Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Now or never in Darfur

Eric Reeves, an english professor at Smith College, has written a provocative article in The New Republic Online (registration required):

Now or never in Darfur:
"What will happen after humanitarian organizations leave Darfur? The question grows more relevant daily. For much of 2004, humanitarian groups ramped up their operations in Darfur. These efforts temporarily blocked the genocidal aims of the Sudanese government from coming to full fruition. Throughout 2003 and 2004, government-backed militias terrorized Darfur's African tribal populations, evicting them from their villages and cutting them off from their livelihoods. Many ended up in refugee camps, where only the efforts of humanitarian groups have allowed them to stay alive. Sudan's leaders would like nothing more than to see these groups leave the country, so that disease and malnutrition can finish the work the militias started three years ago...."
With all the crises that develop worldwide, it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all. Apathy has killed people in every time and every place. How many Jews might have been spared had the Allies not ignored or scoffed at news filtering out of the Third Reich during the 1930s? How much suffering could have been alleviated in the former Yugoslavia had the world been willing to act earlier? More recently in Africa, the world saw a horrible genocide in Rwanda and did little to stop it. Now in the Darfur region of Sudan, the events unfolding bring a sense of familiarity.

The UN removed "nonessential" staff last month, as did some humanitarian organizations, due to attacks on aid workers. The janjaweed militias are becomong bolder in their attacks, and many organizations feel they cannot act in safety. The Sudanese staff will remain behind, but without the eyes and ears of the international community in Sudan, they may be in danger.

The resources that aid workers count on are dwindling, due to what Eric Reeves calls "donor fatigue". The future of the Darfur region may well depend on Christians not succumbing to fatigue or despair.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Return Home and the Civil War in Southwest Missouri

We have returned from a nice visit with my folks in Houston. As is our preferred schedule, we did about two-thirds of the driving the first day, and and coasted into Columbia the second day.

As we left our overnight stop in Joplin, Missouri, I glanced down at the instrument panel and noted that we were about at 1/8 tank. We got off the interstate at Carthage and filled up.

Carthage was the site of another Civil War battle on July 5, 1861 involving the Missouri State Guard under General Price Governor Claiborne Jackson, and Federal units under Colonel Franz Sigel who had been dispatched by General Nathaniel Lyon to cut off the retreat of State Guard forces following the battle at Boonville on June 17, 1861. After Boonville, the Missouri State Guard retreated quickly to the southwest and arrived ahead of Sigel's federal troops at a point north of Carthage. Sigel attacked, apparently unaware that he was seriously outnumbered, and the Missouri State Guard ran them through Carthage. Sigel and his men got out of the way, and headed back to Springfield where the rest of the Union forces in the area were gathered. Price, later joined by CSA General McCulloch, headed for northern Arkansas, which was his original objective. As battles go, the casualties were relatively light -- 44 Union, 74 Missouri State Guard -- but these forces would meet again in a month at Wilson's Creek as the Missouri State Guard attempted to position themselves to retake Springfield.

As mentioned before, Wilson's Creek, was a loss for the Union, but the Confederates were weakened. The Union troops withdrew from Springfield, moving closer to Rolla and the railhead, and the Missouri State Guard, for the moment, occupied Springfield. By the end of October, Price, having won several victories, including a major one at Lexington, Missouri, withdrew to Neosho at the approach of additional Union forces. Governor Claiborne Jackson and about 10% of the Missouri State Legislature (far from a quorum) met in Neosho on November 3, and passed an act of secession. By late December, Price had been forced into Arkansas along with the secessionist government (which never actually exercised any civil authority in Missouri) and settled in to prepare for further operations in Missouri, which would finally be thwarted at Pea Ridge in early March of 1862.

There were numerous battles and skirmishes in Missouri and the West, including some of the bloodiest of the early stages of the Civil War. Overall, the war's effects fell disproportionately on the South, and cost measured in civilian suffering was enormous.

As we enter Advent 2005, I want to present a familiar hymn of the season, but with two verses of the original poem that are not ordinarily sung. These verses, four and five in the original seven, lead into the verse beginning with "Then in despair I bowed my head." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these words in 1864 at a particularly dark time during the war:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Longfellow wrote this as a poem rather than a hymn, but it has established itself as one of the best-loved Christmas carols. The complete words are on the Cyber Hymnal website, along with more than 5400 other hymns, many of which have historical information along with the words.

Friday, November 25, 2005

One Child at a Time - Christianity Today Magazine

One Child at a Time - Christianity Today Magazine:
"...Envision a wagon wheel with six spokes. The hub represents abject, unrelenting, bone-grinding poverty. These people live in the garbage dumps of Caracas and Cairo and Calcutta, clutching their stomachs in hunger, shivering in the rain.

The outer rim of the wheel represents the opposite. By the way, the opposite of poor is not rich. The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It's "enough." "Enough" indicates the condition of wholeness, adequacy, and having one's needs met.

How do we move people from the hub to the rim? One spoke, yes, is economics—money. But equally important are the other spokes: health, education, the environment, sociopolitical justice, and spiritual life. If Christians are serious about overcoming poverty, then churches must care about each spoke. Poverty requires a multifaceted response..."
The author of this piece knows poverty in an intimate way, having grown up in West Africa, where his parents were missionaries. He has continued in that field, spending time in Haiti, where the conditions are as bad as any worldwide.

He makes a complelling case for not just sending money, but dealing constructively with all aspects of poverty. He speaks of the corrosive effects of poverty on the mindset of the victims -- they think of themselves as locked into their situation and there is nothing they can do about it.

I would also add to it the fatalism of well-meaning Christians who ask "What can we possibly do about it. The problem is too big."

A spiritual battle needs to be waged, and the Church is equipped to provide spiritual hope as well as helping to meet the more temporal needs. Wess Stafford has given us a provocative call to work on all aspects of poverty, especially the spiritual damage that poverty causes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Interviews: Dennis Quaid - Christianity Today Movies

Interviews: Dennis Quaid - Christianity Today Movies:
"Few actors have had as versatile a career, or have matured as well, as Dennis Quaid. Born in Houston in 1954, he rose to stardom in the 1980s with roles as diverse as a real-life astronaut (The Right Stuff), a New Orleans homicide detective (The Big Easy), a test pilot who is miniaturized and injected into Martin Short's body (Innerspace), an aging football jock (Everybody's All-American), and of course Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire!)...."

"...Quaid spoke to Christianity Today Movies in Los Angeles—first in a private interview, then at a roundtable with several other reporters. The following is an edited transcript from both of those conversations...."
I have not seen very many of the Dennis Quaid films, but those I have seen have been quite enjoyable. Innerspace, The Rookie, and The Right Stuff were all quite well done, in my opinion.

One film not mentioned, Enemy Mine, is perhaps my favorite. In this film Quaid plays a space fighter pilot who ends up marooned on a planet along with his alien adversary. They end up teaming up in order to survive, and it is Quaid's character that has the farthest to go in terms of overcoming hate and prejudice. One particularly moving scene is when the alien teaches Quaid to read and understand the book that he reads regularly. Quaid's development into one who cares not only for himself and his allies, but also his enemies, is portrayed well in this film.

Quaid tells of his Baptist upbringing and how some of his spirituality involves meditation learned in India. He justifies this effectively by pointing out that Jesus went out alone to be alone with God. Quaid says he is a seeker, and it seems that he is looking in the right places.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Texas Renaissance Faire

On Sunday, Susan, Liam, and I arrived at the Texas Renaissance Faire a little before noon -- hungry and ready for some food. My first choice, haggis, was not to be had, which I thought was odd considering all the kilts in evidence. So I fell back to my usual renfest fare -- a smoked turkey leg. It was delicious, although I had a challenge keeping my camera out of the way of drippings. My wife had a "Scottish Egg", which was a hardboiled egg encased in sausage. The drinks were outrageously expensive, so I drank sparingly.

My parents met us at the gate, dressed in their period attire. I suppose Liam and I could have dressed in our mountain man attire, but though the cut of the shirts would have been appropriate, the gingham print would not have been. Besides, the flintlock rifle might have raised a few eyebrows...

The music was great. My youngest brother is a regular musician at this and other fairs, and it had been a few years since I had seen him in his native habitat. Liam was thrilled to see him in action again (it had been at least ten years since he'd seen him in Florida). I enjoyed his performance as well as that of a medieval group called Instanpitta.

The costuming ranged from street clothes, to meticulously researched attire, and most possibilities in between. Not all of it was historically accurate, but most of it was highly entertaining.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Sucking the Church dry

Sucking the Church dry:
"Some years ago John Burgess wrote an essay for The Christian Century in which he described the drain on the ordinary life of the PC(USA) by coalitions with “reform” agendas for the denomination. To whichever coalition or covenant group you belonged, the dedication and resources with which you once strengthened the church for mission, service, and witness, now went into lobbies that were hungry for power, for theological dominance, or for political control. Burgess’ article was written in the ‘90s. Has anyone calculated the hundreds of thousands of dollars which, since then, have been contributed to the Covenant Network, the Presbyterian Coalition, PFR, and the Confessing Church movement, and the like – in staff salaries, speakers’ fees, and travel for conferences, phone bills, office equipment, and the like? If those sums of money were prudently managed and spent, they might eliminate AIDS in a medium-sized African nation...."
Mr. Sparks makes a good point here and I hope we can not only see his point as it applies to other peoples agendas, but as it applies to our own agendas as well.

Whatever one may think of the recommendations of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, they learned how to gather around the Lord's Table together, and modelled for the rest of the PC(USA) how Christians who differ can act as a community.

Read Benjamin Sparks' editorial in its entirety -- it will give considerable food for thought.

Pea Ridge -- March 6-8, 1862

When we left Wilson's Creek we headed for Arkansas, following a route that was often identified as "Old Wire Road." This was a road running from St. Louis to Fort Smith Arkansas and was called "Telegraph Road" at the time of the Civil War.

In late 1861 President Lincoln appointed General Henry W. Halleck commander of the Department of the Missouri. Halleck took on the immediate task of eliminating General Price and his Missouri State Guard as a threat to Union control in Missouri, thus reducing the need for a large contingent of Federal forces, which were needed further to the east.

Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis was appointed commander of the Army of the Southwest, and ordered to immediately engage the Confederate forces that remained in Missouri and northern Arkansas. The supply line for this winter offensive was a bit longer than comfortable, so he appointed a quartermaster, Captain Philip Sheridan, who would go on to gain recognition in later battles.

In the meantime, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, having become aware of the feud between Generals Price and McCulloch, appointed Major General Earl van Dorn commander of the Department of the Trans Mississippi. Generals Price and McCulloch were placed under van Dorn's command, and took their orders from van Dorn.

In the Fall of 1861, a meeting of about 10% of the Missouri Legislature had passed articles of seccession. As far as the Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia was concerned, Missouri was now a part of the Confederacy. The problem with this is that the meeting was held about as far away from Jefferson City as could be, without being in Arkansas; the action was not taken with anything near a quorum; and the "government" quickly became a government in exile as it moved to Arkansas.

General Curtis began his offensive with alacrity, and the remaining Confederate forces removed themselves to Arkansas, comprising an army of about 16,000. In early March of 1862 this force, having left its main body of supplies near Fayetteville, marched quickly north on Telegraph Road, intending to capture St. Louis and gain Missouri for the Confederacy.

General Curtis and his 10,500 soldiers of the Army of the Southwest were dug into positions south of Pea Ridge, expecting an assault from the south. Instead, van Dorn bypassed the Union positions and moved his forces around to the north.

Van Dorn's troops had endured a three-day march in wintry weather, and were in no condition to fight effectively. McCulloch's regiments separated from the main force, and were to recombine near Elkhorn tavern, along Telegraph Road. General McCulloch, wearing his customary black uniform and riding a black horse, decided to reconnoiter alone, as he was wont to do. He told his men he would be back shortly and to await his orders. Those orders never came, as McCulloch passed too close to the Union lines and was shot. General James McIntosh was also killed, and a major part of the Confederate Army of the West was without leadership.

Price's units were doing far better and were able to hold Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph Road. The next day, General Curtis' artillery and troops retook the Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph Road and drove the Confederate forces back. By this point, General van Dorn's decision to have each man under his command take only 40 rounds of ammunition forced him to order a withdrawal. The Confederacy would never again mount an effective campaign in Missouri, and the Union was able to send troops to the east of the Mississippi River.

As with Wilson's Creek, the decisions made by the commanders were key to which army retreated. Had General van Dorn not left his main supply train 3 days to the south, his superior numbers might well have determined the outcome. Had McCulloch and McIntosh not been killed the first day and had they left standing orders, their thousands of men might have joined the battle in time to turn the tide. The Confederates relied on dispatch riders to pass messages. An alarming number of these disappeared without a trace. The Union commander, General Curtis, on the other hand, was able to communicate effectively with his forces, as well as telegraph St. Louis and receive answers in a timely manner.

The Confederates withdrew deep into Arkansas, where they were near their supply lines and in friendly territory. It would be some time before the Union gained control of the lower Mississippi, Arkansas, and White rivers, thus controlling the supply routes into Arkansas, and gaining the ability to neutralize the Trans-Mississippi West as an obstacle to the restoration of the Union.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Wilson's Creek -- August 10, 1861

The three of us left at 4:30 in the afternoon on Friday the 18th, and stopped for dinner at the Lake of the Ozarks. When I went to take my evening medications, I realized that my pills were still in the medicine cabinet. I called my physician, and he called in the prescriptions to the local Walmart where I filled them. Problem solved, except for my faulty memory. Chalk it up to the rush to get on the road...

We stayed the night at Buffalo, MO and were at Wilson's Creek by 8:30 AM Saturday morning.

The battlefield is in pretty much the same condition as it was 143 years ago, and the interpretive signs along the loop drive described the terrain and troop movements. The main difference was that the battle was fought in August of 1861, and we were there in late fall so our view was not as obstructed as it would have been for the 17,000 soldiers that fought there August 10.

General Nathaniel Lyon of the Federal forces was, by some accounts, reckless in his decision to mount a sneak attack on the Confederate positions. Other accounts view this as good strategy based on the intended outcome, which was to keep the secessionist forces off guard and unable to function effectively in the southwest corner of Missouri, where they had been driven.

General Price and his 5,000 Missouri State Guard troops had joined with Ben McCulloch's 4,500 Confederate regulars in July of 1861, and were trying to maintain a hold on the southwest corner of Missouri. The were camped along Wilson's Creek, and their location was known to the Federal forces, whose force of about 6,000 men was garrisoned in Springfield. During July and early August the combined forces of Price and McCulloch totaled more than 12,000

The Southern commanders had planned a suprise attack on the Federals on August 9th, but called it off due to rain. Unlike the Union troops, with their leather cartridge boxes, the paper cartridges used by the Southern troops were carried in pockets or otherwise exposed to the elements. Inexplicably, the Confederate sentinels were not posted that night and there was no one to observe the Union movements that evening and early the next morning.

General Lyon decided to mount a surprise attack the morning of August 10, and in another fateful event, the two Southern generals were in a location that provided an "accoustic shadow". That the Confederate positions were under attack was not believed at first, wasting valuable time.

When Price and McCulloch were able to marshal their troops and give orders, the tide rapidly turned against the Union forces, and they retreated to Springfield, having inflicted about as many casualties on the Confederates as were inflicted upon them.

The Union supply line relied on the railroad delivering materiel to Rolla, the end of the railway heading toward Springfield. Well-maintained dirt and gravel roads were used to deliver the supplies to Springfield where the quartermaster allocated them to Union forces in the area.

The Confederates lived off the land, and were not able to stay in one place, since they had no supply lines through Missouri (The Union held the rivers, roads and railways). The Southern forces did not endear themselves to the local poplulace, which were not particularly sympathetic to the Southern cause in the first place, with their "requisitioning" of food, horses, and housing. The Union, for the most part, gave accounting for what they requisitioned. The war in southwest Missouri, as wars usually do, took a great economic toll on the local citizens, who were in the process of harvest.

All in all, the battle was a Southern victory, but in another fateful turn of events, Price and McCullough went their separate ways after a dispute. The regular army McCulloch considered Price nothing more than a political general leading a state militia (partially true, but a bit unfair, considering Price's record). Price had issues with General McCullough's plans and was unwilling to commit his troops to another's command.

Subsequently, when Price and his command were subsumed into the Confederacy, both Price and McCulloch were placed under another general's command, and they would serve together again seven months later at the Battle of Pea Ridge.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Civil War in the West

This afternoon, when my son gets home from school, we will start heading south through Missouri and spend the night near Springfield. Saturday morning we will tour Wilson's Creek Battlefield, which was the second major battle of the Civil War. By all objective standards it was a loss for the Union, yet it was instrumental in preventing the Confederate-leaning Missouri State Guard under the command of General Sterling Price from taking enough key points to deliver Missouri into the Confederacy.

General Nathaniel Lyon, who was a captain at the outset of the war, mounted a suprise attack on August 10th 1861 with 5,400 men -- less than one-half the 12,000 men at General Price's disposal. Both sides lost over 1200 men apiece (including General Lyon), and the Union forces performed a rapid retreat, but the damage was done. Price and another commander chose to split their forces and the state of Missouri remained in the Union.

On March 6-8, 1862, about 80 miles away, another major battle involving over 26,000 combatants occurred at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. This was a clear Union victory, and pretty much ended the Confederacy's aspirations in the West.

One particularly interesting aspect of all this are the supply lines -- In Missouri, the Union controlled the big rivers -- the Missouri, Osage, and it's bank of the Mississippi. The railroad heading southwest stopped at Rolla (I-44 travels this corridor down toward Springfield today). The supply lines for the Union in Springfield were pretty long, but manageable. The supply lines toward Little Rock were several hundred miles long, thus the Union army spent a lot of time camping rather than fighting.

When one thinks of the key battles of the Civil War, the ones in the east come to mind, yet Missouri was the site of many bloody battles.

We will continue heading south toward Houston, TX after our visit to Pea Ridge. My boy will miss two days of school, but his language arts teacher will expect a journal of his visits to the battlefields, and other experiences along the way. Maybe he'll be interested in blogging...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Presbyterian Outlook: 21st century mission: Shifting center, growing diversity

21st century mission: Shifting center, growing diversity:
"ATLANTA – With the center of Christianity shifting south in the 21st century, what can North American Christians learn from what’s happening in Africa, Asia and Latin America?

What are the implications of the new alignments – with pluralism and secularism increasing in Europe and the United States, while evangelical Christianity is booming in many places in the southern hemisphere?..."

It is somewhat disconcerting to think that we here in the USA are not the center of Christendom, but when we look at it more closely we can see good news (and Good News).

It is tempting to pat ourselves on the back and take credit for planting these churches and nurturing them, and seeing them grow. On further reflection, our Western world views and experiences do little to equip indigenous Christians with the spiritual tools to deal with the challenges that are a part of life in many southern hemisphere countries.

As Vic Pentz, senior pastor of Peachtree Church learned, "his view of mission shifted. Now he sees it as God’s work, ever surprising, not something of which he’s in charge."

With over half of the world's Christians living in the southern hemisphere, a figure that is on track to reach two-thirds by the year 2050, it is good to hear that we as a denomination are doing a little introspection. As a denomination that has suffered significant losses over the past 20 years, we need to discern God's direction for us and have the courage to follow.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Commentaries: Redeeming Harry Potter - Christianity Today Movies

Commentaries: Redeeming Harry Potter - Christianity Today Movies:
Russ Breimeier writes:

"I was recently interviewed on live radio about current movies, and when asked which I was looking forward to the most, I rattled off a few of my obvious choices—including Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which opens this week.

"Uh oh," said the host half-jokingly, "you've just lost half our audience." I was then asked to justify how a Christian could possibly accept and endorse a series of books and films that promotes the occult. Looking back on my fumbled response, I can't help but think of that verse in 1 Peter about being prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks...."
This is an interesting analysis of the evolution in attitudes toward the Harry Potter novels. There are themes running through the novels that seem to come from Christianity, such as the Griffin which was an ancient metaphor for Christ.

I have noted that Harry Potter is at his best when he recognizes that he is dependent on others, and not just on himself.

Mr Breimeier makes a clear distinction between "invocational magic" (the calling up of powers to serve one's selfish requirements), which is clearly prohibited in Scripture, and "incantational magic" which bears some resemblance to prayer.

The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter books all refer to "magic", and and all three recognize that it can be used for good or evil. And all present "teachable moments" with regard to how the good guys respond to evil.

But most of all, they are fun to read, and reflect (even Harry Potter) a world view that is actually quite close to Christian values.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

On Abortion, It's the Bible of Ambiguity - New York Times

On Abortion, It's the Bible of Ambiguity - New York Times:
"Flip to the back of any of the fancy, leather-bound Bibles that are so common in evangelical churches these days, and chances are there is an index. Called a concordance, it offers a list of specific words mentioned in the Bible and where they are referenced in the text.

There a reader can find, for example, how many times Jesus talked about the poor (at least a dozen), or what the Apostle Paul wrote about grace (a lot). But those who turn to their concordance for guidance about abortion will not find the word at all...."
I'm not sure what to make of the phrase "fancy, leather-bound bibles", but for a well-used Bible, a plain leather binding wears a lot better than the best of the hard-cover editions, which is why so many Christians choose them. It certainly is not a defining characteristic of evangelical Churches.

What this article does correctly point out is that not every issue in modern life has a specific Bible passage that can be used as "definitive guidance."

In the issues of life (abortion, capital punishment and war) there are very few people that have a consistent position, yet the Bible has been used to support both sides of each issue.

Where the Bible is silent as far as specific guidance is concerned, we need to look at the totality of God's Word to determine how we believe and act:
"...According to Mr. VanGemeren and many other evangelical Bible scholars, no single passage in the Bible clearly supports the anti-abortion stance, but they argue that the broad narrative of the Bible, with its themes of creation, God's blessing on life and humanity bearing the image of God, speak against abortion...."
The problem, of course, is that different people understand Scripture in different ways, but they at least are starting from the right place. According to Michael Gorman, who is quoted in this article, "There's an impetus in the Bible toward the protection of the innocent, protection for the weak, respect for life, respect for God's creation."

Gorman hits it squarely. This is not a conservative/liberal dichotomy. Christians who read the Bible regularly and accept its authority cannot fail to overlook Micah's prophetic words:
Mic 6:8 He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
I have used this passage many times in the three months this blog has been in existence, and I will, no doubt, use it again. It is one of the best descriptions of what an evangelical Christian is.

Friday, November 11, 2005

CNN.com - Robertson warns Pennsylvania voters of God's wrath - Nov 10, 2005

CNN.com - Robertson warns Pennsylvania voters of God's wrath - Nov 10, 2005:
"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city," Robertson said on his daily television show broadcast from Virginia, "The 700 Club."

This is troubling, coming from any Christian, let alone a spiritual leader with a national audience. It shows an abysmal lack of understanding of the nature of God, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

The underlying validity of Robertson's litmus test for Godliness aside, the entire history of God's people has been one of turning away from God, and being called back by God. God has put up with far more than this, and still calls us back into His presence, and to deny God's continuing love for all is to deny God.

Pat Robertson has a long and tragic history of intemperate remarks, and this is far tamer than, say, calling for the assassination of of a foreign head of state (no matter how objectionable that person may be) -- but such remarks only feed into the erroneous sterotypes that the media promote about evangelical Christianity.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Science and Religion Share Fascination in Things Unseen - New York Times

Science and Religion Share Fascination in Things Unseen - New York Times:
"Most of the current controversies associated with science revolve around the vastly different reactions people both within the scientific community and outside it have, not to the strange features of the universe that we can observe for ourselves, but rather to those features we cannot observe.

In my own field of physics, theorists hotly debate the possible existence of an underlying mathematical beauty associated with a host of new dimensions that may or may not exist in nature.

School boards, legislatures and evangelists hotly debate the possible existence of an underlying purpose to nature that similarly may or may not exist...."

An interesting essay...

I continue to believe that much of the tension between science and religion can be dissipated when the protagonists realize that there are different sources of authority between the two realms.

Science can no more prove that there is no God than Christians can prove that there IS a God. The atheistic point of view is most assuredly outside the realm of science (and logic) because you cannot prove a negative -- and this is why I have some issues with otherwise competent scientists who speak ex cathedra and declare that there is no God, and that such belief is dangerous.

On the other hand, faith in God is not subject to the sorts of observation and testing that characterize scientific research. We can infer God by looking at God's creation, by how lives are changed, by our sense of what is right and wrong, and by the sense of God's presence in our lives. We can look at history and note that people who were eye witnesses of Jesus' ministry on earth not only preached the Good News, but were willing to die for the sake of their faith.

But none of this is scientific proof. In the final analysis it is our faith and actions arising out of our faith that define us, not our ability to provide a rigorous scientific proof of God's existence.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Israeli dig uncovers oldest Christian church in Holy Land

PC(USA) News Release Number 05599 -- oldest church:
JERUSALEM — Israeli archaeologists digging near a prison have discovered the remains of what they believe could be the oldest church ever found in the Holy Land.

Experts say the discovery may shed new light on early Christianity.
The approximate date of this church is the third century A.D., and it contains a tantalizing clue to how the theology of the Lord's Table developed. In addition to mosaics with Christian symbolism, there is an inscription noting that a woman “donated this table to the God Jesus Christ in commemoration.”

If this church is as well-preserved as the inital excavation seems to indicate, it could yield up much more historically significant information as to what the early Church actually believed and practiced.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Disestablishing Distortions (Presbyterian Outlook)

Disestablishing Distortions:
"...Though our U.S. Constitution was produced by a congress consisting mostly of Christians, the first clause of the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official religion. The apparent irony goes deeper when we acknowledge the contributions of Christians in the formation of our government, beginning with the revolutionary war itself. This was something particularly true of Presbyterians. Historian Lefferts Loetscher said that the fires of the American Revolution were fanned from Presbyterian pulpits sufficient for the British to describe it as “the Presbyterian Rebellion.”

Whatever you may think of the disestablishment clause, the biblical wisdom and Reformed theological stamp that shaped our Constitution is unmistakable. James Madison, educated at Presbyterian Princeton where he was a student of John Witherspoon, was its principal author. Remembered as “The Father of the United States Constitution,” Madison helped produce what Lutheran historian Martin Marty has called “a thoroughly Calvinist document.” Marty claims that the Constitution supplies the checks and balances any Presbyterian would love, for the unspoken implication found throughout, “is the conviction that while humans have a great capability, self-interest would always turn them against the common good if left to themselves.”...

-- Willian L Hawkins in a sermon preached at New Hope Presbytery, October 2005
Benjamin Sparks, in this Presbyterian Outlook editorial, begins with Hawkins' sermon and makes a case for the Constitution, like the Bible, being a document that leads to the "Promotion of Social Righteousness." He identifies "religious arrogance" as being what the framers of the U. S. Constitution were hoping to keep out of government, but that reads into the First Amendment language that is not there:
" Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Many feel that this establishes "freedom from religion", but it truth is establishes the right of every American to choose the manner in which they express their religion, or even not to express it at all.

The language issue is the most troubling:
"...What this historical review reveals is that the religious/political rhetoric to which we have been relentlessly subjected in recent years is neither Reformed nor Presbyterian. The “Christianity” that clamors to reclaim the vacant public square is often grounded in fantasies from apocalyptics and fundamentalists who exult in vengeance, rob the poor, and corrupt public life, even while they “starve the beast of government” to death. And they claim righteousness...."
Personally, I think Mr. Sparks is overreacting to a problem that is defined so subjectively that it should not be a basis for condemning other people. I know of no evangelical Christians who exult in vengeance or robbing the poor. Quite the contrary, people who take their faith seriously will "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God" -- and these people are found across the spectrum of conservative to liberal Christians.

How Christians express themselves has often been a line of division in the Church. If fact, a few years ago there was discussion among some of the more liberal groups in the PC(USA) about how the "fundamentists" had coopted the language of faith, and that it was time to "take back the language". The result is that now both sides tend to use similar language in defining their positions.

Mr. Sparks has provided many thought-provoking editorials during his interim editorship, and this article is no exception -- even if it seems to condemn certain Christians a little unjustly.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Exploring a Parallel Universe - Christianity Today Magazine

Exploring a Parallel Universe - Christianity Today Magazine:
Why does the word evangelical threaten so many people in our culture?
"For almost ten years, I have participated in a book group comprising people who attended the University of Chicago. Mostly we read current novels, with a preference for those authors (Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, J. M. Coetzee) who have a connection with the school. The group includes a Marxist-leaning professor of philosophy, a childhood-development specialist, a pharmaceutical researcher, a neurologist, and an attorney...."

Philip Yancey writes about a problem that has been troubling me for a long time -- every since I realized that I was an "evangelical" Christian. Many people assume that Evangelical = Fundamentalist = Right Wing = Narrow-minded = Anti-intellectual = Hate.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but it still jars me when I see people withdraw into their shells of prejudice when they hear me characterize myself as evangelical, even when they know me and know that I do not meet their stereotypes.

This is all the more ironic when one looks at the Book of Confessions and sees that there is nothing in our core beliefs that is at odds with what most evangelicals believe. It is my contention that, on paper at least, the PC(USA) is squarely within the evangelical tradition.

Yancy relates some of his interchanges with members of his book group, and how difficult it is to correct misconceptions. In the examples he gives, sweeping statements are made by scholars, but when asked for concrete examples, they fall silent.

In his final analysis, he asks rhetorically whether it is good idea to spend the massive amount of effort required to change society's perceptions, especially when it distracts us from our primary mission.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Stem Selling: Korea to Traffic in Human Remains - Christianity Today Magazine

Stem Selling: Korea to Traffic in Human Remains - Christianity Today Magazine:
"Just when you thought it was safe to open your newspaper again, South Korea's infamous Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, the world's first human cloner, is taking his affront to human dignity to new heights. You will remember that this was the fellow who first obtained stem cells by cloning embryos and "disaggregating" them. Then he cloned the world's first dog. Then he came up with the preposterous idea that scientists should write their own ethics rules. And now he is planning to traffic human embryonic stem cells around the globe...."

This story raises all sorts of bioethical issues ranging from whether scientists will feel comfortable with using the research on which this is based as a platform for their own research to whether a decision to use the technology derived from this knowledge can be ethically made.

Many people whose opinions of stem cell research are nuanced may find themselves in a quandry with the idea of creating embryos, nurturing them to a particular stage, and then harvesting them for stem cells.

I hope that the recent hopeful reports describing how usable stem cells can be had without first fertilizing an ovum will make the harvest of human stem cells from developing embryos unneccessary.