The Inquisition of Brian McLaren?

Malone University, in a bold move that should be applauded, brought Brian McLaren to campus. He spoke in Chapel on Monday morning and then debated Bryan Hollon, a theology professor at Malone on the topic, Emerging or Diverging: In What Direction is the Emerging Church Movement Headed?

I talked some with Brian before his morning message in Malone’s Chapel. I was pretty impressed that he recognized me. I first met Brian back in 2003, and I spent a weekend with him back in 2004 as part of a learning cohort on how to reach an emerging generation of post-Christian people. Besides this blog which has been engaging in the issues of the emerging church since its inception, I have also been involved with the Emergent Cohort for Akron-Canton, where we talk about the issues of how the Christian faith needs to be lived and proclaimed in the 21st Century.

First, I’d like to make some general observations about McLaren's visit to Malone. Later this week, I'll go into detail about what McLaren said, what Hollon said in debate, and what the audience contributed.

McLaren’s morning chapel message was very good. He talked about the Kingdom of God and how that message was radical for its time in that it was in opposition to the Kingdom of Caesar. McLaren pointed out that while Caesar’s kingdom was one of peace through violence, Jesus’ kingdom was one of peace through sacrifice. Very moving and very biblical. One person I met that morning said she came expecting to hear heresy, and found nothing in the message that wasn’t solidly biblical and applicable.

The debate that evening was open to the public, free of charge. And many people came. There were protestors handing out print-outs in the parking lot listing quote after quote from McLaren that they felt proved that he is a heretic. The crowd inside felt very split. There were as many staunch proponents of McLaren as staunch antagonists. My hope was that there were just as many who were open-minded and discerning, seeking first to understand before coming to judgment.

At times the event felt like an inquisition - the questions from the floor were often inappropriately hostile. However, McLaren kept his cool and was always very gracious. He certainly has some controversial positions theologically, and I think that Bryan Hollon, the professor from Malone that debated him, did a very good job of pointing those out. He was gracious as well, saying that McLaren had a lot to offer the church in terms of understanding the theology of the Kingdom of God and very authentic ways of reaching young people in today's culture.

Next: What McLaren said

other post in this series
Brian McLaren: Six Stages of the Emerging Church Conversation
Cage Match: Bryan Hollon vs. Brian McLaren (Well, Not Exactly)
McLaren at Malone: My Musings on the Mêlée


March Madness All Academic Bracket

Inside Higher Ed has once again published the NCAA Men's tournament bracket, selecting winners based on the NCAA Academic Performance Rate.

This year's final four:
___North Carolina

According to the nationally comparable academic scores, the Tar Heels would win it all!


Should the motto "In God We Trust" be removed from U.S. currency?

MSNBC is now conducting an on-line "Live Vote" on this question.

I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about this issue.

I certainly hope that Americans would embrace the idea of “In God We Trust.” In fact, this is my prayer – that each and every person would trust Jesus Christ as his or her savior. I also hope that society and government in the United States would be in line with the will of God. This is my prayer – that Christians would be so convincing in the public square that others would see the wisdom of our suggestions and decide to pass laws and structure society in such ways that are in accordance with the way God has created us to live.

But I also feel that the civil religion that we have had in America – the one that gives God a hat-tip here and there, that makes Christmas a civil holiday for the purpose of driving our economy and feeding our consumeristic greed, that makes Easter Bunnies more important than the empty tomb – does more harm than good to the cause of proclaiming Christ.

This latter concern of mine is confirmed, I think, by MSNBC’s way of wording the question:
Should the motto "In God We Trust" be removed from U.S. currency?
_Yes. It's a violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
_No. The motto has historical and patriotic significance and does nothing to establish a state religion.

If the motto “does nothing to establish a state religion,” then why are so many Christians so eager to vote “No” for this? It is because we know instinctively that the separation of church and state is an important foundation to the United States. We know that faith cannot be established by the state. We do not want the government to tell us what church we must attend, what religious beliefs we must affirm. In other words, we really like the First Amendment.

But why, then, would so many Christians not vote “Yes” for this? It is because they want some affirmation of Christianity in the government. They want this to be a Christian nation, honoring God with all we do, seeking his will in our government and our society.

But, this brings us to yet another question. Why do so many Christians want to thrust our personal religious belief onto the rest of the American public? Shouldn’t “In God We Trust” be more significant to us than just some nebulous “historical and patriotic significance?”

Don't get me wrong. I personally trust in God. I definitely want my nation to operate its government and its society in accordance to the will of the God I trust.

But this is certain: The Christian faith can never be a coercive religion. We must not ever think that we can force others to affirm a trust in God. This is a personal choice, one that a person should take seriously. It should not be relegated to a simple motto that anyone can shrug their shoulders at when they see it on the money with which they buy things they do not need as their debt continues to soar and as they continue to indulge in the American way of consumerism.

Christianity is bigger than America. And Faith is bigger than a motto.


The Economics of the Kingdom

Here’s a good definition of Capitalism (courtesy Wikipedia): “An economic system in which wealth, and the means of producing wealth, are privately owned and controlled rather than commonly, publicly, or state-owned and controlled.”

Here are a couple issues that arise from believing in strict “free-market,” “laissez-faire” or "pure” capitalism.

The first comes from thinking that everything needs to be “privately owned and controlled.” There is no room for common resources, common capital, and common services. Everything, including our natural resources like water and air, as well as our common services such as fire fighting and the military (think of Private Military Companies like Blackwater in Iraq) must be privatized. Is there a danger with this?

Another issue that arises from believing in purely private ownership is that we begin to believe that the goal in life is to own stuff. That what I have is mine, and not somebody else’s. The top priority in a capitalistic worldview becomes our personal material well-being (for each individual, as well as for our nation).

However, this runs contrary to the biblical teaching of Stewardship. Certainly, we “own things,” but what this actually means is that God has entrusted to us these possessions – that they are actually his. Everything we have is actually entrusted to our care, including nature, our fellow human beings, our health and our time.

One of the great Christian economists of our generation, Bob Goudzwaard, wrote these helpful words. As I read them again this week, I was struck about how incredibly insightful they are in light of the current economic crisis.
Is our society characterized by this kind of stewardship? This has become a rhetorical question. Christians no less than nonchristians have frequently acted as if economic means and technology are ends in themselves. We take a steady annual growth in material welfare for granted as if it were a right we are entitled to. We also convince ourselves that our own ever increasing wealth will enable us to preserve nature more carefully as well as provide some aid to the poor nations. But our thinking presupposes that our own material well-being, personally as well as nationally, must receive priority.

I am inclined to state that in this framework of thought things have been turned upside down. Mind you, the question is not whether economic growth in itself is good or bad. Our concern here is with the sequence of things. Stewardship means: first take care of the earth for which God has made you responsible, first see to it that others have enough, and then you will discover that there is plenty left for you and your own society. This is what I would call the economics of God's Kingdom. First seek that Kingdom and all things will come to you as a matter of course.

How can capitalism help or hinder our calling to seek first the Kingdom?


Market Economy vs. Market Society

As we said in our last post, capitalism, as a system, is neither moral nor immoral—it is just one economic system, one that seems to us fallen creatures to be the best that humanity has created thus far. Christians can, and probably should, support free market capitalism.

But I want to quote Gideon Strauss of CARDUS (formerly the Work Research Foundation), who makes a very important distinction. I think that those Christians on the two extremes of the economics debate (those who believe that markets need to be completely unfettered with no intervention and those who are wary of free market capitalism because of the abuses and vices that occur in the system) can learn from this very balanced assessment of the reality of where we are and what we should do.
We believe markets to be the best way—no, the only sane way—to structure interactions in economic life. We don't only believe this because of the historical evidence from the complete failure and ghastly horror of socialism and fascism, but even more because we consider markets to be built into the very design of economic life. Markets as the proper setting for economic interaction, for buying and selling, are in our view a feature of the structure of reality. So we flagrantly support the idea and the reality of a market economy.

But this does not mean we support the idea of a market society. Human life is not all about economics. Contrary to rational choice theory, we human beings do not make all of our decisions simply in terms of cost/benefit analyses.

While economic life needs room to flourish, and needs protection from the encroachment of excessive government intrusion, it also needs limits. The sphere of economic life does not only provide businesses with a space for their wealth-generating manufacture of products and provision of services, and labor unions with a space for negotiating fair participation in these activities—it also sets the outer limits for business and labor.

There are many spheres of human life where economic considerations appropriately play a role but do not dictate decision-making. Families, schools and hospitals all have to balance their books—but they don't exist to balance their books. In each of their cases, love, learning, and care, respectively, trumps the bottom line.

One of the great challenges facing us is cultivating a society in which economic markets can flourish, but without overwhelming other spheres of human life.

What do you think?


Is Capitalism God’s Ordained Economic System?

There is a lot being bandied about (especially in conservative Christian circles) that President Barack Obama is ushering in a new age of socialism into the United States of America. It reminds me of when it was godly America versus the godless Communists – the arguments given were in black and white terms—capitalism and free markets are God’s moral system, socialism is a godless system.

What should we say? Well, I believe that history as shown that we should embrace markets. Markets have proven to be the best way to structure interactions in economic life. Marxist Socialism failed because it had major flaws inherent in the system. But, is capitalism God’s ordained economic system?

Michael Kruse is helpful here when he writes,
If the question is whether or not free market capitalism is the biblically prescribed model for the economic life, then the answer is an emphatic “No.” There is no culturally transcendent economic model given in the bible. Therefore, no economic model is Christian. Those that would take capitalism (or any other economic system) down to the river and baptize it as THE Christian model engage in idolatry.

If the question is whether or not free market capitalism emerged from a society with a distinctively Christian ethos, then the answer would clearly be “Yes.” The ideas of human beings created in the image of God, linear time, progress, future orientation, and vision oriented ethics, were the soil from which capitalism grew. This is NOT to say that free market capitalism is the best of all economic systems that can, or ever will be, conceived. It is merely to acknowledge the roots from which it sprang.

The third way of interpreting this question is to evaluate the degree to which free market capitalism moves us in the direction of the coming age of shalom. It is this evaluation that has to be asked about every human construction, always with an eye to the fallen state of humanity and the inability to achieve utopia in our present age.

Market Economy vs. Market Society
Kingdom Economics vs The American Dream
Should We Want a Completely "Free Market?"


Are you going to send a Red Envelope? Read this first.

Have you received this email or been recruited on Facebook to join this cause?

Dear Friends and Intercessors:
_This afternoon I was praying about a number of things, and my mind began to wander. I was deeply distressed at the symbolic actions that President Obama took as he began his presidency. Namely, that he signed executive orders releasing funds to pay for abortions, permission to fund human stem cell research, and federal funding for contraception. I have been involved in the pro-life movement for nearly 20 years, and it pained my heart to see a man and a political party committed to the shedding of innocent blood. This man, and this party lead our country, but they do not represent me or the 54% of Americans who believe that abortion is wrong and should no longer be legal.
_As I was praying, I believe that God gave me an interesting idea. Out in the garage I have a box of red envelopes. Like the powerful image of the red LIFE tape, an empty red envelope will send a message to Barack Obama that there is moral outrage in this country over this issue. It will be quiet, but clear.
_Here is what I would like you to do:
_Get a red envelope. You can buy them at Kinkos, or at party supply stores. On the front, address it to:
___President Barack Obama
___The White House
___1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
___Washington , D.C. 20500
_On the back, write the following message:
_This envelope represents one child who died in abortion. It is empty because that life was unable to offer anything to the world. Responsibility begins with conception.
_Put it in the mail on March 31st, and send it. Then send this website to every one of your friends who you think would send one too. I wish we could send 50 million red envelopes, one for every child who died before having a a chance to live. Maybe it will change the heart of the president.
_Warmly, Christ Otto
_Let's Send 50 Million red envelopes (and Counting) to the President!

I sure wish that Christian campaigns like this didn’t say that our president and the Democratic Party are “committed to the shedding of innocent blood.”

As I've said before, I definitely believe that the center of the “Pro-Life” issue is a strong opposition to abortion. However, a consistent “Pro-Life” policy also includes such issues as war, poverty, hunger, disease, an unjust legal system, and the environment. All these issues are a part of a holistic and consistent “Pro-Life” agenda. Therefore, many Christians who see “Life” issues beyond the core issue of abortion law (i.e., Roe v. Wade) voted for Barack Obama, believing that these many issues also weigh heavily in this issue. For these Christians, of which I am one, President Barack Obama not only is the leader of our country, he also “represents me.”

At the same time, it deeply troubles us that President Obama is a proponent of abortion-on-demand. We understand that he wants to honor a woman’s right to choose, because women have had their rights terribly trampled on for so very long. But we insist that women’s rights do not trump the unborns’ right to life. This is a difficult issue, but Christians, at our best, are a people who stand up for the needs of the oppressed and for those who do not have the ability to speak for themselves. We are to act for justice as we walk humbly with our God. The unborn are the most oppressed people in our society – their very lives are in danger due to an extremely unjust law in our land.

Therefore, I signed the petition sent to the president on the day he was inaugurated to urge him not to sign the “Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA)”. Find the petition at fightfoca.com.

So far, I feel that President Obama has been very careful in his actions in regard to the pro-life/pro-choice issue. He did not take any vocal or symbolic action on the 30th Anniversary date of Roe v. Wade (Jan 22) – even though he had a lot of pressure from pro-choice advocates to do so. Instead, his executive orders (which were not unexpected, especially his reversal of the Mexico City Policy) were done very quietly and away from the anniversary date so as to not make huge symbolic statements. Obama has sought to use rhetoric that does not inflame or contribute to the heat of the debate.

He certainly is pro-choice – he has made that clear. But he is a different kind of pro-choice president, one that can be reasoned with -- one that, I believe, we can make headway with. I hope that the Red Envelope campaign does not inflame the debate. I believe that Christians must realize that abortion is an economic issue. President Obama recognizes abortion for what it is: a tragic moral choice often confronted by a woman in adverse economic and social circumstances (struggling as a single mother, without a steady income, without good employment prospects, without health-care guarantees, and a stigmatic and cumbersome adoption procedure). While President Obama can be properly labeled “pro-choice, he has proposed to reduce the incidence of abortion by helping pregnant women overcome the ill effects of poverty that block a choice of life.

It’s not perfect, granted. Would I rather have a staunch pro-life president? Certainly! But what does that mean? Politicians can claim to be “pro-life” by saying they oppose Roe v. Wade, but many of their policies actually are more harmful to life than a politician that does not make that superficial claim. Much of the Republican talk about being “pro-life” has been very empty rhetoric. They have had the White House and the Congress for years, but we saw very little movement on the issue – only at election time do we hear about it. They have never offered a realistic plan to lower abortion rates. More and more evangelicals are walking away from the Republicans – perhaps they will stop giving lip-service to this important issue and quit thinking they have our vote in their pockets just because they say they are “pro-life.”

What we need is for Republicans and Democrats to work together in order to make progress with legislation that is realistic. The Democrats have proposed comprehensive legislation called the 95/10 Initiative that aims to reduce the number of abortions that take place in this country by 95% within 10 years. Now get this: Barack Obama actually supports this and similar legislation!

While Red Envelopes are being mailed and people are saying things like, “Barack Obama doesn’t represent me!” there are Democrats offering a realistic plan that can move us around the difficult cultural impasse that has bogged us down for far too long.

While I am not necessarily opposed to the Red Envelope campaign, I wonder if the rhetoric of "Christ Otto" (if that's a real person) is more derogatory and inflammatory than it needs to be.

What do you think?


Sabbath Rest for the Christian

A Christian Perspective on Work, Part 5

Work is a good thing. Work is a major part of who we are as human beings and is part of the created order, not a result of the Fall. We should find satisfaction in our work. It is good that God provides through our work. Also, work is the means by which we cooperate with others for the good of society (the biblical idea of “Shalom”).

There are two extreme positions in our culture as it relates to work.

The first is echoed in what the rock band Loverboy used to sing, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” Work is a necessary evil – it provides the paycheck that allows us to enjoy what life’s really about: Leisure! Those who declare “T.G.I.F.!” would find the idea of “thanking God for work” a strange notion. Work is only the means to the end: Friday, the weekend, fun, vacations, etc.

Another extreme is echoed in how we ask people to introduce themselves: “So, tell me, Bill, what do you do for a living?” Our society has allowed our work to be the major way we identify ourselves. If we are not working in a prestigious position, we may feel less of ourselves. If we feel that we are not accomplishing incredible things on a daily basis in our work, our identity as a human being is somehow lessened. This leads to what we call “workaholics.” But unlike other “-aholics,” a workaholic is often admired. He or she is driven to succeed, is seen as a leader, and is often offered the promotions.

How do we guard against these two extremes? The answer is found (can you guess?) in the Bible. The Fifth Commandment was, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:8-10). Following the example of God found in the Creation Week of Genesis 1, the people of God were to rest on the seventh day. But why were they to rest? To remember that God is their deliverer. They had been in slavery in Egypt, but were saved from that bondage and brought into the Promised Land of Rest. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

The Sabbath rest not only reminded the Old Testament people of God who their creator is, but also who their savior is. Honoring the Sabbath was essential to remembering that God had delivered the Israelites from bondage. They were to take one day each week and rest, meditating on the freedom that God had provided for them. Honoring the Sabbath also meant that they ceased working in order to show their trust in Yahweh’s provision. The promise God gave to the Israelites was that in honoring the Sabbath they were to not find their identity in their work alone, but that they would “find their joy in the LORD” (Isaiah 58:14).

That’s fine for the ancient Israelites, but what about today’s Christians? How do we move beyond the two extremes of either working for the weekends or finding our whole identity in our careers?

Jesus offers this wonderful promise:
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

The new kind of sabbath rest is offered in Christ, and it is not limited to the weekends. The New Testament paints the picture that since Jesus did all the work of salvation on the cross, we are able to enter God’s rest, the work has been accomplished.
“Now we who have believed enter that rest… There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also rest from their own work, just as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:3, 9-10)

Jesus Christ delivered us from our bondage, he did all the work on the cross. Therefore, for the Christian, the sabbath is not just limited to a Saturday off of work. It is an attitude that flows from the grace of Christ’s work on our behalf. Because we have already entered into the "rest" of being in a relationship with Jesus, our perspective is different. We not only take time each week to stop from our work, but we see all of life with the orientation of what Mark Buchanan (in his book, The Rest of God) calls a “Sabbath heart.” He writes, “A Sabbath heart is restful even in the midst of unrest and upheaval. It is attentive to the presence of God and others even in the welter of much coming and going, rising and falling. It is still and knows God even when mountains fall into the sea.”

But even with this beautiful gift of rest, we still struggle in a fallen world. We must find balance in our lives that reflects the rest that we have in Christ. Establishing a rhythm of work with rest is a wise practice in order to find this balance.

In order to find a sabbatical balance in life, consider these ideas:
1. Sabbath means ceasing from work. In Christ, we cease from works-righteousness, but we also must train ourselves to cease from our frantic focus on productivity. Taking a time away from work tells God (and yourself!) that God is actually the provider, no matter how hard you work. Since the Sabbath is truly fulfilled in Jesus, I can cease from trying to prove myself to myself, to others, and even to God! Since Jesus frees me from the burden of good works, I can enjoy doing good work – without trying to win God’s approval in doing so.

2. Sabbath means resting. The rhythm of work with rest is set in all of us. As we need to sleep each night, we also need to rest from bread-winning each week – so that we can rejuvenate our bodies, our minds, and our emotions. Not only that, we need to be refreshed and reinvigorated spiritually, so that we can be ready once again to do our work in a fallen world, because it is often very hard work to be creative and/or redemptive in our tasks for the glory of God.

3. Sabbath means worship. We need to take time out to purposely recalibrate our lives onto the person of Jesus Christ. We need to deliberately reconnect with other believers as we worship together the Lord of our lives. As we celebrate who God is and what he has accomplished in Christ on Sunday, the effects are felt throughout the rest of the week. As Gideon Strauss wrote, “If we give corporate worship its proper place, we have done perhaps the most important needful thing in the process of putting work in its proper place.”

4. Sabbath means celebration of life. Yes, we need to enjoy the goodness of all that God has given us. Rest is not only taking a lazy Sunday nap, but also playing a fun game of tag with the kids. It’s going for a hike in the state park. It’s enjoying your favorite hobby. It’s enjoying music. It’s having a wonderful meal with friends and family.