Thursday, March 31, 2005

Evidence of Biblical Antiquity

The headline of this CBS news item"Science Unlocks Biblical Secrets" sound more impressive than the actual news reported therein. An Israeli found a couple of small silver scrolls that have the Priestly benediction of Number 6 written on them. Now scientists have been able to date them to the 7th century B.C., the earliest dated biblical text. I call this interesting, but not quite the unlocking of "biblical secrets."

Justification & Ecclesial Legitimacy after N.T. Wright

In an email discussion group about the theology of Tom Wright issues of Justification and Ecclesial Legitimacy have been some recent topics. I see a connection between the two in Wright's approach and wrote what is below:

Some Orthodox (I think of Alexei Khomiakov) argue that the Roman Catholics were the first Protestants because of their decision to modify the creed on their own without the support of a general council of the church. As a Protestant (read "willful") body, fracture is only to be expected. When non-consultative, non-consensual change is enshrined in a movement ("Semper reformanda"), no one ought to be surprised at further fracturing. Our problem as Protestants (yes, I count myself in that category) is that we need to both legitimize our shift from catholocism AND ILlegitimize further shifts away from our own position. Adopting a RC-like theory of "we're the one true church (and therefore everyone else is wrong)" might be attractive here, but I'm not sure how it can succeed, whether in general or in arguing from Protestant principles.

Some of the discussion lately has been on critiques of Wright on
Justification. No one would deny that Reformation theories of
Justification were formulated in contrast with Catholic practice and theory. Since group identity has a strong negative dimension - where the grup decalres what it is not - I'd suggest that theological reasons work with sociological reasons to make Justification the flash point it is.

Wright's perspective (and I've heard him say it several times - most recently in his Jesus and the Victory of God lectures on Regent Radio) is to start with Protestant "meta" position - Back to the bible - instead of starting with Justificaton. Wright - rightly, I believe - sees the most important object for Christian negative identity not to be RCism, but the World, thus he experiences a double freedom to change. First, his appropriation of Protestant biblicism frees him to start with the Bible instead of the Reformation era interpretation of the Bible. Second, because he sees the primary need to define the church over against the world rather than Protestantism over against Catholocism, he can push the Protestant vs. Catholic dimensions of justification to the margins.
I don't know if Wright ever addresses the issue of ecclesial legitimacy, but my guess is that his approach opens the possibility to treat it as a non-issue. If our concern as the church is to live as intentional agents of God's New Creation begun in Christ, then we do not need to find a single sphere of authority and legitimacy in which this takes place. Both Creation and New Creation are diverse, and one can imagine a variety of ways of being faithful to God. Furthermore, since the New Creation is historically and narratively grounded - (more than institutionally grounded), this diversity DOES have limits, and doesn't result in relativism.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Public Sphere, Secularity, and Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is one of my favorite philosophers. I find his Sources of the Self and volumes of philosophical papers (one, two and three) to be very helpful in understanding the rise of modernity and the transition to postmodernity. I am now working through his latest, Modern Social Imaginaries. My first take on the book is that it is rather rough and probably rushed into print. Much of it is outside my field, so I'm struggling to understand it. The chapter on the invention of the Public Sphere, however, is fascinating and illuminating. Later, when I have the book in front of me (I left it at the office today), I will write more, but now just a brief note.

In his discussion of the Public Sphere, he talks about this as being secular - not primarily in the sense of being non-religious, but in the original sense of being atomistically temporal. All time is the same; there is no time that has any special significance. This illuminates two features of our current reality.

First, one of the major debates on constitutional issues regards the role of original intent. If Taylor is right, it is a central feature of the "new" public sphere that what the public says now is always of the same relevance as what the public said at anytime in the past. Not only is the constitution itself only a purely human creation, on a par with anything produced today, but since the public sphere is always NOW, we are free to change our understanding of the constitution at any time. Sounds like the background to the "constitution as living document" to me. If Taylor is right, it is not surprising that those who argue against Original Intent find it to be such a strange and unbelievable position.

Second, our culture has been marginalizing the place of religion in the larger culture. If religion is taken as historical, with founding documents that say what they say, and are what they are, regardless of what we say today, then it is illegitimate to give it a role in a society dominated by the Public Sphere. Of course, those religionists who follow Lessing and see "true religion" as consisting in "the universal truths of reason" will find less difficulty in allowing a relationship between religion and society - though since the "universal truths of reason" are as changeable as any other aspect of the Public Sphere, this connection tends not to amount to much,

In a recent Tech Central Station Column, Edward Feser writes on "How to Mix Religion and Politics." He says,
Suppose, however, that someone did defend a view about abortion, same-sex marriage, or some other contentious matter by appealing to religious considerations. Why should this be considered unacceptable? The problem, in the view of many liberals, is that religious considerations are matters of faith, where "faith" connotes in their minds a kind of groundless commitment, a will to believe that for which there is no objective evidence. Opinions on matters of public policy, they would say, can only appropriately be arrived at via methods of argument assessable by all members of the political community, not by reference to the idiosyncratic and subjective feelings of a minority.

If Taylor is correct, not only are faith-based arguments seen as illegitimate for reasons of goundlessness, but are so precisely because they have an illegitimate kind of grounding - in past events and in the founding documents of the tradition. In this kind of religion there is no role for the Public Sphere (as has arisen in modernity).

Terri Schiavo

Almost everyone has an opinion about the Terri Schiavo case. I'm delayed commenting for a long time, but here are some observations and things to consider.
  1. I know no one who wants to be fed by a feeding tube. Yet many people are fed this way and do recover.
  2. From the Christian perspective death is an enemy, but not to be feared. In his death and resurrection Jesus has defeated the powers of sin, death and hell.
  3. A great tragedy in this particular case is the lack of family unity. Though family unity can achieve both great good and great evil, mutual support and love is part of God's goal for families. One of the long-standing purposes of the modern Nation-State has been the usurpation of familiy duties. (See A.J. Conyers' The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit for a good discussion of how this works.) The thought is that families - and other traditional institutions - repress the individual. The State is to use its power to free the individual so the individual's freedom can be maximized. We see this same force at work in the current push toward same-sex marriage. Regarding Terri Schiavo, family duty sometimes requires allowing someone to die.
  4. Given the state of medical technology, it is easier than ever to keep a body going - to keep a person "alive."
  5. Our culture abhors suffering. We think it is a great evil and seek to do all we can to avoid it. We see no value in suffering. For Christians in our culture it becomes very difficult to understand Jesus' call to take up our crosses and follow him. The willing submission to suffering is alien (think little green men for the emphasis of difference) to our way of thinking.
  6. Because we hate (are afraid of?) suffering so much, when we speak of "putting peopel out of their misery," we too commonly mean to "put them out of our misery." Seeing their suffering offends us. This is the modern world - we're experts at science and technology. Suffering has no place in our world. Since suffering is an abstraction, the next best thing we can do is shut it up where we can't see it (nursing homes?) or remove the sufferers whose very existence offends our sensibilities.
  7. In reports I have read many disabled Americans sense the devaluation of their way of life by those who seek to end Terri Schiavo's life.
  8. There is disagreement as to Terri's true medical status. Is she aware of anything? Can she respond to and interact with her environment? Does she feel the pain of dehydration and starvation? Finding conclusive answers to these questions (in her case and any others like hers) seems nearly impossible.
  9. Although many commentators have tried to make the divisions over Terri Schiavo mirror our political culture, their efforts end in failure. Liberals, Conservatives, Republicans, Democrats, etc., are found on both sides. This can be a good thing. Perhaps we'll finally learn that realiy doesn't map well on our current dichotomy.
  10. It is a difficult and painful thing for a parent to outlive a child. It seems natural for parents to fight for their child's life to the very end.
  11. Caring for someone who is completely incapacitated for 15 years is tremendously draining. While the strong Christian ought not give up hope, giving up hope for a cure in this body is compatible with the Chrisian teaching on resurrection.
  12. Michael Schiavo and Terri's parents are all worthy of our prayers. God's grace and mercy will be a benefit to them all.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

First United Methodist Church History

First United Methodist Church Sanctuary: 1905 – 2005

If we are to understand the building of our current sanctuary, 1888 is a good starting point. In that year Rev. J.A. Wyatt was the pastor. The church was growing rapidly, so they started construction of a new building (this building, pictured on the left, was completed in 1889). One factor in that growth was the special evangelistic meetings held from time to time. At such a meeting in the late summer of 1888, not only were there many conversions, but a young man, D.H. Abernathy, was “reclaimed.”

The Abernathy family, connected with the Pitts family for which the town is named, had been connected with the church for many years. After being “reclaimed” for the faith, D.H. Abernathy became a leader in the church, most importantly as the leader of the Sunday school movement, Conference delegate, and because he was a prominent businessman, a respected lay leader, and a friend of Rev. E.L. Shettles, played a key role in the building of the current sanctuary.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Pittsburg church was rising in prominence. Two men who were to play a role in the new sanctuary also played a role when the East Texas Annual Conference was held in Pittsburg in November 1900. Rev. E.E. Hoss, then editor of the Nashville Christian Advocate, soon to be elected to the episcopacy, was the preacher for the Sunday night service. He was later to come and preach the first service in the new sanctuary. In the course of his sermon, Rev. Hoss stated that the Conference “lacked only $135 of paying all of Home and Foreign Missions” apportionments for the year. R.A. “Lon” Morris then announced that he himself would cover the deficit. This style of giving was to be repeated 5 years later.

At the end of 1903, Rev. E.L. Shettles was appointed pastor in Pittsburg. Shettles, a native of Mississippi, had come into the ministry after a life as an itinerant gambler and businessman. He had just build a new sanctuary in Bryan, and on his first Sunday in Pittsburg went for a stroll with his friend D.H. Abernathy. The two of them recognized that the church would soon outgrow the 1889 sanctuary and both wanted the growth to continue. A building committee was quickly organized, with D.H. Abernathy, R.F. Lewis, J.M. Holman, G.C. Hopkins, J.B. & E.R. Greer, J.C. Bailey, A.J. Askew, F.A. Lockhart, J.M. Clark, L.R. Hall, W.P. Grammer, W.L. Garrett, T.E. Russell, C.F. Swayze, W.R. Heath, J.A. Coppedge and S.S. Morris (father of Lon) as members. As he had in Bryan, Rev. Shettles called on the services of Dallas Architect J.E. Flanders to design the building. They broke ground in June 1904, and finished in time to dedicate the building April 2, 1905. They used 175,000 feet of lumber, 175,000 rough brick and 85,000 pressed brick in the construction, the whole building costing $25,500. Since the lot cost $4,000, and the organ cost $2,000, the total came to $31,500. The stained glass was made by Kansas City Stain Glass Works, and the furniture by A.H. Andrews Co. of Chicago.

Upon completion, Rev. Shettles invited Bishop E.E. Hoss to come and dedicate the church building on April 2, 1905. Bishop Hoss came, but the congregation quickly learned of a complication. The building could not be dedicated because the construction debt lacked $16,500 of being paid off. The record of the event is a bit hazy, but it appears that in the evening service that night, Lon Morris, as he had five years previously, stood up. He announced that he would give $8,000 if the rest of the church could raise the balance. The other leaders stepped up, and Bishop Hoss dedicated the church in the midst of great rejoicing.

In the past century, this sanctuary has seen a long line of pastors and leaders, numerous people come to Christ, many baptisms, weddings and funerals. Renovated several times, the latest being under the guidance of Pastor Ricky Ricks, the sanctuary stands ready for many more years of housing worship for the people of God. Though it is unlikely we’ll again host the Annual Conference as we did in 1900 and 1905, we expect many to be blessed, not only here in Pittsburg, but throughout the Conference and to the ends of the earth.

Monday, March 28, 2005

How Politicians Read Letters

I'm a slow learner. Since the early 1980s I've been writing letters to my representatives about Social Security. Even back in the olden days I was doubtful of its future efficacy. Inevitably the responses I got pooh-poohed my concerns, saying that "tinkering" (that's the word they used most often) was a bad idea. They system was just fine and I had nothing to worry about. They didn't interact at all with the content of my letters - just seeing that the subject was "Social Security" told them exactly what to say.

Well, now some people in leadership have learned enough math to have some concerns also. President Bush has shown interest in reforming the system, though he hasn't given many details. Having heard some of his speeches and having read much analysis of Social Security reform issues, I wrote the President with the particular question about how those of us who pay self-employment tax will be affected, and whether he (or any one else) was even thinking about changing the fact that self-employed people pay twice the rate of non-self-employed people.

Today (after a month and a half) I finally got my answer. Signed by a staffer, I see that politicians still read letters the same way. "Oh, it's about Social Security. I'll get my computer to spit our our standard form letter on Social Security." The closest the letter came to addressing my questions was to say that the president is against raising payroll taxes.

What does it take to get our leaders to actually deal with the questions we give them?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Texas City Explosion - Higher Gas Prices?

Texas City has never been on the list of places I'd want to live. Though we need the chemicals produced in that region (the chemical plants stretch from Texas City up the Houston Ship Channel quite a ways), the pollution is pretty bad and the explosions pretty frequent. This BP plant makes 3% of the US gasoline supply. Not knowing whether the production of gasoline will be affected by the explosion or not (and I have trouble seeing how it won't be), fear alone will likely drive up prices.

"Baptism" in the New Testament

Here are the NT occurrences of the noun "baptism" and the verb "baptize." Obviously by listing the word and its congnates alone, I don't list every occurrence of the concept. Also, I did my search in the Greek text, so the word "Baptize" won't show up in every English verse.

Matthew 3:7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

Matthew 3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Matthew 3:14 But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

Matthew 3:16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.

Matthew 21:25 John's baptism-- where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?'

Matthew 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Mark 7:4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

Mark 10:38 "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" 39 "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with,

Mark 16:16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

Luke 3:16 John answered them all, "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Luke 7:29 (All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus' words, acknowledged that God's way was right, because they had been baptized by John.

Luke 12:50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!

John 1:31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel."

John 1:33 I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, 'The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'

Acts 1:5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

Acts 2:38 Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 10:47 "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Acts 19:4 Paul said, "John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus."

Acts 22:16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.'

Romans 6:3 Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

1 Corinthians 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel-- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 12:13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-- whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-- and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Galatians 3: 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Ephesians 4:5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

Colossians 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.

Hebrews 6:2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Hebrews 9:10 They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings-- external regulations applying until the time of the new order.

1 Peter 3:21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also-- not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

Revelation 19:13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

Methodists Lag - and it's a good thing

For some years Methodists have - for good or ill - led American culture. Methodists were the first denomination to officially recognize the new US government. Methodists split over slavery 17 yeras before the country did - rehearsing many of the same issues and arguments used during the Civil War. Methodists led the way in education, and in societal reforms.

Since the 1960s, however, the Methodists are no longer leading the culture - and considering the direction the culture is going, that can be seen as a good thing. While the sexual revolution began to consume our society in the 1960s, it did not begin to consume the churhc until a decade later. Sure, we now have full blown battles over the compatibility of homosexuality and the Christian faith, but at least we didn't originate the issue. I remember hearing a pastor argue against that compatibility about 15 years ago. One of his arguments addressed the issue of orientation. He confessed to having an orientation toward many women, instead of mere monogamy. Just as this orientation failed to trump the Christian teaching of monogamy, so-called homosexual orientation fails to trump biblical injunctions against the practice.

Now scholars are coming out with arguments in foavor legal acceptability of "polyamory." In today NRO, Stanley Kurtz tells of one such challenge, prepared by a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Though I have heard United Methodists speak in favor of homosexual practice, I have not yet heard any United Methodists speak in favor of polyamory (though as sinners, some appear to be practitioners).

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Thinking Like a Pastor

In my years of pastoring I have sometimes looked at my congregation and wished that I had so-and-so (or someone like so-and-so) in my congregation. I'd see people like that in other churches, in my reading, or in my imagination and wish they'd come my way. The more I think about it, however, I think my wishing has been misguided. Instead of wishing for people I don't have, I need to work with the people I do have. It's my job to win them to Christ, build them as followers of Jesus, and teach them to obey everything he has commanded. This job includes a recursive element. I'm not just supposed to relate to people this way, but I'm supposed to help those people relate to others the same way.

This seems to be an important part of the solution to the "perfect church problem." We all have people from time to time who are disillusioned with our churches. The people aren't spiritual enough. The programs aren't "feeding" them any more. The life is stale. But if my job - and dare I suggest the job of the Christian who aspires to maturity in Jesus - is to love and grow the people I have, none of this is relevant, except insofar as we now know our starting point. Our goal is still the same - maturity in Christ.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Death and the Nation State

Curious comment from Glenn Reynolds (the Instapundit) today. He says:
I think that's right. I feel somewhat that way about capital punishment. I'm utterly unpersuaded by the argument that there is something uniquely immoral about state-sanctioned killing. (At its core, the nation-state is all about killing; everything else is window-dressing). But I'm quite persuaded, as I've written before, by what Charles Black called "the inevitability of caprice and mistake" in the application of the death penalty.
I don't believe Reynolds makes himself out to be a Christian, at least not of the type who reads authors like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder & William Cavanaugh, yet this read (in the parenthetical statement) on the nation state sound right in line with what they say.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More Trouble in (and for) North Korea

Ah the destructive power of modern culture!

Salman Rushdie Speaks

Salman Rushdie, in a recent opinion piece says:
... The simple truth is that, wherever religions get into society's driving seat, tyranny results. The Inquisition results, or the Taliban.And yet, religions continue to insist that they provide special access to ethical truths and consequently deserve special treatment and protection. And they continue to emerge from the world of private life — where they belong, like so many other things that are acceptable when done in private between consenting adults but unacceptable in the town square — and to bid for power.

Rushdie sounds like a secularized modern American. The values and ethos of modernity are clearly of controlling value for him. Of course he has experienced the negative consequences of bad public religion - death threats for irreligious writing. But surely murder and complete privatization aren't the only options.

Big Brother is Still at WOrk

We live in a dangerous world. No, I'm not talking about terrorists or global warming. I'm talking about really dangerous things - like the laws of physics and Aunt Myrtle's cooking. As this piece in Christianity Today indicates, the State is increasingly taking it upon itself to keep us safe form ourselves. The days of the church potluck where everyone brought their favorite dish will soon be behind us.

In this age of such tremendous technological and economic advances that we are increasingly ruled by fear - and thus we call on the State to save us from all dangers.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Greeting Time in Church

Several bloggers have been commenting this week on Greetings/Passing the Peace in worship. Joshua Claybourn started the discussion, and my old classmate, Tod Bolsinger, adds in come comments.

Since I have some opinions on the subject, I though I'd add a little.

As a pastor for a number of years, my professional capacity and sensibilities have overcome my introversion when it comes to greeting people. For many years now I have used the time before worship to "work the crowd" - connect with the people in attendance. I try to meet all the people I don't know and at least greet everyone else. (Obviously this is easier in a small congregation.) But that's BEFORE the worship "service" starts.

In my United Methodist tradition the biggest complaint about greeting times is that they interrupt worship. My take on the practice is different, however. I see the greeting time as a an opportunity for the Body to come together, connecting with each other. Our culture is so prone to individualism that even in a worship "service" the focus in on the single worshiper. We think the people around us need to mind their own business so I can worship. In the greeting we're forced to acknowledge the people around us. We're not forced to connect with them and become co-workers, but as leaders we can certainly invite people to connect and become co-worshipers.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Can one earn grace?

Sometimes our words betray us. In a meeting recently, I heard someone speak in favor of a man who had come before that group seeking membership. It was rough going as there were some legitimate issues at stake. What this person said, though, took me far beyond the immediate circumstances of the person in question.

“He deserves some grace on this matter,” she said sincerely. Her intent, I knew in an instant, was to persuade those opposing her on this particular issue to reconsider. “Grace” is an important word in Christian circles, and was used with that in mind. The problem was it was used incorrectly; and the incorrect use of a word like “grace” signifies some serious theological misperceptions.

Grace indeed, cannot be deserved. By definition grace is unmerited favor. If something is unmerited it is not and cannot be deserved or earned. If we could earn grace, it would no longer be grace. It could still be love or mercy or patience or lenience, but it would no longer be grace.

Christians say we believe that God’s grace means that He accepts us and welcomes us into his presence, into a relationship with Him, in spite of, not because of, anything we have done. We are invited to lay our sins and brokenness and failures aside, even give them to God. Grace gives us the ability to do so; it is not something we receive because we have taken care of our own problems.

Oddly, I am quite sure the person who said this would agree with me. What was said, though, conveys that the understanding of the reality of grace has not sunk as deep as it could. Many of us have the same difficulty; our heads know we don’t earn our way to God, but our hearts have not fully realized what this means.

You don’t and can’t earn grace. Thank God we don’t have to!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Peace Treaty Violation

Stephen Carter is one of my favorite writers on the interection of law, religion and culture. His The Culture of Disbelief and God's Name in Vain are classics. Carter writes a regular column (though I'd be happy if it were more regular) for Christianity Today. This particular column focuses on how the State (i.e., the US Government) has been crossing boundaries and impinging on the freedom of religion. Though he points to some contary judgments (like the Pledge case last year, and the case allowing the constitutionality of vouchers a while back), he sees more bad than good. He zeroes in on the decision in Georgia that stickers on biology textbooks that sought to de-absolutize evolution are unconstutitional. Carter comments:

I doubt these stickers convinced evolutionist students to suddenly become creationists. Indeed, if the students of Cobb County are like most students I know, the stickers largely escaped their notice.

On the other hand, books unadorned with the stickers might well influence creationist students to suddenly doubt the Bible's creation account. In that case, an authority figure (the school) backed by the state is pressing upon them a version of "truth" that varies from what their parents had raised them to believe. In other words, the books without the stickers, not the books with the stickers, should raise a constitutional worry. That is, unless one supposes that the state should wean children away from the religion of their parents.

One need not be a skeptic on evolution to be a Christian, and one need not be a Christian to be a skeptic on evolution. According to Frank Newport of the Gallup Poll, "Public acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is well below the 50 percent mark." Only 35 percent say evolution is well supported by the evidence.

But, whatever one's view on that controversy, it seems reasonable to enforce a central rule: The state should not, without very strong reason, interfere with the religious choices of parents. Where the state feels it must do so—for example, by teaching evolution in the science curriculum—a cautionary sticker of the sort struck down in Cobb County seems a reasonable compromise between church and state.

How to live with the 800 pound gorilla

This picturesque metaphor is used to talk about forces that are so large and obvious that they demand our attention. If the gorilla comes our way the best strategy is to move out of the way quickly. What the gorilla wants, the gorilla gets. A quick Google search this morning find the image used for corporations, departments within a company, the US, etc. When faced with the 800 pound gorilla, the most common strategies seem to be denial ("What gorilla? I don't see any gorilla." or "He's so harmless he wouldn't hurt a flea.") or belligerence and attack (which, if you're also an 800 pound gorilla may or may not work).

Here in East Texas the 800 pound gorilla is the Baptist Church. Even most of the non-church attenders are baptist by excuse. Since baptists are not only the most numerous, but quite often the most articulate about their faith, their understanding of the nature of Christianity has become the de facto standard to which all others must reply.

Some within my church tell me we need to go on the attack. They hear that certain baptists are telling our students at the high school that they're not real Christians because they're not baptist. Sometimes this claim comes in different formulations: "Real Christians follow Jesus' commands. Jesus plainly commands baptism. Baptism means immersion. You haven't been immersed, therefore you haven't really been baptized, therefore you're not a real Christian;" or, "Are you saved? What? You don't use that terminology? Come to my church and we'll tell you how to get saved." I'm told that I should go talk to those baptists and tell them to leave our kids alone. In other words, I need to go confront the 800 pound gorilla.

I don't think attack is an effective strategy - for several reasons. First, the idea that baptists are the bad guys is simply wrong from a Christian perspective. Some might be overzealous. Some might be too narrow minded. Some might have drunk too deeply of modern individualism. But if we think that the baptist who says the non-baptist is worthy of attack because of his sub-Christian theology, and respond with a tu quoque type of argument ("You too!") we're not doing any better.

Second, I have great appreciation for baptists. I'm not sure I would be a Christian today if it hadn't been for the influence of various baptists during my high school years. Their evangelistic passion and labor is not only an example for us all, but it is a blessing to us also. I wish United Methodists had as much as they did. If we did, we'd be a lot closer to our founder John Wesley.

I also appreciate baptists for their ability to articulate their faith. Ask a United Methodist what he or she believes and chances are you'll get a vague answer about the love of God, and maybe a little more. Ask a baptist and chances are they'll not only tell you about the love of God, but also about the problem of sin and how Jesus came and died for the sins of the world and how through faith in him we can be forgiven and have eternal life.

Because of our fear of the 800 pound gorilla, we've too often made the mistake of defining ourselves negatively in relation to the gorilla. We're not sure what exactly we believe, but we know we're not baptists. Since evangelistic passion is associated with baptists we eschew it. Oh, we'll do "church growth" - clean restrooms, modern nursery, plenty of parking, and an effective follow-up strategy for visitors, but passionate evangelism? That's for baptists. Fear has caused us to forget our heritage. We've forgotten the bold evangelistic passion of early American Methodists like Peter Cartwright. We've forgotten John Wesley who told his preachers (all lay preachers, by the way), "You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work."

Certainly we may have a different take on evangelism than the baptists. But it's not as different as our avoidance of it indicates. (I remember an incident with William Booth. A woman came up to him once and said, "Sir, I don't care for your methods of doing evangelism." Booth replied, "I don't care for your methods of not doing evangelism.") The baptist mistake is the tendency to assume no one is saved - so they're always preaching basic Christianity and the need to get saved. The methodist (Since I'm Methodist I can speak for my own tradition) mistake is the tendency to assume everyone is saved. We'll preach growth, we'll preach the need to be nice, to be socially active, but totally avoid the issue of whether people actually have faith in Jesus.

We're also being motivated by fear when we identify articulacy as a "baptist" trait. If we were to learn to define ourselves over against the world (and all identity work requires the use of the via negativa, the willingness to say what we're not) instead of baptists - and other groups for that matter - we'd be making major progress. I'd much rather ground our kids in the bible and in solid theology grounded in it than teach them to settle for inarticulate mutterings. The bible says we're to love God not only with our heart and soul but with our mind. The objective is not dogmatism, but understanding and the ability to articulate that understanding.

SO that's my third reason for not going on the attack. Attack is a strategy of fear. "Mr. Gorilla, I'm so scared. You're such a bully. Won't you please leave me alone? Pretty please with sugar on top?" And this is supposed to accomplish what? My abject surrender?

So, if I refuse to go on the attack, is denial my only option? I'm I forced to say that there is no problem? Nope. Instead I choose to operate from a position of strength and responsibility. First, even though I'm more committed to the Christian tradition than I am to the United Methodist tradition, I think the latter is worth standing for. Now my commitment to the former leads me to much difficult work with the latter, but I'm convinced it is worth it. Since baptists (and presbyterians, and catholics and orthodox, etc.) are also part of the larger Christian tradition I and my tradition can learn from them also. Since I see us as part of the same larger tradition I also think they can learn from us and act accordingly. Participants in other Christian traditions may not think they can learn from us, but that's their problem not mine. I'm going to loving act like God intends us to mutually bless each other.

This is a primary action of taking responsibility. We are responsible for our own tradition. We are responsible for developing our articulacy. We are responsible for winning our kids to Christ. We are responsible for grounding them in the Word. We're responsible for living before them an exemplary Christian life. We're responsible for reaching our community for Christ. Saying "The baptist will do that" or "The baptists made me not do that" are simply excuses for disobedience. Worse, they're denials of our Methodist heritage.

So as for me, I plan to continue standing up for myself and being responsible to God regardless of what anyone else thinks. I'll continue to pray for God to bless my church and the baptist churches. If others choose to be dopey, ignorant or rude, that's their problem. They are responsible for themselves.