United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 5: Theologian Critiques 'One Church Plan'

When I was in seminary, my first year Greek class was taught by David Watson, who was at that time writing a doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Mark, and was easily one of my best teachers in my time at Perkins.  Today Dr. Watson is the dean of United Theological Seminary, one of our official United Methodist schools of theology, which has seen a renaissance under his leadership.  Dr. Watson is a clear thinking scholar who loves the Lord, the Church, and the Word of God.

Dr. Watson has also recently published a critical piece pointing out some major problems with the "One Church Plan" that many of our bishops hope (see previous post) will be adopted by General Conference in February as a way for the United Methodist Church to preserve its institutional unity in the midst of our disagreements over how to apply Biblical and traditional authority in the church, in particular as it relates to the issues of sexuality and the meaning of Christian marriage.

I heartily encourage you to read his full post: The One Church Plan: Problems of Governance and Theology.
As I let the bishops "speak for themselves" in the last post, I'll be making generous use of quotations in this one, so that Dr. Watson can speak for himself, with some comments of my own, of course.

As the title makes clear, Dr. Watson sees two major types of problems with the One Church Plan (OCP).  The first is a problem of governance.  In any large and diverse denomination, there will be some disagreement among the members about almost every issue.  The imperative thing for maintaining institutional unity, then, is to have a clear system for addressing these disagreements.  For United Methodists, that is the General Conference.  We have a clear system of authority in the UMC, but because the General Conference has consistently re-affirmed that classical teachings on sexual morality and the definition of marriage (and is likely to continue to do so under the current way of doing things), the authority that holds us together in the midst of our diversity is itself now being rejected by many Progressives and Liberals who have grown impatient with what they see as injustice in the system:

Yes, United Methodists disagree about homosexuality, but we have ways of dealing with disagreement. The threat of division is not the result of disagreement. Rather, the threat of division comes from the rejection of our processes for resolving disagreement by some segments of the church, including some of our bishops. I understand that those who have rejected our processes for the resolution of disagreement have done so out of a deep sense of moral obligation. We should be clear, however, that what we are facing is not simply a clash of ideologies, but a crisis of governance.

I believe that the Bishops, as a group, have greatly contributed to this crisis by continuously affirming as a group that they will uphold church teachings and church law, but then being apparently unwilling or unable to follow through when clergy (or even other bishops) choose to ignore church teachings as affirmed by the General Conference.
If General Conference itself can be discounted, how then can the diverse institution be held together?

The OCP's 'Local Option' offers a new approach to this problem.  I wonder, after reading Watson's assessment, if he believes we are moving toward a congregationalist polity (moving us closer to how Baptists operate), and away from the connectionalism that has historically been a defining feature of Methodism:

The solution they offer changes our governance, moving some decision-making authority to local churches, individuals, and annual conferences....Noteworthy is the move toward a polity based on individual conscience, rather than on the collective decisions of the church. One might object that the OCP shifts decision-making power only with regard to matters related to homosexuality, but its basic principle, clearly spelled out in its “Theological and Biblical Foundations,” is that our deep disagreement necessitates this shift. Were we to follow this same principle moving forward, whenever there is deep disagreement at the level of the General Conference, we should simply move decision-making power to local levels.

The One Church Plan involves moving decision making authority to a more local level in the church as a way of moving forward and helping to resolve our denomination-wide conflicts over human sexuality and theological authority.  I have long argued that I believe this will simply move us from an ugly fight that happens once every four years at General Conference to an ugly fight that happens every year at Annual Conference, and potentially even more frequently in the local Church.  Watson agrees:

I have particular concerns about the OCP at the local church level. It specifically states, “Local churches are not required to vote. Most would likely make no changes in practice at the local level” (15). It also affirms: “This plan minimizes disruption in the local church (in most cases) and gives freedom to churches to adapt in order to minister to the LGBTQ community in context” (15). This picture of the effects of the OCP on local churches is optimistic, to put it kindly. It would only take a very small vocal minority to push for a vote in any church. Most United Methodist churches represent a diverse array of opinions about matters related to LGBTQ persons. In time, most will likely vote if the OCP passes. This plan avers that it is merciful to allow churches to debate and decide issues related to LGBTQ people internally, rather than relying on the duly elected representatives to the General Conference. I would argue that this is not mercy, but cruelty. The church I attend, like so many others in United Methodism, would be torn apart were it forced into such a decision. Shifting the locus of authority from the General Conference to the Annual Conference, local church, and individual would not resolve our disagreements or bring peace, but rather metastasize the rancor and division that so characterizes our quadrennial gatherings.

Beyond issues of governance (church polity), the One Church Plan, says Dr. Watson, raises significant issues of theology.

There are also numerous theological problems. For example, a proposed amendment to ¶105 reads, “As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause person of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently” (20, italics mine). By this rationale, our disagreement results from God’s revelation of truth and grace. How God’s revelation and grace have led us into this confusion is unclear, as is God’s rationale for doing so. Apparently, God is in fact the author of confusion (contra 1 Cor 14:33). 

This is an interesting point.  In the italicized sentence "God's revelation" is what "may cause persons of good conscience" to disagree.  How can the Church officially affirm such a thing?  Surely it is our finitude or limitations or sins that "cause" our disagreements, and not God's own revelation?

So too Watson then suggests:
Perhaps a better rationale would be, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, NRSV). In other words, in our human brokenness and finitude, we may not be able always to perceive God’s truth with clarity. This would mean, however, that some people in our denominational debate have perceived God’s will more clearly than others, which the OCP is loathe to concede.

That some people are right and others are wrong is a concession that the OCP is not willing to make, but logic demands that it is clearly true in this case:
If there is a God who did indeed create marriage for his own purposes,
Then it cannot follow logically that our mutually-contradictory interpretations of what marriage means are both correct and both equally in harmony with the one Divine Will.  Such an assertion runs contrary to Reason.

Watson then goes on to note that the OCP document does not offer a theological rationale for its new revised definition of marriage, which means it could be an unstable definition resting (potentially) shifting sands.  What if, for instance, advocates of "open marriage" begin to assail the revised definition, if there is not a theological and Biblical rationale for why marriage must be monogamous?

While the promoters of the One Church Plan have described it as "generous" in allowing people with differing interpretations to stand together in unity, Watson does not believe that the OCP actually creates the "Neutral Ground" that it claims to make:

It is important to note that the OCP implicitly affirms same-sex marriage. By eliminating the stipulation that marriage is between one man and one woman, we are not simply creating space for a broad range of positions. We are implicitly stating that we recognize the validity of gay marriage as a denomination, even if some members of our denomination do not agree with our doing so. In other words, we have a case of addition by subtraction. Crucial to this point is that there is no local option attending the redefinition of marriage. It is a redefinition for the entire denomination. Committed traditionalists should not be happy with this.
Yet the OCP also allows clergy, local churches, and Annual Conferences to reject and even prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual people. Following the line of argument that progressives have made since the earliest days of our denomination, this is simply the continuation of a longstanding pattern of discrimination. It will allow United Methodists in some areas to act in ways that progressives have long claimed to be unjust, bigoted, hateful, and harmful.
All this is to say, the OCP does not create a neutral ground where all can stand in unity. Rather, it offers us a picture of the church in which the way we understand and practice marriage just is not all that important. Those who do think our understanding of marriage is a crucial part of our life together – those who hold deep theological and ethical convictions about marriage – will never be satisfied with this proposal.
Finally, Watson criticizes the way the One Church Plan document deploys the language of 'religious liberty'.  Long time readers of this blog will note that I have, along with many Libertarians, long been an advocate of addressing some hot-button culture war issues in the United States at the State and Local levels whenever possible, instead of forcing upon us a one-size fits all approach from the Federal Government which inevitably does not take into account the very real differences in cultures among the states.
Some may find it odd, then, that I oppose moving decision making about how the church will handle some of the same theological issues to a more local level.  But the difference is rooted in the vast difference between a nation (into which you are born, and which has the power to compel you to obey its laws - even by using physical violence) on the one hand, and a Christian Church on the other, which one freely joins on the other.  Watson explores this same issue in the final section of his piece:

Religious liberty is a notion at home in the sphere of civil government. It protects religious groups and individuals from restrictions and interference by the government in the expression of their beliefs and practices. As an ecclesiological concept, religious liberty is as out of place as a pig in a rose garden. Churches are communities of faith and practice. In the United States, joining a church is, in and of itself, an expression of religious liberty. The decision to order one’s life in keeping with the teachings of the church is also an expression of religious liberty. Such liberty is necessary so that people of faith can live out their convictions in a society that does not always share those convictions. But should people of faith be protected from the convictions of the communities of faith they have freely chosen? The use of “religious liberty” in the OCP betrays a deep confusion about the difference between a church and a civil society. This confusion, moreover, runs through the entire plan like a foundational crack that will eventually result in the collapse of the entire structure.
To be honest, I am not entirely sure what the best way forward is for our denomination. I do believe, however, that the OCP is too deeply flawed on too many levels to move us forward in faithfulness and integrity. 
I appreciate Dr. Watson's tireless work to revitalize the church and its theological education (much-needed work that has borne some fruit already), as well as is less-well-known work to make the church more accessible to individuals with disabilities and learning disorders.  I hope people will consider well what he has written.  Again, the FULL Article is HERE.

In my next article, I will offer my own concerns about the One Church Plan and my assessment of the other two plans as well.

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United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 4: Bishops promote 'One Church plan'

If you have been following this series of posts, you know that there are three Proposals for "A Way Forward" for the United Methodist Church to preserve its institutional unity after years of conflict over theological issues surrounding sexual morality, and also how to interpret and apply the Bible and ecclesiastical authority with relation to this (and other) contentious issues.

The Commission on the Way Forward submitted 3 different proposals for ways that the UMC could deal with its conflict.  There was some confusion over whether these proposals were being submitted to the Council of Bishops for consideration and selection of only one, or if all three were to be reported directly to the General Conference.

In the end, all three proposals have been offered to the General Conference for consideration, and a majority of the Bishops (but, by no means all of them) on the Council of Bishops have chosen to "endorse" the One Church Plan, which is also sometimes called the "Local Option" plan, because it empowers local congregations, clergy, and annual conferences to make their own decisions about sexual morality and the definition of marriage.  Thus, one United Methodist congregation might hold one teaching on "God's will for Christian marriage" while another UM church across town might hold a different (even contradictory) view.

The bishops (or at least, most of them) chose to endorse this plan as an attempt to make space for liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists and anyone in between to all co-exist under the same rules, with greater flexibility given to the local level.

Because the bishops chose to focus on the One Church Plan, it was by far the most "polished" of all three plans developed by the Way Forward Commission (which relates to the Judicial Council decisions discussed in post 3).

Some have grumbled that it was inappropriate for the bishops to endorse any plan at all since doing so could potentially undermine the work of the Way Forward Commission and the General Conference, and indeed the bishops are as divided as the larger church, and so the endorsement could simply be interpreted as the point of view of one faction rather than a Council of Bishops that is somehow "above the fray".

On the other hand, others have suggested that in making an endorsement the bishops are offering leadership and guidance to the church in a difficult and anxious time.  Still others have wondered if the bishops will end up with "egg on their face" or even a some kind of crisis of credibility if the General Conference does not pass their preferred plan.

I guess I keep saying this: only time will tell.  But I trust that God knows how this all plays out and, as we children used to sing, "He's got the whole world in His hands."

Here is a video featuring several of the bishops, including my own bishop, promoting the One Church Plan.

For a different perspective my next post will feature a critique of the One Church plan from one of my former seminary teachers, a prominent United Methodist Theologian, Dr. David Watson, whose leadership has helped bring revival to a (previously) declining United Methodist Seminary.

Then my final post in this series will explore some of my own reasons for opposing the One Church Plan in favor of a more traditional model of some kind (though, as you will see, there are some aspects of the Traditional Plan that I do not especially like).  There are some things I really like about the Connectional Conference Plan as well, and I'll share some thoughts on that.

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United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 3

Late last month, a long awaited ruling from the Judicial Council (i.e., ecclesiastical Supreme Court) of The United Methodist Church was issued related to the upcoming special session of General Conference in February 2019.

To read my full review of how we got here, read Part 1 of this series of posts.

The brief recap:
To address The United Methodist Church's disagreements over Biblical interpretation, Church authority, and sexual morality the world-wide General Conference of 2016 created a special "Commission on a Way Forward" to offer recommendations.

After two years of work, the Way Forward Commission has suggested 3 possible plans for preserving the institutional unity of the denomination in some form or other.  These three plans may be considered by a special session of General Conference in February of 2019 that has been called to deal with just this issue.

The three plans developed by the Commission are
1) The Traditionalist plan, which maintains current Church teaching (consistent with 3000 years of Judeo-Christian understanding) on sexuality and strengthens accountability for those pastors and bishops who refuse to abide by church teaching
2) The One Church Plan (a.k.a. "Local Option") eliminates any church-wide teaching on human sexuality and allows each congregation to decide if it will host same-sex weddings, each pastor to decide if he or she will officiate them, and each Annual Conference to decide if they will ordain individuals as pastors who are living in homosexual relationships
3) The Connectional Conference plan would radically restructure the denomination to group congregations and annual conferences into "Connectional Conferences" based upon theological convictions.  Presumably there would be a Traditionalist Conference and a Liberal Conference, and perhaps an "in between" Conference.  Annual Conferences and Congregations and pastors would then all decide which way to affiliate.

Each plan consists of a number of separate pieces of legislation, which together have a cumulative effect.

The Judicial Council Rulings: 
The Council of Bishops wisely requested that the Judicial Council look at each plan to determine whether it is constitutional under The United Methodist Church's constitution.

The Judicial Council has released its decision, which you can read a more complete description of at the Central Texas Conference Website.

In short, the "One Church Plan" requires only very minor modification to pass constitutional muster, so it is basically ready to go.

The "Traditionalist Plan" had more difficulties.  Of the 17 petitions that make up this plan, 9 of them are either partially or wholly unconstitutional.
If the remaining 8 petitions were passed, perhaps with a few of the others in modified form, we could end up with a Traditionalist Plan "Light", that would clearly express the direction that the Church intends to head, but would also have less "teeth" in terms of accountability for those who break their ordination vows.
I have no doubt that Traditionalist groups are hard at work to come up with corrections or alternatives to avoid a "Light" plan, but such a revised plan would not have the benefit of having been "pre-approved" by the Judicial Council, and could be (partially) struck down after the General Conference ended.

Finally the Judicial Council did not issue a ruling at all upon whether the "Connectional Conference Plan" is constitutional, since it would require amendments to the Constitution and so would be judged under a different constitution, as it were, and the Judicial Council did not want to issue a ruling on hypotheticals.  This leaves even more questions hanging over the most complicated of these three plans, that many see as both the truest compromise between liberals and conservatives and also the least likely plan to actually be adopted.

Of course, as I've stated in the first post on this topic, the General Conference could (theoretically) discard all of these and create a whole new plan from scratch.  Time will tell.

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United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 2

This is the second post I am sharing regarding the future of The United Methodist Church after the special General Conference of late February 2019.

The FIRST POST I shared on this topic linked to THIS PIECE from Rev. Lynn Malone which is well worth the read.  Rev. Malone has been a pastor, district superintendent, and General Conference delegate, and is thoroughly familiar with the inner workings of United Methodism.

Lynn laments that no matter what General Conference chooses to do, including a choice to pass no legislation, there will be additional pain and division within the church.  Lynn's very sober assessment ends with a word of hope: who knows what sort of resurrection God may yet bring?

Now, for a different perspective, I'm sharing THIS POST from Rev. Thomas Bowsher, a pastor in the Dakotas Conference.  Rev. Bowsher's post was recently highlighted at UM NEWS.  Bowsher argues that The United Methodist Church is at a critical crossroads because the values that have held United Methodists together are no longer understood in the same way by all Methodists; for this reason, he says, a split of the church is now inevitable.

Bowsher says that we are deceiving ourselves if we think that the General Conference 2019, or any of the three plans submitted to it (or any plan that the General Conference itself can produce) will actually put an end to the bickering and division within the Church.

Bowsher also argues - and is echoed by many traditionalists on this point, and even a few liberals as well - that because a split is inevitable, the leadership of the Church (including GC2019) should be working to make that split as smooth and amicable as possible.

While many of the Bishops have adopted a "unity at any cost" approach to GC2019 and the future of the UMC, Bowsher makes an important theological observation:

"We are deceiving ourselves if we believe that maintaining unity as a denomination is the same as unity in the body of Christ. We are not biblically commanded to maintain unity as an organization. However, we are called to be in unity as brothers and sisters in Christ"

In discussions of church unity, people have often pointed back to Wesley's sermon about the "Catholic Spirit" as pointing a way forward for divided Methodists.  But what has not so often been pointed out is that, in this sermon, Wesley clearly is addressing Christians who are already divided into different denominations over theological differences, but who are nevertheless working and praying together for the mission of Christ.  In other words, Wesley is addressing how Christians of different stripes can work together in love, not whether Christians in the same church who are crippled by disagreement ought to split or remain institutionally united.

Wesley does not address institutional unity in that Sermon, but unity in heart and unity in love.  At this moment, Methodists would do well to consider where these differ and where they overlap.  We should consider how (and if) we can maintain loving fellowship while also dividing institutionally OR how (and if) we can maintain a loving fellowship while also remaining locked together in a continuous and acrimonious fight for control within the institution.

I fear that Bowsher is correct that some kind of split is inevitable, either a formal "top-down" split arranged by a General Conference or a less formal "bottom-up" split as families leave congregations, and congregations leave the denomination.  This is already happening (as the departure last year of the Mississippi Conference's largest congregation reminds us) and it is every bit as much of a real schism in the body as a "top-down" split because the church is composed of people and congregations (including those that will leave), not simply institutional machinery such as boards and agencies and seminaries.

Many theologians and pastors have been asking for some time now the question: "Has the split of The United Methodist Church in fact already happened, already begun?"

Bowsher is implicitly suggesting that our current situation points us towards the limits of diversity and inclusion.  As 21st century Westerners and as United Methodists we have been quick to repeat the mantra, so celebrated in our culture, that 'diversity is our strength', and it can be a strength indeed.  However it should be clear with even a few minutes of clear thinking that some forms of diversity can also become a weakness.  How can we walk together if we are determined to walk in divergent (i.e. 'diverse') directions?  Does a marriage become stronger the less and less that a husband and wife have in common (which is to say, the more "diversity" there is between them)?

Bowsher is asking how can Methodists maintain unity if we no longer understand our core values in the same way (i.e. if we have a 'diversity' of contradictory understandings)?  Wesley raises this same point in his sermon when he says "two cannot walk together unless they be agreed", quoting from Amos 3:3 (KJV).

For a large institution - especially a religious institution - to remain united, there must be agreement on the core values and the basic, "non-negotiable" beliefs and practices, and that agreement must be spelled out clearly in black and white, not left up to the reinterpretation (or misinterpretation) of each individual or faction.
This clarity on core principles is precisely the function that the Book of Discipline was created to serve.  The Discipline gives expression to the mind of the whole global church that United Methodist faith and practice is "this, not that."

And yet it is the authority of church teaching and church law contained within The Book of Discipline that is now being openly challenged by some pastors, and even a few bishops.  Do we then have enough agreement on core principles to walk together in a unified direction?
Bowsher is not so hopeful on this point.

For my next post I'll be looking at a recent Judicial Council ruling on whether the plans submitted to General Conference are constitutional.

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United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 1


For those who are interested, I want to share over the coming weeks and months a few articles and analysis pieces from various United Methodist leaders over the possible fall out of General Conference 2019 and the possible future(s) for our denomination.

This post serves as an introduction to what has been going on and links to the first article I think is worth reading on the topic (so, if you already know what is going on in the UMC, feel free to skip down to "What do the experts say" below to find the recommended link).


First, a review.  The United Methodist Church has come to a point of serious disagreement and division over some of its official teachings in the area of sexual morality, and how to appropriate the Biblical teachings upon these issues (and others as well).
What does the Church officially teach in its Book of Discipline (the book of official teachings and church law)?  The United Methodist Church understands that all people are created in God's image and therefore have "sacred worth" and that the church is to be in ministry with and showing love toward all people, including LGBTQIANP+ individuals.  The United Methodist Church believes that homosexual practice* is incompatible with Christian teaching, and understands marriage to be a union of one man and one woman.  Sexual relations are only affirmed within this Bible-defined marriage union.  The United Methodist Church also supports laws in civil society defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

The church also teaches that, while abortion may be a legally accepted medical practice in rare emergency situations, "we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child."  The life of an unborn baby is morally equal to that of an adult mother, both bearing the image of God, which obviously means that we reject abortion as a means of birth control, which constitutes the great vast majority of all actual abortions.

On all of these issues the Church's teachings have become controversial because they run directly counter to some of the popular teachings of our American popular culture.

Accordingly, some within the church have called for these official teachings to be reversed or dropped from the Book of Discipline.  Progressives have suggested alternate ways to interpret the relevant Bible passages so that they do not mean what they appear to say or, in other cases, progressives have simply suggested that the relevant Bible passages only address 1st Century concerns and are indeed not relevant or applicable to the issues at hand in our contemporary culture, whatever those passages may say.  This latter move involves a re-envisioning of how Biblical authority "works" that, most traditionalists argue, is quite different from what we have inherited from the traditions of the universal Church, and particularly from our Protestant and Wesleyan heritage.

Every four years the General Conference of the Church meets, which alone has the authority to change church teaching.  So, for some decades now, the fight over sexual morality has become increasingly visible, and increasingly shrill at each successive General Conference.
In addition, a number of clergy and even some bishops, have signaled that - despite their ordination vows to uphold our church law - they have no intention of living according to rules that they see as unjust discrimination.


At the 2016 General Conference it was clear that an impasse had been reached and there was serious discussion about the possibility of a formal split, or schism, that would divide the church between more traditionalist and more liberal groups.
To avoid such a split, the General Conference (responding to a request of the Bishops) tabled all discussions related to human sexuality so that the issue could be referred to a special Commission on the Way Forward, that would make proposals to deal with our division over this one issue.

The Bishops' Commission on a Way Forward has met over the past 2 years and has developed 3 proposals for the Way Forward.  A special General Conference has been called for Feb. 2019 to consider these proposals.  The General Conference could adopt any one of the proposals, or revise one, or craft a totally new proposal for adoption, or indeed choose to take no new action at all.

The three proposals will be discussed in detail in the articles and posts that I share.  In short they are:
1) The Traditionalist Plan - maintain current church teachings, strengthen accountability for clergy and bishops who break their vows;
2) The "One Church" Plan (i.e. "Local Option") - remove the church's historic teaching and allow each pastor, congregation, and Annual Conference** to set their own policies on whether the pastor will officiate or the congregation will host same-gender union ceremonies and whether the Annual Conference will ordain individuals living in same-sex relationships;
3) The Connectional Conference plan - the most complicated plan involves creating 2 (or 3) super "conferences" with which individual Annual Conferences and/or congregations could then affiliate.  One of these super conferences would be traditionalist and one would be liberal (another might be in between); each would set their own standards for ordination, but would jointly share the stewardship of things like UMCOR (our disaster response ministry) and the clergy pension program, the Publishing House, and the like.

What the General Conference chooses will have profound implications for congregations (who may at some point have to choose a new group to affiliate with), and clergy families (whose callings, careers, retirement plans, and so on will be affected), and denominational institutions (and their employees) such as seminaries, universities, children's homes, and mission organizations and so on, that may be divided or merged or eliminated.


Of course, we are all prayerfully waiting to see what will happen in February.
I have a few thoughts of course, but I'd like to share the thoughts of people better-informed that myself.

Rev. Lynn Malone is no stranger to General Conference and has shared his thoughts HERE.  Rev. Malone is exactly right, in my view, that choosing any of the three plans will certainly result in more division and pain, and he highlights the real possibility that the 2019 General Conference chooses to do nothing at all.  That, in my view (and his), would be a catastrophic error, but some believe that it is the most likely outcome.

* Note that the church's teaching only addresses homosexual practice, meaning outward behavior, not homosexual desires or the people who feel or experience those desires
** The Annual Conference is roughly equivalent to the Diocese in Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, it is the basic unit of the United Methodist Church, which connects all of the local congregations within a geographical region; for example, all of the churches in Louisiana form one Annual Conference.  The Annual Conference, not the local congregation, is the body that approves and ordains candidates for vocational ministry

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Read Epic Poetry to save Civilization (or: What is an Epic Poem?)

A couple of years ago I re-committed myself to reading The Great Books, the Classics of Western Civilization.  This is partly my attempt to continue the sharpening of my mind, having been away from the formal classroom for over 10 years now (I've mentioned in a recent post why I think the Great Books are well worth reading).
Reading and celebrating the Great Books it is also one part of my small attempt to preserve and uphold the glories of Western Civilization over against the onslaught of a multi-cultural (that is, anti-cultural and generic) consumption/entertainment culture (or better yet, "un-culture") that encourages us to forget our history, our roots, and the ideas and ideals that made Western Civilization great, so that we become acultural "consumers" of the latest widgets, willing to do whatever is needed to keep the global economy going, without regard to the ideas, quirks, habits, and inhibitions of our forebears.

Though no civilization is perfect, or anywhere near to it, I remain very proud to be an heir of the treasures of Christendom and Western Civilization more broadly: Our ancestors built the Gothic Cathedrals and put a man on the moon; they developed the ideas of Human dignity and the rights of the individual and democratic governance; they brought to the whole world science and technology, hospitals and schools; they abolished slavery and created some of the greatest works of philosophy, theology, music, architecture and literature ever known.
Of course they did plenty of terribly bad things too that we have to learn from; but I believe there is a strong tendency in our society, and especially among our gatekeepers of education, mass-media, and political institutions, to downplay and even reject our Western Heritage rather than celebrate its many noble achievements.  Reading the Classics and celebrating our unique culture as members of what Winston Churchill called "Christian civilization" is a needed corrective in our era of cultural nihilism, intellectual distraction, and historical amnesia.

SO I've been working through a number of great and demanding works including of course the Epic Poems.  I've read the Iliad and the Odyssey (in prose translation) and The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy (in verse translations).  These poems share with us not only the stories, but many of the ideas, questions, and values that are at the heart of Western Civilization.
The only other Epic Poem that immediately came to mind is Paradise Lost by Milton.  Following The Aeneid of Vergil (or 'Virgil'), Milton (eventually) divided Paradise Lost into 12 books (chapters), to mimic more closely the Epic poetry of the classical era.

I never cared much for narrative poetry in High School or really even in college.  But now I find my tastes have changed (matured?) and I do enjoy reading narrative poetry much more.  I've gone back to re-read the narrative poems and Psalms of the Bible, and looked for narrative lyrics in hymns (which there doesn't seem to be much of).

And of course, I've read and re-read other classic narrative poems.  But the question arises do these other Classics of Narrative Poetry also "count" as Epics?  I mean poems such as Beowulf or the Song of Roland or, more recently Idylls of the King by Tennyson (which are 12 narrative poems about King Arthur that do cover the major events of his life, but do not exactly form one continuous narrative).

As it turns out someone has made a YouTube video discussing just this point. I enjoyed watching this conversation between noted Classical School and Great-Books-based Home-Schooling proponent Wes Callahan (whose videos I've shared before) and the interesting Christian blogger and theologian Peter Leithart, asking whether Paradise Lost was the last epic, what exactly is an epic, and why has narrative poetry fallen out of literary fashion (which is a really interesting moment to reflect on the ways that culture, technology, and art all interact).
I hope it whets your appetite to go read some epic poetry or other classics of the Western Tradition...

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Alpha Males, Beta Males, "toxic masculinity," and real Manhood

Or, we might call this post "A Good Masculinity is hard to find..."

A few months ago I was talking to a young, nominally Catholic, man who has a son, a toddler.  We were talking about what it means to be parents, and I made a comment along the lines of "And now you must teach him how to be a man."  To which my acquaintance replied, "As soon as I figure out whatever that means..."

There seems to be a great deal of confusion in our culture about what indeed does it mean to be a man.  It seems that lots of people (including lots of women) are more comfortable referring to the men they know as "guys" rather than as "men."  It is almost as if we aren't quite sure whether they really are men yet.  

I suspect that, in fact, an uncertainty about "whether I'm really a man" actually lies behind some crime and domestic abuse, as men try to prove (to themselves) that they are strong and worthy of respect/fear and that this somehow makes them "real men."

Why this confusion?  How have we lost the vision of what it means to be a man, and how to get there?

Part of this results from the decline of a common culture thanks in part to multiculturalism (which is ultimately "anti-culturalism" if you think about it - no culture is permitted to be THE culture, so no cultural practices or ideals can ever be normative and universal), and partly this results from the (related) rise of individualism and informalism (and those two are connected).  The confluence of these shifts have left us bereft a common set of rites of passage for boys across our culture, intended to instill in them certain virtues and character traits, as part of the pathway into manhood.

Added to all that (or perhaps because of it) we've got the phenomenon of "prolonged adolescence" and we have to wonder if the 30-year-olds who still live with their parents and cannot provide for themselves really are "men" yet.  Being able to provide for and protect one's self and, indeed, one's wife and children has traditionally been one of the marks of manhood that still lingers in our cultural imagination (and for good reason).

Added to all of that, some are now questioning the value of Manhood itself.
Just today I saw an ad/commercial on YouTube urging us to "evolve the definition" of masculinity.  This is part of the Left's** reaction against what the good folks on the Left** call "toxic masculinity" - the domineering, aggressive, and (often sexually) abusive sorts of men who have come to flourish in some quarters of a culture that has largely thrown off Christian morality and the classical virtues, a culture that celebrates the individual's desires and (especially) a "free-for-all" sexual ethic where "nothing is taboo" any longer.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has a Biblical understanding of human nature that throwing off sexual restraints would result in a rise of sexual predation.  And so it has.

The Bible teaches that sad the history of men attempting to dominate women (essentially, what is now being called 'toxic masculinity') is actually a consequence of Original Sin, of the Fall of Mankind from our original state of grace (see Genesis 3).  Christianity teaches that this problem is not simply widespread, it is actually universal - we are all tainted by sin - and that the only solution is the renewal of each hardened heart by the grace offered freely to us by Jesus Christ.  This grace we receive by faith in Him, by inviting him to be Lord over our lives, by reception of the Sacraments, and by a life of prayer and devotion.

The Left is - unsurprisingly - rushing to throw out the baby of masculinity with the bathwater of sexual abuse, assuming that THE problem is strong and assertive men.  The "Alpha male" must be rooted out of our culture and replaced by the "Beta male," because it is assumed he will be much nicer to women.
But, as I've said, we don't have a problem with sexual predators because our men are too manly, but rather because they are immoral, because they lack virtue, because our society has thrown off all restraints when it comes to sex.  The truth is that the 'Beta male' will also harm women, though probably in different ways.

Also unsurprisingly, the solution offered by the Left will fail, precisely because it doesn't fully appreciate human nature and culture.  Alpha males, strong and assertive men, aren't going away, and no amount of PSAs on YouTube will change that (just ask yourself whether such PSA's will ever gain the passionate viewership of, say, the SuperBowl).  That vigorous Masculinity is here to stay is a good thing, for in a dangerous world we need brave and strong men to maintain to protect lives and the peace of communities.

A couple of weeks ago I heard an NPR interviewer speaking with a former Navy Seal about a book the Veteran had written about raising kids who are courageous and aggressive problem solvers.  Toward the end of the interview, the NPR interviewer made the comment, "Some of my colleagues did not even want me to interview you today, fearing that your book is promoting a 'toxic masculinity'; how do you answer that charge?"
I chuckled to myself and thought "If a foreign nation invades our country and starts killing people in the streets (as has indeed happened before), or if terrorists invade your office building or commuter train, you folks at NPR are going to wish you had a lot more men around who were aggressive problem solvers."

But the good folks on the Left are certainly correct on this point: Alpha males certainly can be abusive, dominating, rash, insensitive to the needs of others, and all the rest.  Masculinity can and often does turn 'toxic'.  From the Christian point of view this is no surprise precisely because every one of us is fallen and corrupted by the power of sin.  The problem is not masculinity itself, the problem is that masculinity (just like femininity, actually - though this post if focused upon masculinity) has been infected and corrupted by sin.
There must be restraints for all of us against immorality, there must be social pressures that push us toward good behavior.  Above all there must be ideals to strive after, there must be a vision of Manhood that directs our energies and passions toward the Good and away from sin.

And the Bible and the Christian tradition gives us precisely this vision.

What does it look like to be a man of God in a fallen and corrupted (and often dangerous world)?  In the Bible we are offered the ideal the "Warrior Poet", the sage-soldier, the man who is at the same time ferocious and stern in battle to defend his family, community, and his faith - but also sensitive, tender-hearted towards his loved ones, spiritual, and artistic.

In Scripture this ideal is seen in King David.  He was both the warrior who could slay the giant Goliath but also the poet who could write so many of the Psalms that stand as some of the most beloved Poetry in human history.  He was an artist, a musician, a sensitive soul who openly wept and danced in public, but also a "man's man", a leader of armies whose strength, courage, and bearing inspired other men to follow him.

He studied the arts of war, but also the arts of love and worship, even as he also applied himself to the study of the Holy Scriptures of God.  David was faithful, responsible, dutiful, ready to defend and provide for his family and his community.  He was a man.
Interestingly enough when Michelangelo set out to sculpt an "ideal man", he produced his famous David.

David was an able fighter, who slew many of his enemies in battle - but he also showed mercy to his enemies, like King Saul when David had the chance to kill him in the cave.  And, while standard procedure in those violent days was to wipe out all family members of a potential rival king so as to secure one's own claim to the throne, David after he became king, allowed Saul's lame grandson Mephibosheth to feast at David's own table - and act of kindness and generosity unheard of in those days.

In all these ways David really was "a man after God's own heart."  For God is also the artistic Creative who is at the same time the jealous defender of his own people, as Pharaoh discovered when he tried to keep them enslaved.

Even when David failed (colossally) to live up to his own ideals, even as a sinner he becomes an instructive example for manhood, since all men also sin.  When David fell into disastrous sin, he heard the prophetic word of correction and actually heeded it: he did not equivocate or deny wrongdoing, he repented - even publicly.  He left a public record of his prayer of repentance for us as well.  In his penitence we see not only his sinfulness, but also piety and humility and honesty on display.

The virtues of King David help us see what manhood is all about.  Indeed "virtue" is derived from the Latin word for "man."  To be most truly manly is to be virtuous.  In the New Testament we see the virtues of David and many more virtues lifted up: generosity, charity, humility, chastity, simplicity, courage in the face of danger, resolve & grit in the face of suffering, honesty, temperance, self-control, and so on.  We see the virtues taught to us in the Beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5 and in the Fruit of the Spirit of Galatians chapter 5 and in the great 'theological virtues' of 1 Corinthians 13: Faith, Hope, and Love.  Psalm 1 describes a virtuous man (in much the same way that Proverbs 31 describes a virtuous woman).  In all these passages, the Bible says,  "Here is what it means to truly be a man as God intended."

All of these virtues are perfectly and completely embodied in the Life of Christ himself, the truest man that ever lived (which is the double-meaning behind Pontius Pilate's words in John 19:5).  We seek, in our own imperfect ways, to live them out and embody them in our own varying circumstances and vocations.

As the teaching of the Bible helped shape the cultures of Europe, the same ideal - the ideal of the Warrior-Poet, the Strong-Sensitive, also came to be celebrated in Christendom as Chivalry.  In Medieval Christian literature these virtues were embodied by King Arthur (the model of a wise and Christian king), and, most especially, by Sir Lancelot, the ideal knight.

Here is a great video (which is actually an essay by C.S. Lewis accompanied by illustrations) about the Medieval concept of Chivalry and how it is a corrective both to a 'toxic masculinity' that is all about strength and dominance, but without sensitivity and mercy on the one hand, and a "beta" masculinity on the other hand that is all sensitivity, but never strong or stern when the situation calls for it.
Lewis, of course, was (like Tolkien or Winston Churchill and so many others in those days) himself a poet and artist who also served as a soldier and fought to defend his homeland.  They were chivalrous; they were men (not 'guys'); they were warrior-poets.

May God look with mercy on our broken and confused society and grant us godly and virtuous men.

**Terms like "Left" and "Right", "Liberal" and "Conservative" are short-hand expressions to refer to groups that share certain overlapping beliefs or perspectives.  As such I recognize that the terms are necessarily un-nuanced and problematic, since very few individuals will perfectly fit the "mold."  No doubt plenty of people will be happy to refer to me as a member of the "Religious Right" - I don't identify myself as such, but it is an understandable short-hand, since a great many of my views, theological and political will align with what is usually understood by that term; though I strongly maintain that some views and attitudes will also be quite different than what is usually implied by "Religious Right."  No doubt the same works both ways.

As I use the term "Left" in this piece, I have in mind the editors and reporters working for institutions like NPR and the New York Times, other media figures such as the Ladies on "The View," as well as academic figures like those I personally took courses from in college who seemed determined to find misogyny under every rock and behind every tree (or at least, behind every etymology).  Even my conflating such actual individuals under the heading of "the Left" will be inadequate to actually take on board their various differences and uniqueness-es, but such is the nature of any short-hand terminology.   

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Lecture - 1177 BC, The year Civilization Collapsed

Here is an interesting lecture by Mr. Eric Cline, PhD about the relatively sudden decline of a number of ancient cultures and the collapse of their civilizations in terms of the levels of education, manufacturing, the collapse of inter-dependent (quasi-globalized) trade networks, as well as a decline in population that took place, not all at once in 1177 B.C., but over a period of about 100 years between 1250 and 1150 B.C.

Some of the factors that may have contributed to this collapse are: a complicated global trade network that was sophisticated, but therefore vulnerable to disruption; climate change and subsequent drought and famines; foreign invasion and the migrations of large numbers of peoples; an increased level of seismic/earthquake activity; and rebellions and warfare - all combining into a "perfect storm" of pressure on these civilizations, that ultimately took all of them down, save for Egypt, which itself never recovered its former strength.  Interestingly, many of these factors are in play today, though of course we have resources for dealing with these pressures unheard of in the 12th Century B.C.

Another interesting this about this is that the decline of these civilizations is that it coincides with the rise of Israel as a coherent nation, as Cline notes several times.  He also notes that the Ancient Near East experienced significant population decline, which is very interesting as we read passages in Scripture (like Deuteronomy 6:10-11) in which God promises to the Israelites towns and homes they did not build, wells they did not dig, and the like.  As someone who believes in the Providence of God working through human history, this raises all sorts of interesting questions and possibilities in my mind.




Why read the Great Books?

Like a lot of United Methodist pastors and members I receive, and sometimes read bits of, Good News Magazine, which represents the evangelical and traditional-Wesleyan perspective within the church (probably, the majority of the church at this point).

A couple of years ago a clergy colleague quipped that it was a publication devoted to "the Good News: that we Methodists have a traditional teaching on sexuality", hinting that he thought Good News was in danger of becoming a one-issue publication, rather than representing all of the riches and fullness of the Christian faith and Christian tradition, especially in its Wesleyan form.

However (and perhaps this is in response to such criticisms), I have noticed in recent years that Good News has had a broader spectrum of articles and pieces.  I ran across this one today and wanted to share it, because it touches on a topic close to my heart: Why Read Great Books?

The piece quotes from Homer's Illiad, a C.S. Lewis essay, and the anonymous Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but does not (as I recall) have anything to say about the sexuality debate within United Methodism.

Certainly, as one who was raised with at least some engagement with the great Classics of Western culture, I have great love of them, and confidence in their ability to enrich and impart wisdom and beauty - enchantment even - into the lives of those who attend to them.

Of course, there are debates about just what are the "Great Books".  Some of the 20th century sets (such as The Great Books of the Western World) have been criticized for mostly ignoring the great Medieval and Christian traditions, and skipping almost straight from classical antiquity to the more secular works of the 17th Century.  While some books might be a bit "debatable" (included on some folks' lists, but not others), there are a great many works that are undeniably a part of Western Civilization's Great Books tradition.

I try always to be reading at least one of the Classics (at present, Dante's Divine Comedy, and I've just started re-reading Tolkien's Middle Earth saga, including the newer volumes covering the First Age), and I really do believe that doing so not only brings me pleasure and exercises my mind, but also puts me in closer contact with the generations that came before, with my forefathers on this earth.

The essay in Good News is worth the read...as are the Great Books themselves.

The essay also suggests that we United Methodists ought to be doing more to establish or to support Great Books schools and educational programs, and I think it is always worth contacting your local UMC-affiliated liberal arts college(s), and encouraging them to create a 'Great Books Curriculum' as The University of Chicago and St. John's College have famously done, plus we could always use more reading clubs that focus on the Classics (churches could sponsor groups that read the Spiritual Classics).

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Salvation and Perfection

Have you had the experience of discovering something that you already knew, but because it was phrased in a new way, suddenly the truth of it impressed itself upon your mind?  

I've had that experience in recent months.  In part it came from a conversation I had with someone about John Wesley's conception of salvation as being saved from sin in the fullest sense: not only from the guilt of sins past (which we call "justification" or pardon), but also from actually continuing to commit sins, that is, being saved from the rut of committing the same sins over and over (this spiritual healing of our sin-sick souls, we call "sanctification").  John Wesley freely spoke of the goal of Sanctification as "Christian Perfection" or "perfection in love", by which he meant nothing other than becoming like Jesus Christ in our Love of God and Love of neighbor (see Matt. 5:48).  

It means bearing the image of God, just like Him who is the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15); which is our primal vocation (Gen. 1:26-27).  So Christian perfection means the righting of something that went wrong in God's ordered creation, it means standing back up that which had fallen.

In connection with this, I've not been able to shake Jesus' words from John 5:6 lately, where he asks a man who has been crippled a very long time, "Do you want to be healed?"  I preached on this text a few weeks ago, and it has stuck with me.  On the occasions when I am conscious of being tempted, I find that those words seem to float to the top of my mind.  Do you want to be healed?  Do you want to be made well in your soul and in your desires?

The temptation among Evangelicals and other Christians as well, is to focus being saved entirely on being forgiven and set right with God and set free from guilt and judgement.  This is the vitally important starting point that cannot be neglected, and there is joy in heaven whenever anyone experiences that justifying grace of God.
Yet Jesus is not through with us at that point.  He wants to not only save us from the effects of sin, but he wants to save us from sinning.  He wants us to be healed.  
"Saved" is bigger than is often assumed, it seems to me.

Rev. George MacDonald
I've recently run across a quote from the saintly and, frankly, at times idiosyncratic and unorthodox 19th Century Scottish Preacher, George MacDonald (who was much beloved by C.S. Lewis) along similar lines:

I can well imagine an honest youth, educated in Christian forms, thus reasoning with himself - ..."the Lord said, 'If you would be perfect, go, sell that you have.'  I cannot be perfect; it is hopeless; and he does not expect it." - It would be more honest if he said, "I do not want to be perfect; I am content to be saved." Such as he do not care for being perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, but for being what they call saved.  They little think that without perfection there is no salvation - that perfection is salvation: they are one. 

MacDonald is concerned that we use the comforting message of saving grace as an excuse not to obey, not to be faithful, not to carry the cross and follow Christ.  Splitting apart Justification/Forgiveness and Sanctification/Soul-Healing from one another may be precisely what gives rise to what Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, called "Cheap Grace."  It happens when I'm content to be saved by grace and accepted by a loving God, but am not willing to be challenged by grace to go on to perfection (Heb. 6:1).  

But, as John Wesley might say, Jesus wants to save you from sin...and from sinning.

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Thoughts from a busy pastor + D-day

Over the last couple of years I've moved into a new pastorate at an historic church and my wife has given birth to our first child.  It has been a busy time, and so I've done all too little reading, and far less blogging.

But lately I've been graced with a new energy and enthusiasm for reading and contemplation, for which I thank God.  I hope to share some thoughts about what I've been learning in upcoming posts.

But just to get things going, I wanted to share a curious thing that happened.  A couple of nights ago I kept thinking about that scene in the great WWII film, "The Longest Day", when the German officer at Normandy sees the Allied fleet on the horizon and frantically calls his general to tell him that a thousand ships are bearing down on them.  The German General scoffs that the allies haven't got that many.

I woke up the next morning still curious about this scene, so I looked it up on Wikipedia.
How many ships did the Allies have?  Some 1200 warships, plus thousands of other craft besides.  As I was reading that article I realized that, in fact, it was D-Day - June 6th.  I had lost track of the dates.
So, quite unintentionally, I woke up thinking about D-Day on D-Day.

Later that day I heard, on a Christian radio station, a recording of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's prayer for D-Day, which he prayed on a nation radio broadcast, almost like a national priest on behalf of his country, even as the fighting continued in Normandy.

Here is the recording of his prayer.  It is remarkable if for no other reason than that it is hard to imagine a US President praying in a live broadcast to the nation this day and age...and certainly hard to imagine him speaking of "our religion", as FDR did in this prayer.

So I hope to have more posts soon. I'm grateful that photobucket has restored the images to this site, and I encourage you (even though D-day is passed now) to listen to this:

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A couple of thoughts on improving the Gun Debate

We have witnessed yet another horrific mass-shooting (of children!) in this country.  As with each previous atrocity, people are crying loudly for politicians and elected leaders to "do something" about guns.

The talking heads in the media will repeat the calls to "do something", yet it will remain very unclear exactly what that "something" is.  Lack of specificity and over-generalizations have continuously poisoned this debate.  In response to this lack of clarity about what is to be done gun-rights supporters will "fill in the blank" with their own worst fears ("they are going to ban the very gun I was hoping to buy) and rush to the stores to buy up ever more firearms.

This is perfectly predictable because the past is a strong predictor of the future.

Also predictably, gun-rights advocacy groups will use the lack of clarity in calls to "do something" to spread fears of gun bans and raise even more money to push even harder for an absolute "all or nothing" notion of gun rights.

What is a thoughtful person to do?

I commend to you two very good articles that have been circulating since the recent shooting that are worth pondering.

1) There is a Way to Stop Mass Shootings (and You Won't Like It)
As a Christian, I think this piece hits the nail on the head (and it has little or nothing to do with guns or legislation - it has to do with loving the unloved).

2) Gun Reform: Speaking the Truth to Bull$hit, Practicing Civility, and Effecting Change
I remain very concerned with the poor quality of public discourse in this country: over-generalizations, false dichotomies, assumptions, and "fake news" seem to drown out or shout down nuanced and thoughtful reasoning.  This piece looks at just a few ways that happens when we try to talk about guns and gun violence.

Now I'll lay my cards on the table.  I am a 2nd Amendment supporter and a gun-owner.
Yet I also believe that there are common sense gun regulations and compromises for the sake of public safety that could and should be considered by lawmakers.

We will never, however, be able to reach those compromises and new regulations so long as both the left and the right reflexively reach for lines of argument that are, at best, unhelpful, and at worst foolish.

On the Left, people immediately work with the logic that "if we could reduce the numbers of guns or the access to guns, we would reduce gun crime and gun deaths."  This is no doubt true.  Followed to its logical conclusion it means, "if we could reduce the number of guns to 0, we would have 0 gun crime."  This is also logically true.  But it is totally unhelpful in actually reducing gun violence; it is analogous to saying "if we could reduce the number of automobiles to 0, then we would eliminate automobile deaths in this country."
It is logically sound, but it is not grounded in reality.

The Constitution, as consistently interpreted by the Supreme Court, gives US citizens the right to keep long guns and hand guns for sporting and self-defense.  That is not going to change.
Yet suppose that gun-control advocates really could repeal the 2nd Amendment; even still history has taught us that simply legislating prohibition not only fails, it invariably leads to more crime and violence.  Just look at the Prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th Century, or the War on Drugs that has dragged on for decades.  How did all that work out for us?

Prohibiting a product that people are long accustomed to enjoying simply does not work in "the land of the free."
Yet any time there is a mass shooting, the first response from leaders on the left seems always to be the same: "get rid of the guns."

Being an intellectually lazy people, accustomed to "sound bite" public discourse, we love "silver bullets" and simple solutions to complex problems.

The other issue I often see with gun-control advocates is that they often don't seem to know much about guns.  This is not surprising; if you don't like guns, you probably don't spend a lot of time at the range handling one (if you did, you might start to like them).  Yet, how can you craft thoughtful legislation, that takes into account the different types of firearms and how gun owners use them, when you know almost nothing about it all?
Gun-rights advocates frequently encounter gross ignorance on the part of those calling for more gun-control (including elected officials), like the many calls to ban "automatic weapons" which are, for all practical purposes, already banned for the average citizen; or again the frequent and loud calls by liberals to ban "assault weapons", and yet when those same liberals are asked what an assault weapon is, they either cannot give any meaningful description at all, or describe a weapon that either does not exist or is already banned. Even many of the characteristics targeted by the Clinton ban of the 90s have absolutely no impact on the actual performance or power of the weapons in question.  This ignorance not only makes Gun-owners roll  their eyes, it also serves to feed the fears of gun-owners that the gun-control advocates really do not care one bit about their culture or concerns.

Even the word "ban" itself is unhelpfully ambiguous: are we talking about banning new sales (as did the Clinton Gun ban of the 90s), or actually confiscating millions upon millions of weapons already in the hands of law abiding citizens?  The rhetorical ambiguity itself leaves room for fear and polarization to grow.

On the Right, the faulty thinking is just as bad, if not worse.  At least the position of the left is logically sound as an abstraction within a theoretical vacuum.  The position by many gun-rights advocates is at best a logical fallacy, and at worst it amounts to fear-mongering.  Many Gun-rights advocacy groups and enthusiasts hold to an absolutist, all-or-nothing approach: Even the tiniest step in the direction toward gun-control (such as banning "bump stocks" or high capacity magazines) will inevitably lead to a scenario where "they" are coming to "take your guns" (and who knows what else "they" will take while "they" are at it).

But appeals to fear will accomplish nothing good in the long run.  They not only shut down meaningful debate, but also could potentially lead to violence.
Furthermore, this line of thinking ignores the facts: we have regulated other powerful and potentially dangerous products (such as automobiles, computers, or pharmaceuticals) without stumbling our way into an all-out ban; there is no logically necessary reason why we could not do the same with firearms.

Gun rights supporters will object that possession of these other items is not constitutionally protected; and that is correct.  Yet the state can and does put some reasonable limits on our Constitutional Rights when there is a compelling public safety interest (for example, yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater is not protected "free speech" under the First Amendment).

Gun owners and 2nd Amendment supporters love to say, "Guns don't kill people; people do."  And this is true...but it is not the whole truth.  The whole truth is that, yes, people will and do kill others regardless of what weapons are available...but it is also true that it is simply a whole lot easier to  kill someone with a firearm than it is with a knife or a hammer or even a truck.  Guns don't kill people in and of themselves...but they do make it easier for bad actors to do so, and that is why some sort of regulation is a legitimate public interest.  Those of us who own guns have to be intellectually honest about this.

On the other hand, those on the left (particularly those who do not care to own guns, and would themselves be unaffected by gun-purchase restrictions), should keep in mind that any restriction on another citizen's rights, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, is a very serious and weighty business; such moves and their ramifications (including the precedents they set for future restrictions of other rights in the Bill of Rights) ought to be thought through extremely carefully.  Certainly such considerations ought to include educating one's self about firearms and wading beyond bumper sticker slogans into the real details.

There can be a thoughtful give and take between the legitimate concerns of gun-control advocates and the legitimate concerns of gun-rights advocates.  But that will only happen if the Left and the Right can put down their dead-end arguments long enough to have a fruitful conversation.

I believe there could indeed be some meaningful improvements to current laws (and enforcement) when it comes to back-ground checks, mental health screenings, magazine capacity limits, introducing safe storage requirements (most gun homicides are accidents or suicides, not murders) and minimal training requirements for gun owners.
I believe we should ban new sales of "bump stocks" and I'm open to states imposing higher age limits on purchases, especially if there is evidence that this improves safety.
For reasons already mentioned, I do not support an "assault weapons ban", though I'm open to a conversation about whether certain types of weapons purchases should or could be subject to greater scrutiny somehow.

I think, beyond gun regulations, a great deal more could be done to improve school safety, including a serious re-thinking of "gun-free zones," which have proven to be a magnet for mass-shooters (who are, by definition, cowards).

While I do believe that there are some legal measures that could be taken to improve gun safety in this country, I seriously doubt if any gun-related measures in and of themselves will dramatically reduce crime or eliminate mass shootings, because these things are not fueled simply by access to guns.  They are also fueled by moral collapse, economic hardships, spiritual isolation, family breakdown, the drug epidemic and mental health crises that are currently devastating many of our communities.

Those are the issues that must seriously be addressed; they are daunting and it is clear at the outset that those problems do not admit of "quick fixes," nor can we legislate solutions to spiritual problems.  We need a spiritual solution.

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Romanticism versus Gospel?

This video below is from almost exactly a year ago.

The Church of England was debating whether to adopt a report on marriage and sexuality that was heralded as a compromise between liberals and traditionalists and would set the direction for that church going forward.  The report was ultimately rejected by orthodox traditionalists (and probably some liberals too, who didn't think it went far enough toward their understanding of inclusion).

I share this because, while the speech is short, I think it gets right at the heart of why the sexuality debate has been and remains so passionate and rancorous.  We are encouraged in our culture, from a very early age, to see romantic and sexual fulfillment as the key to living "happily ever after", even as the very essence of our identity in this world.  People look at their sexual desires and say "this is who I am" and "don't I deserve to be happy?"  Those are potent convictions indeed.
This connection of happiness-identity-and romantic fulfillment is precisely why many who identify as LGBQTIA will continue to see the Church's rejection of certain sexual practices as a rejection of their lives, their value, their very selves.

The Christian Gospel is - on this score - irreducibly counter cultural.  As understood right down through the ages, the Gospel offers a counter message to the message of our culture, about who we are and where joy and authentic identity are found.
Saints and believers from many cultures, with many different sorts of desires, appetites, and addictions have attested that this counter message turns out to be liberating and life-giving in a way that romantic relationships never can be.  One example is Rev. Allberry, who personally experiences same-sex attraction, yet has found his new identity in Christ and the classical Christian faith.

I appreciate Rev. Allberry's courage in sharing his own testimony here:

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Lecture on the "Medievalism" of C.S. Lewis

Here is a nice lecture I watched over a meal the other day, which I commend to you, about how C.S. Lewis thought about our world and our place in it.

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Anglicans on the Wittenberg Trail

When I was in seminary one of the many books I read that greatly influenced me personally (most of which were, sadly, not part of the official curriculum) was a little book called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, by Robert E. Webber.

Webber tells the stories of numerous Evangelical Christians - coming from Baptist, Non-Denominational, Pentecostal, and other churches - who made journeys into Anglican or Episcopal churches (and other liturgical churches) because of a longing for liturgy, mystery, history, and a sense of deeply-rooted, ancient, and authoritative community.

Indeed my own return to Methodism was a similar journey.  Having sojourned some years in non-liturgical evangelical communities (mostly Baptist and non-Denominational) I discovered the Episcopal Church and, through it, (re)discovered Methodism.  I was delighted to find that The United Methodist Church, of which I was already (technically) a member, had inherited and adapted the same liturgy and the same Articles of Religion and (in John Wesley's writings), the same sacramental spirituality that I had come to admire about The Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.

Another Evangelical who was influenced by Webber's book and who has personally "walked the Canterbury Trail" is Dr. Wesley Evans.  Dr. Evans has recently written a piece called "Anglicans on the Wittenberg Trail", which is a play on the same book title, and which I commend to you.
He refers not so much to Anglicans actually joining Lutheran churches, but a literal pilgrimage that he and several friends took to Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the church door and (accidentally) launched the Protestant Reformation.

Why this Lutheran pilgrimage by Anglican theologians?

This year, October 31st of 2017, Halloween or "All Hallows Eve" marks the 500th Anniversary of the launch of the Reformation.
Church door at Wittenberg

Will you be doing anything special to mark the Reformation this year?  Reading Luther's works?  Holding special services or prayers for Christian unity?

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How liturgy spoke to my evangelical soul

Here is a great post from an Anglican priest, Neal Michell, who has walked a similar journey to mine.

In my case I attended a Catholic school and was confirmed in a relatively traditional United Methodist church as a child, before sojourning in strongly evangelical Baptist and "Bible churches" (with just a dash of charismatic thrown in) before coming back to the liturgical and sacramental tradition by way of an Episcopal church.

For me this led full circle back to United Methodism with its historic blend of Spirit-filled and Bible-focused evangelicalism on the one hand and an Anglican liturgical and sacramental piety on the other going right back to Rev. Mr. Wesley himself.
Good, Wesleyan, Methodism embraces the best of both worlds.

The author, Fr. Neal Michell, says there were six aspects of the liturgical church that his soul was yearning for:

-Sacred Space
-Majestic hymns
-Liturgy as conversation with God
-A vision of God as Almighty
-The power of the ancient Creeds
-The absolution of sin (which is a practical application of John 20:21-23 and James 5:14-15)

You can read his whole piece HERE.

We strive to embody all of these in the church I pastor, Saint Francisville United Methodist Church.

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Can we have Unity without Doctrinal clarity?

One of the things I've noticed as I've read more of John Wesley over the years is that he frequently makes lists of the "fundamental" or "basic" beliefs that go down "to the root" of Christian faith and Christian living.  Not all of his lists of the 'basic' teachings are exactly the same, but they all cover the same great themes of Creation by God, the Fall of Mankind into Sin, and the Redemption through Christ.  This is the heart of Wesleyan (and all Christian) faith.

Unlike some traditions (such those stemming from Medieval Scholasticism), Methodism has never attempted to have an official answer to every possible theological question that every good Methodist is expected to believe; there has always been a degree of diversity, but beginning with Wesley it has been recognized that we must have unity on the basics if we are to live and work together.

Over the last several generations, while we increasingly do give lip service to the Wesleys and the other major lights of our theological tradition, we United Methodists have very often attempted to embrace doctrinal pluralism in the name of "inclusivity."  We (rightly) want to include as many people as possible within our church, but rather than trying (like the early Methodists) to teach all of these diverse people the same basic beliefs, we have downplayed the importance of beliefs or doctrine altogether, embracing (with a shrug) a sort of "anything goes" attitude, saying things like "it is not what you believe that matters, but how you live."

Ultimately, however, I believe this approach is self-destructive, especially to church unity.  How we live is necessarily related to what we believe.  How we live together is necessarily related to the beliefs we hold in common.

How can we indeed walk together if we are walking in different directions, following different guiding lights?

This is the major point of an excellent new post by Dr. David F. Watson.
Dr. Watson was my Greek teacher in seminary at SMU, and is now dean of United Seminary in Ohio.  I encourage you to read it in full at the link above; below are some highlights from his piece (in bold), with my own comments.

Watson argues that if we are to think, feel, and finally live as Christians, we simply cannot get away from "doctrine" (that is, official teachings).  Dr. Watson writes:

The Christian mind is necessarily doctrinal. Without an understanding of proper teaching about God and what this God has done for us in Jesus Christ, it makes no sense to talk about a Christian mind at all. We may claim to love God, but who is this God whom we love? Why do we love God? Why should other people do so? How do we know any of these things? The answers to these questions don’t just shape what we believe, but how we live.

The attempts to neglect or reinvent Christian doctrine - particularly, I would argue, in the seminaries and ivory towers of academia - are largely responsible for the massive degree of division that now exists within the Historic (often called "Mainline") Protestant churches, almost all of which have seen major schisms in recent years.  The "publish or perish" approach to scholarship that now dominates the Academia of the Western World, by its very nature, rewards innovation rather than the passing down of the time-tested faith that has been received.
Dr. Watson expresses well why this constant need to innovate and revise has led to dis-unity in the church:

We build upon the beliefs of those who came before us. We honor their work, their lives, and sometimes their martyrdom. Though many have succumbed to the temptation to try to reinvent the Church’s faith based upon foundations more palatable to the modern or postmodern mind, these attempts have been unable to sustain the Church. They have neglected the wisdom of the ages.
The end of such revisionism can only be division. If each culture, each era, each philosophical movement reinvents the faith on its own terms, Christian unity is impossible. True Christian unity can only come about when we share common beliefs about the nature of God, human life, and salvation. If we continue to de-emphasize doctrine in our faith communities, we will continue on the painful road of denominational fragmentation. 

Dr. Watson goes on to lament the lack of serious attention to doctrine in the Historic Protestant churches, noting the contradiction that necessarily results from this neglect:

The Christian mind requires doctrinal formation, and in mainline Protestantism, we have most often avoided this. We have chosen to focus on forming our congregations into socially just people who will live in socially just ways, but without teaching them how we might reach conclusions as to what constitutes just behavior. We are supposed simply to know right and wrong intuitively. If the 20th century shows us anything, however, it is that right and wrong are not things that human beings know intuitively... Our thoughts are disordered, and we need guidance. Teaching the faith once and for all handed on to the saints is a step toward the proper ordering of our minds.

We all call ourselves "Methodists", and we do have a standard liturgy and a standard set of doctrinal commitments.  As I see it, this is a bit like all the restaurants in a chain sharing the same recipes for their meals: You know what you are going to get based on the name of the restaurant.  Otherwise there would not really be any point in branding them all the same, would there?  If one KFC served fried chicken and the next served Italian food, what would be the point in calling all of them KFC and giving all of them the same logo?  It would be a meaningless moniker that would only confuse people.  The same happens to Methodism (or any denomination) when we neglect the official teachings (and the basic liturgical praxis) of our church.

Because of this neglect, United Methodism has now come to the very brink.  There are serious discussions about how to divide up the denomination.  The next 5 years will be decisive in the history of our denomination (and whether that denomination continues to exist in its recognizable form).

I fully agree with Dr. Watson that there is really only one way to Christian unity: to recover, embrace, hold-fast, celebrate, and actively teach "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), the faith of the one holy catholic and apostolic church that she has learned from listening to the Spirit speaking through the Bible over 2000 years, the faith that is focused upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This Classic faith, this classic way of understanding the Bible, is in fact already clearly expressed in our doctrinal standards (including the writings of J. Wesley), our liturgy, in the creeds and the lectionary, in our hymnody, and so on.  The question is whether we will trust these grand resources of the Great Tradition to help us rightly receive and live the Biblical faith (as I have tried throughout my ministry to do, in keeping with my ordination vows), or whether we will continue to neglect them and hope that goodwill is enough to hold together a body of people with disparate beliefs.

As William Abraham, another great United Methodist theologian (and teacher of mine at SMU) puts it, we need to "wake from our doctrinal amnesia" if we are to move forward in faith together.

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