What does it mean to be an Evangelical Christian?

ufcThe 2016 election was a doozy in terms of bringing strange bedfellows together into voting blocs for both presidential candidates. But one of the most confounding and in some aspects a disturbing conundrums was why a group of faith-oriented believers seemed so drawn to the likes of Donald Trump.

Here was a womanizing, money-worshipping television reality star who never met an insult he did not like. Yet Christian voters were flocking to support him.

What did the so-called “evangelical” community find so appealing about Donald Trump?

To answer that question, we can turn to a variety of sources. But one must first consider a definition of the term “Evangelical Christian” and where it comes from. So here’s a nice little description from a site titled GotAnswers.org, a Christian website.

Here’s how they answer the question: “What is an Evangelical Christian?”

Answer: To begin, let’s break down the two words. The term Christian essentially means “follower of Christ.” Christian is the term given to followers of Jesus Christ in the first century A.D. (Acts 11:26). The term evangelical comes from the Greek word that means “good news.” Evangelism is sharing the good news of the salvation that is available through Jesus Christ. An evangelical, then, is a person dedicated to promoting the good news about Jesus Christ. Combined, the description “evangelical Christian” is intended to indicate a believer in Jesus Christ who is faithful in sharing and promoting the good news.

In Western culture today, there are many caricatures of evangelical Christians. For some, the term evangelical Christian is equivalent to “right-wing, fundamentalist Republican.” For others, “evangelical Christian” is a title used to differentiate an individual from a Catholic Christian or an Orthodox Christian. Others use the term to indicate adherence to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. In this sense, an evangelical Christian is a believer who holds to the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith alone. However, none of these definitions are inherent in the description “evangelical Christian.”

In reality, all Christians should be evangelical Christians. The Bible is consistently instructing us to be witnesses of the good news (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 1 Peter 3:15). There is no better news than Jesus! There is no higher calling than evangelist. There is no doubt that holding to the fundamentals of the Bible will result in a certain worldview and, yes, political belief. However, there is nothing about being an evangelical that demands a certain political party or affiliation. An evangelical Christian is called to share the good news, to preach God’s Word, and to set an example of purity and integrity. If these callings require political action, so be it. At the same time, evangelical Christians should not be sidetracked into abandoning our highest calling—sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Putting faith to work

There are several things I found fascinating about that description. For one thing, I am a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA.) Our particular congregation contains both highly liberal and highly conservative Christians whose issues of concern are often addressed from the pulpit. But the central goal of the church the last few years has been to encourage discipleship, which among other things, means putting faith to work through action.

This is a most effective way to distil issues of theology. When people are called together to work in service to others, as the bible calls us to do, fine points of theology do not matter that much.

Faith matters

Yet there are times when theology matters a whole bunch. Throughout the history of the Judeo-Christian religion, sorting out the meaning of scripture and the right relationship of God has taken on highly controversial tones. One could argue that the entire ministry of St. Paul, for example, was spent helping people confront misunderstanding of this new religion that would come to call itself Christianity.

But before that, a long series of *prophets stood on the outskirts of civilization calling people to repentance. When John the Baptist started dunking people in the Jordan river, the rumor mill about his activities got all the way back to the chief priests. John had no patience for their prurient curiosity.

And neither did Jesus. When it came down to it, the Son of God was a sonofabitch to the people in charge of religion. He set out to make them feel the wrath of God.

Unpopular voices

This proves that it is sometimes the unfortunate work of true evangelicals to say things and do things that are not popular with the proponents of mainstream religion. True to this tradition, Pope Francis has been acting like a prophet for the Catholic Church. His claim that “all scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ” is a highly evangelical statement.

He is not a popular man in conservative quarters because more conservative Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, are accustomed to enforcing the rules of faith and driving a confessional brand of involvement. In order to belong, one must speak and choose to reflect the words of God in a certain way. In other words, “talk the talk,” or get out. You obviously don’t belong.

Dog-whistle religion

The sad thing is that this brand of faith can also come to constitute a certain “dog-whistle” cliqueishness. The confessional brand of religion is like joining a club. And when a club is formed, it can be leveraged to political as well as religious purposes. This is the exact form of social construct to which Jesus most objected. He branded those d0g-whistle priests a “brood of vipers” for huddling together and lashing out at anyone that stood up to their supposed religious authority.

But there is great comfort to many people in a religion where the rules are clearly mapped out. Not having to think about what you believe or explain it to anyone else is a simple form of existence. And if by convenience it also simplifies the voting process, well that’s just dandy, isn’t it?

And so many evangelicals look to their religious authorities for direction. If those authorities communicate that the “greater good” will be served by supporting even as flawed a candidate as Donald Trump, then evangelicals will support the man through thick and through thin. And sure enough, many evangelical leaders and conservative political voices called for evangelical Christians to vote for the man because promises were made that he would work to ban abortion, or gay marriage, or any number of theo-political issues bandied about during an election cycle.

Challenging authority

Anyone that challenges this central authoritarian call to loyalty can be branded an outsider and not worthy of attention. Traditionally, this is manifested in statements such as “you can only test scripture with scripture.” That is, the bible is the only source of truth.

The problem with this approach to authority is that it can fail miserably in the face of legitimate theological challenges. The preferred method is to simply deny the possibility that scripture could in any way be wrong. This is a convenient tautology.

It is also the practical method of those that used to stand on top of the walls or before the city gates shouting at the seemingly crazed prophets calling people to account for the true voice of God. So it is no coincidence that when a man such as Donald Trump puts forth a call to “build a wall,” the concept has great appeal to conservatives accustomed to blocking out that which they don’t want to consider. It is the perfect symbol for an insular faith.

A prophet in his home town

The problem with this approach to belief is that it is not biblical at all. It stung the Lord Jesus, for example, to be mocked and disavowed in his hometown. Mark 6:4: “Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”

Thus it is not unexpected that even today, any evangelical willing challenge the cliquish or dog-whistle signals of Christian faith should be similarly despised and mocked. People take great offense in being questioned about their faith, especially when they sense a vulnerability in themselves that they might not like to admit.

Interesting observations

As a writer who talks about religion quite a bit, and who is willing to challenge both the religion and politics of others based on what the Bible says, rather than what people say about it, I have bumped into plenty of anger and disappointment from friends, relatives and strangers. One confronted me with this interesting observation: “You make me feel shitty about things.”

And I suppose that is probably true. If one clings to beliefs that don’t stand up to rational or religious scrutiny, it surely can make you feel “shitty” about it.

Stiff-necked and hard-hearted

Being challenged on theological grounds can simply harden those beliefs even more. I can honestly attest to the fact that I have likely had that effect on more than one Christian believer. The risk of abandoning cherished beliefs is never easy. But neither does God appreciated stiff-necked or hard-hearted believers. Giving up the legalistic ways of hard-hearted faith has always frightened the shit out of people.

Some have accused me of having no heart at all, that I am more about the theoretical idea of faith than having  a trust in God. But they have not walked a single step in my shoes, or faced the same deaths in my family that I have faced. I have trust that God will play a role in how those lives will end, and what happens to the spirit of that person in the long run.

Thus I feel empowered to speak as honestly as I can about the deceptions created on foundations of biblical literalism and the relativism that evangelicals too readily accept in trading approval for political power. It’s disgusting, and it produces ugly and false compromises in support for leaders such as Donald Trump. There have been many other abusive figures in history that claimed to be a Christian and turned out only to be selfishly murderous bastards.

And so, to not challenge those trading in politicized religious beliefs… when the Bible clearly maps out the call to speak truth to power… is to abandon the heart of all Christian belief.

Pope Francis

That is what the Pope is talking about when he says that scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ is obsolete. That is the true and honest calling of all evangelicals. To trust that the love of God has meaning, significance and purpose in your life, and to feel the love of Christ and do your best to extend that grace and love to others. That is the mission of faith.

Yet the Evangelical Prophet must also suffer in the face of distrust when challenging others to consider how their authorities might be misleading them. Jesus set the example, it is for prophets of all levels and calling to follow that lead. His disciples did it, trusting that they would be greeted or else they dusted off their feet and left that town to the dog-whistle virtues it claimed for its own.

That’s what it means to be a Christian Evangelical.

*In religion, a prophet is an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine, and to speak for them, serving as an intermediary with humanity, delivering this newfound knowledge from the supernatural entity to other people. The message that the prophet conveys is called a prophecy.

 

 

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On why we should all read about faith and what it means to the world

Lutheran School of Theology Chicago

Lutheran School of Theology Chicago

By Christopher Cudworth

Sitting in the admissions office of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago felt right.

A little more than two years ago a young man that had served as our church Youth Pastor had invited me to visit the school. “I think you’d like it,” he told me.

Our conversations as he prepared to leave his position at the church and begin studies to become a Lutheran pastor had centered on ministry to high school students, yet over coffee one morning the topics widened. I explained the process of writing my book, “The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age,” and how it changed the way I viewed writing about, and reading about, faith in the world.

The experience of trying to get an agent for the book had taught me a few things. The theme was the same with every contact. “You’re not a minister. You’re not a college professor. What credibility do you have to write such a book?”

Credibility is important. It gives people a foundation upon which to trust what you write. The process of earning credibility can also challenge the manner in which you arrive at your conclusions.

Regarding Masters

The message stuck with me. Despite the fact that I had spent 7 years researching and refining the book, it was true. I was not technically qualified to write it. Not in the eyes of those who make such decisions anyway.

It’s not enough that your friends call you “courageous” for taking on biblical literalism as a worldview. You must vet your viewpoints in the theological world before tearing away the dogmatic garments of the modern day Pharisees who stand in opposition to so much practical truth.

Simple truths and basic contradictions

Yet it’s a simple fact really. Biblical literalists stand in opposition to the teaching methods of Jesus Christ, who consistently used organic metaphors to convey spiritual truths through parables designed to bring the common mind to faith in God. Ignoring that principle is basically a slap in the face to Jesus. It’s like telling him, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Don’t you know that God’s Word must be taking literally or it has no meaning at all?”

While classic, the old ways of thinking may not be sufficient for a new world. Nor have they ever been.

While classic, the old ways of thinking may not be sufficient for a new world. Nor have they ever been.

Actually the community of believers who take the Bible literally never actually get close to discussing the teaching methods of Jesus. They’re stuck way back in Genesis and a literal 7 days, an Adam and Eve that were transmogrified from the dust of the Earth and a Serpent or Snake who tricks Eve and then Adam into disobeying God’s warning not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course we all know the story. Adam and Eve fall for the Serpent’s logic, thereby causing the Fall of Man.

Bad Beginnings? 

Original Sin is the pet concept that emerges from that creation story. But that quick-take worldview ignores a key aspect of the tale. What we miss by taking the story literally is the Serpent’s methodology in tricking Adam and Eve. In a crafty use of the first brand of scripture known to Man, the Serpent engages Eve in legalistic use of God’s own words to undermine her trust in God. Here is how the ploy works:

Christianity is not entirely clear on what the "serpent" really is, or looks like. So how can we take such a creation story literally?

Christianity is not entirely clear on what the “serpent” really is, or looks like. So how can we take such a creation story literally?

The Serpent’s Deception
3but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.'” 4The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! 5“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”…

How very similar is this exchange to the passage in Matthew 15 in which Jesus engages the Pharisees over the issue of turning the Word of God into a legalistic trap:

1Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

The comparison between literalism and legalism is given a direct connection to the Serpent in the Book of Genesis in Matthew 23:33, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

It is a sad fact that today’s adherents to biblical literalism are playing the same game that Pharisees played with Jesus so long ago. Yet the pain and misdirection caused by today’s brand of scriptural literalism is just as potent as that depicted in Genesis with deception by the serpent, and just as power-mongering as the Pharisees of the New Testament.

And that is the point from my motivation to attend a school of theology emanates. I believe the most important thing in the world right now is to counter biblical literalism and all its awful consequences. Literal interpretation of the Bible is being used to persecute gays, to resist legitimate science, to argue against the theory of evolution and to undermine political and ethical justice on a broad spectrum of issues.

Reason and Reasons
It’s not about a mid-career change for me, or anything prosaic as that. It’s about finding ways to make the world a better place. Martin Luther changed the world by pointing out the very simple fact that we are saved first and foremost by grace. The new reformation should finish the job of removing all barriers from our acceptance of grace.

Yet we also need to define what it means to exist within and attend to the Kingdom of God. How we understand the nature of that “kingdom” is crucial to our stewardship of creation. The dangerously ironic consequence of a worldview founded on biblical literalism is the attitude that nature and all of creation is essentially a disposable tool of God, one that has no purpose other than our own somewhat greedy sustenance and no other significance than as a temporal stage between Creation and Armageddon.

Challenges

We can do better than old ships and sails of theology. And we should.

We can do better than old ships and sails of theology. And we should.

We need to challenge this fatalistic worldview at its very roots. That begins with the misinterpretation of Genesis as a literal document. Yet it also extends to our regard of scripture as a wholly inerrant document. It simply isn’t, that way. Any faith dependent on that premise is brittle, frail and sad, thus requiring a defensive posture to sustain.

The book of Romans 1:20 contains a telling point of scripture, one that reveals the idea of organic fundamentalism, the key understanding that nature itself, and our metaphorical understanding of it, holds keys to our comprehension of God and all that we read in scripture:

Romans20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made,  so that people are without excuse.

Nowhere in this passage, or any other in the Bible for that matter, does it say that we must take a literal approach to conceptions of God. In fact as demonstrated by Jesus himself, we are to do the opposite.

Recall that literalism and legalism produced the approach that one could earn the way into heaven through God works doled out by the church and vetted by leaders who earned earthly power through the system set up by the brand of Pharisees leading the Catholic church at the time.

Then along came Martin Luther, who saw through the giant ruse of literalism and legalism, and who launched a Reformation that transformed the faith, made it new again. We can view this passage in a fresh light in contradiction to the brand of literalism now vexing the world.

Nature and eternity are foundations of the Bible

There is more to the theological landscape than meets the eye. Creativity, not just creation, is part of scripture. Click for larger view.

Ephesians 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works,  so that no one can boast.

For there are many who “boast” that their literalistic view of the bible constitutes the “works” of real Christianity. Yet we also know that God’s invisible qualities are visible in Nature, and through the Word, and that there is no excuse for ignoring these greater, most important facets of faith realized.

And that is why the pursuit of truth is so important to me, and why sitting in the office of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago felt so very good, and so very real. Because each Reformation has to start somewhere. We all play a part in the heart of faith.

Pope Francis and the Brand New Day

By Christopher Cudworth

vatican1381780031

Pope Francis seems to be saying to the world, “Hold on a moment. I’ve got something to say…”

With the advent of a new Pope, all of Catholicdom held its breath a few months ago. Now that Pope Francis is taking names and kicking ass on practical and theological issues, even people outside the Catholic faith are breathing a sigh of relief that it’s not just business as usual in the biggest Christian organization on earth.

Of course Catholicism makes some legitimate claims to the origins and sustenance of Christianity as a whole. The whole Roman Catholic history serves as one big pipeline back to the days when early Christians first struggled for survival in the face of political oppression, then duked it out over what the faith should really mean and finally got the stamp of approval from Constantine and a success line of rulers and kings all the way through to the modern age.

Cocky Catholics? 

But along the way, Catholicism got a little cocky and a little arch in its practices. Catholics persecuted a fair share of people over the ages, and got a few things wrong about the cosmos too. Remember Copernicus and Galileo? Neither were accepted as practical authorities on cosmological matters.

A few Crusades and an Inquisition or two later, Catholicism grew into a faith that tolerated little dissent. It took one of their own priests, Martin Luther, to bust open the bible and bring back the true meaning of faith through grace to the Christian world.

Open and shut cases

The gates of Catholicism have still slammed shut on some issues. Recent popes did little to get the rampant issue of priestly abuse of children under control.

Then along comes Pope Francis. What a surprise. He started off with an equivocal but intriguing statement about homosexuality (“Who am I to judge?) and proceeded to demand that his own hierarchy live the faith by dumping a higher-up in the faith for living high on the Christian hog.

The general message of Pope Francis has been something Jesus might have said. “Don’t be like the Pharisees.”

In other words, Pope Francis is calling all Catholics to consider what their faith is really all about. Caring for the poor. Looking out for the disadvantaged.

Hell, Pope Francis even has the guts to throw a gut-check to the primary religion in America, which is capitalism.

Here’s what he said:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

Slapdowns

It is somewhat stunning as well to see the term “survival of the fittest” daringly inserted into a religious argument for social justice. Do you get what that means? Pope Francis essentially acknowledges the practical truth of evolution with such a statement. In that regard his slap at the hindquarters of capitalism is also a slap in the face to evangelicals who can’t come to grips with the science that drives our understanding of the world.

The Pope just yanked the respective chains of economic and religious zealots. Do you get what’s going on here.

The time has come for a new Reformation. The time has come to question all the dogma and complacency driving our current religious dialogue. The Pope is using a mixed martial arts approach to theological discourse to challenge those who think they can get away with the same stupid shit they’ve been pulling for the last 30 years.

His real statement is this: “Your time is up. You’ve had your say. The world is ready for a brand new day. Get out of the way.”

Hurrah for Pope Francis. He may not be perfect, and he would be the first it seems to admit that. But he may be what Catholicism needs, and by proxy the rest of the world might take notice.

 

The real dangers of clearcut ideology

Clearcut ideas aren’t always the prettiest in reality

Back when our family had plentiful opportunities to camp in Wisconsin and other woodsy sites across North America, we often traveled on day trips to visit other parks and go on adventures in places like Pictured Rocks National Seashore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It is always a pleasure when vacationing to enjoy the view of the woods as you whiz past on some state highway cutting deep through the forests.

Throughout the country there are designations for different types of state and government-owned forests. There are national and state forests. National and State parks. Bureau of Land Management property. All these different entities affect how those properties are managed, how much wood or other resources can be extracted (especially, these days, oil and natural gas) and in what manner.

In areas where tourism counts, keeping up appearances when it comes to the north woods is vitally important. Yet in areas where the timber industry, for example, is a key component of economic health, it is considered equally important to grant harvesting access to private firms that harvest wood of various types. Pine and hardwood are still valuable commodities in America. Competition for rights to harvest wood from public and private landowners can be quite keen. Building relationships and managing the extraction process well are also key elements of successful forest management. It is a convoluted game involving billions of dollars.

Balancing the economic and timber harvest interests of a region with tourism and outdoor recreation can be tricky. People on vacation are not exactly fond of seeing clearcut land as they drive from place to place. There are few more ugly sites than a forest that has been chopped down. Stumps and torn up brambles present a scene of apocalyptic chaos. It can be downright disturbing when you’re driving through thick pine forests mile after mile to suddenly be confronted with thousands of acres of torn-up forest and soil.

So they sometimes don’t let you see it. Timber companies adopted a practice of protecting the public from such sights by leaving a thick line of trees standing alongside the road. That tree line provided a visual buffer against the carnage of the clearcut land behind the roadside trees.

The first time one realizes the pathetic purpose of this ruse, there is a feeling of real betrayal. When you imagine you’re passing through serene forests and then get a glimpse behind the scenes where the roadside woods thin out and you can see through to the hell and waste beyond, it’s like pulling back the veil on a very bad dream.

Wandering a clearcut on foot gives a better view of what the extraction process is all about. For all the glorification of timber haulers and woodsmen on reality TV these days, it really comes down to one thing: chopping down trees any way you can. The woods are left to recover any way they can.

Yes, there are methods and techniques in place, and standards to be met. But let’s not fool ourselves. Once you chop down a forest, it really is gone. The whole ecosystem disappears, sometimes overnight. Along with it goes the naive dream that the forest was meant to exist for any reason other than providing profit to the people who extract those resources and leave little behind.

Yes, the companies that take down trees also plant new trees. Yet many times these trees essentially comprise a monoculture that grows at the same general rate, dominating the landscape with a consistent look and feel. Much of America’s north woods and especially its “National Forests” have this look and feel. A diverse woodland of mixed hardwoods and pines is considered much more difficult to manage and harvest than a simple plantation of trees where you can literally drive along the rows and level the trees when they reach a desired height.

Contrast that with the deep ecology of an old-growth forest with its nobnobbed layers of downed and rotting trees, mosses and native plants, wildlife and micro-climates, and the two just don’t compare. That’s a good thing. We need to protect it. That old growth forest symbolizes the deep roots of America values.

The monoculture forests we tend to grow in their place symbolize the shallower approach to maintaining our heritage and values. The diversity of a forest is its life. Impatience with that diversity is a sign of a worldview that cares not whether the forest exists for any purpose other than extraction of its wood products. The fact that America’s national forests often stand only for that purpose is disturbing at its core, for it represents the commodification of life. It is an ironic fact that it seems the very people who proudly brand themselves “Pro-Life” seem determined to ignore that fact that the raw commodification of life is just as dangerous. It is apparent their worldview focused on the merits of human endeavor became disconnected from a respect for creation and life itself. The cause of this disconnect may be casual or willful selfishness, or an ignorant, shallow interpretation of the texts that inform their worldview. Hurdling over the issue by claiming a right to dominion over the earth ignores an important truth: that with dominion comes responsibility, and strictly commodifying the creation you were entrusted to protect is the most cynical abuse of that trust imaginable.

It is that strict commodification of nature that made timber interests leave buffers along the roads so that tourists would not get peeved or disillusioned by the sight of the radical clearcuts beyond. It is a desperate illusion, of course, and indicative of a cynical approach to social morality that says people won’t object to what they cannot see. The sad thing about not being able to see the clearcut former forest for the trees is that it symbolizes so much of what goes on in the American in other ways.

Our society puts up with all sorts of obscured commodification, including companies hiding dangerous truths about the chemicals and food substances we eat, as well as products that cause cancer and obesity and mental illness. We have politicians hiding facts about these practices while conducting government for their own cynical economic and political gain. This is far worse than the fox guarding the henhouse. This is a clearcut case of wholesale corruption in the political and civic business of America.

And it all starts with cynicism, the belief that “your ideas” are more important than the welfare of society as a whole. Others might call this fascism as well. For clearcut ideology, the “winner take all” brand of politics, bears all the signs of propagandist practices of the past. America fought fascism on a grand scale in World War II, yet it seems unable to recognize or control its own fascist tendencies back home.

As one illustration of American fascism at work, the term “greenwashing” was invented to describe the behaviors of companies that concoct environmentally friendly names to market products, services or ideas that are in actuality far from Green in nature. That line of trees along the roads designed to obscure the ugliness of forest clearcuts is a form of greenwashing. But so are “Astroturfed” organizations created to serve the interests of companies whose business practices actually harm the environment in many proven ways. The truth about the media age is that if you are astute enough to push your messaging out in palatable ways, and are aggressive about deliveyr of that message, you really can convince people you are acting in their own best interests even if it is literally killing them and their neighbors.

Ultimately all forms of ideological disguise is a form of greenwashing, and also fits in the fascism spectrum as well. It happens all the time in politics, religion, economics and entertainment. The sad truth is that it is often the most harmful forms of ideology that go to the greatest lengths to obscure their real purposes. We see it in politics when candidates make their stated goals sound appealing to the very people those policies would harm the most. By the time the truth comes out after the election, those candidates are elected officials with the power and authority to impose clearcut actions in their respective territories of jurisdiction.

It happens with Senators, Congressman, Presidents and Judiciary nominees. They can say whatever they want to get elected or be appointed, but once in office their clearcut nature comes out. Some even cut down the trees along their ideological roads and contend, “You knew what you were getting when you put me here. Now deal with it.” As a result we now have laws in place that grant personhood to corporations, the ultimate commodification of individual citizenship in America.

Still, America loves to foment its illusions of Yankee exceptionalism. We love to pretend that we live in the greatest nation on earth because from all appearances that we can see, that is true. So we drive along our country roads with green trees growing on either side and love to think those trees (there they are!) along the road symbolize God and Country and that all is right in America.

But too many people never take the time to consider the deadly illusion created by that thin band of trees, which were specifically left there to deceive the public, while behind that faux forest, grand schemes of extortion and extraction are being executed. The Great Recession of 2008 was an opportunity to witness the clearcutting taking place behind the barrier of social and economic trees, as Wall Street, mortgage schemes, derivatives and deregulation each got busy chopping down a sector of our economy. We almost got clearcut right down to a Depression.

Real Americans paid for the costs of that clearcutting. But here’s the sick part. We not only paid to have our woods chopped down, but let the people who chopped them down sell off the wood for profit, keep that money for themselves and award themselves bonuses for doing such a good job of clearcutting the economy. No one went to jail for this wave of criminality. Instead Americans were told we’d have to consider austerity as a means to regrow the forest of our economy. Go out there and plant a tree, we were told. And good luck. Hope it grows.

Maybe it’s fans of reality TV shows like American Loggers, that buy the myth that cutting down trees, both literal and metaphorical, is the path America needs to take to prosper and regain its moral high ground. So along comes a fellow with a square jaw and an outdoorsy look who says seemingly nice yet vacuous things about trees being the right height in Michigan. And people somehow buy his message. Yet he’s spouting the same clearcut ideology that wiped out the American economic forest the first time. He and his woodchopper friends are telling us again that chopping down the trees is necessary to save the forest.

Never mind that the vision of that promise remains obscured to this moment. The trees along the road are still very much standing. We can’t see or hear any details about what that clearcut ideology really means when it comes to cutting budgets, cutting debt, cutting programs, cutting off social programs, cutting and cutting and cutting until there’s nothing left to cut.

That’s a very clearcut way of doing things, to be sure. But what will we have left? Surely not the America we love, or will recognize. At least not behind the trees along the roadside of life.

Have we had enough of Superhero Comicbook Jesus?

Personally, I’m sick of Superhero Comic Jesus.

Perhaps you’re sick of him too. The Jesus who is depicted as a comic superhero destined to come rolling back to earth when heaven supposedly sucks up the good people and leaves the bad people behind. Because it seems that same sort of Jesus also serves as shepard for the bigoted, moneygrubbing, biblical literalists who think their brand of faith is question-proof. It’s a very vengeful cycle, you see; setting up victims and knocking them down. Arguing theology with that crowd is like arguing who is the stronger superhero, Spiderman or Superman, Batman or the Avengers? It isn’t really theology we’re talking about, you see, but a new sort of myth-making that tries to put Jesus on par with our post-Modern theories of what the human race needs to survive.

Here are the plain facts––minus the comic book dress-up clothes.

When you read the Bible with any sort of rational consideration, the Superhero Comicbook Jesus does not appear to exist. Yet that Jesus appears to reign over so much of America. He is the type of superhero that ardent Comicbook believers want taught in our public schools. The Superhero Comicbook Jesus can’t be defeated by evolution or even global warming, because those things are temporal and earthly, and everyone with any sense knows that even we human beings are more superhero than that! We’re Specially Created, the Favorites of God! We have no earthly connection to apes or insects or genetic histories, and don’t try to tell us that we do! Noah is our only real ancestor, if you take the Bible at its word. Well, we can add in Adam too, but only if you want to align yourself with a superhero prone to the fatal flaw of eating Forbidden Fruit. That was Kryptonite for Adam and Eve, you know.

Then along comes Superhero Comicbook Jesus. To rescue us average human superheroes from all our fatal flaws! Hooray! He’s the Jesus we all know and trust!

Boy, I’m sick and tired of that Jesus. And perhaps you getting a little of sick of Superhero Comicbook Jesus too.

Jesus the Comicbook Superhero just seems so, unrelatable. It’s a little hard to imagine ourselves performing miracles anything like the Superhero Comicbook Jesus, feeding the 5000 and all. So many of us don’t really try to be miraculous in any way. We leave the miracles to others, even though God himself asks us to give of ourselves in ways that really are miraculous. That is, giving ourselves away that we might be a blessing to others. Forgiving our enemies. Sacrificing wealth for spiritual virtue. And yes, even supporting social policy that might help others, controversial though it might be. Birth control. Social welfare. Racial and social tolerance. All these things are supported when you read the Bible in its fullness through tangible interpretation in which parables and metaphors are understood to help us understand the whole truth of scripture, not just its Sunday School basics. That is how Jesus taught, and that is how he admonished his own disciples to understand his teachings. Otherwise he called them stupid and without understanding. Nothing superhero about that. Just the basic facts.

Instead many people gravitate to a faith tradition that relies on a Superhero version of Jesus to convince people that the Bible is infallible, inerrant and literal in every sense. That is an armor of perception for fans of the Superhero Comicbook Jesus. The triune claims of infallibility, inerrancy and literalistic interpretation stand against any question of truth or authority. But they are a brittle armor.

The real Jesus was the first to question authority and point out the fallibility of radically conservative interpretation of scripture, especially the dangers and misappropriations of literalist and legalistic application of scripture truth to daily life. He called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” for hiding behind the rock of radically conservative views.

But to the point: the Bible clearly predicts the rise of the Superhero Comicbook Jesus. It even tells why.

In the following bible text ascribed to St. Paul in 2 Timothy: 4 we find the master letter-writer doing a marvelous job of summing up the dangers of turning Jesus into a Comicbook Superhero around which great urban myths can be built. Paul warns that faith can easily be waylaid to doctrine. These would include pursuit of personal wealth in the name of Christ, speculation about the End Times and leveraging of faith for political power.

That is exactly what’s happening in leading evangelical communities today. But Paul warned us:

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

Here we find Paul challenging believers to rebuke those who turn faith into law, and thus a brutal, literalistic caricature of itself. Paul encourages people of true Christian faith to patiently and persistently fight back against this brand of legalism that dominated even early believers.

Paul, while no perfect human being, suffered at the hands of those within the very own faith tradition he helped to start, and also suffered the pain of the secular world around him that distrusted his ministry because it stood against the politics of the day.

Paul was of course a contradictory character, and this inner conflict sometimes resulted in philosophical rifts in the service of God. In Titus 2:9-10 we find Paul advising slaves to “be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

Then in Titus 2: 11, Paul states: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”

Is the future promise of salvation enough to justify human slavery here on earth? Paul seems in error on this one, but his judgment was produced in context of societal norms of his day. We might expect better from the Word of God, but of course some might rationalize these conflicts by insisting that slavery is an apt symbol for holy servitude. But tell that to people in bondage or slavery today. Are we to ignore their plight? Not in the name of God, we’re not. There are other examples in the bible where human understanding of social equality (women’s rights) or biology (sexual diversity and orientation) fall short in standards of behavior and scientific knowledge that evolved in 2000 years. We also know that the earth is neither flat or the center of the universe, yet somehow the human race has managed to overcome these viewpoints that were once promoted through anachronistic interpretations of scripture. But we do not depend on them today, and we are the better for it.

Paul’s abiding tolerance toward slavery is unfortunately a brand of Superhero theology, in which the misfortunes of others are somehow judged to be the product of inferior makeup, intellect or approval by God. But that attitude essentially imbues the more fortunate with a brand of “superpowers.” Hence our societal worshipping of the very rich. They can seem like Superheroes to those who aren’t rolling the dough.

Superhero mythology also disconnects faith from the temporal reality that people of every race, gender and sexual orientation are to be seen as equal in the eyes of God. Just as no one deserves to be a slave, no one deserves to feel scorn or discrimination for the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or the fact that they were born transgender. Despite what some people insist, the Bible does not support this type of discrimination. Otherwise we are playing the role of gods ourselves, using the Bible as justification for our singular or collective prejudices. This Superhero Comicbook version of faith is both discriminatory and insidious, for it ascribes at some point a hierarchy to those who claim to be destined to own and run the very faith to which all people are called.

Timothy 4 warns us that prejudice and runaway desires for power and authority are bound to come along. It is thus our duty as Christians to challenge and rebuke the Superhero psychology of literalistic faith, through which evangelists claim the very authority of God, to dispense or withhold at will, inject in politics or education, and to judge those it deems worthy of discrimination, without question or trial, nor rational appeal to human virtue.

The more humble, earthly relevant Jesus is not so much Superhero Comicbook character as genuine friend in time of need. He seeks the humble and protects the needy and powerless through the moral character and actions of those who abide by his Word. Our Friend in God Jesus cherishes the earth itself, for he taught through parables based on its rhythms and profundity, and is therefore never in contradiction with natural law or even the science upon which human beings build a celebrated and sustainable world. We also find the miraculous through science, inspiring us to both respect and explore the world in which we live, without fear or trepidation of discovering anything that God cannot explain, if we but allow scripture room for its metaphorical grace.

We don’t need a Jesus who flies around the sky shooting lightning bolts and threatening the damned. We need a Jesus who is by our side advising us on how to do good to others, who recognizes that we are intimately connected to the kingdoms of plants and animals, and who urges us to respect them as genuine products of an eternally evolving creation. We need a Jesus who urges us to restore and renew our world even as we extract and expand its resources for our use. Most of all we need a Jesus who is not vengeful or conflicted––as so many Superheroes seem to be––but who guides us to attitudes of humility, forgiveness and encouragement of these same qualities in others so that we can build a more civil society. Peace on earth. Goodwill to all people.

That is a Jesus who has escaped the comic book fantasies of those who propagate their own literalistic myths to satisfy millions of ears itching for news of power and authority, who would also gladly vote or give money to those who promise shares of that same power and authority if elected as earthly Superheroes with all the rewards and attention it accords.

But that’s not how God calls us to love and reflection of His image.

In the end, even Paul seems to have redeemed himself on the issue of slavery. In the tiny book (letter) of Philemon he pleas to a slave owner on behalf of Onesimus, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good––no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Those are the words not of a Superhero Comicbook character, but of one loving human being to another. We could use a lot more of the latter than the former to make the world a better place.

The Gift and Responsibility of Teaching

Nature and eternity are foundations of the Bible

Human perspectives on nature are defined principally through science and religion.

Vacation Bible School is a tradition of Christian churches across America. The week dedicated to bringing youth to church for fellowship, learning and fun is a rite of summer. Organizers put hundreds of hours into implementing curriculum material, which has become its own industry, issued with high-tech video productions now providing thematic support to vacation bible schools.

Yet the basic act of teaching and interacting with children has not changed in thousands of years. Anyone who has participated in teaching Sunday School or Vacation Bible School knows this. For thousands of teachers the responsibility of helping children learn about faith is genuine, and also a gift.

For to teach is to learn. There is no question about that. Reviewing scriptural lessons to convey the meaning to children leads one into a place of innocent wonder at the very heart of God’s word. No matter how strong your own faith may be, or how much doubt you might personally experience through a faith journey, the moment you are called to participate in teaching about God is a humbling and enlightening enterprise.

It is an enterprise, teaching about God. Or teaching about anything for that matter. The growing notion that teachers in the secular school system (and that is as it should be…) are somehow overpaid is absurd and damaging to our country. No teacher is overpaid. Even bad teachers are part of the overall mission of helping people learn, so let us help them improve or find a different role. Good teachers are a critical component of civil society. Great teachers are a treasure. There are many of them. The fact that our country is disabusing itself of the value of education is the primary sign that we are a nation with challenges at the heart of our central values. Those are liberty, freedom, justice, equality and the right to learn.

It is not the teaching of Christian values in our public schools that will save our country. Our forefathers wisely separated church from state in the Constitutional call for freedom of (and from) religion. The public school tradition reflects and respects that separation. In fact it is the invasion of highly infectious religious thought that is dumbing down America’s schools, killing respect for real science and teaching of evolution, censoring great and compelling literature in some cases, and thwarting the encouragement of intellectualism all the way up to higher education, where American initiative is formed and forged into productivity. All this is being done under the guise of protecting so-called “conservative values.” What we are experiencing is something else entirely, a regression in civic and social liberty as a result of regressive (and aggressive) attitudes now defining public discourse. To put it simply, we are going backwards against the stream of liberal thought that invented and defined progress in America. Conservative religion is partly responsible for these reverses in progress. It has been used over the years to support slavery, deny rights to women, defend racism and prevent teaching of well-proven science in public schools. Now it has infected politics like a virus as well, all while waving the flag and claiming to represent America itself. Its time we taught our youth something entirely different through our churches. It’s time to promote the liberal heart of Jesus Christ and show that he was never threatened by science or any other type of truly academic enterprise. The very notion is absurd. Jesus was a great teacher. But let’s start following His example by putting faith where it belongs.

The teaching of faith, especially in traditions like Vacation Bible School, is where learning about God belongs. Not in public schools.

Teachers of faith can then teach with conviction. We can hope they also teach with wisdom. It is time for churches everywhere to examine and challenge each other to do just that. For too long Christian thought has been left to wallow in a pit of non-contention. Where is the vigorous debate between churches over what scripture really means? Are we afraid of each other in Christ? Do we leave it to chance that a few blowhards have it right, and that their bloviations have earned them the right to dominate the image and message of Christian thought in society?

That’s wrong. It certainly isn’t the tradition given to us by Jesus Christ, who publicly challenged teachers of the law the look at faith in God in a clear and different light. His testimony ripped through traditions wielded like a fortress against bible-era society. Jesus had no patience for the “brood of vipers” dominating others with threats of punishment and damnation, implemented through extortion and manipulation. Neither should we put up with these brands of supposed faith today.

To say that we are protecting our children from evil when fighting these forces of untruth is the truth, in all instances. The Bible is a living, breathing document. Its stories are built on tremendously powerful metaphors that are still valid today. When these living metaphors are turned into dogmatic, stiff notions of literal interpretation they not only lose the life God imbued them with, they also poison the wells of faith at will.

So let us take a moment and consider what we are teaching our children, and why.

While walking with 30 kids and 8 adult assistants through the woods to talk about the meaning of light and how Jesus used the symbol of light in so many ways, it came to pass that one of the boys in the group raised his hand and asked a question. The context was a discussion of how light filters through the trees in the woods, and how the plumage of birds is highly adapted to the phenomenon of light, even to the point of ultraviolet ranges the human eye cannot see. It was explained that birds do not need to “think” about these things when moving about their daily lives. Nature has provided them with unconscious tools for protective coloration. This is a marvelous evidence of God’s powerful creation. And the boy raised his hand and said, “So we’re talking about evolution, right?”

Yes, we are, I wanted to say. But a part of me held back because even in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, to which our family transferred from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church after 25 years of membership, there are families that hold the literal creation story dear. Who still teach that the earth is just 6,000 to 10,000 years old. Who insist that ‘created kinds’ are original and unchanged in those years of existence.

I do not believe any of that. In fact last night after teaching Vacation Bible School there was a NOVA production on the PBS station documenting the progression of telescopes, invented by none other than Galileo, who was deemed an enemy of the Roman Catholic church for telling the truth in showing that the earth was not at the center of the universe. In fact we’ve now learned the earth is not at the center of anything. There is no center, except that which we conceive. We are so small and insignificant in the dimensions of space that we hardly matter.

Yet that is why God is so important to our conception of ourselves. To be forcefully alone in the cosmic truth of space, time and eternity is too much for the human mind to bear. But God is there. We do see evidence of metaphysical beauty in the design of the universe. Scientists do not need that notion to conduct their trade, nor should they be assigned to accommodate theology in exploring the tenets of cosmology. We must strengthen our faith on the backs of what they find, not the other way around. The Bible can help us do that, you know. Its metaphorical elasticity is not some grand mistake. Forcing it into a position of an anchor of resistance is no way to make it relevant or help us move forward in faith in the future. Great scientists also know this. A great many may also dismiss it. That is not their problem, or ours. Truth is real no matter where we find it. Reconciling great truths in faith is the purest mission of them all.

We have Jesus, the great teacher who used organic metaphors to teach spiritual concepts as our leader and our guide as human knowledge expands. So why should we be afraid? That is the heart of literalistic faith: fear that faith will be proven wrong somehow.

But we have no fear. We should not be fearful in teaching our youth the strength of faith or the brilliance of science. They go together. Great scientists from Einstein to Darwin recognized these virtues. Admittedly all have struggled with the issue in one way or another. That struggle is how God designed the universe. It is there in the changing of species and in the development of the human mind and culture. It is random material processes at work and the patent reality of free will. What a glorious God we have that leaves us choice in the matter, to believe or not to believe. Our destinies are wrapped in that simple question, and that is the responsibility of teachers to convey every time we look into the eyes of a child.

They are not stupid creatures, children. They are us; eager and vital and curious and malleable. When we fill their minds with truth, reconciled and challenging, then they are truly alive. That is the gift and responsibility of teaching. Jesus knew that well.

Scheherazade in the land of the evil riddle: Combatting patriarchal authority

Tales of 1001 Arabian nightsScheherazade and the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights is a story of a young queen betrothed to a bloodthirsty king, the Sultan Schahriar, who has killed all his previous wives for their supposed faithlessness. To save herself, Scheherazade invents stories so compelling the murderous Sultan is tricked into sparing her life. In resisting the murderous Sultan, Scheherazade exemplifies the value of a resolute spirit in dealing with tyranny. She also provides an example of feminine resourcefulness in the face of patriarchal authority. Her determination in the face of adversity encourages us to consider our own sense of purpose in a sometimes cruel and contrary world. The tales she uses to dissuade the Sultan inspire us to consider creativity as a solution to our own problems.

Symbolic stories such as Scheherazade help us explore concepts of good and evil without actually having to put ourselves at risk. One of the unique aspects of being human is the ability to learn lessons from rhetorical examples. That is the value of literature, the arts, our history, and religions. But if by choice we limit the meaning of stories to a literal interpretation of the events they describe, their significance may be diminished. Without tools of metaphor, the story of Scheherazade conveys little more than a woman affecting a change of heart in a stubborn man. What lessons can be drawn from such dry fare? Justice and inspiration deserve better role models.

Beyond the literal viewpoint, a host of worthwhile questions await: Do we want to be like the Sultan–full of wrath, suspicion and dogmatic anger? Or should we strive to be more like Scheherazade who is a brave and creative soul in refusing to submit to injustice. In the end, Scheherazade saves her own life even as she saves the Sultan from himself. Eventually she is able to conquer both their fears.

And if the idea of conquering fear and saving souls sounds familiar, perhaps we should consider the notion that universal truths come to us from many sources. The story of Scheherazade and the “Tales of 1001 Arabians Nights” may not be found in the Bible, but we can still learn valuable lessons about human nature from its rhetorical example.

Certainly no one source of knowledge or tradition, even the Bible, holds all the answers. It may be difficult for some people to imagine, but the kingdom of God might actually benefit from a belief system that does not require denial of key forms of practical knowledge to sustain the faith. One could argue that people who develop their faith in concert with reason have the most faith of all.  They have the courage to face down questions about life along with fears about the world and still choose to seek a spiritual relationship with God.

Like a snake underwater: How the conservative alliance has led to flawed public policy

Conservative policies are often not what they seem

Snake Under Water

The goals of political conservatism are all noble ideals; keeping the powers of government in check, protecting citizens from excessive taxation, maintaining moral certitude as a principle of government, and encouraging free trade and commerce.  And at a values level, conservatism prides itself on support of tradition, liberty and love of God and country.

Despite its reputation as a staid element of society, conservatism has at times been quite progressive in pursuing its goals, especially as it set about using media outlets to communicate what it brands conservative ideals from the 1980s to the present. Conservatism’s doctrinal approach to seeking power, influencing culture and leading government has attracted many followers thanks to the aggressively proactive approach.

If you are looking for a single factor in the success of conservatism with the American public, convictions are the political capital of conservatism. Any discussion of politics, social policy or human welfare must contain a healthy dose of “convictions” to be taken seriously by the alliance of political, fiscal, social and religious conservatives.

People with strong convictions tend to love clarity. But the desire for absolute moral clarity among conservatives can lead to intolerance for other viewpoints and even cultural prejudice. Ironically, this may be one of the principle points on which conservatism runs afoul of the true message of the Bible. It is difficult for people to have compassion and tolerance for others if they are blinded by a discriminatory fixation on the competing interests of material, political and personal priorities. The apparently missing component of doctrinal conservatism as it relates to Christian beliefs is compassion.

There have been attempts by the conservative alliance to manufacture empathy for its political cause through invention of terms such as “compassionate conservatism.” But there is little room for compassion in a political movement bent on doctrinal dominance. The fact that the term “compassionate conservatism” even needed to be invented is evidence of the moral contradiction—one might even call it hypocrisy—at the heart of the conservative alliance of fiscal, social, political and religious conservatives.

By definition, hypocrisy means, “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not.” and, more specifically; “the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.” Hypocrisy is a strong accusation to make toward any belief system, but the alliance of fiscal, social, political and religious conservatives fits the description in at least one critical sense. Conservatism as a social movement still struggles in its ability to reconcile the market-driven demands of its fiscally conservative constituents with the call to charity and compassion inherent to religious faith and the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ. Specious terms such as “trickle-down economics” celebrate the supposed beneficence of the free market. But truly they only show how cynical some elements of the conservative alliance can be toward those in need. If the most that conservatives can manage to share is the grudging spoils of the rich, then greed remains in control and the collective ideology of conservatism stands in opposition to the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ.

Real contradictions enter the picture when conservatism seeks to justify the doctrine of free market conservatism with the liberal agenda of Jesus Christ. In Mark 10:12, we find the story of a rich young man who wants to know what he can do to reach the kingdom of heaven:

“As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered.  “No one is good––except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

“At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Granted, this passage may be steeped in hyperbole. But this and a good number of other passages (John 2:12-17, Luke 12:22-34, Luke 12:16-23, Matthew 27:3) leave little doubt that pursuit of personal wealth and social advantage are not the top priorities of Jesus Christ.  As Mark 10 suggests, a ministry in the name of Jesus calls for a selfless disregard for wealth as opposed to the “winner-take-all” focus of unbridled capitalism.

If the Bible is to be trusted as a tool for social justice and democracy, then those who borrow its authority must keep in mind the liberal standard at its core. That predicates treating people as equal souls, avoiding discrimination and exploitation and promoting the virtue of charity through actions as well as words. Jesus emphatically calls us to reach out to others with resources that we might normally keep for ourselves. The liberal agenda of Jesus Christ always puts the needs of others first. Otherwise its message is captive to motives that have little to do with the ways of God.

Some Christians, frustrated by their inability to promulgate their version of faith in the free market of ideas have decided that politics may be the means to force society to accept their doctrine. The problem with this approach is that a contradictory theology never leads to good public policy,and that is at least one of the reasons by the United States Constitution guarantees freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion.

The conservative alliance has led to flawed public policy because of the contradictions and hypocrisies at the heart of its own doctrine.

A divided Republican Party tests the conservative faithful

American Bald Eagle

America's symbol seems to be looking for direction

It has become evident that the race for the Republican nominee for President of the United States is completely different from any campaign in history.

Some Republicans have been scratching their heads wondering how the race produced four such disparate candidates. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul appear to have very little in common with each other. And you would think that would not be the case with a political party where doctrinal lockstep has been the hallmark of the ruling class for so many years.

You can analyze the cause of the shakeup all you want. The Tea Party. The collapse of the Bush presidency. On and on goes the analysis as to why Republicans are fighting among themselves. But there’s really a simple reason why Republicans have four such strange candidates to choose from: Sooner or later, it had to be this way.

The Republican platform in the last 30 years has relied on four doctrinal pillars that have had to work together to deliver Republican candidates to power. And for a long time, it worked. But now those four doctrines are set apart in stark outline.

Fiscal conservatives are the branch of the party that focuses on monetary policy and prefers to let economic markets determine distribution of wealth. “Less regulation” is their call to action.

Political conservatives contend that the freedoms of democracy (especially as originally outlined in the Constitution) are sufficient to provide opportunity for every citizen to succeed. “Less government” is their mantra.

Social conservatives promote the value of traditional institutions and cultural laws as a foundation for government and society. “Less liberalism” is their war cry.

Religious conservatives bring God, faith and moral values to the cultural and political table. Hewing most closely to fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, their political action plan is “Less God means a weaker country.”

So, do you know which candidates fall into which conservative category by now?

Romney is the most obvious. His background as a venture capitalist is how he became fabulously wealthy. And his statement on the campaign trail that “corporations are people, my friend,” illustrates his worldview. Definitely playing the role of the fiscal conservative.

Next up is political conservative Ron Paul, who would prefer that government be shrunk down to almost nothing. The man with the Libertarian bent occupies a political conservative space so far to the right no one dares to reach out and touch him, for fear of being sucked into an invisible vortex.

Newt Gingrich should be functioning as a political conservative. As the key proponent of the Contract For America in the 1990s he led the Republican charge to distill politics down to a laundry list. With its politically fundamentalist bent, that tactic appealed to political conservatives at the time. But as Gingrich succumbed to his own hubris and drew breach of ethics charges that seemed to have destroyed his reputation as a political conservative, he was forced to abandon that strategy for a political future and came back through a different channel, and he chose that of a social conservative. But first Gingrich had some baggage to unload, so he conveniently joined the Catholic Church, that portal of confessional virtue, and briefly surged as a frontrunner leading up to the Florida primary where social conservatism is so highly valued. But playing the social conservative has been a strange and difficult role for Gingrich, and he has ultimately failed, in part because he walks sideways and talks out of the corner of his mouth about everything, at least figuratively. In  other words, he ultimately wasn’t believable as a straight-talking social conservative. But it was the only card he had to play.

That’s because Rick Santorum had locked up the position of religious conservative well before the campaign even began. Santorum’s views on virtually every subject are so heavily tinged with a conservative brand of Catholicism that many Republican voters early in the race shied away from such a marginal candidate. His recent rise in popularity is a sign of conservative desperation. The label “authentic” is being applied with some pride to Santorum, but what they really mean is “suitably extreme,” and we’ll get to what that means in a minute.

Because you see the electoral process for Republicans worked like a centrifuge this time around. The tightly spinning centrifuge of debates, caucuses and media exposure have slung the substance of Republicanism hard against the walls of the conservatism. And this time around the ideology produced four completely separate candidates, each of them pushed to the extreme limits of the ideology as a means to look convincingly clear about their respective subjects. In fact it has been the extreme failure of Republican policies under Bush that put so much centrifugal force to play upon conservatives in general. Economic policy: Costly Fail. Political and foreign policy: Damaging fail. Social and education policy: F+. Religious policy: Just plain creepy and hypocritical. Republicans tried everything they believed would work in America and got four “F’s” for the effort. So the pressure was on, especially now that President Barack Obama’s policy’s have actually had time to correct some of the mistakes made by conservative legislators the last decade. Obama rescued the automotive industry. Slowly stimulated the economy and didn’t overheat it. Provided intelligent support in foreign policy and military action that led to the death of Osama bin Laden and the fall of several dictators. These actions have got Republican heads spinning. And now the economy is bouncing back as well.

All this centrifugal force has left the formerly unified party to wonder aloud, “What happened?”

The fact is, reality happened. Conservatism as a social movement is, after all, a deeply hypocritical and confused mess. In fact, if you look close enough, it is possible to argue that the ideal we know as conservatism does functionally exist at all.

We’ve seen the effects of literalistic capitalism in America. The less we regulate the more things blow up in our faces. Like a bad chemistry experiment gone awry, the economy definitely needs a set of processes and ground rules and regulation performs that function. So conservatism likes to talk ideologically about the power of the free market to govern itself, but that is an exceptionally Darwinist notion that is not at all acceptable for civil society.

The claim of political conservatives that “less government is always better” is hypocritical by definition. If you don’t believe in the power of government to do good, why run for office?

Social conservatives simply fail to account for the fact that the world is not only changing all the time, but it has to change. Even if something was good in the past, the environment in which it functions is altering daily through technology, science, social progress and globalization. But if social conservatives had their way we would still have slavery, women would not have the right to vote and Jim Crow laws would still exist. Prohibition would still be in force. The list goes on and on. Anachronism is not a force for social good.

The archest forms of religious conservatives want to impose theocracy on America, and the Constitution defies that. Plus the belief system of fundamentalist Christians ignores and distorts the true meaning of the bible in ways that are simply irreconcilable to the natural laws and science upon which modern society depends.

Jam all four of these dysfunctional worldviews together and you have a real mess on your hands. And that’s what we got under 8 years of the Bush II presidency. A near total collapse of our economy, the 9/11 tragedy, illegal wars, torture and flaunting of Constitutional laws like never before, and Bush claimed his actions were the will of God somehow.

The dysfunctions of conservatism as a conglomerate doctrine complicate matters by trying to reconcile ideologies that stand for different truths. These are meant to balance each other out, but instead conservatism tries to pretend the differences don’t exist.

For example, if one truly believes in the literalistic version of market capitalism, then sharing your wealth as Jesus recommends in the bible is a ridiculous and socialistic notion. But in fact the Bible shows Jesus frequently requiring the wealthy give away their riches if they hope to gain entrance into heaven. Recall the parable of the camel going through the eye of the needle?

So based on dichotomies such as these, it was inevitable that the conservative wad of ideology would someday blow apart. We should be surprised it didn’t happen sooner. But people desperate for political power will cling together under the most egregious of banners, and conservatism has served that purpose for many people too many years.

Now we have Romney, Paul, Gingrich and Santorum standing before us like they don’t even want to be in the same room together. They argue and claw at each other furiously, proving forever that the four pillars of conservatism really have little to do with each other. Not if you look closely enough, and we’re getting that chance now. Real Republicans, the kind that understand the art and benefit of political compromise, want to puke. But one of these candidates will either get the nomination or the Republicans will arrive at an ugly conclusion too late and throw the whole lot out in favor of a brokered nominee. We can only hope it is not Jeb Bush.

But it’s quite obvious the Republicans prefer a messy wad of a candidate to the clearly defined truths that divide their party. Republicans have been so busy dismissing the various faults of their highly flawed candidates… even the strident bellows of Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly and Fox News are almost squeezed out with the effort. But like always, they’ll find a way to justify whatever they believe is good for the country, even if it’s not. Based on what we can learn from this year’s electoral race, it is still power that matters to Republicans and conservatives in the end, not principles.

It all seems like art imitating life. The Burt Reynolds character in the original football flick “The Longest Yard” once said, “I’ve had my shit together a long time. It just doesn’t fit in one bucket.”

Truer words could not be said of this year’s Republican nomination race.

What the bible really says about the nature of human knowledge

Nature can help us look beyond our earthly perspectivesNaturalism and Organic fundamentalism

Some high profile politicians like to profile faith issues as stark “either/or” propositions. One of the most divisive arguments is over what it means for humans to have “dominion” over the earth. A literal translation of this term leads to a theology that says the earth and every living thing were put there for human use. Lashed together with conservative fiscal doctrine that resists environmental legislation and government regulation on business, this literal translation can be used to make the argument that environmentalism and science undercut key foundations of moral values.

But is it really that simple? And does the Bible really contend–and does Jesus really teach us–that the earth is a vessel to be poured out at our discretion, and that science stands in opposition to God?

We can examine this issue by looking at some  basic principles of human knowledge, both naturalistic and scriptural.

In modern culture, naturalism and human reason drive the pursuits of science, mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine and more. The worldview we conceive through naturalism has been developed through increase of human knowledge tied primarily to the sciences. This approach has simultaneously defined how we gather, employ and relate information.

Yet we need to recognize that naturalism is primarily an organized system of observation. As such, naturalism has always been part of human culture. It informs the workings of our lives just as knowledge about nature, planting, sowing and harvesting informed the lives of people during bible times. Granted, advances in technology and our corresponding ability to manipulate nature have been used to create tremendous change in the world. But the basic practice of observing the natural order of creation to form beliefs about our selves and the universe has changed little in the last 10,000 years. We remain a culture of human beings in which storytelling infused with natural images is a primary method of communicating universal truths.

Let us be specific: the knowledge conveyed in the Bible utilizes the same observational methods as naturalism to gather and pass on knowledge. The key difference between biblical and scientific knowledge is the manner in which naturalistic observations are used, and to what ends. For example, one of the ways in which naturalistic observations form the basis of literary truth in the bible is through metonymy, a literary device that describes “the use of a name for one thing for that of another, of which it is an attribute with which it is associated.” 

Metonymy is based on “organic metaphors,” natural symbols used to draw parallels between our worldly life and what we call the “kingdom of God.” For example, the “tree of life9” portrayed in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8) serves as a symbol for the nature of knowledge, cultures and descendants. At a literal level, we can observe a tree and know that it is an example of the constancy of nature. But we can also view a tree as the symbol for intellectual concepts such as genealogy and wisdom. Other examples of biblical metonymy include the mountain of God in Isaiah 2, symbolizing the higher moral ground of faith. The river of life in Revelation 22:1 similarly symbolizes the flow of life’s generations through time. In each case the literary device of metonymy illustrates a spiritual concept using the natural dimension, size or structure of something we can readily see or observe here on earth. The Bible plainly uses these material examples to teach us about spiritual concepts.

Of course one could argue that the modern tradition of using naturalism to define knowledge denies the supernatural by definition. But the corresponding argument is that the Bible cannot be understood without some foundation of naturalism to help us appreciate the symbols and meaning conveyed through the literary device of metonymy and other metaphorical, literary devices. The methodologies of naturalism help us identify appropriate organic symbols for knowledge, truth, moral and spiritual concepts. We might call this the nature of revelation.

Put another way, the Bible is so reliant on metaphorical devices that we would have little affirmation of the concept of God if it were not for the naturalistic biblical metaphors describing how God appears, acts, feels or creates in this world. Metaphor is an indispensable tool for understanding the literature we call scripture. By contrast, treating metaphorical symbols literally divests them of nearly all meaning. So it is crucial to avoid unmerited literalism when reading the Bible, especially if it leads us away from the original and organic sources of knowledge that drive scripture. We should instead respect the important role played by naturalism, metonymy and symbolic language as tools chosen by God and Christ to make the Bible’s ultimate message relatable to the human race. Thus the organic fundamentalism of the Bible is defined as wisdom anchored in observations about the natural world delivered through literary devices such as metonymy.

Jesus the naturalist

Organic fundamentalism plays an important role in the ministry of Jesus Christ, who used a simple form of naturalism in so many of his parables. Jesus uses parables to describe spiritual and moral principles that would otherwise be difficult for people to understand without some way to make them tangible and relevant to his audience. In Matthew 13:31 we find Jesus playing the role of naturalist with this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”

The significance of this parable is that it communicates an important concept of faith by drawing on the seemingly supernatural ability of a tiny seed to become a giant tree. People in Jesus’ day understood this parable because the illustration of faith was presented to them in terms with which they were familiar. The concept of faith in God is not so threatening when it starts in the image of a tiny mustard seed. So we see that Jesus was able to communicate revelatory concepts through organic principles. This is organic fundamentalism in action.

This concept of growing a faith through knowledge of nature is given another application in Matthew 13:33, only this time human beings are assigned an active role in the organic process: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Here the act of adding yeast to dough symbolizes the ability of human beings to effect change in the world through faith and good works. This is organic fundamentalism with an added human dimension, demonstrating it is acceptable for human beings to be materially involved to the world. Naturalism is again no enemy of God in this context.

Matthew 13:34 outlines just how important organic fundamentalism really was to the ministry of Jesus Christ:  “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world (reference to Psalms 78).” This prophetic reference to “creation of the world” outlines the unifying role of parable, metonymy and organic fundamentalism present from beginning to end in the Bible. Now let us consider the importance of parables in the teaching ministry of Jesus Christ and what it says about how we should read the bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Parables: The link between matter and spirit

A parable is defined by Webster’s Dictionary this way; “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or principle.” To ascertain the meaning of a parable, the listener (or reader) must make connections between the subject of the story and what it illustrates in terms of good and evil, but also the difference between matter and spirit. This process requires thought and rationality on the part of the listener. Matthew 13:34 is an ideal illustration of the spiritual truths of the bible communicated through rationality (parables) spirituality (things hidden) and organic traditions (creation of the world) that form the foundation of biblical tradition. It makes perfect sense that for Jesus Christ “things hidden since the creation of the world” should be discerned from organic or naturalistic sources.

The bible recognizes that Jesus was a man in the material sense, but with a spiritual essence that challenged all notions of human limitation. In this respect both his existence and his parables are an essential link between life on earth and whatever we think of as heaven. By constructing this vertical link between earthly examples and spiritual purposes, parables anchored in organic fundamentalism make it possible for us to imagine concepts of faith that would otherwise be foreign or inconceivable. Language is a key link between the apparent objectivity of natural theology and the emotional experience we call revelation.

Some people get so wrapped up in the revelatory experience of faith they may choose to ignore its organic foundations altogether. But Jesus perfectly demonstrates the value of a faith in balance with organic fundamentalism and revelatory experience. What can we learn from this example?

We should ask ourselves how well we are following the example of Jesus in the modern age. If through literal interpretation of the Bible we ignore, dismiss or fail to appreciate the organic tradition upon which biblical knowledge is dependent, we deceive ourselves into thinking an anthropic or revelatory interpretation of the Bible is the only way to establish and sustain a relationship with God and creation. Instead we should be skeptical of any teaching that imposes a prideful dichotomy between our material and spiritual lives. That approach is not in keeping with the ministry and message of Jesus Christ, whose use of naturalism to convey truth demonstrated an attitude of sanctity toward creation. Worldly knowledge is a compliment to faith. Organic fundamentalism affirms the idea that gaining wisdom through the metaphorical significance of nature as a creative act of God is the wellspring for biblical truth. All that is required for us to bring the bible into the modern context is a corresponding openness to metaphor and the pursuant will to draw parallels between the organic fundamentalism of scripture and the naturalism driving modern culture. The Bible is more alive, accessible and materially pertinent if we celebrate its organic fundamentalism rather than forcing our interpretation of scripture into a literal doctrine that effectively separates us from the heart of naturalism at its core.

True simplicity of faith comes in having the liberty and latitude to discover what scripture means to say rather than accepting a merely literal interpretation of a religious text. We might call this metaphorical tangibility; that is, approaching life and wisdom with an eye toward its unifying symbolism. This is the common denominator in biblical knowledge. And take note: Organic fundamentalism isn’t just a “here or there” phenomenon in the bible based on selected texts to make a case in favor of naturalism as a foundation for truth.

The useful knowledge we gain from sciences such as geology, biology and physics is therefore not the enemy when it comes to understanding and appreciating God. The natural conclusion of this analysis is that we can sustainably engage a reading of the Bible while maintaining a fluid worldview. That is, a worldview that accepts science, naturalism and the notion that the world is part of an infinite and changing universe. And a fluid worldview is a more consistent way to make God and the Bible relevant in the modern age than a worldview of biblical literalism and its typically rigid, purposefully limited and fearful perspective.

The lesson is that politicians like to make use of the rigid, limited and fearful perspective to draw stark lines among the voting electorate. But do not confuse their worlds with good theology, or perceive them as some kind of gifted message from God. The very human motivation of worldly power often negates the very real connections between our earthly lives and our truly spiritual goals of understanding and respecting God’s creation.