Monday, July 31, 2006

Leaving Church

This story by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times is perplexing, not least because it's hard to tell how accurately it's being reported. Taking it tentatively at face value, though, it seems that both sides at this church have made some mistakes. Here's the gist of the story:

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (July 30) -- Like most pastors who lead thriving evangelical megachurches, the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd was asked frequently to give his blessing -- and the church's -- to conservative political candidates and causes.

The requests came from church members and visitors alike: Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-abortion work? Would the church distribute "voters' guides" that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn't the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary? After refusing each time, Mr. Boyd finally became fed up, he said. Before the last presidential election, he preached six sermons called "The Cross and the Sword" in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a "Christian nation" and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

I think Pastor Boyd was wrong about political involvement, wrong about "moralizing" on sexual issues, partly correct about the U.S. not being a Christian nation (although it was founded on the basis of Christian principles), and completely correct about not glorifying military campaigns (although they should certainly be assessed in terms of how well they conform to Just War thinking). War should be regarded by the church as a necessary evil. Individual service and valor can certainly be praised but war itself should be regarded with sadness, not triumphalism.

"When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses," Mr. Boyd preached. "When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross."

No and yes. How the Church inevitably loses if it prevails in the culture war is certainly far from clear. After all, what does it mean to be salt in the world if it doesn't mean trying to influence the culture to move in a moral direction?

If, however, a nation's ultimate confidence is in its military might rather than its assurance that it is not transgressing the law of God, then we will not only lose the cross, but we'll lose our nation as well. Though we surely need to be militarily strong, ultimately our confidence must not rest in the might of our army but in the rightness of our principles.

Mr. Boyd says he is no liberal. He is opposed to abortion and thinks homosexuality is not God's ideal. The response from his congregation at Woodland Hills Church here in suburban St. Paul -- packed mostly with politically and theologically conservative, middle-class evangelicals -- was passionate. Some members walked out of a sermon and never returned. By the time the dust had settled, Woodland Hills, which Mr. Boyd founded in 1992, had lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 members.

This is not very clear. It's hard to tell whether the congregants left because Pastor Boyd opposes abortion and homosexuality or because he doesn't preach strongly enough against these things. Presumably it's the latter, but perhaps it's that he was challenging his people to think more deeply about these matters than they cared to. If so, it's unfortunate that they took this as a justification for leaving. Sermons should challenge people to think more deeply both politically and theologically than they otherwise might. If Christians don't want to be challenged that would be a shame. It would give point to the title of historian Mark Noll's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

But there were also congregants who thanked Mr. Boyd, telling him they were moved to tears to hear him voice concerns they had been too afraid to share. "Most of my friends are believers," said Shannon Staiger, a psychotherapist and church member, "and they think if you're a believer, you'll vote for Bush. And it's scary to go against that."

Sermons like Mr. Boyd's are hardly typical in today's evangelical churches.

That may be but I wonder how Goodstein knows that.

But the upheaval at Woodland Hills is an example of the internal debates now going on in some evangelical colleges, magazines and churches. A common concern is that the Christian message is being compromised by the tendency to tie evangelical Christianity to the Republican Party and American nationalism, especially through the war in Iraq.

There is a reason for this, of course, which is that the Democrat party has become the party of abortion, moral laxness, and theological liberalism. Evangelicals, rightly or wrongly, feel that their faith is under attack and see the Democrat party as at best indifferent to the attacks and at worst complicit in them. They feel that Republicans are more sympathetic to their concernas and values so it's no wonder that many evangelicals have gravitated to that party.

And Mr. Boyd has a new book out, "The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church," which is based on his sermons.

Whether the quest for political power is destroying the church or whether there realaly is a significant quest for political power is not clear, but surely Pastor Boyd is correct that it is unwise for the Church to snuggle up to government. Of course, the New York Times might have pointed out that the black church has been doing this for decades but since they've been cozying to Democrats that gets a pass from the Times.

Mr. Boyd said he had cleared his sermons with the church's board, but his words left some in his congregation stunned. Some said that he was disrespecting President Bush and the military, that he was soft on abortion or telling them not to vote.

"When we joined years ago, Greg was a conservative speaker," said William Berggren, a lawyer who joined the church with his wife six years ago. "But we totally disagreed with him on this. You can't be a Christian and ignore actions that you feel are wrong. A case in point is the abortion issue. If the church were awake when abortion was passed in the 70's, it wouldn't have happened. But the church was asleep."

Mr. Berggren is right. Abortion is a legitimate, if very delicate, issue in the church. Any matter that bears upon human life and morality is a proper subject for a sermon. It's not clear, though, from this excerpt whether Mr. Berggren is concerned that Pastor Boyd is reluctant to preach on it or that he doesn't take the position on the issue that Mr. Breggren would like.

Mr. Boyd, 49, who preaches in blue jeans and rumpled plaid shirts, leads a church that occupies a squat block-long building that was once a home improvement chain store.

The church grew from 40 members in 12 years, based in no small part on Mr. Boyd's draw as an electrifying preacher who stuck closely to Scripture. He has degrees from Yale Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary, and he taught theology at Bethel College in St. Paul, where he created a controversy a few years ago by questioning whether God fully knew the future. Some pastors in his own denomination, the Baptist General Conference, mounted an effort to evict Mr. Boyd from the denomination and his teaching post, but he won that battle.

This is also disappointing. Whether God fully knows the future is a legitimate question. There are many passages in Scripture would could be taken to mean that he doesn't and many which indicate that He does. This seems to me to be an issue upon which Christians could disagree without feeling that they have to "break fellowship".

He is known among evangelicals for a bestselling book, "Letters From a Skeptic," based on correspondence with his father, a leftist union organizer and a lifelong agnostic -- an exchange that eventually persuaded his father to embrace Christianity.

Mr. Boyd said he never intended his sermons to be taken as merely a critique of the Republican Party or the religious right. He refuses to share his party affiliation, or whether he has one, for that reason. He said there were Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into "idolatry."

This is certainly true and he's right to try to guard against it.

He said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch's worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing "God Bless America" and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses. "I thought to myself, 'What just happened? Fighter jets mixed up with the cross?' " he said in an interview.

Well. There's nothing at all wrong with singing a hymn petitioning God for His blessing on one's country, and I don't see why Pastor Boyd should find that offensive. Moreover, although I would probably wince myself at a church service that seems to be a little too heavily militarized, I don't know that I would have been as scandalized by the fighter jets as Pastor Boyd was.

Patriotic displays are still a mainstay in some evangelical churches. Across town from Mr. Boyd's church, the sanctuary of North Heights Lutheran Church was draped in bunting on the Sunday before the Fourth of July this year for a "freedom celebration." Military veterans and flag twirlers paraded into the sanctuary, an enormous American flag rose slowly behind the stage, and a Marine major who had served in Afghanistan preached that the military was spending "your hard-earned money" on good causes.

I don't know why a church, especially a Lutheran church, shouldn't celebrate the blessing of political freedom, nor is there anything wrong with churches recognizing the contribution of those in its congregation who served in the military. As for the major telling the congregants that their money is being spent on good causes, one certainly hopes that that's the case.

In his six sermons, Mr. Boyd laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek "power over" others -- by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting wars. Christians should instead seek to have "power under" others - "winning people's hearts" by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did, Mr. Boyd said.

Pastor Boyd here traipses out onto rhetorical thin ice. If he means that the Church as an institution shouldn't seek to control governments then I join him, but if he means that individual Christians should refrain from exercising their rights as citizens, I have to dissent. There is nothing wrong with Christians seeking to influence legislation or fighting wars. The latter depends, of course, on whether the war conforms to the criteria of Just War theory.

"America wasn't founded as a theocracy," he said. "America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn't bloody and barbaric. That's why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state. "I am sorry to tell you," he continued, "that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ."

This is true enough, and if this is what upsets his congregants then they need to spend some time reading the four gospels.

Mr. Boyd lambasted the "hypocrisy and pettiness" of Christians who focus on "sexual issues" like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson's breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public. "Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act," he said. "And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed."

Maybe Jesus never pushed those buttons because He didn't have as much occasion in the society in which he lived. There wasn't much pornography around in the centuries before Gutenberg, one guesses. Nevertheless, John the Baptist did push that button at the cost of his head, and so did Paul. The fact is that a flawed view of human love and sexuality devastates more lives today than probably any other single factor. Proper understanding of the appropriate role of sexuality in our lives and of the enormous damage that can be wrought from a misuse of this gift is extremely important and I can't understand why a pastor who sees that damage in his counselling sessions every day would think otherwise.

Mr. Boyd gave his sermons while his church was in the midst of a $7 million fund-raising campaign. But only $4 million came in, and 7 of the more than 50 staff members were laid off, he said. Mary Van Sickle, the family pastor at Woodland Hills, said she lost 20 volunteers who had been the backbone of the church's Sunday school.

"They said, 'You're not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way,' " she said. "It was some of my best volunteers."

The Rev. Paul Eddy, a theology professor at Bethel College and the teaching pastor at Woodland Hills, said: "Greg is an anomaly in the megachurch world. He didn't give a whit about church leadership, never read a book about church growth. His biggest fear is that people will think that all church is is a weekend carnival, with people liking the worship, the music, his speaking, and that's it."

In the end, those who left tended to be white, middle-class suburbanites, church staff members said. In their place, the church has added more members who live in the surrounding community - African-Americans, Hispanics and Hmong immigrants from Laos.

"In their place"? Did these new members have to wait until the disgruntled folk moved on before they could join Pastor Boyd's church?

Mr. Boyd now says of the upheaval: "I don't regret any aspect of it at all. It was a defining moment for us. We let go of something we were never called to be. We just didn't know the price we were going to pay for doing it."

His congregation of about 4,000 is still digesting his message. Mr. Boyd arranged a forum on a recent Wednesday night to allow members to sound off on his new book. The reception was warm, but many of the 56 questions submitted in writing were pointed: Isn't abortion an evil that Christians should prevent? Are you saying Christians should not join the military? How can Christians possibly have "power under" Osama bin Laden? Didn't the church play an enormously positive role in the civil rights movement? One woman asked: "So why NOT us? If we contain the wisdom and grace and love and creativity of Jesus, why shouldn't we be the ones involved in politics and setting laws?"

Mr. Boyd responded: "I don't think there's a particular angle we have on society that others lack. All good, decent people want good and order and justice. Just don't slap the label 'Christian' on it."

I'm not sure what the pastor means by this, but surely the province of the Good and of Justice are appropriate arenas in which Christians should be engaged. If he means that Christians aren't the only ones who seek the Good and Justice, why, of course, he's right, but it doesn't follow that Christians shouldn't be especially distinguished by their concern for these virtues.

Ambassador Gillerman

In case you missed it yesterday it would really be worth your while to go here and read the transcript of Meet the Press featuring Tim Russert's interviews with Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman and Lebanese special envoy Nouhad Mahmoud. Better yet go here and watch it.

Gillerman is extremely impressive, intelligent, and convincing. Mahmoud seemed like he was just giving pro forma responses to Russert's questions about the Israeli incursion into Lebanon. At some points he sounded as if he didn't really believe himself what he was saying.

Read the transcript and decide for yourself.

<i>Suicide Killers</i>

The Counterterrorism Blog has a disturbing interview with Pierre Rehov a French documentary filmmaker, who is completing a film titled Suicide Killers on the psychology of suicide bombers.

It's hard to read this interview with Rehov without coming to some deeply troubling conclusions about Islam. Here's part of it:

What inspired you to produce "Suicide Killers," your seventh film?

I started working with victims of suicide attacks to make a film on PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) when I became fascinated with the personalities of those who had committed those crimes, as they were described again and again by their victims. Especially the fact that suicide bombers are all smiling one second before they blow themselves up.

Why is this film especially important?

People don't understand the devastating culture behind this unbelievable phenomenon. My film is not politically correct because it addresses the real problem-showing the real face of Islam. It points the finger against a culture of hatred in which the uneducated are brainwashed to a level where their only solution in life becomes to kill themselves and kill others in the name of a God whose word, as transmitted by other men, has became their only certitude.

What insights did you gain from making this film? What do you know that other experts do not know?

I came to the conclusion that we are facing a neurosis at the level of an entire civilization. Most neuroses have in common a dramatic event, generally linked to an unacceptable sexual behavior. In this case, we are talking of kids living all their lives in pure frustration, with no opportunity to experience sex, love, tenderness or even understanding from the opposite sex. The separation between men and women in Islam is absolute. So is contempt toward women, who are totally dominated by men. This leads to a situation of pure anxiety, in which normal behavior is not possible. It is no coincidence that suicide killers are mostly young men dominated subconsciously by an overwhelming libido that they not only cannot satisfy but are afraid of, as if it is the work of the devil. Since Islam describes heaven as a place where everything on earth will finally be allowed, and promises 72 virgins to those frustrated kids, killing others and killing themselves to reach this redemption becomes their only solution.

What was it like to interview would-be suicide bombers, their families and survivors of suicide bombings?

It was a fascinating and a terrifying experience. You are dealing with seemingly normal people with very nice manners who have their own logic, which to a certain extent can make sense since they are so convinced that what they say is true. It is like dealing with pure craziness, like interviewing people in an asylum, since what they say, is for them, the absolute truth. I hear a mother saying "Thank God, my son is dead." Her son had became a shaheed, a martyr, which for her was a greater source of pride than if he had became an engineer, a doctor or a winner of the Nobel Prize. This system of values works completely backwards since their interpretation of Islam worships death much more than life. You are facing people whose only dream, only achievement is to fulfill what they believe to be their destiny, namely to be a shaheed or the family of a shaheed. They don't see the innocent being killed, they only see the impure that they have to destroy.

Do all Muslims interpret jihad and martyrdom in the same way?

All Muslim believers believe that, ultimately, Islam will prevail on earth. They believe this is the only true religion and their is no room, in their mind, for interpretation. The main difference between moderate Muslims and extremists is that moderate Muslims don't think they will see the absolute victory of Islam during their life time, therefore they respect other beliefs. The extremists believe that the fulfillment of the Prophecy of Islam and ruling the entire world as described in the Koran, is for today. Each victory of Bin Laden convinces 20 million moderate Muslims to become extremists.

Describe the culture that manufactures suicide bombers.

Oppression, lack of freedom, brain washing, organized poverty, placing God in charge of daily life, total separation between men and women, forbidding sex, giving women no power whatsoever, and placing men in charge of family honor, which is mainly connected to their women's behavior.

How can we put an end to the madness of suicide bombings and terrorism in general?

Stop being politically correct and stop believing that this culture is a victim of ours. Radical Islamism today is nothing but a new form of Nazism. Nobody was trying to justify or excuse Hitler in the 1930s. We had to defeat him in order to make peace one day with the German people.

There's more at the link.