My Review/Critique of Distortion: How the Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith

A new book has hit the shelves this week, entitled Distortion: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith, much to the elation of the conservative evangelical community, as well as, assuming my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, the conservative social network in Washington, DC. It is written by Chelsen Vicari, a 27 year-old self-described Millennial evangelical, who additionally serves as the Director of Evangelical Action at the Institute of Religion and Democracy. Since I am a Millennial who unapologetically identifies as politically conservative and whose religious paradigm is largely shaped by evangelical categories, I decided to buy the book on Kindle. Her essential purpose is to outline the central tenets and tactics of what has been deemed the Christian Left, evaluate them in light of Christian orthodoxy, and advise evangelical parents of Millennials on the best ways to combat this. And indeed, I admire Vicari for undertaking this project, given that Millennial religious affiliation is decreasing, that Millennials are largely liberal on social issues, and that the Evangelical left is an influential faction. I’m also glad someone has written a book on this topic because in my everyday life I’ve encountered quite a number of people, both in person and via social media, who were raised in conservative evangelical homes who appear to have abandoned multiple important Christian doctrines and social ethics, including the importance of preaching the message of the Cross, opposition to abortion, the Christian sexual ethos (and not just on homosexuality), and uncritical support for various left-winged socio-economic initiatives in the name of compassion, among others. However, while Vicari provides an excellent overview of the notions propagated by this movement as well as of the individuals in the center of it, I must confess that I was disappointed by two major components: firstly, her lack of critique of the highly right-winged Baby Boomer-dominated conservative evangelicalism replete with emotionalism and individualism, in which most of these liberal Millennial evangelicals were raised, that has in fact served as the foundation of the antics of Millennial evangelicals; secondly, her conclusion regarding how to address this issue, while certainly commendable for advocating loving patience as well as a searching of the Scriptures, omits numerous crucial instruments that have aided Christians for centuries in face of hostile cultures, including strong, beyond-face-value exigesis of Scripture, the Christian philosophical tradition, and Church history.

Vicari’s essential thesis is that the left has taken advantage of two pervasive and often overlapping mentalities within evangelicalism: the Couch Potato (the belief that Jesus primarily desires us to be humbly silent and socially neutral) and Cafeteria Christianity (compartmentalizing our personal faith with our public lives), such as through the prevalent “COEXIST” bumper sticker that spells using various symbols from different religions, and seek to silence what she terms “Convictional Christians” through accusations of bigotry and a lack of love. She subsequently lauds the work of the past three decades of James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly Lahaye, and numerous other figures of the evangelical Christian Right as commendable. She implores fellow evangelicals to stand strong in the midst of an increasingly hostile popular and academic culture. She then concludes the introductory portion of the book with a recollection of her own college years spent in the Christian Left, with significant exposure to Brian McLaren. She notes (correctly) that much of the ideology of the Christian Left is centered around actions in the community and buzzwords such as “tolerance, nonconforming, and liberated”. On the other hand, Vicari notes that discussion of sexual morality, the reality of sin, or the afterlife was largely nonexistent. She further notes that they pitch themselves as apolitical and uncontroversial, preferring to focus on “justice” without acknowledging their own often rigidly anti-capitalist, anti-nationalist, sexually revolutionary message. She outlines other important figures in the movement including Tony Campolo, Tony Jones, Lynn Hybels, Rachel Held Evans, Jim Wallis, Richard Cizik, Jay Bakker, Jennifer Crumpton, Shane Claiborne, and Carl Medearis.

The second section of Distortion devotes individual chapters to various socio-political issues that are frequently pet issues for the Christian Left and also often major points of contention between them and the Religious Right. These include many Millennials’ endorsement of same-sex marriage and often even outright rejecting evangelical teaching of homosexuality as immoral; a strong commitment to the concept of “social justice” which typically includes stronger social welfare programs, federal educational initiatives, strong action on climate change, lenient immigration policies, and often affirmative action; “Jesus feminism” which asserts that Christian teaching has often oppressed women and strongly advocates for widespread action to contraception (and sometimes abortion), and at times even outright claims that Christian opposition to all heterosexual relations outside monogamous marriage is misogynistic; the tendency to believe in a “right to choose” even if that person personally has a moral opposition to abortion and to claim that evangelicals are obsessed with abortion and should focus on other issues; a tendency to doubly dodge the issues of domestic religious liberty by pointing to international Christian persecution as much worse, and international Christian persecution by excusing it with international rage over American foreign policy and accusing its highlighters of not caring about the suffering of other religions; and general support for the Palestinian cause over the Israeli cause based on the assumption that Israel is unjust towards them.

The third and final section of the book implores evangelical Millennials to remain strong in the face of increased hostility, and to maintain a balance of truth and love, a la the epistles of John, remembering that Jesus Himself gained all sorts of haters, but stuck to His message of truth regardless. Finally, she interviews various conservative Millennial evangelicals, who collectively assert the importance of churches instilling strong Christian cultural values in their youth, and also encourage young people to study the Bible and discern what is the best way for them to involved.

As a member of the evangelical wing of the Anglican communion, I was elated to see the premise of the book: an American Christian twenty-something highlighting the problems of the “progressive Christian” movement, particularly since she identifies as a former insider to the movement. Unfortunately, as I stated in the beginning, there were two glaring weaknesses in her approach, the first being that she doesn’t seem to recognize the problem of ahistorical ecclesiology runs just as rampant in the conservative wing of evangelicalism as it does in the progressive one. For example, in the beginning of her first chapter, she writes, “Peek behind the curtain of some ‘hip’ or ‘progressive’ evangelical churches, past the savvy technology and secular music, and you will find more than just a contemporary worship service. You’ll find faith leaders encouraging young evangelicals to trade in their Christian convictions for a gospel filled with compromise. They’re slowly attempting to give evangelicalism an ‘update’-and the change is not for the good.” The apparent implication of this is that evangelicals with progressive social and theological views are the primary culprits of this, when the reality is that there is no shortage of conservative evangelicals who make it “all about me”. Perhaps the most notorious of these are Joel and Victoria Osteen, co-pastors of a large megachurch in Texas. Here is something they recently said, essentially implying that worship is about you, and not the Lord your God. Yet it should be noted that they maintain conservative positions on basic theology, and on social issues.

Vicari additionally states, “Within these evangelical institutions, and even in some sanctuaries, truth has been made relative. Scripture verses that reference anything considered offensive are skipped over, and God’s supremacy is diminished in order to market the Church to as wide an audience as possible.” What she, again, doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that the dominant form of conservative evangelicalism created this climate. Growing up in the midst of the white, middle to upper middle class evangelical subculture, there were plenty of our own Biblical  issues that were swept under the rug, including but not limited to, the strong if not downright strident messages about oppression of the poor in powerful nations found in the Prophets, the Sermon on the Mount’s message decisively in favor of the oppressed and opposed to the abuse of violent state authority, as well as both Jesus’ and the Apostles’ teachings against divorce, which is beyond rampant in our culture (Note: I am not suggesting Vicari doesn’t care about these issues, only that she doesn’t seem to get that in certain ways, Millennial evangelical liberals are going the way they have BECAUSE of conservative evangelical culture, no in spite of it.).

And another one: “The Millennial generation’s susceptibility to ‘feel-good’ doctrine is playing a big part in America’s moral decline. Millennials’ religious practices depend largely on how the actions make us and others feel, whether the activities are biblical or not. For example, we only attend churches that leave us feeling good about our lifestyle choices, even if those choices conflict with God’s clear commandments. We dismiss old hymns that focus on God’s transforming salvation, love, and mercy and opt for ‘Jesus is your boyfriend’ songs.” Again, there is no question that Millennials are often very susceptible to this, but what about the Baby Boomers, the age group that is in charge at most churches now, and was very influential when we were growing up? In fact, aging expert Vern Bengston has remarked, “Boomers were the first generation to clearly differentiate between spirituality and religion. They said spiritual practice is not equal to going to church. They are the first to associate spirituality with an emotion, an intense feeling of connection with God.”

Vicari’s chapter on the issue of homosexuality is well-written. It elaborates on the relevant Scriptural passages in Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, I Corinthians, I Timothy, as well as the words of Christ Himself regarding his endorsement of the notion that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”. She gets a bit of a KO when she writes, “By dismissing the Genesis marriage model, the evangelical Left is also dismissing Jesus Christ. While teaching in Judea, Jesus affirmed God’s divine establishment of marriage after He was approached by Pharisees.” She is careful to demonstrate that they are not simply words to be read and spewed, but instead have overarching frameworks in mind. She cites the example of pastor Andy Stanley’s dodging of the issue as demonstrative of evangelicalism’s increased dodging of the issue. She also prudently uses social science and appeals for consistency, wisely noting that “The church stopped defending marriage when fast-and-loose, no-fault divorces became fashionable in the church. We did so when adultery, premarital sex, and cohabitation were no longer condemned from the pulpit. We let go of the family unit when dads walked out on their families and left fifteen million US children fatherless.” She also makes sure to cite studies in social science discussing the overall performance of children in same-sex households and specifically their academic performance. Finally, the chapter was excellent in that it acknowledges the emotional abuse often endured by gays in the conservative evangelical community, noting that “We cannot ignore the outrageous suicide rate of teenagers who are attracted to the same sex.” Additionally, Vicari notes, “The church must provide a safe place for these teens. When the church offers no talks, no hugs, no assurances, no truth, and only ejection and condemnation, we cause devastating pain.”

The chapter on social justice I found less impressive. Towards the beginning Vicari writes, “Too often ‘social justice’ is the sheepskin socialism wears to make inroads into evangelicalism.” I cringed a bit when I read this, as I felt it reeked of a common conservative tactic I’ve observed of trying to discredit all economic policy proposals intended to help the poor by utilizing the emotivistic power associate with the word “socialist.” She criticizes Shane Claiborne for his blanket opposition to capitalism, which is a reasonable critique to be had, as well as Carol Keehan of Sojourners for essentially saying that obstructing Obamacare signifies lack of compassion for the poor. And she also rightly points out that there were problems with the oversimplified rhetoric by the blogger Benjamin Corey. She outlines a genuine problem wherein social justice rhetoric at Christian colleges has come to overshadow and in some cases completely overtake any sense of Christian theological instruction, which my own experience at a Christian college, while not that severe, did witness moments of this. However, I find her proposed “solutions” to be overly simplistic. She quotes Jerry Falwell, Jr. who said, “Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor’s hand it give it to the poor….if we all did as Jesus did when he helped the poor, we wouldn’t need the government.” While a call for widespread evangelical compassion among evangelicals is important, it does not address the issue of injustice at the system level, which individual compassion cannot completely solve. For instance, growing up as a conservative evangelical, I can testify to the fact that while abortion and homosexuality were discussed without fail, almost never did we address the very serious issues of increasing income inequality or the abysmal state of our healthcare system. Vicari unfortunately makes no mention of this, and does not develop a sophisticated Christian theology of justice. A close reading of the Prophets, for example, lends support to the notion that what is being decried is the abuse of the poor by those in power, and that the Prophets were advocating systemic reform. While the left no doubt brings excesses to this, systemic alterations for the benefit of society’s marginal ized is very much a Christian cause, as it was very much advocated by the early church fathers. Finally, it seemed to me that Vicari is concerned that social justice rhetoric has watered down Christianity to nothing more than a social gospel movement and as such she risks throwing out the baby with the bath water. It is important for Christians to be grounded in what I would term a “fusion theology” in which both spiritual conversion and socio-economic transformation are considered essential components of the Christian faith. The Anglican theologian John Stott was a superb example of this. He was resolutely orthodox on the essential theological issues, unapologetically conservative on issues of sexuality and across-the-board sanctity of life, but also a passionate advocate of justice at the economic level, and virulently opposed to exploitation, and also recognized the importance of being good stewards of God’s creation.

The actions of some prominent evangelical feminists are properly criticized, most notably Rachel Held Evans’ decision to go a year following literally everything said in the Bible about women, to the letter. This is, of course, rather preposterous given that it’s been widely established in Christianity for quite some time that there is a difference between cermemonial and moral laws, the former of which no longer apply to men or women. However, yet again, it seems to me that Vicari ignores the fact that Held Evans’ approach is a natural outgrowth of the face-value biblical literalism so pervasive in conservative evangelicalism, such that people will inevitably ask the question, “Why this verse but not that verse?” Rachel Held Evans certainly does nothing to alleviate this bibliological chaos, but she is, again, a natural outgrowth of it.

Her chapter urging action against abortion is a mixed bag. While Vicari wisely mentions Psalm 139 as a demonstration of God’s care for His children prior to their being born, noting that, “Doesn’t it bring tears to your eyes to read that even while in utero, our “soul knows very well” our Creator? Likewise, it sends shivers up my spine to think about how God knew the soul of every precious boy and girl among the 55,772,015 babies victimized by abortion. For some progressive Christians, and many secular citizens, the soul of the unborn is not the most significant criteria for measuring the value of a life. Of more importance, it seems, are whether a parent has adequate material possessions, whether having children is convenient, and whether a child is wanted.” Indeed. And she also points out the industry of abortion by properly calling out Planned Parenthood for the fact that abortion is such a substantial part of their revenue. Unfortunately, Vicari blunders by employing the line from Horton Hears a Who, “a person’s a person no matter how small” in spite of  it being very doubtful that Dr. Seuss was referring to abortion, and his widow being opposed to this analogy, and the fact that he was left-winged. And her critique of Planned Parenthood, while largely sound, also claims Planned Parenthood’s widespread abortion services are part of the eugenic schemes of founder Margaret Sanger, when the truth is she was strongly opposed to abortion. And while she wisely points to a CDC study demonstrating that only 13% of teen pregnancies result from poor access to contraceptives, I wish she would further discuss the issue of many women feeling economically inadequate. While Vicari does provide excellent coverage of the adoption option, I wish there were more extensive discussion of how to help women who choose to keep the baby. She does mention the importance of the Church in providing services, but sometimes the church’s resources are insufficient, and some government assistance may be beneficial, as a necessary evil. I will stop short of endorsing such a notion, but it merits discussion. Even Paul Ryan has said that pro-lifers must broaden the scope of the issues they advocate.

In contrast, Vicari’s chapter on fighting religious persecution is stellar. She wisely notes that, “False claims that religious persecution is just a ploy to rally uber-conservative Tea Party patriots are causing young evangelicals to discount the serious consequences of inaction. Young evangelicals are not seeing this First Amendment issue for what it is-a matter that affects everyone’s ability to hold to their own belief system-because pundits on the religious Left are using misrepresentations of Jesus to convince them there is no credible threat to religious liberty.” Spot on. While what we face here is nothing compared to Christians around the world, using that as a basis to ignore religious liberty domestically would be a relative privation fallacy. She also is smart to cite a bipartisan petition support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Arizona. On the foreign front, she cites numerous examples of Christians persecuted, and wisely notes that often, confirmed by my own experience, the Christian Left only cites international persecution to distract from domestic religious liberty issues, but then does not discuss it otherwise. She mentions Brian McLaren’s reasons given, but subsequently points to a strong refutation of this. The Christian Left has indeed been depressingly silent on the issue.

I will not lie, I cringed reading the chapter urging support for Israel. It essentially begins with an emotional overview of the Holocaust, and subsequently laments the many enemies Israel has (which it indeed does) and essentially implies that criticism of Israel is universally un-Christian, no matter the grounds. She quotes a provocative post by extreme dispensationalist pastor John Hagee that equates the modern state of Israel with the biblical “Israel” even though the latter refers to the Jewish people as a whole, about half of which do not even reside in Israel today. She quotes the biblical passages about God’s covenant with Israel, then quotes John Hagee, who says, “Ishmael, father of Arabs, was excluded from the title deed to the land in Genesis 17. Therefore, modern-day Palestinians have no biblical mandate to own the land.” This of course completely ignores demographic realities in the region. Indeed, Vicari flat out says, “CATC chooses to focus on political and social critiques of Israel rather than on what God’s Word has sketched out for the nation.” Here again, she ignores the fact that the idea of a Jewish state largely grew out of early and mid 20th century notions of “self-determination for all peoples” and included expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. This expulsion continues to this day via settlements, and Palestinian civilians face widespread collateral damage from Israel’s military actions against the Palestinians. Now, let me make myself clear: Israel has a right to exist, and is more democratic and liberal than any other nation in the Middle East. It faces a very real threat from Hamas, who calls for its destruction. And Vicari rightly points out the Christian Left’s failure to acknowledge this. Having been on a Christian left study-abroad program in the Middle East, I can likewise attest to their one-sidedness. Unfortunately, for Vicari, this appears to be all the proof she needs that all voices of concern for the Palestinians are illegitimate, and especially should not be voiced by Christians. It frightens me that her highly literal Bible-based imploring to support Israel is not the slightest bit tempered with acknowledgement of Israel’s abuses (which of course she be viewed proportionally), and essentially is urging fellow Christians to suspend their conscience in the face of evidence of mistreatment in favor of fundamentalist-like blind obedience to an interpretation that is highly suspect, and has been challenged by reputable theologians.

Vicari’s conclusion, that Christians with traditional views must stand against the Christian Left based on a two-pillared paradigm of loving truth and boldness, is correct, although again I was disappointed by some of the means advocated of equipping young Christians. The conservative mainstream evangelical approach that has in many ways birthed this liberal mess was exemplified by an interviewee who urged those who are spiritually struggling to, “Read your Bible, saturate yourself with the truth. The world is full of lies and smooth talking, and if you don’t know how to recognize them, you will be directed whichever way the wind blows.” While I am most definitely an advocate of reading the Holy Scriptures, this approach fails to recognize, again, that the notion of each individual being solely responsible for their own Scriptural instruction. But what this evangelical approach has given rise to is an entire generation of young evangelicals who have essentially said, “If we take these verses literally, why not these others?” It has subsequently led to almost complete rejection of Scripture as authoritative.

This is why, as an Anglican, I believe church history is exceedingly important. Because the truth is that the Christian sexual ethos, as well as teaching on abortion, and the importance being involved in public life, have a strong and rich history beginning with the direct successors to the Apostles and continuing throughout the centuries. This has given us a rich faith tradition rooted in Scripture, with the understanding of Scripture being guided through the ages by God’s Church and aided by reason manifest in a rich philosophical tradition. These are aspects that I believe would aid Vicari’s arguments tremendously, but as she professes to by a member of the Assembly of God denomination, it’s understandable that she would not stress these. As such, when I read the reasoning, it often gave me the feeling of watching a football game, and seeing a receiver wide open in the endzone. However, the quarterback does not see him and throws into double coverage, reducing the chances of a touchdown.

Vicari’s premise is absolutely to be commended. We need a thoughtful critique of this movement that is indeed causing a turning from orthodoxy among Millennials, as confirmed by my own experiences at a Christian college and elsewhere. The fact that it is being done by a Millennial who formerly ascribed to this ideology is encouraging. I would urge Christians to read this, because it does provide an excellent overview of the Christian Left and its strategies, tactics, and pet issues. However, what Christians must understand is that this phenomenon is perfectly explainable in the context of the emotionalism, individualism, literalism, and stridence of the Boomer-dominated Christian right. And it doesn’t appear that Vicari grasps this.

Homecoming 2013-Reflections and Realizations

This weekend I went to Houghton College to participate in the Homecoming Weekend festivities. It was a much-needed escape from the hectic and hustled life of Washington, DC, particularly in the midst of the government shutdown conflict and the impending debt ceiling crisis. The drive up consisted of a small stretch of Maryland, then the entire length of central Pennsylvania, which is especially beautiful in early October. The trip concluded with a drive through the Southern Tier of western New York, which is a rural and oft-forgotten portion of the state. I miss the rural beauty of western New York. I have not been to Houghton since Homecoming 2010, which was also the year I graduated. While having loads of fun talking to old professors and classmates, watching athletic events, enjoying good food (seriously!), and exploring old sites, several things in particular stood out to me:

(1) I’m a very different person from the one who was there in 2010.

Following graduation in May 2010, I had nothing lined up and had to move back in with my parents in PA, and work various menial blue collar jobs. Specifically, when I visited Houghton in October 2010, I was delivering pizza and working the graveyard shift in a metal fabrication plant, with no immediate way out. Those were some of the most miserable days of my life in recent memory. Fast forward to now, I’ve been living in DC since January 2011, and I have a job that very much fits my temperament, which I’ve been working at for nearly 2 1/2 years. Back then I was miserable, angry, and sometimes downright hopeless. Now I’m fairly confident, generally happy, and yet still nostalgic about my days there.

(2) A lot has changed at Houghton since I was last there.

Numerous professors and staff members have left; some have been replaced, some have not. One of the ones who is no longer there is Dr. Benedict, my international relations professor and my academic adviser. Several buildings have been remodeled, most notably the science building, and the basement of the campus center, which was almost unrecognizable. And the student body was completely new. There may be a few remaining 5th-year seniors who were freshmen during my senior year, but otherwise, all new. I felt extremely, shall we say, mature this time around.

(3) Not much has changed at Houghton since I was last there.

Considering all that I mentioned above, it’s remarkable how much life there appears to go on exactly the way it did when I was there. The soccer games are lively as ever, complete with Shen Block (the guys from the dorm Shenawana Hall dress in outrageous costumes and scream and play drums and other instruments). In chapel, people continue to scan in, sit down, then stand up when the organ starts playing. President Mullen gives announcements and orations in her extremely unique style. People congregate in the campus center and on the quad, and leave their backpacks and laptops at the bottom of the steps to go up to the cafeteria.

(4) The place has an “innocence” that I took for granted while there, and certainly do not experience where I live now.

Walking around campus for the first time in three years, it all came back to me what a friendly environment it was. At all hours of the day, you walk past a total stranger on the sidewalk and you can expect to get a hearty smile and enthusiastic “Hi!”. While that’s certainly true of most of small town America, I particularly remember it as a staple of life at Houghton. And it used to be exactly what I did as well. Living in DC has made that, well, not so much the case anymore. Here, when you pass a stranger in the street, you keep a vigilant eye out, give a slight smile, and, at best, mumble a quick hi. Of course, a major part of the friendliness at Houghton was that most people knew most everyone else. While that certainly can have its own problems, I nonetheless miss it.

Houghton is also a very “innocent” place as evidenced by the level of collective trust. In the campus center, when people get ready to go up the stairs to the cafeteria, they will leave their coats, backpacks, laptops, and even sometimes wallets just lying there in the open. People leave dorm rooms unlocked, and cars are left unlocked. And it’s done largely without fear. Thefts are rather rare there. I remember a couple of isolated incidents when I was there, and when it happened, it was considered a BIG DEAL. This weekend there, I even had one time where I came back to the car and realized I had left it unlocked, with my laptop and GPS out in the open. A mistake like that can be very costly where I live. Yet it’s largely the norm where I went to school.

(5) I miss the close-knit environment.

Houghton has a definite everybody-knows-everybody feel to it. Members of the faculty, staff, and student body are often friends outside work, and can be seen interacting very amicably at athletic events, dinners, church, and even on weekends. I’m fortunate enough in DC to have a workplace where this is also the case, as my coworkers and I go out to happy hours, exchange funny texts and Facebook posts, and gab sports and other entertaining topics. However, this is in many ways outside the DC norm. Many friends of mine work in jobs that are stimulating, yet with somewhat stifling professional barriers between people. I’m glad I work for an employer that hasn’t taken that aspect away.

(6) I feel there is room for improvement in the way they present one’s relation to “the real world”.

When I went to chapel on Friday, the speaker said some things that sounded great to me when I was a student there but now sound unrealistic to me, having a couple years experience in the real world. The message was what I call a “liberal arts pep talk” in which, although I can’t quite remember the specifics, he basically gave a message of how everyone must find their personal calling, and must find something that truly fits them, and seemed to imply that a career choice should essentially be one’s gameplan for personal growth. This is reflective of a wider trend I observed while a student there, in that there is a bit of an anti-“the system” mentality, where altruism is stressed and it is drilled into students that they should not strictly think about making money. While this is certainly important, I did not feel it reflects 2013 economic realities. I love the job I work at, for instance, but it was never the kind of thing I ever expected to do, and it is not “altruistic” at the surface level, though I’m sure you could figure out ways that it does help people. It seems like a combination of “choose-your-own-career-path” and “save-the-world” mentalities. While not entirely bad things, I don’t consider that paradigm completely beneficial in today’s world.

(7) I remember Houghton fondly because of its importance in broadening my view of the world and in my journey of faith.

Houghton fosters an environment where questioning is encouraged, as is exposure to new ideas. Although overwhelmingly Protestant and majority white, it really does allow exposure to new ideas. I went there as a freshman in fall 2006 as a typical middle class American far-right evangelical. But it’s because of my time there that I no longer view Catholics as hellbound rosary rattlers. Because of my time there I don’t recoil in fear when I pass a black person on the street. Because of my time there I don’t get nauseous when I meet a gay person. Because of my time there I don’t blindly dismiss everything my liberal friends say. My time there helped me discover a longstanding and vibrant evangelical tradition of justice for the downtrodden and care for God’s creation.  The emphasis on world cultures helped foster my interest And the semi-liturgical worship of the Wesleyan Church planted the seeds of interest that led me in my journey of faith to Anglicanism.

(8) I think the most notable thing that stood out was this simple truth: Life is fleeting.

Just a few short years ago I was in the middle of Houghton’s campus life: Laughing and eating in the cafeteria, joking with the guys in the dorm, pulling all-nighters writing papers, walking around the quad, intensely taking notes in classes in the Chamberlain Center, and playing flag football on the practice field. Yet I walked through there again this weekend, seeing completely new faces doing all the same things, and I was completely irrelevant to the action, unknown to probably three quarters of the campus, faculty and staff included. It very much brings to mind Ecclesiastes 1: 4-11:

4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.

6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.

7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.

8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.

11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

This is a sobering truth. Most things I did while there now have little to no significance to pretty much anyone. It was, in a sense, vanity. However, the author of Ecclesiastes concludes, in 12: 13-14:

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 

14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Everything I do, including while I was at Houghton, must be weighed against the values of the Kingdom of God. And I hope that I will, to the best of my ability, continue to live in a way that reflects this. I believe much of what Houghton instilled in me has enriched that, though far from perfectly. While Ecclesiastes is often interpreted as nihilistic, I believe only insofar as it extends to the context of life on earth; it makes it clear that God has provided us with a sense of eternity (3:11).

It is thus my goal to, by the grace of God, proclaim the news of the Lord Jesus Christ in word and deed, constantly contemplating the values learned both from Houghton and all other stations of life.

Why the Season of the Trinity would Benefit Evangelicalism

The Anglican church follows a church calendar that consists of five seasons (as do, I believe, the Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and Lutheran traditions). The first four are Advent (first Sunday in December until Christmas), Epiphany (Christmas to Ash Wednesday), Lent (Ash Wednesday to Easter), and Easter (Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday). And, I am not taking away from the importance of these. It’s important for us as the Church to set aside time to recognize the particularly important events in our faith (the birth of Christ, his crucifixion, resurrection, and the sending of His Spirit to the Church. These times have proven very spiritually meaningful to many people, myself included. 

However, there is a fifth liturgical season that is not as well known. We are in it now; it lasts from Pentecost Sunday until early December; a solid six months. It is known as the Season of the Trinity. Rather than spending that season honoring a an exhilarating theological event, it is spent focused on the Trinity, a most basic fact of the unchanging God.

At the start of each liturgical season, my church hands out a booklet with prayers and Scripture readings for that season. I would like to quote the introduction page for the Season of the Trinity booklet:

“The church calendar orients our spirituality and schedules around the events of Christ’s life. In a yearly journey through these events, we gradually come to know what it means to be united to him in the experiences of longing and fulfillment, sadness, and joy. It can be tempting, however, to think that our Christian life is solely characterized by these spiritual extremes. This is where the Trinity season is vital to our Christian walk.

Much of our life is lived in the ordinary and mundane. If we’re honest, it is an infrequent occurrence when something quite remarkable takes place in our lives. Periodically, we may become discouraged and long for excitement and emotional exhilaration, and this is especially the case in our spiritual walk.  We often think that we need a spiritual high to feel close to God. But on the contrary, it is in the slow, regular rhythms of our lives-the scheduled activities of Sunday worship and daily devotion, the slow cultivation of relationships, and our vocations-that God most frequently meets us.

Trinity season is the longest season in the church calendar. It spans from Trinity Sunday to Advent. In some ways, this ‘ordinary time’ most closely mirrors our lives, lives marked by regular events and seemingly monotonous rhythms. A truly countercultural Christianity grasps this time with a willing and content spirit that meets God in the orginary and the mundane.”

 

Now THAT was refreshing, if anything ever was. Here you have an acknowledgement that much of life lacks spiritual highs, and is in fact quite mundane at times. You will likewise find that in the Bible, while we see a lot of God speaking directly to people, most of those people’s live are not recorded, which likely means that the norm for the those people was living otherwise mundane lives. 

But American evangelicalism, as a general rule, has almost no place for this. Its roots in revivalism require constant and continuous life-altering emotional experiences with God. In many evangelical small group settings, the high point of the event is to go around the circle (as I experienced) and be able to describe “what God has been doing in your life” most often through really cool experiences, their emotional connection with their daily Bible reading, or their emotional inklings during their prayer times. Generally, the more emotional and/or extroverted you were, the more likely you were to have something relevant to that criteria to be able to share, and thus be viewed favorably. If you didn’t, as was almost invariably the case for me, it was obviously because of a poor prayer life, inadequate reading of Scripture, or ongoing sin in your life, and you were either lectured or at the very least given very stern, grave looks. 

In our Anglican liturgical tradition, in contrast, such experiences are viewed as the exception, and the way to best experience God is to practice the Eucharist, the liturgy, prayer, and Scripture reading, which is how God is met, whether we FEEL like it or not. The Season of the Trinity is indeed constructed around this assumption. 

It is my sincere hope that this may one day be embraced by our evangelical brothers and sisters, and that “spiritually boring” people everywhere will be able to stand up and say, “I don’t feel that close to God right now, but that’s OK. Because of His promises, I can continue to have assurance of one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

The Zimmerman Verdict: A Proposed Truce

This post will be substantially shorter than usual. The reason is that I think concise is needed at this time of widespread anger and division over George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin’s supporters need to face the fact that from a legal perspective, the acquittal was correct. The prosecution quite simply did not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Zimmerman who instigated the entire fight. All they managed to establish was that Zimmerman exited his car when told not to, which is suspicious, to be sure. But they could not prove that the physical altercation was his doing, or even how closely he followed Martin. The burden of proof was on them, and they did not meet it. Hence the acquittal was correct.

It’s also time that those on the other side of the issue realize that racism remains a real issue. There is a reason that the issue of Zimmerman possibly profiling Martin seems to resonate so much with blacks: because so many of them know what this is like. Being followed by police officers, security guards, neighborhood watches, and jumpy citizens is a regular occurrence for many black males. The black community continues to face discrimination in the legal, social, and economic realms, and for them this issue strikes an emotional chord. While this case, objectively speaking, does not necessarily serve as a superb illustration, it CAN be used as an opportunity to bring light to the issue.

Only when people learn to see why the other side might see things the way they do, can real progress be made on these issues. I can only hope that this case may be instrumental in guiding along the healing process in our country’s ugly legacy of racism. God have mercy on us.

The Sad Case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

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The defense has rested its case in the ongoing trial of George Zimmerman, a man on trial for the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, whom he claims he killed in self-defense. The next few days will have closing arguments, and then Zimmerman’s fate will be in the hands of the jury. He could face up to life in prison if convicted.

It is always deeply saddening to see anyone lose their life. What makes it even sadder is that race played at least a partial role in Zimmerman’s choice to initially follow Martin.

This is an important point I want to touch on. Trayvon Martin was unarmed, and had only Skittles and green tea. He was on his way to his father’s house. He also appears to have been genuinely frightened when he saw Zimmerman following him, not knowing why. It is almost a certainty that what triggered Zimmerman’s suspicion was his being black, and wearing a hoodie. There is a reason that it is so believable that he was being profiled. And that reason is that it happens to blacks in the United States. Constant stories exist, both in the news, and personal accounts from black acquaintances, about security guards and police officers stopping them for no good reason, accusing them of preposterous things, sometimes even handing down extremely unjust punishments.

I’m about to relate an example from my own life. Although it has nowhere near the severity that the above scenarios do, it nonetheless left me with a feeling conviction I will never forget. On a spring evening when I was 17, my dad was off at a meeting, and my mom was out back working on the flowers. I was on the computer, when the doorbell rang. I looked through the blinds and saw that it was a black male. He had on basketball shorts, a sleeveless shirt with the name of a basketball team, and his hair was in corn rows. I remember shuddering. I was about to go back to the computer, when a feeling of guilt came over me. Perhaps it was what they call “white guilt”. My guilt caused me to open the door. I don’t remember much about him, but I remember his name was Marcus, he was very polite and kind, and his reason for being there was to get donation pledges for an environmental advocacy group. There’s a “suspicious activity” if there ever was one, eh? After he left, I remember my mom commenting what a hard job he had, and that a lot of the neighborhood probably didn’t even open their doors to him, due to fear. We were very glad we had a chance to talk to him. But my fear was reflective of reality in the dominant white culture of America: fear of the “other”, particularly of black skin. We have allowed the media to saturate us with images of black men as mindless brutes with physical prowess. The result has been that we fear them, and a few of us have taken our reactions to extremes, as in the case of Zimmerman’s hyper-vigilance.

Which brings me to my second point: Zimmerman almost certainly had a hyper-vigilance problem. An affidavit indicates that “Later while talking about Martin, Zimmerman stated ‘these [expletive], they always get away’ and also said ‘these f—— punks’.” This appears to be a sign of, dare I say, paranoia. It also appears that he followed Martin even when the dispatcher told him not to. This is a man with a vendetta, and an unacceptable level of fear. And while some question the role of race, given that Zimmerman is a Hispanic and thus a minority himself, I found this to be a brilliant assessment of race relations in Florida (it’s a rarity for me to applaud the Huffington Post).

However, there appear to be issues with Trayvon Martin as well. His character has been called into question, as he appears to have been a drug user, with small traces even found in his autopsy, although it appears the amounts were negligible. He seems to have had a belligerent streak, and also was a sporadic truant. Although the judge has ruled many of these things inadmissible by the defense, they are things to consider. Legitimate questions have also been raised regarding whether the arrest was due to an honest reexamination of the facts, or whether it was to appease an increasingly irate public.

Here is, in a nutshell, what I think happened: Zimmerman, out of his hyper-vigilance, decided to follow Martin, wanting very badly to “put that punk in his place,” so to speak. Martin caught on, and began verbally confronting him, with Zimmerman verbally firing back. It’s at that point that it becomes fuzzy for me. It’s not clear whether Zimmerman then backed off, only to be then pursued and physically confronted by Martin (Zimmerman did have a broken nose and numerous lacerations), resulting in him shooting Martin, or whether Zimmerman escalated the confrontation and tried to restrain and/or incapacitate Martin.

Having looked at these facts, I am now going to go on the record and say that I believe Zimmerman will be acquitted. I believe that the defense has managed to sow a reasonable doubt into the minds of the jury for two primary reasons:

1. They’ve managed to make the initial picture of Martin as a “fine young man” seem highly questionable, and made him increasingly seem like the type to initiate aggression.

2. Witness accounts differ strongly on which of them appeared to be the aggressor. They cannot even agree which one was on top in the scuffle, or which one’s voice is screaming for help. All they have to do is establish the prosecution’s lack of conclusive proof that Zimmerman was the primary aggressor.

Regardless of outcome, it is time for white America to wake up to the reality of racism, alive and well in 2013. Regardless of Zimmerman’s precise motivations, it is far too often that blacks are viewed suspiciously, and often downright mistreated, for what ultimately boils down to their skin color. Going back to my story about Marcus, many white people often say, “Well, they shouldn’t dress like that if they don’t want to be viewed suspiciously!” (the same can be said about Martin’s hoodie). However, we forget how easy it is for us to say that, since it is OUR clothing that has the status of normativity, and ultimately up to US, as the majority, to decide who looks suspicious. The Hispanic perspective also, in my opinion, has not been heard at all throughout this controversy. The time has come that we must listen to one another’s story’s, and do our best to work together to overcome these prejudices. As the old spiritual goes, we must continue “climbing Jacob’s ladder, to the sky.”

When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers. -Proverbs 21:15

Sanford and Sanctity Spin Doctors

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It’s official. Mark Sanford, formerly disgraced governor of South Carolina who cheated on his wife while claiming to be “hiking the Appalachian Trail”, has been elected to the House of Representatives. Granted, he was not up against a particularly strong challenger in Elizabeth Colbert Busch, but it’s nonetheless impressive given the backlash he had faced.

For many conservatives, it serves as a redemption story in which a leader formerly caught in immorality wipes off the dust and returns to leadership, with a freshly new moral outlook. Liberals, on the other hand, have launched a seemingly endless barrage of criticism, alleging that it demonstrates conservative hypocrisy on “family values.”

Of course, it should be noted that Sanford has never been a vocal social conservative. His big thing was always fiscal conservatism, and his reputation as a “budget hawk.” Thought it’s humorously noteworthy that he traveled to Argentina on taxpayer funds, though I believe he later reimbursed the state.

However, I have heard people claim that he was still the lesser of two evils because of, among the other things, protecting the sanctity of marriage (aka stopping gay marriage). Republicans have been hammering the point nonstop, that gay people getting married turns the institution on its head. And in many cases, Christian beliefs are a primary motivating factor. But divorce and adultery are often not spoken of. But what did Jesus say about it? Here’s what he says in Mark 10:

 

And he arose from thence, and cometh into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan: and the people resort unto him again; and, as he was wont, he taught them again.And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.10 And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

 

Gay marriage opponents like to note that God intended marriage for one man and one woman, which Jesus alludes to in verses 7-8. However, when people say this, they are often implicitly opposing two men or two women, and not so much one man and multiple women. In that day, it was common for Pharisees to leave their wives to marry younger, more attractive women, and get off on the technicality that they weren’t committing adultery because they didn’t sleep with her while married to the previous wife. But Jesus had higher standards in mind. Just the other day, a non-Christian friend said, “Man, if Sanford was going to do that, he should have at least done it the right way, and not gotten with her until after his divorce was final.” The same thing people think now was thought then, and there is nothing new under the sun.

What anyone who supports the biblical view of marriage should be even more infuriated about is that it is not even like, say, Newt Gingrich, where he has an adulterous past and is now at least claiming to regret it. Mark Sanford’s adultery is IN PROGRESS, as he is engaged to Chapur, claiming she is his soul mate, with no apparent regard for his former wife or his sons. My grandfather left my grandmother for another woman, and I can tell you my father and uncle were not affected well by it.

Let me be clear, if you think the Republicans, as far as family issues go, should be voted for because they are the lesser of two evils, fine. But stop preaching the Republicans as the way forward for those who want strong families. Just be honest, and say that you think they are not as overt in their contempt for God’s teaching. They have just as much sexual sin as anyone within their ranks, and are doing nothing about it. Jesus had strong words for such hypocrisy in Matthew 23:

 

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Further, in verses 24-30, he says:

24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

 

Am I saying God cannot forgive Sanford? Certainly not. Am I condemning him from a place of perfection? No way. I have more sins than I can count. I have committed adultery in my heart more times than I can count.

But sin must be confessed to be forgiven, and there is no sign of repentance on Sanford’s part, nor on the part of the Republican party, with the “sanctity of marriage” in its platform. They have decided that some sexual sins are fine, while others are not, and apparently the ones they are more often faced with are the lesser sins.

It is time for Christians to see that the Religious Right has essentially evolved into the modern Pharisees. They are hypocritical and morally bankrupt. They judge the speck in the eye of others, including some of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and ignore the log in their own. And they have spent years defrauding God’s people. Turn from them, and follow the Lord your God.