Saturday, September 22, 2007

Insensitive Christians

I've been thinking about this one for a while, but never written it down. It has to do with a Christian quality I believe is too frequently overlooked or disregarded in the Church: sensitivity. I believe a lack of sensitivity is tied directly to an overdeveloped sense of Self and usually results in contempt. Here's an example:

I used to work at a big huge church somewhere and I directed the "show" on Sundays, which we called IMAG, or image magnification for the congregation and a live cut to DVD. I'd sit in a darkened room in the back of the church (the "production booth") with four or five other people ("technical ministers"). Many of these technical people were volunteers who simply wanted to "do something" for the church. This involved a great deal of turnover within the "tech team."

One week, a likely homosexual came to the booth to run the CCU's (camera control units), which meant three big knobs that remotely controlled the aperture on our video cameras. Not only was he probably gay, but this man was also African-American, making him one of a handful in the whole church (of about 2,500 weekly). He did his duty that week somewhat clumsily, and it was my job to sort of "disciple" him in the technical ways. I always tried to treat our service with a light heart and with some measure of joy, while certain others frequently treated their obligations with a dire dread of mistakes and extreme criticality. As such, I would try to talk to these passers-by and learn a little about them each week. This man was friendly but shy, a little nervous perhaps. At the end of the day I thanked him for his contribution and he left. No big deal.

When he had left, the floodgates opened, as if everyone had been holding their breath for hours, waiting desperately for a chance to unleash. There was talk about his apparent homosexuality. This was "verified" by another volunteer who said the church elders had gone to his home to investigate his morals (why they have not done the same with our senior pastor, I will never know). There they found some "questionable" videos and pictures (maybe he'd rented "Brokeback Mountain," I don't know) and asked him about his orientation. There was all manner of sentiments about how uncomfortable people had felt to be in his presence and the guy in charge even decided not to let him come back, uh, but only because he was pretty clumsy on the CCU's.

I sat there on the verge of tears and nausea all at once. "This is the church," I thought. "This is no 'ragamuffin gospel,' this is a gospel of judgment, intolerance, self-assurance and condemnation." I never saw the guy again in the control room. Whether I ever saw him again at church, I don't remember.

In The Divine Conspiracy, author Dallas Willard explains that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, exerts a great deal of energy to combat what is potentially humanity's greatest sin: contempt. He states bluntly: "It is not possible for people with such attitudes towards others to live in the movements of God's kingdom, for they are totally out of harmony with it" (154).

At All Saints Church in Pasadena, there is an environment of welcome for all peoples, even (gasp) homosexuals . I've sat right behind openly gay couples there, and I think: this is right. I'm not attempting here to defend homosexuality in all its forms, I'm trying to understand what the kingdom of God is like. In the Beatitudes, Jesus shatters his disciples' perceptions about who is welcomed into his kingdom: all of the lowly, dejected and rejected and lonely and contemptible people. The church is an assembly of sinners under the grace of Jesus Christ (right?). Shouldn't all the rest of us closet sex addicts and alcoholics and thieves and liars and fibbers and tax evaders and lazy people and judgmental people and porn addicts and racists and bigots and perfectionists and self-haters and so on understand best of all that a homosexual deserves every bit as much love as we deserve, not only from God but from ourselves? One of my favorite professors at Fuller, Dr. Stassen, claims that many problems arise within the church because there is not a deep enough understanding of sin.

To conclude, I think sensitivity is just another word for "other-centeredness," which may be just another word for "kingdom-centeredness." I pray that I and my fellow disciples would be a community of mutuality and grace, that we would "enter into" the tumultuous lives all around and let the bodily presence of Jesus--the church--embrace the most contemptible among us.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Round 2

I talked to the Mormon missionaries again today. Good conversation on the whole, as before, without any startling new revelations. Before they arrived, I spent a good amount of time today reading the Book of Mormon and taking some notes, filling out a pamphlet and praying as they asked me to do. However, I have yet to convert.

The main unresolved issue for me is the reliability of the Book of Mormon as a source of revelation or correction to my beliefs (which are apostate). Like the Qu'ran, there is no record of original manuscripts and no context in which they were written. Instead, they were handed down to a single prophet and a few lucky onlookers who attest to the miraculous and divine nature of the documents as well as their reception and transcription. Redactors throughout history have tried to edit difficult texts in the Bible, and it may be the case that Joseph Smith fits into that lineage with one of the greatest examples of oversimplification in history: the Book of Mormon. The sheer straightforwardness and simplicity of the text was enough to make me doubt it from the start. In short, it's an "easy" Scripture, and that rings alarm bells in my head.

I read through the three books of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, which recount how a Jewish man and his family sail from Palestine to somewhere in South America and begin a new, flourishing civilization that expresses faith in the (yet to come) Messiah, Jesus Christ. This, because special prophecies had come to the patriarchs providing extremely (and suspiciously) specific details about the coming of Jesus, and all this covering a period of about 600 years B.C. and some 400 years beyond. But, I thought, how on earth could a Christian civilization thrive in the Americas for a thousand years and leave no discernible trace of its existence? Shouldn't there be monumental evidence of a Hebrew people who worshiped Jesus and encountered the risen Christ after his Resurrection? I mean, what happened to these people? How could Christ and his disciples (in Israel) change the course of human history and leave a tremendous wake in the ocean of humanity for going on 2000 years, yet leave no evidence of their presence in the Americas until 1820? Curious.

So this led to a discussion on the nature of "faith," which was described to me as "a burning feeling" or "a feeling of conviction" or the "fruits of the Spirit" or "hope." However, there was nothing very substantial to faith as they described it. I, on the other hand, think faith is quite substantial and based on demonstrable acts of integrity, grace, provision, etc. The example I concocted on the spot was of a little boy standing at the edge of a pool while his dad encourages him to jump in because, after all, he'll catch him. If the father is a good man who has demonstrated time and again his strength, protection and reliability to his son, the boy will put his faith in him and jump. However, if dad is abusive, apathetic or easily distracted, the boy would have no faith in him. The simple fact that dad is dad means nothing. The term is loaded with freight, either good or bad, prompting either faithfulness or faithlessness in his son. If his dad really isn't reliable or "true," but the boy nonetheless places all of his hope in him, when he jumps, he'll still drown. Hope can be an empty and lifeless thing. Discussions about justification aside, this is what I believe James is talking about in his epistle: "Faith without works is dead." So in my understanding, faith is really more like trust than hope, and it is certainly not blind. In fact, I believe faith is clear sight. In short, I don't think I'd have faith in Jesus if it was devoid of substance, if there was nothing demonstrably good or trustworthy about Him, or if I'd never seen or known anything on a profound level.

One of the last questions I asked concerned an upsetting text I ran across in 2 Nephi 5:21, which describes the American Israelites as "white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome." A group of faithless people are cursed by God with "a skin of blackness," and made to be "loathsome," and God cursed the "mixing of their seed." I brought this up with the disclaimer that I'm well aware of uncomfortable texts in the Bible as well, and that this might well fit into the category of misunderstood texts. One missionary explained that it was not meant to be a racial thing, that it was merely a curse which was eventually lifted. This was a satisfactory explanation to me, but with one important qualifier. I proposed: what if this book was not the work of a 6th century B.C. Jewish prophet in Central America but the work of a 19th century North American white guy from New York? If so, that would make a text like this a powerful justification for bigotry. The missionaries wholeheartedly agreed, granting that if the Book of Mormon was a human product, then the entire enterprise of their faith was a sham and something like 2 Nephi 5:21 would be a very disagreeable text. Though again, faith had disallowed any such notions.

Another question I asked that generated an interesting response was: "Is the Book of Mormon an accurate historical record of an ancient peoples of the Americas?" The answer: yes. So, this could be taught to children in school about American history? Again, after some thought, yes. Now, I know that there are plenty of Christians out there who would say the same thing about the Bible, but I would not. The Book of Mormon is apparently deeply entrenched in its historicity, yet there is no discernible evidence of the reliability of its text (as it was taken from a single set of unavailable plates) or the presence of a Judeo-Christian civilization in the Americas that spanned a millennium. The Book does bear some important insights into the nature and failings of the Christian church, but that in itself is not nearly enough for me to stake my life in its claims. The Book of Mormon seems meaningful in the same way that the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Qu'ran or the Dhammapada are filled with beauty, mystery, and (yes) truth but lack a substantial basis for faith. As I said previously, it's precisely the
historical, contextual, geographical and human construction of the Bible that compels me to put my trust in it and give my life to the Jesus within (and without). I believe Jesus provides the clearest image of God and teaches us the best way to live, which is life in the "Kingdom of Heaven."

I hope I haven't trivialized the matter in any way, but those are my thoughts for now... Grace and Peace.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Post-Meeting Thoughts About Mormonism

I just spoke to a few Mormons for an hour in my living room. It was quite interesting. As a person relatively ignorant of Mormon theology, I was legitimately interested in hearing them out, learning what they believe and why, not counter-proselytizing them. These young guys were very well informed, humble and gracious. Overall, I was very impressed with them and genuinely grateful for their time.

While I could tell they were accustomed to following a routine of sorts—explaining the Bible’s gospel message at first, then moving on to how that was corrupted during the apostasy of the church and how God finally restored the church in 1820 through the prophet Joseph Smith, I kept on butting in asking tough questions. However, I intended to do so without any agenda or intent to make an “apology” for my own faith. This would be a simple theological discourse. I wanted it to be as free from scripts or formalisms as possible, and for both "sides" to approach the topic with openness.

As they presented the Mormon story, I noted the similarity between Joseph Smith’s revelatory episode that restored the true church and subsequent miraculous translation of a second revelation (the Book of Mormon) and the story of Mohammed and the formulation of the Qu’ran. I asked why I should believe Joseph Smith and not Mohammed. Related to this topic, I asked about which translation of the Bible they used and why. They use the King James Version because it is the most accurate. I explained that this is plainly false, according to my understanding, because the KJV is based on more recent manuscripts, while newer translations draw from far older sources that were discovered post-King James (and Joseph Smith for that matter). The sheer quantity of manuscripts and variant redactions of the Biblical text lends itself to its reliability, I explained. What accounts for the reliability of the Book of Mormon, which essentially anathematizes 1800 years of church history and my own faith in Jesus Christ (apparently, but I’m not sure—I hope to get some clarification of this on Friday) was the authority of the prophet Joseph Smith, as evidenced in the Book of Mormon itself.

They were exceedingly gracious, as I explained, and took all of these questions in stride. They talked a lot about evidence but could provide none—though they were humble enough to admit it, to their credit. The evidence for the veracity of the Book of Mormon, they explained, had come to them individually through prayer answered by the Holy Spirit, providing a kind of spiritual “stamp of approval” to their faith. This seemed to me dangerous, as self-verification seems like little proof of anything’s reliability, as it is cyclical (“the Book of Mormon is true because Joseph Smith received a revelation because it says so in the Book of Mormon”). This is one of the major problems I have with flat readings of the Qu’ran, the Book of Mormon and the Bible. If these Scriptures are believable based on their own account, then I’m not buying it. I think Mormons have accounted for this by interjecting the “feeling of faith” instilled by the Holy Spirit to prove the text’s believability. Again, I appeal to the historical, contextual, temporal, geographical and human construction of the Bible as proof of its reliability. I think because it is NOT simply handed down from a divinity as though off a heavenly bookshelf or ratified by a singular prophet or leader, but was canonized by the discernment of the Church in conjunction with the Holy Spirit that I find Orthodox faith and the Jesus of the Bible reliable and sufficient--the best Way to live.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say this Friday after our second meeting. An additional cool thing: they gave me a Book of Mormon for free, which they asked me to read and pray about... I plan to do this. In all, I found it entirely enriching (hopefully for everyone involved), and I sincerely pray for our collective guidance on this road of faith in obedience to Jesus Christ our Lord.