Tag: Jesus

Saving the Bible by damning God

Samuel Hopkins
Samuel Hopkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Alan Bean

“Young man,” a grizzled Presbyterian cleric asked a harried candidate for ordination, “would you be willing to be damned for the greater glory of God?”

Uncertain how to respond, the young man blurted out , “Yes, and I’d be even more willing to see the entire Presbytery damned for God’s glory.”

The story (no doubt apocryphal) was inspired by the theology of Samuel Hopkins (d. 1803), the New England divine who attempted to systematize the theological musings of Jonathan (Sinners in the hands of an angry God) Edwards.

The bit about willing to be damned for the greater glory of God was hotly debated in eighteenth century America. Thomas Jefferson opined to John Adams that Hopkins belonged in a straight jacket.  The reformed theologian was either an atheist or he was preaching the religion of “Daemonism”.

“It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all,” Jefferson asserted than to worship such an atrocious deity.

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Victoria Osteen

Hopkins stands at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Victoria Osteen, the contemporary American theologian who sparked a firestorm of indignation by opining that:

“When you come to church when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

Hopkins saw the kind of self-love Ms. Osteen has in mind as the very essence of sin.  Coming to God with the selfish ambition of escaping hell, Hopkins taught, is to get hold of the wrong end of the stick.  Instead, we should be willing (following Paul’s argument in Romans 9) to be damned if that’s what it takes to further God’s gracious work in the world.

It should be noted that Hopkins applied his logic of damnation to the slave trade.  American Christians who endorse human bondage while pretending to seek the blessing of a holy God are deluding themselves, he said.

William Blake's rendering of Lucifer in hell.
William Blake’s rendering of Lucifer in hell.

In other words, Hopkins wanted Christians to do the right thing for the right reason with no regard for personal advancement.

John Milton (d. 1674), was getting at a similar point when he probed Lucifer’s motivation for wreaking chaos in God’s good creation. Cast out of heaven with a rabble of reprobate angels, Lucifer told his comrades to pick themselves up and make the most of a bad situation:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Samuel Hopkins was reversing this logic, “Better to serve in hell than to reign in heaven.”

American evangelicals have more in common with Milton’s Lucifer than we would like to admit. (more…)

“Losing our religion”: a review of “The Bible Tells Me So” by Peter Enns

ennsreview (1)

By Alan Bean

Peter Enns wants to work with the Bible God gave us instead of the Bible we think God should have given us.  He wants a messy Bible that refuses to behave because that’s the only Bible we have.  The Bible isn’t history–in the modern sense of the word–it’s a book of stories written by ordinary people trying to make sense of God and the world.

And the stories in the Bible kept changing over the one thousand or so years during which the book was being compiled.

Narratives that worked for people during the reign of Old King David didn’t work after that kingdom split in two.  Stories that worked during the divided kingdom proved inadequate when the Assyrians “disappeared” the ten northern tribes.  Stories told when the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were keeping the dynastic dream of David alive failed to deliver the goods when the Babylonians carried God’s people into exile.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this diverse assemblage of stories produced contradictory portraits of God, dueling theologies and inconsistent moral codes.

Like most biblical scholars, Enns thinks the biblical writers were free to re-craft traditional texts to meet their own needs.  Sometimes these stories give us valuable historical information; sometimes they are pure inventions, usually they are literary inventions rooted in a smattering of historical knowledge.  For the storytellers who gave us the Bible, the issue was never what happened back then; it was always about what’s happening now. (more…)

“Jesus is my savior, but I’m a killer”

Dan Page addresses the Oath Keepers
Dan Page addresses the Oath Keepers

By Alan Bean

Dan Page, the St. Louis police officer who famously pushed CNN anchor Don Lemon, has been relieved of duty.  Pushing Lemon in front of a national television audience had nothing to do with it.  It was Page’s bizarre speech, delivered in April of 2012 to the “Oath Keepers” of St. Louis and Lake Charles, a group that describes itself as “a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Here are a few highlights from Page’s screed:

“Policemen are very cynical. I know I am.  I hate everybody. I’m into diversity. I kill everybody.”

“We have no business passing hate crime laws. None. Because we’re setting aside a group of people special.  We got a Supreme Court out of control with laws on sodomy.”  (Page then refers to the “four sodomites” sitting on the Supreme Court.)

Page says he left the army because he refused to serve under “that illegal alien who claims to be our president.”

John Belmar, the St. Louis County police chief, has suspended Mr. Page pending an internal investigation and psychiatric evaluation. “(I) apologize to the community and anybody who is offended by these remarks,” Belmar said, “and understand from me that he … does not represent the rank-and-file of the St. Louis County Police Department.”

Dan Page and CNN anchor Don Lemon
Dan Page and CNN anchor Don Lemon

I doubt Dan Page reflects mainstream opinion within the police department or the military. (more…)

Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

science-103112-003-617x416By Alan Bean

Although you would never know it from listening to American preaching, Jesus linked poverty with the kingdom of God and affluence with sin.

The text of the first sermon Jesus preached was taken from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable (Jubilee) year of the Lord
(Luke 4)

Notice that all the recipients of kingdom blessing are poor, afflicted, marginalized people.

The last sermon Jesus preached prior to his arrest and crucifixion linked kingdom participation with practical ministry to the poor and dispossessed.  Kingdom people feel the pain of a hurting world and respond with creative acts of mercy that clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and provide justice for the oppressed. (Matthew 25)

Jesus was about feeling the pain of the world and responding with acts of mercy. Feeling pain that doesn’t belong to you (empathy) and healing action are part of the same kingdom dynamic.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The American marriage between free market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible.  His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.  We want to love Jesus and ascribe to an onward-and-upward, God-wants-to-succeed, greed is good ethic.  We want God and mammon; Jesus and the blessings of capitalism.

And now the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus is being confirmed by brain science?

A recent study by Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that as financial and social advancement changes our brains–and not in a good way.  As money and social standing increase, the study finds, our ability to empathize with poor and marginalized people rapidly diminishes.

If you are building your world on the rock-hard words of Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise, but what’s the takeaway?

Jesus taught that affluent people (that’s me, and it’s probably you) can’t enter God’s merciful kingdom unless we rewire our brains.  As we climb the social ladder, the harder our task becomes.  Not only will we not feel the pain of less fortunate people, we will not want to feel their pain.

Moreover, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who propound clever theories to explain why helping poor people only creates dependency.  These arguments are sleazy, silly and self-serving, but, reinforced by prominent pulpiteers, pundits and politicians, they sound like common sense.  Stay too long in this echo chamber and Jesus is the one who sounds silly.  Eventually, we can’t hear him at all.  We still talk about loving Jesus, but we are worshiping a word, not a person.

So, what’s the alternative?

The first step is to take Jesus at his word, even if that word runs counter to the messages screaming from the smart phone, computer and television screens that shape our thinking.

Secondly, we must find a circle of like-minded disciples who share our desire to take Jesus at his word.  If you don’t have such a circle, create one from scratch (I realize that this can be socially awkward, but your salvation depends on it).

There is good news.  Mounting evidence suggests that American Christianity, evangelical, mainline and Roman Catholic, is beginning to feel the deep contradiction between Jesus and American common sense.  People who take the Bible seriously can’t lie to themselves forever.

Mercifully, Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff.

Fear, faith and the border children

I stand with childrenBy Alan Bean

While politicians apportion blame for the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at our border, the faith community looks for ways to help.

I over-simplify, of course.  We confront a complex tangle of rhetoric and response, and there are plenty of exceptions on both sides of the politician/people divide.

Not all politicians want to send these unaccompanied children back to the chaos and violence that brought them to our border.

Clay Jenkins
Clay Jenkins

A few weeks ago, I heard Dallas County Judge, Clay Jenkins, announce that we would be welcoming at least 2,000 “border children” to our community.  Jenkins told the crowd that 85% of these children would be released into the safe keeping of family members as soon as they were processed by immigration officials; but the remaining 15% needed a safe place where they could receive food, shelter and basic services.  Last week, I attended a religious gathering hosted by a prominent Baptist mega-church at which Jenkins repeated his message to a room dominated by evangelical Christians.

On both occasions, the audience responded with a mixture of enthusiasm, surprise and relief.  If felt so strange to hear a politician speaking from sheer conviction.  Jenkins knew his initiative would be controversial, but when his own children asked him what he was going to do about the kids being warehoused at the border, his faith forced the issue.  He knew what Jesus would do, and didn’t dare take the opposite position.

Texas State Rep. David Simpson
Texas State Rep. David Simpson

And then there’s Texas state representative David Simpson, a telegenic Tea Party conservative with a cowboy hat and a smile.  Simpson outraged his constituency last week by urging a compassionate response to the border children.  “I don’t believe in treating people who’ve crossed the border as a murderer,” Simpson told a town hall gathering dominated by anti-immigrant activists.  “I do think there should be a path, a legal path, for naturalization or citizenship. We’re a nation of immigrants.”

Like Clay Jenkins, David Simpson is taking his cue from his religion.  He quoted Proverbs 20:28, Deuteronomy 10:18-19 and Leviticus 19:33, passages that call for compassionate treatment of resident aliens, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Unfortunately, Jenkins and Simpson are bucking the political consensus.  The prevailing view is that we should send the children back to their homes without delay even if we have to rescind the 2008 William Wilberforce Act to do it.

The Wilberforce Act passed in the dying days of the George W. Bush administration, thanks to the tireless efforts of an unlikely coalition of conservative and liberal organizations.  President Bush welcomed the legislation and it enjoyed the enthusiastic support of evangelical Christians.  Immigrant children from Central America were being targeted by human traffickers and backers of the Wilberforce Act wanted the abuse to stop.

Six years later, Washington is on the verge of scrapping the bill.  No one anticipated tens of thousands of children fleeing north to escape violent drug gangs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.  Why should we care whether the children huddled in our detention centers are being forced into sexual slavery or into the drug trade.  Children are children; pain is pain.

Prominent politicians on both sides of the ideological divide are holding their hands over their ears to block the elegant logic of compassion.  These kids fled their homes because they feared for their lives and only in America can they be protected.  But Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Boehner, and both Democratic and Republican candidates for Texas governor want to toss the children back into the fire.

But the tide is turning.  You can feel it.  Last week, rallies were organized across the nation to protest the compassionate treatment of the border children.  In some localities only a handful of protesters showed up at these events, and in many cities proponents of compassionate immigration reform outnumbered anti-immigration people two or three to one.

And the surprises just keep coming.  Glenn Beck, the conservative firebrand, organized a caravan of provisions for the border children a few days ago.  Beck feared his followers wouldn’t like the idea (they didn’t), but his heart forced his hand.

George Will
George Will

And then there’s the conservative curmudgeon, George Will, telling the Sunday talk shows that America should welcome the border children with open arms.

“We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school and get a job and become Americans.  We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can’t assimilate these 8-year-old ‘criminals’ with their teddy bears is preposterous.”

Sure, Will is taking a lot of flak for his outspoken views, but I suspect he is buoyed by a tangible shift in the public mood.

Russell Moore
Russell Moore

Much of the credit for changing hearts and minds on this issue goes to conservative Christians. Recently, a contingent of Southern Baptist leaders and Roman Catholic bishops toured the overcrowded immigration facilities at the border.  Speaking at Parkhills Baptist Church in San Antonio, Russell Moore, the outspoken president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, pared the issue back to its theological core:

“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I recognize the answer to this question is going to be very complex politically and very complex socially.  But what is not complex is the truth and reality that every one of these children are created in the image of God, and every one are beloved by God and they matter to God. That means they matter to us.”

The tidal wave of compassion is building deep in the heart of Texas.  Cindy Noble Cole, a Dallas nurse, saw televised pictures of frightened children housed in what appeared to be dog kennels.  So she filled 50 hygiene boxes for the kids and delivered them to Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.  What began as a simple “this is what I’m doing” post on Facebook, quickly blossomed into Operation Matthew 25, a movement that has already sent 500 boxes of hygienic supplies, blankets, activity boxes and school supplies to the border.

Operation Matthew 25I first became aware of Operation Matthew 25 when scores of Facebook friends replaced the usual Glamour shot on their homepage with a little picture that reads, “I stand with refugee children: they are children.”

The folks highlighted above are all over the map politically and theologically, but they understand the elegant logic of Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as you did it unto these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me.”

The growing people/politician divide on this issue is driven by a simple fact: politicians are running on fear; most people, when they’re sane and centered, are running on faith.

Compassion for the stranger and the alien is central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious teaching.  Jesus opened his public ministry with a quotation from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to preach good news to the poor,” and he closed out his public ministry with the parable of the sheep and the goats. In the kingdom of God, Jesus says, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

Distracted by politics and our ubiquitous culture war, Christians frequently lose sight of this teaching.  But then we have all these children on our doorstep, and the words of Jesus come flooding back to us.  And when that happens, we do what must be done.

Dallas preacher says Jesus would seal the border

JeffressBy Alan Bean

The Rev. Robert Jeffress thinks Jesus would build a fence at the U.S. border so desperate children from violence-ridden countries would be discouraged from heading north.

“Yes, Jesus loved children,” Jeffress admits, “but he also respected law. He said, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars.”

In other words, Christians shouldn’t trouble themselves with immigration policy; that’s Caesar’s concern.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, once suggested that Barack Obama is preparing the world for the coming of Antichrist, so his “Caesar” reference probably doesn’t mean that we should leave immigration policy in the hands of the presiding president.  He means instead that everything Jesus said about welcoming children, and all the warnings he pronounced against those who harden their hearts against the pain of young ones, is irrelevant to American immigration policy.

Sure, Christians must be kind to the children they encounter within the suburban bubble, but the boys and girls of Honduras simply are on their own.

Since nothing can be done for the unaccompanied migrant children on our doorstep, the most compassionate course is to build a border wall so thick and so tall that the poor little blighters will have no choice but to return to the violence and squalor that drove them into the arms of America.

That young girl of seven or eight, carrying her two-year old sister on her back has spawned a crisis of conscience among American Christians.

On the whole, we have responded admirably.  “This is an unfortunate, even awful, situation for everyone,” said David Hardage,  Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “So much of what has happened and is happening is out of our control. What we can control is our response to human need. We will try to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.”

Hardage sees Jesus standing on the side of desperate children, an assumption shared by most Texas Baptists.

Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, compressed the issue to a simple question: “If Jesus was standing here with us, what would he tell us to do? That sounds kind of basic, but that’s the deal.”

That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Robert Jeffress doesn’t provide the expected answer.  He thinks Jesus would slam the door.  Call it tough love. (more…)

My Christmas Eve Epiphany

By Alan Bean

I have been driven to a startling conclusion: the God who burns with compassion for the outcast is our salvation.  That simple message fueled the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’ solidarity with the poor wasn’t stressed much in the churches I knew as a child.  No one denied that the Savior cared for the poor or that charity was a Christian virtue; but we were taught that Jesus came to save our souls for heaven.  Period.  End of story.  That being so, the Savior’s compassion for the poor and marginalized was theologically irrelevant.

Charity was never disparaged, understand.  Saved people were expected to show kindness to vulnerable and needy people; but these acts of kindness had nothing to do with “getting saved” or, more precisely, salvation had nothing to do with these acts of kindness.  Despite what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, concern for “the less fortunate” was optional.  Technically, if Ebenezer Scrooge, in full bah- humbug mode, had believed that Jesus Christ died for his sins, he had his ticket to heaven.  Good works might suggest that you were being sanctified, but they had nothing to do with salvation, so Ebenezer, the unrepentant sinner, was saved.  God might not like it; but those were the rules.

Then we stumble into the Gospels, a world where salvation means deep identification with the poor.    We don’t earn our salvation by caring for the poor; God’s love for a broken humanity is our salvation.  In this we see the glory of God.

This came home to me in a powerful way this Christmas eve in a weird, stream of consciousness collage.  Given the season, we might as well call it an epiphany. (more…)

Of hell and hell fire: it’s not what you think

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C.S. Lewis as a young man

We worship a bi-polar deity, most of us anyway.  Our God is the very definition of love . . . but, like the killer bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “he’s got a vicious streak a mile wide.”

We are taught that God is love.  We are taught that God consigns the wicked to hell for eternity.  Surely both can’t be true?

C.S. Lewis (who, like Jack Kennedy, died fifty years ago today), captured this dilemma beautifully in The Pilgrim’s Regress.  It was his first crack at Christian apologetics written shortly after his conversion to Christianity in 1929.  The allegory is set in the land of Puritania where a young boy named John is taken, as all young boys eventually are, to meet the Steward.  Puritania is owned by “the Landlord”, a shadowy figure who has gone abroad and left his vast domains in the hands of a caretaker.  Lewis was always at his best writing about children, and his description of John’s visit to the Steward is so good I will give you the whole story just as he wrote it: (more…)

Jesus, the Bible and gay rights

By Alan Bean

I remember back in 1978 when Harold Lindsell published Battle for the Bible.   I was in my final year at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  None of my professors thought much of Lindsell’s diatribe.  In fact, he was written off as a silly man with antiquated ideas.

Forty-five years later, Lindsell’s Simple Simon theology is the controlling ideology at my alma mater and throughout the evangelical world.  To argue otherwise is to surrender your orthodoxy card.

The change didn’t come gradually.  In fact, it all happened while I was working on my doctorate at Southern.  When I arrived in 1989, the school was much as it had been in 1978, moderate, cautious, and, within strict limits, tolerant of theological diversity.  There was no room for genuine liberals, of course (this is the Southern Baptist Convention we’re talking about); but God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it conservatives were also not welcome.

By the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma from newly installed president Albert Mohler the school had changed beyond recognition.   (more…)

As Jesus Loved

Brent Beasley preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth

John 13:1-17, 31-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

. . . Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

There is actually nothing original or brand new in these words of Jesus that we are to love one another. The commandment to love one another goes back much, much further than Jesus himself. It is one of the themes that is cited again and again all through the Old Testament. And Jesus had certainly repeated those words again and again as he walked the ways of the earth during the days of his flesh.

So, what, then, is the special nuance that made this final mandate at the last supper so special and so memorable, as it is, right down to this very moment?

John Claypool, in preaching on this text, said that he believed what made Jesus’ words unique and special was that qualifying phrase that Jesus added: as I have loved you. Not just Love one another but As I have loved you, love one another. (more…)