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It is election season. In all the hubbub about impeachment (for the last 3 years) it is easy to lose sight of the debates and televised town halls that have been going on for the last 6 months. The 20 has slowly been dwindling in our game of who offers the most free stuff and is most relatable.

TImage may contain: 1 person, tree, table, plant, sky, grass, outdoor and naturehere have  been plenty of policy proposals. Some of those are slightly different than current policies, and some are vastly different. Some promise “big structural change.” I won’t go into how that scares the pants off me for now.

In the September 28, 2019 edition of World Magazine, Janie B. Cheaney has an interesting piece on policy. She begins with a documentary called One Child Nation which examines the effects of China’s “one-child policy”.

In one clip, the co-director (who grew up under the policy but now lives in the states) says, “I left a country where the government forced women to abort, and I moved to another country where governments restrict abortions.” Well, some states do. She seems to think, Cheaney says, that the central issue is government attitudes toward women (hear the cries of the ‘war on women’). The issue doesn’t seem to be “human life itself.”

The people interviewed in the clips seemed to fall back on “Policy is policy.” People feel helpless in the face of government policy. They have less impact in a system like China’s. Here we can vote, and we should evaluate policy.

In China the policy was enacted by top-level party members. The expressed problem they were trying to solve was “overpopulation.” Abortion was a means of population control. The resulting unintended consequences are a demographic nightmare (not enough women because parents wanted sons to care for them in old age). They self-corrected to a two-child maybe policy where if you have a girl you can apply for permission to have a second child in the hopes of having a boy. Cheaney notes that in the future they may have to require two children to fix the problem they created with their one-child policy.

Bad policy creates very negative consequences that are often addressed by the same group of people who gave you the bad policy in the first place. They create problems and then try to fix them, often having the same level of success. The ACA tried to fix our healthcare system, for instance. At least that is what we were told before it was crammed down our throats with a series of statements that proved false. It really messed up the healthcare system because it “fixed” the wrong things (in my opinion) and in the wrong way. We elected people to fix it in 2016, and they failed to get the necessary votes (thanks to the senators from my state, both of whom are no longer senators but one ran expressly on getting rid of Obamacare). Now we have different plans proposed in these debates without substantial debate on the motives, means and consequences of the plan. We have this on healthcare, student debt, gun control, climate issues and more.

“Policy has become the end-all of politics. Bad policy caused the current mess, however we define the messiness; good policy will fix it.”

Cheaney rightly notes that policy should be at the end of the discussion, not the beginning. Policy is the ‘how’ of a solution to a problem. First we have to sort out the “what” and the “why” of the particular problem. She goes back to China’s one-child policy. The stated rationale was overpopulation and therefore potential starvation of the population (obviously not the party elite, they always seem to eat). They didn’t consider the effect of their policies regarding how food was grown. They didn’t evaluate their communist system and whether it could feed that many people or not. The issue was their economic and political framework. Because they failed to examine their presuppositions, they came up with really bad policy. They also failed to consider the nature and value of human life. What matters to them is the Party.

We have the same policy problems. We don’t look at our presuppositions that drive a policy proposal. We don’t stop to think about what caused a problem. We treat symptoms instead of the disease and have bigger problems before we know it.

LenBias.jpgHere is a policy gone awry. In 1986 the Boston Celtics won the NBA title AND had the 2nd overall pick it the draft. Choosing Maryland standout Len Bias, it seemed the dynasty would be able to continue beyond Larry Bird. He flew up to his press conference in Boston, went home afterward and died overnight due to a cocaine overdose. This was high profile! This prompted policy change so “this never happens again.” The Len Bias Law, as it came to be called, increased the penalties on the local distributor of drugs. As a result large numbers of African-American men were incarcerated. Once in that system, it is amazingly difficult to become disentangled. Getting out of prison rarely means freedom. As a felon it is hard to get a job (due to policy), and other limitations and policies make it even harder to be employable. The person imprisoned by bad policy finds him or herself continuously constrained by bad policy (however well-intentioned) that continues to keep them impoverished materially, emotionally, relationally and even spiritually.

One of the great ironies is that most of these candidates are lawmakers in DC. Amazingly, they don’t seem to have proposed any of these in the form of law to this point (which if they are so awesome their colleagues should all vote for them) . In other words, they haven’t been doing their current jobs as legislators but make policy proposals so they can become President, the chief executive. They don’t really want their policy proposals seriously examined and debated until after they get in office. This is not a 2020 issue, but has been this way for awhile. Rather than electing people who have a track record of good policy, we are continually asked to vote for people on the basis of their promised policy about problems they usually helped create by voting on bad policy in the past.

Policy has its place. Let’s put it there.

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I was at lunch recently when someone asked if I’d blog on the overtures (requests for action) at the upcoming PCA General Assembly. He was curious as to what I thought of them. So, I’m taking a shot.

I’m not part of the National Partnership. I’m not part of the group that is critical of the National Partnership. I’m not a Conservative Cultural Warrior. I’m an Average Joe and part of the so-called “squishy middle” mostly because my middle is a bit squishy these days. I’m theologically conservative and confessional. I’ve also mellowed over the years and try to use discernment about what hills to die on, or kill others on. I’m hoping that’s maturity. Some would disagree. But I’m not important, and not a genius.

TImage may contain: one or more people and crowdhis year there are 48 (yes, 48!) overtures. I’m not sure if this is a record but it seems overwhelming at first sight. Good news, though. One of the more controversial ones has been withdrawn. I’ve already blogged on that one so I’m not touching it here.

While there are 47 remaining, most of them revolve around a few issues. As a result, I’m going to handle them under those issues.

Ruling Elder Participation

2 Overtures are attempting to increase participation by Ruling Elders (RE) at General Assembly. As a denomination we hold to the parity of elders though we distinguish between Teaching Elders (TE) and REs. The E or elder part is what matters. We want both engaged in the life of the denomination, and not just the local church.

Our Book of Church Order (BCO) does call for equal representation on GA committees (14-1.9). Overture 1 asks to amend 14-2 to increase the number of REs allowed to represent churches at General Assembly.

I will vote NO on this. The issue, generally, is not enough men allowed to attend but not enough REs able to attend. Men work and have families. Taking vacation time to go to GA is an obstacle for many men. In two decades of ministry I’ve only had an RE do that once. Early in my ministry, a retired Naval officer regularly attended Synod (the ARP version of GA). As an TE, I’m expected to go. For REs it is a huge sacrifice to go.

What this would permit is larger churches to be overly represented at GA. Since churches are supposed to help defray the costs of attending, the larger the church the more men they can afford to send. This means that such churches, which generally send more TEs, can also send more REs.

This may increase participation by churches geographically near that year’s GA, but the same issues of vacation and cost apply.

We seem to have confused parity with participation. In other words, we think that unequal participation means we don’t actually have parity. We risk making an idol of RE participation as we focus on endless ways to increase it.

A (possibly) better solution is represented by Overture 27. It requests we study remote voting for General Assembly. It cites the costs to attend which place a burden on smaller churches, and the lack of RE participation.

The technology exists to view remotely. We already stream the proceedings. Perhaps there is a way to vote remotely while we vote electronically at GA.

This will help TEs who are in smaller churches, and churches with multiple TEs for them to watch and vote. REs who work should not be doing this while working. It may get some men who are retired engaged. I suppose this is worth looking at, and I might vote YES. Would we charge those men the full registration fee?

Covenant Theological Seminary

Overture 2 seeks to develop a plan to make Covenant independent. It recognizes that it can’t happen immediately. It seems to imply that CTS wants to be independent. Rather I hear elders complaining about CTS and its perceived liberal views. Some want to be done with them and this overture will appeal to them.

I have not such desire for us to be free of CTS. If they wanted to be be free of us, I’d consider this. But they don’t, so I’ll be voting NO on this.

Corporate Prayer at GA

Last year some were offended by some of the language/topics in the corporate prayer and worship at GA, particularly at a separate time of prayer prior to and for GA. Corporate confessions of sin will inevitably include some sins that a particular person is not guilty of, but a community is. I have no problem confessing our sins and the sins of our fathers, as we see in Nehemiah. I‘ll vote NO to this.

Issues Related to Sexuality

Overture 4 is the first of a large number of overtures (11) touching on sexuality. This and Overture 22 want the PCA to adopt the Nashville Statement that was produced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

I’ve read thru the statement a few times. It is generally acceptable. However, I share the concerns expressed by Todd Pruitt. This statement was produced by a parachurch organization, not as the result of a denominational study committee or cooperation between like-minded denominations (similar to an ecumenical council). CBMW also has the baggage of affirming the Eternal Submission of the Son, which many (including me) view as a heterodox view of the Trinity. I’ll vote NO if these two reach the floor.

Overture 11 is the return of an overture from 2018. Last year they wanted us to adopt the RPCNA’s Contemporary Perspectives on Sexual Orientation: A Theological and Pastoral Analysis. This year they want us to “commend and distribute it”. You may notice that the link above is from the PCA Historical Center. This document has a good reputation. I’ve been wanting to read it. But the Overture locates it in their minutes for distribution. There are practical problems at work here, not theological ones. Because it is readily available, including on a PCA website, I will likely vote NO.

Overture 28 is a series of affirmations and denials regarding homosexuality. Some of these call out for clarification or nuance. For example, the denial that “unnatural sexual orientations are fixed, permanent, and unchangeable.” Some people experience orientation change and some do not. Does this mean we say those who don’t aren’t truly converted? This creates pastoral problems. I will likely vote NO as a result.

Three overtures request study committees to address these questions and provide pastoral wisdom. I think we should study this and identify the areas we all agree upon, as well as those we can disagree on as well as those we should not disagree. We should also help churches sort thru the best ways to pursue evangelism and discipleship of those who struggle with SSA or gender identity issues. Surely the RPCNA document would be part of the material studied. I would vote YES on forming a study committee to help us better understand the implications of not only sexuality but also the gospel for ministry to people in these areas. We do need to identify the boundaries more clearly and define terms more clearly (and use them more consistently). The online discussions among elders have demonstrated how necessary this is. The fact that the Central Carolina and North Florida reports disagreed on the question of whether to be tempted is to sin indicates we need to study this.

Some want us to re-affirm previous statements on homosexuality. I have no problem with that. But I do think we need to spend time thinking about how to apply this theology to the very different social context we live in now. I think this is not enough. As a result, I will likely vote NO unless someone changes my mind.

Domestic and Sexual Abuse

Many of our members have been victims of domestic and sexual abuse. These are not simply problems out there in the world. We see scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Church, New Tribes Missions,Sovereign Grace Ministries, independent churches like Willow Creek and more. These are issues we cannot ignore.

There are 9 overtures that call for the formation of study committees. I’m sure that these will be pared down to one. I will vote Yes that we form a committee to examine these issues and how to prepare our churches to prevent, recognize and address these issues affecting “the least of these”.

Dissolving Pastoral Relations

Overture 5 seeks to amend BCO 23-1 to clarify the various pastoral relationships and how they are to be dissolved. I generally agree.

I’m conflicted, however, because I am no fan of the Assistant Pastor (not Assistant to the Pastor) designation. This change would clarify that the congregation is not required to accept or request the dissolution of the pastoral relationship. We speak of parity of elders and yet we treat Assistant Pastors as 2nd class pastors or elders. They are called differently, fired differently and are not on the Session of the church they serve. They can be invited to Session meetings (or not), and given voice but no vote. I have serious issues with this “class” of REs.

Since it is currently a designation, I will probably vote YES. I also probably need to start working on eliminating the Assistant Pastor distinctions, or make them temporary and less radical.

Eliminating Memorials

Memorials are notifications of the death of elders which often include their influence and activities for the kingdom and denomination.

Overture 6 seeks to eliminate them. The issue is that they cannot be edited, approved or denied. They need to be heard. Last year there was some controversy. One of the PCA founding fathers passed away, and his teaching on a subject was controversial and many (like me) think foundational to a heterodox view that is contrary to the gospel.

I’m not as concerned about the fact that Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave. We aren’t talking about graves here, but honoring others. The problem comes when a man was controversial.

I lean toward voting YES.

Non-Ordained Members of Committees and Boards

This is the return of an overture from last year. Two similar overtures reflecting the overture from last year.

This is a controversial issue. I hear about how elders are charged with the oversight of the church. Yes, they are.

However, in our congregations committees are not comprised only of elders. They contain unordained men, and women as well. No one freaks out (at least I haven’t heard of anyone). People understand there can’t be enough elders in a local congregation, or that we’d kill the ones we have by overworking them. People understand that committees report and recommend. They are not to act unilaterally but are under the authority of a particular church court.

When it comes to presbytery and GA, people suddenly become adamant that only elders serve on committees and boards. These overtures provide for a minority of seats granted to unordained members. They are still committees and boards and are under authority.

If we ask elders to serve on local congregation committees, presbytery committees and GA committees we will likely overwork them. The REs in my congregation are very busy with work, family and church responsibilities. To serve on a GA committee would include travel to meetings, and how are they going to do that while they work, especially since we want them to show up to GA too?

Some boards and committees could benefit from members with particular expertise. There are times when REs (and more so TEs) lack the expertise necessary.

Like last year, I will vote YES.

Abortion

As our nation continues to polarize on the issue of abortion and the boundaries being pushed to birth (and beyond) in some states, there are 2 overtures regarding abortion and the sanctity of life. One requests reaffirmation of past statements. The other requests strengthening our statements. I would vote for either. It is important that Overture 48 includes not only the heinousness and guilt of the sin but also the sufficiency of grace.

Miscellany

Overture 9 wants to update the rules for filing cases. I’m not sure what they have against faxes and email, but rejecting the use of modern technology seems to be a big mistake. Okay, faxes are outdated. Why are we prejudiced against email? I’ll vote NO.

Overture 12 addresses floor nominations. Floor nominations would be accepted only if there were no nominations properly filed ahead of time. I have no clue or strong opinion.

Overture 17 seeks to allow video testimony of witnesses. At times they are far away. Video testimony, like using Zoom, allows people to see their accusers and cross-examine them. I’ll vote YES.

Overtures 15 and 18 seek to change the Rules of Assembly to end contradicting actions by overtures. They look identical at first glance. I’ll probably vote YES, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

Overture 23 is another request for the PCA to withdraw from the National Association of Evangelicals. There seems to be little theological and political alignment (they have embraced social issues in a way that sounds more SJW than simply biblical justice) with the NAE. We have little to no influence on the NAE and I will vote for us to leave.

Overture 33 wants to add a question affirming the Trinity to the membership questions in BCO 57-5. I’m torn. I agree that one should affirm the Trinity to be a member of a PCA church. While I was in the ARP they had a question affirming the Scriptures as the written Word of God, the only perfect rule of faith and practice; and another affirming the doctrines and principles of the denomination, as far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God.

We should be clear about our doctrinal boundaries as a denomination when it comes to church membership. We should be clear that we recognize the Scriptures as authoritative. I’m not sure we need to specify the Trinity while ignoring what supports it- a doctrine of Scripture. I lean toward voting NO as a result. I’d prefer questions addressing our doctrinal system rather than a specific doctrine.

At this point my brain is starting to hurt.

Overture 40 wants sessions to acknowledge and support women leaders without delay or divisiveness. Our study committee concerning women and ministry in the local church was controversial for some. This overture is not about ordination but encouraging women to use their gifts. It wants us to remember that focusing on what they can’t do (or spending much time debating that) often means women feel like 2nd class citizens in the Church. During that GA I interacted with some women I know who were there, and it was painful for them to have things lorded over them (that’s how they feel fellas). This is to provide some counterbalance. It is unfortunate we need to do this, but I think we do. I’ll probably vote yes.

Overture 41 is a swing in a different direction. They want the Committee on Mission to the World to only permit ordained elders to serve in the roles of team leaders, regional directors and International Diriector. This is in response to CMTW guidelines which include a section on valuing women in MTW. They think these guidelines hinder women by creating a crisis of conscience. I don’t understand this at all. If you have a crisis of conscience, don’t serve in a particular role. I don’t know enough about this to have a very solid opinion on the matter. People seem to have very different ideas about the meaning of ecclesiastical authority. Some are very broad, and others narrow.

Update on 41: I’ve heard from someone who struggled with his conscience as a man under the authority of a woman in a position of authority over him as he served as a missionary. There is no problem with a man in the office being under the authority of a woman regarding accounting or other positions. The issues come into play on the field as missionaries and evangelists are under the authority of a female regional director. Would we want a pastor under the authority of a female bishop? Perhaps that is what this looks or functions like and needs to be reexamined by MTW. This is a difficult one for me to sort out. We have to try to put ourselves in the shoes of the men and women involved.

And so it goes. Now we see what happens.

Keep in mind when you hear the results in a few weeks. Voting against the overture regarding the membership questions doesn’t mean you disagree with the doctrine. Too often I hear those comments: we aren’t committed to x, y or z as a denomination when the issue is not the doctrine or conviction itself, but the mechanics or implications of an overture. Don’t over-react if an overture you love (or hate) fails (or passes).

 

 

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If you are a Christian, you seem to be caught in a culture war that has an increasing number of fronts. Nancy Pearcey has written Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality to explain the worldview behind these cultural changes.

She begins the book by laying out the philosophical foundation of the worldview at work in the Western world’s departure from a biblical morality, sexual and otherwise. Its roots are in Decarte’s philosophy, in which “I am” is rooted in self-experience, not the observable world around us. This Cartesian dualism plays itself out in a number of ways.

Theology, Morality (Private, Subjective, Relativistic)

——————————————————————-

Science (Public, Objective, Valid for Everyone)

This divides the values of a culture from the facts of the world. From a Christian worldview, we see our Theology & Morality as connected to creation. Our bodies, as part of creation, are a source of knowledge (not just about the body for its health) for morality particularly since we are created in God’s image.

Values (Private, Subjective, Relativistic)

———————————————————–

Facts (Public, Objective, Valid for Everyone)

Each of these aspects of the dualism have been the subject of philosophical views.

Romantic Tradition (Postmodernism)


Enlightenment Tradition (Modernisn)

“Modernists claim that the lower story is the primary or sole reality- facts and science. Postmodernists claim that the upper story is primary- that even facts and science are merely mental constructs.”

The Christian worldview braces both as important.

Pearcey has been greatly influenced by Francis Shaeffer, and applies his thought in this book. She is not parochial in her approach. She draws not only on traditional Protestant thinkers, but also Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers. These are the areas of agreement for the different branches of the Church. We speak together about these issues.

She has a number of references and quotations from advocates of these newer positions resulting from the split between human being (lower story) and person (upper story). In the case of abortion and euthanasia, the fact of humanity is affirmed by is secondary to personhood. The theory of personhood is subjective and ethicists have different views about when a human being becomes (and ceases to be) a person. This is not simply philosophical, but such language is used in court cases and decisions (like Roe v. Wade). Abortion is justified because while human, the fetus (or even infant) is not yet a person. Euthanasia is deemed acceptable because the human in question is no longer a person.

When it comes to sexual and gender issues, the facts of biology take a backseat to the subjective feelings of the person. Those feelings can change but reign supreme in matters of gender and sexuality. The unchanging reality of biology should not be ignored or altered (superficially) to meet the subjective.

Pearcey covers a number of important issues in this book. She leaves no stone unturned on some of these subjects, looking at them from every conceivable angle. This can make for some long chapters which is a challenge for people with limited reading time. I like to finish chapters in one sitting but some extended to two or three sittings.

Pearcey tries to separate the biblical (or biological) norms from cultural norms. This is particularly in the chapter on gender. Our goal should not be to affirm a culture’s view of masculinity or femininity. She pushes back against some conservative views. Another potentially controversially view was in her discussion of same sex attraction, distinguishing temptation and sin. This is a point of contention among conservatives.

This is a book focused on worldviews and their effect on our values. To work through our disagreements on moral issues, we have to talk worldviews (but we often don’t). At times she points out the inconsistency of how worldviews are played out. The militancy of activists is contrary to the view that moral values are subjective and personal rather than public. Their own views, by their worldview, are social constructs and should not demand compliance. Yet, it is like the Borg, “Resistance is futile.” All the more reason to lay out worldviews for examination.

Pearcey helpfully lays out the origin of these newer ethical views so you understand why it is so important to those who whole those views. This is a book well worth reading.

[I received a complementary copy of this book for the purposes of review]

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Like many Americans (and many Christians) I have been shaking my head for the last year or so as the primaries have shaken the list of Presidential candidates down to (essentially) two. I feel very much in a quandary. Like many people I feel like I have to choose between two unsavory choices. Both main party candidates have baggage, and lots of it.

The Libertarian candidate is getting a bit more press than usual. I know more people than usual are considering voting for Johnson. While I agree with many elements of the libertarian ethos, particularly those about the size of government. In this regard I prefer the Libertarians to the Donkey and the Elephant. But there are the social issues, and I don’t have an affinity for laissez-faire morality. So the quandary continues.

I did consider playing the part of obstuctionist. Since Johnson doesn’t actually have a chance to win, voting for him my help him get enough votes to mess up the electoral college so that neither Hillary nor Donald win. That, however is hedging a huge bet.

So … what should I do? I should do what everyone should do whether they are a Christian or not. Here is what I think we should all do:

  1. Read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. There is plenty of rhetoric in the campaigns. Some promises I’ve heard would seem to be contrary to the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  2. If you are a Christian (or other person of faith) read your Bible (or the book for your faith). Actually it is a bit late for that, but perhaps look up pertinent passages as needed to sort through the moral issues that present themselves.  This is because I want you to …
  3. Read their political platforms. After deciding to write this post, I saw Joe Carter’s post on the Gospel Coalition. He notes that Republicans vote according to the platform 89% of the time and Democrats 79% of the time.  This is a very good indicator of how they will vote, more so than the speeches candidates may give. Here are links for the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian platforms. They can be lengthy but don’t listen to Nancy Pelosi’s famous statement about the ACA: “You can read it when we pass it.” Know what you are getting yourself into!
  4. Weigh their platforms by your values. Don’t expect to agree with everything, or disagree with everything. For instance, I think most of us believe that the lives of minorities matter too. You will have to differentiate between meaningful/significant differences and less meaningful/significant differences. For instance, I’m not a one issue voter, but one of the significant issues for me is abortion. If a political party celebrates abortion, and wants to force everyone to pay for abortions (repealing the Hyde Amendment), that is huge for me. May not be huge for you.

In other words, don’t vote for a candidate so much as for a platform. Take out the “who do you like factor”. This isn’t a popularity contest. Take out the sex o f the candidate, whether your vote for or against someone because she is a woman it is sexist. Get beyond the sound bytes, and memes, and get to what they actually stand for, in writing. Maybe there will be less nose holding, and more voting for something instead of against someone.

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In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned John Irving’s novels, and particularly The Cider House Rules. I have a love/hate relationship with John Irving.

I often appreciate his sense of humor (though this probably reflects poorly on me), his New England settings and the “God-haunted” quality of his work. God is seldom absent from Irving’s work, even if He is rejected, scorned or ignored by characters. You get the impression that Irving wrestles with his own religious upbringing.

Back when The Cider House Rules was made into a movie John Irving did an interview in which he said it was a defense of abortion on demand. At the time I remember thinking, “has he lost his mind?” I still do. But let’s ponder the plot for a few minutes.

The book begins in an orphanage located in Maine. Homer, played by Tobey Maguire, is an older orphan there. Among the staff is Dr. Larch, played by Michael Caine. He loves the kids, who are often in his care too long. There aren’t enough couples willing to adopt. There is a touching scene as a young couple arrives and all the kids are doing their best to appear adoptable. It is heartbreaking that they only choose one, and to see the disappointment sink the rest of the kids. Except like those like Homer who is older and slightly cynical. This is part of the reason why Irving has his views, I think.

Yet, he does not portray this orphanage as a place of abuse. There is love. Homer has been well-loved by the staff and loves the younger kids well. The Dr. has taken Homer under his wing and believes Homer can take his place one day.

Soon another young couple shows up. Not to adopt, but to abort. Dr. Larch raises extra funds for the orphanage by performing abortions. Homer is torn. He loves and hates the orphanage. Part of him wants to escape and find his own way in the world. This young couple perhaps senses this. He also seems to be attracted to her. He ends up leaving with them, having a conflicted relationship with her while he goes off to war. He also works in the apple orchard.

As a result he lives in the cider house with the migrant workers. Here we see the crux of the movie in two ways. First, the workers chaff at the list of rules on the post of the Cider House (hence the title). They were made, the workers argue, by people who don’t work or live in the Cider House. They feel like someone who doesn’t understand them, their circumstances, needs and desires is forcing these rules upon them. This is a metaphor for God’s law, and the common human response to it. “Who is God”, people think, “to tell us what to do? He doesn’t walk in our shoes! He doesn’t understand what it’s like and the pressures we face.”

Homer soon finds himself in another bind; another complicated relationship. There is sin in the camp, so to speak. He is friends with the workers, especially Mr. Rose and his daughter Rose (yeah, Rose Rose). He has thrown off God’s law (and social convention reflecting it) and had an incestuous relationship with his daughter who is now pregnant. What can Homer do?

Homer, using the skills learned from Dr. Larch, performs an abortion for Rose. In a sense, he gains clarity on how he wants to spend his life. He wants, so he thinks, to relieve misery. In particular the misery caused by sin. So he returns to the orphanage to learn more from Dr. Larch and take his place.

Soon though, Dr. Larch dies from an overdoes of the ether he uses to get to sleep. Though he, like the migrant workers, has rejected the rules, he still wrestles with guilt over the lives he has taken. So, while we see abortion as an attempt to relieve the misery of sin it actually creates more misery because it too is sin.

Is Irving right? Do we have a right to toss out the rules? Is life in an orphanage a fate worse than death/non-existence? Is abortion the best answer to rape & incest?

Let’s start with Jesus. To stick with Irving’s metaphor, Jesus entered the Cider House, lived in the Cider House. The accusation of an absentee deity doesn’t work with Jesus. He not only made the rules, but also lived under the rules He made.

Though He never broke the rules, Jesus suffered the penalty for law breaking for others. Though He never sinned, He tasted the misery produced by sin. He lived in poverty, and suffered injustice for others. This is the essence of the gospel, which refutes Irving’s cry in the mouths of the migrant workers.

We see this same God loves orphans, the abandoned. He loves them so much He calls His children to welcome and care for orphans. Christians have a long history of doing just that. When it was still an illegal religion, Christians were well-known for taking in the children abandoned by their parents. Many pastors, famous and unknown, have established orphanages to care for orphaned and abandoned children (Spurgeon and Mueller for example). Today many pastors in Africa still do. In the west orphanages are seen as passe. We have the foster care system and adoption. Christians are among those most likely to foster or adopt children. My wife and I are thankful for orphanages since 3 of our children were adopted out of orphanages.

Pregnancy as a result of rape or incest is a real problem. It seems as if we are punishing the woman. I understand a traumatized woman wanting to abort the child.

That doesn’t mean it is the right thing. Or the best thing. Remember, the gospel centers on Jesus who suffered for the benefit of others. The gospel calls us to suffer with, and sometimes for, others. A life transformed by Christ’s work will choose to suffer at times. A woman could carry the child to term and give him/her up for adoption. Or raise the child. I’ve known of people who did this. It seems impossible. It happens only by the grace of God.

Jesus doesn’t just pardon our sin after the fact. He can help us to say ‘no’ to unrighteousness. Our moral code is not to be a lowest common denominator kind of thing. Jesus works in us to do the right thing, the best thing not just for us but for others.

Irving’s argument works in a world without God, or the world of an absentee God. But it doesn’t really work in a world where Jesus is God Incarnate, the Lamb of God and reigning king.

What was John Irving thinking?

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I decided to read Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul for a reason. We are still in a bad place with race relations in this country. As the white middle class father of two African-American children, I wanted to listen to how some African-Americans view the problem.

Like many people, I find discussions about race difficult. It is hard to build up the trust to speak honestly without judgment. It is awkward and difficult. So when I saw this book available for review I thought I’d get a copy, as if Eddie Glaude Jr. and I were sitting across the table from one another in a beer-less summit of sorts.

He is a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. He also teaches in the religion department.

There are many good things about this book. He tells it like he honestly sees it (which means it can be some unpleasant, painful truth). Politically, he doesn’t portray Democrats as perfect, or even President Obama, not Republicans as all evil (though he disagrees strongly with many policies). We will get to that later.

The strength of the book, for me, was chapters 2-4. He attempts to get to the heart of the long-term, on-going race issues in this nation. This has to do with the value gap, racial habits and white fear. From the beginning this nation has valued blacks less than whites. The end of slavery hasn’t ended it. The end of Jim Crow laws hasn’t ended it. It is a matter of the heart that is worked out in society. I think some of his examples are flawed. For instance, on page 31 he addresses the diseases that kill blacks at a higher rate than whites. But heart disease, cancer and AIDS get plenty of press and research money. It isn’t like these diseases are ignored because they kill blacks. Unfortunately he doesn’t bring up abortion which kills a disproportionate number of black babies, but is consistently protected by the white liberal establishment. But I agree with him that there is a value gap. Generally speaking, black lives don’t seem to matter as much in our society. The rates of incarcerated blacks is not just about poverty and crime, but also a flawed criminal justice system.

His discussion of disremembering is particularly helpful. This is the collective memory of a society which leaves out some of the ugly realities of our history or particular events. We do this, as a culture, to think the best about ourselves. He doesn’t get to its root in pride, but this is something not often discussed.

“When we disremember an event, an egregious moment in the past, we shape how we live in the present. … Disremembering is active forgetting. … What we put in and leave out of our stories tells us something about who we are.”

As a part of this, even when a challenging aspect of our past is brought us, we tend to objectify it. Those people are bad, but we rarely, if ever, think “I could do that too. If I were there I may very well have been one of the perpetrators.”

“Rather, inequality comes from the habits we exercise daily- habits that aren’t revealed in racial slurs and blatant acts of discrimination, but in the choices we make and the lives we live, even when those choices and lives seem to have little to do with race”

The little white boy across the street from him learned on day one that he was not supposed to play with “niggers” (his word, not mine). We all pick up unspoken ideas about race. “Racial habits are formed by the outcomes we see in the world rather than by the complex processes that produced those outcomes.” With so much poverty in the African-American community, many assume that they are lazy. He talks about “opportunity hoarding” in which a majority culture tends to keep the good stuff. We are often blind to the “way social networks reproduce inequality: white individuals benefit from being part of white social groups.” He talks about how we often get jobs through social networks, but think we “earn it.” Of the 14 jobs I’ve had over the years (at times working more than one) all but 2 were the result of knowing someone. When we consider it, that is astounding. This points to the need for internships for minorities so they can develop a social network AND the skills to get better jobs (think the NFL which has the Rooney Rule for minorities and women but doesn’t actively recruit them for lower tier positions so they can gain skills and connections).

One of those habits we pick up is that of masking, particularly how we feel about racial matters. We don’t want to talk honestly about race at Starbucks, or anywhere else. Blacks are afraid of being labeled the angry black man, and whites are afraid of being labeled a clueless racist. Additionally, we participate in the racial theater led by prominent civil rights leaders, and even our President. A theater that doesn’t actually resolve anything, but seems to just keep picking at the wounds.

“White fear is the general frame of mind that black people are dangerous, not only to white individuals because they are prone to criminal behavior, but to the overall well-being of our society.”

White fear is a political fear, and an economic fear. I recall as a young person being afraid of losing out due to affirmative action and minority scholarships (which I hope and pray my kids get!). It is largely about self-interest. Those in the lower economic or social ladders tend to fear those above, and those in the middle and higher tend to fear those below supplanting them. This has been common in our culture with new immigrants (Italians, Polish etc), but African-Americans have persistently been part of that perceived threat while other groups have moved up the ladder and began to share in white fear. Political fear “takes fears based in narrow concerns and gives them a more generalized fear.”

In addition to the Great Black Depression (the recession hit black communities far harder than white ones), we’ve seen the dissolution of the black social structures that have enabled black people to think and grow in relative safety (black churches, colleges, press etc.). In some ways they are losing their voice.

His chapter on President Obama and the Black Liberals is a good history of black political thought and groups in America. He discusses the shifts, and failures. Ultimately they have capitulated to white supremacy and the lie of “color-blindness”. It is the idea that if we just get the right person in power the plight of the African-American community will end. The liberal politician becomes a messiah figure. Don’t worry, white conservatives (and liberals) do this too. He notes the failure to hold politicians accountable as part of the problem (this goes far beyond black democratic life).

“The whole business of black politics becomes the political project of black liberals, with their latent desire for the disappearance of black America. Looks like we have been accomplices in our own demise after all.”

While this book was very helpful for me, I saw some fundamental problems as well. In his book Bloodlines, John Piper notes that for a minority culture everything is seen as a race issue, while for a majority culture nothing is seen as a race issue. The truth, obviously, is somewhere in the middle. There are things that Glaude sees as race issues, or solely as race issues, which may not be. His thinking is reductionistic at times. One example is voter ID laws. He sees this as an attempt to suppress the black vote. My own approval of voter ID laws has to do with addressing voter fraud (but I’d be what he calls a right wing extremist). I see room for compromise in how the laws are written so that the black vote is not suppressed (free gov’t IDs for people on welfare for instance). I don’t want to exclude any citizens from voting (black, Asian, Hispanic, Democrat, Independent etc.). I do want to prevent people from voting more than once, and from non-citizens from exercising the rights of citizens.

His solutions don’t seem compelling to me, though at times I am also tempted to vote “none of the above” too. As someone who teaches religion, I’d hope he would bring some theology into play. No, I’m not talking simply about forgiveness. For instance, the answer to the value gap is the imago dei. He seems to have no objective reason for our equality, a problem expressed in the existential ethics of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and other places. It is not simply a white/black thing but one that plagues every culture.

I do agree we need to have some difficult, honest conversations. We have to stop masking, but this can only happen in an atmosphere of overall acceptance. The value gap stands in the way of that, as does white fear. I see little hope of actually moving forward without the gospel which affirms the dignity (imago dei) and depravity (we all sin) of each person, while providing acceptance thru justification by faith, and power to put to death the misdeeds of the old man in Adam (like racism) through the power of the Spirit because our minds are being renewed ( we see where our sin is, and what righteousness is).

All this does mean we have to build relationships with people different from ourselves: ethnically, economically, religiously. As we experience them as real people with real feelings, strengths and weaknesses we can move forward. But if we remain in our peer groups, behind the walls of fear, and differing values, nothing will change. Nothing will change if white people think they have to fix is all and “save” African-Americans. They needed to be invested with power, not simply allowed to share the same space.

This was a very helpful and insightful book despite its flaws. It is a book I’d recommend to others to help better understand the history of race relations and politics in this country. While I’ll disagree with him on a number of points, I’m better for reading it. It would be nice to sit across from a table from him, over beer, even if we raise our voices at times.

(I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.)

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Most bloggers focus on the best books of the year. I’m not competent to rank books I haven’t read. I am often a little behind as I read based on needs not just desire. So I focus on the books I read in the last year. It was a light year as I spent more time than I wanted reading my own book to edit it. So, here we go!

The Creedal Imperative (ebook) by Carl Trueman. This is the first Trueman book I’ve read. Okay, only one so for. It was a very good book arguing for the use of creeds and confessions. It is not a very big book but it covers some important territory.

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. It starts off a bit dry and philosophical as it examines the ways various cultures have trying to answer the problem of suffering. He then argues that only Christianity has a satisfying answer to this problem. Then he goes into proactive mode in addressing how we can prepare the spiritual reserves, so to speak, to survive pain and suffering.

The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame. I started this book in 2012 or 13 but finished it in 2014. It is an extremely long book, but I thought an extremely helpful book I will return to as I consider various ethic issues (I recently returned to his material on the Sabbath in light of a discussion in Presbytery). I appreciate how Frame looks at things.

Against the Gods (ebook) by John Currid. This is another short book . This one focuses on the relationship between biblical material and ANE material. Currid argues for a polemical approach to understand similarities. It is helpful for helping to defend the faith from attacks based on archeological findings.

Antinomianism (ebook) by Mark Jones. I think this is a very important book that helps us make some important distinctions as we think about both grace and law. Jones focuses on the strains of antinomianism that arose during the age of the Puritans. He does make some modern application.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: an English Professor’s Journey into the Christian Faith by Rosaria Butterfield. The best part is the story of her conversion as a lesbian “gay theory” professor. There is much to learn about how homosexuals view the Christians. She found many of those views to not be necessarily true as Christians loved her and she read the Word. She also had to face how much life would change. I could do without the argument for exclusive psalmody, but there is much to benefit from otherwise.

Taking God at His Word (ebook) by Kevin DeYoung. This is a short, solid defense of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. It is quite accessible to the lay person. Well worth reading, and keeping on hand to let others borrow.

Song of Songs by Tremper Longman III. I read this commentary for an upcoming series in Sunday School. It was a very helpful commentary on a quite, at times, confusing book.

Rooted by Raymond Cannata and Joshua Reitano. This is a great little book on the Apostles’ Creed designed to either be read alone or with a group. What is distinct about this book is the missional bent of the material. They don’t just want to help you expand your knowledge and understanding to to see the call to bring these truths into the world to the glory of God.

unPlanned by Abbey Johnson. This is one woman’s story about life as a Planned Parenthood director who comes face to face with the truth about Planned Parenthood. It is a very interesting story from a former insider. Part of the story involves the love she experienced from the majority of the pro-life protesters she saw on a regular basis. This is in stark contrast to the paranoia and fear so many PP people had when thinking about them. Eventually the dissonance grew to great after operating a sonargram during an abortion.

The Closer by Mariano Rivera. This was a very interesting book about the Hall of Fame (future) reliever. You can clearly see the providence of God. His faith is often in the background, but it is a great story even if you are not a Yankees’ fan.

Resisting Gossip (ebook) by Matthew Mitchell. There are not many books about the sin of gossip. This is one of the few, and it is a good, gospel-centered one. This book deserves a reading.

The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life by Ralph Davis. The former OT professor looks at Psalms 1-12. Excellent material with a very practical focus.

The Good News We almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung. This is another excellent book by Kevin DeYoung. This time he tackles the Heidelberg Catechism. It is accessible for younger Christians and filled with pastoral wisdom.

Parcells: A Football Life by Bill Parcells and Nunyo DeMasio. This is a very interesting book about Parcells’ life, football and the many people he worked with. It is fascinating from a leadership perspective, and will build most people’s understanding of football and how teams should be built.

The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism (ebook) by Gregory Beale. This is another important book addressing a contemporary problem. It is far more technical than DeYoung’s. It is geared more to pastors, but well-read lay persons would appreciate it.

Shame Interrupted by Ed Welch. This is an important subject for Christian growth. Shame is experienced by all, but can be crippling to many. It is a hidden root for many symptoms. Welch unpacks the gospel to show the ways it moves us from shame to honor.

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