Monday, November 30, 2009

A Long Way Gone

Here's a link to information about a particularly fascinating book which has captured my attention lately.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ghosts? Oooh, scary. (Not.)

Do you believe in ghosts? If so, you might be wary of visiting cemeteries. Personally, I'm not, because I've just never seen any evidence to support such silly claims.

I just came across a web page which stated the following, with regard to a cemetery in my home town:

The Springfield National Cemetery is also host to more than a few lingering spirits as well, according to some people. Late-night visitors to the cemetery have reported seeing gravestones that appeared to glow in the dark. Yet others have reported finding strange anomalies in photographs they took while inside the cemetery grounds. On occasion, some photographs even show what appears to be an apparition or form of some long-dead solider standing amongst the tombstones.

As it so happens, I grew up about a block away from that cemetery when I was a kid living at 2137 S. Delaware. Even then, I seem to recall walking through the cemetery on at least one or two occasions. Later, after my parents' divorce in 1972, my mother moved to 1520 E. Seminole, where she still lives today. I remember that when I was still in high school, my mother, my grandmother, my brother and I would sometimes walked through the National cemetery (where my father was buried when he died in 1999) as a shortcut on the way to the Battlefield Mall. It seemed safer than walking along the side of Glenstone Avenue, which didn't really have a decent sidewalk for that purpose.

I wasn't particularly spooked by the grave stones. To me, there wasn't much difference between that walk and a walk through one of the local parks. As often as we made that trip, I think that one of us would have noticed something if there had been glowing gravestones or apparitions of dead soldiers!

But hey, whatever it takes to bring more shoppers to the Battlefield Mall, I always say. Whatever's good for the economy of the region is likely to be good for the residents.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Never!

When one attempts to talk about past incidents which have negatively affected one's life, one is sometimes likely to be told that one should "get over it" and "move on with one's life" and "forgive and forget." Such glib and uncompassionate advice, which I've heard from Christian pulpits from time to time, treats regrettable past events as if there is never any logically or morally defensible reason to want or need to discuss such incidents with others.

That is simply false. As the southern novelist William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past"

Traumatic events sometimes cause deep wounds and scars which can take a lot of time to heal. Yes, there are instances in which God miraculously heals painful memories instantly, but it's both insulting and presumptuous to assume that such exceptional incidents are or ought to be the norm. Counselors who don't give wounded people adequate time in which to heal from such events ought to be regarded as professionally incompetent.

Furthermore, even when complete healing has been achieved, it doesn't follow from that fact that remembering past events serves no other valid purposes. Prevention of similar events in the future, for instance, is a particularly valid purpose.

What did Faulkner mean when he said that the past wasn't even past? I believe that he meant that present realities are inextricably connected to past events, and it's naive to think that one can adequately address existing problems without a willingness to honestly examine and discuss the events which caused or led to those problems in the first place. Ignorance may be bliss, but only in the short term. In the long term, ignorance can lead to enormous problems. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," said the philosopher George Santayana. If one is unable or unwilling to learn from past mistakes, how can progress ever be achieved? It is immature and idiotic to equate spiritual maturity with self-imposed amnesia.

It's important to discuss and remember horrific tragedies such as the Holocaust. That's why we have a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many people would like to just forget or deny that the Holocaust ever took place. But we need to be periodically and graphically reminded, so that such things will never happen again. We also need to be reminded of our great capacity for evil, so that we will better understand our moral depravity and our desperate need for God.

Writing about the Holocaust, Ellie Wiesenthal wrote, "For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time."

The same could be said about other large-scale tragedies, such as the terrorist attacks in 2001; and also to individual tragedies, such as the extreme child abuse to which author Dave Pelzer and many other children have been subjected.

If we took literally the advice of those who say that we should instantly forget the sins and crimes of the past, it would be impossible to seek justice in our nation's courts. Vicious predators would forever prey on innocent victims, and we would be partly to blame for subsequent crimes which they committed, on account of our moral cowardice. Remembering is essential if we want to be a society of laws, not anarchy.

I find it ironic that some Christians say that one ought not to ever "live in the past," inasmuch as the entirety of the Christian experience is based on a willingness to regularly remember and reflect upon incidents which took place more than two millenia ago. Jesus specifically told us, regarding the eucharist, to "take these in rememberance of me". Rememberance can be both good and necessary.

Yes, it's true that it can be unhealthy to continually wallow in sorrow, without making an effort to balance things out by thinking about positive things. But it's equally unhealthy to live in denial and to live a life which is devoid of authenticity and honesty. Pastors and other spiritual leaders who insist that the members of their congregation live in denial are guilty of abdicating their fundamental moral responsibilities towards the people in their care.

This is not a trivial matter. If our pastors insist on promoting simplistic ideas about forgiveness which make it impossible to adequately address problems or to hold people accountable for wrongdoing, then they are unworthy of our continual allegiance, no matter how many other good things we may be able to say about them.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Poverty and Dignity

The November 16, 2009 issue of Newsweek features an article entitled "Seeing Dignity in Poverty: Dorothea Lange's Politics of Respect". It's a thought-provoking article pertaining to the idea that poverty-stricken people need more than just material help; they also need to be treated with respect, in a manner which instills them with hope for the future, and which doesn't presumptuously and self-righteously assume that the poverty which afflicts them is necessarily their own fault.

Some Christian charities and churches seem to understand the aforementioned concept. Others, sadly, do not.

NOTE: The aforementioned article argues that Lange demonstrates the dignity of her subjects by showing their stoicism. I agree that Lange's photos portrayed her subjects (such as the famous "Migrant Mother") with dignity. But I think that it's wrong, and potentially harmful, to think that overt demonstrations of understandable anguish, sadness or anger in response to adversity are undignified. After all, the scriptures teach that Christ's strength is made perfect in our weaknesses. There is nothing shameful about genuine tears or other intense negative emotions. Even Jesus wept and expressed anger from time to time. As Christians, we ought, above all, to be authentic and honest. There is nothing dignified about being treated in a dehumanizing manner, as if one's feelings are of no importance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Doctrines Have Consequences

During the early days of the Jesus Movement, there was an attempt to get away from a vision in which people defined their Christian experiences primarily on the basis of dry intellectual doctrines which were considered to be devoid of life and vitality. Consequently, doctrines were often disparaged as unimportant. This was a symptom of the slow shift from modernism and its excessive emphasis on rationality to postmodernism and its excessive emphasis on mystical experiences. It was in some sense related to things going on in the larger culture, particularly in terms of the increased proliferation of hallucinogenic drugs. Jimi Hendrix's question, "Are you experienced?" seemed to emphasize subjective experiences, and was related to a simultaneous increase in the number of philosophers who questioned the existence of objective truth. Truth with a capital T was replaced by phrases such as "your truth" and "my truth". Multiculturalism and moral relativism can also be said to be related to the emphasis on subjective experiences over objective facts.

This made it very difficult to debate with unbelievers when comparing the relative merits of Christianity with the merits (or lack thereof) of other belief systems. Critical analysis of various belief systems was seen as passé, and being "tolerant" of various belief systems was equated with refusal to engage in such analysis.

Churches which emphasized personal subjective experiences, such as Pentecostal churches, were therefore more attuned to the new mentality than older, more established denominations, which I think helps to explain their rapid growth during that period and during subsequent decades. Jesus People sometimes adapted their evangelistic appeals to that mentality, using phrases such as "get high on Jesus" and "turn on to Jesus" in an attempt to connect with the youth subculture in a relevant way.

To be sure, there was more than an ounce of truth to criticisms of churches which appeared to have been sapped of their vitality by an excessive reliance on tradition and intellectualism. Some churches had clearly chosen to ignore large sections of the Bible which supported the idea that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit were still available to modern believers. Many good things happened, in terms of church renewal, during the Jesus movement. But when the pendulum swung towards subjectivism, it sometimes swung too far.

Personal experience and doctrines are to authentic Christianity what yeast and flour are to the art of making leavened bread. Neither element is sufficient, but both elements are necessary.

Ironically, the idea that doctrine is unimportant is itself a doctrine. The manner in which we define our beliefs, in the form of written or unwritten doctrines, is vitally important, because it shapes our actions for better or worse.

Take, for example, the prosperity doctrine which has recently become popular in many Pentecostal churches, and also in some other large evangelical churches.

There's an interesting article in the December 2009 issue of the Atlantic magazine. (Here's a link to that article.) That cover story asks the provocative question "Did Christianity Cause the Crash?" But really, when you read the actual article, the author isn't claiming that Christianity itself caused the crash. Rather, Hannah Rosin argues that a particular subset of Christianity, consisting of people who subscribe to the "prosperity doctrine," was responsible in large part, because they had eschewed the historic Christian emphasis on thrift and fiscal responsibility in favor of a new doctrine which equates faith with undisciplined lifestyles which some others might rightfully regard as foolish.

As a committed Christian, my initial inclination when I saw the cover of that issue of the Atlantic was to think that it was just another example of how the secular media frequently seeks to find fault with the church in order to disparage Christianity itself. But after I'd read the article, I had to admit that the author had made some good points. (I was also pleased to see a separate article, in that issue, pertaining to Dave Ramsey and his attempts to call Christians to practice fiscal self-discipline.)

The article by Hannah Rosin didn't address every possible reason for objecting to the "prosperity doctrine". My own reasons for doing so include the ones listed in her article, but they also include the observation that such a doctrine diminishes an appreciation of the sovereignty of God, by treating God as if he's a cosmic vending machine who is obliged to deliver prosperity to anyone who follows a few simple principles. In that sense, the doctrine is insulting to God. (Admittedly, the insult is probably unintentional, but it's real nevertheless.)

That doctrine is also insulting to people who struggle with poverty, inasmuch as it implies that such struggles are invariably the result of lack of obedience to God. Since poverty is ostensibly always the fault of those who suffer from want, the doctrine becomes a convenient excuse for failing to offer meaningful and compassionate help to such people. Words such as "community" may be used with great frequency in such churches, but when you look beyond the attractive rhetoric, their pastors and other leaders rarely consider that they have any responsibilities to engage in traditional acts of charity in order to help people to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles which hinder them from experiencing true prosperity. Rather, such pastors seem to believe that their responsibility begins and ends with teaching the principle of sowing and reaping, in self-serving ways which conveniently happen to expand the size of their offerings from week to week. If unbelievers see this as a form of exploitation, we should hardly be surprised, because it is.

None of this is to deny that we reap what we sow to some extent, but things are often more complicated than that. The story of Job teaches us that people are unbalanced in their views when they adopt simplistic explanations for situations which can conceivably have multiple causes. Job's "friends" blamed Job for his troubles, assuming presumptuously that God was punishing him for some sin. But those who have read the entire story know that that wasn't the case at all. If anything, Job was tried precisely because God was proud of Job's faith in God, and sought to demonstrate the depth of that faith to Satan, who had suggested that Job would serve God only as long as Job continued to prosper. In the end, God's faith in Job was rewarded.

The "prosperity teachers" say that God wants us to prosper, citing scriptures in support of that view. I don't disagree with them on that point; but the question is, how is that prosperity supposed to come about? The Bible teaches that when one member of the Body of Christ hurts, all members hurt. It logically follows that when one member prospers, all members prosper. In other words, we all have a vested interest in relieving the suffering of fellow Christians, and in doing everything possible to help one another to succeed and prosper.

Rather than blaming the victims whenever we're presented with evidence that some of our fellow believers are suffering, we ought to see that as God's voice calling us to take action to help those believers whenever we have the means with which to do so. Whereas individual Christians often lack the means, the church collectively has the means more often than not, provided that they're more interested in helping people in need than in empire building.

One might describe this view as the "new prosperity doctrine" since it replaces the "old" doctrine which has caused so many problems in the church in recent years; but really, theirs is the newer of the two doctrines, since it has a shakier foundation insofar as scriptural support is concerned. The traditional biblical view promoted an understanding of the crucial role which believers individually and corporately play in meeting one another's needs, not just with specious rhetoric and spurious self-help theories, but with real acts of charity which promote human dignity.

When our doctrines deviate from the truths presented in the scriptures, the church suffers insofar as credibility is concerned. The history of the church is one of refinement in terms of our understanding of what is and is not biblical. In past centuries, bad doctrines have been used to rationalize the existence of monarchies (using the doctrine of the "divine right of kings") and slavery, just to name two examples of doctrines which we have now largely discarded as a result of deeper reflection on the requirements which can be found in God's word. We are fallible human beings, and we make mistakes, and we sometimes realize only in hindsight that our doctrines have had unintentional negative consequences. Maturity entails showing the humility to acknowledge one's mistakes and to do what is necessary in order to correct those mistakes. I pray that we will do so insofar as the prosperity doctrine is concerned.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Maine Voters Get It Right

For those of you who haven't heard the good news from Maine, here's a link:

Virtually every time voters have had the opportunity to speak their minds about the issue of gay marriage, they've lost, even in some of the most liberal states in the union. It seems to me that that ought to mean something, but I'd be the last person to argue that political victory is invariably tantamount to legitimacy. If that were the case, Obama wouldn't be where he is today.