Saturday, December 27, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: God's Strange Work

Recently I read God's Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World by David Rowe (2008, Eerdmans). This is a well written work and a very even-handed treatment of the "Millerite turned Adventist" Movement which began in the 1830's and extended until some time past 1844 (the predicted end). Having spent sometime among the Seventh-day Adventists, as chronicled in my book on fundamentalism (you may read a sample chapter at SDA's have a certain "hagiography" surrounding Miller and the accuracy of his computations.

Miller was born in 1782 and, as the book demonstrates, was in many respects a product of late 18th and early 19th century America. He was raised in a (mostly) pious Baptist home and had early inclinations towards religion. As a young man, he was taken with the rationalism of the Deist writers and thinkers of his day. From this, he derived a strong preference for what could be reasonable and proven (hence his later attraction to heavenly arithmetic).

After serving in the War of 1812, Miller discovered that his Deism left him bankrupt when it came to the establishment of purpose and meaning in his life. Although he was raised in eastern New York, he had left for Vermont before his military service to escape the religiosity of his parents. When he found his life devoid of ultimate purpose, he resolved to return to his family farm in New York, which he did, wife and children in tow.

While living in New York, he became a prominent man of some means. He also held local political office. It was in New York through the study of the Bible (not quite as free from the commentary of others as his modern-day children might lead us to believe) that he embraced the principle-- one widely accepted by many writers of the day-- that in prophecy, one day was equivalent to one year. Approaching the 2300 day prophecy in Daniel he concluded it represent 2300 years and would culminate around 1843 or before (later changed to October 22, 1844). As Rowe points out, this conclusion was hardly unique to Miller, having been stated by many religious writers previous to Miller's discovery of the date.

At first (for years) he kept the belief to himself or shared it with only a few close associates. Then he seemed to sense God calling him to "tell it to the world." He was hesitant. Obviously, he knew that to many it would sound like a "crackpot" message. Nevertheless, in the early 1830's, Miller began his prophecy lecturing career. Much of it carried out when he was past 60.

It was actually popularizers, especially Joshua V. Himes, who "shepherded" Miller in such a way that the Millerite/Adventist message became a mass movement. It must be noted that there were many other "prophets" emerging in New England at that time-- especially Joseph Smith. In some ways, Millerism was a product of the same religious fervor that produced Mormonism. This must be said, however, Miller never applied the term "prophet" to himself, and except for his millenialism, he was pretty much an "Old School Baptist." He was decidedly a Calvinist. The Millerite Movement attracted tens of thousands of adherents (to one degree or another).

Of course, he missed the date. After the Great Disappointment, Millerites went on predicting dates for years to come. Some spiritualized the Second Coming, saying Christ came in some manner-- something happened on October 22, 1844. Miller vacillated on the many questions that perplexed bewildered followers until his death in 1848. Himes eventually returned to the Episcopal faith of his childhood. In the 1870's, he was ordained a priest. Millerites fractured into many splinter groups, always predicting or explaining, trying to make sense of the Movement and its failure of prediction.

All things considered, God's Strange Work is a worthwhile read. It gives many insights into the life of a complicated man-- albeit a man of his times.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Yet one more! JCA

To claim again
the love
I knew--
my Friend,
the Beginning and End,
and all the gifts,
and the wonder
of the Child.
Perhaps I've grown
too comfortable.
(Or too familiar
with the Story.)
The angel choirs
in the hours
of making sermons
and planning programs
all about You.
And somehow,
to miss it all
because the wonder
is gone.
I long for Christmas
Special days
gone by.
Let me fly away
to You
I know You are waiting
there for me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reflection of Christ

Another Advent/Christmas poem from several years ago-- JCA

I give you this day;
it is all I have--
these twenty-four hours.
And really,
it is only this one minute
given to me.
So much gets in the way--
drive away all that makes me sad.
Fill the jars of plain water within
and change it to
the wine of joy and freedom.
All I have is yours, Oh Lord.
All that I could ever hope to be.
Change my life that Christ
might be adored
by all who see
the life I live,
that in all
I might be a reflection of him.
Let me not live
in the gray, cloudy mist
and fog and haze
of earth.
Draw me ever higher,
and in me have your birth.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Something Different

Here we are, in the middle of the Advent/Christmas season. It seemed right to me, as I thought about it, to take a break from my "typical stuff" (so to speak) and take notice of the day. So, for my next few posting, I offer some original Advent poetry written over the past 10 years. I hope you enjoy....


Did you know?//Could you imagine?
I’ve always thought// Of him as the wisest,
The fairest//The one who gave all.
His death//The deepest sorrow
And Good Friday//My way out.
The One altogether lovely// “Wounded for my transgressions,
Crushed for my iniquities//Chastised for my peace.”
Yet it pleased the Lord//To give all He had
So I could walk in the garden//In the cool of the day
With him
He won my heart//By giving
Until he had nothing left//To give.
And you//Blessed Mary,
Did you know that on that day//You said yes,
When you were just//A young virgin child,
Of the sword that would//Pierce Your own soul?
You gave all//You gave all you had//To give.
Did you know the price?
You and he//Just two bewildered people
Called to bring the One.

You gave the One birth.
He also//In bewildered obedience
Taught the One//To work with his hands,
To chop wood//And shared the things
Of father and son.
Two people//Caught up in Something
Much bigger than themselves.
Once, my son was sick//Near death.
That too was a Christmas//And I wept
With no one to console me
To think that I might//Lose my son.
I would give my sons//The moon and the stars.
I would walk a million//Miles for them--
Gladly die you them.
Did you know//Most Highly Favored Lady;
Did you know blessed Joseph
How much your yes//Would cost?
The joy of a new life//Or the sound of a dirge.
To which sound did you//Say, “Yes?”
Did you know?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Of Salvation Army Bell Ringers, Preacher/Professors and Social Justice

No doubt about it, I have preached some real humdinger social justice sermons in my day. Here I am, approaching the 3rd. Sunday of Advent.  I've been reading all of those lectionary texts about "mountains and hills brought low,"  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," and the justice of God-- "God will cast down the kings from their thrones and lift up the meek and the lowly." "The hungry God has filled with good things; the rich God has sent away empty."  I've really been hitting it hard.

Then, tonight came (Dec. 11)-- a cold night in Owensboro.  I'd forgotten about my commitment. You see, a little over a month back, I cut my hand and had to get 25 stitches.  Today, in my college education professor job, I was taking a student teacher to meet the cooperating teacher she will work with next semester.  I'm pretty clumsy, and I fell in the parking lot-- right on the place where the stitches had recently been.  By the time I got home, I decided I was not having a good day.  Then my wife reminded me.

Brucie had called a few days back and asked if I would be a bell ringer at Kroger tonight.  I had forgotten.  But, I had promised Brucie when she called that I'd do it.  So, off I went.  And, did I mention, it was cold?

I took over for the guy before me.  He had been standing inside the store a good bit.  I decided that to be effective, I was going to have to get outside and stay there.  I smiled and said "Merry Christmas" to every one.  Some cut a wide path to avoid me.  Lot's walked right up and put some dough in the kettle.  Then it happened.  Someone said something to me like, "How long do they make you guys work at a time?"  I realized that my benefactor thought I was a paid bell ringer.

I remembered seeing some obviously needy folks, of a rather unsavory appearance, right across the way at K-Mart ringing the bell for hours on end.  I thought, "I don't want folks thinking I'm one of them.  I want them to know that I'm a respectable teacher/preacher donating my time to needy people.

You can see it coming, can't you?  My Advent texts.  Jesus came as a beggar, one of those people and found solidarity with them.  Was I any better?  I felt the shame of my judgmentalism.  I grabbed my bell, pulled my jacket around my neck and begin ringing for all I was worth.  Only this time, I tried to be a beggar.  After all, aren't we all?

Monday, December 15, 2008

On Christmas Silliness and Civil Religion

I noted in the religion page that there have been some mighty "strange happenings" in Washington state lately regarding Christmas displays, politics, freedom of religion, freedom from religion, and the nature of Christmas in a pluralistic society. After the state put the tried and true Christmas stuff on display, everybody wanted a piece of the Holiday Pie. Seems like there is something for everybody in today's civil religion.

Jewish folks, got a menorah. African Americans got some Kwanzaa stuff on display. Then, heavens no! The Atheist demanded a place at the table and offered a Holiday Greetings reminding us that religion is irrational and doesn't make folks moral.

I got to thinking, maybe I should demand a display as well. Maybe I could represent the thousands of fat, ex-fundamentalist, college professor/preachers that are often ignored. After all, we do our part for the good old US of A as well. Don't we deserve our own piece of lettuce in the Salad Bowl?

Now, if you don't want to offend anybody, there is my dear friend Katy. Katy is a frustrated, sort-of evangelicalish writer of Christian fiction. She's a good writer. She's had a few things published, so I think it is fair to say that she is a contributor to the rich faith heritage that makes the fabric of our nation. We need a Katy sign on the lawn pronto! Now will take care of representimg the frustrated writing community.

Then there's the Jehovah's Witnesses....No. I take it back. Non-participators. Oh, forget the whole damn deal.... I mean... I was only trying to give everybody equal time.

Well, there is my friend Paul, the Baha'i. Only thing is, he is BIG TIME into the whole environmental deal. That might, you know, give the Atheists a bad name if they had to share space with a religiously-oriented Tree Hugger.

Maybe though, just maybe, the whole deal is so ridiculous it isn't worth my time. Who cares what sits on the capital lawn? I wish them all the best-- Happy Holidays, and many Happy Returns of the Day.

I think I hear Irene telling me it's time for us to light the Advent Wreath. Don't think I'll be doing that at the capital lawn. Nope, we'll probably just rake some stuff off the dinner table, read a thought or two, light the candle, and say a prayer. Amen.

I'm sure as hell not going to worry about who gets some space on the lawn at Frankfort. Think I'll leave that to the Zoroastrians.

Friday, December 12, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: Quitting Church

Recently, I read the book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It by Julia Duin (2008, BakerBooks). Duin is the religion editor for the Washington Times. I discovered a stark contrast between Quitting Church and What Americans Really Believe (reviewed below, see post on 12/2). Overall, I found Duin's assessment of the evangelical world much more in keeping with most major polls (some conducted by evangelicals such as Barna-- to whom she frequently refers). I think this is a useful, thoughtful book, well considered and carefully nuanced to match the realities of church life as it is currently reflected in evangelical churches.

A major point that Duin makes concerns the Jesus Movement of the late 60's and early 70's. This definitely caught my attention. I was there, living in community, a part of it all. In fact, my book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism, reaches many of the same conclusions as Duin (to read chapters from my book on my experiences in the Jesus Movement and why I abandoned fundamentalism visit There was something about those days and the community that existed among believers that was healing, real, and alive. Still, we differ in our final analysis. In the end, I believe that fundamentalism/evangelicalism is logically and empirically broken beyond fixing. Duin, on the other hand, writes as an evangelical who still holds to the evangelical faith/practices (except, perhaps, in regards to the status or lack thereof accorded women in evangelicalism). Still, she sees that days of the Jesus Movement as "glory days," just as I often tend to view the Movement as well.

Duin does not see as much ineffectiveness in churches that reach out to the "twenty-somethings." In that arena, the seeker churches and emergent churches have made a real impact. Yet, the model offered by the seeker environment appears shallow and empty to the "thirty-somethings" and baby-boomers. These folks are tired of shallow worship, authoritarian pastors, and the disenfranchisement of women. Many of these folks sense an environment devoid of much spiritual power.

In her research of alternative models of "the way things used to be" (if one may speak in such contradictions), Duin spent sometime at the International House of Prayer associated with Mike Bickle and located in Kansas City. I grew up in Kansas City and was associated with Agape Fellowship, the original expression of the Jesus Movement in the city, living for some time at the communal house. I well remember when Mike Bickle began his ministry in Kansas City in the late 70's. Although Duin seems to see Bickle as an exemplary figure in the Charismatic side of the Jesus Movement, most of us who were there watched as South Kansas City Fellowship (Bickle's original endeavor) went though change after change-- first independent, then a Vineyard Church (with many versions of how that arrangement came to an end), then the "laughing church, Toronto Blessing" phase, then this, then that, and now IHOP. While addressing it to some degree, Duin minimizes the nuttiness of some of the Charismatic/evangelical "movements" as well as the tendency among evangelicals (especially Charismatics) to change almost with the seasons of the year-- always looking for a new way to create a "Spirit high."

Still, her point that the seeker churches bring young folks in the front door, while many long time evangelicals, mourning the "Ichabod" condition, as the glory has departed from evangelical "Israel," are exiting the back door is well taken. She sees some hope in the current house church movement, but notes the tendency to institutionalize even in that environment.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. Really, although her diagnosis of the problem as an internal condition among the evangelical faithful is probably on target (but not for those of us who have abandoned the absolutist position-- our concerns lie in a different direction), her solutions are a bit meager. All things considered, the book is well written, thoughtful, and timely. I recommend adding this book to your reading list.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

That They May Be One-- Part 3

So why bother? If you are right about being one in the Lord, why do you go on and on about all of this stuff? Why bother to tell others that Jesus is God? Why go to such lengths to promote a certain view of the Bible, a view that some might say undermines faith? Why, contrary to many of the other believers in a larger hope, do you make waves by arguing so forcefully for humanity's free will? Why indeed?

Congratulations! You have just found the MOST IMPORTANT Part of this little confession. Maybe you are a believer in a larger hope. You can't pin down where this is all going. Some of it you like, but sometimes it seems to you like I'm talking just like Christians have always talked-- "Babylon Stuff!" Maybe you are an "orthodox evangelical." First, some stuff seems pretty straight to you. But now, after reading a bit, you find yourself saying, "Man! This guy is way too liberal for me!"

But if you have read all of this stuff, here you are. And I think you deserve an answer. So here it is. I think the WHOLE DEAL (you know, LIFE, the UNIVERSE, EVERYTHING) is all about the character of God. That's it. That's all of it.

It seems like the Jews grew in their understanding of God. Early on, they looked at the gods of their neighbors and saw Yahweh as the BIG GUY. "Who is like you, Lord among the gods?" As time went on, they came to see Yahweh as the only God. "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One." It is this one God that we are interested in knowing.

God gave us the Bible, I fully believe that. He gave it just as it is. This is why I talk about the Bible as casebook or codebook. If it is a casebook, a case history of God dealing with his friends-- friends that sometimes misunderstood him-- we can begin to see why Jesus' view of things was so radically different than Joshua's. Joshua thought God told him to take the Promised Land and mercilessly kill all of its inhabitants, men, women, boys and girls, babies. But Jesus said that he did not come to destroy people's lives but to save them.

God is radically honest. He wants us to see exactly how his friends have acted and how they have struggled to find the way. He wants us to see how, step-by-step, we are lead to a view of Yahweh as the kind Abba (Daddy) that Jesus knew and proclaimed. You see, it all boils down to God's character. It is a very important question, whether Jesus is God or not. If Jesus is God, that means God hangs around with sinners, touches lepers, washes dirty feet, cries, laughs, gets angry, and dies even as he forgives his executioners.

It is supremely important if God casts folks into an eternal hell. If one lie means eternal damnation, then we have God as the ancient oriental despot. But if God reconciles his enemies and never forecloses but always respects OUR freedom, the situation is radically different. That means that God, who knows all things, would never create someone with the intent of destruction them. It means that no one is beyond his love.

What he wants is a love relationship. So free will is of the utmost importance. You might say that God prizes nothing more than our free will. Love, if the Apostle Paul is right, does not force or coerce. It woos and wins the object it seeks. God cannot do other than allow us the freedom to say "NO." Yet he never forecloses. He relentlessly loves that all might be won to him.

It matters if a Christian bears arms and fights and wars. This says something about the God s/he represents. How can s/he represent the Guy who gave the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and fight for country or king? We have only one True King, and he calls us to a battle where our weapons are not "carnal" but spiritual.

We all pray for many things. But how often do we just shut-up, sit down and love God from the heart for just twenty minutes?

So this is it. This is why it matters. Who is God? What is God like? "The whole universe waits for the revelation of the children of God." All creation waits for a knowledge of who God is, God's character. That's why it matters.

Monday, December 8, 2008

That They May Be One-- Part 2

In 1 Cor. 15 Paul tells us the content of the gospel he preached. "The Messiah died for our sins, exactly as the scriptures tell it....He was buried....He was raised on the third day" (MES). That's the gospel. But what about_______ (you fill in your main concern)? What about it? Read 1 Cor. 15 for yourself. THAT'S THE GOSPEL!!!!

Of course, the gospel does have lifestyle implications. But do not confuse the implications with the gospel. The implications are our love gift to God. Salvation is God's love gift to us. It is clear that Christians should be the most moral people on earth. They should also be the most kind and understanding. When it comes to lifestyle, we are all at different places. Discussion, convincement? Certainly, there is a place for that. But not rejection. Only those without sin can throw the stones (words spoken concerning a prostitute). If we lead folks to Christ and his word, and if they accept him from the heart, we must leave them in God's hands. Certainly, we should never reject people over ideas. I don't know about you, but I know a bit about me. I became a believer in 1971. My ideas have changed many times since then. There is little charity in the words heretic or cult. Be careful what you say. By your words, says the scripture, you will be justified or condemned.

I believe, just like the creed says, that Jesus was "Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father." But I know of people, some with very Christlike characters and sincere believers in the larger hope, who believe that Christ was definitely NOT God and was a created being. They will affirm that he is the Son of God, sinless, preexistent, and incarnate. But to these folks, to talk of a Trinity or make Jesus fully God smacks of polytheism. And, yep, the early Christians struggled over this too. I guess I've got to say (Arrggh....!) that if they believe that Christ died for their sins, was buried, and rose from the dead, they pass the gospel test. Even my "fire and brimstone" friends, if they accept Christ as their Savior, pass the "test."

Now I don't like either of those beliefs. But I don't think that I can go beyond the gospel. Acceptance of the gospel defines a Christian, not agreement with certain thoughts or ideas. Ouch! Hurts doesn't it?

My best friends (not counting my wife of course!) recently sent their kid off to college. She is a beautiful Christian girl. She isn't (and her parents aren't) in agreement with me at all about this hell deal. They would be considered by most much more traditional evangelicals. Anyway, she went to a certain "Christian" college. She was baptized as a believer but didn't see baptism or other practices quite the way the sponsoring denomination did. Because she did not agree with everything they believed many of her fellow students doubted the genuineness of her Christianity.
How pathetic that we treat each other like this! I know of some who have no use at all for any organized church because they disagree with "churchy ideas." That is, of course, their prerogative. Still, I think it is sad how often we attack and resent each other over "religion." What about the Master's prayer? Doesn't it matter?

I once heard a little poem that describes our sad condition.

Think as I think,
No more, no less,
That I am right and no one else.
Say what I say.
Do just what I do.
And then and ONLY then
Will I have fellowship with you!

Friday, December 5, 2008

That They May Be One

In his Priestly Prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus earnestly prayed to the Father that his followers might be one. Two-thousand years later, how are we doing? Miserably, I'd say. We are anything but one. Christ's Body, his glory, his witness, the church, is fragmented into thousands of little "camps." Some are built on distinctive doctrines, others more on distinctive practices. And, add to this that even within ecclesial communities, many of us have our pet beliefs. The root of Babble (as in the Tower of...) is the notion of confusion. The church is a towering Babble.

Certainly, I'm not writing to suggest that I have the solution that will unite us all and make us all think alike. Yes, it's been tried. Some with creeds, others with covenants, and yet others have attempted to use church discipline as a way of achieving the oneness Christ so longed for. Still, it hasn't worked. The church is less "one" than it's ever been. I don't know of any way to make us all think alike. Some might say back to the Bible. Aren't we all reading the same one now? What I purpose is a very simple platform. We will not achieve unity in all details of belief. Not now, maybe never. But I do think that St. Paul gives us some keys that may help us. In Romans 14 Paul tells us to accept each other and not pass judgment on others because we disagree with them about "disputable matters." I like the way The Message puts it, "Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do." It's a bold statement. He goes on to give many examples. Some might say, "Hey, now wait a minute. That chapter is about disagreements about stuff like food, and keeping certain holy days. It's not about anything really important."

Maybe these folks will say that they only refuse to accept others that disagree with them about MAJOR, GIGANTIC things like, oh let's say: Abortion (I think it's wrong.), Warfare (I think the New Testament teaches Christians shouldn't bear arms.), The rapture (I think that idea is contraindicated.), Hell (Well, you can read the web page on that one!), The inerrancy of the Bible (I certainly don't accept this in the conventional sense.), The Christian Right ( I don't think you should mix religion and politics to create a "civil religion" and expect all to conform.), Women pastors (I'm all for it!).

My list could go on. But I think if I listed enough items, I could make about everyone angry. So could you! Now, some would say these are great BIG you are/aren't saved sorts of things. But, you see that's it exactly. To the early church food, Sabbath-keeping, and other such insignificant things were great BIG you are/aren't saved sorts of things! Maybe you think the early church had her act much more together. Forget it! I was a seminary student in Historical Theology when I first discovered the notion of universal reconciliation. Yes, it was widespread in the early centuries of the church. But, so was the belief in annihilation. Within a hundred years of the apostles, Justin Martyr was already making very clear reference to that belief. He must have gotten it somewhere! Hell was around too-- and I mean the eternal variety! I can't think of a church history textbook that does not admit that pacifism was widespread in the early church. Yet we know there were Christian soldiers. Beware of anyone that says "The early church (as in ALL the early church) believed...." It would be very nice. But it is not quite so neat as all that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: What Americans Really Believe

Recently, I picked up the book, What Americans Really Believe, by Rodney Stark and others. As near as I can figure, the book is an outgrowth of the sociology department at Baylor University. All of the authors (there are several) save one are Baylor social science faculty. The book is a report and analysis of a 2007 survey conducted by Gallop for Baylor regarding religious beliefs of Americans.

If one were to read the book, especially the analysis of the data collected, one would get the opinion that the authors are saying a few things loud and clear and in many, many ways:
  1. Evangelical churches are thriving
  2. Most Americans are really evangelical in their outlook
  3. The Mainline denominations (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.) are irrelevant and on their way out.
  4. Even those in those dying denominations think a whole lot like evangelicals.
  5. Evangelical churches (not to be redundant-- the authors sure are!) are thriving.
As I see it, the book supplies some useful data. But, it is dismissive of other major surveys of the religious landscape. The claim is thus: If only the other major surveys asked the right questions, they would know that we are right. And, I might add, they dismiss just about everybody. Now, I quoted some earlier Baylor surveys in my book (see left sidebar). As I said, they have something to say. Still, I think this idea-- others ask the wrong (or maybe right) questions in the wrong way-- plays both ways. Hey, Baylor Folks, did it ever occur to you that YOU might be asking the wrong questions in the wrong ways? It's sad that Baylor's Southern Baptist agenda comes through so loud and clear from scholars in a fine institution whom one would think would embrace impartiality. (Compare the Baylor survey to the recent Pew "Religious Landscape Survey.")

I am also concerned that Baylor seems to dismiss even its own data when it appears to be uncomplimentary. For example, charts included in the book indicate that those with the most evangelical/fundamentalist orientation are the least open to new experience. As has been frequently noted, evangelicals/fundamentalists are often xenophobic and easily threatened by different views, issues of diversity, etc. They have made up their mids and don't want to be "confused by the facts." This seems to be implied by the Baylor data, but it remains unexamined.

Even the Baylor survey indicates that only around 35 percent of Americans are "churched" in any meaningful sense. Other surveys have indicated that the "unaffiliated but spiritual" group is the fastest growing segment on the religious landscape. Baylor attempts (poorly) to show that this group is really some variant of the "religious" and probably Christian (perhaps evangelical as well??). It is such dismissive treatment of research conducted by those who do not share the Southern Baptist fundamentalist paradigm and the far-fetched conclusions reached that brings the entire Baylor endeavor into question. I guess I expected more sociology and less "faith-based" apologetics from such a fine institution.

All-in-all, I'm disappointed!