Monday, November 5, 2012

Pious Rhetoric and Elections: Does Voting Matter?

Over the last few weeks Christian friends, liberal and conservative, have attempted to proactively console themselves by suggesting we remember that whoever wins “Jesus is still King and God is still on the throne.” Well, OK. But excuse me if I don’t find this particularly consoling. The problem with this bit of pious rhetoric is that it implies it doesn’t matter how we vote. Whether Romney or Obama wins “God is still on the throne” and, evidently, in control of things to such an extent that nothing bad can happen. But Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when the extraordinarily foolish and ostensibly Christian rulers of Great Britain, France, German, Austria and Russia plunged the world into the bloodbath we now call World War I. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Lenin led a successful Communist revolution in Russia. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Stalin starved and butchered his own people and when Hitler’s Germany shot, gassed and starved Europe’s Jews. Jesus was king and God was still on the throne when Harry Truman made the ghastly decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, the gruesome litany of murderous and foolish decisions made by leaders could be extended to the present day. Names like Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq continue to haunt our dreams.

Claiming comfort from Jesus-is-still-king-and-God-is-still-on-the-throne risks our becoming passive and indifferent in the face of difficult decisions. Standing idly or smugly by, shrugging our shoulder in the face of defeat or victory is not a sign of spiritual maturity but spiritual blindness. It does not amount to stoic acceptance but sheer irresponsibility. The fact is that God has empowered us, his creatures, his people, to work for the healing of the world or press forward in its destruction. The God of the Bible is not the unmoved mover of Aristotle or the irresistible force of the neo-Calvinists. The God of the Bible is frequently frustrated with his people’s failures to live up to his commands and follow his ways. He starts the world over with Noah and threatens to do so with Moses. He rages over Israel’s infidelity (see Hosea) and warns of impending judgment. He does not force the kings or the people to do what is right and good. He rather warns them of the outcome of disobedience. The world is not running on an auto-pilot set by God—quite the contrary. Although God will redeem and renew the world, it is now in the not always particularly capable hands of flawed human beings. It is also in the hands of the church. Our gospel, our compassion, our hope, our love are supposed to make the world a different, saner, more beautiful, more just place—tasks the church has frankly botched. But for whatever reason, God has entrusted us with his world. What we do matters. We can make the world a better or much, much worse place.

There is a saying that the first person to cite Hitler in a political argument loses. I think the comparison of either candidate for President to Hitler is frankly idiotic. But, having said that, many Germans who found Hitler distasteful, supported him for Chancellor because they thought he would improve the economy and stand up to the Communists and because they thought he would settle down when he got into power. They were, in many cases literally, dead wrong. We have the great honor and harrowing responsibility of being co-creators of the new creation, ambassadors for Christ. God, as Paul puts it, is making his appeal through us (see 2 Corinthians 5). Our involvement in this world, for good or ill, matters. Our attempts to be agents of healing and justice, matter. Our votes matter. We are partners in what the Jews call tikkun olam—the healing of the world. Let’s not fumble the task.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why Islam Should Value Free Speech

Why Islam Should Value Free Speech

In the aftermath of the violence and death following the internet distribution of an execrable anti-Muslim film, Muslims around the world expressed perplexity at the West’s principle of “free speech.”  How could America permit such vicious attacks on their beloved Prophet and defend them as “free speech”?  Should people be free to insult the most deeply held religious convictions of others?  What sort of freedom, some wondered, is that?  While I understand the anguish and perplexity I would argue that Islam would be better off both in the West and in majority Muslim countries with more, rather than less, free speech.  Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the West are all subject to insults, mockery, and attacks on their most cherished convictions and beloved leaders and prophets.  Living in pluralistic societies means that differences of opinion are rife and the marketplace of ideas not a place for the faint of heart.  Roman Catholic and Evangelical Christians are perhaps most susceptible to scornful, vicious and frequently unfair attacks.  I am not surprised to see vicious attacks on my Christian faith daily on Facebook, in the newspaper, and every other media one can think of.  The so-called new atheists have made good livings sneering at people of faith.  Such attacks are not pleasant, but I think there are very good reasons to welcome and not resist them.  First, some of the attacks are merited.  Unfortunately Christians have not always lived in accordance with the teachings of Jesus.  Our history is as marked by hypocrisy and violence as it is by sincerity and truth.  We need our critics to help us face our most blatant and obvious failures.  They hold up a mirror to us and what we see is not always pleasant.  Second, opposition to our faith strengthens rather than weakens us.  Sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that in countries and regions of the world where one form of Christian faith is dominant (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant) the vigor and depth of the actual faith of individuals is considerably less than it may appear.  Stark suggests that in European countries where Christianity was the state religion, Christian faith collapsed quickly when threatened by secularism.  But in countries like the United States where faith traditions have had to compete and defend their message, faith has remained stronger and more vital.  In countries where Islam is dominant it may appear universally accepted and enduringly vital.  But the experience of other Religious traditions would suggest this may be an illusion.  A religious monopoly involving the silencing of any criticism from the outside may appear to strengthen Islam.  But the opposite may be the case.  It is not pleasant for me to hear insults to my faith, to Jesus, and to the church.  But in the end, as a Christian I am forced to hear these criticisms, ponder their truth, and strengthen my resolve to communicate more clearly and live more faithfully.  I would suggest that Islam would be better served to stop criticizing free speech and start welcoming the challenge it brings.  In the end, however painful, Islam will be the better for it.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Cultural Power of African American Worship

            I have been teaching the foundational course in Christian worship at my school, North Park Theological Seminary, for the last two years.  Since this is a new course for me I have been doing a good deal of reading, observing and reflecting on this most important aspect of Christian faith.  By far the most provocative book I have read is Gerardo Marti’s Worship Across the Racial Divide.  Marti is a sociologist and did extensive research on worship in multiracial congregations.  The results of his research surprised even him.  He found that “successful” multiracial congregations were not characterized by a particular approach to music and worship but by a variety of musical and liturgical styles. The real key to their success was not liturgy, music or preaching, but the quality of cross racial relationships formed within the congregation.  “The diversification of churches” he writes, “is not about racially accommodating distinct music styles or enacting simplistic notions of leadership intentionality, but rather about stimulating cross-racial interactions through musical worship practices.” It’s the relationships of the people that sing, not the nature of their song that determines the cohesion of the community.   

             The most disturbing and challenging chapter for me was entitled “African Americans as the Icon of ‘True Worship’”.  He observed in his interviews that white, Asian, and African American worship leaders as well as ordinary worshippers assumed that African Americans had a special talent for worship.  In fact, African American worship was considered the “gold standard” of Christian worship for many.  “A white female choir member said, ‘Black people are very spiritual. They are more spiritual that we are.’ Another white female choir member said, ‘They [blacks] seem closer to God.” (54) Such opinions were expressed by both African American and white worshippers in the churches Marti visited.  The clapping, swaying, and shouting characteristic of worship in many African American churches was seen as indicating a greater connection with God and a deeper capacity for worship.  For Marti the problem with this is that it was often expressed in old “essentialist” terms.  He cites a 19th century writer who argued that “Africans contribute positively to the mixture of races in prosperous metropolitan centers by offering Dionysian gifts such as passion, dance, music, rhythm, lightheartedness and sensuality.  Whites, for their part, contribute energy, action, perseverance, rationality and technical aptitude: the Apollonian gifts.” (58)  The obvious racism of such observations should give us pause.  Describing African American worship in essentialist terms actually robs it of its power and integrity.  African American worship is powerful, not because African Americans have an inherent talent for worship (any more than Asians are better at math or whites at organization), but because it is rooted in a particular culture.  In the United States it is a culture of suffering, endurance and victory.  According to Pearl Williams-Jones gospel music “performance and practice provides ongoing opportunity to incarnate ‘a clearly defined black identity growing out of black experience,’ which Williams-Jones states ‘is indicative of the indomitability of the African ethos.” (65)  It actually trivializes African American worship to declare that its power is derived from an inherent black ability to worship.  There is a reason “We Shall Overcome” sounds more authentic being song by a black gospel choir than a white choir—and it has nothing to do with essentialist categories.  The glory of African American worship is rooted in the power of suffering, survival, grace and deliverance.  It speaks of liberation for the oppressed and perhaps even the hope of liberation for the oppressors.  It is the black experience, not the black “essence” that gives African American worship its obvious power and profundity.  This worship is a gift to the whole church born out of the crucible of suffering.  In the end, the suffering is not celebrated, but transcended by confidence in the God who delivers, judges and sets things right.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How Not to Criticize Israel

The following was presented at the most recent Jewish/Evangelical Dialogue and is somewhat longer (to say the least) than a normal blog post.  A number of my friends have requested the paper so I have chosen to post it here.  I welcome your responses.

How Not to Criticize Israel: Guidelines for Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews
John E. Phelan, Jr.
North Park Theological Seminary

            Evangelical Christians have for years been dependable supporters of the state of Israel.  Dispensationalist interpreters saw the reconstitution of the state in 1948 as a fulfillment of prophecy and a clear sign that the return of Jesus was at hand.  Throughout the following decades Israel could count on Evangelicals to support the state in the voting booth as well as from the pulpit.  This support, of course, was not new.  Zionists found support for their cause in the late 19th and early 20th century from Christian students of prophecy who were convinced the fulfillment of God’s purposes required a Jewish state in their ancient homeland.  In the early decades of the 20th century pastors, theologians, and Christian politicians enthusiastically promoted the cause of a Jewish homeland.  In many circles to this day it is unthinkable for an Evangelical to criticize or question the state of Israel.
            In recent years things have begun to change.  Many Evangelicals have been sensitized to the sufferings and struggles of the Palestinians—particularly Palestinian Christians.  At the same time, Dispensationalism has fallen into disfavor in many Evangelical circles.  For many the state of Israel is no longer necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy and the Jews’ return to the land is no longer seen as a reason for celebration.  Evangelical Christians committed to social justice have joined their colleagues in mainline Protestant churches in criticizing Israel over the plight of the Palestinians.  Its Christian critics now frequently depict Israel as just one more oppressive colonial power in the Middle East.  Supporting Israel has become as unthinkable for some Evangelicals as supporting cuts in government support of the poor!
            Israel is a state like any other.  It has had good leaders and poor ones.  It has made wise decisions and foolish ones.  It is as subject to criticism as Egypt, Iraq or the United States.  One of my Jewish friends says that among Jews criticizing the government of Israel is an intramural sport.   No state, Israel included, is beyond criticism.  Nevertheless, some Christian and specifically Evangelical criticisms of Israel are neither just nor helpful and others are simply shockingly inappropriate.  Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews over the perceived failures of the state of Israel are fairly new.  In what follows some principles of engagement are proposed that may enable those conversations to be helpful rather than hurtful.
Principle One: Evangelicals should not criticize the state of Israel by questioning the legitimacy of Judaism itself.
            Some Evangelical criticism of Israel has come by way of a critique of so-called “Christian Zionism.”  Such criticism is intended to break the hold that Dispensationalist thinkers have had on Evangelical conversations about Israel and Judaism.  Unfortunately, when critics launch salvoes at the popular dispensationalist approaches to the interpretation of the Bible the Jews are caught in the crossfire.  It is popular to argue against the Christian Zionists, for example, by suggesting that the Jews no longer have any right to the land of Israel in that Christians are now the sole heirs of all the promises to Abraham.  Some have gone as far as to say this means the Palestinian Christians are the true heirs of the land of Israel—not the Jews (or the Muslims, for that matter).
            In making their case against the Christian Zionists and for the Christian Palestinians these Evangelical critics of Israel have perhaps inadvertently launched an attack on Judaism itself.  Their approach implies not only that Jews no longer have a right to the land of Israel, but also that they no longer have a right to interpret their own holy texts.  Christians are now entrusted with the stewardship of the Jewish scriptures and their meaning.  This amounts to a Christian colonization of Jewish texts and traditions.  To many Jews this sounds like the Jews, not simply Israel, have no right to exist.  This is not simply an attack on their homeland but on their core convictions about their identity and purpose as God’s people.  Given the ugly history of Christian and Jewish relations such approaches sound a warning bell for even the most secular Jew! 
            Christian scholars have in recent years been engaged in serious discussions of “supersessionism” or “replacement” theories.  In its crudest form supersessionism holds that the people of Israel have simply been superseded by the church of Jesus Christ and therefore have no claim on their own texts, traditions or future.  This conversation is not a new one. The future of the people of Israel as Israel was an issue that deeply troubled the apostle Paul.  Some argue that the entire book of Romans is dedicated to exploring this issue.  When Paul discusses this directly in Romans 9-11 he begins by arguing “they are [note the present tense] Israelites.  The adoption as God’s children, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship and the promises belong to them.”  A bit later he insists, “God did not reject his people whom he foreknew.”  He concludes his argument with the startling assertion: “All Israel will be saved.”  It seems clear that Paul, at least, did not think that with the founding of the Christian church God’s promises to and love for Israel, as Israel had become passé.  Paul, it seems to many of us, foresaw a future for Israel as Israel.
            The upshot of all this is that Evangelicals would do well to avoid using theological arguments to criticize the state of Israel.  Such theological arguments may be heard as at least indirect attacks on Jews and Judaism. This will, to say the least, not foster helpful conversations.  It is certainly fair to criticize Israel where its actions are demonstrably unjust and contrary to its own laws and principles, but it is frankly anti-Jewish to criticize Israel by implying Jews, as Jews have no right to land or a future.  Evangelical critics of Israel need to recognize how painfully this rings in Jewish ears.  Evangelicals implying that Israel, as a Jewish state, has no right to exist will not improve the situation of the Palestinians.
Principle Two: Criticisms of the State of Israel must be grounded in an understanding of the history of the region and a fair assessment of its contemporary challenges.
            The history of this region did not begin with the construction of the separation fence and wall or even with the foundation of the state in 1948.  The conflicts between Israel’s Jews and their neighbors did not begin with the first Intifada. Israel’s critics need to remember that the Jews did not simply take the land in the war of independence but were promised a homeland by the Balfour Declaration of 1917.  The British, anticipating the fall of the Ottoman Empire declared that they viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  The declaration became part of the peace treaty with Turkey after the war.  Following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire with the help of the British, Arabs, long under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire and European colonial powers, established several large states in North Africa and the Middle East.  The Jews, in spite of assurances from the British, faced a long and bitter struggle to see their promised homeland established. 
            Years ago the American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a supporter of the creation of the state of Israel, argued that justice could only be relative in the Middle East.  Surely many Palestinians suffered losses of land and place with the creation of the state of Israel.  Some were driven from their homes.  Some fled fully expecting to return.  Some, of course, stayed where they were.  The Palestinians, like millions of others in the wake of the Second World War, suffered tragic displacements and bitter losses.  This is well known and should be remembered.  What is less well known is that hundreds of thousands of Jews were driven from their homes, lands, and businesses at the creation of the various Arab states and, in many cases, found refuge in the emerging state of Israel.  Nothing justifies or makes easier the loss of land and home, but historical context matters. 
             Having said this, although history matters, it is fruitless to adjudicate the past.  Making a tally of which party is the most oppressed or has suffered the greatest losses leads only to balkanization and bitterness.  The challenge of a tragic history is to find a way out of violence, fear, and distrust.  Neither Jews nor Palestinians should forget their pasts, but neither should let the tragic realities of their shared pasts prevent them from seeking a safe and healthy future for their children and grandchildren.  Evangelicals, justly eager to support and encourage their Palestinian brothers and sisters should know and appreciate this painful past and the reasons the Israeli government acts as it does in the present.  The separation fence and wall, for example, did not come into being because the Israelis wanted to make life miserable for the Palestinians.  It came into being because Israelis were dying at the hands of suicide bombers on busses, in cafes and on the streets.  As ugly and unfortunate as the wall is, it has, tragically, worked.  If Israel is to remove this barrier, as I hope it one day will, it must be given an alternative means of protecting its people and their future.  Nothing exists, not even the wall, in a vacuum.
Third Principle: Conversations between Evangelicals and Jews about Israel and Judaism must recognize and acknowledge foundational disagreements between and shared ignorance of one another.
            Evangelicals should not assume they understand contemporary Jews and Judaism.  They may know the Hebrew Scriptures well.  They may be well versed on the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day.  They may imagine that because they understand Paul’s critiques of his Jewish contemporaries, that they understand and may critique their Jewish contemporaries.  Such assumptions are fatal to dialogue.  The key to any useful dialogue is to let the dialogue partner speak for him or herself!  It is not for Evangelical Christians to tell Jews what they believe.  Nor, of course, is it the place of Jews to tell Christians, evangelical or otherwise, what they believe.  Dialogue always begins with listening.  Evangelicals should let their Jewish partners tell their own stories and vice versa.  In these conversations the differences will emerge and be acknowledged soon enough! 
            Careful listening will reveal that there are many religious, political, and theological differences within the respective Jewish and Evangelical communities!  There are a variety of opinions within both camps regarding the politics and practices of the state of Israel.  There are significant disagreements regarding how the texts and traditions of Judaism and Christianity are to be applied to living in the modern world.  But whatever the differences, there is in many if not most Jews a fierce commitment to endurance the Jewish people.  A bitter history of pogroms and the Holocaust has bound many Jews, both religious and secular, to the land of Israel.  Here, if nowhere else, in a Jewish homeland, Jews can be safe to live as Jews and practice their traditions well, poorly, or not at all! For many Jews the state of Israel is an assurance of a Jewish future.  Evangelicals cannot pretend to understand fully or appreciate what it means to the survivors of centuries of violence and hostility to find a safe home in the land of Israel. 
Jews and Christians view differently the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  They view differently the role of Torah in the life of an individual and community.  They regard the same texts as the authoritative word of God but read them through a very different set of lenses.  Their sense of “peoplehood” is very different.  Only if Evangelicals and Jews listen to one another and learn from one another over time will they begin to understand their varied convictions and commitments.  Only if Evangelicals and Jews listen to one another will they come over time to understand the significance and challenges of their different perceptions of the state of Israel.  Perhaps then, together, they may have a role in pointing to solutions to its many problems and challenges.
 In spite of their many differences, Evangelical Christians and Jews still have a great deal in common and profound reasons to listen to and learn from one another.  Evangelical Christians and Jews worship the same God—the God of the Jews—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This is the God who calls all Jews and Christians, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b).  And whatever their differences with Jews over Israel, Evangelical Christians who hold authoritative the words of the Apostle Paul should be concerned that the Jewish people have a future, believing the Jews beloved of God and that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”
Principle Four: Evangelicals should criticize Israel as friends of Israel.
Criticism from those hostile to the state of Israel and critical of its very existence are certainly less well received than that of critics committed to a just a safe future for Israel and its Jews.  Any criticism that is not founded on Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state may sound like an attack on the very survival of the Jews.  Criticism grounded in love is more easily borne that criticism rooted in hostility.  Critics of Israel would do well to listen to the anguish and longing of Israelis for stability, peace, and hope for a shared future with their Palestinian neighbors.  They should also listen to the despair of a people with few friends and many enemies.  Threatened people do not always behave in the most judicious manner.  Israel needs friends who support its existence as a healthy and secure state.  Such friends earn the right to raise questions and offer criticism.  Why would the Jews of Israel listen to critics who are determined to write them not only out of their own story, but the story of the world?  The best way for Evangelicals to address the challenges of the Palestinian people, both Christian and Muslim is to be a friendly critic of Israel committed to its survival and not its destruction.
            Evangelicals sometimes are not aware that others may be overhearing their internal conversations.  These conversations can produce pain and bewilderment among our Jewish friends and colleagues.   Frequently the targets of our critiques are our theological and political opponents within the Evangelical community.  But rhetoric intended to undermine positions we find unacceptable from a justice perspective or biblical point of view can inflict unintended wounds upon the Jewish community.  This is especially true if our views are in the first place uninformed, unfair, and unreflective.  I encourage all of us to speak thoughtfully, carefully and lovingly if we hope to address the painful realities on the ground in Israel.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Imperial Church: On Nuns and the Neo-Reformed

            I had reason again this week to be thankful that I am a Pietist.  For reasons buried deeply within Vatican paranoia the Roman Catholic Church decided to take aim on that most dangerous group of ecclesiastical miscreants and malcontents: American nuns.  The nuns were evidently spending too much time caring for the poor (which Rome acknowledged was admirable) and not enough time working against abortion and gay marriage.  I will leave it to Rome and the nuns to settle their differences, but I was struck once again by breath-taking power assumed by the Imperial Church.  Rome from the peak of its lofty pyramid assumed the right to reshape the ministry of the nuns by fiat.  Now before anyone accuses me of Catholic bashing let me first say that, yes, I know, as they famously put it, “The church is not a democracy.” And furthermore, yes, I understand that the nuns should have known what they were signing up for.  But I would say even more: the imperial church is not located only in Rome.  It is found in many cities and in many denominational offices.  The Imperial Church has been a plague on the people of God since almost the beginning.

            Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “Spiritual problems cannot be solved by administrative techniques.”  But that has not stopped the Imperial Church from trying.  The Imperial Church loves uniformity.  It loves agreement and cooperation.  It loves unquestioning obedience and feathers unruffled.  The spirit-fired, prophetic-inspired, charismatic free lances are quickly co-opted or destroyed.  This is as true of the Imperial Church today as it was in the fourth century.  And this is true whether the Imperial Church is Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, or Southern Baptist.  This is true whether the Imperial Church is bound by creeds and confessions or officially, at least, non-creedal.  Ironically the church acting most imperially these days is a church, historically at least, non-confessional: The Southern Baptists.  Not only are they squeezing the life out of their faithful critics, they are lusting after official recognition and specious power in Washington, D.C.  Within the larger Evangelical sphere the Imperial Church is represented by the solemn, neo-reformed heresy hunters who sniff out the theological faults of others with a typically rigid intransigence insisting on the proper pronunciation of various theological Shibboleths, especially “penal substitutionary atonement”. 

            In all fairness, the Imperial Church has plenty of advocates on the left as well as the right.  For some in the the left-wing of the Imperial Church taking the Bible seriously is an embarrassing faux pas; suggesting that Israel may not be completely responsible for the problems in the Middle East will get you kicked out of the Social Justice clubhouse; and believing that people need to hear the good news and respond to Jesus’ offer of grace and forgiveness will get you branded a Fundamentalist.  Years ago in one of his monologues Bill Cosby suggested that most parents are not interested in justice, they want quiet.  And the same is true of the Imperial Church: line up, take your medicine, and don’t make waves.  The Imperial Church is well represented by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor who was terribly annoyed that Jesus had shown up when they had just gotten things settled down.  The motto of the Imperial Church seems to be, who needs the Spirit when you’ve got committees.

            My people, the Pietists, saw through the Imperial Church.  They saw through Rome and they saw through the high church Lutheranism that seemed intent on strangling the life out of the vital beast Luther had set loose on the continent of Europe.  They saw through the self-satisfied and well-connected Anglican Church of the 18th century.  They saw through the rickety state churches in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Germany and the unofficial state churches of the United States.  They sought a living faith, founded in the Scriptures, in warm-hearted worship of God, and commitment to care for the poor, homeless, helpless and hopeless.  They were wary of creeds and confessions because they had seen them distorted into tools of control and considered them insufficiently rooted in the Bible.  They insisted that so-called “lay people” were also priests (following Luther, of course).   They had their faults.  They could be legalistic.  They could be simplistic.  They could be anti-intellectual.  They could be a pain in the neck.  But at their best they sought to bypass the Imperial Church with its stranglehold on God and find their way back to the “living water.” 

            Pietism is messy.  Organizing Pietists is like the proverbial herding of cats.  So Pietist denominational leaders are always tempted to take their cues from the Imperial Church, to rein in their adventuresome or silence their irksome.  In his London concert of a few years ago, Leonard Cohen gave a long list of pharmaceuticals he had taken over the years to deal with his various emotional difficulties.  At the end of this litany he commented, “But cheerfulness kept breaking through.”  And so it is with the Spirit.  No matter what the Imperial Church attempts to do, no matter how strong the administrative soporific, the Spirit, and all the messiness that entails for the Imperial Church, will keep breaking through.  Thanks be to God.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Memory and the Murder of Trayvon Martin

            It was during the mid-sixties.  Occasionally I worked for a church member who owned a gas station in west Nashville, Tennessee where I grew up.  His son was a friend of mine.  We were responsible for pumping gas, washing customers’ cars, changing wiper blades and other menial tasks.  One Saturday my friend and I were in the next bay changing the oil in a car while a notorious west Nashville local was regaling the mechanic with tales of what he would do to civil rights protestors if he got the chance.  This was, of course, at the height of the civil rights movement.  Nashville and its major African-American educational institutions, Tennessee A & I and Fisk College had been at the center of the protest. After visiting murder and mayhem on the heads of the protestors the man boasted that he had killed two black men in his time.  “Of course,” he grumbled, “that was back when it was still legal to kill a black man.”  He actually didn’t say “black man”.  He used an enduringly offensive term of diminishment and opprobrium.  I had always heard the phrase “my blood ran cold” but I did not know what it meant until that moment.

            This is not an incident I willingly recall.  But it came to mind when I heard of the murder of Trayvon.  In the south of my youth young black men could be beaten and lynched for looking at a white woman the wrong way.  They could be imprisoned for minor offenses and brutalized by prison guards.  Thousands went to their deaths at the hands of shotgun wielding “bulls” at hellholes like Louisiana’s  Angola Prison. We are naïve if we imagine that the fear and bile of those years has been drawn like poison out of our system.  When a young man is murdered and the authorities react with reasoned indifference we are reminded of those days in the South, and not only the South, when killing a black man or woman or child was legal.  And in different parts of the country it could be Mexicans or Chinese or Native Americans who were brutalized and murdered. And if a sheriff or police chief had the courage to charge a murderer, juries routinely acquitted them.

            In the giddy days after the nomination and then election of President Obama there was a great deal of loose talk about a “post racial society.”  But the vilification and misrepresentation of the President almost from day one should have put the lie to such optimistic posturing.  The attacks on President Obama have gone far beyond ordinary political differences.  To this day people doubt his religious affiliation and his citizenship—among other things.  Contrary evidence has no impact on the narrative they have constructed.  They see him as an alien, threatening presence, illegitimately occupying the Oval Office.  I do not say this to support the President’s policies or his re-election.  Those are separate matters.  I say this rather to illustrate the deep-seated antipathy to the “other” occupying the highest office in the land.  President Obama is like Trayvon Martin—he is in the “wrong neighborhood.”  I know there are many principled opponents of the President who on proper political and ideological grounds oppose his administration.  Fair enough.  In a democracy this is not only to be expected, but is required.  But his election, I contend, rather than signaling a post racial society, has stirred up some of the most fetid and ugly parts of our national identity.  This is what needs to be addressed with repentance, tears, and frank condemnation.  Too many bullets have killed too many of our children.  All of us, Democrats and Republicans, citizens of the North and the South, African American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, and white (whatever that is), need to speak truth and pursue justice.  Wendell Berry called racism America’s “hidden wound.”  Today that wound is festering openly for all to see.  God have mercy upon the family of Trayvon Martin.  God have mercy on us all.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

The Problem with Biblical Scholarship

            I have labored in the vineyards of biblical scholarship most of my adult life.  I began serious study of the Bible at a fundamentalist Bible School, moved on to a conservative Evangelical theological seminary and earned my doctorate at a major research university.  I have preached, taught and written about the Bible as the pastor of a local church, the editor of a denominational magazine, and as a seminary professor.  I have a great deal of respect for the craft and skill of many of my colleagues in biblical scholarship.  But I also have problems with the way the field has done its business.  I was reminded of my difficulties while listening to a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting last November.  While giving a paper on the gospels a young scholar complained bitterly about the incursion of “theology” into the study and interpretation of the gospels.  This is a far from uncommon complaint.  In fact, I am convinced that it would be as shocking for many at that giant academic nerd fest we call AAR/SBL for a speaker to draw an implication as it would be for him to disrobe on the platform.

            The problem with this is that it assumes a kind of scholarly objectivity that simply doesn’t exist.  Biblical scholarship (and it is not alone) has suffered from an illusion that religious, cultural, and scientific biases can be put aside for the sake of a disinterested reading of the text.  But this is as likely as my being disinterested when the Chicago Bears are playing a football game.  The scholar complaining about the incursions of “theology” into the interpretation of the text did nothing so much as indicate the depth of his naiveté.  Marilynne Robinson, in a pair of essays on Moses and the Torah in her wonderful book When I Was a Child I Read Books, reminds us that a good deal of 19th century biblical scholarship was corrupted by (particularly) German nationalism, (mostly) atheistic rationalism, and pervasive anti-Semitism.  The popular division of the Pentateuch into documents JEDP by Julius Wellhausen, for example, was not rooted in scientific objectivity or literary expertise but in specious developmental views of the idea of God in ancient Judaism that amounted, in the end, to a denigration of Judaism itself.  Similarly, the atomistic approach to the historicity of sayings and incidents in the Gospels has very little either historically or literarily to recommend it.  All too often what is deemed “historical” is what is either congenial to the author or embarrassing to his or her opponents.  Modern Biblical scholarship has, in other words, frequently been a tool of the critics of both traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity. 

            This is not to say there are not thoroughly Christian scholars who are doing very careful and thoughtful work on historical questions related to the biblical text.  But their researches, for example, into the Gospels are not based on simplistic and contradictory “criteria” intended to make decisions on historicity easier.  Such criteria are designed, in the end, to produce as few authentic words and actions of Jesus as possible.  The founders of the Jesus Seminar, for example, were not simply engaging in dispassionate investigation of the gospels when they used such criteria.  They were quite openly using the criteria to attack “fundamentalist” Christian readings they found uncongenial.

            Having said this, I also have little use for Evangelical scholars who, having decided on the basis of their view of the Bible that all the sayings and stories in the Bible are accurate and historical, use the tools of critical research to “prove” their historicity.  They would be more honest to acknowledge their presupposition and leave off the specious “proofs”.  This approach is as dishonest in its own way as the tendentious decisions of the Jesus Seminar.  I, for one, am not convinced that everything in the Bible has to be historically accurate for it to be the Word of God.  But that is for another blog.  Responsible scholarship acknowledges its biases, blind spots, and commitments and does not pretend a nonexistent objectivity.  It submits its views to a diverse community for correction and assessment with humility and thankfulness.  Even when it does its scholarship for the church it does it with critical integrity as well as enduring love.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Church and State

            Like many Americans I have followed the controversy over the federal government’s requiring Roman Catholic institutions like hospitals and schools to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives for their employees.  Roman Catholic bishops and many supporters from the Evangelical camp expressed outrage at their being required to provide a product they considered immoral.  The controversy was cast as a challenge to religious liberty and, perhaps ironically, the separation of church and state.  Now I don’t want to minimize the serious questions raised by the government’s actions.  But these are complex issues.  All of us, whether people of religious faith or more secular convictions find ourselves paying for things we would rather not support.  Many of us would rather have not seen our tax money go to the Iraq war or nuclear weapons.  I suspect that many atheists would rather not pay for military chaplains or vegans contribute to the salaries of meat inspectors.  

            Be that as it may, I had another problem.  I was concerned that the Roman Catholic Bishops and my (mostly) brothers in the Evangelical world were angling for a kind of de facto state church.  Certain parties within the Evangelical world have been pushing this agenda for a long time.  These are the folks who try to rewrite American history to make it seem that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson actually graduated from Moody Bible Institute.  The Roman Catholic Church well into the 20th century was nervous about Democracy and generally in favor of freedom of religion only where the church was a threatened minority.  While that is certainly less true these days, I suspect there are many corners of the Vatican as there are in Colorado Springs that would prefer a kind of Christian monarch and the enforcement of one brand or the other of Christian morality.

            I am writing, however, to praise the secular state.  I have been convinced by Stanley Hauerwas on the one hand and Rodney Stark on the other that coziness with the state leads to the enervation of the church.  Hauerwas insists that when the church asks the state to do its work it suffers a fatal compromise.  Stark argues that privileged state churches become intellectually and spiritually flabby.  The church, he argues, requires vigorous competition from other faiths and philosophies to sustain its strength and promote its message.  The relative strength of the church in the United States is the result of such competition and pressure.  Even if Christians in the United States could agree on what constitutes “Christian morality” it would be disastrous for the task of enforcing that morality to be handed to the state.  The secular state, in other words, is good for the church.

            Besides all this like many, if not most Americans, I am deeply suspicious of hierarchical structures loudly telling me what I should or should not do and should or should not think.  Whether that hierarchy is in Washington, D. C., Vatican City, Colorado Springs, or Chicago I bristle when the voices from on high tell me how a Christian should think, vote, and believe.  I bristle not because I think there is no Christian way to think, vote, and believe but because I believe in the local church and what the Baptists call “soul competency.”  I am, after all, a Protestant.  Critical issues, I believe, are discerned together with brothers and sisters around the word of God and in service of the people of God.  They are discerned in humility and communicated with grace.  God’s people do not enforce, they persuade, they love, the bear witness.  So to the folks in Vatican City, Colorado Springs and Chicago—thanks but no thanks.  I’m doing OK with the Bible, the font and table, and my brothers and sisters at Resurrection Covenant Church.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


What do I do with my anger?
My beloved country is stained with cruel words, fractured by
jeering division and awash with impious posturing.
How do I love those who so eagerly hate?
How do I sustain those who so easily sneer?
How do I weep with those so indifferent to suffering and laugh with those so
ignorant of pain?
Do I gently point out latent racism?
Do I carefully question overt sexism?
Do I thoughtfully rebuke cursing of leaders?
Do I arch my eyebrows when the comfortably moneyed complain of taxes?

Do I remain silent for the sake of peace and smile for purposes of goodwill?
Do I silently curse their blindness and quietly rail at their ignorance?
Do I simply love that silent anger?
Do I fear to listen?
Am I cruel in my hiding and ugly in that silence?

How do I love them?  (These enemies who are not my enemies, but beloved of God.)
Do I seek love in hating?
Do I seek peace in cursing?
Do I seek hope in sneering?
Do I hang on them the horns of the scapegoat?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fair Game?

Recently I have taken to sending emails to sports writers and political pundits.  I take the Chicago Tribune, a once proud newspaper fallen, like most other newspapers, on hard times.  Political columnists and sports writers are paid for their opinions.  And like most people I love to read the people I already agree with!  Now, having confessed my sins, I have been known to read people I frequently disagree with.  In the Tribune this is John Kass.  Sometimes I like what Kass has to say.  Sometimes he drives me crazy.  What troubles me about Kass and his brethren in the sports page, however, is not their opinions, but the way those opinions are frequently expressed.  I began emailing when I noticed that it was not enough to criticize the policy of a politician or the play of an athlete; the hapless individuals targeted by Kass et. al. were subject to degrading humiliation.  The attacks were frequently cruelly personal.  It was as if public figures by virtue of the fact that they held public office or started for the Chicago Bears were fair game for mockery and abuse.  Their failures, it seems, were not simply because they faced a recalcitrant economy or a good defense, but because they were bad people.

I have emailed Kass and at least three sports writers asking about this.  Is it really necessary to mock and humiliate your opponents?  Isn’t it enough to point out your disagreements and note their failures without sneering at them?  I have, of course, never received a reply.  I know that writers like Kass and his brethren on cable television are “entertainers.”  People on the left love to hear Colbert take down a bewildered conservative.  People on the right love to hear Glenn Beck mock a hapless liberal.  And so sportswriters and columnists are almost compelled to resort to nastiness to get and hold an audience.  I get that.  But there is something profoundly troubling about it all.  In spite of the fact that Kass is Greek Orthodox, Colbert is Roman Catholic and Beck a Mormon, they seem to have little regard for the words of the man they claim to follow: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43).  It is hard for me to see how you can love your enemies and mock and humiliate them.  It is hard for me to see how you can love your enemies and distort what they say. 

I have determined during this election cycle that I will not join in the mockery and abuse.  I am going to pray for both candidates—even if I can’t stand the positions of one of them (as is likely to be the case).  I will feel free to criticize positions and raise questions about decisions.  But I will not join in the hurling of abuse, lies, and distortions.  While I am at it, I would suggest that the church world could stand to call a moratorium on this as well.  The left needs to stop sneering at the “fundamentalists.”  The right needs to stop excoriating the “liberals.”  Raise questions about theology and practice, but stop denigrating and insulting each other.  We can do this without the personal abuse and cruel assertions that come far too quickly to our lips.  I have written and said a lot of things over the years.  I have not always been charitable or kind and I regret that.  It behooves all of us who write or speak to consider more carefully how our words, when they become intimate and personal, wound individuals and persons who love them.  How can we use our words to challenge and encourage?  How can we use our words to love?

 John E. Phelan, Jr.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Baby Boomer's Apology

It perhaps goes without saying that the Baby Boomers are not the most popular generation around.  No one will call us “The Greatest Generation”, at least without a well-developed sense of irony.  We have an unenviable record of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement, and over the top narcissism that is obvious to all but ourselves.  In spite of our counter-cultural pieties we have sustained nearly unabated war, tolerated unprecedented destruction of our natural resources, and divorced our spouses and neglected our children at unforgivable rates.  We have, of course, wept crocodile tears over all this, but have not demonstrated the moral courage to face our unraveling the fabric of life’s very sustainability.  Many of us seem to face with indifference the very real possibility that our grandchildren will suffer the collapse of our consumerist economy, the exhaustion of our oil, the ruination of our agriculture, and the rise of demagogic politicians that will take advantage of their fears.  Whether we are liberal or conservative we seem to favor politicians who let us keep doing exactly what we want to do with varying levels of government support.  We want to live as we always have and leave the difficult challenge of cleaning up the mess we made to our heirs.

 All of this is bad enough and worthy of an abject apology.  But I want to apologize for something else entirely: what we have done to the church of Jesus Christ.  We have been every bit as narcissistic and self-aggrandizing in the ecclesiastical world as in the economic, political, and familial worlds.  The American church is a mess.  Whether you look at Mainline, Roman Catholic, or Evangelical churches, it would be hard to argue that any are characterized by Spiritual strength, moral integrity, and missional courage.  There are, of course, many notable exceptions and I am thankful for them.  But for the most part the culture looks upon the American church, justifiably I might add, with at best bemusement and at worst contempt.  When they think of the church they do not think of love, hope, and compassion but small-mindedness, arrogance, gnat straining and camel swallowing.  Sure the media looks for the worst, but it has little trouble finding it.  Having said this there are some specific things I want to apologize for:

1. The Mega-Church:  I am really sorry about this.  It is, of course, not surprising the Mega-Church rose among boomers.  We love the big deal and great entertainment.  We are the Woodstock generation and mega-churches are like Woodstock without the nudity and drug use.  We are the generation that believed if big is good massive is even better.  But the mega-church appealed to us for other reasons.  We liked the idea of its inhuman perfection.  We wanted every note perfect, every bathroom sparkling clean, every speech equally inspiring.  We liked the illusion that all was right with the world.  We were embarrassed by our parents’ churches.  We were doctors, lawyers, educators, CEOs and CFOs.  We didn’t want to listen to marginally competent choirs and shaky musicians.  We insisted that everything had to be perfect or we wanted nothing to do with it.  We also loved the anonymity.  The mega-church didn’t require much of us.  We could show up, enjoy the show, make a generous donation and go home to watch football.  We could pay someone else to take care of the kids and care for the hungry and hurting.  With Darwinian smugness we countenanced the destruction of many small neighborhood churches sneeringly insisting they obviously didn’t have what it took to keep up.  We insulted the competent pastors of such churches, humiliating those who evidently lacked the “leadership ability” to make it to a membership of 15,000.  Our best mega-church pastors have already figured out that things are off the rails, but the train will not soon be put back on the tracks.

2.     I am really sorry about the music.  My generation evidently believes that no decent music was written before about 1964 and after about 1975.  We are convinced that everything should sound like it was composed in ‘68 by the Rolling Stones even if it was written in 2012.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  I even love a good deal of what is called “contemporary” music (although some of it is about as contemporary as the television show Dragnet).  What I am distressed about is that we convinced ourselves and many others that what was sung and prayed by our parents and grandparents is only worthy of scorn.  We tossed out hundreds of years of Christian music, liturgy, and practice without noticing the baby flailing its chubby arms.  Some of the best of our younger generation of singers, liturgists, and pastors are discovering anew the riches of our Christian heritage, no thanks to us.  But many of us continue to cling to “praise choruses” composed in the 80s as if they were equivalent to Bach cantatas.  Others complain that the use of a prayer polished by generations of use is “too liturgical”, ignoring the blandness of our worship language and the poverty of our imaginations.

3. The boomers owe a big apology about what has happened with theology.  There is too much to say here so I will try to be succinct.  There seem to be two trends: one is a form of individualistic pietism that imagines I can choose my god or my theology like I choose pie over ice cream or the Packers over the Bears.  pietists select only the cream-filled and disdain the coconut-filled.  Not wanting to work all that hard, they select what appeals to them and ignore what is difficult or unpleasant to contemplate.  These people are found in every part of the Christian world.  They are our most ardent religious consumers, but they will only “buy” what they like.  They have trivialized the heritage of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth by seeking the lowest common denominator.  The second trend is the theologically rigorous.  They are the virulently traditional Roman Catholics, the snarky neo-Reformed Evangelicals, and the frantically hyper-conservative traditional Protestants.  They despise the idea of the religious cafeteria.  For them theology is a matter of eating your spinach whether you like it or not.  In their world all the questions worth answering were settled by Trent, or Calvin, or some synod or the other in the distant past.  They hurl anathemas with glee, sneer at anyone with the slightest disagreement or smallest question, and are, by my observation, generally unpleasant.  While they are an understandable reaction to the religious and moral indifference of their contemporaries, that doesn’t make them any more attractive.  I would argue that both forms of theologizing are the result of laziness.  Both refuse the challenge of rethinking and re-engaging the ancient faith in the modern world.  The first group imagines all the answers are the result of a merely personal decision.  The second imagines that all the answers were settled in the fourth or sixteenth or nineteenth century.  Both lack the humility, compassion, and hope to do the hard work of engaging the faith in this world.

4.  Perhaps the most inexcusable failure of the Baby Boomers and the church is our failure to promote justice for the oppressed and provide food for the hungry.  There are, thank God, many notable exceptions to this.  But for the most part it has been the generation that followed us that has raised this question most sharply.  We have no excuse for this since we grew up in the 60s with the Civil Rights movement.  Many of us marched for Voting Rights or protested the War in Vietnam.  But on the Mainline side we somehow imagined that electing Democrats was enough to promote justice and on the Evangelical side we agonized over whether evangelism and social justice belonged together.  We thought social justice was a “black issue” or a “liberal issue” or a “political issue” and so we left it to a handful of activists and politicians and made little effort to integrate such questions and concerns into the life of the church.  Even if we did it was an issue “out there”, not “in here.”  It was left to our kids to challenge us on this.  And so we salved our consciences by sending them on mission trips.

I could go on, but I am feeling bad enough already.  I know that many of my contemporaries will not agree with my list. Other readers will perhaps consider this column just one more example of Boomer arrogance.  If we can’t be the best, perhaps we can be the best at being the worst.  So be it.  But friends, we are leaving our children and grandchildren a huge mess to clean up.  Our self-indulgence will cost them dearly.  It seems the least we can do is say sorry.  But perhaps there is still time for us to begin helping them to clean it up.

John E. (Jay) Phelan

North Park Theological Seminary

Chicago, IL.