Archive for May, 2010

Enlightenment hangover

May 30, 2010

I was born in 1970, seemingly on the cusp of transition from modernity to postmodernity. Maybe no one knew it at the time? After all, we were putting men on the moon. Didn’t it seem like everything was still possible then—that our future was wide open? I took to heart the words of Disney World’s Tomorrowland jingle: “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow/ Shining at the end of every day.” (One of the Sherman brothers more annoying efforts.) Tomorrow would be made possible by G.E., the Carousel of Progress told us, and maybe we believed it… As long as the Russians didn’t drop the bomb first.

We naively fell victim to Enlightenment propaganda whose chief tenet of faith is progress. Science and technology will inevitably make the world a better place (as if Hiroshima and Nagasake don’t bear witness to something far more sinister). Modern medicine, modern agriculture, modern banking, modern government, modern everything will point the way. Modernization will save the developing world. (Even the word “developing” is propaganda suggesting progress.)

That was then. Having lost faith in progress, we’re now supposed to be postmodern people.

But not so fast. Old gods die hard. Here’s a Times article whose headline gets it just right: “Our Fix-It Faith and the Oil Spill.” Here’s a relevant passage:

Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.

You think? It is a kind of faith, that’s for sure—even though it’s premised upon faith being made obsolete by Reason.

“As pale a form of Christianity as…”

May 28, 2010

Methodism: Insert your own punchline about being watered-down here.

I just finished reading Christian ethicist (and fellow United Methodist) Stanley Hauerwas’s essay entitled, “The Radical Hope,” about a Christian understanding of family (versus popular pseudo-Christian or sub-Christian alternatives).1 He argues that there is a sense in which Christianity challenges the human family. He doesn’t quote next week’s “Relatively Speaking” text, Mark 3:31-35 (“Who are my mother and my brothers?”) but he may as well.

In a section of his essay, he seeks to illustrate ways in which our Christian faith challenges traditional family allegiances. Allow me to share this heartbreaking passage. Emphasis is mine.

For example, my friend Will Willimon notes that during the time he has been Dean of the Chapel at Duke [ed. note: Willimon is now a United Methodist bishop in Alabama], he has received four angry phone calls from parents. All the calls have taken the same form. The parent says, “We sent Suzy to law school. But she has become so involved in the Wesley Fellowship that she has now decided she is going to become a missionary to Honduras. How could you let this happen? You have ruined her life.” That as pale a form of Christianity as Methodism can still produce this kind of result indicates pretty definitively that the Gospel is not altogether friendly to the family.2

Ouch! Is it really so bad, Stanley? Well, maybe so… But as much as I love Hauerwas—and few thinkers challenge me more to consider how demanding it is to follow Jesus in this world—I often think the only way to be the Church from his point of view is to become separatists, like Anabaptists (e.g., Amish or Mennonite). Still inasmuch as we Methodists are watered-down, I happen to know there are a lot of us Methodists who are not happy to leave it that way!

1. Stanley Hauerwas, “The Radical Hope,” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 505-518.

2. Ibid., 511.

A morning prayer

May 28, 2010

This is a collect for grace from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer:

O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that we, being ordered by thy governance, may do always what is righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This Sunday in Vinebranch: “Relatively Speaking, Part 4: Husbands and Wives”

May 26, 2010

Our sermon series on family relationships in the Bible continues with “Relatively Speaking, Part 4: Husbands and Wives.” We’ll look at Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:18-25. The service will feature special music and a video of church members talking about their spouses.

To get us in the mood, here’s a love song by Van Morrison, which Rod Stewart turned into a monster smash hit in the early ’90s. Enjoy!

There’s a love that’s divine

And it’s yours and mine like the sun

And at the end of the day

We should give thanks and pray to the one, to the one

Dr. Don Martin talking about his brother

May 25, 2010

Don contributed this reflection about his brother for our “Relatively Speaking” sermon series.

Sermon from 05-16-10: “Relatively Speaking, Part 2: Mary and Martha”

May 25, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 10:38-42

[To listen to the sermon online, click the play button below or click here to download an mp3 podcast.]

The following is my original manuscript.

This happens every time my kids are made to clean their rooms… An argument inevitably breaks out between at least my two boys, who share a room, over the question of who is actually cleaning. Townshend will say, “Ian, cle-e-e-e-e-e-e-a-n!” And Ian will say, “I am cleaning,” and much crying and yelling ensues. They will cycle through this argument about five or six times before the room is actually clean. What’s at stake here is the question of fairness: no one in my family wants to have to do more cleaning than anyone else. As Lisa would gladly tell you, there’s really no danger of that with me! But for my kids, yeah…

Fairness. One of you told me that the first complete sentence your child learned to say was, “That’s not fair!” And they say it with such great authority. “That’s not fair”—as if they’ve found the hidden trump card that wins every argument, that settles every dispute. “It’s not fair that I can’t have ice cream for breakfast!” a four-year-old says. And the parent responds, “Oh, well… in that case, strawberry or rocky road?” What our kids don’t understand is that we parents don’t really care about fairness—I mean, not really. What we really care about more than anything else is peace and quiet! Right? I am not nearly as interested in the question of fairness as my children want me to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Video about our brothers, part 1

May 25, 2010

The following video about brothers was meant to be shown in Vinebranch this past Sunday as part of our “Relatively Speaking” sermon series. Sadly, technical difficulties prevented us from doing so. Here it is…

Nice op-ed on religious pluralism

May 25, 2010

The Dalai Lama has a thoughtful op-ed on the subject of interfaith harmony in today’s New York Times. I highlight the following passage:

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

I think this is exactly right. Notice that the Dalai Lama is not saying that our religious differences are unimportant or (as the op-ed’s headline, “Many Faiths, One Truth” might imply) that all religions are essentially the same. On the contrary, he rightly says that some degree of exclusivity is at the heart of all religions.

Christianity certainly has an exclusive component. I am a Christian, after all, because I believe that God is definitively revealed in Jesus. Everything I need to know about God I learn from him—because I believe that Christ is God. There is no necessary revelation outside of Christ. This is to some degree exclusive because where the truth claims of Christianity compete with the truth claims of other religions, I side with Christianity—with the caveat that all human knowledge is provisional. At best, we see through a glass darkly. We should always be open to revising our understanding of the truth that Christ reveals.

But our faith is by no means completely exclusive. Inasmuch as other religions reveal this same God, I say a hearty “Amen.” If Buddhism (or any other religion) can teach us something about compassion, then by all means we should be receptive. We’re not surprised or threatened by the fact that we share so much in common with other religions because we believe there is one Spirit revealing this truth.

My point (with which the Dalai Lama would surely agree) is that we don’t get along with people of other religions by minimizing our differences or pretending that they don’t really matter—as many well-intentioned Christians have tried to do by redefining “salvation,” for instance, to some lowest common denominator.

No. We can hold onto our exclusivity while at the same time respecting, admiring, and appreciating other traditions. In fact, we must: otherwise we tell practitioners of other religions that their traditions’ unique and competing truth claims don’t really matter. How is that not offensive and disrespectful?

See earlier entries here and here for more on the challenge of religious pluralism.

Aldersgate Day 2010

May 24, 2010

Today, 24 May 2010, is Aldersgate Day. Wesleyan scholars debate the meaning of Aldersgate. Was it a full conversion to faith or a formative spiritual experience? (I believe the latter.) Wesley himself rarely referred to it after about 1740. One thing is certain: Wesley, who had previously struggled to believe that he was truly a Christian, found in Aldersgate a sense of assurance that he was forgiven, loved, and accepted by God in Christ—a conviction from which he never wavered. Assurance continues to be an important emphasis in Methodism. In general, we Christians ought to be assured by the Holy Spirit that we will be saved. It shouldn’t be something we worry about.

On this day 272 years ago, John Wesley wrote the following in his journal (dated May 24, 1738):

…In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. 15. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there, what I now first felt in my heart. But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught, that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation: But that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes with holdeth them, according to the counsels of his own will. 16. After my return home, I was much buffeted with temptations; but cried out, and they fled away. They returned again and again. I as often lifted up my eyes, and He “sent me help from his holy place.” And herein I found the difference between this and my former state chiefly consisted.

Here’s the 250th Aldersgate anniversary address from 1988, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, by Dr. Donald English, a British Methodist scholar. Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance.

Two gods we Christians don’t believe in

May 20, 2010

On the heels of the New York Times article I refer to in my previous post, I came across this Times blog entry yesterday. The blogger writes with polite incredulity that, according to a recent survey, 82 percent of Americans believe that God is intimately involved in their lives. She used as a case in point a recent contestant on American Idol. After Simon Cowell predicted that this person would soon be voted off, the contestant pointed upward and said, “I know God,” indicating, I suppose, that God would take care of him. Even after getting voted off a couple of episodes later, the contestant maintained, despite his setback, that God had something good in store for him.

The vast majority of comments in the comments section predictably scoff at all these ignorant Americans for being deluded, superstitious, and childishly naive. How can we believe that, A) there is a God, and, B) even if there were such a being, it personally cares about us—given so much evidence (i.e., science and human suffering) to the contrary?1 Even some of the God-believing commenters complained about athletes’ and celebrities’ public displays of piety: Why should God care about trivial events like ballgames and other mundane details of a person’s life?

The comments were about 95 percent anti-faith, which does not mean that Times readers are necessarily godless heathens (as so many of its critics surely believe!); it probably means that the people who are most passionately worked up about the issue are the ones who disagree with the article’s findings and feel most compelled to chime in. Read the rest of this entry »