Tuesday, September 28, 2010

About Religious Surveys

So how concerned should we be about the new Pew US Religious Knowledge Survey. In results highlighted in major news media sources, the Pew Survey reported that self proclaimed atheists, Jews and Mormons knew more about Christianity and the Bible than self proclaimed Christians! The Pew Survey interviewed 3200 people and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and general Religious Knowledge. Atheists averaged 20 right answers, Christians 16-17 or about half right. 45% of the Catholics did not know their church teaches that the bread and wine of communion actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus. More than 50% of the Protestants did not know who Martin Luther was. Almost no one knew who Jonathan Edwards was. About half those surveyed thought the Golden Rule was one of the ten commandments and only about half knew the names of all four gospels. Overall, Mormons answered more of the questions from the Bible right than Christians did. The full analysis of the survey is at pewforum.org

I took the abbreviated quiz the NY Times had at its website today. Not too tough. But, then I wasn't surprised at the results of the survey. Seems like there is a similar poll about every year and it shows the same results. And I have been a pastor long enough to know Christian Education has fallen on hard times. Another of the survey's findings was this: few people read books about their own faith. While they may read the Bible once a week that's about the extent of their Christian Education. The survey found most people never read anything about other religious points of view. As the detective on Dragnet used to say, those are the facts, just the facts.

American Christians think that they don't need to think. Christianity is a relationship; we are saved by faith, not by thinking. Thinking leads to doubts and questions and life is too complicated as it is. We don't want to complicate our faith. Our minds are made up. What is there to think about, unless we are unsure of what we believe. Christian faith is supposed to make us feel better about ourselves, about life in general. So, if it is doing that, then it is doing its job. It is supposed to be a means of having a hope, a purpose in troubled times. If it is, why fix what ain't broke. So, do we really need to think. How concerned should we be when we hear about polls and surveys such as the one this week by the Pew Forum.

In the NY Times article, the president of the leading atheist organization in the country was asked to comment on how well atheists did on the survey. He said he was not surprised. He had always said atheists knew Christianity better than Christians did. He said he encouraged people to read the Bible, to study Christianity. Only then will they find out why they should not believe it. Interesting point.

Faith does not come by study, by thinking. It is a gift, the Bible says. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) believed that faith was the foundation for Christian thought. "I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand; for this also I believe, that unless I believe I will not understand." He went on to formulate the ontological proof for God's existence which is still useful today and he wrote Cur Deus Homo (why God became man), a seminal work on the atonement.

Knowledge does not save by itself. But faith seeks reasons. So the Church will always have a teaching ministry. The latest Pew Survey confirms what most of us already knew. There is still plenty of work to do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

1 Corinthians 13

Sarah Ruden has written a new book that opened some new windows for me on Paul and his letters. Ruden with a background in Greek and Roman classics reads Paul against that background. It makes for a fascinating and exciting book. For instance, discussing 1 Corinthians 13 she says it's like he catches himself when he gets to v31 of ch.12. He has been talking about how the body of Christ works together with all its separate parts. He asks a series of questions that betrays some irritability on his part. Then, he catches himself, wait a minute, what's missing here. Its love, agape, in Greek, a selfless love. Ruden notes that Paul shifts to first person (after all the times I have read this chapter and preached on it, why did I never notice it is Paul speaking in the first person after he has just taught about the workings of the body of Christ?). He is writing that " he is worthless in all of his achievements if he does not have love." If he speaks in tongues, or does miracles or has a faith that moves mountains but does not have love, it is all worthless! It is an amazing revelation.

Then Ruden notes Paul shifts to the third person and writes this beautiful description of what love is. In our translations there are lots of adjectives but in Greek there is not a single one. It is all verbs; love is a verb. She says if love is not an ethereal, abstract standard .... could be it is the Living God who loves the ones who are loving others with his love. Suppose this is his love loving us so that we can love with the love that loves us. She says.

Then Paul shifts back to first person again. If we practice this love we grow up into who God wants us to be. If we don't practice this love, we remain children, we don't see ourselves clearly. But, when we get it and practice love, we can see the face of God.

In the church our attention is on so many things: worship music, the sermon, the offering, who is doing what behind the scenes so Sunday morning comes off with some kind of structure, etc. But none of this is worth beans, says Paul, without love. Agape love which is a selfless love. Which is a verb. Talking about love is worthless without loving. Without love being a verb.

It has been said I (we) talk about love too much ( and grace). There is some truth in that. Not that we talk about it too much, but that we need to balance out all our talking about love with much more doing love. In fact, I could stop talking about it altogether and just work on doing it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The lectionary readings for this week were from Jeremiah 32 and Luke 16. I decided to go with the Jeremiah passage for preaching. The Luke passage was the story of Lazarus the beggar. I did some early work on that story before I changed course and went with Jeremiah buying the field in Anathoth as the Babylonians were storming the gates of the city. Both powerful stories.

Lazarus is the only named person in any of Jesus' parables. Think of that. A poor, hungry, beggar who was covered with sores and who sat at the gate of a rich man for years. His only friends were the dogs who came and gave him some relief. But of human aid there was none. The rich man knew his name, too, but he never gave him any help. We are supposed to see that the rich man was very rich and Lazarus was very poor. In death, the rich man ended up in Hades and suffering while Lazarus was at Abraham's side. He was carried there by the angels while the rich man was buried. So, the tables are turned.

I think we are to see that God knew Lazarus's name. He meant something to God even when he had little worth to human beings. From many Scripture passages we know God has a special concern for the poor and oppressed. That is what we see here.

People can make a name for themselves but those who no one knows and whose suffering seems to be invisible - are not forgotten by God. Here in Luke 16, Lazarus enjoys a rich afterlife while the rich man suffers.

I was reminded of a story from my early days as a pastor. I met a man who looked homeless but actually lived in an apartment house in one room subsidized by the government. He barely functioned. I don't remember how we met but I know we had him to our home for an occasional meal and even for Thanksgiving one year. He mostly sat in the corner mumbling. I would call on him at his room, sit on his bed, and try to talk to him while he rolled cigarettes with tobacco stained fingers and mostly mumbled. One day I tried his door and it was locked. I came back that same day and it was still locked. Thinking it strange, I got a hold of the building supervisor and he unlocked the door. The man lay face down on his bed, dead. Dead for several days the police figured. He had no family that I knew of. He had no money. Welfare had a paupers allowance to bury him with. I got some people from church and we had a graveside service for Frank. Frank was his name.

I read in the NY Times this week about an isolated tent camp in Haiti set up after the earthquake. Thousands of people have been living there for months. Someone put up a suggestion box for people to communicate with NGO's. The idea has taken off. There are some thank you's written to the many organizations which are still there providing aid. There are also desperate cries for help. "Please, do something! We don't want to die from hunger and also we want to send our children to school. I give glory to God that I am still alive - but I would like to stay that way! Signed, Ms. Saint Hilaire

1.3 million Haitians are homeless now in 1,300 camps which have suggestion boxes. Most of the suggestions are expressions of suffering like the one above. Some say, I can't sleep, or I am discouraged, or I had a baby who died and I have six other children who don't have a father, and my tarp leaks and the rain panics me and I don't have money to feed my family and I would really love it if you would help me. Signed, Marie Jean Jean

Most of the people sign their names. Hoping someone is listening.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

President's List part 1

The so called founding fathers were generally men of stellar character and intellect. Our founding documents were conceived in their minds and written by their hands. Other than John Adams they were all slave owners or believed that slavery could continue to exist in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Since they believed so passionately in freedom it is hard to believe they could have overlooked the freedom of so many people living in their own country. John Adams and John Q. Adams were the only ones to see the moral defect in the thinking of the others.

Andrew Jackson was the war hero of New Orleans and somehow that qualified him to be president. He was notoriously anti-native American and pro-slavery. Certainly the worst of our early presidents and one of the worst of all time. His reign - and it was a reign - he pretty much did what he wanted to do - was followed by several other war heroes - from border wars with Mexico and Indian wars. Van Buren was not but he continued Jackson's Indian Removal policies and sided with Spain on returning the slave ship Amistad. His claim to fame is called "the trail of tears."

Harrison was not able to continue the governments brutal Indian policies because he only lasted in office for 32 days. His main qualification for the post was fighting Indians.

Tyler, Polk, and Taylor were presidents during the war years with Mexico as their governments attempted to annex more territory for the United States. Taylor was a war hero under Polk. Indians continued to be removed, slavery continued to spread (Taylor owned slaves), and many Mexicans were killed in an unprovoked war over territory.

Fillmore was a western New Yorker and I used to go to a state park named after him that included a log cabin he supposedly lived in when he was young. He became very rich later in life. The log cabin was not much of a tourist attraction, it didn't even have a caretaker or charge a fee to visit it. It just stood there, ignored. Much like Fillmore's presidency. He was pro-slavery and anti-Catholic. He did found the University of Buffalo but they don't even have a good football team. He became president when Taylor died in office. He couldn't get re-elected.

Pierce was a northern Whig but his pro-slavery views appealed to the south. He fought in the Mexican war and beat Scott for the presidency who also was a war hero. Polk didn't like Scott and spread rumors that seriously damaged his reputation. By all other accounts he was a pretty decent guy. Almost certainly he would have made a better president than Pierce. Pierce saw slavery extended further west through the Nebraska-Kansas act of 1854. Historians have claimed that Pierce may be our worst president.

Hard to beat out Buchanan though for that dishonor. Another pro-slavery president he presided over the Dred Scott supreme court decision. Not that he decided it but he never said anything against it. Whereas, Lincoln derided it as the worst decision ever. Buchanan, presided over many disasters during his way too long four years - Bleeding Kansas, and the panic of 1857. He vies with Pierce for worst president.

Finally, we get to Lincoln. After such a run of poor presidents it was providential that our country got the right person for the time. Lincoln was elected even though the south was not happy with his anti- slavery views, so he was the first anti-slavery president elected in a long time. Pretty much up until Lincoln presidents needed the support of the South to win. Just how was he elected? Providence. My vote for the best US president.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination, was another low point in the US presidents list. A southerner, former Governor of Tennessee, he botched up Lincoln's reconstruction plan and made sure emancipated slaves knew they were still very much second class citizens.

U.S Grant, the Union Civil War Hero, has been much maligned for his ineptitude. A Pulitzer prize winning biography by William McFeely portrayed Grant to be a drunk and too tolerant of corruption in his administration. However, other biographers since McFeely believe his portrait to be inaccurate. His administration did elicit charges of corruption and nepotism was rampant, but he stuck to his guns in putting some federal firepower into the enforcement of reconstruction and fighting the Klan. He served two terms, reviving his popularity on a worldwide tour and writing a best selling memoir. One of our better presidents in my view.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bad Science

Marilynne Robinson is an important writer. She is a pulitzer award winning novelist ( check out her novels: Gilead and Home). She is a penetrating thinker, as well, on issues of contemporary culture. Her latest book is Absence of Mind. It is not a novel but a serious critique of modern popular science writers who "tend to reduce the person to brains, explaining away the strangeness and mystery of human experience." She calls it bad science, reducing the question of existence to the merely material. In her pointed criticisms of the genre of popular science writers ( ie, Wilson, Dennett, Pinker, Dawkins, etc) she expresses some concerns for people of Christian faith, as well. She says a Christian definition of the mind should be an openness to whatever the individual and collective mind reveals to us. And then this, " we don't know what we are. Nothing humanly wonderful could have been anticipated by us. Our own best moments or achievements surprise us. We know that, individually and collectively, we have never lived up to ourselves. And we know that, at moments, we have surpassed any hope we had of ourselves." She goes on to say, " I think the mind should inspire religious awe in Christians .... for human beings, as such. It saddens me that Christians need to be reminded of the awe that is owed to those who disagree with them, ... I am afraid this hardening toward "enemies", toward those images of God some of them are so ready to view as enemies, indicates the worst aspects of a body of thought they actually think they reject. Consequences follow for all of us when the individual is trivialized."

"Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions, ceding that ground to anybody in a white coat. ...we fear science... the more people know we think the less they are inclined toward belief... this is a central assumption of atheism."

"among my estimable students there is no way to distinguish those with a religious background from those whose experiences have been entirely secular, in terms of their sensitivity to allusion, or their familiarity with essential narrative, or with the basic terms in which the faith is articulated and pondered. In the great majority of cases they have been taught little or nothing."
"the assumption seems to be ascendant now that Christians in general have no interest in history or theology... unless they seek them out on their own they are unlikely to have had enough exposure to them to know whether they would find them meaningful..."

"Christians have not remembered our own strength over against the arguments that test it. It has not equipped people to realize that it has been the sponsor of a great intellectual culture. Where have the sciences flourished? where has freedom of thought and inquiry developed so powerfully, as in Christian civilization? These things are not new to us, not alien, not threatening, ... and we should honor and preserve them ... beginning with the local church."

"Christianity should be itself. Christians acting like Christians is the best response to the popular science writers, the new atheists. Living out the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25 - these hard teachings that run against the impulses to judgmentalism and exclusivism which assert themselves so strongly when Christians feel threatened. If Christians believe what they claim to believe, that the church is the body of Christ, how can they think any "culture wars" are necessary to its survival? Its wars, past and present, are the most telling charge against it".

"Human beings tend to be religious. We must take care to protect the beauty, dignity, and integrity of Christianity so that people are not turned away by experience that makes it seem corrupt, hypocritical, subject to manipulation by other interests, or simply crude."

I will add my two cents. Amen and Amen