Saturday, July 28, 2012

Confessions of a Bible Thumper - review

We all have times in our lives that are critical to our formation... times that really are foundational to the people that we become, but are not good places to be stuck.  Being a teenager is a good thing, but only for 7 years.  Beyond that, it becomes problematic.  There is an old saying that everyone should live for a time in New York City, but not until they become too hard and everyone should live in Southern California, but not until they become too soft.  The implication is that both are good places to be from.  You can make your own list of developmental stages or experiences that played an important role in your formation.  In my list, I would add that evangelicalism is a good place to be from.

That is the story I was hoping to find in Confessions of a Bible Thumper by Michael Camp.  In part it was there as the story is his journey out of the evangelical church but he never really acknowledges any positive results from his time in evangelicalism.  He obviously has faith now, a faith that was birthed in an evangelical church.  He has a deep respect for the Bible, again birthed in an evangelical tradition even if he does understand the Bible in a very different way now.  Clearly, much of his experience with evangelicalism was toxic, but it still was an important place for him to begin.

Camp's book takes place in a brew pub as he and a small group of evangelical friends discuss his fictional manuscript and his journey from evangelicalism.  They go through a number of issues which he sees as important to the evangelical community and shows where they got the Bible wrong.  The issues include inerrancy of the Bible, freedom, the shape of the church, sexuality, eschatology, sexuality, and creationism vs. evolution.  As someone who lives outside of the evangelical community, none of his arguments were new to me (with the exception of his discussion of punctuated equilibrium in the chapter having to do with evolution) and the issues are not ones that particularly catch my imagination.  Still I can see that for many in the evangelical community, his arguments would be completely new ideas and may encourage new considerations or defensiveness. 

There are three themes which run through the book that I found really disconcerting.  Again and again he speaks of the church and includes only the evangelical tradition in that word.  He does throw a glance at other protestant traditions as when he answers the question of why he did not attend a more liberal church when he found himself in theological disagreement with the evangelical churches he was attending but a glance is all mainline or liberal protestantism gets.  He doesn't even mention Orthodox and Catholic traditions.  All the while, he rails against the legalism of the church.  He certainly could find the failings of any of those traditions, but they would not be the same as the ones he lived in evangelicalism.  By completely dismissing those other traditions, I think he also shuts them off as possible landing places for his future audience.

The second theme is related to the first.  He dismisses the institutional church as being a construct of the Roman empire which he says has no basis in scripture.  Rather than argue the point, let me just say that I think he neglects his own commitment to follow the truth wherever it leads and instead allows his own distaste for the evangelical church as he experienced it to color his conclusions.  He endorses the house church movement as some sort of return to the Biblical model for Christians and ignores the fact that having a house church still requires some sort of structure and so is an institution.  Someone has to pick the time for the meetings, get them started, and ride heard over the agenda. 

Finally,  he rails against spiritual practices such as tithing, praying, attending church as legalistic commands not based in scripture.  While that may be true that none of them are commandments which followers of Jesus are obligated to observe, it neglects the truth that spiritual practices are important for formation and ritual helps to shape us in important ways.  Those practices may not be helpful in his spiritual life but for others they can be extremely important, not as commandments but as disciplines that give shape to a life of faithfulness.  I would guess that he wouldn't disagree with what I said, but his tone seems to reflect an authoritarianism that feels a bit too much like the evangelicalism he is escaping.

All in all, I hope Confessions from a Bible Thumper is just the first volume of Camp's story.   I hope to read a bit more generosity to those of us who choose to stay in the institutional church and find there, in the midst of all of its failings, a significant opportunity to be the body of Christ in this time and place.  In the meantime, I think this volume could be a good read for folk struggling to find a new way to read the Bible and understand their own faith.

Monday, July 23, 2012

I'm slow

No smart comments...

I mean that I'm slow at putting down roots.  Santa Barbara is very similar to Hawaii in many ways.  The temperatures run a little cooler in Santa Barbara, but much of the flora is the same with many of the same flowers blooming in both places, the pace of life is similar, and the relationship to the ocean is similar.  That adds up to some pieces of life that surprised me when we came here. 

At graduation, many of the graduates wear orchid leis.  At that time of year, they have them in most grocery stores and Costco has a huge refrigerated display of them.  When our daughter graduated from Juniata College in Pennsylvania, we brought a lei for her and many people asked whether she was from Hawaii.   She was pleased to confuse them with "no, I'm from Santa Barbara, we wear leis too." 

Clothing in both places is very casual and very colorful.  For men, that means you see lots of Hawaiian shirts with bright colored flowers.  Yes, you do see them all over southern California, but it seems more prevalent here to me.  I remember joking about getting a Hawaiian shirt after we first moved here.  Cheryl laughed.  She knew my northeast sensibilities only wore black until they would come up with something darker.  No bright colors. Period. 

playing bass in the song circle following Andrew's service 
About two years ago (8 years into our life on the Golden Coast - reference to Katy Perry's "California Girls") I began to talk about getting a Hawaiian shirt more seriously and would pick them up and look at them in some of the clothing stores or at the local Costco.  I would look at them, knowing that wearing one would make me an official resident... but unsure about me wearing flowers. 

This past week... I bought one.   It isn't as bright as many but is is covered with hibiscus flowers, a flowers endemic to both Hawaii and Santa Barbara.  On Saturday we had a celebration of life service for my friend Andrew Jackson, a marvelous guitar player and friend who died after a courageous battle with cancer.  (do click on his name and listen to some of his wonderful music).  One of the instructions for the service was to wear Hawaiian dress.  It was a fitting tribute,  a gathering of colors, wonderful music, tears and laughter, a reminder of the importance of maintaining our circle of friends (a favorite image of Andrew's).  I wore my Hawaiian shirt and Andrew showed me that I really do belong here.

The other piece of putting down roots is that I do put down roots.  Once a place is home, it really does become my home.  Don't be surprised if I buy a few more Hawaiian shirts.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Gun violence

I don't have any issue with people having guns for hunting, target shooting, or even collecting (under certain circumstances).   I do believe that the NRA interpretations of the 2nd Amendment is completely off base and out of touch with the current reality.

The tag line "guns don't kill people, people kill people," is again proven incomplete as an apparently lone gunman entered a theater in Aurora, CO and shot and killed 14 people (as of my writing) and as many as 50 were wounded.  Yes, it was the violence of an individual man, but it would not have been possible without the three guns he was carrying.

We need sensible gun control NOW.  Go to the Brady Campaign to see how you can help change the current situation which enables so much needless violence.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

By What Authority?

I subscribe to Richard Rohr's daily e-mail meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation.  Rohr is a Franciscan priest who writes about the intersection of spirituality and culture.  I deeply appreciate his insights.  Recently he inspired me when he began a series answering the following questions “By what authority do you say the things you do, Richard? How do we know these are not just your ideas? Why should we believe you?”  Another way of framing the questions might be to ask, why do you believe the things you do?  or What are the foundations of your faith?

I thought it might be interesting to think about those questions and blog a bit.  So I'll be blogging about a few of my sources of authority in no particular order.

First - the Bible.  There are scores of more conservative Christians who would shake their heads at me saying that.  They would argue that I don't really believe the Bible.  Depending on what you mean by that, they may be correct.  I do not believe the Bible the way they do.  I do not take the Bible literally.  Indeed, there are things in the Bible that I do not believe are God's word to us and there are things I just do not believe.  I would go so far as to say that in order to really believe the Bible, one cannot take it literally.

So what do I find in the Bible if  "plenary verbal inspiration" is not a descriptor I would ever use?  (Plenary verbal inspiration is the idea that the very words of the Bible are individually chosen by God.  Many who hold that view would say that it only applies to the original autographs or documents written by the Biblical writers.  Others apply the idea even to some translations, usually the KJV.) 

I do not expect the Bible to be without contradictions nor do I expect it to be a book of history in the modern sense or of science.  I believe that taking the Bible seriously requires one to recognize that it is comprised of metaphor, parable, myth, poetry, and is the stories of fallible human beings trying to make sense out of their experiences of the Holy... and sometimes misinterpreting it entirely.  I am inspired by my ancestors in faith who struggled with the presence of the Divine One.  I am challenged and humbled by their courage and strength and I am warned by their weakness and cowardice. 

Theirs are not the only stories.  There are similar struggles in every culture in the world.  They are the stories that are central to my culture and my faith so I stand in them, wrestle with them, and hopefully learn from them and become a better follower of Jesus because I take them seriously.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Problem with the Insurance Argument

After the Supreme Court ruling, the question of health insurance has come back to the front with Democrats celebrating and Republicans vowing to repeal.   Democrats should not be celebrating and while the Republicans might be able to repeal the Affordable Care Act but they have no solution worth real discussion.

First off, the free market does not and can not work with regards to health care.  The consumer has no power to influence the market at all.  You can't shop for the lowest cost when you've just had a heart attack.  Add that there is often only one hospital nearby and the physician on duty is the physician on duty.  Most of us also have no control over what, if any, insurance is available to us and even less over what is covered by that policy.  Employers may shop for the lowest price on insurance but it is very seldom that they do so while comparing two identical products and the dissimilarities may not be obvious until the product is used and the patient discovers that a specific lab or physician is not covered by their insurance.  And the coverage is constantly changing so a physician covered one year may not be the next year.  Which services and providers are covered by a given policy rarely if ever have anything to do with quality of care.  Market forces simply do not work when it comes to health care so if we rely on them to control costs or quality, we will only see failure.

Second, there are some things that should not be sold for profit.  Health care is one.  In a for profit business, the business always has a primary responsibility to make money for the stock holders.  There is a legal responsibility to do that regardless of whether they are producing widgets, automobiles, or providing health insurance.  The first responsibility is not to the client, it is to the stock holder.  Obviously, in the free market, a better product is more likely to produce higher profits for the stock holder, but the primary job of any for profit company is not to produce widgets, automobiles, or sell health insurance... it is to make money for stock holders.  For health insurance companies, that means denying coverage.  If they can deny a procedure, they have made more money.  It is no surprise then that for profit insurance companies have employees whose job is to find ways to deny coverage to the patients and they get bonuses when they do so.  At least a panel of government agents making decisions around coverage would have the well being of the larger population as their primary concern. 

The bottom line is that the current system, even under Obamacare, cannot solve the problems we face and will remain the most expensive health care delivery system in the world while at the same time being far down the list in terms of almost all of the significant metrics for outcomes.  The good news is that there are models around the world that actually work.  All we need do is swallow our pride and embrace a model that delivers health care to all of our citizens at a more reasonable price.