“Unlikely Disciple”

Kevin Roose is a brave, brave man. As this article explains:

Before Kevin Roose enrolled at the world’s largest evangelical university he didn’t know any evangelical Christians, save for one. He didn’t even really know God. But that didn’t stop the “practically religion free” Brown University sophomore from taking a semester’s leave to subject himself to “Bible Boot Camp” at Liberty University, the bastion of higher education founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. On campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, Roose engrossed himself in classes like Evangelism 101, History of Life and Old Testament Survey, at the same time acclimating to a social scene regulated by “The Liberty Way,” a forty-six-page code of conduct.

While Roose expected to meet a student body dominated by angry, intolerant zealots, he discovered that the Lukes, Matthews and Pauls he encountered were—more or less—like any other 21st century college students. In other words, in between prayer groups and Bible study they gossiped, complained about exams, and whiled away the hours on Facebook and MySpace. But what really surprised Roose is that after a few months of palling around with his spiritually intense classmates and “experimenting” with prayer, he began to enjoy—or at least appreciate—living a Christ-centered university life.

Kevin is back at Brown U now, and he’s written a book about his experience. I’m guessing it’s interesting. The Q&A section of the above article also contains some pretty fascinating stuff. Here are some highlights:

Why did you go to Liberty?
I wanted to explore the world of Christian college students because I had the ultimate secular upbringing and had no exposure to my Christian peers. I grew up in a liberal college town [Oberlin, Ohio], my parents once worked for Ralph Nader, and I chose to attend Brown University, which is known as a liberal enclave. I had read somewhere that 51 percent of non-evangelical Americans don’t know any evangelical Christians, and that one out of three American teenagers considers themselves a born-again Christian. So it really is our biggest cultural divide. I wanted to see how the other half lives, and to see if I could bring those two worlds closer together. (emphasis added)

Can you name a few substitute swear words one might overhear at Liberty?
They would say things like “darn” and “crap” and “heck.” They call them Nerf curses. And sometimes they would just say the first letter [of a curse word], like “F that!” But saying it without saying it … it seems like you may as well go the whole nine yards.

(I laughed when I read that one!)

Was it difficult to fit in at Liberty?
It was tremendously difficult because it really is an entirely different culture. But I had a great time getting to know the guys on my hall, and I found out that most of the time they weren’t even thinking about religion or Jerry Falwell or politics. They were worrying about homework or gossiping about girls in the sister dorm or wondering what they would be doing after graduation. It was an intensely humanizing experience to discover the amount I had in common with the people I met there.

What was your most enlightening class?
I enjoyed the Bible classes, and I think it’s important for Americans to be Biblically literate. I had been through 19 years of secular schooling in which I wasn’t taught about the Bible, and I think that’s a shame.

And although I struggled with it, I enjoyed my Creationist biology course. It was the most foreign thing to me because I’m a firm believer in evolution. Getting a test that would ask: True or false … Noah’s Ark was large enough to accommodate various types of dinosaurs … that was a little bit jarring for me. But as the semester went on, I learned that there is a coherent world view there, and even if I don’t agree with it, I think we need to understand the Creationist world view, because there are a lot of young Creationists out there. We have to understand why they believe what they believe and be able to engage them in an educated way.

Did Brown accept your credits from Liberty?
[Laughs]. I tried. I went to the dean and showed him my transcript and he took one look and said, “I don’t think so.”

Can your book help bridge the so-called God Divide?
I hope so, and I think people are ready for that. We have been fighting the culture wars—this divisive Moral Majority culture war—for 35 years, but people are now recognizing that this is destructive and that we need to find common ground. People are tired of demonizing. I think we’re ready to move past that and go forward…

But both sides have mythology that lets them demonize people outside the fold. And the culture wars will go on because there are legitimate issues of disagreement. But we don’t have to hold the same tone when talking about these issues. That can change.

I’m taken by a few things. First, I’m impressed by this young man’s willingness to engage people he knew absolutely nothing about from a posture of openness and humility. To me, that’s rare and should be applauded. Second, I’m a bit humbled, because his experience at Liberty breaks down some of the stereotypical things I had thought about Liberty, its values, and its teachings. Third, I’m a bit surprised to hear that they have courses on Creationist Biology. And finally, I’m incredibly impressed by the overall tone of the interview, which is summed up by the last quotation. We don’t have to go on hating each other and fighting with each other. Change is desirable and possible. Let’s make that happen.

I’m curious what you think. Can we learn anything from this experiment? If so, what?


Discovering Common Ground

The other day, I wrote about Disagreeing Generously, a topic that I think’s incredibly important.

In a recent speech, President Obama tackled some similar issues, albeit in a much more eloquent way than I did.

Here are some excerpts from the speech and some comments from  Jim Wallis and the God’s Politics blog that I find to be very inspiring.

The media coverage and analysis of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame on Sunday largely focused on the issue of abortion. And he did speak on that issue, clearly and strongly reiterating his own approach of finding the common ground of abortion reduction between the polarized options of “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” and naming practical solutions that many on both sides of the divide can support.

Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually; it has both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions; let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause …

But the speech was much more than a culmination of another abortion controversy in the media. After re-reading it, I think it was likely the most significant speech Obama has made in his presidency so far in regard to many of the concerns and work of the faith community. As columnist E.J. Dionne wrote:

There were many messages sent from South Bend. Obama’s opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn’t. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility.

President Obama began by recognizing that our difficulty in finding common ground too often lies in our imperfections – our sin – dominating us rather than calling us to work together.

We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times.

But, at the same time, he emphasized the importance of civility and how we should engage in public dialogue on issues where strong, conflicting opinions can lead us to discover that common ground.

The question, then, is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side? … When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe — that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. … Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

And the new president reminded us all that the strength of faith should produce genuine humility, rather than easy certainty, in our views, and can help lead us to a commitment to social justice.

Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what [God] asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that [God’s] wisdom is greater than our own.

And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.

As I wrote on Monday, this president’s willingness to confront controversy with an appeal to common values could help to change the way we address a number of divisive and controversial issues. We live in a country where we certainly know everyone will not agree on everything. In fact, it is quite an accomplishment to even get half of the country to agree on anything. Our differences, and our ability to maintain this union in spite of them, are some of our country’s greatest strengths.

President Obama laid out a strong and positive vision for how people of faith, and the nation as a whole, can work together to face the most difficult moral questions of our time in both disagreement and unity. If you have not yet read the speech, I urge that you do.


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Will the real evangelicals please stand up?

Mimi Hadad asks:

The question becomes, will the real evangelicals please stand up? Does scripture, anywhere, rebuke women for preaching the good news? While Paul asked chattering women to ask questions of their husbands at home (1 Corinthians 14:34), or told women they may not exercise abusive authority over men in the church (1 Timothy 2:11-12), scripture celebrates the women who publish the glad tidings of Christ’s completed work on Calvary. We can support the gospel work of women with confidence, just as Paul did when he celebrated their service as prophets, evangelists, teachers, and even one who was prominent among the apostles.

Image by who.log.why via Flickr

Can we not give women the freedom Paul gave Junia the apostle (Romans 16:7), Priscilla who taught Apollos the way of the Lord more perfectly (Acts 18:24-26), the women prophets at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:5), Phoebe the deacon (Romans 16:1-2), and those who labored beside him as missionaries (Romans 16:12, Philippians 4:2-3)? Friends, if we hold scripture as authoritative, let us include women to the extent Paul did.

So, friends, will the real evangelicals please stand up?

(via Women Who Were Wild at Heart – Mimi Haddad – God’s Politics Blog.)

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Augustine’s Origin of Species

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Regardless of what you think of Darwin’s work and the scientific theory he generated with it, we must all admit that his theories chave hanged the landscape of the discussion about the origin and purpose of both the world in general and us as human beings specifically.

Alister McGrath wrote an article that was published here in which he details an ancient theologians take on the Genesis creation narratives. Augustine of Hippo lived and wrote some 1,500 years before Darwin did, so it might be surprising that Augustine would have anything to say that could illumine our treatment of Darwin. Obviously, I think he did, which is why I’m posting this 🙂

I would encourage you to check out the entire article if you’re interested in this topic, because it’s very well-written. But, if you don’t have time (or aren’t interested), here are two paragraphs which sum up McGrath’s main points.

Augustine draws out the following core themes: God brought everything into existence in a single moment of creation. Yet the created order is not static. God endowed it with the capacity to develop. Augustine uses the image of a dormant seed to help his readers grasp this point. God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Using more technical language, Augustine asks his readers to think of the created order as containing divinely embedded causalities that emerge or evolve at a later stage. Yet Augustine has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation. The development of God’s creation is always subject to God’s sovereign providence. The God who planted the seeds at the moment of creation also governs and directs the time and place of their growth.

This twofold focus on the Creation allows us to read Genesis in a way that affirms that God created everything from nothing, in an instant. However, it also helps us affirm that the universe has been created with a capacity to develop, under God’s sovereign guidance. Thus, the primordial state of creation does not correspond to what we presently observe. For Augustine, God created a universe that was deliberately designed to develop and evolve. The blueprint for that evolution is not arbitrary, but is programmed into the very fabric of creation. God’s providence superintends the continuing unfolding of the created order.

It’s interesting to me that 1,500 years before Darwin a theologian was anticipatorialy wrestling with the issues that Darwin’s theories would raise for theologians.

What do you think? Have you given much thought to this debate? Where do you stand on it?

For an overview of four of the most influential Christian positions see the following:

Young Earth Creationism

Day-Age Creationism

Gap Theory Creationism

Literary Framework Interpretation of Genesis

Thoughts on a Christian endorsement of progressive taxation

I don’t like to talk politics too often, especially with other Christians, because it’s way too easy to confuse one’s political persuasions with their religious commitment. Have you ever been in a conversation that ended with something like, “Well, I just don’t understand how a Christian could ever think that…”

Ugh, I have and far, far too often.

But, in spite of that, I’m going to take a stab at it today in hopes that it might generate some intelligent, generous, and inclusive conversation. Given that tax day has just passed us, the blogosphere is filled with posts about taxes and government and on and on.

And I just happened to read a provocative blog post today that got my wheels turning. It’s supposed to provide a Christian argument in favor of a progressive income tax, and in my reading is an endorsement of that public policy.

Let me start with a quote from this post, which pretty much sums up the argument:

Part of the new social ethic was the idea of a progressive income tax, whereby the richer members of society would pay a greater share to care for those of lesser means.  The progressive income tax was passed in 1913, but many Christians groused about it — a bit like today’s conservative Christians holding “tea parties.”

Thus, progressive theologians developed a Christian argument for taxation.  They believed that a progressive tax would increase the overall morality of society.  For example, Scudder pointed out that “the Church, like her Master, is in a way more concerned over the spiritual state of the prosperous than over that of the poor” because the rich “countenance unbrotherly things.”  In other words, the rich were not likely to practice Christian holiness.  “It may be good for the soul of Patrick to subsist on a starvation wage,” she says of a hypothetical worker, “but it is very bad for the soul of Henry the mill-owner to pay him that wage.”   Thus, the spiritual scales needed to somehow be equalized — by Henry surrendering some portion of his wealth in order to better the lot of his brothers and sisters.  “It is spiritual suicide for the possessors of privileges to rest,” Scudder argued, “until such privileges become the common lot. This truth is what the Church should hold relentlessly before men’s eyes; it is what makes indifference to social readjustments impossible to her shepherding love.”  A progressive tax was an expression of Christian love.

Let’s start with what I agree with. Christians are clearly called to be socially active, especially when it comes to being advocates for and caring for the poor — of our society and the world. I think we should be proactive with our money and our time — we should give as generously of both of these resources as we possibly can. And, I think it’s entirely appropriate to be involved as advocates for the poor when it comes to public policy, and I think there are hosts of government programs that exist for that reason.

That said, however, there are a few sticking points for me, and I wonder what you think about them.

First, I don’t have much confidence that our government is using the additional revenues from these taxes to do much for the poor. If the assumption is that the government is placing a heavier tax burden on the rich for the sake of increasing care for the poor, at least the concept is coherent and understandable. But do we have any real reason to believe that’s the case? I’m skeptical.

Second, this feels uncomfortably like the story  Robin Hood, except that the government is playing the unexpected, ironic role of the prince of thieves.  In other words, even if it is a legitimate Christian concern to care for the poor, does endorsing legislation make sense? One way of looking at it is that the government is taking justly-earned income from the rich by force and then redistributing it to the poor — all in the name of justice and equity. But, couldn’t that action be interpreted as a very ironic betrayal of justice itself? If justice is about equity, which I think it is, then how can taking more money from the rich — who have earned their money fairly — to give to the poor be understood as equitable and therefore just?

Third, I’m reminded of an argument that Martin Luther makes*. While giving advice to a “Christian prince” in his region, he explains the extent to which the government can compel good behavior from its citizens — I promise I’ll explain how I think that’s relevant.

He argues that the government does have the authority to compel its citizens to do good and to punish them when they do not (or do evil). However, he qualifies that statement by observing that the government only has the power to compel outward observance of the law.

That in itself is a good thing, because it can contribute to the common good and well-being of society — but the government cannot address the unregenerate heart of the person who does wish to do good by his neighbor.

Luther rightly points out that while the common good of society is the primary concern of the government, the concern of Jesus and his church is the redemption of all human beings — and the Holy Spirit, not the government, has the power to achieve that. Only God’s Spirit can regenerate a person’s heart and create the desire to love one’s neighbor and not only one’s self.

In other words, the government can force people to do good deeds, but it cannot redeem their motives. Moreover, because the redemption of all people is the ultimate goal of Jesus and the church and can only be accomplished by God’s Spirit, we are compelled to use caution when describing any action of the government as “Christian.”

And that’s ultimately my biggest beef with this post. Legislation such as this is ultimately one-sided, both socially and theologically. Socially, legislation that takes from the rich to give to the poor is inequitable and therefore unjust. Taking from one person to give to another (if that is even what’s happening with our tax dollars) sounds more like Robin Hood and Zacchaeus than Jesus, if you ask me.

And theologically, this legislation seems to be a comedy of errors. First of all, this legislation does not address the theological concern that redeeming and transforming the life of the rich is important. And the Christian endorsement of the legislation doesn’t even make an attempt to respond to the notion that laws only address externals. In other words, if this money is actually being used to serve the poor — which is a big question mark for me — then at its best, it’s entirely one-sided.

Second, when did Jesus command us to take money from the rich (or advocate for that through policy and legislation) and give it to the poor? Last time I read Jesus, he said something about us taking that burden of responsibility upon ourselves, not passing it on to others with greater resources.

Third, I think endorsing this policy as Christian confuses the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of this world by introducing an unnecessary middle man, viz a viz the government, between Jesus’ command to Christians on the one side and the poor on the other. The government is not the primary medium through which the church establishes the Kingdom of God on earth, and it can never be, because the government does not have the power to redeem — only God’s Spirit does.

So, two points to close. 1) I don’t like this legislation, because I don’t think it’s just. 2) It bothers me that it’s being endorsed as “Christian” because I think there’s as much Un-Christian about it as there is Christian — which is true about most things when it comes to politics.

What do you think?

*I think this is in Freedom of a Christian, but I’m not totally sure. It could also be in On Secular Authority)

The Need for Creeds

The Need for Creeds.

Last night, I stumbled into a very interesting website. There is some really great content here, and there’s other stuff I’m not crazy about.

In any case, the link above is one of the articles I think is actually very, very good.

If you don’t know what the Creeds are, then you should definitely read this — in spite of its length. It gives a very basic explanation of what they are, how they came to be, and why they are significant.

If you do know what the Creeds are and don’t think they’re all that important for today’s church, then perhaps this article will change your mind.

If nothing else, bookmark it for later reading; I do think it’s worth your time.

What do you do when your theology doesn’t work (part 2)?

Yesterday, I linked to an article which described the death of a young boy at the hands of his parents broken theology. Their “faith” in God’s ability and willingness to heal their son compelled them to withhold the insulin his body needed to survive. Tragically, he died, and his parents were convicted of manslaughter and child abuse.

I asked if anyone else had an experience that caused them to question their theology, but I never really talked about any of my own.

So, I thought it would only be fair to share.

Growing up, I only knew about one church — the church in which I was born and raised. Consequently, I knew very little about the church as a whole, in my city, in my state, in my country, or around the world. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think it’s a normal part of being raised in a Christian home.

However, when I got to college, my view of Christianity was quickly and abruptly broadened. Suddenly, I was flung into conversations with people from all across the theological map…and I realized that I was definitely wrong about a lot of things. I met people who prayed to be baptized in God’s Spirit but had never spoken in tongues. I met people who prayed and believed with all their hearts that God would heal their sick loved ones, but those loved ones died.

And to make matters worse, I began to study the Bible, theology, and church history. (hopefully, you catch the sarcasm there)

All at once, the questions that were once easy to answer became unimaginably complex. And what’s worse, so many questions seemed to have more than one right answer!

In short, I realized my theology was broken… and at first, I thought that was a bad thing.

I struggled so hard (and still do, sometimes) to make sense of everything. Why does God heal some people and not others? Why do some people receive miraculous manifestations of the Spirit while others do not? Does God save everyone, or will some people spend eternity in torment?

So, what is a broken man with broken theology to do?

I have finally realized that I will never “fix” my theology. I’m an imperfect being that longs for transformation; yet, I know that transformation will not be completed in this life…that much remains until we see him face to face.

So again, what do I do with my broken theology?

The working answer I’ve come up with often seems to simple to be true, yet it’s the best answer I’ve been able to find: embrace your own brokenness. As a human being living in a world tainted by sin, nothing I can come up with will be perfect… and if I’m willing to admit that, then I am compelled to be humble, humble enough to admit that I could be wrong — wrong about what I think and wrong in the way I behave.

Getting to that point is a constant struggle…It’s not as if I’ve arrived there, and now that I’m there everything’s clear. Not at all. In fact, I’m not sure anyone ever gets to that point and stays there; instead, I think it’s a goal toward which we should all be striving, minute-by-minute, day-by-day.

A pastor I sometimes like from Seattle (Mark Driscoll) uses a phrase I absolutely love. Hold on to some things — like Jesus, Scripture, Incarnation — with a tight, closed grip, and don’t compromise them. But with all of those other things — the details that only serve to divide — hold onto those things with open hands, and be willing to let them go if someone shows you a better way.

My Helium Articles

Articles written by Ben Gulker – Helium

Hey all,

If you haven’t heard of Helium, it’s a pretty neat website that allows wanna be authors like me to publish their thoughts.

The site is structured around a simple premise: a simple, one-sentence question is posed that can be answered yes or no.

You pick an answer and defend it.

It’s as simple as that.

Above, I linked to a couple articles I’ve already written. If you have time, peruse the articles and give me some feedback!

An overdue update

Hey all.

First off, let me say I hope the holidays have been exciting, refreshing, and relaxing. I know that I always enjoy seeing family and friends and giving and receiving gifts.

In spite of my lack of posting, I have spent some time writing recently, the bulk of which has been about my new ‘job’ or issues that my new work has compelled me to think about. In that spirit, I will be posting over the next few days – consistently I hope. I will begin with a post that introduces my new work and some questions I’d like to hear you weigh on in. So, without further ado…

I am spending this week (first week of Dec) in Chicago, IL to train for a new ‘job’ I will begin next week. Job is in quotes, because it’s technically not a job…and consequently, I don’t technically receive a paycheck.

For the next 12 months, I will be serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA. The VISTA program (link to Wiki) was established in the ’60’s in the war on poverty in the United States. I am joining roughly 6,000 other ‘volunteers’ to combat poverty in a county-by-county effort. The motto goes, the pay is meager, the job will be challenging, and the task at hand (defeating poverty) is daunting, to put it mildly. In an effort to enhance solidarity with the poor, VISTAs receive a living stipend which approximates the poverty level in the respective community. To put it mildly, I’m not in this for the money.

Six months ago, I would have never expected to be here. I had every confidence that I would find a job in a church or church-related organization after graduation from seminary. Or, maybe I would find a job at a Christian school or even teach adjunct at a Christian college. I even thought long and hard about joining a denomination in order to find a job; those who know me know how significant that decision would have been. Yet, resume after resume was rejected, and I found myself working part-time at Best Buy selling computers.

Then, my loving wife forwarded me a job description from an office in her building. The description was compelling. I interviewed, and shortly thereafter I was offered the position and a very difficult choice. Would the rewards offered by this job outweigh the financial difficulty? What if a great position comes along six months from now, and I’m locked into a 12-month commitment? Will I find a secular non-profit job fulfilling? Those questions remain unanswered, but obviously, I did take the job, or more accurately, decided to become a Volunteer In Service To America.

So, for those who don’t know about this yet, this is what I’ll be doing for the next 12 months. For those who already knew, here are some more details about what I’ll be doing.

And in the next few posts, I plan on letting you in on some of my theological musings that have been fermenting while I have been going through this process. Here’s a sneak peak at some of them:

Where does a Christian’s ultimate loyalty lie, with God or Country? (The answer is obvious to me, but this question sparks some interesting other questions)

What are concrete, practical ways to build God’s kingdom in a secular job? (A question I might need some help with)

How do you work a job which prohibits you from discussing your faith (in a persuasive manner) while on company time?

Does working toward social justice exhaust the Christian’s social responsibility?

What is the motivation to serve others if not rooted in the Gospel?

"I Had an Affair"

I recently read this article on Christianity Today entitled, I Had an Affair.

In short, the article tells the story of a woman who has an affair but eventually finds grace and reconciles with her husband.

On the one hand, I am amazed at the power of grace that can heal even the deepest of hurts.

On the other hand, I feel a bit ashamed… ashamed because I’m not sure I could do what the husband in the story has done. He has found the ability to forgive the ultimate betrayal, and I doubt I would be able to do that. I’m not sure I could ever find the strength to forgive and trust again.

What do you think? Where does turning the other cheek end? Is it possible to be hurt so badly in this life that we simply cannot get past it? And if so, does that contradict the Christian message of grace? If I cannot find it in my heart to forgive someone, am I denying the fundamental message of Jesus?