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American. Christian. One of these is not like the other.

19 May

Last week I finally started reading a slim volume that’s been waiting on my bookshelf since last fall. Not a moment too soon.

A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf (Brazos Press, 2011) tackles a chronic, nettlesome question: What kind of relationship should Christians (and perhaps by extension, other people of faith) have with their culture?

Writing “as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ,” Volf offers an alternative approach to the extreme positions that can define the boundaries of faith in the public square: “totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion” or “secular exclusion of all religions from public life.” (He might have added an older reflex among many Christians, to vacate and try to ignore the public square altogether.)

The timing was good because, along with the rest of the universe, I was trying to digest President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, which came on the heels of the North Carolina amendment that banned such unions in the state.

But that was only the biggest headline among several in recent weeks that reminded me how hard it is to navigate a believer’s “dual citizenship.” Michelle Bachmann’s recent Swissues are nothing compared to the complications of being a Christian and an American.

For starters, there was military college course, now suspended, that advocated total war on Islam, using the World War II firebombing at Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as models for how to deal with Muslim sites.

There was a budget proposal in the U.S. House that would have reduced the deficit by drawing down education, welfare and other social-aid programs, while increasing defense spending and not touching tax rates. (The Senate voted down this budget on May 16.)

Closer to home, several readers didn’t like a piece I wrote in a Christian magazine, which reported on a survey that found that Fox News viewers were not as well informed about the Occupy Movement as consumers of other news outlets and that Fox viewers have a significantly more negative view of the Occupy protesters.

I’m not surprised by criticism. But one reader baffled me when he said he didn’t want to believe that “a professor of communications from the restoration side could believe that swill.” (He was referring to my church heritage and that of the college where I teach, which has its roots in the Stone-Campbell, or “Restoration,” Movement.) His remark left me wondering: When did uncritically accepting Fox News—or any media outlet—become an essential of the faith?

Miroslav Volf

I can spot a thread running through these events: some American values and ideas—including good ones—are not necessarily Christian ones.

What I mean is that as an American, I cherish free speech, equal rights under law, freedom of religion and a long list of other civic virtues. But as a Christian, I have other principles besides, expressed most obviously in Sermon on the Mount and modeled most powerfully by Jesus himself.

No doubt that American and Christian values peacefully co-exist much of the time; sometimes they even agree.

But not always. As the last few weeks show, there’s often tension if not contradiction or outright conflict. For instance, I can’t see how to honestly interpret Jesus’ words or life as condoning “total war” against people of other faiths.

And maybe I’m missing something, but the thrust of that proposed budget seemed to turn upside down those Scriptures that warn against God’s people relying on chariots for their security, as well as dozens of texts that call for generosity and justice for poor people (Isaiah 1:17, 10:1-2; 25:4; 47:6; 58:7; Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:8-9—just for starters).

Then there’s same-sex marriage. As an American, I believe in equal rights under law for all people, including gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, same-sex marriage is not biblical. We can debate whether all those Jewish and Christian Scriptures that govern sexual conduct are relevant or binding or even rightly interpreted, but four millennia of teaching and tradition places the burden of proof on those who say same-sex unions should be consecrated by the church.

To put it another way: While same-sex marriage may be American, a matter of equal rights and social order, I can’t say it’s Christian.

I find Volf helpful when thinking through these kinds of tensions, in large part because he starts by recognizing there’s no single way in which Christian faith ought to relate to culture as a whole. “The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that,” he writes. “Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more.”

Volf uses his book to answer three “simple questions”:

  1.  In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions?
  2.  What should be the main concern of Christ’s followers when it comes to living well in the world today?
  3.  How should Christ’s followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today’s world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state?

I’m not sure they’re actually that simple, but if you’re interested in thoughtful answers to these questions, pick up this book. Volf is accessible—a fine, formal and clear writer who keeps the theological jargon tamped down. He’s helping me think about the tension I’ve been feeling, as keenly as ever, of living as a Christian in America.

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Colson: Good-bye to a joyful man

23 Apr

Charles Colson (1931-2012)

I never had a short conversation with Charles Colson. We talked only twice and I came away convinced he had too many thoughts and too many tasks to squander on small talk.

Colson died on Saturday at the age 80. The obituaries have noted his life and career: Nixon White House operative (famous for saying he’d be willing to run over his grandmother for the president and other tidbits). Watergate figure who did prison time for obstruction of justice. A  “born-again Christian” who started what became the largest prison ministry in the world. A public thinker, author and frequent gadfly who, to his credit, aimed to appeal to the brains of skeptics and believers–and not just their hearts–in his articles, books and the Wilberforce Forum. But as several commentators have said since he died, Colson’s most memorable legacy may be his life, a picture of redemption.

The first time we met was in July 1990, when he was a keynote speaker at a church convention in Kansas City. At the time I was editing a small Christian magazine called The Lookout and arranged an interview. Actually, I thought I would just be part of a press conference, but only I and an editor for a small Filipino Christian magazine showed up–and after a few questions, the Filipino editor left. It was Chuck Colson and me, one on one for 45 minutes.

He seemed a little annoyed, maybe because no Kansas City media showed up, but he patiently answered my questions and in the process gave me a lesson in interviewing. I had my agenda, but it didn’t take long for the old lawyer and politico to skillfully and subtly take charge. I didn’t even notice until I looked at my notes later. I don’t remember much about the interview or the resulting article itself. What I remember most clearly is his energy, his Yankee-lawyer drive (not to mention his clipped cadence), his finely sharpened mind, and, when he talked about his standing before God, his humility. He didn’t laugh often during our conversation, but he exuded what they would call in the 19th century “good cheer.” Here was a joyful man.

Colson during his White House days, with President Nixon (left) and aide Ken Clawson (right) in May 1972.

I spoke with him again at length almost nine years later. Another interview, but this time  it was for a job. We spoke by phone since I was holed up at the suburban Washington offices of Prison Fellowship and Colson’s think tank, the Wilberforce Forum, and he was in Florida. I had arrived just ahead of a February ice storm, the same one that prevented him from traveling to D.C. Colson was my last interview of the day. I sat in an office alone with a phone, and we talked for about a half hour. He asked a few questions about my family and my background, and I think we spent about 10 minutes or so actually talking about the job–but then he took off for intellectual highlands and brought me along.

The interview changed altitude quickly, almost naturally: From the job to the goals of the Wilberforce Forum and his writing, to the shifts he saw in Western culture and in the church. He’d talk a few minutes and then punctuate his remarks with a question: What did I think of this author or that trend? What did I make of this historical connection he had made? He was testing me, of course, but at some point the mode shifted from interview to conversation. Through the phone lines, I could feel that familiar passion and good cheer.

I can’t claim Chuck Colson as a friend or colleague. (It didn’t work out for me to go to Prison Fellowship, probably the best result for all concerned.) The time I spent with him was a blip in the course of his 80 remarkable, turbulent, redemptive years. But I’m grateful that we met and that I got to join those heady, challenging conversations with him. And like so many others, I’m simply thankful for Chuck Colson. He realized, maybe as few people do, that he was a rescued, reconciled man, and he spent his days aiming to pass on that gift.

 

Eternal beasts (or ‘Is this cat in heaven?’ part 2)

18 Apr

"The Peaceable Kingdom," by Edward Hicks (c. 1834)

I like to think that one of the gifts in the age to come will be enjoying lap time with my cat and maybe the company of other animals, but Sister Mary Martha will have none of that. No way, no how, the blogging sister says. (Motto: “Life is tough. Nuns are tougher.”) But even she acknowledges that many Christians think otherwise, and so they do. A recent article in Christianity Today, which I mentioned in my last post, offered a range of opinions.

Jewish thought is just as ambiguous. (Look here and here, for examples.) Jewish commentators hint at a possible dividing line: The Aristotelian-leaning rabbis, such as the great medieval scholar Maimonides, are less inclined to see a place in heaven for animals. But the more mystically inclined, such as those who follow Kabbalah, think animals will be in heaven, in part because their rabbis taught that souls transmigrated—that human souls not ready for heaven enter the bodies of animals (ideally kosher ones, of course). But that’s another issue.

Muslims, on the other hand, generally agree that the Koran teaches animals will be in paradise, part of the enjoyment God promises to his faithful ones. The Islamic concept of “Jannah,” or paradise, differs dramatically from the Christian, but I’m struck by the reasoning here. Animals, Muslims say, do what they were created to do by God, and so they “submit” to him–an important word, since that’s what the word “Islam” means. From that perspective, it makes that sense that God would admit them to paradise. That is, if I’m interpreting this teaching correctly, Muslims say God allows animals into heaven, rather than excludes them, precisely because they don’t have the choices we do, and he will be merciful.

I don’t know if we’ll reunite with pets and other animals in heaven. I hope so: they would fit with the joy.

I know, I know: there are all kinds of logical objections. If animals go to heaven, for instance, will we have to put up with mosquitoes and cockroaches for eternity? (C.S. Lewis helpfully pointed out in the Problem of Pain that “if the worst came to worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could very conveniently be combined.”)

Maybe the bigger question here is why I—why we—are so taken by this question. Why does this matter? Perhaps the way we think about animals offers clues to how we think about the creation and even the creator. I want my old cat in heaven because he was worth something, part of God’s good creation, and I like to think that God is generous even to cats and dogs, not to mention lambs and wolves who can enjoy a peaceful meal together.

I imagine heaven would give animals the same essential gift we Homo sapiens hope for: to live fully as intended. Dear departed Stache will get to live out his perfected “catness,” whatever that means, much as I look forward to fully live out my perfected “humanness.”

One last thought: If we embrace the idea of a God who cares for his creatures even into eternity, shouldn’t we care about them as well in the here and now?

Is this cat in heaven?

16 Apr

Stache

My cat, Stache, died almost six weeks ago. More precisely, I had him “put to sleep,” as the euphemism goes. Kidney failure finally brought him down, but it was only a matter of time in any case. He missed his 17th birthday by only a few weeks.

That cat was around for most of our family’s life. We watched him being born, one-fourth of a litter. He and his brother, Biggin (as in “Big One,” because he was), moved back and forth across the country with us and, odd as it seems, they became one of the few constants in our lives during those years.

I wrote this note and posted a photo on my Facebook page the night Stache died:

“RIP Stache (1995-2012), beloved and affectionate cat. (Pronounced “Stash,” as in ‘Moustache.’) Traveler (Ohio, Colorado, Tennessee), adventurer, hunter, sometime lord of the manor, and a virtual member of the family for almost 17 years. Peacefully “put to sleep” today with advanced kidney failure. Stache and his twin brother, Biggin (d. 2007) make me hope that animals are in heaven.”

The response astounded me: dozens of notes of sympathy and assurance, including this one from Paul, an esteemed church historian: “Yes, there will be dogs and cats in heaven, but the cats and dogs will lie down peacefully together next to the lions and the lambs. Really sorry to hear this, because pets are family members and they ‘make history.’”

When I went to bed that same night, I felt myself waiting for him to jump up and curl behind my knees. I mentally checked myself and then sat up and cried like a baby. It took about three weeks for me to stop looking for him to come out from the flowerbed or greet me in the driveway when I pulled in from work or jogged back after a run.

A 17-year habit is hard to break. A 17-year relationship, even with a cat, is hard to let go.

I let the subject slide until last week. Then a Time cover story (April 16) about heaven appeared, summarizing the view that heaven is more tangible than we often think. Would that include animals? (This followed a Feb. 20 cover story about animal friendships.)

And then Christianity Today published a forum in its April issue, specifically asking: “Do Pets Go to Heaven?

So between articles in major magazines, the overwhelming response from friends, including some I haven’t heard from in years, and my own experience (and the fact that Americans spent almost $51 billion on their pets last year, according to the American Pet Products Association), this seemed like a subject worth thinking about.

The three Christians who responded in the Christianity Today article, all evangelical Protestants, were hopeful but noncommittal. Reuniting with Fido (or Stache and Biggin, in my case) is a warm and fuzzy idea, but there’s not a theological consensus.

That’s pretty much the case if we look more broadly. The Roman Catholic Catechism, for example, doesn’t explicitly say one way or the other. It does, however, distinguish between “animal souls” and “eternal souls.” Thus, many Catholic and other Christian thinkers follow the logic and say that because animals’ souls aren’t eternal and because they can’t choose to believe or follow God, they can’t be in heaven.

Others, however, point to all the biblical verses that affirm the value of animals as part of God’s creation, as symbols of his “peaceable kingdom” (Isaiah 65, etc.), and even objects of his salvation. (Take a look at the last verse in the book of Job.) All this, many Christians say, would say that animals are part of God’s eternal plan.

We haven’t even considered what Jews and Muslims think. That’s in the next post.

Notes from England: A Christian socialist on faith, politics and Thatcher’s legacy

8 Mar

Terry Wynn, MEP

In the last post, I introduced Terry Wynn, a long-time friend from England: Wigan native, rugby league fan, Methodist lay preacher, veteran of the shipping industry, Labour Party leader, former member of the European Parliament, author of two books that outline his beliefs about the relationship of faith and politics, Onward Christian Socialist (1995) and Where are the Prophets? (2006).

I emailed him a few questions last week, asking him to reflect on the Thatcher years, when my family and I lived in England, and to find out what he thinks now. What follows, slightly edited, are my questions and his answers. (I’ve kept the British spelling.)

Dahlman: What do you think Margaret Thatcher got right for the long term? (She served as prime minister from 1979 to 1990.) What did she get wrong? What did the UK gain as a result of her premiership, and what did it lose? What might Europe learn from those years?

Wynn: My industry was shipbuilding, and it was wiped out because it was being subsidised. New yards were closed and ships were then built in Korea or Japan. She did the same with the mining industry and there have been lasting legacies. … So I could have lingering anger at what she did.

However on reflection (and I speak from a centre-left perspective, having moved further right as I have got older), she was ahead of many in Europe who saw subsidising traditional industries as the norm. Over the years I have come to realise that most industries have to work in the market.

Having said that, I’m not too sure that profitable industries, like the energy sector, needed privatising. The privatisation of gas, water and electricity just gave massive resources to a small group who bought them. When water was sold off, huge tracts of land, the water catchment areas, went with it. … This really was giving away the family silver and it applied to other sectors.

Taking power from the trade unions was inevitable; they had gone too far under Labour. (Thatcher’s) trouble was that she was ruthless, and once she knew that she could get away with whatever she wanted, with no-one advising against, she just went gung-ho in what turned out to be a suicidal course.

Tony Blair (prime minister, 1997-2007) had a lot of respect for some of the things she did, and I suppose his attitude remains mine. Not many Brownie points in the Labour Party for saying that.

Terry and Doris Wynn, at home in 2003

The long terms pluses were a slim-line economy ready to face the challenges of new technology.

The downside was that she created a me-too society, where caring for one’s neighbour was less important. Looking after number one was what mattered most. The UK became a selfish society, and she did say, “There is no such thing as community.” It was the time when materialism took centre stage.

I think Meryl Streep’s portrayal (in The Iron Lady) was pretty good, but I know Labour colleagues who didn’t like it. I thought it a great movie.

As for Europe: The single market demanded a free-market economy and many countries had to come to terms with competition. (Thatcher) had put the UK at the forefront and it was a benefit.

How have your politics changed over the years? I thought of your book, Onward Christian Socialists. If you were to revise it, what would you change, if anything?

I re-read (the book) some years ago and decided the only thing I would change were the two or three typos that I found.

I’d like you to finish this sentence, in your own voice: “Jim, if there’s one thing I want you to learn from your time over here, particularly about putting faith and politics together, it’s …”

“… it’s that if you live by the teachings of Jesus, you can’t help but to be political. Whether that be as politicians or being involved in everyday local politics, even church politics. Jesus demands that we act, we are our brother’s keeper, we have to love our neighbour. But above all we have to stop being judgemental of others and learn to empathise and understand their plight.”

 “Socialist” has become an even more loaded word in the U.S. than it used to be and can be easily misinterpreted. (I think some readers’ heads might explode when they see “Christian” and “socialist” together.) So how do you define the word “socialist” or “socialism” in this context?

Can Americans accept that Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela would describe themselves as such? … Don’t forget the old Labour Party Clause 4, which Tony Blair had to ditch for electoral reasons, is straight out of (the book of) Acts: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That’s my kind of Christian socialism.

Onward, Christian socialists! (Really?)

7 Mar

St. Tesco's: Yes, this was a church building. The former Westbourne Methodist Church in Bournemouth is now a supermarket.

The English church scene differed greatly from the U.S. in the 1980s, when my family and I lived there and worked with a small congregation near Wigan. (See my previous post.) It still does, starting with the fact of the state-supported Church of England. Entire books have been written describing the British religious situation, far too much to summarize here. But a few constants remain from the 1980s, including:

  • About 5 to 10 percent of adults attended church each week, most of them over 50 years old. That’s still the general situation, both in Britain and in Western Europe, although we can see some pockets of growth among younger adults.
  • While the cultural remnant of Christianity is very visible in everything from place names to historic buildings to the role and public pageantry of the Anglican Church, its day-to-day impact is minimal. By 1980, the UK and Western Europe were deemed “post-Christian.”
  • The Pentecostal-charismatic groups and congregations have made a strong impact, partly due to the lively worship, partly due to the sense of renewal, partly due to immigration. House churches mushroomed, and the charismatic movement was felt in virtually every church group, including Anglican and Catholic.
  • Immigration also changed the country’s general religious makeup. By 1985 more Muslims than Methodists lived in England.
  • No Christian group could be pegged to a particular political philosophy or party, at least not accurately. Even the institutional Church of England had already turned from being “the Tory Party at prayer” to being a frequent critic of political Conservativism.

Terry Wynn

Terry Wynn and I met in 1983, thanks to a mutual friend, and we’ve been friends ever since. He worked in the shipbuilding industry, but by the time we got acquainted he was a leader in the Labour Party and could reckon national party leaders among his friends. (He caught me off guard one day when he casually referred to Neil–as in Neill Kinnock, the Labour Party leader.) He was later elected as the Member of the European Parliament for our region, serving there for 17 years until he retired in 2006.

He and his wife, Doris, are also dedicated Christians, members of the Methodist Church. Terry, who came to faith as a young man, is a licensed lay preacher. So of course we talked a lot about religion and politics. (We talked about rugby league too, since like any self-respecting Wiganer, Terry loves that game.)

So last week, as I thought about our time in England, I sent him an email, asking him to reflect on politics and faith, looking back to when we lived there, back when Margaret Thatcher was in office. Had his views had changed with the times?

I already knew that Terry’s starting assumption is that people of faith can’t check their beliefs at the door when they enter the public square. No matter where they work or what they do, Christians can’t–and shouldn’t–stop thinking like Christians, including the political arena. He uses the word “integrity” a lot, which he knows is a rare thing in the political scrum.

With Terry, it’s not a matter of forming Christian political parties or assuming Christianity should somehow be favored in a diverse society, much less forcing nominally “Christian” policies on an unwilling or uninformed electorate. Instead, it’s a matter of individuals aiming to live out their faith–from examining their own motivations for being involved, to supporting particular policies, to treating other people as they would be treated, including their political opponents.

So far, so good. But consider this: When Terry wrote and self-published his first book about the relationship between faith and politics, he called it Onward Christian Socialist (1995). He wrote a follow-up book 11 years later, Where Are the Prophets?

Terry knows that many Christians on both sides of the Atlantic–especially in the U.S.–will choke on the S-word: socialist. Can “Christian” and “socialist” co-exist? He thinks so. Strongly.

He’s not alone. When the British Labour movement took root in the early 20th century, it grew fast and strong among working-class Christians in “nonconformist” churches, Baptists and Methodists and others. They were concerned about poor people who were stranded in a rigid economic and class system (often represented by the Church of England), about human dignity and human rights–and they found support in the Bible. Even as atheists and agnostics swelled the party’s ranks (many of them disenchanted with Communism) and sometimes dominated it, Labour retained its strong Christian base.

Yes, this is a church building: Hindley Green Methodist Church, near Wigan.

Terry knows the history, but he’s more concerned with the theology. Democratic socialism is a political outworking of a Christian point of view, he believes. The words “Christian” and “socialist” are inextricably linked for Terry. (He might say they’re joined at the hip.)

“My political beliefs are firmly rooted in the concepts of equality, fraternity and liberty and I could never agree to support the policies of a Thatcherite Government that has wreaked havoc on the weakest of our society,” he wrote in Onward Christian Socialist. “My politics and faith are inseparable: for me socialism and Christianity go hand in hand, from Christ’s teachings to the Apostles’ distribution of wealth where they gave ‘to each one according to his need’ (Acts 4:35).”

Food for thought. Something to chew on. Maybe even fodder for discussion.

More to come in Terry’s own words. Next post.

England, religion and Thatcherism, 30 years later

6 Mar

Trencherfield Mill in Wigan, a former cotton mill, now a museum.

I observed an anniversary last week: March 1 marked 30 years since my wife, Melissa, and I arrived in England to work with a small church in Platt Bridge, just outside Wigan. This was the industrial North, an old town known for coal mines, cotton mills, rugby league, an ironic joke about piers, and as George Orwell’s icon for depressed, working-class England in the 1930s.

Melissa and I were in our 20s and lived there only five years, but it was pivotal time for us. Our daughters were born there. We gained several lifelong friends. And we came away, as does anyone who lives in a different culture, with a changed view of the world.

We arrived only three years after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. The British economy she inherited was a mess—bloated, inefficient, stagnant, over committed to labor unions—and she intended to deliver a “short, sharp shock” (I’ll never forget her memorable phrase) to put things right.

The Wigan area was especially blighted then. The district, wedged between Manchester and Liverpool, hummed with scores of cotton mills and hundreds of coal mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by 1982 all the mills and all but one of the collieries were shut. Platt Bridge, three miles from town centre, was dominated by two massive “housing estates,” government housing projects, with an official unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent, about twice the national average at the time.

Wigan politics leaned left in those days, a stronghold for the Labour Party. When we arrived, Thatcherism was starting to take hold, particularly with its austere budgets and push toward privatization of major industries and transportation systems. The changes, of course, caused strife throughout the nation: rallies and demonstrations, even riots in a few places. She issued her “shocks,” and people reacted.

TIME magazine featured Thatcher's 1979 election as prime minister. She held the office until 1990.

“Thatcherism” changed the country, eventually forcing Labour rightward before it could win the 1997 general election that made Tony Blair prime minister. There’s little doubt that Thatcher’s policies resuscitated the economy by the 1990s and ushered in new prosperity that would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier. Even Wigan flourished.

We still hear echoes of Thatcherism. In the U.S. we call it Reaganomics and it’s a reliable touchstone for GOP politicos, but Maggie started it. (Pop culture has awakened some fresh interest in Thatcher, thanks to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in The Iron Lady.)

But at what cost to the society? That’s a question debated for the last 30 years. Not surprisingly, Maggie Thatcher and her policies turned into an issue for Christians, including a good friend of mine who was not only a Methodist lay preacher but also a leader in the Labour Party. I checked in with him last week as part of my personal anniversary celebration.

But more about that in my next post.

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