Casting Crowns Gets All Preachy

August 29, 2007

I just listened to the first track off of Casting Crowns’ new album The Altar and the Door. I counted no less than three subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at people who are joining in on the social justice revival, and it almost makes me sick.

It sounds like the same band that brought us some great stuff, like Lifesong and If We are the Body (together with Stainglass Masquerade, a lesser known favorite of mine) has now decided to take up its sword in the culture wars alongside the conservative evangelicals, so it can get all preachy on some very dedicated Christians who think that cultural engagement and social justice are important elements of discipleship.

Somebody please tell me my first impression was wrong, ’cause I can’t even bear to listen to any more of the album.

When is the next Jason Morant album due out?

(Note from one day after the post: I’ve “taken back” a little of this post – see the third comment)

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On Peacemaking

August 25, 2007

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about peace. Not only because I find myself in a profession where there is very little of it to be found, but because of how important it is in the Christian scriptures.

As regular readers know, I believe that the biblical writers thought that the resurrection of Jesus signaled the “beginning” of a new world that God had promised. Different writers will call it different things (the synoptic gospel writers call it the “kingdom of God,” John will say that “light” is coming into the world, and Paul will talk about “new creation”). But it seems to me that, whatever images are used to characterize it, this new world is always represented as a place where there is peace.

Consider:

– God originally decides to destroy the world in a flood because he cannot bear man’s violence

– Out of the ten commandments, the last six directly address our tendency toward conflict

– The Psalms repeatedly emphasize the need for patience with the violence and other misdeeds of the wicked – the people of God should wait on God to act in judgment, but also redemptively toward those who are not wicked

– The prophets repeatedly emphasize the coming day in which the world will no longer experience conflict

– Jesus arrives in the world with an announcement of peace from the realm of Heaven

– After the resurrection, Jesus greets his friends with the announcement of peace

– Paul considers peace to be a sign of the presence of the Spirit of God

– Paul also encourages his readers to live at peace with everyone

But the biblical text that has stood out more than any other has been this, simple beattitude:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

To be one who is like God, then, one must not only live at peace with others (as Paul encourages), but who actually makes peace. God’s business – and our own – it seems, is to bring peace into the world.

[Ed note: this was originally intended as the start of a series. However, I’ve pressed the “abort” button on it – at least for now. I want to take things in a somewhat different direction for the time being…]


Limited Posting for a Couple of Weeks

August 9, 2007

I’m trying to take a few days for some rest. I may post very little (or not at all) for a couple of weeks.


Is God "Evil"? – Part 2

August 9, 2007

I’m picking up now where I left off in the last post.

For those who don’t want to read Part 1, here is a summary: If we are going to make moral judgments about whether God is “evil,” we are going to have to make those judgments in the same way we would make them about people. In that connection, I have suggested that it is not enough to say that anyone who causes suffering is “evil” because such a definition doesn’t take into account such person’s motivations or purposes. Instead, I have proposed a more robust definition which takes into account at least two possibilities: (1) that, as is the case with anyone who has been to the dentist, inflicting short-term sufferingmay be in the long-term best interests of another AND (2) inflicting sufferering may be necessary to end or prevent one who is intent themselves on causing suffering (that is, suffering to bring about justice). We could not characterize someone as evil if they are acting in one of these two ways, even though they may cause someone else to suffer.

It is at this point that I think we can begin to see what is going on in the Christian scriptures. Again and again, the central question is this: why doesn’t God end suffering? The book of Job, which Matheson describes in his post, is a great example. It is likely the oldest book in our bibles, and it gets down to precisely that issue: Why, God, am I made to suffer? Job believes and trusts God even though he suffers at God’s hands. Why would he do this? we are made to ask ourselves.

As I read Job the central issue is not to explain suffering – which is only done in a very cryptic way during the first few chapters. It is to ask the question Should I continue to worship God when I suffer in ways that have no meaing to me?

Later, the Psalmists will again and again pose the same question. God’s chosen people live in suffering under pagan kings. Why doesn’t God fix this situation as he has promised?

Answers to these questions – within the biblical text – are few and far between, and they are never fully satisfying.

What is remarkable here is not that human suffering raises the question of whether God is evil – that much ought to be apparent to anyone – but that so many people who claimed to have experiences of God were convinced that he was good in spite of the all of the “evidence” to the contrary. (“I know that my Redeemer lives” Job proclaims, at a time when his suffering has reached its apex!)

Equally remarkable is this: I am aware of no serious religious teaching about God which contends that he inflicts pain in the way Matheson hypothecises – purely out of indifference or spite. Why, given all of the “evidence” of seemingly meaningless human suffering, has no one ever claimed to have a relationship or encounter with a God who is known in this way?

What is going on here? There are very few options, I think – and I won’t address them all here. I will only say that, one must at least consider the possibility that these people really did, as they claimed, have an encounter and relationship (either individually or within their community) with a living God whom they were convinced, because of the nature and strength of that relationship, was acting in their best interest.

Lets run with that possibilty for just a moment (I only ask a skeptic to consider it as a possibility at this stage), and consider what Christians believe about God and suffering.

The claim that Christians make, which follows in the tradition of Israel, is that present suffering – while not fully explainable – serves some purposes that are ultimately in the best interests of mankind and of our world. In that sense, we can say that God is “good” in spite of the fact that he allows, or even inflicts, suffering. God, we believe, is moving the universe to a place where pain and suffereing will ultimately end.

Paul, in particular, wrestles with this issue in his letter to the Romans. You can read part of that letter here. He concludes his line of thought by suggesting that present suffering and “wrath” for certain people may be for a greater purpose that God has in mind, which Paul ultimately understands to be the restoration of God’s creation into a state where suffering (he will call this “sin and death”) no longer exist. Suffering which originates from God somehow serves that end.

In a sense, the suffering of Jesus on the cross can be seen as God’s “answer” to our questions about suffering. But its not an answer in the sense of providing knowledge about the why’s and wherefores – it is an answer which says that, whatever God’s purposes may be in human suffering – purposes that we may not understand, God is willing to put himself on the line as well. He is willing to suffer right alongside us..

Similarly, the resurrection of Jesus can be seen as a promise of the future – a way of saying that God’s world, free of suffering and death, is real and on its way.

This way of thinking is, of course, a lot different than some of the “pat” answers that Christian evangelicals will give, and it sounds like Matheson has had more than his fill of those answers. I don’t blame him at all for becoming a skeptic if he’s never been exposed to anything else. 

Also, I don’t write this to convince non-believers that God is real and he is good. (Thats a bit ambitious for two blog posts!). I only write it to open up the possibility for some of you – including Chris if he’s still reading – that, properly expressed, Christianity appreciates and “deals with” this problem in ways that you may not discern from a conversation with a typical, conservative evangelical.


On Whether God is "Evil"

August 8, 2007

A few days ago, a commenter named Chris asked me to give my opinion on a recent post written by R.A. Matheson on The Athiest Bible Study blog which relates to the question of whether God is evil.

I was immediately intrigued by the post Chris linked in his comment. Unfortunately, however, blogging time has not been much of a luxury for the last few days, so I’m just now getting around to posting some thoughts. (Chris: I hope you’re still out there).

Chris asked me to participate in a debate over the issue, so I hope he will forgive me if I treat this as more a chance for reflection and conversation than debate. I was a debater in High School and College, and have been a civil litigator for 15 years, so I know something about propositions, proof, evidence, reasoning, etc. Frankly, however, I’ve found that truth – real truth – tends to become apparent when people are willing to be honest with each other about what they think and how they feel in conversation that is less formal, and more open and honest. So…my response won’t be quite as structured or antagonistic as that of a skilled debater.

For those who haven’t looked at the ABS post, here is a quick summary: Matheson defines “evil” as something which is the cause of “suffering, injury, or destruction.” After briefly addressing the question of whether moral judgments can be made without using God as a reference point (a matter with which I won’t take issue here), Matheson points out that the God of the bible causes suffering, injury, and destruction. He references several biblical concepts in making this point, but the most important ones – in my view – are the concepts of the curse (from the early chapters of Genesis) and of hell (which can be found in the various gospels and the Revelation). 

Matheson could have (and I think he probably knows this) gone on and on had he liked. There is no shortage of biblical texts that refer to violence and harm that are brought on human beings by God. In Joshua, Israel – attempting to occupy Caanan – is told on at least one occasion to kill every single person, even children, who stand in its way! In Esther, over 75,000 enemies of Israel are killed in an event that the Jews now celebrate as Purim.

If its blood and pain that you are looking for, you will see plenty of it – and plenty of it initiated by God – in the Christian scriptures.

If we are going to stick with Matheson’s definition of “evil,” then he can pretty much make that label stick to God, and he won’t run out of material to make more labels any time soon.

The question that Matheson is really posing here – and I think he would agree this is a fair assessment – is whether God can be anything other than evil when he causes pain and suffering? And that, folks, is a question that every Christian and athiest ought to ponder.

For me, however, the definition of “evil” seems to be lacking. You can’t simply dismiss someone as “evil” because they bring about suffering.

Think of it this way. My daughter has a tooth that needs to come out. She hates going to the dentist, but going to the dentist is the only way to extract the tooth and prevent infection from setting in. By making her go to the dentist and undergo the anxiety and pain of the dental chair, am I an “evil” father? Wouldn’t it be more “evil” of me to let her become infected and continue to suffer? Is the pain and anxiety she experiences, even though it is intense, in her best interest in the long run?

I am certainly “evi” under Matheson’s definition, but I’m going to guess that people of just about any persuasion – Chistian, Jew, athiest, Muslim, etc. – would be more inclined to judge me as “evil” if I didn’t do what was best for my daughter.

Here is a second way of thinking of it. In World War II, Allied troops invaded Germany, killing untold numbers of German soldiers. As a result of these efforts, however, a facist regime, bent on genocide, was brought to an end, and many, many people’s lives were spared from the brutal treatment of the Nazis. Were the allied solders, then, “evil”?

If you don’t like that illustration, then take your pick of another one – any situation where someone kills or causes pain and suffering to prevent someone from causing even greater pain and suffering – that is what justice is all about. Generally speaking, we don’t think of someone who is bringing about true, appropriate justice on a wrongdoer as “evil.” Indeed, if anything, they are correcting a problem of evil. [Some Christians will say that it is no longer the place of humans to do this – that violence can never be redemptive because it only creates a cycle of more violence – but that isn’t my point here. My point is simply that our moral sensibilities don’t have a “problem” with inflicitng suffering on an evildoer if it is necessary to do justice].

There is another possibility as well: sometimes a parent may allow a child to suffer because the only way for the child to learn and grow into a healthy, responsible adult is to deal with the consequences of his actions or decisions. However, this type of suffering doesn’t seem to be at play here, so I’m not going to say anything more about it at this stage.

My point is this: to appeal to our moral sensibilities, the question of whether someone is “evil” has to take into account the intention of the person causing the pain, and the reasons that the pain is inflicted. The definition that Matheson provides doesn’t take that factor into account.

Of course, even if we take my more robust definition of “evil” into account, God is not necessarily off of the hook. However, we at least have a framework in which we can understand why Christians will say that God loves humanity, in spite of the sufferering that humanity endures because of, or with the consent of, God. Is it possible that there is a reason behind the sufferering?

Now, we are very, very close to the questions that are posed and (sometimes, but not always) answered in the Christian scriptures.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but I will leave it at that for now, and hopefully come back to it at a later date.


Esther, Our Conclusion

August 5, 2007

The concluding post from our Esther series, which I just put up on our class blog.

 

Sunday, August 5 marked the conclusion of our study in Esther. Sheila walked us through the basics of the Purim celebration, which involves elaborate costumes, drinking, a seriously exaggerated retelling of the Esther story from scripture, and more drinking. Some Rabbis, we learned, encourage drinking until you can’t tell whether you’re blessing Mordecai or cursing Haman.

Sheila then took us on a tour of several biblical texts in which celebration – particularly the kind involving drinking and dancing – is treated in a favorable light:

  • Psalm 149
  • John 2
  • Colossians 2:16-17
  • Psalm 150
  • 2 Samuel 6
  • Nehemiah 8:10

We considered whether it is possible that, at some point in the history of our faith tradition, someone became so overly concerned about the evils of alcohol and dancing that we have now lost sight of what it means to truly celebrate.

 More particularly, we considered the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus once said that his enemies accused him of being “a drunkard and a friend of sinners.” The “drunkard” part was an exaggeration. However, the fact that this was a chief accusation says something about Jesus’ willingness to attend and whole-heartedly participate in celebrations.

Similarly, Jesus often compared the kingdom of God – heaven’s inbreaking into our world – to a great feast or banquet. “We had to celebrate,” the father of the prodigal son tells the recalcitrant older brother, “because this son of mine was dead, and now he is alive!”

Who says that God doesn’t like a big party?