Thursday, July 24, 2008

"The Proof is in the Pudding"

Recently, the local newspaper in the small city where I reside carried a fascinating story on the religion page of the Saturday news (Why is the religious stuff always in the Saturday paper?  Oh well....).  The story concerned a series of meetings that have been ongoing for some time in Lakeland, FL.  The meetings are predominately faith healing events.  The "healer" is a man named Todd Bentley, well tattooed and seemingly quite a showman.

The meetings have gathered a great deal of attention among the fundamentalist and charismatic and Pentecostal faithful, though some Pentecostal groups have moved to distance themselves from Bentley.  Travis Reed of the AP reports that the meetings have drawn more than 400,000 people in person since beginning last April.  Incredible cures have been claimed by Bentley.  Among these cures are a man who can now see out of a glass eye and at least 20 resurrections from the dead.

In anticipation of criticism of Bentley's claims, Bentley's ministry issued a list that had been vetted by the ministry providing contact information for fifteen people who had been cured and whose cure had been verified by a physician.  You know the AP is going to jump on something like this, don't you?  They did exactly that.  They began the process of contacting folks and investigating.  What were the results?

Two phone numbers provided proved to be wrong numbers.  Six people refused to return telephone calls.  Of the remaining seven reported to have experienced a verified miracle, only two stated that they had medical records to proved their cures had been verified.  Of the two, one woman refused to make her medical information available, and the other individual's doctor would not return calls from Reed.

From a "miracle pool" of hundreds or thousands of individuals, what percent could be verified by the AP?  0%.  That's not a very good "batting average."  Yet, folks continue to come.  Those in need of hope and clutching at straws are often true believers.  I have noted this repeatedly. When I was a fundamentalist, I knew scads of folks supposedly healed of cancer, heart problems, and so on.  I've seen faith healers "fill teeth" with gold and silver via prayer.  I was "healed" several times myself.   Nevertheless, in all of my years, I have yet to see anything unexplainable.  In fact, those with life threatening diseases died.

I'm not saying that miracles don't happen.  There are many kinds of miracles.  When someone full of hate and resentment learns to forgive, isn't that a miracle of sorts?  But faith healing? The "proof is in the pudding," and the burden of proof lies with folks such as Bentley.  So far, he isn't doing very well.  If Jesus is all about love, it seems downright cruel for those claiming to be following his will to promise those desperate for hope a miracle that cannot be delivered, doesn't it?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Can Gay and Straight Christians Really Dialogue?

Reading the religion page of my newspaper last Saturday, I noted that the Anglican bishops are having a big "to do" with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK this week.  The regular gathering of bishops from around the world, known as the Lambeth Conference, is one of those solidifying events that maintains the often tenuous ties within the worldwide Anglican Communion, around 70 or so million strong.

The conference is a big event, and missing from the cast of characters is Bishop Gene Robinson, bishop of the New Hampshire diocese.  Robinson's claim to fame, of course, is having the distinction of being the first (and only) openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church USA.  I'm sure that readers will remember the "explosion" in the US ecclesial community when Rev. Robinson was ordained.  Just a few months ago, he and his partner of many years were united in legal civil union in New Hampshire.

During the Conference the bishop, who is barred from attendance, has scheduled several speaking events at Anglican venues in the vicinity of the Conference.  It seems that many of the UK's Anglicans are quite supportive of Bishop Robinson.  In fact, my local Episcopal vicar friend informs me that he enjoys wide acceptance in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, to name a few.  Yet, that is not the end of the story.

It seems that the act of ordaining Rev. Robinson may be the missile that could sink the Anglican ship.  Although widely supported by these liberal churches in theory, many of the liberal leadership view the unilateral and cautioned actions of the American church as an act of American hubris, not completly unlike Bush's actions in Iraq.  In short, many voices cautioned (and still caution) that this is not the time for such an act.  They see it as divisive, and rouge, like a belligerent  child on the school playground.

Where is the bishop's opposition coming from, if so many progressive national churches are not concerned about the action in theological terms-- and maybe even support it (at least in principle)?  It seems as if there are two "flies in the ointment."  The first is the majority of the Communion, which is no long composed of "western style" churches.  Now the majority of Anglicans reside in the southern hemisphere and are monetarily poor and theologically conservative.

The second source of opposition resides among the US laity.  My afore mentioned friend explained to me that, on the whole, a large segment of the US Episcopal laity oppose the action. Why might this be so?

There are two sources fueling all of the opposition: tradition and (primarily) scripture.  Have they really got God and the saints on their side?

I've heard liberals try to argue using Bible text that the Bible does not take a dim view of homosexuality.  In this, I think they are foolish.  It really can't be argued very successfully.  A much better argument in favor of full inclusion can be made from inference that can be drawn from scripture.  Few Christians believe that blacks are inherently inferior and that slavery is morally acceptable, even though both positions were once widely accepted.  As recently as the 1980's, the Dutch Reformed Church made that argument in support of apartheid in South Africa.  Few folks in mainline churches would believe that a wife should "submit" to her husband.  I think an argument made concerning the mythic and culturally conditioned nature of the Bible is much more powerful.

Those who think that homosexuality is a chosen, sinful lifestyle should note that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses thirty years ago.  For those really willing to investigate, I recommend reading Mel White's Stranger at the Gate.  White was a very condemnation ridden evangelical, married, and a ghost writer for the likes of such well known fundamentalists as Jerry Falwell.  The book recounts the sad story of Mel-spanning decades- trying everything (even electric shock) at the hands of Christian "counselors" to rid himself of his sexual orientation.  After years of abortive efforts, White was forced to admit that he just was what he was.

But, can the church dialog about it?  Can the two opposing views quit the labeling and come to some mutual acceptance? At least some measure of love and the recognition that they can both be Christians though they disagree?  Not if liberal leaders persist in "Bush-like" hubris and not if fundamentalists and other conservatives refuse to even listen.  It is time to do away with the gay bashing and it is time for liberal leaders to stop imposing their views on folks that just aren't ready.  It is time for dialogue.  But, is there any hope?  Since dialogue implies openness and fundamentalists will not offer that, it doesn't seem promising.  My hope is with the great variety of Christians "in the middle."  It is in the middle that we might find some rapprochement and some sanity and some healing.

Friday, July 4, 2008

On the "Nuttiness" of Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism can lead to some pretty "nutty" beliefs and actions. I am often reminded of the words of my seminary theology professor, "Fundamentalism is neither fun nor mental." Sometimes, I could swear he had it exactly right. It is hard to get the picture of how they think and how they process the world as they do. Somehow, everything becomes a religious issue. Even things that would seem to be just common sense.

A good example is the issue of global warming. There has been a great deal of activity relative to global warming in fundamentalist circles in the last few years. To start with, virtually all of the televangelists and prominent fundamentalist were adamant that the phenomenon was not occurring. It was a new age, wacko idea that Christians had a duty to resist. In the video Jesus Camp, which chronicles the upbringing of fundamentalist children, a conversation between a homeschooling parent and her child is recorded as the child is taught to mock the idea of global warming. It is done with religious zeal and becomes part of the fundamentalist religious zegiest.

Later in the video, the documentary makers visit a camp where fundamentalist children are trained to be "leaders." The camp director places a life size cardboard image of "Dub ya" on the stage. The children are then taught a bit of "Bush worship." The idea that G.W.B. is the "savior of the world" (or at least in cahoots with him) is strongly conveyed. This then becomes part of the fundamentalist paradigm.

One can read the words of fundamentalist commentators concerning the environment. It is something we should have no concern about. Drill for oil everywhere. Cut down all of the forest. Don't worry about endangered species, after all they are only animals. The world is ours, as one commentators I read stated, given by God for humanity to "rape and pillage." So this becomes part of the fundamentalist religious picture.

The Middle East? All that matters is supporting Israel. Never mind years of injustice to Palestinians. Never mind the lands taken, the peace disturbed. Never mind the plight of Palestinian Christians (once nearly a third of the Palestinian population). So that too is part of the fundamentalist milieu.

Why do fundamentalist absorb so many silly notions and crazy causes and hold so many foolish positions? In one sense, it just seems downright silly-- "neither fun nor mental." In another sense, maybe we can understand it when we stop and consider that, for them, Jesus is coming tomorrow, so it doesn't matter. In fact, things like environmental destruction might even hasten the day. Me? I think I'll be here for awhile. I hope that, even if they talk, even if they control large segments of the Republican party-- me? I hope they are recognized as for the nuttiness they represent.