Thinking Out Loud

January 27, 2014

Google Doesn’t Lie, Does It?

This just in: People think Mormons are hot!  But they also think Buddah is fat, which somehow seems politically incorrect.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a former writer for Christianity Today who now lends her talents to Religion News Service. As a religion writer you’d think she’d know better than to play the Google game; the one where you type in a key word to see how Google auto-completes it. Or would she? Perhaps she trusts her reporter’s instincts that Google doesn’t lie, and that the commonly asked search criteria reflect both the perception and the reality of how religious groups are viewed.  So here’s what she posted on Twitter last night:

Why is…

Christianity: important?
Islam: so strict?
Hinduism: polytheistic?
Buddhism: important?
Catholicism: important?
Mainline Protestantism: declining?
Evangelicalism: on the rise?
Pentecostalism: so popular?
Jesus: white?
Muhammad: called the seal of the prophets?
Hare Krisha: a cult?
Buddha: fat?

Why are…

Baptists: in the south?
Methodists: liberal?
Presbyterians: called the frozen chosen?
Episcopalians: rich?
Evangelicals: turning Catholic?
Atheists: so angry?
Jehovah’s Witnesses: so nice?
Mormons: so hot?

Evangelicals are turning Catholic? That’s news to me. Unfortunately for you, what follows is merely a screenshot, you’ll have to do the search yourself. I did both the regular web search, and a separate one using Google Blog Search. And finally, I’m ashamed to say, I did a Google Images search for “hot Mormons” and “hot Mormon.”

I don’t want to talk about it.

Why Are Evangelicals Turning Catholic

March 22, 2013

Anglicans Install, if you will, Their Pope

“I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God, to travel with you in his service together.”

~ The Most Rev. Justin Welby
from the ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral
as reported at Religion News Service (RNS)

We have an Archbishop.

It didn’t garner nearly as much television time worldwide as last week’s coverage of the new Roman Catholic Pope. Not even close. But yesterday the worldwide Anglican communion installed their new leader Justin Welby, who has chosen the name Justin Welby. He is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Christian Post wasted no time delving into what someone recently called “the pelvic issues” raising the g-word within the first paragraph of the story, and no, g in this case does not stand for God. Of course, some argue neither does the Anglican Church or its American Episcopal counterpart.

To many, this issue is the face of Christianity. No wonder the church is dwindling numerically.

Timing is everything, and this event occurred in the shadow of last week’s Papal election and miraculously Pope Francis’ name surfaced in this story. “Pope Francis, the newly elected leader of the Roman Catholic Church, sent his well wishes to Welby, expressing his hopes that they can maintain good relations.”

It’s probably the closest thing to anything “religious” the story had to offer.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press story mentioned the honored guests, what Welby wore and something about the choir that sang, but the story was equally dominated by the homosexual backdrop to the denomination’s continuing journey.

Can anyone provide a balanced look at what happened yesterday?

Yes, Religion News Service (RNS) strikes a balance between the pageantry of yesterday’s installation service, the relationship between the church of England and the government of England, and the gender issues the new leader will face. If you only click one link here, click that one. 

 

February 19, 2013

Ben Witherington’s Seven Papal Suggestions

I considered this for the link list, but decided it was truly worth a re-blog. You can read it at source at Ben Witherington III’s blog Bible and Culture.  (If you want your comment to be seen by the author, leave it at the source blog, not here.)

I was caught totally off guard. When was the last time a Pope stopped poping while still wearing his Papal slippers? The answer is almost six hundred years ago. No wonder I didn’t realize this could even happen. On further review, shock turned to understanding. A Pope who was PUP (physically unable to perform the job) decided it was time to step down, and hopefully let younger healthier folks do the job. One of the great problems of course with electing Popes is that it has tended to be based on seniority and experience. And this in turn means that old folks who already have their AARP status become Popes. But frankly the job of Pope is too demanding even just physically for almost any 75-85 year old person, and it became so for Pope Benedict.

Benedict, as we now know, had had a pacemaker inserted into his heart recently. He was tired, worn out. I am not referring to world-weariness or even the weariness that comes from fighting things like the scandal of pederasty again and again in the church. I have no say whatsoever over who should be the next Pope, but if I did here is what I would use as criteria:

1) Pick someone over 50 but under 65 for a change. We need a younger person with fresh ideas not to mention someone in the peak of physical health.

2) If you can find someone who is as good and critical a thinker and theolog as Pope Benedict, by all means pick that person;

3) Pick someone who is not so wed to Catholic traditions that have not been part of ex cathedra pronouncements that he would tend to avoid some serious changes— like for example the option of a priest to be married if he did not have the gift of celibacy. This in itself would probably reduce the danger of pederasty considerably.

4) Pick someone who is prepared to continue the ecumenical discussions with Evangelical Protestants, working towards more concordats on faith and praxis.

5) Pick someone who is prepared to continue the process of weeding out superstitious practices and inessential ideas. For example, the recent dropping of the expectation that a good Catholic ought to believe in limbo is a good thing. In short, a more Biblically focused faith, and one less steeped in traditions that do not comport with the Bible (for example Jesus’ descent to the dead) would be a welcome development.

6) Pick a Pope more concerned with protecting his sheep than his shepherds when crisis arises, especially when the crisis is caused by the behavior of the shepherds themselves. Continue to set up accountability structures to protect the young, the innocent, the naive, the poor, and so on.

7) Pick a Pope from somewhere other than Europe. It would be nice to have a North American one for once, considering that English both on the Internet and off of it is the lingua franca of an increasingly global community, society, market.

September 25, 2012

A Response to the COEXIST Poster

source: Stand to Reason (STR) Blog

UPDATE (Dec. 4, 2012) As noted in a comment below, if you want to know more about the origin of this graphic visit contradictmovement.org

September 10, 2012

Learning More About Other Faiths

For Christian publishers, any kind of reference book can be a tough sell, and the sub-category of “world religions” isn’t likely to produce a chart-topper anytime soon.  So I always appreciate it when authors and publishers go out of their way to produce helpful material in a form that is more accessible to the average person.

Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day (Bethany House paperback) is one such title, and the “15 minutes” in question is probably more like ten minutes for most of us, if that.  For someone like myself — eternally doomed to confuse Hinduism and Buddhism — books that provide a refresher course like this are always needful, and Garry R. Morgan, who teaches missions at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota even provides a bonus “extra minute” with an always interesting sidebar.

The book has 40 chapters and covers 24 distinct religious groups, with five sharing parts of two chapters, and others having multiple chapters.  (Christianity  5; Islam 6; Folk and Aboriginal religions, Buddhism and Hinduism 3 each; Judaism 2.)

Sometimes there are similarities between other faiths and our own.  Here’s a paragraph from the book with parallels added:

…Conservative Judaism leaves to each congregation whether or not they will accept a female rabbi (sounds familiar, my denomination is wrestling with this right now). The person who actually leads the synagogue services, however, is the cantor, or hazzan (in other words, the worship leader or worship team is in charge of the service). Large congregations seek a cantor who not only sings but will also compose original music. Usually the cantor is also responsible for coaching young people in Hebrew as they prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah (in other words he doubles as the youth pastor).   (Okay I stretched that a bit, but not much.) 

Or this paragraph about Islam,

Islamic beliefs and practices are based on the Qur’an, the Sunna and the Haddith. The Quar’an is held to be sacred scripture… Many questions about faith and practice arouse after Muhammad’s death, so Muslims asked those who had known the prophet and were still alive what he said or did in various situations. These were eventually written down and collected into the Sunna (or Sunnah) meaning “Traditions.”  Although not considered a holy book like the Qur’an, in daily life the Sunna is moved more frequently. (Which reminded me of what some view as a concern that although we have the gospels, in many of our churches, the majority of New Testament sermons are based on what Paul wrote, not the words of Jesus.)

The book is also ever dealing with the question of which groups deserve a chapter and which are simply mentioned in the context of a larger body, which bears on the question, what constitutes what the larger group would consider a “cult” and at what point do these subset groups become a religion in their own right. (Or if you want to go for the pun, in their own rite.)

Books like this are tough to write because, while this one will mostly be sold through Christian bookstore and online channels, there is always the possibility (and for the publishers, the hope) that the title will appear on the shelves of mass retailers like Barnes and Noble in the U.S. or Chapters/Indigo in Canada; which means you don’t know that a member of that group won’t flip through a copy to see how they’re represented.

And I wondered if there was something of this behind a sentence that appears early on,

At the publisher’s request, this book intends to be descriptive rather than evaluative or polemic.

so I contacted the author at Northwestern. Garry Morgan was gracious enough to write back:

Garry R. Morgan

…They encouraged me to not hide my own faith, but to just describe what the various religions believe and practice, without an overtly evangelistic “here’s how you share the Gospel with a ….” section.

Even in my World Religions courses at Northwestern College, where all the students are professing Christians, I strive to be fair and accurate in describing the religious beliefs of others (I tell my students my goal is to teach in such a way that a follower of the religion sitting in the classroom would agree with my description, even if they disagreed with my assessment). So, I don’t think the book would have been substantially different without that request. Had I assumed an all-Christian readership, I might have added suggestions for appropriate responses to the various religions (e.g. “You can’t love your Muslim/Hindu/etc. neighbor and fear them at the same time.”). I did find it challenging at times to use vocabulary or phrasing that non-Christians would understand (it’s surprising how ingrown one can become teaching in a Christian environment). I think keeping the potential non-Christian reader in mind helped sharpen my writing.

Certainly the problem of becoming ‘ingrown’ is behind the need for this book. While I learned a lot reading this — including reading some chapters twice — and especially enjoyed the sidebars at the end of each entry, I lamented the absence of a concluding chapter to bookend the very helpful introduction. In a way, Garry Morgan provided the missing element to me in his note, and I offer it here alongside my recommendation of this title:

I do believe the Christian faith is truly unique. I think that comes out in the first chapter on Christianity in the book. My hope is that non-Christian readers would do their own evaluation and come to the same conclusion, and that Christians (who I assume will be the vast majority of readers) would have a resource for better understanding what others believe in today’s increasingly globalized society.

A copy of Understanding World Religions was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Graf-Martin a book promotion and publicity agency that comes alongside publishers and authors to increase visibility for key titles in Canada. 

Quoted sections page 60 and page 69.  The book is 174 pages and retails for $12.99 U.S.

Other books in this series include, Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day and Understanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day both by Daryl Aaron.

September 9, 2012

USAToday Scales Back Religion Coverage

At a time when other media outlets are stepping up coverage of religion-based or religion-influenced stories, USAToday, which led the way in this area for several years, is scaling back. Cathy Lynn Grossman reports at the soon-to-be-discontinued blog, Faith and Reason*:

After four years of spirited conversation… Faith & Reason and its accompanying reader-led Faith & Reason Forum are shutting down.

USA TODAY is celebrating 30 years with a massive redesign of all publishing platforms…

…Several digital subject-area pages, including the online religion page, will vanish as stories are mainstreamed into News. If you read on a smartphone or tablet, you won’t notice any change. But if you read religion coverage at USATODAY.com on your laptop, these stories will be running in News, Nation and Politics, just as they already do in print…

But then this note:

…so many posted at the Faith & Reason Forum it became the most successful forum at USATODAY.com by a mile.

So why end it now?

I have been meaning however, to note here at some point how much the general media pages devoted to religion have been dominated by coverage of Roman Catholic people and events. Perhaps others have noted that as well, and it’s led to this decision. And the CNN Belief blog is often dominated by commentary instead of news, and one particular writer especially. There’s a place where I would have preferred to see the winds of change blow.

Faith and Reason at USAToday was very much appreciated.  Cathy, I tried to leave a comment only to find it had become a Facebook-members-only forum — perhaps that was not such a good idea — and since I’m not sure if you got it, here it is:  I’ve truly appreciated your insights and your perspective, and you’ve alerted me to many news stories I would have missed.  I’ll look forward to seeing your byline in other sections of USAToday.

*obviously this link may not last long

August 4, 2012

Ravi Zacharias Predictions Ring True

I’m currently in the middle of one of those extensive cleanups where you find all sort of things from the past, in this case Connection,  a 14-year old newsletter from Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto.

In the spring of 1998, author, speaker and Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias received an honorary doctorate from Tyndale, and the newsletter summarized his address on the front page:

Five Changes In This Century That Will Change the Future

  • the “God is Dead” movement, begun by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
  • religious pluralism
  • the power to inform through the visual
  • the loss of center for cultural molding
  • the shifting power to a youth culture

Zacharias then suggested that Christians need an apologetic that:

  • is seen and not just heard
  • is felt and not just argued
  • rescues the ends, not only the means

Today, 12 years into that new century we see:

  • the rise of militant atheism and a political correctness devoid of God
  • pluralism and demographics shifts in Western nations that will move to change laws, political structures and education systems
  • the power of screens, visual learning, info graphics; text has been reduced to bullet points or less
  • a fragmentation in media that means culture is shaped by a seemingly infinite number of influences
  • a world where, even in the modern church, 40 can be too old; though overall power hasn’t shifted to the young so much as to those who can think young, especially in their mastery of the new technologies

While we face challenges Ravi didn’t mention — particularly issues of gender and sexual orientation, the European economic tensions, political instability in the middle east — his words to the Christian university audience were certainly prophetic.

Read some of Ravi’s popular quotes here at C201 and learn more about his ministry at RZIM.

July 12, 2012

To My Skeptic Friend

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:38 am

Dear __________,

Here’s an idea.

There’s nothing I can say or do today that will convince you that God exists, that the Bible can be trusted, or that Jesus has a legitimate claim to be God. But humor me for a moment.

All I’m asking today is that you begin with a God-exists hypothesis. Not the Bible. Not Jesus. Just that there is a God, in the more or less traditional way that’s understood.

Now then, ask all your questions, and frame your answers along the lines of the hypothesis. In other words, “Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” becomes, “If there is a God, why does he permit so much evil and suffering in the world?”

And so on.

What possible answers might you come up with to your various questions? Maybe some fairly crazy ones!

I’m not saying assume anything or commit to anything. I’m just saying take your toughest questions, your philosophical questions, your metaphysical questions, your ethical questions; and instead of framing them within a vacuum, frame them within the hypothesis.

Oh yeah, one more thing: For 48 hours. Do this for a couple of days, not a couple of minutes.

You might even want to say this — don’t think of it as a prayer, but more as a role play to get you in the right head space — “God, I don’t believe you exist, but for the next couple of days, I want to see how the world adds up if I were to believe you’re really out there.”

Think of this ‘let’s pretend’ game as meeting me halfway.

~Paul

May 28, 2012

Sometimes, The Christian Life is Just Plain Messy

My life is a mess. After forty-five years of trying to follow Jesus, I keep losing him in the crowded busyness of my life. I know Jesus is there, somewhere, but it’s difficult to make him out in the haze of everyday life. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly, is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure. I have had temporary successes and isolated moments of closeness to God, but I long for the continuing presence of Jesus.

Most of the moments of my life seem hopelessly tangled in a web of obligations and distractions. I want to be a good person. I don’t want to fail. I want to learn from my mistakes, rid myself of distractions, and run into the arms of Jesus. Most of the time, however, I feel like I am running away from Jesus into the arms of my own clutteredness.I want desperately to know God better. I want to be consistent. Right now the only consistency in my life is my inconsistency. Who I want to be and who I am are not very close together. I am not doing well at the living-a-consistent-life thing. I don’t want to be St. John of the Cross or Billy Graham. I just want to be remembered as a person who loved God, who served others more than he served himself, who was trying to grow in maturity and stability. I want to have more victories than defeats, yet here I am, almost sixty, and I fail on a regular basis. If I were to die today, I would be nervous about what people would say at my funeral. I would be happy if they said things like “He was a nice guy” or “He was occasionally decent” or “Mike wasn’t as bad as a lot of people.” Unfortunately, eulogies are delivered by people who know the deceased. I know what the consensus would be. “Mike was a mess.” 

When I was younger, I believed my inconsistency was due to my youth. I believed that age would teach me all I needed to know and that when I was older I would have learned the lessons of life and discovered the secrets of true spirituality. I am older, a lot older, and the secrets are still secret from me.I often dream that I am tagging along behind Jesus, longing for him to choose me as one of his disciples. Without warning, he turns around, looks straight into my eyes, and says, “Follow me!” My heart races, and I begin to run toward him when he interrupts with, “Oh, not you; the guy behind you. Sorry.”I have been trying to follow Christ most of my life, and the best I can do is a stumbling, bumbling, clumsy kind of following. I wake up mostdays with the humiliating awareness that I have no clue where Jesus is. Even though I am a minister, even though I think about Jesus every day, my following is . . . uh . . . meandering.So I’ve decided to write a book about the spiritual life.

When a decade later people are still raving about a book as though it were published yesterday, it’s a good idea to sit up and take notice. When people whose reading tastes you trust keep talking about that one book that you never got around to reading, it’s a good idea to check it out.

Mike Yaconelli was the co-founder of Youth Specialties, and therefore, by default, it’s magazine, the classic Wittenburg Door, a magazine that was very influential in my spiritually formative years. Sadly, a year after writing his signature book, Messy Spirituality in 2002, Michael was killed in a traffic accident.

I finished reading Messy Spirituality yesterday, and it’s significant to be blogging this fact on a Monday. We’ve all just come from weekend services where we interacted with other members of our  faith family, people who outwardly seem to have it all together. There’s a lot of posturing at church, and you’ll see better acting there on a Sunday morning than at any of the finest shows on Broadway.

But not all of us are perfect. Some of us are misfits. Some of us are tainted by sin. Some of us are broken by circumstances. Some of us are just plain lost and confused.

This is why Jesus came. This is why we needed a Savior.

This brokenness, our messiness, is not something to sweep under the rug or try to cover up with cosmetics; it’s something to celebrate.

Messy Spirituality is a book that reminds not-so-perfect people that we are loved and accepted as we are; we don’t have to clean up first to come to church or to come to him.  Through many anecdotes from Michael’s later career as pastor of a small church, and reminders of Christ’s ministry on earth, Michael weaved a tapestry that brought tears to my eyes several times.

This is a book that will appeal to readers of Brennan Manning, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey and Wayne Jacobsen.  This is a book “for the rest of us;” those who find their spiritual life is, at times, simply messy. 

Read another excerpt from the book at C201

Messy Spirituality was published in 2002 in hardcover and released in 2007 in paperback by Zondervan. Unlike some review books here, this one was purchased by myself and is staying a part of my permanent book collection.

April 21, 2012

Amish Hope Actions Find Favor With God

Last night, I watched the PBS special, The Amish, which appeared earlier in the year on the American Experience series, and is now available to view online.

Like the lifestyle of the Amish themselves, the special clocks in at just under two hours, which forces you slow down to a different pace. The information could have been presented in about 20 minutes; but the filmmaker obviously saw some advantage to helping the audience “get it” by taking his time. In fact, some of the most informative nuggets in the film appear as onscreen captions, so looking away — as I often do when watching content online — is not an option.

The film is divided into nine chapters, and also traces through a year of Amish community life, dividing the film into four sections, from summer to spring. It looks at both life within the community, and how the community is perceived by the rest of us, including the tour buses that crisscross Lancaster County and sometimes get to ask Amish elders questions:

Tourist: What’s the main difference between you and us?

Amish Man: Well… how many of you have television?

[everyone raises their hands]

Amish Man: How many of you think your lives would be better off without television?

[everyone raises their hands]

Amish Man: And how many of you are going to go home today and throw out your television sets?

[nobody raises their hands]

Amish Man: That’s the difference between you and the Amish.

The two-hour documentary clarifies the real difference a society where the community is the center of life and the ethics of work and play that surround that focus; and the rest of western society where the focus is on the individual; “in direct opposition to the key values of Amish life.”

It also shows that from its inception, Amish society followed a parallel path to society at large. They were farmers, their neighbors were farmers. They drove a horse and buggy, their neighbors drove horses and buggies. But then, as the industrial revolution ushered in both electricity, home telephones, horseless carriages, assembly-line jobs, it “troubled the Amish mind and trouble the Amish soul.”

“If you have a phone and you can call, why visit; why go in person and see the person?”

The splitting of the parallel track also limited the distances that the Amish could travel from home; it kept their world small. “If you give people keys to the car, they will go off to the city and get jobs… The car will fragment our community, it will splinter our community, it will pull us apart.”

And as to labor-saving devices to make the time spent on labor shorter, they felt that if there was an issue between spending time in labor and spending time in leisure, better to err on the side of labor. For one woman interviewed, that involves waking daily at a quarter-to-five. Her husband gets up at 5:30, and breakfast is at 6:15. After breakfast there is a time of Bible reading, singing and prayer. “The day wouldn’t seem right to start without it.”

Is this what God requires? Certainty must also erode somewhat when the Ordnung — the official standard of behavior — varies between church communities. In one it’s permissible to own a bicycle, in another, just a few miles down the road, bicycles are banned. How does one interpret the doctrine of salvation when God’s absolute standards seem to be subjective?

There were a few moments — one at the beginning of the film and one later on  — where it was not apparent that some of the Amish interviewed had assurance of salvation. There was a hope that after “doing their best” their religious ethic would cause them as individuals to find final approval and final acceptance from God; to be found “worthy of salvation.”  It seems almost a graceless faith.

In contrast, a lawyer for the man who shot female students in a one-room Amish school house in Lancaster County, describes the situation where several from the community showed up at the home of the man’s family by saying that when they arrived, “Grace walked in the door.”

Still, it’s possible to mete out grace and yet not understand the dynamics of being a recipient of grace.

Even within Evangelical Christianity, we don’t hear as much about the assurance of salvation as we did in previous generations. If that’s you, I reblogged an excellent article on this at C201.

For everyone else, grab a snack, and kick back and enjoy The Amish on American Experience.

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