Friday, June 30, 2017

The Joy of Turning 80

As hard as it is to believe, my dear wife June celebrates her 80th birthday today. In that connection I thought about writing an article titled “Life Begins at 80”—but that seems to be pushing it.
Why Is It a Joy to Turn 80?
June Tinsley Seat (6/28/17)
When I mentioned this title to June, she was not overly impressed—and she reminded me that I was not there yet—which is true: she is 411 days older than I. Still, as fast as time passes I’ll be celebrating my 80th before long.
Why is it a joy? she asked. Even though it is somewhat of a cliché, I replied, Well, it is a joy compared with the only possible alternative.
It is certainly true that some people dearest to June didn’t even come close to celebrating their 80th birthday. Her own father died at the age of 47. June’s idolized maternal grandmother died in 1926 at the very young age of 41.
While June had other close relatives who lived to 80 and well beyond—her mother lived to 93—it is a blessing for her to turn 80 when so many others did not make it to that age. 
Things that Make for Joy
There are several factors that make June’s turning 80 a special joy, both to her and to me. Let me list a few.
1) She is in good health. That is mainly because, I think, that through the decades she has observed good health habits, such as keeping her weight down and exercising regularly.
2) She has maintained a very good relationship with her children and grandchildren through the years—and there are a lot of years! In June’s case she has been a mother for more than 208½ years and a grandmother for more than 136½ years (figured by adding how long she has been a mother and grandmother for each of her four children and seven grandchildren.)
3) She has kept her commitments and has bloomed where she was planted. One commitment was her marriage vows to me—and I appreciate her putting up with me for more than 721 months now. And in spite of struggles of the language and the challenge of rearing children overseas and of being separated from them when they returned to the U.S. for college, she has made the most of her 38 years in Japan and then for the last 13 years back here in the States.
All the above means that she has basically lived a life without regrets, and for any of us that is of utmost importance.
“Live your life so that at the end of it you’ll have no regrets” is a piece of advice that is sometimes given to young people. Whether anyone said those words to June or not—and she certainly is not at the end yet—that, I believe, is the way she has lived in the more than 62 years I have known her.
That is a large part of the joy she has now in turning 80.
What about You?
A few of my regular blog readers have already turned 80. Most haven’t.
So, to all of you who are about my age and will soon celebrate your 80th birthday like June does today, and especially to all of you who are younger—especially much younger—I encourage you to take care of your health, your relationships, and your commitments.
Most importantly, live your life so that when (or if) you turn 80 you’ll have the joy of celebrating that milestone with few regrets.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Lies We Believe about God

Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) by James W. Loewen is an interesting and important book. Following that lead, a few years ago I did some preliminary work on a book titled Lies My Preacher Told Me. It could have been a good book—but, alas, I didn’t get it written. Earlier this year, however, Wm. Paul Young has published a somewhat related book, Lies We Believe about God.
Young’s Theology
As most of you remember, Young is the author of the bestselling novel The Shack (2007), which I wrote about in a blog article posted on March 5. (There were more pageviews than usual on that post.)
Young also wrote the fantasy novel Eve (2015). (My May 5 article on that book got fewer pageviews than usual.)
This piece is about Young’s new book, which is not a novel but a theological reflection about God. In it, Young deals with 28 different “lies” that he thinks many people believe about God.
Young also wrote the Foreword for Richard Rohr’s new book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (2016). Among other things, Young graphically averred, 
Bad theology is like pornography—the imagination of a real relationship without the risk of one. It tends to be transactional and propositional rather than relational and mysterious. You don’t have to trust Person, or care for Person. It becomes an exercise in self-gratification that ultimately dehumanizes the self and the community of humanity in order to avoid the painful processes of humbling and trusting. Bad theology is not a victimless crime. It dehumanizes God and turns the wonder and the messy mystery of intimate relationship into a centerfold to be used and discarded.
Young thinks that many popular ideas about God are pornographic, in the way he just expressed. Those ideas express bad theology, for they are lies believed about God. So he sets out to state good/correct theological statements about God.
For the most part, I think Young did a commendable job. Naturally, there are some who disagree—and the more conservative/traditional a person is, the more they will likely disagree with Young’s theology.
Young’s Perceived Lies about God
In general, Young says that all ideas about God that depict God as in any way vengeful or vindictive are not true. All views about God that fail to embrace God’s grace, God’s unconditional love and acceptance of all people, are “lies” about God.
Further, all statements that exclude people from God’s embrace or locate them outside the reach of God’s forgiveness are also seen as lies.
“Every human being you meet, interact with, react and respond to, treat rudely or with kindness and mercy: every one is a child of God,” says Young (on p. 206).
Conservative Christians do not like Young’s emphases for two main reasons: they appear to be universalistic (everyone is forgiven/”saved”) and they deny the idea of the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ.
According to Young, God does not need to be appeased. God’s wrath does not need to be assuaged. God’s righteousness does not need to be “satisfied.”
Is “Penal Substitutionary Atonement” a Lie about God?
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held earlier this month. As always, there were several resolutions deliberated and passed at that meeting. One was titled “On the Necessity of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”
In a news article about that resolution, Bob Allen of Baptist News Global mentioned Young’s criticism of that penal substitutionary theory of atonement. As noted above, Young thinks it is one of the lies believed about God.
Is he right?
Let’s think more about that important issue soon.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Loving Relationship

As many of you know, June and I married 60 years ago, in May 1957. But another young couple who were very much in love at that time couldn’t be legally married in Virginia where they lived, for they were of different races. The law against miscegenation was finally struck down 45 years ago this month.
Meet Richard and Mildred
Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in Center Point, a small village in Caroline County on the eastern side of Virginia.
Richard was white and Mildred was of mixed race: African-American and American Indian. In Center Point the three prevalent racial/ethnic groups socialized freely, very different from the county and the state as a whole.
Their story is told in one of 2016’s top movies, the historical drama film “Loving.” Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-born Irish actress, won an Oscar nomination for her sparkling performance as Mildred. June and I greatly enjoyed watching the movie in April, soon after it came out on DVD.
Then, earlier this year Loving vs. Virginia, a “documentary novel” by Patricia Hruby Powell, was published, primarily for high school students. I found it to be a delightful read. Powell’s story starts in the fall of 1952 and ends in the summer of 1967. Here is a picture of Richard and Mildred in 1967:
Richard and Mildred’s Marriage
Since they grew up in the same community, Richard and Mildred knew each other earlier, but their romantic relationship seems to have started in October 1955, about the same time June and I started dating. But they had to face issues we didn’t. For example, a couple of months later when they drove to a nearby town to see a movie, they had to go up to the dirty balcony, for that was the only place where “coloreds” were allowed.
By September 1956, when June and I were engaged, Mildred realizes she was pregnant—but marriage was not an option for them in Virginia. In January 1957 their baby was born—and Lola Loving, Richard’s mother, was the midwife who delivered her own grandchild. 
The next year the couple finally went to Washington, D.C., to be legally married there on June 2, 1958. (Marriage between blacks and whites had long been legal in D.C.; two years after his first wife died, Frederick Douglass legally married a white woman there in 1884.)
Richard and Mildred’s Troubles
Five weeks after their marriage, Richard and Mildred were staying with her parents. At 3 a.m. the Caroline County sheriff broke into the bedroom where they were sleeping and arrested them. This was the beginning of jail time, trials, and their “exile” to D.C.
In the summer of 1963, the summer when MLK, Jr., publically orated about his dream, Mildred Loving also had a dream. She deeply desired for her marriage to be legally recognized in Virginia, for she was tired of living in the city and dreamed of going back home to Center Point.
So, Mildred boldly wrote Bobby Kennedy, who was then the U.S. Attorney General. Kennedy’s office recommended that she contact the ACLU—which she did. Two young lawyers, Bernard Cohen and Philip Hirschkop, took the Lovings’ case.
Even though they were still in their 20s, the lawyers took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in favor of the Lovings on June 12, 1967.

From the mid-1950s until his tragic death in a car accident caused by a drunken driver, Richard and Mildred seem to have had a very loving relationship (pun intended). And they paved the way for other people in love to be able to marry legally in spite of racial differences.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Burning Bernie

Last week Sen. Bernie Sanders made some strong statements about Pres. Trump’s nominee for Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Sanders has been severely criticized for those utterances, even by some who are not Republicans or conservative evangelicals.
Bernie’s Statements
Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee, appeared before the Senate Budget Committee on June 8. There he was subjected to stiff questioning by Sen. Sanders. At issue was what Vought had written last year in support of Wheaton College’s decision to fire Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor.
As you may remember, Hawkins was terminated over the controversy sparked by her donning a hijab in a gesture of solidarity with Muslims in the U.S. She also declared that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
In defending Wheaton’s action, Vought wrote that Hawkins’s views were mistaken. “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology, they do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned,” he asserted.
In response to those remarks, Sanders declared that what Vought wrote was “hateful,” “Islamaphobic,” and “an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.”
He went on to say that Vought “is not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.” Further, “This country since its inception has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms, whether it is racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and Islamaphobia.”
He added, “Over the years we have made progress to becoming a less discriminatory and more tolerant society, and we must not go backwards.”  
Burning Bernie
As might be expected, Sen. Sanders was widely attacked from the religious right. Some called him bigoted against evangelical Christians.
I was surprised that even some moderate Christians were also quite critical of Bernie. For example, Amanda Tyler, the new Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), wrote critically of Sanders on June 9 (here).
Tyler averred that “Sanders’ line of questioning imposed a religious test, which is forbidden by Article VI of the Constitution.”
Michael Gerson wrote along the same lines in a June 12 op-ed piece in the Washington Post.
Agreeing with Bernie
As you might guess, there were also some who wrote in support of Sanders’ position. Here is the link to one such well-written piece, and I basically agree with it.
While I am a strong supporter of religious liberty and usually agree with the BJC, I think their (Tyler’s) criticism of Bernie missed the point.
What Vought said about Muslims, of course, he could also have said about Jews, or Buddhists—or about the large percentage of the population who do not profess faith in any religion. As a private citizen he has every right to hold to his religious convictions.
Is it not a problem, though, when people in public office openly state that everyone who has other, or no, religious beliefs is “condemned”? While personal beliefs can perhaps be intolerant, the stance of public officials must be for tolerance of people of all faiths. That, I think, was Bernie’s point.
Moreover, what Article VI of the Constitution says is that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” It doesn’t say that people can or should never be disqualified because of their religious beliefs.
Some people in the past held strong religious beliefs about the validity of slavery or of polygamy, and more recently some have held religious beliefs that condemn LGBT people. While such people have the freedom to hold such beliefs, should they be in public office?
Probably not. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Remembering Reinie

Reinhold (“Reinie”) Niebuhr was born 125 years ago, on June 21, 1892. His picture was on the cover of the March 8, 1948, issue of Time magazine, their 25th anniversary issue. His last major book was published in 1952 and he died in 1971. But in just the last week he has been prominently mentioned in an article in The New Yorker (here), and the major subject in some religious publications (such as here and here).
Who Was Reinhold Niebuhr?
I used to tell my Introduction to Theology students in Japan that Reinhold Niebuhr was the greatest theologian born in Missouri. (They knew that I was from Missouri.) That, I believe, is manifestly true still today.
Son of a German Evangelical Synod pastor, Reinie, as he was called by his friends, went to college and seminary in Missouri and Illinois and then earned B.D. and M.A. degrees at Yale Divinity School. But he became a pastor at an early age and never completed doctoral studies.
After thirteen formative years (1915~28) as pastor of the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Niebuhr was elected to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. He taught Christian social ethics until his retirement in 1960.
Niebuhr lectured and preached widely and wrote profusely. He gained prominence in the theological world with the publishing of his Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics in 1932.
In 1939 Niebuhr delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Those lectures were the basis of his most important book, two volumes published under the title The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941, 1943).
Reinie died three weeks before his 79th birthday (just about the same exact age that I am now). 
Niebuhr's Influence 
Although educated in liberal schools, Niebuhr became an outspoken critic of theological liberalism. (I referred to that criticism in my book The Limits of Liberalism; see especially pages 27-28). Thus, he became one of the most important proponents of what has usually been called neo-orthodox theology.
Niebuhr’s influence, however, extended far beyond the world of theology. With his distinctive emphasis on “Christian realism,” he created waves in the secular world as well.
Reinie was criticized from various sides. As his early biographer Jane Bingham wrote in Courage to Change (1961), “. . . if his ideas were too orthodox for the liberals, they were too liberal for the orthodox; and if too secular for the religious, they were too religious for the secular” (pp. 44-45).
But Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has stated quite accurately (in this 2005 article) that Niebuhr was “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century.” And his influence was and is particularly notable in the world of politics.
Through the years Niebuhr has been highly evaluated by many in that world, including President Carter and President Obama—and James Comey.
Niebuhr's Relevance Today 
Two days ago (June 8) was widely designated as “Comey Day.” Former, and fired, FBI Director James Comey spent hours that day testifying before both open and closed sessions of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Recent background stories about Comey have reported that his senior graduating thesis at College of William and Mary (in 1982) contrasted Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell.
Niebuhr’s influence on Comey was/is also seen when a sleuth discovered that “Reinhold Niebuhr” was the name of Comey’s secret Twitter account.
One of Niebuhr’s central points may be particularly related to Comey’s statement about DJT being a liar. Niebuhr wrote much and convincingly about sin and emphasized, as one author succinctly stated (p. 89 in this book), “Dishonesty is sin’s final expression.”
This is a good time to remember Reinie and the relevant things he wrote.
NEW MOVIE/BOOK ABOUT NIEBUHR – In March of this year, “American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story,” a new documentary film was released on DVD. Jeremy L. Sabella’s book with the same name was also published in March. (June 10, 8:30 p.m. -- After posting this article early this morning, June and I were able to watch the documentary this evening, streamed from our local PBS channel. It was excellently done and I highly recommend it.)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Political Cartoons: Helpful or Harmful?

Political cartoons have had a long and venerable history in the U.S.—but are they helpful for spurring private thought and civil public debate, or are they divisive and promoters of increased polarization in society?

     I have long enjoyed political cartoons. During the nearly seven years we lived in Kentucky, June and I enjoyed a great many of Hugh Haynie’s cartoons that appeared regularly in Louisville’s daily newspaper.
   Haynie (1927-99) drew for The Courier-Journal from 1958 to1996. Here is one of his cartoons, showing LBJ’s opposition to the media:  
     After settling into our retirement home in Missouri in 2005, we have regularly enjoyed great cartoons by Lee Judge in the Kansas City Star. Here is one of his cartoons from 2014.  
     In recent years I have also regularly read the Washington Post online and have enjoyed the outstanding political cartoons of Tom Toles. Here is one of my favorites: 
     And here is a rather powerful cartoon that I saw just last week in the National Catholic Reporter; it is by Stuart Carlson, a cartoonist I don’t remember seeing before: 
     If a picture is worth a thousand words, as it is often said, a political cartoon (with just a few words) must be worth at least two thousand words—or more.

     Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was one of the first and most influential political cartoonists in the United States. Recently I have read some of two fascinating books about him: Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons (2013) by Fiona Deans Halloran and Thomas Nast: America’s Greatest Political Cartoonist (2014) by Jay G. Williams. 
      I first became aware of Nast years ago when working on a talk or article about Santa Claus. Beginning in the 1860s, Nast’s cartoons about Santa shaped the nation’s image of the “jolly old elf.” 
     Nast is also credited for being the first to use an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and he also popularized the donkey (or jackass) to symbolize the Democratic Party. 
     Through the years Nast’s cartoons appeared mostly in Harper’s Weekly, which in 1861 had a readership of 120,000 and remained above 100,000 throughout the war years. 
     It was during the Civil War that Nast’s cartoons were especially influential. On September 3, 1864, his cartoon “Compromise with the South” appeared in Harper’s Weekly
      As noted in, Nast’s message is clear: “If compromise with the Confederacy is pursued, then Union servicemen will have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and black Americans will be returned to slavery.” 
     Many of Nast’s cartoons in later years were strongly against politicians he opposed. Many were so strong it some people even thought that the word nasty was derived from the name of the hard-hitting cartoonist. 
    Some of his most severe criticism targeted “Boss” Tweed of New York. Regarding Nast’s cartoons, Tweed reportedly said, “Stop them damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!” 

     Interesting as they may be, I wonder if political cartoons may often be harmful to civil public discourse. We tend to like those cartoons with which we agree and dislike those with which we disagree. Thus, I like most of Judge’s and Toles’s cartoons, but very much dislike most of those (few) I see by Glenn McCoy, such as: 
     So, are political cartoons generally helpful as a means of spurring deeper thought and civil public debate—or are they mainly harmful, promoting greater divisiveness and polarization? 
     What do you think?