Mister Rogers Is The New Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris.  Remember him?

Guns carried him for protection.  Cars looked both ways to make sure he wasn’t crossing the street.  Sasquatch claimed he once saw him.  The monsters under your bed would always check under their beds to make sure he wasn’t hiding there.

When Chuck Norris was born he drove his mom to the hospital.  He was once bitten by a cobra and after five days of excruciating pain the cobra died.  He could strangle you with a cordless phone.  He could play Russian Roulette with a fully loaded revolver and win every time.  When the zombie apocalypse came it would be the zombies trying to survive.

Chuck Norris, erstwhile star of “Walker Texas Ranger”, exploded into our collective consciousness a little over a decade ago.  Thanks to a running gag on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and a joke website looking for a replacement Vin Diesel, the Chuck Norris legend was born.  “Chuck Norris Facts” were all over the place on social media, which back then was in its infancy.

In those days, we as a nation were reeling from 9/11, the Great Recession, and the unexpected aftermath of the Iraq War.  We desperately needed a hero who was invincible and who never made a mistake, to be both our savior and our representative.  Chuck Norris fit the bill perfectly.

But times changed, as they are wont to do.  The Recession passed (sort of), and we have now put 9/11 and the Iraq War behind us (for the most part).  And so, like every internet meme, Chuck Norris dropped off the radar screen of our collective consciousness after he had run his course.

Now here we are in 2017 and we find ourselves facing a completely different set of challenges.  Donald Trump has ascended to the presidency on the strength of a message of unmitigated anger and hatred for all who are not privileged straight Christian white males, with the backing of his jacked-up Neo-Nazi thug supporters and an evangelicalism that has sold itself out to join them.  Liberals are now perfectly OK with shooting up Republican congressmen.  (So not a good look for the tradition of Voltaire’s “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.)  Police shootings, racially-motivated terror attacks, and protests dominate the news.  Social media is now a shitshow of outrage and rancorousness.  Hatred, prejudice, and misunderstanding seem to be reaching epidemic levels.

In this day and age, we need a different kind of hero.  Into the void steps Mister Rogers, paragon of undeniable goodness in a world gone batshit crazy.

Who is Mister Rogers?  you ask.  Some things should never have to be said yet here we are.  If you grew up watching PBS at any point during the last half century or longer, you know who Mister Rogers is.  Chill dude who always wore cardigans and went on for a half-hour or thereabouts about wanting to be your neighbor.

Recently a story from last year of how Mister Rogers challenged racist assumptions by asking Officer Clemmons, a black police officer, to share a wading pool with him to cool off their feet, has been making the rounds of the internet.  After last month’s attacks in Manchester, writer Anthony Breznican tweeted his story of meeting Mister Rogers in the flesh and it went viral.

Now it’s come to making up facts about Mister Rogers:

Mjolnir was Thor’s hammer in the Marvel comics and films, and it could only be lifted by one who was worthy.  In this day and age, that person is Mister Rogers.

A decade ago we were reeling from 9/11 and the Great Recession, and we needed Chuck Norris to singlehandedly take down all the bad guys with his bare hands and inspire us to keep fighting no matter how bad it got.  But now we live in an age where everything is politicized and polarized and if you won’t shut up and get in line and support our Donald Trump then get over there with Hillary and Bernie and all the devils of hell.  We don’t need a hero who is unstoppable in his strength, we need a hero who is undeniable in his goodness.  We don’t need someone who will take out all the bad guys and never make a mistake, we need someone who will bring comfort and challenge misconceptions.  We don’t need someone to inspire us to keep fighting, we need someone to inspire us to believe that love is worth fighting for and that love will win in the end.

A Defense of the Liberal Mainlines

Today’s post is going to be something of an unexpected departure for those of you who know me well enough to know my theological/political commitments.  Today I am going to speak in defense of the so-called godless liberal mainlines.

Now before I begin, let me lay all my cards out on the table.  If you’ve been tracking with me for awhile, my political/theological commitments are no secret:  I am a conservative megachurch evangelical.  Thus everything I say today will be from the vantage point of a bemused outsider with absolutely zero skin in the game.  But then, I am a blogger and as such it is part and parcel of my vocation to offer my unsolicited opinion on things where I know nothing and have zero skin in the game.

Today’s post is directed toward those of you intellectual liberals who sit at home drinking fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee and reading the New York Times and watching all the Sunday morning political commentary talk shows on CNN while I am off at church singing/dancing my fool heart out under the strobe lights and listening to my celebrity pastor hold forth on whatever strikes his fancy for just a little south of an hour.  My aim is simple:  I want you to come back to church.

Don’t worry, I am not asking you to come to my church.  My celebrity pastor talks routinely about “invest and invite” (it’s pretty much what it sounds like:  “invest” in intentional relationships with your friends/neighbors/coworkers and others with whom you interact on a day-to-day basis and then leverage said relationships to “invite” these people to church) and I am sure he would very much appreciate it if I would “invest and invite” some of you to my church.  But I am not going to do that.  My church does an awful lot to be a place that “unchurched” people (our terminology for people who for whatever reason do not regularly attend church) love to attend, much to the chagrin of some prominent voices in evangelicalism.  But even so I recognize that for many of you, coming to my church (or any other church over here in conservative evangelical megachurch-dom, for that matter) would simply be a bridge too far.  So instead I am going to ask you to make a much smaller and more manageable leap of faith:  I want you to go back to the mainline churches of your youth.

Contemporary liberalism has a problem.  Much of liberal Protestantism is now post-Protestant, as the well-educated intellectual liberals who in prior generations used to pack out all the big Episcopal/Lutheran/Presbyterian/Methodist/Congregational/UCC churches that fill the downtown areas of almost every major city here in America now sit at home on Sunday morning with CNN and the New York Times and, yes, their fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee.  Those churches nowadays are among the oldest and grayest and emptiest on the planet, with a retention rate ever-so-slightly north of zero.  It is a wonder that any of them are still in existence.

As a conservative evangelical, I have my own opinions about this.  Conservative evangelical pundits have opined for years, decades even, about how the mainlines’ decline reveals that political/theological liberalism in Christianity is not to be trusted, that the open, social gospel preached in these churches is a hopelessly pathetic, watered-down thing with zero power to save.  But I am not going to sit here and crow like a Gator fan in Atlanta the first week of November.  Because the decline of mainline Protestantism comes at a cost, one which we all have to bear in some form or fashion, regardless of which side of the issue we are on.

You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the co-op:  As liberal Protestantism became less Protestant, it also became decidedly less liberal.  What I am hearing about the collegiate experience nowadays testifies to this:  It is a routine occurrence for conservative speakers to be un-invited from speaking engagements at liberal campuses and/or vociferously protested if they do speak there.  Just this past year Tim Keller, a conservative Presbyterian pastor, was to have been honored with a major award from Princeton Theological Seminary, a mainstay of the liberal wing of American Presbyterianism.  But many of you liberals rose up in howling protest.  Princeton heard you, and rescinded the honor.  A few years ago, Louie Giglio was to have given the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.  But then some of you went snooping through the sermon archive and found some things he said about homosexuality–well over a decade ago, I feel compelled to note–that you did not like and just like that Giglio was off the program.

What’s more, liberal Protestantism sans the Protestantism has struggled to find any sort of compelling organizing principle, any sort of persuasive, overarching language of the common good.  The result is that contemporary liberalism has morphed into a fractious melange of victimologies:  the gays, the immigrants, the labor unions, the feminists (the “feminazis” as Rush Limbaugh used to call them back in the day), the global warming crowd, the Black Lives Matter crowd, and many more.  All of these have their own orthodoxies which are not to be questioned, and persecute dissident voices in their ranks with a zeal that would make John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, etc. very proud.  And all of these look with uneasy suspicion on the other groups that share their space under the banner of contemporary liberalism.

All this to say:  Contemporary liberalism is not very liberal.

That’s a problem, don’t you think?

Okay, I get that most of what the liberal mainlines have to offer is already embedded in the culture at large nowadays (much to the chagrin of many of my fellow conservative evangelicals, especially those who voted for Donald Trump).  The things they have been pushing for for ages–ecumenical spirituality, a progressive social Gospel–are now all over the place in academia, the media, pop culture, and the Democratic Party.  So what’s the point of going to church when you can just stay at home and watch CNN and get the same thing?  you ask.  Well, as noted above, liberal Protestantism sans the Protestantism has become an awful lot less liberal.  So the present state of affairs, in which the mainline churches are withering on the vine but the things they have fought for are dominating the culture, probably won’t last (especially if the rise of Donald Trump and his jacked-up alt-right Neo-Nazi thug supporters is any indication) and probably doesn’t deserve to.

So please, my intellectual liberal friends (I’m sure there are at least a few of you running around out there reading this):  Go to church.  DVR the Sunday morning CNN and watch it later.  Leave the New York Times–it’ll still be there for you when you get back home.  Go find a mainline congregation that is convenient to you and start going.  Get plugged in and start attending/giving/serving regularly.  They’ll have coffee for you.  Some of the more progressive congregations might even have fair-trade, ethically sourced coffee.  If you’re feeling really brave, perhaps you can even “invest and invite” some of your friends/neighbors/coworkers to whichever church you wind up going to.

Do it for the sake of first principles.  So many of the great progressive movements of the modern era–abolitionism, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and many more–all emanated from a decidedly Christian ethos, from people who wrestled with what a truly just society organized along Christian principles would look like and sought to make this happen in our world.  By going back to church, you would place yourself squarely in line with your movement’s noble history.  You would help your movement gain a greater level of intellectual coherence (the word “created” in the phrase “created equal” is there for a reason).  Furthermore, you would help your movement regain an overarching vision and language of the common good, a robust framework to hold all those factions together.

Do it for the sake of your movement’s internal consistency.  You cry out against Caesar and against Christians taking up and using the power of the state when it suits your social justice impulses, yet you are oh-so-quick to turn to the state when there is an injustice needing to be addressed, such as lack of adequate access to healthcare for many of our nation’s poor.  That is really not a good look for you liberals.  By staying home from church on Sunday morning, you leave the state as the only player capable of addressing oppression and injustice in our world.  Go back to church and help build a counter-cultural polis that is truly capable of addressing oppression and injustice in a manner consistent with your anti-empire, anti-Caesar political critiques.

Do it for the sake of your communities.  Thriving churches and congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump protests can’t top.

Do it for the sake of your families.  My church has one of the finest singles ministries on the planet, but even if your church doesn’t have anything like that, any church beats the hell out of Tinder as a place to meet a prospective mate.  Even in its most modernized form (my church looks exactly like an office building and our service is basically a rock concert followed by a TED talk), church is still a thing which connects us with those who have gone before us and points us toward ultimate and transcendent realities.

Do it for the sake of your eternal soul.  Oh don’t worry, I’m not talking about hellfire and damnation.  I get that you aren’t concerned about anything like that.  But surely you are concerned about…uh, you know…death?  None of us is getting out of this world alive.  Don’t you think a little bit of once-a-week preparation might stand you in good stead?

Okay, there is the matter of actual belief.  That may be a problem.  Or so you think.  But I really don’t think you’re quite the hardcore atheists you make yourselves out to be.  Many of you are already on board with the open, social gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.  You pursue spiritual experiences in some form or fashion, and you are even sympathetic to orthodox Christianity when it comes to you in the form of a Marilynne Robinson novel or an MLK speech or a U2 song.  You say you’re “spiritual but not religious” because you associate “religion” with dogma and hierarchies and strict rules about sex.  But the mainline churches are bending over backwards to accommodate you on all these points and more.  Of course, by staying home on Sunday morning you are vindicating me in my conservative evangelical distrust of said accommodation, and I appreciate that.  But perhaps you are being a tad ungrateful, a tad selfish by staying home when these churches are trying oh-so-hard to be the change you say you wish to see in Christianity?

Finally, for the really hardcore atheists, because I know there are at least a couple of you running around out there:  Uh…yeah.  Free will and consciousness are all an illusion but human rights and gender identity are completely real.

Just go to church, people.  That’s all there is to it.

You Don’t Need Chapter and Verse for This

In the previous post we looked at typical evangelical ways of handling Scripture.  Scripture is the product of a specific people at a specific time and in a specific cultural context, yet is also a living Word that speaks to us today.  Yet evangelical ways of handling Scripture do violence to this, reducing Scripture to a set of propositional truths covering everything from theology of atonement to proper financial management, all with chapter and verse to back it up.  Today we shall zero in on a specific issue, namely the question of whether young children go to heaven, and how a specific subset of evangelicalism, the Neo-Reformed, would approach this.

Last week Mark Driscoll did a daily devotion addressing this subject.  He comes to a good enough conclusion:  “I do not have a clear biblical answer as much as I have God who is a loving and gracious Father whom I trust.”  But the process by which he gets there…ugh.  It is as if truth does not exist unless it is in the book, spelled out explicitly, with chapter and verse to back it up.  Who needs a “clear biblical answer” on whether or not an infant who dies is safe in God’s care?  Based on what you know of the character of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ, you already know.  Can you even begin to imagine that the same God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, could damn an infant to eternal suffering and be just in doing so?

For some things, you don’t need chapter and verse.  You already know.

A Few Posts About Inerrancy

Today we are going to talk about inerrancy, and more broadly, about the general evangelical way of handling the Bible.  If you’ve been hanging around here long enough, then you already know that the concept of biblical inerrancy is on my shit list.

Our first stop on today’s journey is at Pete Enns’ podcast The Bible For Normal People where he has an interview with noted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.  This will take you about 45 minutes but is well worth a listen.  Brueggemann routinely addresses both mainline and evangelical audiences, and has challenging words for both.  In his view, the great failing of the mainlines is that they have become completely infatuated with the historical-critical method of handling Scripture and have never attempted to move beyond that.  They are not asking the question “Okay, now that we have come to recognize the Bible as the product of a specific people at a specific time within a specific cultural context, how can we look through that to see it as a living Word that speaks to us today?”  Whereas the great failing of evangelicalism is its tendency to reduce the Bible to a package of truths and principles.  Whether you’re looking for a theology of atonement or a practical guide to managing your finances, it’s all right there, spelled out word-for-word on the pages of that book you hold in your hand.  Neither approach serves Scripture well or respects the actual nature of the book that is before us.

For our next stop we go to Slacktivist for a post entitled “Captain Kirk, the Green Woman, and the Bible“.  His starting point is Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and his persistent reputation as an intergalactic womanizer of the first order, which has no basis in fact or in the original series.  Yet this reputation persists, a phenomenon which he refers to as “Kirk Drift”, borrowing the terminology from an article which he links at the outset.  From there he goes on to explain how “Kirk Drift” colors our understanding and interpretation of the Bible, giving as a specific example the subject of hell, which he explores in greater detail in a follow-up post.  Though the Bible says precious little about hell other than that it is not exactly the kind of place you would want to take a girl on a first date, that has not stopped us from constructing elaborate theories about it and claiming those theories as incontrovertible truth drawn from a plain reading of Scripture.

Our next and final stop on today’s tour is at PostBarthian, entitled “Errors of Inerrancy #9:  Inerrancy turns the Bible into a Paper Pope“.  Quoting Karl Barth, who himself was not a fan of biblical inerrancy, the post argues that inerrancy flattens the distinction between the text of the Bible and a particular interpretation of said text, thereby asserting that not only is the Bible free from error, but such-and-such interpretation of the Bible is free from error as well, because the meaning of the Bible is so plain that one will inevitably arrive at the preferred interpretation.

The recurring theme here is that the typical evangelical handling of Scripture attempts to turn it into something it isn’t while disrespecting the nature of the book that is actually in front of us.  God has given us a collection of books which tell the story of His plan for redeeming humanity and remaking creation, putting right a world gone horribly wrong, the story of the people whom God chose specifically for this purpose, told in their own words, how that story came to its unexpected climax in Jesus and his death on the cross, and how we get to be part of the new community Jesus is building and its ongoing work of reconciling humanity and creation with God.  We have spent the entire Lenten season looking at N. T. Wright’s latest book, which draws out all these themes and more in unpacking how the events of Good Friday changed the world.  Yet this is not what we want, and so we insist upon the Bible as a repository of propositional truth containing everything from cosmic origins to the theology of atonement to seven steps for a successful love life, all with chapter and verse to back it up.  In so doing we dishonor the Bible by disrespecting the nature of the actual book in front of us.

Progressive Christians: This is Unacceptable

ICYMI:  Tim Keller was to have been honored with a major award from Princeton Theological Seminary this year.  Princeton is a mainstay of the PCUSA, the liberal wing of American Presbyterianism.  Keller was until recently pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, one of the largest and most influential congregations in the PCA, the conservative wing of American Presbyterianism.  The PCA does not ordain women or gays.  Because of this, the decision to honor Keller stirred up no small amount of controversy in PCUSA circles.  Many felt that a school like Princeton had no business honoring someone of Keller’s political/theological commitments.  Princeton heard its critics and chose to rescind the honor.

Is it at all possible, in this day and age, to honor someone for actual achievements, regardless of whether said person is in agreement with our political/theological commitments?  Is it at all possible to listen to a reasonable argument, such as that made by seminary president Craig Barnes that it is “a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school”?

Nope.

Progressive Christians:  This is unacceptable.  This is just like that fiasco a couple of years back when Louie Giglio was to have given the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, until some of you went snooping around in the sermon archives and found some things he had said about homosexuality–over a decade ago!!!!!!!!!!–that you did not like, and just like that he was off the program.

Progressive Christians:  If you behave like this, you become just as intolerant, just as close-minded, just as unwilling to listen to reason as you have ever accused us conservatives of being.  That is unacceptable.

Stop Saying “God Is In Control”

protestIf you’re looking for the reason (well, one of the biggest reasons) why evangelical Christianity is now on America’s shit list, here it is, in living color.

With the election of Donald Trump, the resulting dumpster fire in DC, and the ever-mounting unrest in our nation, anyone who expresses concern over these developments will, at some point, receive some version of “Take a chill pill.  God is in control.”

True enough–in an ultimate sense, I guess.  In the ultimate sense, God works all things for good.  There is not a thing in the world that he cannot and/or will not use to advance his redemptive purposes for humanity.

But those words, spoken into this particular context, at this particular time–well, here’s what that sounds like:

It sounds as if God meddles in election outcomes.  (Of course there are a few evangelical leaders running around out there who say that the outcome of this election was a God thing.  But that’s beside the point here.)  It sounds as if evangelicals are now free from any and all culpability for a vote which they may now be regretting.  (Of course there are more than a few evangelicals who are not regretting this at all or who just don’t care.  But that’s beside the point here.)  It sounds as if we are excused from any responsibility to be the hands and feet of Christ to people who feel shunned, devalued, and degraded as a result of this election outcome and who are now concerned and fearful of what the future holds for them.

Essentially it passes the buck to God for human injustice and human suffering.

This is unacceptable, people.

God is in control–in an ultimate sense.  But he has called us to work with him in bringing his kingdom to pass, on earth as it is in heaven.  He has called us to be his hands and feet to a hurting world that is desperately in need of his healing touch.  When you say “God is in control” as a means to justify your inaction in these troubled times, you have essentially abdicated your calling and responsibility as an agent of God’s kingdom.

God is in control–in an ultimate sense.  But God is not magical or forceful.  God works to bring his peace and his healing touch into this world through people who aspire to those qualities in themselves and who choose to exercise such power as they may possess right where they are standing.  Jesus is not beamed down from heaven–he is made real in our world through the actions and lives of those who believe that others for whom he died are worth sacrificing and caring for, that mercy is the greatest gift, and that love is revolutionary.

God is in control–in an ultimate sense.  But there is one thing God is NOT in control of (John Piper be damned).  It is you, people.  You are in control of you and God is asking you to be love and mercy and compassion in a way that changes the narrative of the story in which we all find ourselves living.  What are you willing to do to be love and mercy and compassion to a world that is desperately in need of these things–or at least that part of the world in which you happen to find yourself?