in the US were founded as training schools for clergy and the common schools and Sundays schools of the time, both aimed at educating the population, all taught religious doctrine. Being a Christian meant knowing a significant amount of material. Prothero says that there was a growing anti-intellectualism that really took hold during the 2nd Great Awakening in the early 1800's where illiterate preachers moved to the forefront and many leading evangelists bragged at their lack of education. Christianity moved from the head to the heart and sermons became more story based, aimed at getting an emotional response.

I don't know enough about the history of that period to know how accurate Prothero's take on it is, but I suspect there is a lot of truth in it. For me, it raises the question, what are we doing on Sunday morning? Is it an event aimed at encouraging a mystical experience? Are we trying to get an emotional response? change the way people live their lives? increase their knowledge? Is it a cultic event where we re-enact rituals? a private communion between individuals and God? And finally is there something that only can happen in this communal gathering or is it just an appendage to a private spiritual life? What exactly are we doing and what is the role of the pastor/leader in planning and facilitating that time together?

What do you think?

Monday, May 17, 2010


a few years ago there was an acapella group at the local university called Naked Voices that we really enjoyed. Ever since I've enjoyed hearing some of the fun things that acapella groups can do. This video is really cool especially during the first minute and a half or so... enjoy

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I play guitar with a wonderful singer songwriter named Jamie Green who has entered one of her songs in a contest to perform at one of the Lilith Fair venues. The contest is set up in a neat way, 4 songs come up at a time and you order them from best to worst then the program uses some algorithm to rate the songs. You have to listen to at least 15 seconds of each of the songs in order to judge them.

To participate in the judging, go to Ourstage, click on "judge," choose the "Lilith Fair channels," and pick the city you want to judge (Jamie is in the San Francisco, LA, San Diego competition).

It is addicting and I have listened to snippets from well over 200 of the entries and I've been thinking a bit about songwriting. There are some great songs and great performances (Jamie's included) in the contest and some real bad stuff and it has led me to think about pop songs. There is an old saying among pop songwriters that goes something like - "Don't be a shnook, get to the hook. Please don't bore us, get to the chorus." In well over 1/3rd of the songs I have heard, nothing at all has happened in those 15 seconds. So I listen to the first 30 seconds and if nothing has hooked me, I go on to the next tune, knowing that I may have missed out on something wonderful, but why waste the time? If I listened to more of the songs, I might never get to the one that really is amazing. So, I skip ahead if that first 30 seconds doesn't catch my attention. There is wisdom in that silly saying.

I also have found that there are a lot of songs that sound very similar and a lot of artists who sound alike. Some are better than others, but there is a generic quality to many of them that gets tiring quickly. Then there are the ones that are trying very hard to be different. And some are... most not in a good way. There is a reason why the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus out, works. When it is well done with material that is interesting and relevant, it has a way of getting past our defenses very quickly. Add a good production and a good performance and you have a great pop song that sticks with us. It may not be great art that will last for generations, but it speaks with an authentic voice and touches our hearts.

So, head over to ourstage, judge some tunes and see if you find a new favorite artist... and if Jamie pops up in one of your quartets, be sure to place her at the top of the heap.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

religious literacy

I'm not a prodigious reader but I do usually have two or three books that I'm working through - some I finish and some I lose interest, most take a while, and one that I'm listening to on disk as I commute back and forth to Goleta.

It happens that I'm reading and listening to two books by the same author... and they are important books. The first is the audio book - Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't. In it, Prothero, who is a professor in the department of Religious Studies at Boston University argues that there is a civic reason for every American to be literate in religion. He says that in order to properly understand history and politics, one must understand the religious language and traditions of a people. Equally important, he argues that unless we understand the religions of a given culture, our foreign policy will miss many critical possibilities and pitfalls. For example, he says that had we had experts in the US government ho truly understood Islam as it is understood and practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan, our foreign policies in those countries would have taken very different shapes. He doesn't care whether you believe a articular religion or not, but feels it is critical in or world to understand them and to know the basic beliefs, practices, and narratives.

The second book is God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter. This book begins by arguing that all religions are not the same. They do not diagnose the problems of the human condition in the same way, their solutions differ, and the end result they hope for are not the same. The book is his answer to the problem set for in the earlier book. Here are thumbnail sketches of eight religions we should know about in today's world.

I find both of these books to be extremely important ones. Understanding the religious culture of a people is critical to understanding why they do what they do. Without that understanding, there is not possibility of working together to solve the problems we face. Likewise, arguing that every religion is really the same is both insulting to the various religions (the person making the statement always chooses something important to them as the common goal rather than letting the religion speak for itself) and keeps us from really understanding. If we go into the conversation expecting that we're all playing the same game, how will we be able to understand a completely different paradigm of the world.

Obviously there are problems. Trying to distill all of Islam into 40 pages requires oversimplification. Imagine trying to cover Christianity in 36 pages! Still, for most of us, those 40 pages on Islam leave us knowing more than we did when we started. Indeed, even in a country that is majority Christian, the 36 pages on Christianity will leave many folk knowing more than they knew before reading the chapter.

Bottom line, I highly recommend these two books. If you are interested in interfaith work, they provide a good place to start. If you want to be a good citizen of the world, you will be better prepared. If you want to get along better with your neighbors in this increasingly diverse religious mix called America, they are a good place to start.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Social networks

Social networks... or why I think it is impossible to be a follower of Jesus and not be part of a church... I found this a fascinating lecture.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

constructing an experience

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

My friend Jon posted this on his blog the other day and I had to put it here for all of you as well... I laughed... but as Jon's wife said, "it is too close." BTW, Jon's blog is great! Do check it out.

First, I'll confess. My church doesn't look like this, but if we could, we likely would. We don't have the staff, expertise, equipment, etc. to pull this kind of a production off but if we did, we likely would head in more or less that direction (albeit with a different theology than most such churches).

As a pastor, every week I am charged with constructing an experience. In the best of weeks, the folk in the congregation have an encounter with the very presence of God. The problem is, I have no control over that. It depends upon the openness of their hearts and most of all, it depends upon God. I can do some things in the service that hopefully contribute a bit to their openness. I can do my best to put together a service that is consistent, centered, and has positive movement and a theme that is relevant to the lives of the members but beyond that I have no power. Some people will experience the presence of God and some will not and that will happen regardless of how well I have done my part. Hopefully, I can construct an experience that will help more people to find that experience than not... or I can manipulate their emotions into something that isn't quite right but sure feels good. and there is the problem. What is the line between manipulating folk and opening a door for them to enter through?

So what the video satirizes is just doing what we can, trying to construct an experience... but the more resources a church has, the more effective it can be at manipulation, at pushing people in a direction that may in fact, impede any real experience of God's presence by forcing an emotional experience on them. If we have the resources, that is actually the easy route. We know how to do that as per the video. Worse yet, in a consumer culture so centered around entertainment, it is all too easy to confuse the slickly produced mega-church worship service with a genuine experience of the presence of God. So for me, the video is a serious warning. We won't ever have a service like that one, but I still need to beware of manipulating my congregation and taking the easy way out - a slick experience vs. the very presence of God.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

National Day of Prayer

I have to say that I have ambiguous feelings about a national day of prayer. I believe in prayer. I do it regularly even if without the degree of discipline I'd like. I pray for our government, our leaders, and the world. I think it is good when other people pray as well. Here's the problem for me, pray to whom and how?

As a Christian, I pray in the name of Jesus. I don't feel a particular need to force my theology on other people but if I am praying authentically, that is how I pray. So what do I do in an interfaith gathering? I know of some gatherings where each group prays as authentically as they can, where a Muslim might pray in Arabic, a Jew might recite a Hebrew prayer, etc. But if we go that way, eventually we get to a point that somebody can't cross. A Jew might be offended by a Christian's prayer, a Christian might see a sacrifice done by a Santeria priest as going too far... you get the point. More often then, the prayers are watered down and made generic so as to avoid offending anyone. I find that offensive.

In a recent talk to the Baptist Joint Committee, Martin Marty began with a quote from Montesquieu, who observed that the way "to attack a religion is by favor, not by what drives away, but by what makes men lukewarm." Watering down anybody's prayers makes them lukewarm and ineffectual. If I really feel that my government needs prayer, I want to do it with passion and commitment, not some watered down version meant not to offend anyone. Indeed, if I am praying what I truly believe, I'm going to offend someone.

Bottom line... I'm going to pray. And I'm going to pray for my government, but not because a President has asked me to. I'll be praying because he needs my prayers and because as a nation we have not filled full the promise of the vision of our founders. Part of that vision is a nation where faith is neither curtailed nor supported by the powers of government because government has no role in matters of faith.