Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Bible is Like a Rorschach Test

Long before I read Brian Zahnd’s new book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God I had made a note to use the above title for a future blog article. Thus, I was surprised when I read this in BZ’s book: “Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test: our interpretation of the text reveals more about ourselves than about God” (p. 14). Quite true!
Literal and Metaphorical Rorschach Tests
Rorschach inkblot #10
The story of the background and development of the Rorschach test is thoroughly told in a book by Damion Searls published earlier this year under the title The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing. (I have only scanned the book, but here is the link to Thinking Friend Clif Hostetler’s review of it.)  
Rorschach created the inkblots test for the purpose of psychological analysis and evaluation. But the popularity of those tests has resulted in their metaphorical use also.
In his book, Searls reports that in 1993 Hillary Clinton said to an Esquire reporter, “I’m a Rorschach test” (p. 263). And then in 2008 Barack Obama said to a New York Times reporter, with a somewhat different meaning, “I am like a Rorschach test” (p. 309).
Truly, as the Rorschach test amply illustrates, people look at the same thing, or same person, and come to widely different conclusions about the nature and significance of those things or persons.
That is true for the Bible also.
The Bible as a Rorschach Test
How people read and interpret the Bible varies greatly. For example, the Bible as seen by fundamentalist Christians is different in multifarious ways from how it is seen by those of us who are not fundamentalists.
The passages of the Bible a person chooses for evaluating current issues tells us a lot about that person. Their use of the Bible is, truly, like a Rorschach test.
For a case in point, consider Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Last month (here) I quoted Jeffress saying that God has given Pres. Trump the authority to “take out” Kim Jong-un. That dangerous assertion is based on his selection and interpretation of “God’s Word” as found in Romans 13.
Then on Sept. 11, in commenting on the immigration issue and the “Dreamers,” Jeffress told Fox News (see here) that “God is not necessarily an open borders guy.”
According to the Dallas pastor, the Bible teaches that God has established borders and instituted the government to protect its citizens. Thus, he says, those Christians who emphasize compassion based on Gen. 1:27 are telling only one side of the story.
It seems quite clear than when Jeffress looks at the Bible, he sees a book that supports the current President of the U.S. and the bulk of the Republican Party. That doesn’t tell us much about the Bible, but it tells us a lot about Jeffress and the “evangelicals” who agree with him.
The Proper Criterion
In his book mentioned above, Zahnd emphasizes that all of the Bible should be read from the viewpoint of Jesus. That is, the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, and all other parts of the Bible must be interpreted in light of the life and teachings of Jesus.
Baptists used to have it right: the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message clearly and importantly stated: “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
Thus, when Jesus is the basis for interpreting the Bible, we find a perspective considerably different from that of Pastor Jeffress.
What does your interpretation of the Bible say about you?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Problems with Philanthropy

To the Stars through Difficulties is a new book by Kansas author Romalyn Tilghman. I recently read Romalyn’s delightful novel and enjoyed hearing her discuss it on Wednesday afternoon.
The Case of Andrew Carnegie
The Carnegie libraries of Kansas are the backdrop of Tilghman’s novel. Early on she informs her readers that industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) built 59 libraries in Kansas in the early 1900s and that “he gave the country 1689 libraries that served thirty-five million people by 1919.”
That is impressive philanthropy! And it is only part of what Carnegie did with his great wealth.
But on the same page Romalyn acknowledges Carnegie’s “despicable treatment of mineworkers, including the murder of seven men in his attempt to break up the union,” and reports that some Kansas communities “refused to take his tainted money even for the promise of a library.“
She then rightly states that Carnegie was “both a philanthropist and robber baron (p. 7).”  
The Case of John D. Rockefeller
Andrew Carnegie vied with John D. Rockefeller as being the richest man in the world. Like Carnegie, Rockefeller (1839-1937) also started life in rather humble circumstances but through hard work, ingenuity, and shrewd business deals he also became a man of great wealth.
From boyhood and throughout his lifetime Rockefeller was a faithful Baptist church member—and a tither. From his early 50s, he deliberately began his philanthropic activities.
A chapter in Ellen Greenman Coffey’s small book John D. Rockefeller is titled “The Pious Robber Baron.”
In a later chapter, “An Investment in Good Works,” Greenman tells of Rockefeller’s increasing involvement in giving his money away under the tutelage of Frederick T. Gates, a young Baptist minister whom he employed.
Among the many projects Gates (1853-1929) led his boss to support, one of the best-known is the Rockefeller Foundation, established in 1913 after years of planning.
Rockefeller’s philanthropic work, however, was partly in response to the negative publicity he had suffered from Ida Tarbell’s 1904 book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, in which she depicted Rockefeller as “miserly, money-grabbing, and viciously effective at monopolizing the oil trade.”  
The Case of Joan Kroc
Recently, June and I watched “Founder,” the 2016 movie about Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald’s restaurants into the wealthiest fast food chain in the world—but not without the use of devious means.
Joan was Krok’s third wife. They married in 1969, when Ray was 67 years old, and she inherited his wealth after his death in 1984. Their story is told in Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book titled Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.
Joan’s $1.5 billion gift to Salvation Army is said to be the largest philanthropic gift ever made by an individual in the U.S. The bulk of that gift has been used to build and maintain 26 Kroc Centers throughout the country.  
Problems with Philanthropy
Very summarily, here are some problems with philanthropy, clearly seen in that of the three people mentioned above:
(1) There is a problem of how the wealth of the philanthropists is gained, particularly when it is by exploitation of workers and shrewd (bordering on illegal) business practices.
(2) Then, most philanthropists tend to aggrandize themselves in their charitable giving. Everyone knows of Carnegie libraries, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Kroc centers.
(3) And then consider these insightful words by William Jewett Tucker, a contemporary critic of Carnegie:
I can conceive of no greater mistake, more disastrous in the end to religion if not to society, than of trying to make charity do the work of justice.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Are Anti-Gay People/Groups Hateful and Mean?

It is rather astounding that the straight/gay issue seems to be the most debated, most divisive, and most destructive point of contention among Christians and Christian organizations today. Is there any way to lessen the discord caused by this contentious wedge issue?
Opposition to the Nashville Statement
The gay/straight problem was thrust into the spotlight anew by the issuance of the “Nashville Statement” on Aug. 29. That statement by conservative Christian evangelicals vigorously upheld traditional marriage and rejected same-sex marriage. (Here is a link to the complete document.)
As could have easily been predicted, there was prompt opposition to the Nashville Statement, including derogatory comments about the signers, many of whom are Southern Baptist pastors and leaders of SB institutions and agencies.
Soon there were public statements from the other side, such as the one by the noted pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. On Aug. 30, she issued the “Denver Statement” which counters point by point the articles of the Nashville Statement.
Bolz-Weber’s statement does not denigrate or malign the signers of the Nashville Statement; she merely contradicts their arguments one by one.
But other opponents have called the signers of the Nashville Statement mean and hateful (homophobic).
Some of the signers may, in fact, be mean and hateful—but are they all and should they all be disdained in that disrespectful way?
Opposition to the SPLC
Perhaps emboldened by the Nashville Statement—or challenged by the opposition to it—on Sept. 6 forty-seven conservative evangelicals sent a letter (see here) asking the mainstream media not to cite data on hate groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). 
In part, they wrote:
The SPLC is a discredited, left-wing, political activist organization that seeks to silence its political opponents with a “hate group” label of its own invention and application that is not only false and defamatory, but that also endangers the lives of those targeted with it.
That is a rather defamatory statement against a group whose founder, Morris Dees, has been repeatedly targeted by his opponents.
Moreover, if SPLC identifies some anti-gay Christian organization as hate groups, it is because they have seen how some people have “acted out” against LGBTQ people on the basis of the stated position of those groups.
Opposition to the Opposition
Here is my stance on this prickly issue:
(1) I strongly disagree with the Nashville Statement and basically agree with the Denver Statement. Further, June and I have been supporters of the SPLC since we came back to the U.S. to live in 2004; we have sent monetary gifts to them every year since then and will continue to do so.
(2) Still, it is most likely that those who signed the Nashville Statement did so not because of malice but because of their religious convictions—and those convictions are held primarily because of the way they interpret the Bible.
(3) Admittedly, the anti-gay sentiments of the signers of the Nashville Statement can be, and have been, shamefully used to treat gay people in mean and hateful ways. But for most of the signers that is not their intention; many of them probably seek to be loving without being affirming.
(4) Since many gays and lesbians have been caused to suffer as a result of the teaching and/or preaching of conservative evangelical organizations and churches, the SPLC has every right to oppose the hateful activities which have been spurred by those groups.
(5) Judging others, calling them names, and ridiculing their beliefs only creates greater division, larger wedges, and more animosity. Thus, it is imperative for us Christians to work on building bridges between people with conflicting convictions and incompatible interpretations of the Bible.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Are Sinners Really in the Hands of a Loving God?

Brian Zahnd, founding pastor of the Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Mo., is a man I consider a new friend. I first met Brian on June 25 when I went to St. Joe to hear him preach, and then I drove back to St. Joe to have lunch with him on July 13. I have found him to be a warm and genuine person, an engaging preacher, and an author of engrossing books.
A Bit about BZ
June and I started referring to Brian Zahnd as BZ, partly because we know other Zahnds and other Brians. I could take this whole article just to introduce him, but I will make this part brief.
BZ was born in 1959 in Savannah, Mo., the oldest son of an attorney who later became a county judge. Glen Zahnd was also a leading member of the First Baptist Church in that county seat town.
When BZ was a high school student, he became a “Jesus freak,” and joined other young Christians who practiced their faith in “The Catacombs” in St. Joe. From that group he started the Word of Life Church when he was 22—and he is still the pastor of that congregation, which became and still is a megachurch.
Culminating in 2004, BZ experienced a rather drastic theological change. He turned from what he refers to as “cotton candy Christianity” to what he believes is a more authentic Christian faith based upon a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ.
Because of that change of emphasis, BZ told me that he lost about a thousand members from his church that had had a weekly attendance of about 4,000.
A Bit about BZ’s Books
BZ’s book Water to Wine: Some of My Story (2016) tells about his “conversion” in 2004. It was the first of his books that I read, and I found it fascinating.
Then I read BZ’s 2014 book titled A Farewell to Mars and really enjoyed it also. His views on war and peace are very much in harmony with that of the Mennonites—and he now often speaks at Anabaptist conferences, although his church is not affiliated with any denomination.
BZ’s newest book was released on August 15, and my reading of it prompted this article, for its title is Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.
The Point of BZ’s Newest Book
When he was a young charismatic/evangelical preacher, BZ made regular use of Johnathan Edwards’s (in)famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But his theological change in 2004 led BZ to reject what he came to call the “monster God” and to affirm God as the God of love for all people at all times.  
BZ’s emphasis on the unchangeable love of God led him to reject the doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ. (You can review here my recent article about PSA, which ended with reference to Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son.)
The cover illustration of BZ’s new book is of the prodigal son being welcomed by his loving father. That depiction of God as always loving, always forgiving, always accepting is the key to an adequate understanding of God.
Further, BZ’s emphasizes that “hell” is the terrible conditions some people experience in this life rather than as some future state of eternal punishment decreed by God. To BZ, no one at any time who wishes to experience the loving acceptance of God is ever rejected or caused to suffer punishment by God for any reason.
BZ’s book may seem odious to some conservative evangelical Christians, but it boldly, and correctly, promulgates the “scandalous truth” that sinners really are in the hands of a loving God.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Was DJT Right about “Both Sides”?

The President has been much criticized for his comments about “both sides” in his remarks about this month’s tragedy in Charlottesville. But let’s think a bit about his assertion that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” Was he perhaps right about that?
A Timely Quote
When I was still in college I remember hearing, and quoting, the following statement by American historian J.T. Adams (1878-1949), although it has also been attributed to various people, including Robert Louis Stevenson:  
I thought that statement was true in the 1950s—and I still do.
Adams’s pithy words are important for us especially in our relationships with the people closest to us—at home, school, church, and community.
But are they also applicable to all people, perhaps without exception.
A Time to Reflect
We are all beset by the tendency to condemn those we disagree with—and we often do that from a position of moral superiority or self-righteousness. Further, the stronger a fundamentalist (on the right or the left) one is, the stronger their certainty becomes.
Consider just one example from the far right. “The Wilkow Majority” is a regular program on the Patriot channel of Sirius XM satellite radio. It has been hosted by Andrew Wilkow since 2006.
At the end of each segment of his provocative program, Wilkow (b. 1972) proclaims, “We’re right! They’re wrong! End of story!”
What arrogance!
But, to be fair, there are some on the political/theological left who are similarly arrogant, even though they might not express that arrogance so blatantly.
Regardless of our theological or political position on issues, each of us needs to take time to reflect upon our own culpability. It is important to acknowledge the bad we find within ourselves as well as upon the good we see in others—even in those with whom we strongly disagree.
A Time to Resist
So DJT was probably right when he said that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” That was probably true in Charlottesville earlier this month as well as in the Civil War—and also in the Second World War.
General Robert E. Lee was a good and honorable man in many ways—but so were many of the men who fought for Germany or for Japan in WWII. Lee was not a demon, and neither were most of the Germans and Japanese who fought against the Allies.
There is good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us. But that certainly doesn’t mean that good people don’t sometimes do bad things, terribly bad things.
That was certainly the case with Lee, who was the leading general of the Confederate States Army that killed over 400,000 Union soldiers.
Those killed on both sides may have been Americans, but some were citizens of the United States of America and others had become citizens of the Confederate States of America—an alt-nation with its own constitution and president.
The CSA fought against and sought to defeat the USA as much as the Germans and Japanese did in the 1940s.
The basic problem is what people do, not whether or not they are “good people.” Whenever people, good or not, do bad things, they need to be opposed. Thus, there was ample reason for people, good and bad, to fight against Lee and his soldiers during the Civil War.
Accordingly, even if there were some “very fine people” among the alt-right white supremacists and KKK members who marched in Charlottesville, there was/is ample reason to resist them resolutely and to denounce them soundly for fanning the flames of racism.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Monumental Decisions

A 121-year-old Confederate monument came down. This Kentucky town put it back up.” That was the title of the top story on the front page of the Aug. 21 Washington Post. I read that article with great interest, for I used to live near that Kentucky town.
Controversy over Confederate Monuments
The violent incidents in Charlottesville, Vir., on Aug. 11-12 at the Unite the Right rally have greatly heightened the debate concerning Confederate monuments and statues in the U.S.
That rally, as most of you know, was held in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. It was erected in 1924 in a Charlottesville city park, which was subsequently named Lee Park.
In the first week of June this year, Lee Park’s name was changed to Emancipation Park. The rally in Charlottesville was in protest against the announced plan to remove the statue of Lee from the park.
The drama in that Virginia city is linked to the strong movement across the U.S. to remove Confederate flags, statues, and monuments from public places. That movement gained considerable strength following the tragic June 2015 shooting in the African-American church in Charleston, S.C.
Moving the Louisville Monument
The Confederate Monument in Louisville was a 70-foot-tall monument that was erected in 1895 on the campus of the University of Louisville. It was designed to commemorate the sacrifice of Confederate veterans who died in the Civil War.
During the last two months of 2016, the Louisville monument was moved to Brandenburg, Ky., an Ohio River town about 45 miles west of Louisville. Some 400 people attended the rededication ceremony, held on Memorial Day this year.
Brandenburg is the seat of Meade County, a small county of just over 28,000 people, predominantly white. Slightly over 4% were African-American according to the 2010 census. Meade Co. is also Trump country: nearly 71% voted for him in 2016.
The Monument at Brandenburg
From 1959 to 1963 June and I, along with our small children, lived in Ekron, a very small town less than seven miles from Brandenburg. We fairly often had picnics on the bank of the Ohio River, not far from where the Confederate monument is now located.
That was long before the bridge was built across the river, which you can see in the lower right corner of the following picture of the relocated monument. 
Debra Masterson, an assistant at the Meade County Chamber of Commerce, was one who worked to get the monument moved to Brandenburg. When her “boss” began to express misgivings, Masterson said. “You’re thinking, ‘What if people are talking about Brandenburg as KKK, as racists?’ Well, I don’t know any racists!”
Well, I don’t know much about Meade County now and have little remaining contact with the dear people we were so close to 55 years ago. But I know there were racists in Meade County, and in Ekron Baptist Church of which I was pastor, back then.
In another article (see here) I have given specific examples regarding the racism I experienced there. Suffice it to say here that while the schools were integrated then, there was strong de facto segregation in the local communities and sometimes expressions overt racism, perhaps especially in the churches.
States, cities, schools, etc. now have monumental decisions to make about what to do with existing Confederate monuments and memorials of all sorts. 
Moving such monuments/statues from cities with a sizeable percentage of African-Americans (such as Louisville) to predominantly white towns (such as Brandenburg) is probably not a helpful solution to the problem.
Maybe the time has come just to make decisions that will rid our nation of monuments honoring the racism of the past.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Can the Korean Peninsula be United Again?

Last Tuesday marked the 72nd anniversary of the end of the Pacific. That same day, August 15, 1945, has been celebrated ever since by both South Korea and North Korea as Liberation Day. The two Koreas, however, have long been divided. Can they ever be united again?
The Liberation of Korea
The Korean Peninsula was basically under Japanese rule from 1905 until the end of the Pacific War. The Russo-Japanese War (1904–05) was fought between the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over rival imperial ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. One spinoff of Japan’s victory in that war was the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905, which made Korea a protectorate of Imperial Japan.
Then with the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea and the latter was completely under Japan’s control until August 1945. With Japan’s defeat, Korea was finally freed from Japanese rule.
It is not surprising that August 15 is celebrated as Liberation Day in what soon became two Koreas.
The Division of Korea
Provisional military governments were set up in Korea after the peninsula’s liberation from Japan. Korea north of the 38th parallel fell under Russian control, the U.S. had command of Korea south of that line of demarcation.
Since no agreement could be reached on establishing a unified government, two nations emerged. After the May 1948 elections in the south, on August 15 the Republic of Korea formally took over power from the U.S. military, with Syngman Rhee as the first president.
In September 1948, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was established in the north. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current “supreme leader” of North Korea, became premier. 
The Reunification of Korea?
Kim Il-sung began the Korean War in 1950 in an attempt to reunify the entire peninsula—and we know how that turned out. An armistice was signed in July 1953 but no peace treaty was ever signed—so the two Koreas are technically still at war.
Among Koreans, perhaps especially among Korean Christians, there has long been a dream for the reunification of the two countries. This past Sunday (Aug. 13) the World Council of Churches was joined by the World Evangelical Alliance in a “Sunday of Prayer for the Peaceful Reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”
Fervent prayers for reunification were very prevalent twenty years ago. I remember being in Korea in 1997, at a time when there were strong prayers for, and the hope of, reunification in the “Jubilee Year,” the fiftieth year after the division of 1948.
Sadly, such unification seems less likely now than it did twenty years ago.
Kim Jong-un would doubtlessly agree to unification if he were allowed to be the head of the unified country. But there is no way South Korea would accept Kim’s remaining in power over all of Korea.
Similarly, there is no way Kim would give up power in order for there to be a unified Korea.
So, no, it doesn’t seem that the unification of Korea is possible short of a regime change in North Korea—but more than anything else the fear of such an attempt is fueling Kim’s frantic attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
Kim’s fear of being attacked is likely far greater than most fears in this country of being attacked by North Korea.
The U.S. strategy toward North Korea should focus on containment, on negotiation, as well on financial and technical aid for producing more food and services for the North Korean people—anything but “fire and fury.”