Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Soundbite Reverend

I have no doubt that in the past several days and certainly over the last month, there have been entirely too many blog posts centered on Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Up to this point, I have deliberately not commented on Wright's political views or rhetorical style, and this post will not comment on these things either. I will leave that to others who are more invested in such things, both pro and con, than I. But Wright's recent appearance at the National Press Club is worthy of comment. During this appearance and in other recently previous comments, Wright has asked that his sermons and views be taken in context, and he has lamented what he believes is the reduction of his views to soundbites. He has further argued that he speaks not as a politician, but as a pastor, and his comments need to be understood thusly. Fair enough. It is my intention in this post to examine some of Wright's biblical and theological assertions made at the National Press Club. I will look at 3 of Wright's assertions.

1) As part of advancing what he believes is a theology of liberation, Wright asserted that there was 'not one word written in the Bible between Genesis and Revelations that was not written under one of six different kinds of oppression...' This is false as a basic matter of theological history. Regardless of whether one believes that Moses was the primary author of the first five books of the Bible, there is wide consensus that much of the Torah was written during the Israelites's encampment at Sinai. This was not a time of earthly oppression from the Egyptians, since the Egyptians had already been defeated. Contrary to what Wright suggests, the Bible is not a cover to cover account of human persecution at the hands of humans, and it wasn't written in totality in the midst of persecution. That's simply false. What's more, no responsible reading of Scripture can make human persecution the chief concern of God's redemptive or liberating activity. Wright is correct that Scripture is indeed concerned about unjust persecution and portrays God reversing such persecution. But that does not justify the overriding hermeneutic of oppression and liberation that he is forcing onto the text and forcing it to fit. In doing this, the man who dislikes being 'soundbited' is soundbiting Scripture.

2) In answering a question about whether Islam is 'a way' to salvation, Wright cited John 10.16, where Jesus says 'I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen'. Wright seemed to be implying that Jesus is here acknowledging that there are other ways to salvation other than the way that directly expresses faith in Christ as the Son of God. In doing this, Wright is soundbiting Scripture and ripping a passage out of context (again, quite ironic given his complaint about he feels he has been treated). In vv1-5 of chapter 10, the sheep pen clearly represents Judaism, since it is a thematic continuation of the ramifications of chapter 9. So from the sheep pen of Judaism, chapter 10 says that Jesus calls his own sheep from this fold, and they respond to his voice. So when Jesus says in v16 that he has other sheep that are not of this sheep pen, he is clearly referring to Gentiles. The consummation of this theme is in John 11.51-52, which describes Jesus dying for the scattered children of God, making them one. John 10 has nothing to do with comparative religion; it is about the express expansion of the Kingdom of God to Gentile believers in Christ. Readers of John 10 should note the emphasis on the sheep's response to Jesus' voice. The exclusivity of Christ in salvation is clearly being taught here, along with the inclusivity of Jew and Gentile in the Kingdom of God. For Wright to ignore the context of John 10.16 and use it to imply the non-exclusivity of Christ in salvation (in direct contradiction to the context of the verse) is to soundbite the Bible.

3) In supporting his contention that America has invited terrorism onto itself as a result of engaging in its own terrorist activities, Wright quotes Gal 6.7, "Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows." Once again, Wright ignores the context of this verse. Galatians is a rhetorical letter written by Paul to address the infiltration of false doctrine and belief. The church is going astray, there are opponents of Paul influencing the congregation to reject the breakdown of Jew/Gentile distinction, and Paul is writing here to get the church back on track. After listing the acts of the sinful nature at the end of chapter 5, chapter 6 transitions into a discourse on gentleness and restoration if possible when handling trespasses. Verse 7 is dealing with the reality that God is not fooled by outward expressions of righteousness, because he knows whether someone is acting out of the flesh (the old self) or the Spirit (the new flesh). This context is clear from v8. The sowing and reaping of v7 is not a Christian version of karma, as Wright suggests. Instead, it is a wise warning to those who sow from the flesh rather than the Spirit. God won't be mocked by such things, because he sees through such things. By ignoring this context and using v7 to advance a secular political cause-and-effect argument is to soundbite the Bible.

Rev. Wright's tenuous hold on Scriptural context is most unfortunate, because it discredits all that he says. This is unfortunate because Wright is not wrong about everything. He is right in suggesting that 'different doesn't mean deficient'. He is right when he says that caucasian Christians have much to learn and gain from the African American religious experience in America. In my view, an increased sensitivity to the issues and experiences that greatly concern many African Americans would help prevent the kind of radicalized liberation theology that Cone and Wright advocate.

But Wright's soundbiting of Scripture is inexcusable in light of his complaint that he himself has been wrongly soundbited. Now let me be clear, the practice of cherrypicking Bible verses completely out of context is not unique to liberal pulpits - it happens in conservative pulpits too. They are equally inexcusable, and offensive to me as a Christian. It both saddens and maddens me that such reckless theology has gained a hearing in supposedly respectable American seminaries and pulpits. It's bad to reduce a human being to soundbites. But it's much worse to do the same thing to the Word of God, no matter who does it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Just because someone is young and has a fresh face...

doesn't make his approach new or 'post-partisan'. I am, of course, talking about Barack Obama.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that while I'm not a party-line guy, I usually vote Republican. And while I have no beef with Obama personally, it's not surprising that given my political orientation, I haven't warmed up to Obama the politician. For the last year, I have watched the groupthink media engage in mosh-pit orgies over Obama much the same way they lusted after JFK and RFK. I have watched young people who are allegedly yearning for 'a different kind of politics and a different kind of politician' fill stadiums and jubilantly express their allegiance to Obama. I wish I could be among the 'change we can believe in' believers. But the facts simply don't allow me to do that.

Obama is new, in that he is a new figure on the scene. He doesn't come from old money, or from a royal political family. By any measure, his is a successful story. As Americans, we can rejoice at his success, and be proud of him as an individual for achieving what he has. But beyond the soaring oratory and inspiring story, there is little reason to believe he is a different kind of politician.

Like most other politicians who have run for president recently, Obama has taken on some regretably old school characteristics. Like previous candidates both Democrat and Republican, Obama has largely shielded himself from lengthy interaction with the press in order to maintain tight image and message control. This is quite ironic considering how nakedly obvious the press has been in their affection for him. Like previous candidates both Democrat and Republican, Obama largely plays in front of pre-selected sympathetic audiences that deliberately don't hint of the political and ideological diversity that he and his boosters claim he transcends. Like previous candidates both Democrat and Republican, Obama has had to try and explain or justify unsavory voluntary associations (both past and present) with crooks and other incendiary (to use a charitable word) figures. None of this is 'post-partisan', and none of it is indicative of a new kind of campaign or a new kind of candidate.

But it doesn't stop there. What's most unsettling about the 'post-partisan' narrative surrounding Obama is that his voting record and issue platform are both decidedly partisan. Obama has virtually no record of spearheading bipartisan legislation in his legislative career. Saying that I want to bring people together is not the same thing as actually doing it while in political office. The former is easy, and requires no elbow grease. The latter actually demonstrates one's commitment to it. And on this, Obama fails. One doesn't have to shout and yell in order to be partisan. One simply has to uphold the party line nearly unanimously, as Obama has done, and fail to sign on to the few bipartisan initiatives remaining in Washington.

Again, I don't have it in for Obama, though it may seem like I do. My issue actually isn't with Obama himself. If one wants to be a party-line liberal because that's where one's convictions lie, that's fair enough. What's not fair, or honest, is to be such a person while claiming you're something else. And it's also not honest to portray oneself as a different kind of candidate while actively engaging in many of the same unfortunate tactics and strategies that he says he transcends. This is not the audacity of hope - it's just audacity.

In the end, Obama is a fresh face who is largely absent of fresh ideas and is increasingly not diverging from the status quo to run a fresh kind of campaign. That doesn't make him any worse than either Clinton or McCain. But it doesn't make him better either, and this is where ga-ga perception needs to better align with sober reality.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bravo to Daryn Kagan

I've known for some time that former CNN anchor Daryn Kagan was working on a new media project emphasizing positives in the world. I hope this project is successful and provides a wake-up call to much of the rest of the American and international press.

Among other things, Kagan believes the American press by and large focuses on the negative in their news coverage. Current CNN Pentagon reporter Barbara Starr recently argued that death and difficulty in Iraq are more 'newsworthy' than peace and progress. She made this comment when questioned about why the press hasn't covered successes in Iraq with the same zeal that they've covered failures. She didn't dispute that news coverage of the successes in Iraq was far more muted than the reporting of the debacles. To the contrary, she justified the slant by saying that negative events are more newsworthy than positive events. Starr's attitude is regretably typical, and is widespread in newsrooms that produce the daily and even hourly news we see on air and in print. Enter Daryn Kagan.

Kagan is correctly trying to offer some balance to the media obsession with the negative. Kagan intends to focus on the positive, and showing 'the possible' to offset the refraining groan of the impossible that feeds most media outlets. Kagan correctly believes that most media outlets do not cover matters of faith and spirituality well, and she also knows that positive news stories are often perceived as fluff and not 'hard news' by the mainline media monopoly. Her new media project provides a needed corrective.

For a number of years now, I have argued that the American media woefully underrepresents viewpoints and perspectives that deviate from accepted journalistic norms. The issue of jadedness is a classic example. At best, an inquisitive questioner might get a journalist or columnist to admit that he/she is a bit jaded as a personal matter. But these jaded journalists rarely if ever admit that their jadedness impacts their job or influences the way in which they present a story to the public. And herein lies the problem. Such a view is either completely arrogant or completely self-delusional - or both. Human beings are not machines, where our biases, predispositions, and worldviews can be shut off at the switch when we go about our daily lives, including our vocational lives. The worldview and perspective that a journalist personally operates with will inevitably influence their approach to a story, the kinds of questions they ask (and don't ask), and the kinds of stories they consider 'newsworthy' (or 'unnewsworthy'). Positive and inspirational news stories are considered 'soft' not because they are soft, but because journalists for the most part are bringing their personal jaded perspectives to bear on the job they do.

That they are either unaware or flippant about how their default settings shape the news reveals the core problem in American journalism - the inability for journalists to be straight with themselves, which inevitably compromises their ability to be straight with the public. The press is out of touch with the American experience primarily because they are out of touch with the human experience. Occasionally, someone comes along who momentarily breaks through the cynicism and jadedness (Obama and JFK come to mind). When this happens, the press momentarily rediscovers its idealism and lurches almost completely into worship mode. But this isn't any more balanced than their jadedness, and it shows. The recent SNL skit resonated because even though it was a parody, it hit on something real and obvious - obvious to everyone but press people.

Daryn Kagan is offering a more systematic corrective that will hopefully bring positive stories (and a more positive perspective) back into the stream of media orthodoxy. It's a shame that such a glaring hole exists in our present news coverage, and that the supposedly objective media can't come to grips with how the existence of this gap exposes the rank subjectivity of their enterprise. But I hope that Kagan's initiative will start a substantive conversation within media circles about the deficiencies that exist and how the personal groupthink perspectives of these circles reinforce the deficiencies. Bravo to Kagan for charting a different yet much needed course.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Redeeming of the Church

Even the ever colorful Ted Turner finally seems to be coming around. It was recently announced that Turner is partnering with various denominations (both liberal and evangelical) to throw significant resources into the fight against malaria. Turner, who once declared that Christianity was a religion for losers, now says that religion is a 'bright spot' in the world that 'has a very good reputation for being able to mobilize resources.'

It is a sad reality that God's church too often brings disrepute to His name. Financial and sexual scandals are too common. Faulty theology is rampant. Empire-building in the church is thoroughly worldly. Idolatry is acceptable and even encouraged. Evangelicals divide over secondary matters and lose sight of the Great Commission. Liberals foolishly try to remake the church without bothering to address their faulty theology of church and Kingdom. The pride and self-delusion that underlie these trends go undealt with. With this kind of record, I have no trouble understanding why many oscillate between believing that the church is irrelevantly out of touch vs. believing that the church is foolish and dangerous. If this was the end of the story, I'd probably join them at least 5 days out of the week.

But some years ago, I came to understand something that even Ted Turner now seems to have some grasp of. Despite the church's chronic infidelity to its Owner and Master, the church often redeems itself (through the guidance of the Spirit) in times of tragedy and hardship. I've seen this firsthand many times, in efforts both big and small. I saw it when I was in New Orleans after Katrina. The evangelical church ran laps around everybody else, including the government, in its response to the devastation. The response was quick, comprehensive, and committed. It was the same thing in South Florida after Hurricane Andrew. It was the same thing after the tsunami disaster in Asia, and after the earthquake disaster in Turkey. In times of major disaster and despair, a heavily splintered church comes together to coordinate a response that puts everyone else to shame, and gets the attention even of someone like Ted Turner.

I've also seen this dynamic at work in smaller ways. My congregation is enduring a rough spell at the moment. Illness, disease, and death have come to visit several families in our congregation in recent months. Family and friends of ours who don't attend our church have also been stricken. My church has become a house of prayer in ways it wasn't before. We have stepped up to the plate with meals, visitation, and helping people with transportation and chores. If there had been a congregational vote last December about whether we as a church would have wanted to endure the season we are enduring, I doubt such a motion would have passed. Nobody wants to endure hardship and disaster, because they are the byproducts of universal sin. But I dare say that the redemption of the church through heartache and disaster provides me comfort that God is in control of the disasters, and that the church is still under his tutelage and is still being purified. The result has been that our church has not only grown closer together, we are also gradually developing a greater passion for outreach to a world that is filled with suffering.

My dream for our congregation is that we would be known in the community as a church that knows what it believes and doesn't need to substitute inventive techniques in place of core principles, and is a church that radically lives out what it believes and tirelessly welcomes the world to join us. It is my hope that the redeeming of our church through the purification of suffering will transform our congregation into one that speaks and acts prophetically to a world that needs to see orthopraxis as much as it needs to hear orthodoxy. Like so many times before, it is my hope that this season of suffering will be the church's finest hour. The ability of Ted Turner to see this on a bigger scale should give us hope that our neighbors will be able to see it in our community, in us.