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I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not always on the cutting edge of the blogosphere…and I’m ok with that. But this week, the U.S. and other nations’ efforts to “demoralize and destroy” ISIS have extended into Syria. Generally, responses to this crisis fall somewhere on a spectrum between aggression (in Phil Robertson’s words, “Convert them or kill them”) to passivity (“We can’t win so we should just get out.”). The basic question of this spectrum is, “At what point are we justified in using force to accomplish our purposes?” Well, I have a few other questions, and then a story.

Question 1: If we zoom out from this specific ISIS crisis, what are the variety of factors that affected the rise of ISIS and what are the variety of consequences that military engagement will precipitate? In light of this, is it beneficial to use force in this situation?

  • Limiting ISIS to “an evil movement that just popped up because of some people’s bad choices” will minimize our ability to address the situation comprehensively. And beyond that, I wonder if we did “demoralize and destroy ISIS” via force–whether justified or not–what new seeds of hatred and perceived oppression might eventually grow into. For Paul, the most important ethical questions are not, “Do they deserve it?” or “Is it justified/permissible?” but “Is it beneficial? Will this thing (in this case, military force) take control of me somehow? Will this advance the Gospel and more fully establish the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven?” Will this actually lessen violence in Iraq and Syria or will new seeds of hatred and perceived oppression be planted? Will military violence “master us” by becoming our go-to method for accomplishing what we want? Can killing bring about God’s Kingdom? These are questions Christians must answer concerning military involvement and we must discern whether violence will, in fact, accomplish our primary purposes–not necessarily our national interests, but the interests of God and God’s Kingdom.

Question 2: Is Jesus’ teaching relevant in international relations and, specifically, with the level of evil we see in ISIS?

  • As followers of Jesus and believers that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, we must at least think twice whenever we feel like the Way of Christ is irrelevant or naive.

Question 3: Is there another way besides aggression and passivity?

  • I would suggest Jesus says the way to engage opposition is through loving engagement. Which means being willing to die, but not to kill. This is distinct from passivity, which is willing neither to die nor to kill and military engagement which is both willing to die and kill.


A Story: One day, Jesus intended to preach the Good News in a town that most Israelites would never have entered. When they did not welcome him, two of Jesus’ followers, in full faith, suggested they bring down fire from heaven. Jesus did not call on fire from heaven. On another day, Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of crowds and to the jeers of the religious leaders. It is likely that both the religious leaders who opposed Jesus and the crowds who cheered Jesus on as he entered Jerusalem that day expected that Jesus was plotting a rebellion against the Romans by calling on the “Zealots,” a band of Jews ready to engage in a military rebellion against Rome (their main difference being whether they thought it would work). But Jesus did not call on the Zealots. In fact, he wept over the destruction that a future rebellion would level on the city. On another day, soon after that, Jesus was being unjustly arrested when one of his followers pulled out a sword and sliced off the ear of one of the guards arresting his rabbi. Jesus did not call on the swords of his disciples. In fact, he healed the destruction their violence had done.  On that same day, Jesus himself acknowledged that a legion of angels would come to fight on his behalf if he simply called for them. But Jesus did not call on heaven’s angels. On the next day, Jesus stands in front of the representative of the Roman Empire’s oppressive force. He tells Pilate that his Kingdom is not the kind where citizens fight with the world’s weapons. Jesus did not call on violence from his Kingdom’s citizens. Jesus did not call on heaven’s fire, the Zealot militia, his disciples’ swords, the angelic army, nor his Kingdom’s army to fight the greatest injustice and evil that has ever been perpetrated in God’s world. On the Cross, as Jesus died, it would seem that this Way of engaging the world with love failed. But on the third day, God raised Jesus up from the dead, and set him as both Lord and Messiah.

Sometimes the Way of Christ seems naive or even foolish. But it is neither aggressive nor passive, neither cowardly nor controlling. Rather, the Way of Christ, the Way of Love is creative. It looks for answers on a plane beyond the spectrum of aggression–passivity. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But there are a few who are trying to live this other Way. Here is one example. I’m sure there are others. But I wonder what it would look like if a growing number of people who claim to follow the Way of Christ persistently lived and advocated for ourselves, our churches, and even our authorities to think in a more creative way about engaging problems and oppositions.

I’d love to hear your questions and stories, your opinions and disagreements as we continue to live in a world where ISIS and other violence movements continue to do damage.


Sometimes you measure a war in days, sometimes in years. Other times, you measure a war in millenia. Such is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which saw yet another escalation in a conflict that traces back to…well…the Bible. It seems that a group of militants entered into Israel through an underground tunnel, prompting Israel to send troops into Gaza. There are reports of children being gunned down, hospitals destroyed, and other events that both sides call “tragedy.”

There are lots of opinions on this conflict around the world, and those opinions vary in the U.S. as well. Some have criticized President Obama throughout his time in office for slacking on our relationship with Israel, while others have welcomed a “more balanced” approach to both Palestinians and Israelis. Here are some questions I have concerning the conflict:

  • Whom do we believe?
    • Can we somehow get through the typical demonizing and dehumanizing to the “facts of the case”? And if not, how strongly should we be holding our opinions on who is right/wrong, or what this/that side should do?
  • In what ways does bad theology affect our relationship with Israel?
    • There is a theological  system called dispensationalism that grew in popularity throughout the 20th century. It closely connects a national Israel with the end times, and is now mostly espoused by televangelists and the most fundamentalist churches. (My opinion: it’s woefully bad theology.) But I wonder how much our national opinion was formed by this theology.
  • What role should the U.S. be playing in the Middle East?
    • Should we mind our own business (and ignore injustice and atrocities)? Get involved (and arrogantly pretend like we can solve a millenia-old conflict)? Are there more humble and peace-making ways to be involved?
  • As Christians, how do we approach a conflict where there are fellow Christians on either side?
    • Shouldn’t these connections trump our national loyalties?

A story: Way back after God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and was bringing them into the Promised Land, the Israelites (then a people, not yet a nation) stood outside of Jericho, a fortified city with huge walls, who didn’t seem to want to welcome Israel into their land. Joshua, the leader of the Israelites after Moses died, is contemplating what to do when a messenger from God with a sword draws near to him. He asks this man, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”What might we expect? These are God’s People after all. Of course, God is going to take their side. And yet, the messenger replies, “Neither…but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

How often do we try to put God on a side, when God has his own plans and purposes? The key to following Christ isn’t figuring out whose side God is on, but in being on God’s Path. And oftentimes, God’s Path leads us away from either of the “sides” in a conflict. What if we have a God whose fullest revelation to us shows us that he would rather lose his life than take it from others, even from his enemies? How does this affect our opinions about conflicts near and far? Rather than picking and defending a “side,” perhaps we should be prayerfully looking for God’s people and how we can join them in being compassionate and wise peacemakers and prophets. For if we asked God, “Whose side are you on? Israel’s or the Palestinians’?” God might just answer, “Neither.”

I didn’t take Blogging 402 in seminary. OK, so my seminary didn’t really offer that course. There’s lots of being a pastor you don’t learn in seminary. And that’s not necessarily seminary’s fault. It’s just that for all of our education in whatever field, there’s always a whole lot of figuring-it-out-as-you-go-along trial-and-error to life. Just how it is.

So, when I started blogging, I thought to myself, “I don’t build my preaching schedule around current events, but I do spend a lot of time thinking through those events through the lens of my Christian faith. And I’m often frustrated with how simplistic, this-or-that public dialogue is, especially on hot-button issues. Maybe that’s what my blog will be: putting my thinking, wrestling, processing through the complexity of current events out on the internet.” Problem was, it took a lot of time. I don’t want to just throw out opinions based on questionable facts or say the same thing 100 other people are saying. It’s not that that’s not important, but there are lots of other important ways to engage with the world in the name of Christ besides blogging.

New title, new approach. Here’s the plan. Not sure how often, but when I can, I’d like to take current events and do 2 things:

  1. Ask Questions: this, I think, is one way to get into the complex heart of issues. I won’t try to answer all of these questions in every blog, though I may offer some initial thoughts. But I hope the questions will stimulate a deeper, more honest, more productive conversation among those who read my blog.
  2. Tell Stories: the Bible is full of stories, and yes, is really one big Story itself. So for each blog, I hope to offer a story or rendition of THE STORY that helps us find God and discern how followers of Jesus can think about, engage, and talk about whatever the issue or event is.

So that’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes!

If you’re a journalist, I get it. I know how frustrating it can be to have your profession “democratized” (read: cheapened). We’ve all heard of people hopping on the internet and becoming an ordained minister overnight. After three years of seminary, internships, mentoring relationships, etc., it stinks to hear those stories. So yes, I get it. You go to school, take creative writing courses, learn the ins and outs of grammar, investigative reporting, and media ethics. Then some shlub writes a grammatically aberrant, factually questionable, off-the-cuff blog that goes viral; or you have to walk by rack after rack of trying-to-pass-for-reporting tabloids at the grocery store; or you write a well-crafted, insightful piece that gets sent back because it isn’t sexy enough to sell newspapers.

So journalists, this one’s for you.

Christians are followers of one who calls himself “The Truth.” In Revelation, Jesus is called “Faithful and True.” In fact, one thing our all-powerful God cannot do is lie. So we are called to truth, faithfulness, and honesty.  Problem is, deception, lies, and half-truths are powerful and pervasive enemies. From the beginning, it is deceit that ushers sin into the world. A “crafty” serpent makes a twisted promise that Adam and Eve fall for hook, line, and sinker. The Enemy of God and God’s creatures, sometimes known as Satan or the Devil, is given the catchy nickname, “Father of Lies” and is described as the “deceiver of the whole world.”  And we mustn’t forget, lies and deception become a convenient resort even for God’s “faithful”: Abraham tells half-truths to protect his own skin, Jacob conspires with his mother to deceive his dying father Isaac; David lures and then has a man killed to protect his adulterous deception; Peter denies even knowing Jesus in his hour of testing. In every age, falsehood and deception are dangerous temptations for all people, even God’s people.

Certainly lies and deceptions* are woven into the fabric of our society in many ways. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently (certainly the problem isn’t recent, but I’m not always the most observant person) that I want to focus on in this blog.: headlines. At their best, headlines help a reader determine which articles are of interest and worth reading. And who doesn’t love a clever headline every so often. But when money trumps ethical reporting, internet headlines are often twisted and sensationalized to bait skimming eyes to click, like, or share.

Here’s what I’ve noticed recently:

  • First and foremost, the coverage of Pope Francis has been a travesty, from the Pope’s words regarding atheists and good deeds to his conversation about gay priests, and probably more. These headlines have tended to 1) illegitimately jump to conclusions, 2) show little understanding of the theological and rhetorical context of the words, and 3) use words that glancing scrollers will likely interpret in a way other than how they were used. For instance, “judge” is a biblical word that means something quite different to most ears in our culture.
  • Fact-checking? Fuggedaboutit! Here’s an extreme example: I’ve seen multiple posts on Facebook that have taken an article from a satirical source like The Onion, and posted them as fact.  The most egregious was this article, joking at Sarah Palin’s expense. Worse, when someone noted that it was a joke, the response was, “Well, knowing Palin, it could have been true.” In other words, even though the poster was in the wrong, the object of the satire is the one who loses out…again. Most people will not fact-check an article as they scroll through. Most will assume that the headline is true. We can’t control most people, but we can break the cycle by 1) not assuming the headline is accurate and 2) taking the extra time to fact-check an article before posting it and leading others astray.
  • Sensationalism sells. A colleague of mine who writes some articles for an online publication has expressed some frustration because the editor chose a headline for his article that undercut the point. So even an article that is thoughtful and balanced might end up being published with a crass, controversial, and one-sided headline. Again, most people won’t read the article, but will keep the headline in mind.
Truly, this isn’t just an internet problem. You can see it in the magazine rack at the grocery store, in newspapers, and even as we pass on “news” face-to-face or over the phone. We want to sound interesting or appear knowledgeable or shock people and so we embellish, overplay our hands, and downright make stuff up. Whether we are selling publications or selling ourselves, the truth tends to get in the way. The explosion of blogs and the ease of “sharing” an article with hundreds of “friends” only brings more exposure to the problem.
As Christians, we don’t need to embellish, overplay or make stuff up. God knows us and loves us. We don’t have to sell ourselves or our ideas or even the Gospel. We are free to be honest and live life transparently. In 1934, as German Christians weighed their options of how to respond to the Nazi movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “…we must get right to the root of things, with open Christian speaking and no diplomacy. And in prayer together we will find the way. I feel that a resolution ought to be framed—all evasion is useless…Only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now.” While something less than “complete truth and truthfulness” may seem “a very present help in time of trouble,” it is not a viable option for someone who is following the Truth, for our security and success rests in God’s grace, not in our own constructions of self or reality, our own diplomatic or political craftiness, or our own ability to tip the scales of news in our favor.
Part of our calling in this digital setting is to be attentive readers who read past sensationalizing headlines, and truthful communicators who are committed to reality–not to profits or personal publicity. As best we are able, we must find news sources that are committed to truth, being careful not to equivocate truth with our personal dispositions–at the very least, to compare all sides of a story. And we must be careful about what we pass on as true–whether that be an article we post/share in social media, a fact we add to face-to-face conversations, and even how we convey our own lives digitally and in person. We believe the Truth is also the Way, and so our lives must reflect the conviction that “only complete truth and truthfulness will help us now.”


*These are different, but related and equally sinful: Lying is flat-out speaking something that is false while deception is finding ways to keep the truth from being known, whether by silence, half-truths, or other diversions.


The news has been filled with Syria the past couple weeks.  And Egypt the couple weeks before that.  I have to say, there’s something refreshing about it.  At least the media is talking about something significant, something that affects lives, something that has implications for our common humanity.  Other than that, it’s anything but refreshing.  It is a global conundrum where everyone seems to agree: “The U.S. has no good options.”

But I’m not here to share my opinion on the Russian plan or what the President should do if it fails.  I’m here to talk about how this fits into the Story–you know, the Story of this world and God and humanity.  Which brings me to Food, Inc.  For those of you who don’t see the obvious connection between a documentary about the American food industry and the current crisis in the Middle East, let me explain myself.  My wife and I watched Food, Inc. a few years ago.  It was disturbing.  Not just to see the story behind what we put into our bodies.  But to look through this window into the human situation.  Not pretty.  Here’s what I saw: We humans are experts at solving problems…without paying attention to the problems our solutions will cause.  We make an adjustment to make our farming easier without attention to the ways this will disrupt the animals, plants, and ecosystem.  We mass produce food to make it more available without attention to what this does to the nutritional value of the food.  We make food cheaper without attention to how it affects laborers, jobs, and the economy.  This is the human story.  We solve one inconvenience only to create a deeper predicament.

See what I mean about Syria and Egypt?  And Iraq and Afghanistan?  And Korea and Vietnam?  And so many other situations.  There has been lots of conversation in Christian circles recently about whether Adam and Eve were historical figures and whether Genesis 1-3 even intends to present them as such.  But regardless of your position on this, it’s hard to deny the truth of Genesis 3, aka “The Fall.”  In this story, Eve and Adam face the temptation to improve their lives their way.  Eve hears the logic of the serpent, and then the text says, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In other words, she decides that her solution to her “problem” is better than God’s wisdom…and proceeds to pitch this miracle solution to the rest of humanity (who knew better). 

Hopefully, we have learned something from Afghanistan, where we armed rebels to get rid of one regime only to empower the Taliban’s rise years later.  Hopefully, we have learned something from Iraq, when a “quick use of force” to dethrone one dictator and capture another terrorist turned into a war that dragged on for a decade.  Hopefully, we might consider even the lasting effects of our own Civil War, when the use of force may have brought about one good cause, but also left divisions, hostilities, and hard hearts among fellow Americans for years to come.  Hopefully, we will learn the lesson of Food, Inc. that sometimes our brilliant solutions to certain problems actually cause THE PROBLEM (sin, brokenness, darkness, etc.) to weave its way ever-deeper into the fabric of our world. 

I don’t presume to know what Jesus would do if he were the 44th President of the United States (not that he could get elected).  I do know that with legions of angels at his disposal, Jesus chose the path not of least resistance, but of greatest sacrifice.  And told all who would follow him to do the same.  This is the path that will weave healing into the fabric of the world.  Being willing to house Syrian refugees?  Listening to our brothers and sisters who are actually in the midst of the conflict?  Using our voices to redirect national resources into serving those in need rather than enforcing our will militarily?  Encouraging our leaders to ask what is good for the Middle East, not just how can we achieve American interests?  This is just a brainstorm.  But it is what we need: creativity; thinking outside the box of war vs. appeasement; a willingness to take the narrow road that leads to Life when the well-trod wide path lures us with a quick fix.

Created in God’s image, we humans have a natural bent toward problem solving.  We will keep digging our hole deeper, however, until we are willing to sit at the foot of the Cross, listen to the Story of the Gospel, and be trained in the Way of Christ: the Way of creative love, loving sacrifice, and a sacrificial commitment to the healing of the world.

Yesterday I received two emails and noticed a couple Facebook posts bearing links to an article entitled, “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.”  The story is not exactly all out in the open at this point, so I’m not going to pretend I’m an authority on this particular story.  But these e-mails reveal a “pressure-point” for many Christians in America as well as the increasing number of non-Christians in America.  You know how pressure points work: if someone applies minimal pressure in just the rights spot, they can cause a disproportionate reaction in the other person.  Church and State issues are a pressure point in our country.  The smallest pressure applied to an issue in this category can open up a whole can of accusations, assumptions, defensiveness, and fear.  Now, none of these things are particularly prominent in the life of Jesus, so perhaps I could just take this monthly blog space and talk through the issue with both “sides.”

Background: It appears that the Pentagon spent some time seeking the counsel of outspoken advocate for the separation of Church and State in the military, Mikey Weinstein (the Christian Post initially reported wrongly that Weinstein was “hired” by the Pentagon).  The facts seem to be that the Pentagon is looking at certain standards for chaplains in counseling situations with non-Christian soldiers and restrictions on how faith is promoted by other military authorities.


Dear President and Pentagon,

Why consult this guy?  There are plenty of lesser-known but better-qualified people who could have helped you to develop the policies your thinking about.  Weinstein’s language is intentionally provocative and his strategy seems to be founded on attention-getting.  You even could have consulted Christians who would want to minimize the relationship between Church and State.  Did you want to stir the pot in conservative circles?  Just doesn’t seem like a wise move.

Also, you are taking on a very difficult issue.  Christians–including chaplains–don’t just share the Gospel because they want to get more people over to our side.  We believe that to treat the human as a non-spiritual being is ultimately going to come up short.  We believe that there is healing, restorative, wholeness-creating potential in the Gospel, which is rooted in the person of Jesus.  So it is possible to share the Gospel (evangelize, proselytize, whatever you want to call it) in a spirit of love, genuinely seeking the ultimate and deepest good of the other.  I get it.  Sometimes we do share the Gospel in selfish and unloving ways.  But pretending like any counselor should–let alone could–just “turn off” her/his beliefs and worldview in seeking the healing of another might not be that realistic or helpful.  Most of these chaplains are Christians and Chaplains because they believe that Jesus is actually the best and ultimate source of healing and restoration for themselves and others.

Further, the Constitution does not demand that Church and State exist in utterly separate spheres.  Rather, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  In other words, the religious voice has a place in the public sphere.  Government simply may not choose or enforce one religion over another.  So the Christian’s voice need not be accepted merely because it is Christian, but it also should not be rejected merely on the grounds that it is Christian.  Be very careful, my friends, for trying to order how and when people apply their religious convictions is a messy endeavor.

TTFN, Pastor Jon

Dear Church,

OK, deep breaths.  In.  Out.  I understand that headlines like this are concerning.  You’ve had quite a run at the top of Western/American society.  You’ve enjoyed lots of great benefits in our culture that Jesus never promised.  Even so, now that they seem to be fading away, it’s hard.  None of us likes to say “goodbye” to something that was enjoyable, comfortable, or made us feel special.  It is natural to mourn the loss of our cultural privilege.  Christian America was also the air we breathed for many decades.  We assumed it.  It was dependable.  It made church life so much easier.  And now, we’re noticing that breathing isn’t quite as easy.  You felt like America was built on the foundation of Christianity, and now it feels like each one of these restrictions might be the one that causes the whole thing to cave in.  Not fun.

But you also must remember that it’s possible that these “Separationists” have a point.  What made America distinct from England, Rome, etc. wasn’t Christianity…it was religious freedom.  We can believe what we want without the government punishing us for it.  It’s true that the great beneficiaries of this for many years were mostly Christians of various denominations (yes, we Christians have a wonderful history of oppressing ourselves).  But doesn’t this founding American principle and justice itself demand we extend the same freedoms to others who believe in different gods with different names, or even no god at all?

So this whole Mikey Weinstein thing.  First of all, be careful what you read and pass on.  This Weinstein character isn’t government employed.  And there is no evidence that the government wants to court martial your average soldier who shares his faith.  There isn’t really even evidence that they’re going to adopt Weinstein’s ideas nor that he was the only one they consulted.  Don’t spread gossip, or–even worse–slander.  You don’t have to be the news-breakers or the watchdogs.  Just be patient, get more facts, and listen to a different perspective.  By all means, have an opinion.  But be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.

And let’s think through the real issue at hand.  It’s a tough one.  Think about it.  These chaplains are employed by the U.S. Government, who constitutionally aren’t supposed to promote one religion over another.  I mean, if our churches were paying these chaplains and donating them to the military, that’d be one thing.  But that’s not the case.  Moreover, it doesn’t appear we’re talking about worship services.  We’re talking about counseling situations and military operations.  The military is an authority-based community where soldiers are often deeply emotionally wounded.  This is a context ripe for spiritual abuse.  Could policies go too far?  Yes.  But can you also understand that the government wants to make sure their chaplains are really seeking to understand, connect with, and bring healing with their soldiers whether they are Christians or not?  And can you see that telling a traumatized non-Christian soldier who is struggling that the only professional he can talk to is someone who will only talk to him about Jesus might not be what’s best for that soldier?  And do you really want a picture of a Cross and shield on a plane set out to kill?  Is this mixture of Gospel and military something we really want to protect?

One more thing.  This whole “Fear” thing.  It’s very unbecoming of you, Church.  I mean, how many times does God have to tell us “Do not be afraid”?  So you get court-martialled for following the Spirit and preaching the Gospel when you weren’t supposed to.  So pastors don’t get tax breaks anymore.  So you can’t have your Christmas decorations out in front of City Hall.  And what if laws were passed that put us in jail for sharing our faith with people?  What if we got kicked out of the U.S. because we were worshipping Jesus?  What if we became targets for assassination because we were so subverting our culture?  We’d be no worse off than millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world since the time of Jesus.  Here’s the problem:  We seem to be more fearful and anxious than those brothers and sisters WHO ACTUALLY FACED THAT STUFF!  One of those persecuted Christians once wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.”  If we perfectly believed that nothing in all creation could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, we would be perfectly free from fear.  I’m not saying that I’m there.  But the point is, if we are afraid, that says more about our lack of faith than it does about our surrounding culture’s godlessness.  Let’s not let fear for our own comforts and privileges distract us from the radical life of preaching Good News to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and setting the captives free that we have received as followers of Jesus.  Don’t promote fear.  Let everything you do be done in loveDon’t be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with goodLive such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Pastor Jon



“So apparently something happened at the Boston Marathon this morning.”  My wife scrolled down on her phone.  I flipped on the tv, frustrated because I can never remember where the 24-hour news channels are in the lineup.  Since I’ll be running my first (and probably last) marathon this year, I was curious: did some Kenyan runner break a record?  was there an inspirational story? did someone else try to shave a few minutes off their time by taking the subway to the finish line?

You know the real story.  Two bombs had exploded, killing multiple people and injuring over 100.

By most standards, killing innocent bystanders like this would be labelled “evil.”  Now, generally in our culture, “evil” is not a word that tends to be thrown around.  In this culture, our civil religion tends to emphasize the inherent good in people, and holds up an ideal of universal tolerance and harmony.  “Evil” tends to throw a wrench into that worldview.  It just seems kind of negative and divisive.

In part, our reluctance to use the term “evil” is a response to poor definition and application of the term.  As I understand the term and the Bible’s use of it, “evil” is neither narrowly individualistic nor some medieval superstition.  Evil is a spiritual reality that can manifest itself overtly and discretely, in individuals and systems, cooperatively and unilaterally, in “spiritual” ways and biological ways.  Evil is not restricted to individual choices individuals make, but as something that impacts the world on many levels.

But the result of our avoidance of the term is that, when we open up our internet browser and things like the Marathon Bombing, or the Kermit Gosnell trial, or poisen-laced letters to the President pop up, we are surprised.  I mean, if everyone is really good, “How could something like this happen?” and “How could anyone do such a thing?”  We are shocked, flummoxed, bewildered.  Then we obsessively tune in to every new detail, searching for the key that will prove that we were right about human beings and the world all along; this was just an exception.

As I mentioned after the Newtown shootings, however, Christians should be anything but surprised.  Not that Boston-marathoners should have somehow seen this specific terrorism coming.  But when it comes to the general reality of evil, the awful potential of human beings, and the deep-seated divisions of this world…we should not be surprised.  In fact, as I discussed the marathon bombing with people, rather than expressing surprise that something like this could happen, I found myself expressing amazement that things like this don’t happen more often.  Perhaps that’s too cynical.  But let me tell you why evil doesn’t surprise me:

  1. Because it’s so ridiculously common.  Any worldview (overarching view of the world) that makes evil actions an exception fails to take into account a huge chunk of human and societal experience.  It’s kind of like saying, “The Cleveland Browns are one of the most successful NFL franchises of the last 50 years.”  You can only say that by dismissing a whole slew of real-life evidence.  (You’re welcome, Lions fans.  If I were feeling less humble, I could have gone another direction with that analogy.)   Philosophically, it’s difficult to hold to both a) the amazing intellectual and technological potential of human beings and b) human free will without also holding to c) the incredible potential for evil done by humans.
  2. Because I see it in myself.  We’re often afraid of using the term “evil” because we feel like it’s judgmental, self-righteous, and divisive.  And it can be, especially if we reserve it only for others.  But the Bible speaks of evil as something all of us can encounter intimately by looking into our own souls.  I know that I am accountable in thought, word, and deed for actions directly opposed to God and love; and I know that I am accountable for ways that I am complicit in systems and patterns that oppress, demean, and harm both human and non-human aspects of God’s good creation.  I know that I often act in unloving ways to get what I want, when I am under stress, and when I feel attacked or helpless.  Thus, evil of various extents does not surprise me.

But here’s the kicker.  While many of us avoid talk of “evil” or “sin” because we think it will lead to better people and a better world, I disagree.  And I think this is why talk of sin and evil is so prevalent in the Bible.  Let me offer three ways being open and honest about evil sets us up for human flourishing and for love:

  1. We can let go of control.  The next step after surprise in the face of evil is often an attempt to control and prevent.  “How can I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?”  Well, you can’t.  It’s not wrong–in fact, it’s good–to seek healing and shalom in our world.  But often that very task puts you MORE at risk to be harmed by evil rather than less.  Just look at Jesus.  If we would recognize the pervasiveness of evil in our world, perhaps we could just let go of acting like we can prevent it from happening to us.  I would far rather say with Paul, “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” than live my life afraid of death and evil.
  2. We can go deeper.  We only experience God as deeply as we are willing to allow God into our souls.  I hear people all the time say, “Well I haven’t killed anybody or cheated on my wife, and I don’t steal.”  But Jesus goes deeper.  He says that at the root of murder is anger harbored against another; adultery is the fruit of the tree of lust, truth-telling goes beyond “not lying” and love goes beyond caring for your family. Rather than dismissing a character failure as “out of character,” we must be ready to admit that most everything we do is actually in character.  Only when we acknowledge the evil woven into ourselves are we ready to experience forgiveness, healing, and redemption.
  3. We can seek true healing and reconciliation.  Failing to acknowledge evil leads to shallow souls and worthless relationships.  Acknowledging evil only in the “other” leads to war and oppression.  It is only a robust understanding of evil’s pervasiveness that allows us to connect deeply with others as fellow “sinners in need of grace.”  That actually could sum up Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Paul unites all of humanity first as creatures fallen short and in need of God’s mercy, and only then does he move us as a united community into our unity in Christ.  And check out the complexity of Psalm 139: known intimately by God, hating the evil of others, then quickly asking God to root out the evil he sees in himself as well.  We dare not skip any part of that Story.  Personally, I don’t think “good person” sums me up in any meaningful way.  I am a complex tapestry of God’s image and sin and hope and failure and evil and grace.  We can only begin to connect if we acknowledge all of who we are and put them into the life-giving grace-lavishing world-restoring hands of our loving God.

Not being surprised by evil does not mean we seek to be calloused, stoic cynics.  The appropriate response to evil–in ourselves and in the world at large–is sorrow.  It is humble prayer for mercy and healing.  It is to boldly and lovingly to enter into the specific brands of evil and brokenness God has called us to for the sake of healing and reconciliation, knowing full well the risks and knowing full well our own need of restoration.  Jesus’ own worldview seems to be one that is at times brutally honest, yet at the same time deeply compassionate.  May we have the same mindset of Christ Jesus: the courage to humble ourselves before God and one another.

Millions of people have tuned into the History Channel these past couple weeks to check out “The Bible,” a 10-part drama airing over 5 weeks, culminating on Easter Sunday.  Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (husband and wife) desire to “tell a metanarrative, a grand sweeping love story from Genesis to Revelation.”  They also see their film as striking a blow against “biblical illiteracy” in a culture increasingly ignorant of and unaffected by the Bible.  In my experience, biblical illiteracy is a problem in the culture, but–more disturbingly–in the Church, and among all generations.  Even while many people who have spend their whole lives in church vaguely remember individual Bible stories from Sunday School classes, very few have any clarity about how the whole Story of the Bible flows and connects, how key threads weave their way through, and most specifically, how the Old and New Testaments have everything to do with each other.

I have watched the first 2 weeks of “The Bible” and spoken with people both inside and outside of my congregation who have also watched it.  Tough crowd.  So far, the reviews I’ve heard have been tepid.  In part, I think this has been the result of over-inflated expectations.  These expectations could come from two sources: 1) big-time marketing, which always over-inflates a new product and/or 2) our persistent search for some all-encompassing resource or program that will magically take care of discipleship and evangelism for us.  So is “The Bible” a success or failure?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Here’s the plan.  I’m going to sacrifice all of my St. Patrick’s Day celebration plans (none) and blog through Episode 3 of “The Bible” to offer you my perspective as a pastor.

8:00pm: Ok, so I didn’t forego all my St. Patty’s Day plans.  I’m sitting here, thoroughly enjoying my Shamrock Shake.  Let’s do this.

8:02pm.  To set the scene, so far we’ve we’ve gone from Genesis 1 through the kingship of David (the end of 2 Samuel).  Obviously, a lot has been left out or breezed over.  Some would argue with how Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, Cain/Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel) was treated as mere introduction.  However, that’s exactly what it is in the Bible, a kind of scene-setting for the main storyline of the Bible: Abraham’s family and God’s fulfillment of his promises to Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3.  So I think this was actually an astute interpretive decision (though why they chose to abridge those 3 all-important verses is confusing to me).  Also minimized were the Jacob, Isaac, and Joseph stories.  All amazing stories, but something had to be left out.  I’m ok with the focus on Abraham, the Exodus story, and the use of Samson as a representative example of the Judges cycle (the same pattern is repeated over and over in the book of Judges).  These are key to understanding the overarching narrative, and the time given to each allowed the viewers to connect with the characters and get involved with the human dimension to these stories.  More stories = Less depth when you’re trying to do the Bible in 10 hours.

8:03pm: Wow.  We just skipped all the kings from Solomon to Zedekiah.  This includes the major division of the Israelite kingdom between North (Israel/Ephraim) and South (Judah with Jerusalem, the Temple, and the line of davidic kings).  It also includes the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria in 722bc, multiple reforms (Josiah and Hezekiah), and the entire ministry of Isaiah.  That’s a lot.  The producers chose to divide the 10-part series equally into 5 Old Testament and 5 New.  This, of course, is not proportionate to the Bible itself and is why this episode feels quite rushed.

8:08pm: They haven’t shied away from the gritty humanity of the Bible.  Lots of violence, blood (both in battle and sacrificial scenes), dirt, and sweat.  Good for them. I’m surprised a bit, because our culture is very sensitive to religious violence and the harming of animals.  On the other hand, this is faithful to the reality of the Bible and makes for great trailers.  Apparently, they’re not afraid to tell it like it is.

8:18pm: Burnett and Downey have done a lot of reading between the lines: Daniel’s capture scene is not in the Bible and the scene in which Zedekiah’s sons are killed takes up all of 4 verses.  I don’t think they’ve stepped out-of-bounds, though.  They have tried to connect the dots in ways that are as historically likely as possible.

8:34pm: The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  Here is one of the few biblical stories made for tv drama, with a ready-made script.  In this case, I think Burnett and Downey could have stuck directly to the text of Daniel 3 and had themselves a far more compelling scene.  Oh well.

9:06pm: One critique I’ve heard is that there is lots in the movie that isn’t in the Bible.  For instance, the big fight scene in the synagogue on the day Mary finds out she is pregnant.  This is not in the gospel accounts, nor is much of the interaction between Joseph and Mary.  But we must remember, the Bible itself would make for a poor movie script.  Burnett and Downey had to use some artistic imagination 1) to make a watchable movie with an engaging script, 2) to allow us to connect with the characters, and 3) to make up for their lack of time.  So, perhaps there wasn’t a fight on the exact day that Mary encountered the angel, but these 2 images were put together to allow the producers to give the reader a feel for Jewish life under Roman occupation without adding a bunch of extra scenes.  To me, this is valid use of artistic license.  It is also faithful to the concept of the story genre.  Stories draw us in and invite us to engage imaginatively with the characters and scenes.  So are these scenes necessarily exactly how they played out historically?  No.  But do they give us images to help us get into the story?  Very much so.  And I think this is a good thing.

9:20pm: I loved the back-and-forth scenes of Herod’s anxious anger and the grateful and joyful nativity scenes.  This is a contrast–Empire vs. God’s Kingdom–that we see throughout the gospels.

9:24pm: From Lauren (my wife), “Maybe they could’ve fit more in if they didn’t have so many commercials.”  True.  This isn’t the Bible in 10 hours; it’s the Bible in 8.  In addition, the targeted marketing of Christian Mingle and Jeff Foxworthy’s Bible Challenge are kind of embarrassing.   Oh, and is it weird that all the Viking commercials are so easily confused with The Bible movie?  Enough about commercials.

9:35pm: This episode included a lot of extra-biblical events.  For instance, the story of Herod’s eagle on the temple is only found in other ancient sources.  The image of  the child Jesus returning to Galilee and witnessing the crucified man beside the road is another extra-biblical insertion.*  These events either actually happened or were very possible, and they provide important context for us about Jesus’ time.  But there have been other key things left out (Notably, the Ezra/Nehemiah stories including the return to Jerusalem, rebuilding of its walls, recovery of the Torah, and rebuilding of the Temple).  In fact, the Temple–a central piece to the Story–has been pretty much neglected.  This is a tough one, but in a movie called “The Bible,” when so must has to be cut already, I don’t know if these choices make sense to me.  As I said earlier, I think they made a lot of good choices in the first four hours, but am not as sure about this episode.

9:47pm: Great scene–Jesus’ temptation, especially the last part where Jesus pictures Satan’s promise to give him an easy road to a comfortable kingship versus the way of suffering to true Kingship.  This was artistic license at its best.  It conveys the exact thrust of the gospel accounts while imaginatively taking us into Jesus’ mind.  This is what any sermon on Jesus’ temptation could only attempt to convey with mere words.

9:59pm: Loved the scene with Jesus and Peter.  If you read the gospels, you know Jesus had flair, and it looks like this movie is picking up on that.  ”What are we going to do?”  ”We’re going to change the world.”  Good stuff.

One quick story.  Every other week, I meet with 6th-8th graders who are preparing for Confirmation.  We have been going through the Bible’s Story since October, focusing on the key movements (and skipping a lot).  Each week, we recap where we’ve been from the beginning, and each week, the recap goes slowly.  This past week, we flew through it.  Why?  They had watched the first episodes of “The Bible.”  They had pictures in their heads now of Abraham and Moses and the Red Sea, and had connected with the characters in new ways.  People in our culture are used to receiving stories visually, whether via tv or movies more than via reading.  That’s the reality.  And that means, we tend to be able to process and digest visual stories more easily than we do written ones.   So will “The Bible” disciple and evangelize people for us?  No.  But might it be a helpful tool to help people grasp the major movements of the biblical Story, and help people know what’s going on when they land somewhere in the Bible?  It certainly can.  And hopefully, “The Bible” might lead to more modern, artistic, historically accurate, and–dare I say–non-cheesy efforts of conveying the Story of the Bible to people in our image-saturated culture.  All of these are good things.  Not the magic bullet.  But good things.  And for that, I am thankful.

Have you been watching “The Bible”?  What are your thoughts so far?  Feel free to add to the discussion by commenting below!

*For a really engaging reconstruction of Jesus’ return to Galilee from the family’s time of refuge in Egypt, check out Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.


You know when you cover your eyes because you don’t want to see something, but peek through your fingers because you need to see it?  That’s kind of how I feel sometimes when popular headlines contain something about religion.  Usually religion-in-the-news can be put into categories labeled “scandal,” “foot-in-the-mouth,” or “those crazy religious folk” (to be fair: scandalous, foolish, and crazy do tend to be the general criteria for newsworthiness in our culture).  So last week as I ran on the treadmill at the YMCA, I nervously tried to read the mildly-reliable closed captions on CNN that went along with muted images of Pope Benedict XVI  (the captions said something about the Pope’s “hair damage,” which I am about 60% sure was a typo for “heritage”).  As you probably know, the news story was not scandalous, foolish, or crazy.  The Pope had resigned.

The ensuing Sunday, I led my mainline Protestant church in prayer for the process of selecting a new Pope.  It seemed right to me.  But I got to thinking: this simple prayer may have been confusing, maybe even radical in the eyes of some members of my congregation.  Probably not that radical today, though certainly for much of the last 500 years, a prayer for the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) would not even have been a consideration for most Protestants, let alone the Papal selection process.  But definitely confusing.  Why pray for the Catholic Church?  We don’t follow the Pope, so why do we care who the next one is?  The Pope resigned.  So what?

While Roman Catholics (RCs) and Protestants of various stripes have experienced significant inter-denominational healing and collaboration in recent years, I think much of this has gone on at the “official” level.  Among congregants, I still get asked questions and try to correct misconceptions about Roman Catholicism, the Pope, and why we say “the holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed.  So let me offer some responses to some common questions/statements I come across, and I hope you will ask any other questions you might have either in the “Comment” area or in person.*

  • I’m not Catholic, I’m Christian.  Please don’t say this.  The alternative to Catholic is Protestant or Eastern Orthodox–or more specifically, Presbyterian, UCC, Baptist, etc.  Without getting into a long conversation about the proper definition of “Christian,” let’s just say both Catholics and Protestants (not to mention Eastern Orthodox) can all be “Christians.”  A similar error, in my opinion, is to talk about Catholics as a different “religion.”  It is probably most descriptive to talk about it as a different “denomination” within the Christian religion (a Church family tree).
  • Isn’t that a Catholic thing?/That’s too Catholic.    Firstly, Catholic history is pretty much Church history for the first 1000 (Eastern Orthodox split)-1500 (Protestant split) years of our existence.  Protestants have broken from the RCC so thoroughly in many cases, that we have cut ourselves off from 1500 years of Christian insight, meaningful spiritual practices, and encouraging stories of Christians living out their faith.  Not to mention the last 500 years of those same contributions to the Kingdom of God by our RC brothers and sisters.  Whether we are imposing ashes, practicing lectio divina, or talking about the importance of confessing to another person, we are trying to draw on the best of Church history, engaging in practices that have been and can be beneficial to our spiritual journey towards Christ-likeness.  Who cares if it’s “Catholic” or “Protestant”?  As Paul says, “test everything, hold onto what is good.”
  • Catholics believe the Pope is perfect.  Technically, the term is “infallible.”  But even so, this is not true.  Officially (as of the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870), the RCC believes the Pope speaks infallibly when he speaks “Ex Cathedra” (from the chair) in the area of faith and morals.  This official proclamation has only been exercised a handful of times in Church history and not since 1950.
  • There’s nothing in the Bible that justifies the RCC’s understanding of the Pope.  The RCC would beg to differ, pointing to Matthew 16:13-19.  While I do not agree with the RCC interpretations and applications of this passage, let’s at least say that the proper interpretation is not obvious, even for Protestants.  But the bigger point is that accusing the RCC of just making stuff up without any consultation of the Scriptures is unhelpful and false.
  • Catholics worship Mary.  Nope, at least not officially.  More accurately, Catholics “honor” Mary.  Here’s the most helpful logic I’ve heard.  Jesus was Mary’s son.  Christians are adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus.  Thus, Mary is our adoptive mother.  In the 10 Commandments, we are told to “Honor your father and mother.”  Thus, we are to honor Mary.  Make sense?  It does to me.  Practically, I think there tends to be far too much emphasis on Mary in the RCC, but the accusation of worshipping Mary on par with the Trinity is false.
  • Why do we say “I believe in the holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed?  Some Protestant churches have actually replaced this line with “the holy Christian Church” or “the holy universal Church” to avoid confusion.  But this is merely for clarity.  “Catholic” literally means “universal.”  You’ll notice in the Creed that “catholic” is in lower-case letters.  This is because it is an adjective, not a proper name.  We are stating our believe in the Church that exists in all times and places, not the Roman Catholic Church.
  • How does the Pope have anything to do with us Protestants?   Let’s be honest.  The history of the papal office is a squirrely one.  It is riddled with corruption, political power-struggles, and moral failures.  Unfortunately, so is the history of the Church in general, and not just “those Catholics.”  As I have engaged a bit more with Catholicism in recent years, I have found: 1) Many of the Popes (especially since the RCC got disentangled a bit from its political/empire influence) seem to be deeply spiritual, Jesus-following, God-loving, people-serving men, and 2) There is some profound and inspiring theology in the RCC and in papal writings that provide a super-helpful perspective for us Protestants, who tend to lose our historical roots quite easily.  Essentially, if we just dismiss the Pope and Roman Catholicism out-of-hand, we are missing out on a treasure trove of wisdom, fellowship, and great Kingdom work.
  • The Catholics are too hierarchical.  I like that we can do whatever we want.  I have an acquaintance who says that there are two vital values necessary for the Church to faithfully accomplish her mission in the world: Truth and Unity.  The hierarchy of the RCC emerges out of its great value on Unity–sometimes, perhaps, giving ground a bit in the area of Truth or voices that present different angles on Truth (I say this as a typical Protestant critique).  But we Protestants must be very aware that our pursuit of Truth, completely free of hierarchical influence has done untold damage to the Unity factor in the Church.  Thus, we have created serious roadblocks to the Church’s mission, which Jesus clearly says is bound up in our success at presenting a unified witness to the world.

This is very simplistic.  We could spend lots more time trying to bridge the Catholic-Protestant gap.  We could also spend lots more time talking about the very real barriers to full unity among Catholics and Protestants.  But let’s just leave it at this: the Pope is important to the whole Church, not just the Roman Catholic Church.  For us Protestants, we have a great deal to learn from whomever is appointed the next Bishop of Rome (Pope).  He will take his place with a deep understanding of the Church’s complex and valuable history, a love for God’s people, and certainly a reputation of wisdom and faith.  Beyond this, we should care about the Pope because the mission of the Church is bigger than just our individual lives, congregations, and denominations.  The world doesn’t care about all our labels and distinctions.  They need to see the light of Christ shining out of anyone who claims the name of Christ.  And when Christians of any denomination stumble, it is a black eye to the whole Church in the eyes of the world.

And so please join me in praying for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers in Christ, that those discerning God’s desire for the next Pope would be given wisdom and insight, and that the whole Church would shine more brightly with the deep unity we find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

*I have asked a Catholic Priest friend of mine to check my accuracy.  Graciously, he made one addition, which I have included.