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Today I went with my wife and a few other people from Youth For Christ Central Valley to go see Donald Miller speak at a ministry forum at Fresno Pacific University that included two separate 75 minute presentations and an extended question and answer session. Miller has been one of my favorite authors ever since I was introduced to him, and it was the first chance I’ve gotten to see him speak. End result – it was an absolute pleasure.

He talked a lot about narrative theology (without using that phrase, of course) and the relationship between stories and our lives.

He started out by talking about how he was approached with the idea of writing a script based off of Blue Like Jazz, which is more a collection of essays than a coherent story. So, he researched the craft of storytelling only to discover parallels between our lives and the stories we create. This will be the subject of his upcoming book. Here are some highlights of his talk and my reactions:

  • He talked about the essentials for a good story, including the necessity for us to care about the character, the need for that character to desire something, and the resulting conflict from the achieving or striving for that goal. What I found particularly interesting was his assertion that the character can’t think of himself as better than others or the audience won’t care. As someone who studied literature and reads quite a bit, I can tell you that his assertion is false, that it’s quite possible to have a character who thinks extremely highly of himself and to have that character fall flat on their face. The reason Miller probably didn’t mention it, I assume, is because this is an altogether different type of story. Having a prideful character who has a flaw (hubris) and subsequently falls down a peg or two is the defining characteristic of a tragedy (think MacBeth or Oedipus Rex, for example). I started thinking about this idea of a story versus a tragedy, and it brought to mine the repeated warnings of Jesus, Paul and other Biblical writers to not think of ourselves as better than others, and it got me thinking about how pride, the Devil’s sin, is always the first step towards a real tragedy.
  • When we refuse to look at the Bible as a story and instead reduce it to propositional truths (such as the four spiritual laws), we lose a lot in translations. The Bible, Miller argues, is not a textbook or a series of laws, but a story that is much more complicated than we make it out to be. As he says in his book Searching For God Knows What, the truths we pull out of Scripture are “the facts of the story…but that isn’t the story” (151). He compares it to a relationship, arguing that you couldn’t present your wife with a laundry list of facts about her and why you love her and expect to sweep her off your feet. Instead you write a poem, because there are some things that are too beautiful for words. I’ve always found this way of reading Scripture compelling, and I’m inclined to agree with Miller’s methodology. His examples, particularly his interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, are always helpful in wrapping my mind around the idea of the Bible as a story.
  • He talked about how our lives need to be lived like stories. We have to want something and go through conflict to achieve it. However, in order to not sound like Joel Osteen, Miller attaches stipulations. For one, your desire has to be meaningful and people have to care. You wouldn’t watch a movie about someone buying a Volvo, he says, but you will watch a movie where someone tries to save Holocaust victims, or motivate underprivileged kids, and so on. Basically, we have to find something in line with God’s plan for making the world a better place and go with it. Secondly, you have to be willing to go through conflict. Like a character in a story, we only grow and change when we are pushed beyond our limits and face-to-face with conflict and struggle. Thirdly, our story has to have the power to change others, to impact and motivate their lives in a meaningful way.

I realize as I write this that it is a jumbled mess and probably doesn’t make much sense, but I assure you it was wonderful and enlightening, especially for someone who spends a lot of time in stories.

For those who are interested, I recommend picking up one (actually, all) of Miller’s books. Most relevant to the aforementioned idea of the

Bible as a story would be Searching For God Knows What and Blue Like Jazz, but all of his books are fantastic.

Does anyone have any thoughts or reactions to the idea of narrative theology?

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As I previously mentioned, yesterday was the Love Won Out conference in San Jose. I had some reservations that, since it was going to be a Focus on the Family event is was going to be very anti-gay and unproductive. As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I actually loved the conference to the point where I would say that anyone who has questions about the relationship between the Church and homosexuality should attend.

The conference was aided by a large presence from Exodus International, an organization that ministers to gays and ex-gays, and so many of the speakers where themselves former homosexuals. Here are some highlights from the conference:

1. They talked about what makes a person gay

The speakers explored common myths about gays and lesbians and looked at numerous studies that focused on the origin of homosexual tendencies. While many Christians wrongly assume that it is a simple choice, the speakers painted homosexuality as a combination of many factors, including possible genetic factors and developmental influences that cause someone to have unwanted sexual desires. Studies and surveys showed an overwhelming correlation between homosexuality and sexual/physical abuse, along with unmet or disturbed bonding with same-sex parents and/or peers.

Basically, this means under certain family circumstances, a male child who fails to connect with his father or another male (father is emotionally distant or physically absent, or child is molested by an older male figure) and he develops overly attached or dependent relationships with female figures, it could cause the child to have unmet same-sex bonding that is necessary for normal development. That being said, as the child longs to have that need fulfilled, he may eventually reach puberty and find out that those emotional needs correlate with his sexual awakening, creating unwanted homosexual desires. This creates a “third sex” mentality (where the child cannot properly identify with either gender), which leads to feelings of isolation and confusion, and eventually, acceptance within a “safe” gay community. The same can also be said for a female child and lesbianism. This isn’t always the case, but there is an incredibly strong correlation between these types of childhood circumstances and the likelihood of the child becoming gay.

This was interesting to me because most Christians tend to dismiss ideas that people are “born gay,” or that a child’s upbringing has anything to do with it. Often times, we feel more comfortable blaming it on a demonic possession instead of treating it like a complex condition. The speakers related it to many other complex conditions, such as alcoholism and violence, that come about as a result of inborn susceptibility, upbringing, and personal choices.

The speakers were also careful to point out that while no gay man or women choose their feelings, they do choose their actions, meaning that it is possible to have homosexual desires and temptations without sinning and giving in to them.

2. The way the Church deals with the homosexual community needs to change.

This was an awesome point, because many of the speakers were themselves rejected by the Church when they were practicing homosexuals. The main flaw, the speakers noted, was that Christians treated homosexuality worse than other sins. “The ground is level at the foot of the cross,” one speaker said, going on to elaborate that the self-righteousness of the anti-gay protester is just as wicked in God’s eyes as the acts committed by the gay man.

But they took this beyond the religious and into the psychological. As I mentioned earlier, teenagers struggling with homosexual thoughts and temptations feel like a third sex that doesn’t fit in with either gender. That kid will look for a safe place where he can talk about his feelings and desires and be accepted. Often times this is what leads someone to embrace the gay community – they’ve found a safe place to be themselves. By reacting angrily and judgmentally to the rise in open homosexuality in hopes of bringing people to Jesus, we actually do the opposite – we reinforce the perception that they don’t fit in and it drives them further into the place where they find comfort, the gay community. It’s like trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Furthermore, if a young person grows up in church and then begins to have homosexual temptations, he will see how the church acts and realize that he doesn’t have a safe place to talk about his problems. So we’re not only preventing converts, but we’re causing people who struggle with homosexuality to leave the church.

Outreach to the gay community needs to be characterized by compassion, not hatred. The gay person needs to be treated just like any other sinner. One speaker even said that we may not even need to bring up the issue at all. Just tell them about Jesus, and if they give their life to Him, let the Holy Spirit deal with his sin.

3. I learned a bit about countering pro-gay theology.

Pro-gay theology is basically a way of interpreting Scripture that reads all of the condemnations of homosexuality as being misinterpreted or mistranslated.  For example, pro-gay theologians claim that the Hebrew word in the laws of Leviticus 18 are mistranslated, meaning “ceremonial male prostitute” instead of homosexual.  Biblical scholar Joe Dallas went through all of the passages of the Bible that mention homosexuality, broke down the Greek or Hebrew words, and cross-referenced them with other passages in Scripture to establish continuity in meaning.  Furthermore, he examines some of the logic of pro-gay arguments and points out several fallacies, namely that they search for exceptions in the commandments without distributing them to the whole commandments.

I plan on buying one of his books and reading further.  Though he breezed through his arguments fairly quickly, I felt that my questions about pro-gay theology were answered.

Overall, it was a great day.  I learned a lot about homosexuality, and also a little something about judging a book by its cover.

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One of the musical artists I have always appreciated, and find myself appreciating more and more is Bright Eyes, a band led by singer-songwriter Conor Oberst.  Oberst has been called “The New Dylan,” and that may be accurate, because like Dylan he doesn’t have the best voice, but it trembles with emotion, and his lyrics are pure poetry.  Lately I have been listening to him a lot as I write.

I was listening to one of his albums the other day, and I was absolutely floored by one of the songs entitled “Don’t Know When But a Day is Gonna Come,” which you can watch him perform here.  The song is essentially a ominous, bitter rebuke of Christianity by a man subject to its abuses.   I know it’s odd that, as a Christian, I would grow to like, much less love, this song, but to be honest, the song punches me in the stomach every time I here it.   It has served as a stark reminder that I am a representative  of Jesus, and every time I do something wicked it makes Jesus look wicked.  It’s a good reminder that people are watching us, judging our God my the way we hurt others.

Here are the lyrics, which should be read while watching the video:

Is it true what I heard about the Son of God?
Did he come to save? Did he come at all?
And if I dried his feet,
with my dirty hair,
would he make me clean again?
They say they don’t know when but a day is gonna come,
when there won’t be a moon and there won’t be a sun.
It will just go black, It’ll all go back, to the way it was before.
I knew a lovely girl, with such pretty pride, and every man wanted her, yeah and so did I.
So did I.
But she up and died in a fit of vanity.
Now men with purple hearts, carry silver guns.
And they will kill a man for what his father has done.
But what my father did, you know it don’t mean shit. I’m not him.
So you think I need some discipline, well, I had my share.
I have been sent to my room. I’ve been sat in a chair.
And I held my tongue. I didn’t plug my ears.
No, I got a good talking to.

And now I don’t know why,
but I still try to smile when they talk at me like I’m just a child.
Well, I’m not a child.
No, I am much younger than that.
And now I have read some books and have grown quite brave.
If I could just speak up I think I would say that there is no truth.
There is only you and what you make the truth.
So I will just sing my song and I’ll pass a hat.
Then I’ll leave your town and never look back.
No, I don’t look back because the road is clear and laid out ahead of me.
I’ll get home and meet my friends at our favorite bar.
We’ll get some lighter heads for our heavy hearts.
And we will share a drink.
Yeah we will share our fears and they will know how I love them.
They will know how I love.
They will know how I love them.
I am nothing without their love
.
I don’t know when but a day is gonna come
when there won’t be a moon and there won’t be a sun.
It will all go black.
It will all go back to the way it is supposed to be.
Is it true what I heard about the Son of God?
Did he die for us? Did he die at all?
And if I sold my soul for a bag of gold,TO YOU,
which one of us would be the foolish one?
Which one of us would be the fool?
Which one of us would be the foolish one?
Which one of us would be the fool?

Could you please start explaining?
You know, I need some understanding.
Could you please start explaining?
You know, I need some understanding.
Could you please start explaining?
You know, I need some understanding.
I could do good with some explaining.
You know. I want to understand.

I’m going to talk a little bit about the song, which is going to require me to regress back into English-major mode, so bear with me.

What I love about the song is that the narrator is not seeking to condemn Jesus.  He’s looking for answers.  He starts out with a question and ends with the same question – “Is it true?”  He doesn’t disapprove of Jesus, the Gospel he preaches, or the salvation he brings, but he can’t bring himself to believe it’s true.    The song gives indication that Oberst is well-versed in Scripture, as he turns many Biblical images on their heads, but he can’t seem to anchor what he reads with any truth.  The rest of the song makes it obvious that it is us, his followers, that make him doubt the truth he so desperately wants to believe.

I could right a whole essay about the next couple of stanzas, but I’ll try and keep it short.  After asking his questions, he begins a series of grievances against the church, grievances that, we assume, he was been the victim of.  He starts out by playing off the Church-as Christ’s-Bride metaphor and depicts the Church the same way John portrays Babylon – a whore bathed in vanity (” I knew a lovely girl, with such pretty pride, and every man wanted her, yeah and so did I / So did I / But she up and died in a fit of vanity”).  He essentially accuses the Church of helping itself instead of helping others.

From there he moves into the war stanza, where he moves from accusing the Church of being self-serving to claiming it actually destroys others to benefit itself.   Oberst is known for being a critic of the war in Iraq, and there’s every reason to believe that this stanza has the evangelical community in its cross hairs.   He then transitions into a section  where he sings extensively about “discipline,” which looks more like guilt, judgment and condemnation.  Finally, he makes sure to mention the Church’s financial gain (” So I will just sing my song and I’ll pass a hat”), and then skips town to find the one thing he hasn’t found in his whole experience with Christianity – love.  He finds this in community with his friends, who care deeply about one another.

This song always burns a whole in me because it asks me a question – “Is this our fault?”  Certainly Oberst’s problems with religion aren’t my fault, but how many people out there are like him?  How many people flee from God, who is Love, because his followers judge and condemn others, neglect the needy and serve themselves, or actively work to destroy others?  How many times have I done something sinful and caused someone else to think less of Jesus?  How many times have you done the same?  We are followers, and therefore ambassadors of Jesus Christ, and every time we sin, we don’t just hurt ourselves, but we hurt Jesus, because someone is always watching and making a judgment about him because of us.  It’s a good reminder that we are to be holy as God is holy, not just for our benefit, but for everyone else’s.

So I ask again – “Is this our fault?”

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This Conference is Gay

This coming Saturday I will be driving out to San Jose in order to go to the Focus on the Family‘s Love Won Out conference, which is a conference dealing with issues of homosexuality in the Church.  I was invited by my wife, who is getting counseling hours and I hesitantly accepted.

I’m not hesitant because the subject matter makes me uncomfortable or anything.  It’s just that Focus on the Family has always come across to me as being a tab bit overbearing and legalistic in its protection of “family values” (See the always hilarious Plugged In website for an idea of what I’m talking about).  Not to mention, issues regarding family values tend to be selective in their focus.   Homosexuality and gay marriage, along with abortion, are litmus test issues that define whether you’re really a Christian in America.  These two sins are elevated as being super sins, much more evil than all the other sins, and “lesser sins”, such as the fact that many anti-gay protesters and speakers are mean spirited and judgmental, go unnoticed.  It’s the whole seeing-the-speck-while-ignoring-your-plank thing.

This is not to say that I think being gay is not a perversion of God’s intended plan for sexuality, because I agree with that wholeheartedly, but by being anti-gay, we don’t show the love of Christ and we draw homosexuals away from the true nature of Jesus.  When we judge them, condemn them, and proclaim their sins to be the worst of all our sins, we move away from the spirit of Christ (Check out this church for an example of how good intentions can pervert the Gospel – it’ll make you sick).

There’s also another issue I take with these kinds of conferences.  While I don’t think that being gay is right, I think that the Church has no right to tell gay people they can’t get married.  I know that sounds heretical, but here me out.  In America we have certain freedoms (speech, religion, press, etc).  It is this freedom that allows us to safely meet and worship Christ.  However, we also have to acknowledge that other people that have philosophies that disagree with ours, such as other religions and different moral codes, have freedoms also.  When we take advantage of our freedom of religion, and then attack someone for wanting to exercise their freedom, we act as hypocrites, essentially biting the hand that feeds us.  We have a moral and religious obligation to shows homosexuals the true nature and spirit of Christ by loving them without compromising our stand, but we have no political right to oppose someones freedoms, especially since that freedom offers no danger to anyone else.  That is the price we pay for taking the freedom ourselves.  We have to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

I don’t buy into the argument that gay marriage ruins families when the divorce rate for Christians is just as high as it is for non-Christians.  I think that’s the real danger to our families.  But I digress.

That aside, I hope that the conference is not what I fear it will be.  I hope I will learn a lot about flaws in pro-gay theology, because I find the logic behind it to be interesting.  But the conference does include seminars called “The Gaying of America” and “The Gay Agenda in Our Schools,” so if it turns out how I fear it will, pray for patience and understanding for me.

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Our Visit to Mosaic

My wife and I were in LA this past weekend to go to Disneyland, and since we were in the area, we decided to pay a visit to Mosaic, a multi-ethnic, arts-focused, predominantly Gen-Y church that meets at a variety of locations in the greater-LA area.  It is pastored by Erwin McManus, who is a phenomenal author and speaker, and it is also home to author/speaker Eric Michael Bryant.  We own books by both of these people, and we regularly listen to the Mosaic podcast, so we were pretty excited about visiting.

Despite the fact that it is a “mega” church in the sense that it is large, it has no permanent home, with each campus meeting at a local high school, college, or other community center.  The service we went to (9:30am in Pasadena) was staged in the auditorium of a local college.  So after navigating through the neighborhood trying to find a parking spot, we followed we walked onto the campus and discovered a party going on.

Literally.

We walked towards a large crowd of people hovered around booths with a familiar tune floating in the air.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but as we got closer I realized it was the beat to a song by Common, which is not really “traditional” church music.  As it turns out, the music was coming from a DJ that was tearing it up right there in front of the building.

Keep in mind this was the Easter service.

As I surveyed the booths (with the hip hop music in the background), there was the traditional assortment of first-time visitor info, ministry brochures, and resources for purchase, but they also had a recycling booth, tables dedicated to service and justice, both foreign and domestic, and a booth dedicated to promoting the various kinds of arts (dance, music, movies, writing, photography, etc) that Mosaic integrates into their services.

It’s safe to say that I liked this place from the start.

Once the doors opened, we moved into the auditorium which filled up quickly.  I walked out to use the restroom to discover people sitting on the floor and in the aisles because there was no more space.

The worship was contemporary, really no different than most churches that don’t use a hymnal.  After a few songs, we were introduced to a Jewish member of Mosaic that specializes in improv comedy (his name escapes me).  He shared his testimony, and then he and his team performed a side-splitting improv routine about post-church brunches.

Erwin came out and delivered a nice hope and joy filled sermon (classic Erwin) about the theme of “Beauty”, which also included a wonderful short film and dance routine with interesting parallels to the Easter story.

If I could sum up the whole atmosphere of the place with one word, it would be “joy.”  Easter is a time of great joy and I really feel like the men and women at Mosaic took joy seriously, if that makes any sense.  I appreciated Mosaic’s creative use of various art forms in worship, and I felt like it was a community I could get involved with, should I ever choose to live in the overcrowded, smog-infested hell-hole that is LA.

But that’s a blog for another day.

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In Memory

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.  In honor of this, I want to look at some numbers:

Number of people killed in the September 11th attacks – 2,819

Number of Coalition soldiers killed in the “War on Terror” – 4300 (3992 of which were Americans)

Number of Iraqi civilian death documented by Iraq Body Count as a direct result invasion-related violence – 82,249-89,760

Remember, the last figure is civilian deaths, not soldiers or insurgents.

If we were to have a minute of silence for each casualty, we would be silent for 2 days to honor the 9/11 victims, 3 days to honor the Coalition soldiers, and62 days to honor the dead Iraqi civilians.

If we follow this string of numbers, we can determine that every civilian that died in the 9/11 attacks is worth approximately 32 Iraqis.

How is this justice?

When will the crimes against us be avenged?

When will our angry blood lust be satisfied?

“Those who live by the sword, die by the sword” – Jesus

Furthermore, according to the CIA Factbook, Iraq is 97% Muslim, meaning that as a Christian nation, led by a President who claims to follow Christ, we killed 87,067 people who did not know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” – Jesus

Some things to ponder.  Maybe it’s time to re-prioritize.

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Think Christian posted an interesting interview with N.T. Wright about Heaven and the end of the world.  It’s an interesting viewpoint because it provides a different approach than the ever-popular Left Behind series (many people seem to forget that this represents a theory and not the absolute biblical truth), and because it actually resonates pretty well with the Bible.

But ultimately does it really matter who’s right.  When I jump around the Bible, I tend to skip Revelations and the latter part of Daniel, primarily because they deal with the whole end-of-the-world thing.  Apocalyptic literature, to me, is a jumbled mess of metaphors, symbols, literal truth, parables, and Lord knows what else.  For anyone to say that they can actually decipher it all would be incredibly arrogant, to say the least.   There’s just no way.  There are too many theories, too much detail, and, quite frankly, not enough insight on our part, because we all see things from a skewed perspective.  Let’s not forget that no one ever saw Jesus coming, even though there were prophecies about him for hundreds of years, because everyone was looking for the wrong Messiah.

So I say “To Hell with eschatology.”  All I know is that whatever the details, the Bible makes it pretty clear that we win.  That’s good enough for me.

Thoughts?

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