Friday, November 24, 2006

Towering "Babel"

There are movies that are disturbing and then there are movies that are moving, and then there are movies that are both disturbing and moving and result in something of a paradigm shift. If you have seen "Six Degrees of Separation" this movie is somewhat like that in its premise-- that there can be a very direct connection between people far removed from each other that do not know each other. In this movie it is a gun and a bullet that connect the dots rather than a person, per se. If you have seen "Crash" then you will also understand something of what is going on in "Babel" where racism and xenophobia come into play, but so also do kindness and goodwill and compassion across such ethnic and racial and social and religious lines.

But perhaps you will be tempted to ask the question Jesus asked his mother once-- "What is that to you and me?" This is where the title of the movie "Babel" comes into the picture. You will remember the primeval story of human overreach. Fallen humanity was united having a common language and decided to build a stairway to heaven. God wasn't having any of such arrogance and idolatry and so he confused the languages. Henceforth we all live in a world of linguistic and cultural confusion, and sometimes the only things that connects us are negative things-- like fear and prejudice and violence.

In the movie Babel there is an American gun, which belongs to a Japanese man, who goes to Morocco to go hunting, and gives the gun to his guide Hassan as a thank you gift. This might have been of no real earth shattering significance except his sons take the gun and engage in target practice while watching their goats. One shot, actually hits something-- a bus, and in fact it hits a passenger in the bus, an American woman traveling through Morocco on a tour with her husband (played by Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, and the latter will get some Oscar nods for his performance in this film). Then all Hades breaks loose. A doctor is needed, an embassy is called, the owner of the gun is sought out in Japan, a culprit is looked for, and meanwhile back at home the American couple's children are taken by their Mexican nanny across the border from San Diego to a wedding-- and their is more trouble on the journey back. I will not spoil the story for you, but the Mexican director Alejandro Innaritu has woven together a suspensful and moving tale which grips you for two hours and twenty two minutes (the movie is rated R for some nudity and bad language).

So what is the message of this film? Interestingly enough the director seems to be making another Biblical point, and not one connected with Babel. It is that bad actions always have negative consequences somehow, for someone. This is true for the person who fired the gun, and it is equally true for the nanny who takes the children across the border, when she is illegally in the U.S. So, are we being told that despite the fallenness and the chaos that there is a moral order to this human connnectedness, or at least moral consequences to immoral actions? Yes, I think that is part of the point. But this is a movie which one needs to watch several times to catch all the nuances. Suffice it to say that it is one of the most compelling movies, though also in various ways depressing, as well. In other words, like the Matrix movies, its perfect for our post-modern overly connected 21rst century world.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Constantine Novels of Paul Doherty

Without question Paul Doherty is one of the best British historical novelists in recent memory. On top of that, he is polymath, by which I mean he is capable of writing convincingly about various historical periods and subjects. His Hugh Corbett medieval novels are equally as gripping as his ancient Egyptian novels and his Constantine novels. Doherty writes well and often, mixing mystery and history in a compelling way. Unlike the humorous novels of a historical novelist like Lindsey Davies, or the rather sweet and elegant tales told about medieival monks by Ellis Peters, Doherty takes a different tact, which the author himself calls an approach involving real Politik. This means, in the case of Constantine and his mother, whatever their actual Christian faith, or lack thereof they were politicians and rulers to the core, and their faith was only sometimes a controlling factor in their decision making. We get to see the underbelly of raw power politics at work, and often it is far from pretty.

This fall I decided to read the two novels thus far extant in the Constantine series-- Murder Imperial which came out in 2003 and The Song of the Gladiator in 2004. They are both published by a British press called Headline Press. When you begin looking at the list of novels Doherty has published one wonders how he has time for his teaching or adminstering at Trinity School in the U.K., but then people regularly ask me the same question.

Despite the fact that the major known figures in the two novels listed above are Constantine and his mother Helena, Doherty takes a different angle of incidence into their lives and times. He creates a character named Claudia who is one of the 'Agentes in Rebus' that is the secret agents of the monarch. In this case Claudia is the personal agent of Helena. She is a winsome character in many regards-- bright, clever, a sort of female Sherlock Holmes when it comes to deduction, and yet she is vulnerable, has lost her brother and was raped by some horrible brute of a man and seeks revenge (think of someone about the size and aptitude of Jodie Foster). She also, quite surprisingly even to herself falls in love with another ox of a man-- the gladiator Murranus (picture Arnold Swartznegger without the Austrian accent). Claudia as a secret agent lives in the shadows of power and this means she gives up much of her freedom and friends except those who frequent her Uncle Polybius's taberna or tavern. And what a motley crew they are ranging from worn out gladiators and their hangers on to worn out Stoic philosophers, to various other sorts of ne'er do wells, low lifes, and lushes. Doherty paints no rosey pictures of life in Roma in A.D. 313.

From a Christian point of view, what is interesting about these novels is not just their realism or the fun of solving the mystery, but we learn about what happens when Christians gain power. We are privy to the debates between rival Christian factions in the presence of the Emperor, and we learn about the role of rhetoric in persuading emperors about things. The first of the two novels Murder Imperial focuses on the murdering of prostitutes, some of whom the Emperor frequented wo were part of the Guild of Aphrodite. Doherty is absolutely correct in portraying Constantine as far from what we would call a born again Christian. Rather he was someone who saw the rising tide of Christianity and with the prodding of his domineering mother (she's not called Domina for nothing)sees an opportunity to use Christianity to bring more unity to the Empire. This is not to say that he was about to ban pagan cults. And furthermore, when we probe a little deeper, he was not likely to be the man who cared about banishing Gnostics either.

Claudia on the other hand, begins to become genuinely curious about Christianity and tries to at least understand it since she finds herself working with some Christian officials such as Sylvester the chief Christian priest in Rome. Yet always she is alone and lonely because of her trade, and not really able to trust much of anyone, except perhaps her uncle and gladiator friend. Doherty portrays this woman's life in an empathetic way and helps us to enter into her plight and her delight at solving things. She is called Helena's 'little mouse' scrurrying about in dark, dank, and dangerous places and looking for crucial crumbs and tidbits of information.

One gets a good feel for life in ancient Rome as it began to be Christianized, and also a feel for Christians beginning to emerge from the catacombs and entering the halls of power-- going from the outhouse to the Penthouse surprisingly quickly. If you want to learn about ancient life in the catacombs, taverns, corridors of power, and in the Roman arena, you will find these novels interesting as well as entertaining. If you can only choose one, choose the second one, The Song of the Gladiator which is a more full orbed tale with more focus on early Christianity.

If you like these novels then by all means try his Hugh Corbett tales. Some of them will really grip you and you won't be able to lay them aside.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Cirque d' Bible-- The Annual SBL Meeting

Right across from the host hotel in a large open area in downtown Wasington D.C. was the Circque d'Soleil. The more I thought about, the more appropriate I thought it was that it was there this weekend. The annual Society of Biblical Literature meeting also occured this weekend, as it always convenes the weekend before Thanksgiving every year. Its a remarkable event involving literally hundreds and hundreds of lectures, panel discussions, dialogues, tours, meals, films, and oh by the way huge book exhibits. To this meeting comes about 5,000 Bible scholars and scholar-wannabes every year. It is a true zoo.

You can come as a member of the SBL, you can come as a guest, you can give a paper if you are a seasoned veteran, you can give a paper if you are a recommended novice. The gamut is both daunting and impressive. Some of the best papers are by the doctoral students, some of the worst are by the grizzled veterans-- but not usually. Often the sessions are packed out with people sitting on the floor. Sometimes young scholars dissolve in a puddle of tears when the questions become too pointed or critical, sometimes scholars are given a rousing round of applause. Who knew that lecturing could stir such pathos.

You will hear everything from the sublime to the ridiculous to the infuriating. At one seminar you could hear a rousing debate about whether Mark 16.8 is really the original appropriate ending of that Gospel. At another you could here me advocating that the Beloved Disciple was actually Lazarus. At still another you could hear Richard Hays talking about whether narrative theory and narrative theology can describe and circumscribe the unity of the Bible. At still another you could hear me and Marcus Borg debating how to use the Bible across cultural and theological and temporal divides.

You can also go to the Smithsonian and see some of the very earliest Biblical manuscripts at a special exhibit in the Sackler gallery, including the Chester Beatty papyri--- p45 and p46 which include some of our earliest fragments from Galatians and the Gospels dating to around 200 A.D. or a bit thereafter. You could see Constantine's royal purple parchment of the Gospel, died in in rich royal hue. You could also go to the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress and see the brand new illuminated St. Johns Bible being meticulously written by caligraphers and hand illustrated. It was gorgeous and is taking seven full years for about seven people to produce on huge vellum pages (i.e. calf skin). Like I said, its a potpourri (and did I mention the books were for sale at 40% off and more?).

Best of all it was a time for renewed friendships and fellowship. Sometimes just when you are stuffed with Biblical ideas you then get to go to a nice Thai restaurant with an old friend (in this case Richard Bauckham) and sing "Bless be the Thai that Binds" :) A very good time was had by all, but we all came home tired and bloated mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Who can Commune with God?

It is a delicate question--- Who can Commune with God? And today Catholic Bishops have been voting on this matter. The issue is this-- who is worthy to partake of the Eucharist? Should just anyone be allowed to do so? In the past, and now the Catholic Church has taken the posture not that priests should police the Eucharist or fence the table, but that all the congregation should be told in advance that in essence they must police themselves. If they are knowingly in violation of church teaching on some major matter they should not take the Eucharist. For example anyone, gay or straight who is having sex outside of Christian marriage are encouraged to abstain. Now this raises all kinds of questions.

In the first place, no one is actually 'worthy' of partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. All have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. If we waited until we were worthy we'd all still be waiting. But there is some pertinent material about this question to be found in 1 Corinthians 11. Paul says there that we must not partake of this sacrament "in an unworthy manner". Now that's a different matter than 'being worthy'. That has to do with how we partake of the sacrament, and Paul somewhat cryptically gives us another clue-- we should partake: 1) together, waiting for one another and doing it as a group together; 2) we should do it in a worthy manner; and 3) we should do it discerning 'the body'. Paul even goes so far as to say that if you violate these three rules you could get sick and die. That sounds pretty serious and drastic. Scholars have debated what 'body' Paul is talking about. In traditional Catholic theology it was assumed that this was a reference to the elements of the sacrament, but this is unlikely. For one thing where is the reference to discerning the blood? For another thing the context doesn't favor this reading of 1 Cor. 11. The 'body' here as elsewhere in 1 Corinthians refers to the Body of Christ in the ecclesiological sense--- that would be us, the church. Paul is saying that if you go ahead and take the Lord's Supper without doing it as an act of the communion of the saints, of the church itself, you have commited a grievous mistake. The Lord's Supper is not all about you and your private relationship with God. Its about your vertical relationship with God of course, but it is also about your horizontal relationship with your fellow believers as well. We have been reconciled to Christ corporately, and one of the functions of communion is to bind us to each other.

Most denominations have some sort of invitation to the Table-- ours goes back to the Anglican liturgy in which we say "all who truly and earnestly repent of their sins, and are in love and fellowship with their neighbor, draw near with faith..." John Wesley was to add to this that if one was prepared to repent and come to the table for the first time as an act of faith, even though one was not previously a Christian that that was fine-- he saw the Lord's Supper as a converting sacrament in such cases, and not just a confirming sacrament. What is however very clear from 1 Cor. 11 is that this is not a sacrament that was intended for those who "do not discern the body". Unlike baptism which is a passive sacrament, the Lord's Supper is an active sacrament, and must be consciously and actively partaken of. So perhaps now is a good time for us all to think about should and shouldn't take communion. One thing is clear to me-- this is indeed a means of grace which changes lives.

A favorite communion story. There was a Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond where both slaves and slave owners attended before and during the Civil War. There normal practice on communion Sunday was for those who sat downstairs (i.e. the slave owners and other whites and their families) to take communion first, whereas those who sat upstairs (the slaves and their families) would come for the second call to communion. However on the Sunday after Apommattox when the first call for communion was made, an elderly African American man came down the aisle for communion, to the shock of one and all. Quickly an elderly bearded white man hooked his arm in the arm of the former slave and went forward and they took communion together. That man was Robert E. Lee, who had opposed slavery before the war, but turned down Lincoln's offer to lead the Federal forces, because he could not fight against his beloved Virginia. Communion is a means of grace, and one of the manfestations is that it is an occasion to receive and share forgiveness. Think on these things.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The God-Gap Narrows

There is a very interesting article in the NY Times this morning analyzing what Christian did in the voting in the midterm elections this week. Here is the link---

Among the salient points in the article, the following stand out: 1) Catholic voters, despite the trypical stance of many Democrats on abortion, voted Democrat 55% to 45% which is a drastic switch compared to two years ago. The overwhelmingly main reason was the war in Iraq. 2) It is not true, as some Evangelical leaders have suggested that Evangelicals did not turn out in as large a numbers as in 2004. What is true is that Democrats got 28% of the white Evangelical vote as opposed to 25% last time around. In both elections white Evangelicals made up some 24% of the electorate-- a huge voting block to say the least. 3)the biggest change in sheer numbers seems to have been the return of most all of the African American Protestants to voting for Democrats. 4) in terms of special initiatives gay marriage laws continue to be voted down whenever they are on the ballot. The situation in Arizona is a bit muddy, but they already had the law on the books. They seem to think that they did not need to vote a stricker ban in at this juncture. This is hardly a win for liberals in a very socially conservative state.

One of the issues which is worth pondering is the difference between fiscal conservatives (ala Swartznegger) and social conservatives. It appears that the former type did better than the latter, with prominent Republicans going down for the count in the Midwest including Rick Santorum. But the most telling remarks in the whole article for our purposes came from various Evangelical leaders on the religious right. Here are there remarks I am quoting from the article--

Evangelical Christians are "fed up with the Republican leadership, particularly in the House," said the Rev. Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention. "They're disgusted that Republicans came to Washington and failed to behave any better than Democrats once they got their snouts in the trough."

Roberta Combs, chairman of the Christian Coalition, said responsibility for the GOP's loss of the House and Senate "goes right back to the leadership, the corruption among Republicans."

And James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, issued a statement saying that "many of the Values Voters of '04 simply stayed at home this year" because the Republican Party has "consistently ignored the constituency that put them in power."

In regard to these remarks, Dobson is dead wrong, and Combs and Land ignore the elephant in the room--- namely the serious dis-ease over the war in Iraq even amongst socially conservative Christians. Combs and Land however are correct that there was some real reaction to the immorality and corruption in the Republican party. What they do not mention is that Republicans, perhaps even more than Democrats are in bed with the major influence peddlars, taking zillions of dollars in PAC money year and year for their compaigns.

There has to be major electoral reform engineered by both parties if this is ever going to be cleaned up. For example, we need absolute spending limits on campaigns, we need limits on how long before the election one can advertize. We need a ban on a constellation of kick-backs. It would also be good if the money went not to the campaigns but to all the major networks which were required by law to give equal advertising time to each of the legitimate candidates, say for a period of one or two months before the election. It is of course money, power, and influence which have corrupted the Republicans, just like it has the Democrats. A personal illustration will have to do.

Several years ago I was contacted by Tom DeLay. He figured since I was a well known white Evangelical I must be on his side on a host of things. I was invited to the White House, and I was named Kentucky Business Man of the Year. I have the plaque sitting in my office framed to prove it. Now, I am no businessman. Just ask my wife. For five years I ran a little coffee shop in Wilmore for our Christian students as a ministry to them-- its called Solomon's Porch, and its still up and running, employing and feeding students and helping them work their way through college and seminary. Its a good ministry, but its not a business that made money. In fact I lost $40,000 helping those students during that time. I was definitely not a Kentucky Businessman of the Year! There were many who did better than I, and I could talk at length about the plight of small businesses which are taxed right out of existence. Several previous restaurants in that spot had not lasted more than about six months. Wilmore is only a town of some 5,000 souls.

You see Delay was running a scam on Evangelical Protestants. It worked like this--- you call someone, and send them an award, whether they deserve it or not. You invite them to D.C. to meet influential people. Delay gets the photo-op with small business persons, but the real purpose of all this is raising money. I got endless calls out of Delay's office to send money to this, that or the other fund running out of his office to further his causes etc.

In other words, I wasn't given an award for anything. Obviously they were oblivious to the fact that my business was failing from an economic point of view, though not from a ministry point of view. What I was given was a carrot, hoping for a whole bunch of carrots in return. It was purely a quid pro quo deal. What I won was endless phone calls about races, and causes etc. some of it more or less connected to Delay's office directly. It is not a surprise to me that the man was drummed out of office. It is also not a surprise to me that he was a major player in that party and a close ally of George Bush from way back in Texas. "All power corrupts, and ultimate power corrupts uiltimately" is a wise saying.

What did I learn from all this? There is no political party currently extant that deserves our whole hearted support as Evangelical Christians. We need to go candidate to candidate, issue to issue, race to race. And we should never be single issue voters for a particular candidate. And what we most need to be looking at is character, hopefully Christian character, but I will take a good moral person over an immoral Evangelical any time. Character is what counts when the heat is on in the land of politics. Evangelical politicians I would hope would learn something from this particular election about corruption. But if they put this all down to a single issue cause like the war, then there will be no impetus to clean up their act. And in some ways the latter is more important than this dirty little war in Iraq.

And that's all this failed businessman from Kentucky has to say about that.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Evangelicals in a Post-Haggard, Post-Rumsfeld World

It was Shakespeare who said “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which if taken at the flood” leads on to great things. Of course the opposite is true as well. Sometimes the tide goes out on an idea, an alliance, a dream. One of the interesting trends in the mid-term election results is that outside the South, Evangelicals were not really a decisive factor in determining the outcome of a race or ballot issue, with the exception of the gay marriage ban which passed in all but one state (Arizona). So what should we learn now that various of the mighty have fallen, or at least have fallen on hard times. Should Evangelicals be is bed with ultra conservative Republican politician and their schemes? Or does this do a disservice to the Christian faith and polarize Evangelicals? And furthermore, will Evangelicals pay any attention to the fact that the major issue fueling the change of hands of the Congress and Senate was the war--- and the growing unease with the war in Iraq. It has been said the winners win, and losers learn. We will see if Evangelicals learn, or are even ‘good losers’.

My take on all of this is that it is too early to tell, and certainly to early to say that Evangelical political clout is on the wane. But here are some thoughts for reflection. Firstly, the alliance between Evangelicals and the hard line conservatives in the Republican party has made it difficult for many Evangelicals to see the difference in our time between being a Christian and being an American, and in particular being a certain kind of an American—namely a Republican. The problem is that this reflects a certain kind of mental ghettoizing of the Gospel, a blunting of its prophetic voice on issues ranging from war to poverty, and sometimes this even comes with the not so subtle suggestion that to be un-American (defined as being opposed to certain key Republican credo items) is to be un-Christian. But Christianity must and does transcend any particular cultural expression of itself, otherwise we have the cultural captivity of the Gospel which leads to a form of idolatry. It is one thing to sing ‘my country tis of Thee’, its another thing to have a bunker mentality which makes our countries ills hard to define and our flaws even harder to critique and correct.

Secondly, the ethical content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in so far as we are talking about what the Bible actually says, and not merely what it may also imply, does not focus on issues like abortion, same sex marriage, gun control, pornography, and other related personal ethical issues. You will not find many verses that deal with these subjects in the NT. Do I think that there are implications in the NT for how we should view this issues? Yes, I do. But my point is that these are not the hot button issues that Jesus or Paul or Peter or others made their main concerns or agendas. The social and ethical issues the NT focuses on over and over again are: 1) wealth and poverty issues, including food, shelter, and clothing issues (see e.g. the Lord’s prayer and the parable of the sheep and the goats); 2) paying taxes (we are supposed to do it and stop belly-aching about it—see e.g. Romans 13); 3) sexual behavior issues focusing almost entirely on heterosexual behavior issues, though we clearly have texts like Romans 1 where there is a critique of homosexual, sexual behavior as well; 4) behaviors and attitudes that divide the people of God—envy, strife, jealousy, greed, pride, arrogance, lack of the fruit of the Spirit; 5) war. Yes I said war. The Book of Revelation is a huge warning to leave justice in God’s hands and he will sort things out in his own time and way. It is a call to be prepared to be martyred, not a call to arms. Indeed, there is no call to arms in the NT. Instead there are warnings about those who live by the sword will die by the sword (hmm, what does that imply about gun control), and a call to personal pacifism in order to emulate the non-violent behavior of Jesus. There is nothing even remotely to be found in the NT that supports war as an act initiated by one country against another. Nothing! And this brings me to my point.

Personal ethics without a larger social ethic that deals with systemic problems in society is but half of an ethical Gospel if you read carefully what Jesus, Paul and others say. But here is the kicker--- neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor others expect the government to fix these social ills. They expect that WITHIN THE COMMUNITY OF CHRIST AND BETWEEN CHRISTIANS THEY SHOULD NOT EVER EXIST. In other words, the church needs to take care of its own, bearing one another’s burdens and so on. This is why for example in Acts 2-4 we hear about the Jerusalem community who makes sure no one goes without food, shelter, and clothing, who sets up a way to take care of the widows in the church and so on. Forget social security, they believed in church security. The church had not trivialized the Gospel and turned it into spiritual mcnuggets for the week yet. Until the Evangelical Church actually gets religion about the big ticket ethical items in the NT, it will not have much of a witness to the least, the last, and the lost, never mind to our global neighbors who are tired of our saber rattling. Why should anyone believe we believe in the sanctity of life when we vehemently oppose abortion but are strong advocates for capital punishment and war!! Over and over again. Our agendas are all too often not in sync with those of the NT writers on these issues.

Thirdly, and this will have to do for now, when your nation decides to make all its biggest decisions on the basis of fear and not faith, on the basis of what might happen to us, instead of what already is happening in our midst, on the basis of Real Politik instead of vision, we are in deep trouble.

Take for instance the issue of Homeland Security. The goal of terrorism is of course to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy so they will colossally over-react, over-reach, and most of all over-spend and waste their resources on chasing ghosts and fighting rear guard actions. Well I am saying we have colossally over-reacted to 9/11 and other such threats. We are squandering our resources and we are very little safer now than we were in 2001. Indeed, we have managed to aggravate our world friends and alienate the neutral, and antagonize almost every enemy we have in the world in the last six years. We have wasted billions of dollars a year for the last six years which could have gone a long way to eliminate some of the major social problems we have right here at home, never mind building good will abroad with ministries of compassion.

Christians should never be making their major decisions in life chiefly based on fear or a desire for revenge, or both. Nor should we support politicians who do so, whether they go to church or not. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution. If the question is WWJD, for sure its not what we’ve been mostly doing as a nation in the last six years.

So its time to wake up and smell the coffee. Does it smell like the aroma of Christ and his Gospel, or does it smell like dirt, like grounds, like mud? I hope someone out there in the Evangelical Church is listening. We need a whole new approach to ethics and ministry in the years to come in the 21rst century. Its time for a year of Jubilee. Its time to mend fences with our neighbors and the neutral. Its time to stop sticking sticks in hornet’s nests and wondering why we keep getting stung. May God help us overcome our American and Evangelical myopia.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Haggard Resigns in Disgrace

The full story was posted on MSNBC 16 minutes ago. And it is a shocker. Ted Haggard has resigned in disgrace. The Church's Board of Overseers report is as follows:

“We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard,” a statement from the church said. “Our investigation and Pastor Haggard’s public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.”

You can now read the entire story at

You will notice that the Board does not merely say he was guilty of drug use or the like. And frankly we do not need to know more. There was apparently enough clear and compelling evidence and this Board took action to resolve the crisis. I am sure this will not end the news cycle of this story, but there are some more points that need to be made at this juncture.

Firstly, we all need to have healthy relationships with both men and women. Not just with men and women we are related to, but with men and women in general. I do not in any way agree with the advocacy of gynophobia any more than I do with homophobia in the Church. The idea that 'men are weak and women are temptresses' is frankly at a minimum a caricature of both men and women. Some men are like that, and some are not. Some women are like that, and some are not. And furthermore, some become like that in moments of weakness in their lives when they are not normally that way at all. I quite agree that pastors need to know themselves and their own weaknesses, but frankly the good question-- where is the grace of God in your life? Where is your belief that greater is he who is in you, than any of the temptations you face?" If you are really saying that nature regularly trumps grace in your life, then its time to get out of the ministry.

If the Body of Christ wants its ministers to be whole, then they need to help them to nurture normal friendships with both brothers and sisters in Christ. We are supposed to be a family, not simply support physical nuclear family units. Indeed, according to Jesus the primary family unit is the family of faith-- go back and read what Jesus says in Mk. 3.31-35, or what Paul suggests in 1 Cor. 7 at various places. We must learn to be healed and whole persons together, not privately and separately, since we must together work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This is a deeply personal matter, no doubt, but it is not a private one-- at all.

In a context of normal Christian relationships and friendships, then a minister has a ring of protection around him or her, that will help them to be real in all their relationships and accountable. More on this anon.

For now pray for Ted Haggard, his family, and his church. This is only the beginning of a difficult time for them all.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Looking Haggard, Ted Steps Aside

In a scenario reminiscent of the Jim Bakker scandal decades ago, Ted Haggard, pastor of a 14,000 member Evangelical Church in Colorado Springs and one of the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals who has led the charge in the state by state organizing against gay marriage, has at least for now stepped aside from pastoring his church. Why? Because Mike Jones of Denver says that the 50 year old pastor, married with five children, has been having same sex sexual relations and doing metamphetamines with him for three years! The acting pastor, Ross Parsley told KKTV-TV that Haggard had confessed to him that some of the allegations were true. It remains to be seen which ones.

Here is the link to the story on MSNBC--

Before we ask-- has the world gone mad, it might be good to reflect for a minute on the leadership climate in the rarified air of big time Evangelical mega-churches. of course it will vary from church to church, but there are a few things in common with most of these churches which needs to be rethought:

1) most of these large churches are not part of denominations which have a connectional enough system to hold the individual church leadership accountable through peer leaders in other churches. By this I mean there is little outside accountability. There are no covenant relationships with other church leaders, no covenant relationships with other churches, the leadership structure is entirely controlled INTERNALLY between influential lay persons and the ministers. There is normally an overseeing board of some sort. But how do they work? Are they rubber stamps? Do they contain professional counselors and ministers to whom a minister in crisis could turn? Usually not. And sometimes there is only a once a year "accountability moment". For example there is a large mega-church in California which does accountability this way--- the pastor gives the congregation in an open meeting the chance for an up or down vote on his ministry once a year. So far as I can tell this is not done by secret ballot, just by a public acclamation or vote. What's wrong with this picture? If something objectionable shows up in the ministry plans etc. during the year and the time for the accountability moment is not near, then there is no accountability. It is handled internally.

2) The culture of patriarchal Evangelical leadership involves a lot of power and isolation at the top. Too often it involves a cult of personality kind of scenario, with the "pastor-superstar" model, and the pastor put way up on a pedestal-- from which he is almost bound to fall. The isolation from normal accountability structures and peer correction leads to all sorts of abuses of power. It is quite simply too much power in too few hands. The minister begins to feel he is bullet-proof, can do no wrong. And if there is something not right in his personal relationships with his wife or family, then moral slippage tends to happen in various forms. One of the reasons, though not the only one, for this is that the patriarchal culture of male leadership isolates men from the critique of the opposite sex, and often it is the opposite sex which will first see the early warning signs of sexual trouble. Any sort of local church accountability or pastor-parish relations committee should involve both men and women, and not those hand picked by the pastor. Men watching over men when it comes to sexual matters is too often like the fox watching the hen house.

3) One of the unspoken realities that needs to be dealt with especially in high pressure large churches is male menopause. Yes, you heard me right, male meonpause. Men, beginning in their late 40s and continuing on into there mid to late 50s also go through a change of life. What happens besides the hormonal changes (usually accompanied by chest of drawers disease-- that's when your chest falls down in your drawers) is this. It is a time of life when all the bills come due. What I mean is, if there have been problems and flaws in one's life which have not been dealt with along the way, then they tend to reach a critical mass at this juncture in life when the man's emotional life is going through a change. The results can be catastrophic-- a total melt down of marriage, ministry, and other cherished parts of one's life. Of course it can be said, and is true, that this is not the normal behavior pattern of this person. But that's precisely the point-- who is watching to see subtle changes in behavior patterns, particularly more secretive behavior? Whose checking the minister's emails, voice mails and the like. In Haggard's case it is voice males which did him in. What do we do about this? All ministers should have some accountability, but during the period age 45-55 male ministers especially need those trained to notice the warning signs of changed behavior pattersn and call the person to account.

What happens internally to the menopausal male is that there is a biological clock ticking which sends the subtle message that time is running out on one's sexual life, and "its now or never" if one is going to have some sort of fling or walk on the wild side. This internal prompt leads to immoral behavior. Sometimes, the person is not even aware of what is happening to him until it is too late. Yes, its possible to be oblivious to the subtle and subconscious forces that are driving one's life. This is especially likely to happen to A type personalities who are very goal driven and not introspective, and indeed do not receive critiques or corrections at all well. In other words, it is likely to happen to those with narcissistic personalities which are very self-centered, which at the bottom reflects a very weak ego.

I do not know how much of this applies to Ted Haggard. What I do know is this-- I have seen many good ministries destroyed due to lack of proper accountability and lack of good marital relationships, and lack of spiritual formation of the leader himself. Its time to change the climate and culture of leadership in many parts of the Evangelical world. We could start with Ephesians 5.21-- "let all submit to one another out of reverence for Christ". We could add to this "confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed" (James. 5.16). Notice it does not say confess only to God, nor does it say confess only to the priest or your ministry partner. Open confession within a context of a church accountability group will be the beginning of healing.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"One Night with the King"-- and other Things

In an email yesterday a NT colleague and friend Peter Richardson told me the sad news. The makers of the wonderful verbatim version of the Gospel of John which had a terrific cast, after intending to also film the Gospel of Mark are bankrupt. They had worked through three scripts and planned to film, but the Gospel of John did not do well enough either in the theaters or on DVD. This is very sad since it was a much better movie than the "Passion of the Christ" and far more Biblically accurate. Is it really so difficult for orthodox Christians to get behind the right movies which reach the general public and use them as conversation starters to witness for their faith? We need to do better. But these movies need to be well done and Biblically faithful. Which brings me to a new movie just in the theaters this month./

Picture if you will a Jewish version of "The King and I" movie (complete with ruler who looks great, has washboard abs, but isn't exactly a great actor--- remember Yul Brenner?). This particular take on the book of Esther, or better said the novel "Hadassah" which is loosely based on the book of Esther, runs just over two hours in length (rated PG). A great Biblical epic this is not, and one especially gets tired of the overly dramatic music droning on and on trying to infuse pathos into a mediocre script and an average cast, but it is certainly isn't all bad or a waste of a visit to the theater. As entertainment it is o.k., but don't look for any Oscar nominations.

Clearly enough this movie was not filmed in Susa in Persia-- try India and some of the sites and cities used are stunning. The visual aspect of the movie alone is worth watching, and the CG is pretty good in places as well. But what about the plot and the acting?

Well the movie ads tell us that Peter O' Toole and Omar Sharif are in this movie. They are indeed, the former playing the prophet Samuel (yes that Samuel) for all of exactly two minutes (mores the pity he could really have given us a powerful Samuel), and Omar plays a General who serves at the pleasure of Xerxes in the Persian court. He is effective in the role, but the best acting in the whole drama is done by John Rhys-Davies as Mordecai (remember him as Indiana Jones side kick, or as Silas in the Peter and Paul made for TV movie). Tiffany Dupont plays Hadassah/Esther and does a nice job-- looks good in royal attire as well. We also have nice exotic characters like a slimy and manical Haman (think Grimer Wormtongue slipping into the wrong epic) and the large African eunuch (think Mr. T with a speech impediment). One could have wished to see O'Toole in another role interacting with Sharif, but alas, it is not to be (if you want to see a stunning performance by O' Toole in a Biblically sized epic, rent "Masada" some time, the full length version).

And what of the plot? Well, this movie unfortunately has a bunch of short choppy scenes at the beginning where the director tries to tell too much of a story too fast (500 years or so, from Samuel and Saul to Xerxes and Esther complete with the huge orchestra soundtrack swelling in the background), and then settles into a King and his search for a queen by means of a contest, with interludes where war is on the horizon, dinner is on the table, and reading (yes reading) is most of the action between king and queen to be.

One wonders when the real story of Esther will show up. Meanwhile we have court intrigue, home scenes with Mordecai the king's scribe, and we are left with numerous questions like--- why exactly did Esther not catch the caravan back to Jerusalem when she had the chance, and how exactly did she get to be trapped into the beauty contest? Inquiring minds want to know.

In other words-- the story could have been told much better, the acting could have been better, and the tons of Indian extras were a dead give away that we were not anywhere near Persia! Never mind. Love conquers all, and Esther is brave and saves her people from genocide.

But here is the problem. The book of Esther is the only book of the Bible which does not mention God by name. This was one reason it almost got left out of the Jewish canon, never mind the Christian one. It is a serious story with a serious point-- namely the providence and compassion of God and the courage of Esther a loyal Jew. But in this movie we are always hearing about God, and we even have Esther telling the story of Jacob and Rachel to the king, and Mordecai reading Isaiah 40 for comfort. Nice, but not true to the Biblical story.

The story could have been told in a way that honored the religious weight and character of the original story without resorting to melodrama and smaltz. Genocide was not warded off in the Biblical story by a magic necklace that when light shown on it projected images of the Star of David (a symbol from another era to be sure)! In other words, the original story of Esther deserved better. Still I must not complain too much. I am thankful for any Biblical story reaching the big screen and a decent sized audience. Even if only 14% of the critics have rated this a good movie at least it is providing Jews and Christians with something reasonably wholesome and helpful to watch, helping them think about their faith and their God. But still, one can only hope for better on December 1 when "The Nativity" comes out. Hope springs eternal.....