Sex and the church (Hooray for Hollywood)

Hollywood Boulevard, from the Kodak Theater

It’s a safe guess that only a few pastors can utter the following sentence: “They do casting for porn films in our building.”

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood is the only one who can. Just to be clear: the church hasn’t sold its soul to supplement its offerings. It leases space in a building two blocks from the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine, and the skin-flick casting company happens to be in the same building.

The church is also next door to Ultra Vixen Vampwear, a lingerie shop that counts strippers among its customers. (“We have a wonderful relationship” with the store, Barkley said. “They put up signs for our Christmas Eve service. We give them cards.” He doesn’t personally walk in; he leaves that to women church members.)

Ecclesia (from the Greek word for “church”) Hollywood was planted five years ago; Barkley and his wife were among the first leaders, and he became the lead pastor a year ago. It’s a theologically conservative nondenominational church that was running about 500 last December. Now it’s closer to 800.

Why the growth? You might call it sexual attraction.

At the start of January, the church started “Skin,” a series of Sunday sermons and weekly study groups that deal frankly with sex. It started with the first three chapters of Genesis and moved into the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 5, 6 and 15, if you’re keeping score). Last week Barkley talked about homosexuality.

This Sunday – known in some remote regions as Super Bowl Sunday – he will talk about pornography, one of about 300 churches participating in “Porn Sunday.” The timing was providential, Barkley said. Ecclesia planned the “Skin” series months ago, but when a friend of his, who leads the, put together the Porn Sunday program, it fit nicely in to Ecclesia’s schedule. (NPR ran a segment about Porn Sunday on Thursday’s “All Things Considered.”)

So let’s think about this: a conservative church in the middle of Hollywood, talking about sex. A lot.

Pastor Joseph Barkley of Ecclesia Hollywood

“I think it’s shocking to most of the city that there’s a church here,” Barkley told me on Thursday. “There’s an assumption that the rest of the city might make. They have this paradigm that what we have to say about sex is anemic, inadequate, judgmental.”

Try again.

“They’re surprised to find out Christians have fun talking about sex. Look, the whole account of creation in Genesis ends up with two people standing in a garden, buck naked,” he said. “We take that as a signal that God wants us to talk about it with freedom.”

Barkley’s elevator speech to explain “Skin” goes like this:

“In a culture where we no longer think the choices we make have any significance, we wanted to teach the revolutionary thought that your bodies actually matter, that they have eternal significance. Your body has a purpose … it’s not an accident. You were handcrafted. The fulfillment of that purpose is the privilege we have. So we’re trying to offer a recalibration of how we value our own bodies and what we’ve chosen to do with them.”

So “Skin” really isn’t about sex. It’s bigger than that, Barkley said, either standing Sigmund Freud on his head or spinning him in his grave.

“The biggest issue, the most nagging disease we deal with, is isolation,” he explained. “We minister to orphans and dreamers. Most people moved here from somewhere else both to chase a dream and to get away from something. They have no roots, no tradition, no sense of family. After a while they realize what that vacuum is doing to their soul. Sexual brokenness is directly linked to that sense of fear, of isolation.”

So the teaching about sex, he said, is in some ways “ancillary, a device that God is using to get to the root of the problems.”

Something’s clicking, if numbers mean anything. Maybe sex really does sell, even for church. But Barkley spoke more about all the conversations he’s been having since the series began, including a constantly ringing phone and 70-plus daily e-mails he’s been getting, a load that’s “off the charts.”

He’s especially glad that people who disagree with him say they’re going to stick around and keep listening.

“Generally, people are appreciative for us being honest,” he said. “A huge value of ours is vulnerability. People are almost surprised at the transparency with how we’re talking about sex. … We try to be honest, with as much plain language as possible. I’ve given the PG-13 disclaimer for parents from the pulpit.”

Barkley is convinced everyone in the room has some kind of sexual dysfunction. Easily half of the congregation on any given Sunday is struggling with addiction to porn in some way, he said. Honesty is the only option, considering where the church is situated and that about 90 percent of its members work in the movie industry (including some whom we’d probably recognize, if he were to name them).

“We’re trying to build a strong church, not a safe church,” he said. “I don’t want to spoon-feed people; I want us to think like grownups, to have the equipment to make theological decisions about life. How is my sexuality a demonstration of the image of God? We’re not helping anybody if we’re not having honest conversations about this.”

Singing that other anthem

I attended a local prayer breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. last Saturday (Jan. 15). It was a fine, enjoyable and inspiring event, attended by a few hundred people from a variety of church and ethnic backgrounds, including a healthy representation of civic and church leaders. A couple of  choirs sang and a couple of local young African-American leaders spoke.

One of the first things the gathering did was sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” described as the “African-American National Anthem.” But I have to confess that as I stood there singing, I felt bothered by the idea of an “alternative” national anthem. 

The notion of “hyphenated Americans” has always bothered me. E pluribus unum: I’m a fan. (I’ve got Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson on my side, for whatever that’s worth.) But there I was, singing an alternative anthem. I appreciated the spirit and intent of the breakfast, and so I wasn’t thinking “Bah, humbug.” But I wasn’t thinking, “Hip-hip-hooray!” either. Wasn’t the kind of separation this song implied exactly opposite of what the good Dr. King preached?

But when I stopped mentally stroking my chin and wagging my finger long enough to focus on the words, a few lights turned on.

For instance: If someone wanted to compare this “anthem” and the official American national anthem, it would be a religious slam dunk for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is wall-to-wall biblical allusions and expressions of faith in a God who promised to redeem captives. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by contrast, describes a battle scene. That difference alone should give folks a moment’s pause. If we want to think of  the U.S. as a Christian, peace-loving nation, we couldn’t guess that from our national anthem. Taken at face value, the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice” are much more biblical and universal.

But there’s more to songs than lyrics, of course. These anthems carry almost two centuries of emotional and symbolic baggage. “Lift Every Voice,” written at the start of the 20th century, spoke specifically about the black experience in the U.S., less than a generation after slavery had been abolished. So when I sing or hear that song, I hear it differently than someone who can trace his or her family back to a slave or to a lynching victim or to a Selma marcher. That history doesn’t make the song a good candidate for an actual national anthem. Even so, it’s healthy for me to hear it and sing it. It’s a song that is deeply rooted in is piece of American history that is both shameful and noble.

I still wish it weren’t nicknamed a “national anthem” — we have only one of those. On the other hand, African-Americans and other minorities were treated as a separate nation within our borders for so long, I shouldn’t be too harsh and not at all surprised. History is hard to escape.

Here’s the first stanza; you can click here to read all the lyrics.

“Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”

The video is not of our prayer breakfast. (We sang well, but nothing like that.) It’s the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2009.

F2F Finale: That’s all, folks

This is my final “Face to Faith” column. It’s been a good run, since June 2003. If you’re keeping score, that’s 346 columns.

First, the thank-you notes. Thanks to the editors of the Johnson City Press for the opportunity to explore a lot of interesting territory. Thanks also to friends and colleagues who have generously offered their ideas, suggestions and encouragement.

Thanks to the countless people who let me share their expertise, insights, experiences and voices in this space. One of my favorite parts of being a journalist is the privilege of meeting people I would never otherwise get to know.

Finally, thanks to you for reading and for sending your comments, criticisms (honest!) and compliments. Even more, I appreciate your joining me in looking at all sorts of subjects through the lens of religion. One of my favorite parts of covering religion has been the variety, with the chance to write about everything from Trinitarian doctrine to tax law.

The breadth of religion, as well as its depth, is not a small point. More than ever, we need all the tools we can manage to help us understand our world, and it’s no secret that dozens of important news stories every week – whether in our front yard or on the other side of the globe – are ripe with religious meanings, causes and effects.

So before I go, let me suggest seven topics to keep tabs on, listed in no particular order. These aren’t predictions. Let’s just call this a kind of heads-up memo.

The unbuckling of the Bible Belt. I’ve regularly called our region “the area formerly known as the Bible Belt.” No doubt this place still has a different religious climate than, say, New York or Los Angeles. Even so, church attendance is lower than the national average and actual behavior and attitudes about several key social issues mirror the rest of America. With the increasing secularization of society and growing cultural diversity, we’re not as distinct as we used to be (or maybe like to think we are).

The continuing rise of syncretism. “Syncretism” is a fancy word for mixing beliefs and practices into a kind of spiritual stew, an inclination some people have tagged with labels like “me-ism” or “cafeteria religion.” This is a long-time trend, but I was reminded of its power and attraction when I saw “Avatar” last week. (See below, “impact of media, The.”) Regardless of what someone thinks of this development, it’s one that has real implications for how we view the world.

The politics of sex. I can’t think of one sex-related controversy being debated in the public square – birth control, homosexuality, the meaning of marriage (including same-sex marriage and civil unions) – that isn’t shaped by religious belief.

The impact of media. This issue goes beyond debates over the content of TV shows and movies. The media we invent – and how we use them – affect us. For example: In a digital world, how do you define a “community”? Is a church a church if it’s only on the Internet, or is a vague acquaintance on Facebook a “friend”?

The definition of “human.” Far from being a philosophical abstraction for eggheads, the question of what it means to be human is on our doorstep in a dozen ways. The abortion and end-of-life debates are prime examples. For future reference, we’ll also need to consider if there’s a point at which someone treated with cloning, genetic engineering or robotics might not be considered a fully human being anymore.

The spiritual dimensions of money. It’s not just the matter of garden-variety greed or even Bernie Madoff’s unfathomable fraud. Dozens of economic answers can raise scores of religious and spiritual questions. In other words: Are any religious, spiritual or moral issues connected to health care, jobs, welfare, education, foreign aid (think of Haiti this week), war, credit and debt (both personal and national), advertising and marketing, crime, the justice system or the care of elderly people?

The persistence of church-state controversies. Thanks to the massive gray area written into the U.S. Constitution and lived out in American history, the familiar tensions over faith and public life will continue. After 223 years, why stop now? This is part of our national DNA.

That’s all. In the words of an ancient Christian greeting: Grace and peace to you. Amen.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 16 Jan 2010.

With Hispanic ministry, ‘potenciamos unos a otros’*

If we were just counting numbers, then it would not make much sense for congregations in Northeast Tennessee to invest much effort and money in Spanish-language ministry.

Compared to the rest of the country, the region has a small Hispanic population: only 2.2 percent of Washington County’s residents, compared to 15.4 percent nationwide, according to a 2008 Census Bureau estimate.

Yet at least three area churches are making that investment. It’s not about numbers.

“Where two or three are gathered, God is there,” says Danilo Olivares, Spanish minister at First Christian Church. “We serve a niche inside the Spanish-speaking population, and we decided to give to this population. But our rolls are not fat.”

Olivares, 39, has been shepherding this flock-within-a-flock since 2006. More than 70 people are regulars in the Spanish ministry; about 55 typically attend worship on Sundays. Besides Spanish-language worship services, the ministry also offers Sunday school classes, a women’s ministry (led by his wife, Priscila), children and teen programs, midweek Bible studies and a leadership-training course.

The ministry reaches even more people in the community, such as by offering English classes and translation for hospitals and courtrooms, and sponsoring occasional registration days for immigrants.

The ministry, which started nine years ago, is integrated with First Christian Church, with Olivares a full-time minister. While other Spanish-language ministries in the area draw mostly Mexicans, more than 80 percent of the people in First Christian’s ministry come from other countries – at least 13 different nationalities. That diversity has proven to be one of the ministry’s biggest challenges.

Danilo Olivares

“I’m preaching and teaching to all these cultures at once,” explained Olivares, who is originally from Santiago, Chile. “Some words can mean different things, and South American style is different from Mexican style.”

For English speakers, it would be like working with a congregation that includes people from New York, Alabama, Wyoming, England, Jamaica and South Africa. Everyone may speak the same basic language, but so much else – from accents to cultural assumptions – is vastly different.

American culture is layered on top of all that besides, since most Hispanic members at First Christian are second- or third-generation Americans.

“They live here; they’re not in transit,” Olivares said. “A high percentage are in professions, like banking or medicine, and 95 percent are bilingual.”

That blend makes it easy to combine with the rest of the congregation, but it also raises the question of why offer a Spanish ministry at all.

Olivares explained by telling about one member, a local bank officer, who said he feels “contact with God” during a Spanish service in a way he never felt at other churches.

“Our relationship with God starts with the spirit,” Olivares said. “I feel closer to God when I sing or pray in Spanish rather than English. There’s something intimate in speaking, praying and worshiping in our own native language.”

In its early years the ministry probably attracted a large number of undocumented workers, although no one knew for sure because no one was asking. But that proportion has completely reversed, according to Olivares, with more than 90 percent being legal residents today. (In 2006, Oscar Olivares, the congregation’s first Spanish minister and Danilo’s uncle, thought most members were undocumented, a piece of old information I mistakenly repeated last October.)

Part of the reason for the turnaround is Danilo’s commitment to encouraging and helping immigrants to become legal residents.

“As Christians we need to respect the laws of this country,” he said. “We are here to help everyone, and I don’t care if they are legal or not. But if someone doesn’t have papers, part of my ministry is to help them do the right thing.”

Olivares himself never planned to move to Johnson City, a place he hadn’t even heard of until six years ago. But he comes from a family of church leaders, and he moved to Miami in 2004 to help a Spanish-speaking church there, intending to stay a few years before returning to Chile. Then the call came – literally, a phone call from his uncle – to East Tennessee.

He’s thankful for the unforeseen move, glad to experience firsthand how much good can come when North American and South American Christians work together.

“It’s not, ‘Give us this, give us that,” he said. “It’s what we can do for each other. It’s like there’s a good car engine in this room and a fine car body in that room. We put them together. We empower one another.”

* ‘We empower each other.’

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 9 Jan 2010.

You’ve seen one holiday, you’ve seen them all. Not so much.

I took a bit of vacation this week, and so this week’s column updated and adapted material from one published on Dec. 20, 2003.

If an alien dropped in on us right now, he (she? it?) would find us sorting through the remnants of holidays stacked up for more than a month: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s. (We’re not quite finished yet. The Christian feast of Epiphany is Jan. 6.)

Our other-worldly visitor might think all these festivities shared a common origin, that they were only variations on the theme of brightening dark and cold nights, of finding comfort in the winter chill as we wait for spring’s eventual return.

But he (she? it?) would be wrong. Similarities and even shared traditions don’t mean these holidays are the same. (A movie star and I share a birthday and we both eat cake, but that doesn’t make us brother and sister.)

For instance: Christmas – the Christian celebration, not the social and economic spectacle – marks the birth of Jesus Christ in a Palestinian village around the year 4 B.C.

Hanukkah, the Jewish “festival of lights,” observes the rededication of the Jerusalem temple after it was recovered from Greek occupiers in 165 B.C. The feast lasts eight nights because the story says that after the victory, a small vial of oil miraculously provided light for that length of time.

The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, marks the northern hemisphere’s turn toward spring as days start to lengthen again. The anticipation of warmer weather was reason enough to celebrate in ancient societies, and among pagans these seasonal changes took on religious significance.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of the Christian church in Europe, seasonal rites as such were abandoned or reinterpreted with Christian teachings. But in our more diverse time, solstice is making a comeback.

Then there’s Kwanzaa, a modern American invention, created during the 1960s as a week-long celebration of African culture and heritage.

You get the idea: similar timing, similar observances (gifts and candles galore), but vastly different meanings.

These various holidays don’t only mark different events. As a local theologian points out, they also reflect different ways of thinking about the world and how it works. The contrasts are especially noticeable when we compare holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which claim unique historical events as their basis, with the solstice, which marks a recurring natural cycle.

“I think you can argue that those who celebrate solstice understand time to be cyclical,” according to Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College. That is, a pagan view sees time like a wheel, constantly revolving alongside the cycles of nature.

It’s an idea about the world shared by ancient pagan societies and many Eastern religions. In this view, “any particular moment in time is not any more important than another,” Kenneson said. “There’s no sense of movement to history.”

By contrast, Judaism and Christianity – the religions most influential in Western cultures – typically view history as an unfolding “story” made up of unique events. In this view, said Kenneson, time takes on a different kind of significance.

“History as we understand it in the West is rooted in a more linear view of time,” he said. “Specific events have meaning. They contribute to or thwart a certain movement in history.”

While he won’t go so far as to call this a biblical view of time, he does say “a lot of this is assumed in Jewish and Christian understanding.”

There is overlap, of course. Christians and Jews observe natural cycles – look at the church calendar or the Jewish feasts – and those who observe the solstice don’t deny that new events occur.

Even so, Kenneson thinks a fundamental difference exists between those who find meaning mainly in the recurring cycles of nature and those who find it in a developing story.

 “Those cycles by themselves don’t tell the whole story. They are real, but they don’t shape our whole lives,” Kenneson said. “(In the linear view) there’s something above and beyond that. The direction of history has been forever altered.”

Maybe that’s why we wish each other a happy new year. We not only anticipate the year to be different. We expect it to be literally meaningful – to truly mean something.

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 2 Jan 2010.

The Top 10: Religion news in 2009

President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last June, when he declared his desire to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” was the biggest religion story of the year, according to a survey of the Religion Newswriters Association.

In his wide-ranging address, Obama said that the U.S. and Islam “overlap and share common principles … of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” focusing those themes on seven specific issues. The president quoted the Qur’an, the Bible and the Talmud as he held out the prospect of a relationship “based on mutual interest and mutual respect (and) based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”

The speech was well received by local Muslims, according to Taneem Aziz, leader of the Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee.

“On the whole, it was a very positive speech,” Aziz recalled this week. “The general perception of the U.S. (by most Muslim countries) was negative, and I think the president was trying to improve that. I think it’s a good step.”

It was significant that the president delivered the speech at a highly regarded university in a historic Muslim capital, he said.

“Using the greeting of ‘Assalamu Alaykum’ (Peace be unto you) was a nice touch,” Aziz added. ”I liked the way he said would like to deal with issues and conflicts in the world today.”

But how Obama’s words will ultimately translate into policy is not yet clear, and so members of the Muslim community also feel wary, particularly about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which the president addressed at length.

“(Obama’s) bias towards Israel was very evident,” according to Aziz. “On the one hand he said, ‘Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.’ And then he went onto speak about the Israelis and the elevated status they had with the U.S.”

So Aziz doubts that the U.S. can act as an honest broker in the Middle East, “and that is what is needed.” On the other hand, American Muslims understand “that if he does not toe the Israeli line, he may stand to lose the next election.”

Here is the complete list of the year’s Top 10 Religion Stories, as selected by active members of Religion Newswriters Association:

1. President Obama pledges a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations and reaches out to the world’s Muslims during a major speech at Cairo University.

2. Health-care reform, the No. 1 political topic for most of the year, involves faith-based groups appealing strongly for action to help “the least of these,” and others, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, for restrictions on abortion funding.

3. Because Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused gunman in the Fort Hood massacre, was considered a devout Muslim, the role of that faith in terrorism again comes under review.

4. Dr. Carl Tiller of Wichita, Kan., regarded as the country’s leading abortion provider, is gunned down in his Lutheran church.

5. Mormons in California come under attack from some supporters of gay rights because of their lobbying efforts in the November 2008 election on behalf of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Later in the year, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire approve gay marriage, but it is overturned by voters in Maine.

6. Obama receives an honorary degree and gives the commencement speech at Notre Dame after fierce debates at the Roman Catholic university over Obama’s views on abortion.

7. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America votes to ordain gay and lesbian clergy living in a committed monogamous relationship, prompting a number of conservative churches to move toward forming a new denomination.

8. The recession forces cutbacks at a variety of faith-related organizations.

9. The Episcopal Church Triennial Convention votes to end a moratorium on installing gay bishops, ignoring a request from the archbishop of Canterbury not to do so. In December the Los Angeles diocese chooses a lesbian, Mary Glasspool, as assistant bishop.

10. Obama’s presidential inauguration includes a controversial invocation by Rick Warren and a controversial benediction by Joseph Lowery, as well as a pre-ceremony prayer by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 26 Dec 2009.

Christmas in 30 seconds (give or take a minute)

If someone asked you what people should keep in mind this Christmas – and you had about 30 seconds to answer – what would you say?

That’s the question I asked several Christian leaders in Johnson City, Tenn. While their replies touch on familiar themes, they also offer insights that are eye-opening and often challenging.

So what shall we remember at Christmas? Here’s what they said.

“Keep in mind the importance of relationships. Relationship is the key. This summarizes the commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor. The basis for my answer comes from Luke 3, when three groups of people asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’ The simple answer is that relationships to others is the key.”

Anietie Akata, pastor, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church

“In some way focus on the fact it is (Jesus’) day, not our day, and do all the things we need to prepare. Spend some time reading the Bible, and make sure they’re in church. Make sure they do something totally generous and off the wall in giving to someone who’s not family or a friend. Focus on someone who can’t pay you back. Do something in the name of Jesus Christ, rather than focus on our own needs.”

Clint Andrews, senior minister, Crossroads Christian Church

 “I would ask: How are you dealing with the fact that sometimes things seem so futile, that things sometimes seem to be going places you don’t want them to go? How do you deal with the fact that in the end we’re going to die? That’s the human existence. If you stop and think about it without all the attempts to anesthetize ourselves, life seems empty.

“So Christmas is about this: God understood the fact that humans had gotten themselves into a horrible predicament of futility, emptiness and death. And so he has come to save us from ourselves. He didn’t do that by ignoring it or tossing it away but by absorbing it into himself, and now all existence is full of life. Even the things that seem most dire, empty and futile are now shot full with life. Every moment we make a choice: We either deal with suffering without any assistance, going in the direction of anesthetizing, screaming or whining. Or by the choices we make, we incarnate within ourselves the truth of Christ – that everything is full of life, even suffering, and we can redeem all of it. This is what Christ has come to do.”

Neal Hughes, deacon, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Christian Mission

“What is the greatest virtue you can think of, and how can you make it real for someone else? If your desire is to make Christmas meaningful for yourself, then it also should be shared with others. If there’s something of value to you, then make it real for someone else. In so many words, that’s the theology of the incarnation: that the word became flesh and dwelt among us. Part of the incarnation is that the life of Christ makes its seat in us who believe, and therefore it must be manifest in life.”

Hal Hutchison, rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church

“Christmas is the time when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Jesus was God who came to earth, and that was a step of moving out of God’s comfort zone to where we are. To show us God’s love, to celebrate Jesus’ birthday properly, we should go to others and show them God’s love. That could mean staying in Johnson City or going somewhere else. It could be going to heal relationships that are disintegrating. At Christmas, people tend to be more giving, open and loving. The trick is to make every day like Christmas. Every day we should be reaching out with God’s love.”

Louis Imsande, pastor, First Presbyterian Church

“At Christmas we should think about the essence of the gift, which was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But the gift was that God gave us reconciliation – reconciliation between God and man, between man and man and man with himself. With Christ we have the opportunity to be put back on track in our relationship with God. With that on track, we have our relationships with each other. And reconciliation always works best when a person is reconciled with oneself.”

Danny Johnson, pastor, Thankful Baptist Church

“In one way, Christmas seems to be all about us: God loved us, Christ took on flesh for us. Later he died to forgive us of our sins and rose to give us everlasting life. But Christmas is a celebration of what he did for us. We celebrate by loving him, praising him and serving him by serving others. For example, a man in our church found a homeless man sleeping in the cold, just out on the concrete, and took him into his home. That’s a great example of serving Christ by serving others, especially at this time of year – but we can do that any time of year.”

Greg Salyer, pastor, Southwestern Baptist Church

“If someone were to ask what I think, I’d say that for me, Christmas is God with us. It promises me that no matter what our condition, God is with us. Christmas is more than hanging out with my family and opening gifts. It’s the very fact that God broke through the chaos of the human condition and companioned with us. For people in the hospital, this is good news. It means we’ve not been abandoned, we’re not alone.”

Debbie Shields, Washington County senior chaplain, Mountain States Health Alliance

“Christmas from the beginning has been a celebration of God’s amazing love for all people. I think we should try to communicate that message louder than any others. When God sent Jesus to earth, he didn’t owe us anything. He did it out of his graciousness to us, and in response we need to do this for one another. We need to get past the patterns of acting out of misplaced indebtedness and treat other people with grace, whether they deserve it or not.”

Michael Sweeney, president, Emmanuel School of Religion

 First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Dec 2009.

Memo to would-be Bible translators: A little humility, please

The launch of a new online Bible version has been in the news lately: the Conservative Bible Project. The project’s overseer, Andrew Schlafly, even scored an interview this week on the current-events place to be, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.”

This “translation”  is being spotlighted because it differs from other Bible versions in at least two important ways. First, it’s written by readers. In Internet jargon, the content is open source, a “wiki.”

The theory is that, over time, the best version will emerge. It’s literary Darwinism, the survival of the textual fittest – which is ironic because the host site, Conservapedia, isn’t fond of evolution.

The other major difference is that the editors diligently impose a point of view on the text, vetting passages according to 10 “conservative guidelines.” Renderings must fit into the “framework against liberal bias … utilize powerful conservative terms … express free-market parables” and other criteria.

The results are mixed. Many changes are harmless. Others, however, mangle the meanings. For example, a straightforward translation of Acts 2:44 describes the earliest church in Jerusalem: “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

According to the “proposed conservative” translation, however, “Everyone who believed was together and shared values, faith, and the truth.”

That last phrase simply isn’t in the actual text, Greek or otherwise. But as a note of “analysis” helpfully informs us, the original could be “misread as socialistic,” and so the Conservative Bible adds the gloss.

Likewise, when a rich man asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But the conservative version waters down Jesus’ words, almost doubling the word count in the process: “You lack one thing, you need to rid yourself of the desire for earthly treasure to the point that if you were destitute you would still rejoice in the Lord. For doing so will give you the greatest treasure of all, the glory of heaven. Do this and follow my teachings.”

This, despite the Conservative Bible’s claim to favor “conciseness over liberal wordiness” and “not … diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity.”

Apparently, any guideline is trumped by the risk of Jesus actually challenging conservative policies.

And that’s the point. The problem isn’t about being conservative or liberal. For people who take scriptures – any scriptures – seriously, a more important principle is at stake.

The Conservapedia approach turns translation on its head. Instead of coming to Scripture as students to learn what God might be saying, translators turn into dictators, forcing the text to fit their preset ideas.

But the folks at the Conservative Bible Project are not alone in this sort of ideological narcissism. They’re just more obvious. We all want to see what we want. We’re all prone to emphasize some points and then neglect or even bend others that make us squirm.

We can see it on the right, this case in point. We can see it on the left as well when, for example, interpreters go through verbal gymnastics over those thorny passages about, say, homosexual relations, war or the exclusive claims of Jesus. But if we read the texts honestly, we’ll find plenty to upset everyone.

That’s inevitable. We’re all shaped by culture, by personal experience, by the company we keep, by a dozen other factors that affect our reading of Scripture and our response to it. The key is to keep that in mind – humility is the word – and try to compensate. (That is one reason most reliable translations are done by committees of people from various backgrounds, with scholars.) This is not easy work and perfect reading is impossible, but open eyes and open minds can get us closer.

One message of the Christmas story is that God isn’t bound by our assumptions about how the world works. God is clear on that point, according to the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Jesus came by stealth, the story says, born to obscure working-class parents, which is not what most people expected. The ones who first recognized Jesus’ birth for what it was (at least without the help of singing angels) were traveling foreigners, probably pagan astrologers, who kept their eyes open. We still sing about them.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 Dec 2009.

Are we fighting a just war? I’m just asking.

President Obama’s speech on Tuesday, which laid out his plans for Afghanistan, Pakistan and al Qaeda, left me feeling conflicted, uncertain, even a little queasy. Apparently I’m not alone.

There’s only marginal agreement among Americans about the military buildup, with 51 percent supporting Obama’s plan, according to a USA Today-Gallup survey taken the day after his speech. But almost all of us are fretful. By an almost three-to-one margin (73 percent to 26 percent), Americans said they are worried that the costs of the war will make it more difficult to deal with problems close to home. That is besides the normal anxiety that comes with any major conflict.

In making his case, Obama declared that “in the midst of these storms … our cause is just,” echoing words from last year’s campaign, when he said that destroying al Qaeda is “a cause that could not be more just.” (Anyone who is surprised that Obama is focusing on Afghanistan hasn’t been paying attention.)

“Just” is a significant word when talking about war, hearkening to a way of thinking that dates back to the Romans and found its most enduring expression through Christianity. When we talk about a “just war,” we’re talking ethics and theology.

There’s irony here, since Jesus told his followers to pray for their enemies and “turn the other cheek” when insulted. For the first three centuries after he walked the earth, most Christian teachers steered followers away from military service.

But this pacifist position softened as the Christian faith gained respectability in the Roman Empire, especially after it was legalized in the early 300s and made the official state religion in 380.

The question was how Jesus’ instructions to his followers applied in a wider society. Christ taught peace, the reasoning goes, but people and nations – sinners all – must still deal with the world as it is. Part of that challenge is to determine what conditions must be met for a war to be justifiable, even while recognizing that war is a result of sin.

Augustine, a North African bishop and considered one of the church’s greatest teachers, framed a “just war” doctrine through his writings in the fourth and fifth centuries, as the collapsing Roman Empire was coming under siege from northern European “barbarians.” His teaching has formed the basis for most Christian thinking about war ever since.

In its current Catechism, the Roman Catholic Church summarizes just-war doctrine, saying that, “at one and the same time,

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
President Barack Obama greets cadets after speaking about the war in Afghanistan at West Point on Dec. 1.

Those who govern, “those who have responsibility for the common good,” are burdened with evaluating “these conditions for moral legitimacy,” the catechism says. In other words, war must be declared by legitimate authorities.

This being theology, of course, the answers aren’t as simple as this list suggests. Libraries are full of books that tease out various interpretations.

So does the war against al Qaeda via Afghanistan qualify as a just war? I’m no theologian and even less of a military expert, but a few answers seem clear.

It’s obvious that al Qaeda inflicted “lasting, grave and certain” damage on the U.S. and other places. (But how lasting?) Also, while success is never guaranteed – Vietnam is a harsh reminder – there seems to be “serious prospects” of success. The government has indeed approved the use of force. (An interesting footnote: Americans have not engaged in an officially declared war since 1945.)

When we beyond these few certainties, however, the answers grow murky.

For now, maybe it’s enough to make sure we ask ourselves questions like these – ethical and theological questions – if only to remind ourselves of what is at stake, even more than economics, politics or national security. As we should know by now and as Augustine and other theologians knew a long time ago, we don’t risk only the lives of soldiers when we go to war. We risk our souls.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 5 Dec 2009.

Cancer comes: ‘There will be no more ordinary days’

Ray Giles had tolerated the soreness near his abdomen for weeks. A man who had lived in the back country of Ethiopia for years could handle some discomfort. He thought it might be gall stones.

But one night in July the pain grew so agonizing that his wife, Effie, drove him to the emergency room at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Medical Center. After a battery of tests the next day, the physicians brought bad news.

Advanced cancer of the liver. Also in the pancreas. Inoperable. “It’s not a pretty picture,” said Ray’s physician.

The typical survival rate is about six months, but Ray’s doctors refused to set a time. Some patients live for years, they told him. Chemotherapy was an option.

“This was not an ordinary day,” Ray wrote in his journal the night they heard the diagnosis. “There will be no more ordinary days for me or Effie. Each day is a gift … gilded by the beauty God has made in the world.”

Ray and Effie Giles, now in their 70s, retired to Johnson City nine years ago, following a long career as missionaries in Ethiopia. (I wrote about their work last week.) They stayed active – teaching, mentoring young missionaries, regularly traveling to visit children and grandchildren or back to Africa. The cancer brought that to an abrupt halt.

“I never felt, ‘Why me?’” Ray said last week, sitting in their living room. “I never felt I needed to be exempt. Rather than focus on the problem of suffering, it forced the light to shine on the good.”

Even so, the news hit Effie hard.

“We all know we’re going to die,” she said. “But it’s different if you know the mechanism is already at work. You know one day we’ll not be the ones walking out of the hospital room.”

About two months ago it looked as if that day had come, when the cancer or the chemo pitched Ray into severe nausea, pain and disorientation.

“I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t pray,” he said. “I thought if it’s going to be like this, I don’t know if I want to live.”

He seemed to turn a corner a few weeks ago, however, and he feels good for now. So he and Effie are doing all they can to enjoy these days – “to use the time wisely,” he said – knowing they are not likely to last.

They try to bask in each other’s companionship. They revel in regular visits from family and friends. Ray feels strong enough to restart a few of his old church responsibilities, and he recently taught at a senior citizens rally.

“All we have assurance of is now,” Effie said. “I have a tendency to look ahead to the big event. Maybe it comes from our days on the (mission) field, when we’d look forward to the mail drops or to having the kids home from boarding school. But I’m learning to live as much as possible in the NOW.”

On a recent morning, watching a sunrise from the living room, she found herself thanking God as she mentally traced a list of blessings: Family. Friends. Phone calls and notes of encouragement. A good church. A full life. Time with Ray.

Each day, they agreed, is an answer to prayer.

“We usually think about praying for THE answer, as if there were one thing,” Ray said. “But we pray for good days, and we have good days. I don’t know what the one answer is. I’ll take each day as a gift of God.”

Ray draws comfort from a familiar verse in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’”

He recalled what the late Anglican priest David Watson wrote before his own death from cancer: “We know the evil will come. We just don’t have to fear it.”

Is that true for him? Ray paused. Yes, he said in a steady voice. Then he looked over at his wife of 55 years and his eyes filled with tears.

“I suppose if there’s anything, it’s thinking about leaving one another, the separation,” he said. “But other than that – no, not really.”

They try not to dwell on fear, Ray said.

“That psalm ends, ‘Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,’” he said. “And they have. God has blessed us. He’s been there in every time.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 Nov 2009.