Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Madison Cup Debate

Last week I had the opportunity to moderate the final round of the 14th annual Madison Cup Debate. This public debate tournament is a fascinating long-table format with three teams (with two debaters per team) on each side. The debaters come from schools across the nation. This year's resolution was: "This house believes that warrantless electronic surveillance by the U.S. government has done more harm than good." This was my third time to moderate the final round, and I felt this year's round was particularly good (the photo is from last year). The Madison Cup Debate is an excellent public forum full of logical arguments and evidence. I am glad a couple hundred students came to watch the final round and see what a real debate looks like (as opposed to what is seen on TV or in Congress).

Friday, April 18, 2014

Weekly Roundup

Here are a few stories from this week that deserve notice:

* On Monday, President Barack Obama welcomed clergy to the White House for the annual Easter Prayer Breakfast. As he does each year, he offered a highly confessional speech. The next day taxes were due. Obama's taxes for 2012 show he and Michelle gave 12.3 percent of their income to charity but just 0.3 percent as a tithe to a church. The disconnect between words and deeds is not a good witness.

* The prestigious Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday. The award for Public Service Journalism went to the Guardian and the Washington Post for their stories on the information they received from Edward Snowden. This was the correct call as these stories had the biggest impact of last year and helped people understand the unconstitutional levels of spying by U.S. agencies like the NSA.

* On a more personal "news" front, today I received the official letter from James Madison University giving me a promotion to Associate Professor with tenure. The move comes a year late and with an anti-climatic form letter, but it was still nice news to receive.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Good Diagonsis, Poor Application

The phrase "religious liberty" gets thrown around a lot in political debates today. Unfortunately, many are misusing the important concept to make it a sword for the majority instead of a shield for the minorities (see, for instance, a recent post). Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention's top politico, recently offered some comments that nicely captured the problem. However, after he correctly diagnosed the problem, he then applied it incorrectly to repeat past errors. Noting that many evangelical Christians have held "a narrow vision of religious liberty," Moore explained two problems that developed in recent years. First, he pointed to a loss of understanding "that religious liberty is an image-of-God issue; it's not a who-has-the-most-votes issue." He added:
That means we're the people who ought to be saying the loudest: 'We don't want the mayor and the city council to say that a mosque can't be in our town' ... The mayor and the city council that can say that is a mayor and a city council ... that has too much power.
Amen! He rightly notes that religious liberty for all cannot be decided by majority vote and that too many evangelicals seems to think they should get to establish our faith just because we are in the majority.

Moore also noted a second problem as "a lot of people who have cried wolf over situations." He added:
They've cried persecution when there is no persecution. ... So you have kind of these fake senses of where we’re aggrieved, we are persecuted, because the lady at Wal-Mart says 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas.'
Amen! Again, Moore rightly notes false claims of persecution. However, after noting these two problems, Moore then moved on to to make the exact same mistakes he critiqued as he referred to the Obamacare requirement of contraception coverage. The position of Moore, who has been an outspoken supporter of Hobby Lobby's misguided position, ignores the religious liberty rights of the minority and represents fake persecution. If only Moore would accurately apply his diagnosis.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Last Man in Russia

I recently read The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation by Oliver Bullough. A book that seems even more relevant with Russia in the news a lot lately, it is a well-told mix of history, travelogue, and socio-cultural critique. The focus of the story is Father Dmitry Dudko, a dissident Orthodox Christian priest imprisoned during Stalin's regime, which offers some important moments for considering church-state issues. Bullough providing a fascinating look of present-day Russia during his travels researching Dudko's life. Weaving these accounts with the story of Dudko intimately wraps the past and present. Bullough uses Dudko's life to tell the story of Russia and why it is a dying nation. Even though he warns this at the start of the book (which means it cannot be a happy tale), he puts together the story so well that I found myself engrossed in the story to the point I was startled by the turn in the tale.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Weekly Roundup

Here are a few stories from this week that deserve notice:

* Ukrainian and Russian Baptist leaders met together in Kiev this week to demonstrate that their faith ties are stronger than the current national divisions. As Tony Peck, General Secretary of the European Baptist Federation, said of the meeting:
It shows that the Gospel we believe in transcends political differences between nations and unites us in an overall concern for peace and reconciliation in Christ. Ukraine still has some tough days ahead and we will continue to pray for its leaders and its people.

* CBS announced that comedian Stephen Colbert, who is outspoken about his Catholic faith, will succeed David Letterman as host of the Late Show. Colbert is a hilarious comedian who often offers insightful takes on issues of religion and faith. I am, however, of mixed emotions on the move since this means Colbert's character on his Comedy Central show will be retired since he will host his new show as himself. Some conservatives quickly criticized the decision, although many of the critics likely have never watched his show. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said the selection showed "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America." As a native of the heartland (and from the same state as Rush), I chose Colbert over Rush and his over-the-top rhetoric.

* The Duck Dynasty crew has its own version of Vacation Bible School with lessons on topics like "Radical Forgiveness," "Rowdy Kindness," "Ravenous Prayer," and something called "Redonkulous Faith." This seems like a troubling commercial effort that misses the point. I suspect the Bible studies do not include the story of the rich redneck rule!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Churchnet Annual Gathering

The Churchnet Annual Gathering will be this weekend at First Baptist Church in Farmington, Missouri. The theme this year is "Share Hope: The World is Waiting." It starts Friday with the Annual Missions Banquet. The keynote speaker Friday night will be author and activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (I reviewed his most recent book, Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests, in an earlier post). Churchnet President Donna Potts, who was elected last year, will speak Saturday morning. Dr. Jerry Cain, who retired in 2012 after serving as president of Judson University, will lead the Bible study sessions on both days. There will also be several workshop sessions, including ones on reaching ethnic families, preventing sexual misconduct in churches, the heritage of Adoniram Judson, and a couple of sessions on unique local church ministries. Another session will feature a screening of the new documentary Through the Door. With an Annual Gathering such as this, I am excited to serve as Churchnet's Editorial Assistant. More information about the Annual Gathering can be found here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Poor Vision

Recently the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision sparked controversy on the issue of homosexuality. The U.S. branch of World Vision announced they would drop their ban on the hiring of individuals legally in a same-sex marriage (but keep their expectation that all employees remain faithful within the confines of marriage). Controversy quickly erupted and less than forty-eight hours later the group reversed its policy change. Regardless what one think of the issue of same-sex marriage, the rhetoric that emerged during that two-day period shows serious problems among the evangelical community. Once the announcement came out, top conservative evangelical leaders appeared to be in a race to condemn the decision first. I have resisted this shoot first, think later approach by reflecting and waiting to sound off after most have moved on to another topic. I remain deeply troubled by the tone and words used to criticize World Vision, but I was not surprised (although apparently World Vision leaders did not see the harsh opposition coming, which surprises me). I am stunned by the news that the initial decision resulted in 10,000 child sponsorships being cancelled, which at $35 each is quite a lot of money being pulled from helping children overcome poverty. And therein lies the rub: thousands of people are so opposed to the hiring of homosexuals that they decided to not minister to children.

The rhetoric that emerged criticizing World Vision's initial decision framed this debate in terms of "gospel." Using the word this way moved the definition to be about opposing gays. Consider, for instance, the comments by Southern Baptist politico Russell Moore that he issued just moments after the initial decision. He called his piece "On World Vision and the Gospel" and wrote:
At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ. ... We’re entering an era where we will see who the evangelicals really are, and by that I mean those who believe in the gospel itself, in all of its truth and all of its grace. And many will shrink back.
For Moore, the gospel can apparently be boiled down to one's position on same-sex marriage, and he implies that those who support same-sex marriage are on the devil's side. That does not quite sound like my Vacation Bible School memories of John 3:16. Yet, many other conservative critics also claimed this was an issue all about the gospel with some (like evangelist Franklin Graham) claiming that World Vision's leaders do not believe in the Bible or practice true Christianity.

There is one big problem with the gospel argument made by the critics of World Vision's initial decision: the Bible never frames it that way. In fact, scriptures instead tell us that the essential gospel truth of whether one is truly living out the Christian faith is how one treats ... orphans. Here is the Cotton Patch Gospel version of James 1:27 reads:
The religion which God the Father considers pure and clean is to look after helpless orphans and widows and to keep one's self free from the taint of materialism.
That verse stands in stark contrast to the 10,000 dropped sponsorships. This does not mean one has to approve of same-sex marriage or agree with World Vision's initial policy change (which they emphasized was not an affirmation of homosexuality but merely a hiring change). But it does mean we cannot pretend the issue is the heart of the gospel. The misappropriation of the word "gospel" in the midst of the World Vision controversy and the harsh rhetoric makes it seem that we have our priorities really out of whack. By protesting anything gay and ignoring the rest of the world, we too often just come across like Fred Phelps with a smile.