Category: Jesus

Rachel Held Evans: “God Can’t be Kept Out”

This reflection from Rachel Held Evans originally appeared on her website.

Those little Advent candles sure have a lot of darkness to overcome this year. I see them glowing from church windows and on TV, in homes and at midnight vigils, here in Dayton and in Sandy Hook. Their stubborn flames represent the divine promise that even the smallest light can chase away the shadows lurking in this world, that even in the darkest places, God can’t be kept out. 

It’s a hard promise to believe right now, I know. The children in the pictures are just too young, too familiar. Our hearts ache; the darkness seems so heavy and thick. (more…)

Would you vote for Jesus?

By Alan Bean

Richard Cohen asks why the GOP is beating up on Mitt Romney.  Sure, the Republican candidate “espouses extreme positions he does not for a moment believe.”  But what are his options?  Republicans who hope to survive the Iowa caucuses are forced so far to the right that they surrender mainstream appeal.  If they win Iowa, their feet are nailed to the floor.

Cohen thinks this explains why GOP politicians with talent and intelligence refused to enter the 2012 presidential follies–they saw the train wreck coming.  Romney won, in Cohen’s view, because he was the most competent navigator on a ship of fools.

I suspect the Washington Post columnist is right, but how do we account for an electorate that forces Republican candidates to deny climate change, suggest that the US Constitution is a Christian document and kiss off the scientific community while systematically alienating Latinos, African Americans and women?  How do we explain the strength of the Tea Party?  Yeah, I know the Koch brothers have backed these insurgents with their megabucks, but it takes more than money to make a movement.  There is some genuine outrage simmering in the heartland.

And why, despite Mitt Romney’s lackluster campaigning and embarrassing gaffes, is this race still close?  Why is Barack Obama, a reputed radical socialist Muslim extremist, afraid to reference mass incarceration, mass deportation, pardons and commutations, Guantanamo, global warming, NAFTA, single payer health care, the rapid disappearance of American manufacturing, labor’s right to organize, a crumbling infrastructure, the tragedy of Iraq or the utter futility of Afghanistan? (more…)

The rebirth of Christianity

The Emperor Constantine

By Alan Bean

This marvelous essay by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove captures the spirit of our times perfectly.  I grew up within a mild form of Canadian evangelical Christianity that prided itself on being neither fundamentalist (like the Bible Schools that dotted the Canadian prairie) nor liberal (like the compromised United Church of Canada).  Try as I might, I have never been able to whip up much enthusiasm for conservative evangelicalism, liberal Protestantism or the bland halfway house religion that wanders, lost, agitated and afraid, between these two poles.

Like so many others, I loved Jesus but didn’t care much for his Church.

Wilson-Hartgrove’s reflections immediately brought to mind a slim volume called The End of Christendom, Malcolm Muggeridge’s Pascal Lectures at the University of Waterloo in 1980 (the year Nancy and I began our first pastorate in Medicine Hat, Alberta).

“Christendom,” Muggeridge assured his audience, “is something quite different from Christianity, being the administrative or power structure, based on the Christian religion and constructed by men.  It bears the same relation to the everlasting truth of the Christian revelation as, say, laws do to justice, or morality to goodness, or carnality to love . . . The founder of Christianity was, of course, Christ.  The founder of Christendom I suppose could be named as the Emperor Constantine.” (more…)

The myth of redemptive violence

This article originally appeared in the Red Letter Weekly.

By Shaine Claiborne

I had a veteran friend once tell me, “The biggest lie I have ever been told is that violence is evil, except in war.”  He went on, “My government told me that.  My Church told me that.  My family told me that… I came back from war and told them the truth – ‘Violence is not evil, except in war… Violence is evil – period’.”

Every day it seems like we are bombarded with news stories of violence – a shooting in Colorado, a bus bombing in Bulgaria, drones gone bad and the threat of a nuclear Iran, a civil war in Syria, explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This week’s cover story of Time magazine is — “One a Day” — showing that soldier suicides are up to one per day, surpassing the number of soldiers that die in combat. The US military budget is still rising — over 20,000 dollars a second, over 1 million dollars a minute spent on war, even as the country goes bankrupt.

Our world is filled with violence – like a plague, an infection, a pandemic of people killing people, and people killing themselves.  In my city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, we have nearly one homicide a day – and in this land of the free we have over 10,000 homicides a year.

Today, Barack Obama called the shooting in Colorado “evil”.  And he is right.

But perhaps it is also time that we declare that violence is evil, everywhere – period.  It’s obvious that killing folks in a movie theater is sick and deranged, but the question arises – is violence ever okay? (more…)

Would God kill homosexuals if he had the chance?

By Alan Bean

Pastor Curtis Knapp is probably a great guy. I have been a Baptist pastor in Kansas and I know the type: kind, gentle, fun-loving, infinitely polite. In a recent sermon, Pastor Knapp suggested that the government, if it understood its divine mandate aright, would put gay people to death. He wasn’t advocating vigilante violence, mind you; only the government is authorized for this kind of malice.

Now he says he was misquoted. Or quoted out of context. Or quoted by people who, were they as drenched in the biblical world view as his congregants, would have realized he loves gay people and wants them saved, not slaughtered.

On the other hand, Pastor Knapp still thinks God, if he had his way in this wicked world, would have gays massacred en masse. The Almighty said as much in plain black and white in the 20th chapter of Leviticus.

That passage (I call it the ‘killin’ chapter) also calls for the summary execution of adulterers, idolators, father-cursers, and sinners engaged in various kinds of incestuous coupling. Even sex with a menstruating woman is liable to punishment–for the man and the woman.

When people talk about “the angry God of the Old Testament” this is what they have in mind. You could spend a lifetime in most churches and never hear a single sermonic reference to Leviticus 20; but pastor Knapp ain’t no kangaroo preacher who bounces over the tough texts.

How should Christians interpret this kind of passage? The normal practice is to pretend the “texts of terror” don’t exist. If you don’t get around in the Bible much, that works pretty well.

But there are always folks intent on reading the Bible clear through. Some of them even make it to Leviticus 20. “Oh my God,” they say, “I’ll have to talk to the preacher about this.”

But the conversation rarely takes place. Parishioners fear, rightly, that the preacher won’t have a comforting or enlightening answer, so they try to forget about it.

Creative exegetes find clever ways to domesticate passages like Leviticus 20. Perhaps this is just hyperbole, the intentional overstatement of the truth. God doesn’t want us to kill homosexuals; He just wants us to know he hates them (and idolators, and adulterers and father-cursers, and . . .)

I’m not sure this helps much. If God thinks homosexuals are an abomination, why shouldn’t there be open season on the non-straight?

And if sexual orientation isn’t a choice, it must express the creative will of God. Does God make people gay and then hate them for it? Is this commendable, or even logical?

In all likelihood, the author of Leviticus believed that everybody is born straight because that’s the way God planned it. The perverse insistence on going against your natural inclinations constitutes a conscious rejection of God which must not be tolerated. This view of creation is then attributed to the Creator.

Unfortunately for adherents of the “biblical worldview,” this understanding of sexual orientation is just plain wrong. If some people are born gay, either God messed up, God isn’t in control, or God wants it that way. Either way, God must bear the ultimate responsibility.

This issue comes down to the character of God. Is God the perfection of love, as the Bible insists, or is God a weird alloy of love and hate, good and evil who must be obeyed even if he doesn’t make sense because . . . he’s God?

A proper understanding of incarnation is helpful here. According to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), Jesus was fully God and fully human, even if we can’t understand how that could be so. To be fully human, Jesus had to be born into a specific culture at a specific time, and the tenor of his teaching would reflect that fact. Jesus spoke and acted as a first century, Second Temple, Palestinian Jewish peasant because that’s what it means for God to empty himself of divinity and take on human flesh.

God speaks to us through the Scriptures. But here too the logic of Chalcedon applies. The Bible is utterly of God and utterly human. Being human, the Bible reflects the perceptions and thought processes of the epoch in which it was written. It is the product of a pre-scientific world. As an inescapable consequence, the Bible doesn’t give us a scientific take on creation.

To say that the Bible must be right because it is God-breathed is like saying that Jesus, although he appeared to be human, was really God wearing a clever disguise. We can’t have it both ways. Incarnation and inspiration are both self-limiting realities. God comes to us clothed in human limitation and yet is never less than God.

You aren’t suppose to understand this, and you certainly don’t have to believe it; but that’s what orthodox Christian teaching boils down to.

So, what if the scientists speak of evolution over billions of years and the Bible speaks of fiat creation over a six-day period? Which is right? Almost half of the American population believes that buying into evolution means giving up on God. But evolution is just another form of incarnation; a completely natural process that is entirely the work of God. God doesn’t just give the evolutionary process a nudge now and then; God inhabits the evolutionary process.

Which brings us back to texts of terror like Leviticus 20. A Christocentric (Christ-centered) interpretation of Scripture means reading Leviticus through the mind of Christ. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality. Jesus counseled his disciples to forgive their enemies and wouldn’t back down from the hard implications of this teaching even when nailed to the rough wood of a Roman cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jesus didn’t reference Leviticus 20 either, but he did address the death penalty.

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

How would Jesus respond to Pastor Knapp and the twentieth chapter of Leviticus? “You have heard that it was said in ancient times, ‘hate the homosexual’, and ‘when a man lies with a male as with a woman they shall be put to death.’ But I say to you, love everyone. If you look down on your homosexual brother or sister, you are liable to judgment, and if you call your brother a ‘fag’, a ‘fairy’ or a ‘dyke’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Did Jesus really believe in hell? I don’t know, but he talked about it all the time and, inevitably, the hell-bound are the unforgiving, the uncompassionate, and the hard of heart. If the biblical worldview is the vision of Jesus (and I believe it is) there can be no place for sermons that pander to the worst impulses of the people in the pew.

God is good all the time. We are all helpless sinners, even the best of us. We are all saved by the infinite grace revealed in the eyes of Christ the Savior. Thanks be to God.

Osler: The Christian case for gay marriage

I first encountered this story in front of a recording studio in Austin, Texas.  “My mother sent me this,” attorney Jeff Frazier told me.  “It’s a really refreshing perspective.  He says he’s for gay marriage because he’s a Christian!”  I looked at his cell phone and was delighted to see Mark Osler’s name. 

In this piece written for the CNN blog, Osler doesn’t argue that the Bible endorses homosexuality; he says the life and message of Jesus is a compelling argument against withholding any holy sacrament (marriage, baptism) from anybody.  

Mark couldn’t have made this argument so neatly when he was a Baptist at Baylor; but now that he’s wandered down the Canterbury Trail it makes a lot of sense.  In fact, the baptism-marriage connection is breathtaking in its simplicity.  Why hadn’t I thought of that?  Probably because I’m still a Baptist. 

By Mark Osler, Special to CNN

I am a Christian, and I am in favor of gay marriage. The reason I am for gay marriage is because of my faith.

What I see in the Bible’s accounts of Jesus and his followers is an insistence that we don’t have the moral authority to deny others the blessing of holy institutions like baptism, communion, and marriage. God, through the Holy Spirit, infuses those moments with life, and it is not ours to either give or deny to others.

A clear instruction on this comes from Simon Peter, the “rock” on whom the church is built. Peter is a captivating figure in the Christian story. Jesus plucks him out of a fishing boat to become a disciple, and time and again he represents us all in learning at the feet of Christ.

During their time together, Peter is often naïve and clueless – he is a follower, constantly learning. (more…)

Fruit or Foliage?

By Alan Bean

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

A fitting question for Holy Week, don’t you think?

When Jesus entered the holy city riding the foal of an ass, the crowds burst into spontaneous song: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Luke reports that “some of the Pharisees in the crowd” protested this unseemly display of piety.  “Teacher,” they said, “order your disciples to stop.”

“I tell you,” Jesus replied, “if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.”

Sometimes, hymns of adoration are more that appropriate; they are unavoidable.

But praise, especially in a religious context, is also dangerous.

Matthew puts his “Lord, Lord” teaching like this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Words of praise, segregated from concrete acts of service to the least and the lost, constitute blasphemy.  The failure to produce “good fruit” is the sign of a “bad tree”, Jesus says, no matter how much foliage you see.

My wife, Nancy, has given up growing squash.  Things look good early.  Luxuriant vines take over the garden, followed by lovely blossoms.  And then everything dies.  We don’t know enough about gardening to understand why.  Lack of nitrogen?  Insects?  Too much Texas sun?  But the abundance of foliage never makes up for the absence of fruit.

Praise is inevitable; so is the production problem Jesus warns against.  Human weakness coupled with the heroic demands of Christian discipleship, create a gap between piety and production.  It could hardly be any other way.  We are a fallen race and we act the part.

At the same time, we are incurably religious.  (more…)

Who Would Jesus Prosecute?


Holly Gill is an evangelical Christian who works with FAMM (Families Against Manditory Minimums).  Evangelicals have generally been known as devout backers of the war on drugs, but as Pat Robertson’s surprising take on marijuana legalization suggests, the times they are a-changing.  For evangelical Christians, Gill insists, it all comes down to WWJP, Who would Jesus prosecute.

How Would Jesus Punish Drug Use?

Holly M. Gill

The first and only time I heard evangelical mega-figure Pat Robertson speak in public, he wasn’t calling for the legalization of pot.

I was 21, a junior at Oral Roberts University, playing endless rounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” on my viola with the school orchestra. Robertson was present to give the commencement address to that year’s graduates. I can’t remember what he exhorted them to do, but I’m positive it didn’t involve toking up.

Robertson still isn’t spreading that message, but his recent comments about legalizing pot, the cruelty and irrationality of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug crimes, and the expensive and failed War on Drugs are refreshing. Our harsh mandatory prison terms for drug offenses are incompatible with Christian principles of justice. This conviction — and the faith I and Robertson share — drove me first to law school and then to Washington, D.C. to work on criminal sentencing reform for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a secular organization. I join Robertson in posing a question all evangelicals should be striving to answer:

How would Jesus want us to punish? (more…)