Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Fall

Theologians say there was a Fall. Humankind, they say, was made a little lower than the angels, but through disobedience fell from our lofty estate and brought the whole world down with us. We fell, they say again, into the wretched condition of original sin. Alienated from our Creator, we ushered death and damnation into a formally pristine universe. It is a dark view of the world and humans. I don’t see it – neither in scripture nor in nature.

There are two stories of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis - different ways of understanding the same condition. The first is poetry describing a universe in harmony - light and dark flowing in a yin-yang dance of opposites, bringing forth life. The Lord pronounced the whole cosmos as good, including humans, the most recent of God’s creatures, added to the earthly menagerie as an ellipsis at the end of a long week.

The second story is not meant to negate the first, but to supplement it. It tells a story of a Garden in Eden, Adam and Eve, magical trees, a wily talking serpent, and sword-wielding cherubim. It reads like a folk tale. Here humans are created first. That is the problem. In their self-importance they eat greedily of the Tree of Knowledge, hide from God, become aware of good and evil, suffering and death, and are walled off from paradise.

As I read the stories, the world did not fall from its primeval harmony when Homo sapiens began to exercise moral choice. Eden did not wilt or decay. The galaxies still spin in their celestial orbits, unaffected by what happens on this pale blue dot. To suggest our actions have cosmic consequences is to repeat the primordial sin of anthropocentrism.

We did not fall; we jumped. Our ancient ancestors did not fall from a paradisal state of sinless innocence and endless life. They jumped down from the trees and onto the savannas to get a different view. We stood erect. We became self-aware and morally conscious. We exchanged hunting and gathering for animal husbandry and agriculture. We built villages and cities, factories and the internet.

Along the way we forgot the songs of Eden and died to the dance. Creation still sings its sacred hymn, but we no longer recognize the tune. But as I face the ocean and watch the waves thundering onto the shore, I hear echoes of Eden. I get a glimpse of what lies over the horizon. We have not fallen. We have simply turned our backs.

Friday, January 18, 2019


On the wall of a museum in Haifa, Israel, hangs a controversial work of art by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, entitled “McJesus.” It is part of an exhibition called “Sacred Goods,” which is “the responses of contemporary artists to issues of religion and faith in the contemporary global reality, which is dominated by the consumer culture,” according to the museum’s website.

McJesus is a large crucifix with Ronald McDonald in the role of Christ. A clown on a cross. It has caused an uproar in the Christian community of the Holy Land and led to a protest outside the museum that had to be quelled by Israeli police. There have been calls by the Christian community to have it removed, as offensive to that country’s minority Christians. (One can only imagine what would have happened if the Torah or Muhammad had been disparaged in a work of art!)

I have to admit that my initial reaction to the sculpture was one of visceral disgust. I immediately took offense. My second thought was sympathy for my Arab Christian sisters and brothers in Israel and Palestine, who have to regularly endure so many indignities from both Muslims and Jews. This is just one more. My third reaction was empathy for Muslims.  I realized that I was feeling what many Muslims feel when cartoonists depict Muhammad in a degrading manner.

Only after I processed my emotions for a few days, posted the article about the museum on Facebook and read a very insightful comment from a friend, could I return to the sculpture with fresh eyes. Then I could view it, not as the work of an insensitive provocateur, but a statement about the present state of Christianity. I was forced to ask the question: Is this piece of art saying something we need to hear? Has the Western Christ become a clownish figure, a commercialized caricature of the historical Jesus?

I thought of the image of Christ that I had grown up with in American Protestantism: Sallman's “Head of Christ,” with Jesus pictured as a white male with soft brown hair and dreamy eyes. Variations on this Gentile Jesus fill Sunday school literature and stained glass windows to this day. The greasepainted Ronald is not too much different. Yet I never reacted with negativity to my cultural stereotype of Christ.

This crucified clown confronts us with the commercialization of today's Christianity: the obscene salaries of megachurch pastors, the plush worship centers, the vacuity of entertainment masquerading as worship, the vulgarity of the health and wealth gospel, the trinkets for sale in Christian bookstores, and the scandal of a politicized Evangelicalism that sells its soul for political power.

Suddenly Ronald McDonald on the cross began to look like an accurate depiction of western Christianity. This scandalous work of art started to look more like a modern prophecy, a word from God spoken to God's wayward people, who have forsaken the crucified Christ for a Golden Calf. (Incidentally Jani Leinonen has also created a “McBuddha” sitting in the lotus positon, depicting the similar Western enculturation of Buddhism.)

The McJesus crucifix still offends me when I look at it, which it should. It is too true not to offend.  But it also has made me look deeply at why it offends me. That is a good thing. I hope it remains hanging in that museum and offends many more people. Then maybe we Christians will look more carefully at the Christ we profess to worship, and make sure he is the real Jesus.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

God Wears Flannel

Last Sunday I had lunch after church with a few other retired ministers and their spouses. We all came straight from church. Of the three other clergymen present, one was wearing a coat and tie, one had taken off his tie after worship, and the third wore khakis and a sweater. None of them had preached that Sunday. That was just their normal church attire.

I wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt to the meal. That is what I also wore to church. That is what I always wear to worship these days. It feels comfortable. It also feels like I am going to church incognito. Who would guess that the old guy with the gray beard (that is getting a bit too long) and Wallace tartan is a preacher? Not many.

Before I retired, I always wore a coat and tie on Sundays. A suit for special occasions. For many years I wore a black pulpit robe and stoles. When I starting preaching in the 1970’s I even wore a coat and tie during the week for visitation and meetings. I still wear a coat and tie nowadays when I am a guest preacher. A suit for funerals and weddings. The rest of the time it is flannel.

These days many preachers dress casually all the time, even when preaching. Especially megachurch pastors. Apparently it helps them connect to the people in the pews. That is, if they had pews. Pews are out, having been replaced by cushioned chairs. Organs are out. Guitars and drums are in. Choirs are out. Worship teams are in. Hymnals are out. Lyrics projected on a screen are in. Stained glass windows are out. Windowless auditoriums are in.

I have mixed feelings about these trends in worship. I lament the loss of poetry in lyrics and variety in music. I prefer hymns, and I could do without the amplifiers. I like sermons with thoughtful theologizing delivered from a pulpit, rather than casual talks given without notes. I like sunlight shining through glass windows, and I like hearing scripture read in worship.

But my aching back and bottom are glad for comfortable chairs as opposed to hard pews. I don’t care what the preacher or the worship leaders wear. I wear flannels and jeans, and so I cannot begrudge others’ wardrobe choices. When I had a church in Steeler Nation half the congregation wore black and gold jerseys to church on game day, so I got used to unusual worship apparel.

But I don’t want to hear closed-mindedness and dogmatism in theology, whether liberal or conservative. I don’t want to hear prejudice or bigotry of any type. I don’t want to hear about politics in church. I get enough of that elsewhere. I don’t want to hear people being judged for what they do or don’t do. Leave that to God, who is the only one who can judge impartially.

Did I mention flannel shirts? I think God prefers flannel and jeans over coat and ties. After all his son was a carpenter. (Something God and I have in common.) Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God. We even call him God the Son. That means that God wears flannel! If Jesus returns to earth physically, the way many Christians expect, he will certainly be sporting Levis. Or at least Carhartt.

If I were to require one new rule for church, it would be that everyone had to wear flannel shirts and blue jeans to church at least once a month. Both men and women. Even the pastor. Kind of like “Casual Friday” at work. Call it “Flannel Sunday.”

Maybe we could make it the eleventh commandment. It is time the Ten Commandments got an upgrade. Better yet, put it in the place of that Sabbath law. Christians ignore that one anyway. We might as well be upfront about it. And once in a while we could all sing that gospel favorite: Gimme that Blue Jeans Religion. It’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

You Don’t Trust Me

Chances are you don’t trust me. Well, not me personally … I hope. I am talking about clergy in general, a group in which I am included. A recent Gallup poll released a few days before Christmas rated twenty professions on honesty and ethics. Clergy did not fare well. The question was: “Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields.”

Gallup has been doing this poll since 1977, which coincidentally is the year I graduated from seminary and was ordained to Christian ministry. The clergy rating actually went up in the first few years of the poll, ranking in the top two professions. In 1986 we began to slip in the ratings, and we have been slipping ever since. This past year clergy rated the lowest ever. Only 37% of those polled thought clergy were ethical or honest. At least we beat telemarketers! (Nurses were at the top with 84%. Members of Congress were last at 8%.)

Ministers have been wringing their hands over the results, but it comes as no surprise to me. I have been watching the change as it happened. The decline of confidence in clergy coincided in the 1980’s with the rise of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, which redefined the GOP as “God’s Own Party.” It was followed by various other groups composing the Religious Right, who promote a political agenda over a spiritual message.

The televangelist scandals of the 1980’s and 90’s did not help matters any. Then there was the Catholic Church’s pedophile priest scandal of the 2000’s which is still unfolding today.  Protestant, evangelical, and fundamentalist churches have had their share of sexual assaults and financial scandals as well. No segment of Christianity is immune.

In the meantime attendance at churches of all types has plummeted. Every generation of Americans is less religious than the previous one. For that reason a smaller percentage of people have a relationship with a local clergyperson, leaving their opinions susceptible to the prejudices of the mainstream media, which promotes stereotypes and struggles to understand the role of religion in society.

As churches have emptied out, less churches can afford fulltime pastors. That translates into fewer people entering the ministry. The closure of mainline seminaries has become epidemic in recent years, leaving churches at the mercy of ministers trained at fundamentalist schools or not at all.

The popularity of Creationism and Intelligent Design in Evangelicalism has further shaped the public image of Christians as uneducated and anti-scientific. The result is a picture of American Christianity which is less attractive to educated people, further limiting the pool of people from which the church can draw upon.

The political polarization of American society in recent years has meant that conservatives do not trust liberal clergy, whom they think are left-wing socialists disguised as Christians. Liberals do not trust conservative clergy, whom they perceive to be religious bigots who have betrayed the spirit of Christ. So the downward spiral of distrust deepens.

Personally I have seen dramatic changes in churches and clergy over the four decades I have been in professional ministry. Churches are grayer, smaller, more isolated, and have fewer children and young families. Clergy also are grayer, and many come into ministry later in life. One good change is the increase in the number of female pastors.

I have changed as well. I used to identify myself as evangelical. I don’t use that term any longer, mainly because of what the word has come to mean in popular culture. Even the term “Christian” has become problematic, even though I still identify myself that way. But I prefer the phrase “follower of Jesus.”

Just as the Gallup poll indicates, I have become one of those people who don’t trust clergy the way I used to. Pastors aren’t as vigilant as I would like in protecting children in their churches’ care. Clergy and churches’ attitudes toward women are too often misogynistic.

I don’t trust most clergy to have a basic understanding of church history, historical theology or biblical scholarship. I don’t trust pastors to have been trained in the historical-critical method, which for over two hundred years has been the gold standard for biblical scholarship. In my opinion too many pastors have abandoned pastoral care and spiritual direction to serve as community organizers and church administrators.

In short I think clergy deserve the failing grade that the American public gives us. I pray that this trend will be reversed, and clergy will once again be among the most respected, knowledgeable, honest, and trustworthy persons in the community. That used to be the case. I hope it can be that way again.