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Archive for January, 2011

I have been reflecting on immigration lately, spurred by the subject of the book I just read (generally rather than its content).  I probably get some things wrong politically, but I at least have sense enough to know that God’s grace covers both those of long memory and the asses that oppose them. I find that the rhetoric of people discussing the issue should probably be toned down, and the sort of emotional language regularly employed by, for an easy example, Sojourners isn’t really necessary. No one is in my mind a sinner for supporting one point of view or another.

Christianity has a long history of giving voice to the other. Our calling to share power and resources with the marginalized can by no means be denied. It is simply a part of who we are. I understand then, the powerful drive pushing compassionate individuals to disregard the law and throw their full support behind illegal immigrants. Whether they be right on this issue or not, God be praised for people yearning to look after those so easily swept aside or exploited.

I do not, however, agree with their conclusions regardless of their nobility. I think it not particularly egregious that the state control its borders and decide who to grant citizenship, nor do I think it wise to grant amnesty to those who have flouted the law for their own enrichment. I do have a problem with the way many conservatives have presented the issue, though. The discussion has been undeniably xenophobic, echoing the propaganda of the world’s ugliest age. They are the ones responsible for our problems. They have taken our jobs. They have consumed our resources. They. They. They.

There are few things more detestable than a pundit arguing what is, in my mind, the correct position by wrong means in catchy, hateful rhetoric. So here is my proposed solution. No amnesty for illegal immigrants coupled with an unprecedented easing of restrictions on legal immigration. If the problem is really the legality of the immigration, then make immigration easier. I suspect that a number of my fellow conservatives would be equally unhappy with this solution as with amnesty.

If so, I can only suspect that the reason lies somewhere past respecting the law and somewhere short of  racism. Xenophobia should not be confused with racism, by the way, and it doesn’t help when aforementioned good-hearted people start acting like it. The great inconsistency I find in right-wing Xenophobia is so astonishing as to make me wonder why no one has before pointed it out.

If competition is indeed the life-blood of the market and a free market produces the best results, then why should we limit immigration? If we conservatives really believe that competition achieves the best economic end, then we should be flinging open the doors of this country and welcoming in every hardworking Latino/a, African, and Asian that wants to come. I expect what motivates the desire to restrict immigration is a preservationist instinct, but if the only way we can keep what we have is to exert our power as American citizens to keep others from the money and the power then I suspect that we have a problem.

By my reading of Luke’s Gospel especially, I see that God is on the side of the lowly. Read the magnificat then tell me God is okay with us living in our giant walled city of America letting in only enough Mexicans to keep us well stocked in fresh produce and engine parts. Let us be compassionate, not by bending the law to preserve our wealth nor flouting it to fit our fancy, but by living justice so thoroughly that even the laws of our secular nation learn it. If the people are not the problem, let us agree to change the law.

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Of the modern political controversies, the question surrounding illegal immigration is the one that causes me the most self-doubt. I have long held that contempt of law should never be rewarded and that amnesty is not the proper response. However, in the last few years, God has taught me to love justice. My compassion for the immigrant wars with the clear sense of right and wrong concerning the law. So, a while back (read a year and a half) I elected to receive an early review galley copy of a book on the subject. I shamefully have just gotten around to reading it.

The book is written by an Old Testament scholar at Trinity International University and attempts to collect the biblical evidence that might be applied to the issue of illegal immigration in an easy to ready format. I generally appreciate the books narrative structure, essentially tracing the story of Israel from Abraham to the Exile and then jumping to Jesus before concluding. Unfortunately, this narrative approach does not pay the dividends one might expect. Hoffmeier’s book contains lengthy paraphrasing of biblical stories set off by inordinately long block quotes of biblical text. He largely fails to actually make an argument when he works through this material instead choosing to leave his points only loosely connected to the present discussion.

Hoffmeier also makes several interpretive arguments that are more assertions than arguments. For example, he attempts to align certain Hebrew words with legal resident and non-legal resident arguing that the text makes an important distinction between them. This might be the case, but Hoffmeier offers no philological evidence to back up his claim with the exception of noting that the LXX uses proselytos indicating a religious understanding of the term for some. He does provide footnotes for this material, but he does not incorporate the arguments apparently given by the texts he cites. More troubling is Hoffmeier’s tendency to seamlessly weave together archeological material with the text of the Old Testament to make his arguments. Much of the information he provides is interesting but ultimately irrelevant, and awkwardly pins the text to the archeological material treating them as if they are the same sort of thing.

Hoffmeier’s consideration of the New Testament is extremely terse, and one wonders at the wisdom of spending six chapters on the Old Testament and rushing through the New Testament material. His points are generally fine, his argument based on Romans 13 is largely agreeable, but he makes awkward material choices. He spends a long time arguing that the “least of these” in Matthew 25 should only apply to Christians or disciples of Jesus , leaving us to infer that this means that the text cannot apply to illegal immigrants. Then, in the next chapter, he points out that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are Christians. I was left scratching my head at his logical inconsistency.

Ultimately, I largely agree with Hoffmeier’s conclusions, but I cannot help but say that he has done a poor job arguing them. Perhaps the great shortcomings of the book should be attributed to its obvious orientation to lay readers, but the book fails if it is read as a primer for ethical reflection on the issue of illegal immigration. If you want an easy to read book that will discuss some of the issues in a lay-friendly manner and do not mind its hasty conclusions, then this book would at least make a decent starting point. If you are hoping for substantive exegesis and ethical argumentation, look elsewhere. I give it two and a half French philosophers out of five.

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I’m currently taking a class in family ministry, which is much broader in scope than the typical evangelical conversation on family.  In other words, it is not focused on homosexuality, divorce, or gender roles. And yet…  I still feel there are certain attitudes and assumptions in the classroom regarding divorce.

This is the problem: divorce is portrayed as bad.  Period.  But that’s not a truly Christian view of divorce in my opinion.  A truly Christian view of divorce recognizes that divorce is often bad but sometimes good, although the bad things leading to the divorce are always bad.  But we generally speak of divorce in bad-only terms, further marginalizing those who have experienced divorce as a good thing—a thing, I dare say, God may have led them to pursue.  Maybe most people are simply divorcing because times are tough and they’re not committed anymore, but there is a significant minority with a different experience.  I believe this minority should be addressed by church leaders and that the rest of our congregations, likewise, should be made aware of this minority’s presence and special needs.

My concern with this is personal.  Many of my mom’s Christian friends and acquaintances pulled away after her divorce in 2008.  Sadly, I believe this is a common response within the evangelical community.  Obviously, we need to have standards of morality that we uphold, and we need to be gracious in how we communicate our convictions when these standards are broken.  But there’s something more here, I think: ignorance of what even happened and whether this divorce is even worthy of our gracious disapproval.  It’s foolish to assume we magically know why someone divorced their spouse and to declare that unknown reason to be illegitimate.

Do we know that person well enough to know if they were being battered?  If their spouse had an addiction?  If someone was cheating?  One might assume to know what’s going on with a close friend, but let me tell you, even most of my mom’s closest friends had no real clue what was happening to her.  Most of them didn’t ask, but even when she told some of them, they didn’t always believe her.  “Oh, but your husband is nice!” they’d say.  Sure…. Did they live with him?  Maybe instead of assuming we should ask—and believe the person’s story.

And what’s worse: the fear of this sort of thing kept my mom from divorcing for years.  Really, she not only feared others’ judgment but her own judgment against herself.  She had been so ingrained to think divorce was evil, that she did not know if it were even an option.  The truth is, her husband/my father was emotionally abusive for years, she was justified in getting out, and I wish she had gotten out sooner (something she now wishes, too).  But nobody ever talked about emotional abuse—or any kind of abuse—at our church.

When speaking of divorce, why is it so very rare that we encourage anyone to consider divorce that should be considering it?  I’m not saying we should try to break off marriages left and right, but people in an abusive situations are already questioning themselves and whether or not they’re making too big of a fuss over the situation.  Anyone in an abusive situation needs to hear loud and clear from the outside that 1) abuse is real, 2) what it looks like, and 3) that it’s ok (and probably wise, and maybe even morally required) for them to divorce.

In my class, I wish that when divorce was mentioned, it wasn’t just lumped with those other “bad-ish things.”  Just a sentence or two to students today could lead to a sentence or two to congregations tomorrow.  It is easy to think a few short words clarifying our stance is meaningless—that everyone already knows that or that nobody will pay attention or that the kind of people at our church don’t need to hear that.  Well, my upper-middle-class, private-schooled, conservative Christian doctor’s family is evidence to the contrary.  People do live in these kinds of situations—people from all sorts of backgrounds, in fact—and  there is a great need for them to hear that you will support them as they try to escape this hell.

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I have a confession to make. I can’t read  a great deal of art/literary criticism. It gives me a headache, and with every terrible pun  or convoluted phrase I grow closer to self-harm. The worst of it seems to come from the whole a/theology movement. I recall the sinking dread I encountered every time I picked up the hellish About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture by Mark C. Taylor. The book, once you slog through its complete unreadability, actually has some interesting ideas, but they are largely undermined by Taylor’s self-congratulatory, pedantic writing.

I have a visceral reaction to art/literary critics who think they are clever (whether they really are or not). So, in reading Mark and Method edited by Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore for a class, I came to the chapter on Deconstruction by Moore with trepidation. I admit, when he began to talk about Derrida I started to die a little inside, but the real eye-bleeding started when I happened upon this quote:

Mark’s Jesus can therefore be read on the model of the written mark (and what is Jesus in Mark but a series of written marks, a marked man?). But Jesus’ status in Mark prefigures Mark’s own status. Mark’s Jesus is a “writer,” himself inscribed in a text, but so inscribed as to prefigure the fate of that text. Mark’s own destiny as a writing is foreshadowed in the way it writes up the story of Jesus. Mark is gradually folding back on itself as we read it. Not only is it a writing about Jesus but also it is a writing about writing. In addition, it is a writing about reading, a writing, which, as it retells the story of Jesus, also foretells the history of (mis)reading that the story will generate. (p. 101)

Maybe I’m just stupid, but what in the hell does that even mean? The puns have a quality that I can only describe as cloying, and the underlying point, which I presume he is trying to make, is completely beyond me. Interpretation is always a slippery endeavor be it Lord of the Rings or the Gospel of Mark, but I’d hope that a book that attempts to demonstrate critical approaches would strive for a bit more clarity.

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Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book.

Homosexuality is one of those topics that never dies. Everyone has an opinion whether they voice it actively or not, but they probably do voice it (and do so at length with suitable levels of anger at the people who disagree). Unfortunately, Homosexuality has become a sort of litmus test, an easy way to determine what sort of Christian someone is in a short period of time. It’s like a bizarre creed one must recite to maintain inclusion in the orthodoxy club. Even now, I’m tempted to assert my own opinions about the matter so people won’t run with the ambiguity. In such an environment, do we really need another book about the Christian response to homosexuality from the conservative position? If the book were written by a pastor or theologian, I would say no, but the book is, in fact, written by a well-respected psychologist who is an active participant in his field. (That is to say, he is not a “Christian psychologist” a la Dobson.)

That said, from what I can tell, Yarhouse definitely falls under the category of a theological conservative. I base this conclusion on the manner of his telling of the overarching story of humanity (fall, original sin, etc.). The way it is written, I have no doubt it would garner the Al Mohler seal of approval. However, this does not dictate his response to the origin and reversibility of same-sex attraction. Yarhouse’s conclusions surrounding these issues is thoroughly scientific. Yes, he challenges the flaws in some studies that have led to dramatic overstatement, but there is no apologetic effort to take on the scientific establishment. Yarhouse is thoroughly not self-conscious asserting that for the vast majority of people same-sex attraction is not likely to be a choice and that while there have been some decent results from restoration therapy there is no guaranteed way to reverse homosexuality.

Instead of attempting to combat the plain fact that same-sex attraction is largely an unchosen experience, Yarhouse focuses on the things that are in the power of the individual to control. His main point of emphasis in this regard is dealing with the formation of identity. Yarhouse argues that same-sex attraction cannot likely be put aside, but making same-sex attraction the center of your identity is a choice. As an alternative, he tells of multiple cases where he helped clients place their identity in a different source, most notably in Christ. His proposal then is to avoid blame whether it be on parents or children, and instead create an environment of love and understanding punctuated by a call to place identity in Christ not in the experience of same-sex attraction.

If I were to challenge Yarhouse on any point, it would be not emphasizing strongly enough the difficulty of asking someone to excise their sexuality from their identity. For me, being a heterosexual is no different from being white or 6’2″. It is quite simply an elemental part of who I am. Asking homosexuals to have zero natural sexual expression, expecting them to exclude their sexuality as a source of identity, and expecting them to be happy is a tall order. That is not to say that Yarhouse is wrong, but we need to be sensitive to what we are demanding of people. Whether or not you agree with Yarhouse’s conclusions about the proper way forward, you must accept the inherent value in a theological conservative making points about the nature of homosexuality in a friendly and nonthreatening manner that challenge the conservative status quo. I give it 3 and a 1/2 out of 5 German Theologians.

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A friend recently asked on Facebook whether it was heretical to believe in the idea of a Christian nation.  I answered that to make up for my being-in-your-face 95% of the time, I do try to be a bit more polite on occasion.  With that in mind, I’m not sure I’d yell, “You heretic!” at anyone who talked about Christian nations, though ultimately, I do see this as a false, un-Christian belief.  I ended up going on a while to explain why, after which, my “essay” of a Facebook comment was applauded with the suggestion that I post it here.

So without further ado, here are those thoughts:

1) It’s completely ridiculous to define a nation as Christian because even if for a moment everyone in the nation were Christian, not everyone born the next day would necessarily choose Christianity. To call a nation Christian is rude to those who are not Christian, as well as to people too young (or not yet born) to choose make the Christian faith their own. Being a credobaptist influences my views here—I don’t think anyone should be assumed to be a Christian or coerced into religion just because their parents or community practice it.

2) A nation is more than just a collection of individuals. It is filled with institutions and systems which can reflect more or less of the Lordship of Christ. If God’s reign does not seem apparent in such realms (which, let’s face it, it never will completely until God’s inaugurated kingdom is finally fulfilled some time from now when Jesus returns…), then it is rather foolish for anyone to want to associate Christianity with the nation. Even if everyone in a nation were Christian, if it imperfectly lived out the Christian faith in its political system or domestic or foreign policy or cultural mores or whatnot, it seems inappropriate to call it truly “Christian” without qualification.

3) Because the cross reconciles people across social boundaries (See Eph. and Col.!), it seems silly to emphasize our nationality in the way that calling ourselves a “Christian nation” does. We should be Christians much more than Americans/whatever-one-is and identify much more with the global church (including those from “non-Christian” nations) than with our “Christian” nation. Plus, since we should love our neighbor, we should be trying to identify with and love our non-Christian neighbors outside our national boundaries, as well. If one thinks they have moral superiority or economic privilege or are the right side in a war or anything along those lines because they are from a “Christian” nation, that’s just ignorance of the Bible’s interest in reconciliation across ethnic lines and emphasis on caring for the “foreigner.”

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For those of you who aren’t aware via Facebook, I recently started a new blog project called The High School Seminarian, located at http://www.highschoolseminarian.com.  The blog is designed to introduce youngish laypeople (especially high schoolers, but I’ll take middle schoolers, college students, grandmothers… whatever!) to the wonderful land of theological studies.

If you’re interested in learning more about why I’m doing this or how you can be involved, that information is available on my site.

And if you’d like to check it out, here’s recap of my first several posts:

12/30/10- Review: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
12/31/10- What is Theology?
1/1/11- Review: Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches
1/4/11- Jesus was Jewish
1/4/11- Organizing the Bible (Pt 1 of 3)
1/7/11-  Organizing the Bible (Pt. 2 of 3)
1/10/11- You Tell Me: Doubts
1/12/11- Organizing the Bible (Pt. 3 of 3)
1/19/11- Q&A with Whitney from Candler School of Theology (Pt. 1 of 2)
1/20/11- “To be hip or not to be hip?”
1/21/11- Q&A with Whitney from Candler School of Theology (Pt. 2 of 2)

Coming up next: a series on the Nicene Creed!

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