Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health

Tomorrow, October 7, is the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding, and this post is part of a synchroblog on the topic. A list of other posts in this theme are at the bottom.

Many of my readers know I am a psychologist with a specialty in spirituality and psychology. My BA is in Religious Studies, my PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) had an emphasis on spiritual integration, my dissertation and other scholarly work has focused on the topic, and I'm currently the chair of my organization's spirituality awareness committee. I have provided many trainings on the topic of spirituality and mental health.

Through it all, one of the most common issues is the apparent contradiction of spirituality and psychology, especially within the Christian traditions. Scathing comments from some of psychology's biggest initial names (like Freud, Ellis, and Watson), have really shaped the landscape of interactions between spirituality and mental health providers. Both sides are often afraid to talk to the other based on the assumption that they hate one another. What we need is peacebuilding.

Accurate information can be extremely helpful for peacemaking efforts. So I want to share some history about spirituality and mental health to help demonstrate that the two have, historically, actually been more partners than enemies.

In fact, the earliest people to provide assistance were faith communities. The fourth and fifth centuries included the building of monasteries for the mentally ill by St. Basil in Caesarea, St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and St. Benedict in Monte Cassino. Just by the individuals' titles emphasizes that these were not small, unknown efforts, either. The Middle Ages provided government asylums, where the public could sometimes pay to watch the mentally ill in chains for entertainment. Phillipe Pinel, a French Roman Catholic, was a major advocate for reform of these asylums, and his reforms spread throughout Europe. An English Quaker, William Tuke, established the York Retreat for the Humane Care of the Insane, and his model spread to the US. Today, many faith-based or faith-friendly organizations and institutions focus on humane, ethical treatment of the mentally ill. Some examples include LDS Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federations, Institute for Muslim Mental Health, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, NAMI’s FaithNet, and Mental Health Ministries.

Much to the surprise of many in the mental health world, it has, in fact, been individuals of faith who have led many of the efforts to improve the treatment conditions of the mentally ill. Some of the most inhumane efforts have been from the biggest critics of spirituality.

On the mental health side, virtually every major professional organization lists appropriately addressing religion or spirituality as part of their ethics code now. This includes the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. The public mental health system even acknowledges the importance of spirituality in treatment. See the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative and LA County's spirituality efforts, including a Clergy Advisory Committee and an annual conference.

While not everyone on either side of spirituality and mental health are interested in collaborating and making peace, increasingly, most people are interested in not only being cordial, but finding ways to be mutually reinforcing and beneficial. So let's stop making assumptions about each other and assume we have the same goals at heart.

Shameless plug: For those in Southern California and interested in these topics, I'll be on a panel at the University of Redland's Symposium on Integrating Spirituality and Mental Health on October 29. More information is available here and here.

Other synchroblog participants:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fighting Biblical Literalism with Literalism?

I'm not a fan of literalistic readings of the Bible in general. There's just no argument from any worldview, in my opinion, that supports this exegetical method. Even if every word was spoken by God and transcribed by humanity, that doesn't mean every word is literally true, as no one (even Jesus) spoke that literally all the time. And even Jesus' words were obviously highly contextualized, so "plain meaning" in our time just doesn't make any sense.

When taken too far, there are some extra special absurdities derived from literal interpretations of biblical text. Therefore, some people like to argue against a universally literal reading of the Bible by pointing out inconsistencies generated by such a reading. I can find this humorous (and appropriate) at times, as it helps keep all of us honest. As an example, one could argue against requiring a belief in a 7 day creation period by showing what else we would have to believe by the same interpretive methodology. The point of the argument is not to promote a particular interpretation necessarily, but to argue against a particular interpretive methodology.

However, then there's other times when I see people fighting conclusions made by literal interpretations by making another literal interpretation after criticizing this exegetical method. This is different than what I described above, as the methodology is undermined, but then the same methodology is used to come to a different conclusion.

Let me give an example. In our Sunday school class, we're exploring Borg and Crossan's The First Paul, discussing authorship and interpretation of the Pauline letters. For those who don't know, Borg and Crossan are squarely liberal scholars. They do not ascribe to literal readings of the Bible. In fact, a central component of their thesis is that only some of the letters attributed to Paul were authentically written by Paul. The rest, Borg and Crossan argue, were attributed to him in a way that often happened at the time. This argument alone helps undermine a literal reading of Paul.

However, part of the way they argue for different authorship is through a literal reading of the texts. They have several examples, but one is the topic slavery, as they see Philemon advocating for abolition (perhaps only of Christian slaves), while reading Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Ephesians 6:5-9 as advocating for the maintenance of slavery. However, the latter verses never explicitly support slavery. They could definitely be read that way (and have been in the past, of course). However, I see both of these as very superficial, literalistic, non-contextual interpretations.

Borg and Crossan's conclusions may be absolutely correct, but methodology matters. At least in this context, I do not find they have a rigorous explanation for their exegesis, as they are relying on a plain meaning of the text, which they clearly do not support themselves.

I find it interesting that some liberal scholars seem to do this. They clearly reject biblical literalism (and have changed their belief structure often in reaction to it, sometimes to the point of rejecting Christianity, like Bart Ehrman), but then use literal interpretations to make their arguments. I wonder if they seem to believe that the Christian community only values literal interpretations and in order to be heard, they have to use that methodology. Obviously, that's not true.

Historically and currently, a significant portion (perhaps even the majority, although they tend to be quieter) of Christians appreciate and value good non-literal exegesis. In fact, demonstrating that faithful Christians can interpret the Bible non-literally and still value it is critical to maintaining the faith of many and even evangelizing to many. So personally, I find it detrimental to the community of faith when those who have rejected literalism primarily use a literal interpretation to get to their points. Biblical literalism has already been effectively discredited for decades, if not longer. Rather than continuing to use it to make our arguments, lets show how good, faithful scholarship can actually be done.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Meaning Without Transcendence?

This is the third in a series on meaning. A conversation I've had with others and is central to a universal concept of meaning is whether transcendence is needed for meaning. Viktor Frankl and others have argued that meaning is a central human need, and I'm inclined to agree.

There are many people who argue that transcendence is not at all necessary for meaning. They explain that they find meaning in simply enjoying the world around them, from sunsets to close relationships. However, nothing more than that is needed.

Others argue that such situations are insufficient. I'm in this camp. One way I'd phrase it is that survival for the sake the survival is not compelling nor meaningful. For me, there necessarily needs to be something more, something inherent, something transcendent to find meaning. That's where faith becomes central to me.

From the first perspective, having kids is important and meaningful only because that's just part of human nature, and we've evolutionarily been wired to have those drives. There's not necessarily anything transcendent about it, so just enjoy what biology has given us.

In the second perspective (using Christian language), God has used evolution to give us a desire for family because there is something inherently, transcendently meaningful about building life and relationships, and guiding little lives and character. Adoption is meaningful and relevant in this second context for me. I think it's harder to argue for in the first.

There's so much pain and destruction caused by humans that if there's nothing transcendent about them, then I find it hard to argue for our continued existence, frankly. But if there's something transcendent and valuable about all life, then we should continue on (and be good neighbors to our non-human friends).

What keeps me going is the faith that transcendence gives life and struggle meaning. I really have trouble understanding finding meaning without that. How about you? Do you find that meaning requires transcendence?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Meaning in Tradition

Continuing my series on reflections on meaning, I want to consider the idea of tradition. Last week, I talked about the limited value I've increasingly seen in church services. I've reflected before that I have trouble understanding why people continue singing songs that sound like funeral dirges with affect that matches. Extreme structure and routine that is devoid of passion just doesn't strike me as compelling.

However, what seems to be a driving force for many is tradition. In various settings, I've heard people talk about being motivated to engage in an activity that others have done for decades, centuries, or millennia. Sometimes it's about doing the same thing others are doing at the same time around the globe. I find the latter more compelling because it emphasizes global unity, which is significant in many ways.

For one reason or another, I just have never been able to experience meaning or emotion connected to tradition. I've come to really appreciate some of the more historical images and processes, but not because of tradition; because of knowing that each element of an icon is intentionally placed and means something. But structuring a service or singing a particular song because others have done it before us just isn't compelling to me.

Maybe it goes back to my sense of meaning needing a relational and/or transformational quality. I just don't see either happening attached to tradition for the sake of tradition. That doesn't mean tradition is bad, but sometimes we can get too rigidly attached to it because that's how we've always done it. Perhaps there's a more effective or meaningful way...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Meaning in Church

I put a lot of emphasis on meaning-making, for better or for worse. My heart feels at home with Viktor Frankl's logotherapy orientation, focused on meaning as the way to deal with psychological problems. And I pursued a career in psychology because I saw it having more meaning for me than other paths. So this will start a little series on reflections on meaning.

Most people would agree a major component of church and religion is to contribute to meaning. But how does it contribute to meaning? Does everyone even want meaning from church or its analogues?

When people think of church, they often think of certain songs and sermons. Style preferences can create great debate and even schisms. What I've come to realize over the years is that the "service" (I still don't like that word, thanks to the criticisms of it from the emerging church conversation) doesn't give much meaning to me. I can enjoy them, but they're not really transformative or filled with meaning.

Even in writing that sentence, I realize that central to meaning for me is some process of transformation. If no transformation of any kind occurs, can there be meaning? Songs and sermons can be stimulating in a variety of ways and encourage us to do things differently, but I have a hard time believing that they are the primary drivers of true change.

Relationships cause change. Change occurs within relationships. This is the core of the interpersonal approach to psychotherapy, which has some strong evidence base. Church services really aren't about relationship, for better or for worse.

It's been many years since I've felt like I've found much meaning in that hour (or so) on Sunday mornings, and it's not for lack of good music and speaking. I have found much more meaning in conversations, discussions, and ways of living life together.

Where do you find meaning in your faith practice? Not enjoyment, pleasure, or confidence, but actual meaning that's long-lasting?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Violence Against the Other

The news lately has not been pretty. News in general is rarely happy, as trauma tends to be more sensational and better for headlines than generosity, grace, and love. But it's been extra bad, at least in my perception.

Neighboring countries bombing one another. Children being beheaded because they're of the wrong tribe/religion. Women being stoned because they didn't follow the right religious observance. Police wearing military gear against the communities they were sworn to protect.

What is with the lack of value of human life?

Even in my attempt at downtime, a fictional audiobook I'm listening to is focusing on lynchings in the South in the early 20th century. Why is our history (and present) so focused on killing the Other? Not just ostracizing, shaming, or trying to change the Other (all of which can be bad enough), but flat out destroying them?

I keep coming back to my reflections when I preached last month. The title of my sermon was Identity in Love, and my thought was that it has to do with our identities. When our identities are tied up in tribes, which are focused on sameness, then difference becomes a threat to who we are. Since that sermon, I keep seeing this pattern over and over across cultures and time.

Is there another explanation? If this idea of how we form our identity is at least a piece of the cause of violence against the Other, then how do we promote this kind of identity formation? It's beyond the prosocial behavior building promoted by positive psychology (which I think is wonderful). Identity is deeper than behavior, at least in my view. Spiritual formation seems to start getting in to some of that, as a core idea of spiritual formation is identity, at least spiritually. But most spiritual formation tends to be very individualistic.

It seems what we need is a new corporate identity. We need to change culture. I guess that starts with individuals, but it doesn't seem to be happening quickly enough...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Grace for the Contemplative Parent #SpeakeasyContemplativeParents

One of the spiritual formation concepts most dear to my heart is Brother Lawrence's practicing the presence of God. It is core to the Incarnational stream that Richard Foster describes in Streams of Living Water and feels like my spiritual home. For these reasons, Lily Crowder's book, Grace for the Contemplative Parent: A Practical Guide for Mothers Practicing the Presence of God caught my attention.

Crowder does a nice job of applying Brother Lawrence's concepts to the daily life of parenting. She will also probably make many mothers feel quite validated through struggles of the daily grind of life with kids. The points were good and could be powerful, although I didn't feel like there was anything particularly new in what I heard, even though I need to remember to give myself room for grace in many of these same circumstances. Many of the ideas were similar to ones I have conveyed to parents during the course of family therapy, which was validating to me, but not necessarily helpful in my own growth. Since I can still struggle with practicing God's presence, I was hoping this book would give me some new outlook that would translate to transformation. One of my reflections during the book was remembering that insight doesn't necessarily lead to behavior change. Learning something new about ourselves and the world is good and important, but sometimes we need practical skills to actually experience something different.

Even though the main title is "parent," the subtitle is "guide for mothers," and Crowder acknowledges early on that these principles are relevant to all parents, but she is targeting mothers. This is my biggest complaint. During our adoption process, almost all adoption resources were targeted at mothers (you'd be amazed at how many were pink and literally flowery--and my wife doesn't really like either). I felt really left out and invalidated, and I was just as active. Most parenting resources are similarly targeted toward mothers. Thankfully, there is increasing recognition that fathers are often active (and important) in parenting. I don't think it would have been that difficult to make this book more inclusive of fathers, and it would open up another huge audience. And believe me, fathers need grace, as well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Audiobook Review: Love Walked Among Us

A theme of this blog is exploring what it means to love in Christ. Paul E. Miller's book, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus, is a good addition to that discussion. Miller fills his book with many illustrations from both the biblical narrative and his and friends' lives. This approach really helps ground the principles, brings many of them to life, and creates a real-world application.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise stops, although I have to say at the outset that it was very difficult to pay attention to the content. I repeatedly have said that I love it when the author reads his/her own work when it's nonfiction. Miller has good inflection and sometimes displays his passion. However, this very well may be the worst produced audiobook I've ever listened to. Miller's pressured speech and regular stumbles and misreadings made it very challenging to listen to. I love audiobooks and listen to them regularly, plus my wife has narrated and edited some audiobooks, so I have some familiarity with the production process. Stumbles are normal, but that's what going back and re-recording the line and editing is for. The narration was so bad I actually contacted the publisher to ensure I didn't accidentally receive a draft version. I was told they attempted to fix what they could but were unable to re-record.

The errors and narration were distracting in the way that a poorly written paper with frequent spelling and grammatical errors are distracting (at least to me), preventing the core message from coming through. When I could hear the content honestly, I'm not sure I really heard anything particularly new or challenging. There were some good lessons, but I think there's other resources that are more effective at sending this message.

The complaint I had about content was that Miller seemed to make regular assumptions about various things that are not always reasonable. I recall during one biblical example, he said something like, "Jesus thought..." Except that Jesus' thoughts weren't in the biblical narrative. We can guess what Jesus thought, felt, etc., but we need to acknowledge that we're speculating and cannot be absolutely sure. It is this type of presentation that leads to rigidity in theological interpretation. There are also times when he gets facts wrong about people and fields. For instance, he talked about how psychologists look to Freud as a source of wisdom and guidance. Sorry, Miller, psychologists largely haven't relied on Freud for several decades. These kinds of statements, along with the poor production, made the book lose credibility to me.

If you're interested in this book, read it, don't listen to it. I cannot recommend the audiobook version at all, and the content is just "okay" from my perspective...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Identity in Love

Yesterday, I had the privilege of giving the sermon at my church. The title was Identity in Love, exploring how the development of our moral identity formation makes a difference in justice and how we approach people, with the goal of the Gospel being to have our identities rooted in love. You can listen to it below or at

Monday, June 23, 2014

Do we need authority?

Our society (and many of our ideas) are based in authority. We structure our organizations around hierarchies of authority. We based decisions on documents we consider authoritative, often in a reified way. Much defense of the Bible seems more to do with an apparent need for a transcendent authoritative source.

But do we necessarily need such authority? Psychologically, it seems like we are soothed by making decisions based on such authority. Authority is a good way to bring differing opinions into alignment (or submission), but is that always a good thing?

The Society of Friends (Quakers) have no such structure of authority--anyone can bring up an issue, speak, etc. For decisions, they seek consensus. What would our society be like if we approached decisions and structure like that? It may take more time, but is that necessarily a bad thing, especially if we structured life around that extra time?

In my mind, this requires a greater tolerance for ambiguity. If we cannot tolerate ambiguity, authority is important to give a sense of structure and clear definition. But as many of us have experienced, those structures and clear definitions are not always that satisfying, meaning, or even accurate.

How would our faith be different if we didn't depend on "objective" authority so much? What if we relied more on communion with God and listening to the Holy Spirit?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Roman Context of Scripture

In most hermeneutic discussions of the Bible, I've traditionally heard a lot of talk of the Jewish context. That makes sense, especially with the Old Testament. After listening to the historical fiction The Advocate, I am realizing how important knowing and recognizing the Roman (and Greek) context of the New Testament is.

Randy Singer's story revolves around his imaginings of who Theophilus (of Luke and Acts fame) could have been. I realized through the course of this book how little I ever really learned about Roman culture (I'm kind of surprised about this frankly). The audiobook is 15 hours, so it took many days to listen to. During this process and the few days since completing it, I have been starting to view various New Testament passages differently, considering the Roman culture in which much of it (especially the texts attributed to Paul) were written. It helped me challenge some assumptions about interpretation and really pushes against some traditionally conservative interpretations (in my opinion). I have long firmly believed we have to interpret Scripture in the original historical and cultural context (as much as we are able). The Roman context is absolutely central and very unique and different from traditional Jewish contexts. Suddenly, various stories make even more sense.

For instance, the phrase "Jesus is Lord" seems particularly significant in contrast to Caesar is Lord of the Roman Empire. The divinity of the emperor was standard belief, and acknowledgement of his role and power was in that phrase. While I've heard pieces of that before, becoming immersed in a fictional framing of the culture gave the phrase new life. It also reminded me of the particularity of much of Scripture to a particular time and place. Would we say "Jesus is Lord" if the Incarnation occurred today? It doesn't have the same meaning that it did living in the Roman Empire.

Especially post-Constantine, much of Western Christian culture specifically is derived from Roman culture (probably more than Jewish culture). I wasn't familiar with the tradition of the Vestal Virgins; ladies who were married to the state and sworn to remain virgins (until their 30 year duty was completed). Could this have been the precursor to the Roman Catholic nun tradition?

Even the trial and execution of Jesus was centered in Roman culture. Yes, the Pharisees may have brought Jesus to Pilate, but Pilate has a backstory (and Singer's characterization is compelling) and thought process that is distinctly Roman in origin. We mustn't forget that crucifixion was not a Jewish rite. It was Roman with a long history in asserting power and dominance.

One of the more disturbing parts of Singer's book is the vivid explanation of the violence and fundamental lack of value of human life that was prevalent throughout Roman culture. When reading Scriptural references regarding the ways people treat each other and the role of slavery, having a better understanding of what this looked like in Rome (rather than in US history) really helps us better interpret the Bible. Verses that seem to reference a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement are given a completely new clarity in this Roman context, providing a particular framework for people to understand Jesus' sacrifice in a way they could understand.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this story is how Jesus' story was presented as rather tangential for the vast majority of the book. While some Christians may not like this, it really puts context to the initial impact of Christ's life on the Roman Empire--people didn't pay too much attention. Even when Paul is introduced (far past the halfway mark), he doesn't initially seem to be a major player in Theophilus' life. This approach helped me better understand the possible context Paul is entering and speaking to when he pursues his ministry to the Gentiles.

The flow and content of the book was rich and engaging. It's been a while since I listened to an audiobook that I wanted to keep running after my commute was over. David Cochran Heath's narration accentuated this, bringing dynamic life to the characters. The characterizations of famous historical characters and events sparked my interest and prompted me to spend a good amount of time reading even more about Roman history. Again, it's been a while since a book prompted me to do further research on a topic, so I give Singer a lot of credit!

Readers/listeners should remember this is historical fiction, and it is not intended as a hermeneutic guide, as far as I'm aware. But it's one of the stronger Christian fiction stories out there. It's definitely one that is not as cheesy as many and doesn't get too heavy-handed. It takes a fairly traditional view of how Scripture was written, for better or for worse, but I think people of all stripes can enjoy the story as an opportunity to explore a possibility of the origins of Theophilus and the books of Luke and Acts.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 19, 2014

Is Biblical Archaeology Helpful to Faith?

When I was living with my grandpa, one of our monthly traditions was to go to a local meeting of the Biblical Archaeology Society. I long have had interest in archaeological findings, as I think it provides a richness and context to a variety of historical narratives. So getting the opportunity to review Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament's Most Infamous City was exciting.

Drs. Steven Collins and Latayne C. Scott explore the story of how Collins sought a new location for Sodom and his argument for Tall el-Hammam as the site of biblical Sodom. I found myself regularly tuning out of the first part of the book, detailing some of the historical arguments. While I've listened to many of narrator Sean Runnette's audiobooks, there was a lack of passion to hold interest in more nuanced intellectual arguments (and people who know me know I love those discussions :) ). It felt more like he was truly just reading a paper he knew nothing about. Unfortunately, I'm discovering a lot of Christian nonfiction narration is like that...

The explanations as to why Tall el-Hammam made sense as biblical Sodom was where more of my interest re-arose. Hearing about the historical context and how archaeology can help us better interpret the Bible is helpful.

I also really appreciated how Collins ended his book addressing the various critiques of his work. Some arguments center around whether a biblical Sodom ever truly existed while others debate biblical interpretation. Collins' biblical interpretation centers around a theory of true narrative representation. While I won't claim to fully understand this approach, I think it makes a few too many assumptions demanding the historicity of the biblical texts. I see it being driven more from a perspective of people's faith needing the Bible to be historically true than honestly approaching the texts and how they were meant to be read.

This doesn't mean they are not historically true. I don't see any need for the story of Sodom to be historically true. However, I think those who deny archaeological data supporting biblical Sodom's historicity due to their interpretations of the Bible aren't being fair or honest, either. While I am most definitely not even a novice or amateur at reviewing archaeological material, Collins' arguments make sense to me. His willingness to engage in debate and address disagreement lends credibility. He does seem to want to be academically honest with himself and others.

However, at the end of the day, does it matter whether Tall el-Hammam is biblical Sodom or not? Whether biblical Sodom was historically real or not? The latter may impact some people's respect of Genesis, but I think there's problems with that approach. I'm not sure identifying the physical location and archaeological remains of biblical Sodom really adds much to our understanding of the biblical world or narrative. Other archaeological sites can provide clarity, especially to more important narratives (yes, I'm saying the Sodom narrative is not one of the most critical). Some stories really can be elucidated more by archaeological evidence. But I'm not sure what the value added is to the Sodom narrative beyond it being it being interesting...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 12, 2014

Against the Death Penalty

Earlier this month, Al Mohler wrote an editorial on CNN's Belief Blog about why Christians should support the death penalty. There were so many things wrong with this article that I was going to write some of my reactions. Thankfully, Roger Olson (who has FAR more followers than I do) wrote an excellent piece noting the many inaccuracies in Mohler's regularly flawed "logic."

One of my big areas of interest is in transformation and motivation (both of particular interest to both theology and psychology). I'll reiterate what Olson said in response to Mohler: the death penalty does NOT act as a deterrent. While many Christians may say it is a deterrent for them, they also probably wouldn't ever engage in the kind of crimes that would get the death penalty anyway. So who is it really a deterrent for?

This gets into a larger discussion of motivation. Many people (especially fundamentalist Christians) advocate for aversive punishment. While that may work for people who normally follow rules anyway, it's not terribly effective for those who are not necessarily automatically compliant. I would put the death penalty as an aversive punishment. And people who commit crimes to earn the death penalty are likely not terribly compliant. So we need to figure out a different approach.

Hint: Reinforcing desired behavior is the most effective approach for all people. But that means we have to approach people with grace, and why would Christians want to do that?!

This, then, also gets into the idea of transformation and redemption, absolutely central concepts to the Gospel and for me, a much more compelling reason to oppose capital punishment. If central to our faith is the idea that anybody can be redeemed (and ultimately at any time), then we need to give that opportunity. By killing someone, we are essentially stating that there is no hope for this individual. Is that our right? Should we really remove the ability of God to touch this person's life? Or some good to come through this individual? There's plenty of biblical stories about such redemption, transformation, and God using evil for good...

But Mohler and others argue that some people deserve death. We can get into long and drawn-out arguments over who can decide who deserves death. But let's suspend that. Let's assume some individuals do deserve death (frankly, hearing just a synopsis of the crimes the Oklahoma individuals have been convicted of gives me a gut reaction of them deserving death) AND that there is no doubt of guilt. Particularly for those who believe in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement (which Mohler avows), then we all deserve death. Yet because of Christ's sacrifice, we are spared.

If God will grant a pardon from death, why shouldn't we do so, even if death is deserved?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Does the Building Matter?

Last week, I asked, "Does Dress Matter?" in regards to how we dress at church. This week, I want to look at the relevance of our buildings that (supposedly) inspire worship. Many readers know I was heavily involved in the Crystal Cathedral Ministries. My wife and I had our first kiss, got engaged, and got married on the campus (plus the last Star Trek movie was filmed there, which is awesome! :) ). But it was also regularly criticized for its opulence (okay, the women's bathroom was definitely extreme). Recently, there was an interesting post from a former critic of the building, recognizing some potential benefits of the architecture.

Yes, a lot of hungry people could have been fed with the money from building the Cathedral (and many other buildings worldwide). But how much have such buildings inspired people spiritually (and subsequently resulting in financial donations)? We'll probably never know for sure. However, I can say that these buildings have definitely inspired me over the years and helped keep me focused on the priorities of faith. This can seem ironic since the building can seem so superficial and in contrast to last week's post. But one of the things I loved about the grounds was how they emphasized a connection with nature, being able to see God all around us. The Chapel in the Sky was one of my favorite places, being able to see the surrounding community for miles, reminding me of the importance of touching all of these lives.

Extending one of the arguments from last week about the importance of making worship time different, I think the building really can do that. I've been part of congregations whose buildings are clearly churches, with stained glass windows and history built in, and those whose buildings were warehouses and looked more like theaters. I can't really imagine going back to the latter option. Part of it is in the style of worship that is too performance-driven for me now. But the other part is that those types don't feel like anything special or different. Walking into the Crystal Cathedral feels special. Walking into my current congregation's building feels special. It helps put me into a different mindset. There's a reason the Temple was to be created a certain way with increasing reverence for the increasing sanctity of the divisions, culminating in the Holy of Holies.

But I would resort back to my recommendation from last week. How about we create buildings that are meaningful to our own worship? After all, even buildings are simply social constructions (literally and figuratively). Just like dress, we shouldn't obtain a building to build our egos, but rather reorient ourselves to the reason we're worshipping.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Does Dress Matter?

Just before Easter, CNN's Belief Blog featured a piece entitled Stop dressing so tacky for church. The premise is that people need to dress up better for Sunday because Sunday church should be set apart.

There's something to be said for setting an intentional time of worship aside and making it different from the rest of the week. But I'm not convinced how we dress is necessarily a part of that, especially not in the way argued in the article.

First of all, we have to remember that there is nothing inherently meaningful about any style of dress. It's all about meaning we ascribe to it culturally, for better or for worse. So wearing a suit and tie does not necessarily translate to be something important and sacred to everyone. The analogy the author uses that I think is initially compelling is that we all would dress up nicely if we were to meet the President of the United States. That's likely true (although there are plenty of exceptions in history based on appropriate context). But is that because there is something meaningful about the dress or because there is simply an expectation that we dress a certain way in the White House (there is, in fact, a dress code in many areas).

I, for one, usually find nicer dress like this rather superficial and annoying. Maybe I've just had too many experiences with borderline narcissists who dress up to show off. For me, often times fancy dress is far more distracting than casual attire. Casual clothing often shows much more personality and uniqueness to an individual. I feel like my personality is sucked out of me every time I dress up. It is not a form of self-expression in my case (I know there are some examples of this, but they're usually the cases at the front of this paragraph). Should we display self-expression during times of worship? There's another theological debate. Some would argue yes, some would argue no... But if putting on nice clothes makes some of us feel like we're putting on a front and not being our authentic selves, is that how we should enter worship?

Additionally, the article argued that our dress should be nice so it sets the time apart from the rest of the week. I now have to wear a tie to work daily and semi-regularly wear a suit coat. So if I do the same on Sundays, how is it any different from the rest of the week? In actuality, casual dress sets the time aside much more so than nice clothes. I actually sometimes look forward to which of my t-shirts I can wear that I don't get to wear during the week. Yesterday when I was deciding what to wear to church, I was sad because I felt the need to dress up a little nicer that day (for a few reasons), making my dress feel much more boring and conforming.

Several years ago, I was part of a church where it was almost taboo to wear a suit to the evening service (the opposite was true in the morning). On Easter, I intentionally wore a suit because it was meaningful to me. (This was also a time I never had to dress up.)

So this is what I would propose: Dress in a way that's meaningful to you. Just like so many other behaviors, stop worrying about what other people do or how they dress. If we can get ourselves, individually, into a worshipful posture, that will do far more for both ourselves and our community than putting all of our energy into what other people do.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What Causes Happiness?

On Saturday, my wife and I got to see a performance of Les Miserables in Riverside (which was excellent, by the way). On the way home, someone had graffitied a freeway underpass with "Happiness follows right living." I found it rather ironic that we saw that right after Les Miz. As Laci said, "That's Javert."

"Right living" (if groups of people can even come to a clear consensus on that) can lead to fewer problems in life. From that perspective, it matches up with some research indicating earning up to $75-80,000 per year increases happiness. The explanation is that basic needs are met, which lowers anxiety and therefore can increase happiness. So it makes sense that happiness could be increased by causing fewer problems for ourselves.

Let's take Les Miz again as an example. Valjean made some mistakes. They definitely impacted his happiness. But it wasn't right living that improved his happiness. It was being given compassionate grace when he didn't deserve it, didn't ask for it, and didn't even do something to accept it. And I would argue the ultimate right living that led to happiness was giving love and grace.

Contrast that with Javert, the quintessential Pharisee. He, like Paul, lived according to the law as best as any human could. He was blameless. But was he happy? Not at all.

In fact, the climax of the Valjean/Javert storyline is focused around this topic of right living. Javert has lived rightly in his definition--according to the law. But he has virtually nothing to show for it. In contrast, Valjean has not lived rightly. But he has thrived. He has made a meaningful life for himself. This is what completely confounds Javert--he believes once a criminal, always a criminal.

Many people, especially with Christianity, believe that if we do everything right, things will work out great. There is some truth to it, but I've seen (and experienced) my fair share of this formula not working. Right living does not necessarily lead to happiness.

The other consideration is the relationship of happiness and meaning. We discussed this in Sunday school last week, and there's some good research articles on the topic. Ultimately, I would argue meaning is more important than happiness and can lead to happiness, but happiness won't lead to meaning. I'm not convinced rule following or right living will lead to meaning, either. That doesn't mean we break rules--they are there for a reason.

I would propose that we need to recognize the law and rules for what they are: Something practical to help social cohesion and dynamics. But right living is not about law. Rather, I would argue that Christians should define right living in terms of love. To quote the end of Les Miz: "To love another person is to see the face of God." That sometimes means breaking some rules. And love is central to meaning-making (both philosophically and from research).

I would rather break a rule in favor of love and compassion and thus make meaning at the expense of some happiness and comfort than maintain the law and live like Javert.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What Counts: Who You Are or What You Do?

The Dark Knight trilogy is one of my favorite film trilogies. I've always loved Batman, and Christopher Nolan's take was exquisite, as many said. I was particularly struck by the moral, ethical, and spiritual elements, even when they were subtle.

The entire trilogy, especially the second film, is a great exploration of the experience of a dark night of the soul. While I doubt the screenwriters were thinking of this connection, the name connection makes the message all the more powerful.

A while ago, I was given the opportunity to get an e-copy of a compilation of the trilogy scripts along with storyboards (stuff I love to see). It's a great collector's piece for fans of the trilogy who like this sort of behind the scenes material.

No matter how much I read or watch about the trilogy, one element of the first film has always unsettled me. An on-going dialogue between Bruce Wayne and his love interest, Rachel Dawes, in Batman Begins was, "It's not who you are underneath; it's what you do that defines you."

In the context of Wayne's lavish, careless lifestyle (or so it appears), this sort of statement makes sense. But I'm troubled by how much the characters in the film never question the statement. And frankly, it's a very theological one. It's much along the lines of the relative importance of faith and works. It also intersects with psychology, as some therapies focus on personality and character traits while other emphasize behavior.

I've always been inclined to lean more on the side of identity being important. It is one's identity (encompassing personality, character, etc.) that drives actions. In the Dark Knight trilogy, Wayne was able to become an amazing Batman because of who he was inside, not just because he did certain actions. This is my primary criticism against a lot of strict behavioral models of psychology. Just because actions are taken doesn't mean internal change occurs. I guess the question is how important internal change really is. And if it's real and can occur. I believe it can, and Matthew 23:26-28 really resonates here for me.

How often do we see people do generous things, but only as long as others know what they do? I think those actions can still be valuable, but I believe there is a different quality to that sort of action and the truly heart-felt behaviors. It's almost a difference between the anonymity of Batman's Bruce Wayne in comparison to the narcissism of Iron Man's Tony Stark (although the latter did do a lot of action for the right reasons).

It's hard to untangle identity from behavior on a surface, almost quantitative level. But qualitatively, there's big difference in behavior based on identity. And who you are underneath really does count.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, March 31, 2014

When Do We Engage in Debate?

Once again, great debate is raging in Christendom, casting judgment on who's in and who's out of Christ's love. Much text has been spilled on both sides of the World Vision debate. And I'm not sure much good is coming of the debate itself (likely because it's the equivalent of much yelling). My wife wrote a wonderful response (and I'm quite proud of her eloquence--I'm confident I wouldn't have had that much grace at the time).

As we saw people cite clobber verses that were completely decontextualized, I had an urge to argue their poor hermeneutics, history, and theology. My wife thought no good would come of it, as I wouldn't change their minds.

She's right--no amount of discussion, debate, or arguing will change the minds of people doing the talking. But can it impact those who are listening?

I've been in situations before when I felt the need to offer another opinion, not even necessarily to change the minds of anyone, but to raise awareness that people have honest disagreement and that other conclusions are possible. Last week, I asked if people really always reject the living God when they reject an angry, wrathful God. The problem is that often the only God some people have been told about is that one, narrow view. Without another option, many people feel like they lose all faith by changing their views.

In a similar fashion, if people believe the only way to be a Christian is one particular theological construct, when they have a concern with that perspective, then they either ignore their own reactions (which is problematic in many ways) or they feel like they have to abandon their faith completely. That is not fair (nor theologically accurate to most of Christendom) and only leads to more crises of faith rather than the building up of the body of Christ.

I loved World Vision's initial letter because it beautifully preached the centrality of love and unity in the Gospel. Their bullied retraction was the opposite, overemphasizing one issue that despite what they said, is not central nor fundamental to the Christian faith and never has been (except in a few minority denominations in the past decade).

Will we change the minds of those who publicly decried World Vision's grace? No. But if we stay silent and only allow Pharisaical voices to reign without dissent, then what message are we sending? The method is important, and there are many who responded in a much more appropriate and grace-filled way than I ever could.

But when is staying silent in the face of disagreement the best option? We see both responses from Jesus: from knocking over tables in the temple court to acting rather non-responsive in the face of crucifixion. As with most things, there is likely no perfect rule or formula. Context matters. But I'm not sure silence is always the best policy...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Guest Post: Ashamed of Christian Intolerance

This is a guest post from my wife, who so eloquently commented on the World Vision debacle.
I never post opinions about hot-button issues, but I’m so upset and ashamed with the way that some of my fellow Christians have been representing my faith lately that it’s really bugging me. My heart is hurting. Prepare to witness a rare Laci rant.
Really?!? Thousands of Christians suddenly pulling funds that go to a STARVING CHILD because they don’t want gay Christians in a committed relationship working to help feed that child?!?? I’m embarrassed that World Vision was essentially bullied into reversing their (brave) policy. And that’s exactly what it was, bullying...threats of pulling funding unless they explicitly and publicly called out homosexuality as a sin, and said you can't work there if you disagree. Why did it have to go there? This is not about whether being gay is right or wrong. People missed the point completely. You can think it’s a sin and be a Christian, and you can think it’s not our place to judge and STILL be a Christian. That’s a whole separate issue that I’m not discussing here, it’s not relevant. They were not saying it was right or wrong, they were saying “let’s not be so divisive. There’s been a lot of hurt caused by this debate...we want to be an example in working together despite our differences and not discriminating.” Sexuality is not central to our faith, as much as many seem to think it is the be all end all. Very little of the Bible is devoted to that issue; far more is devoted to admonishing us to love others. Again and again. To forgive others. To love God. But that message gets lost in the stream of debates. So many are focusing on it, freaking out as if your view on it determines if you’re going to heaven or not, or that if gay marriage is allowed, it means heterosexual marriage is being torn apart or diminished. That’s just silly. My personal relationship with Jesus, as well as my relationship with my husband, is not threatened by anyone else’s relationship with whoever they love. And I believe that God cares far more about how I treat my fellow human beings than what I think about gay people. Why is this the main issue Christians today think they need to fight for?!? Why not focus on the things that really matter?
World Vision stated it so well in their first statement about it when they said “"Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues," he said. "It also allows us to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage." Bravo! Many denominations and respected Christian leaders are divided on that issue, so they decided it was best to not formally take a side and instead try and unite Christians to work together despite their differences. There are many other issues that are not anywhere close to being the difference between salvation or not. (Imagine their job interviews if it continues like this...”Were you baptized by dunking or sprinkling? Does your church use a rock guitar in their worship service? Yes? Oh, sorry, guess you can’t work here, our policy says you’re not a real Christian, so you’re not fit to distribute food to the hungry.”) World Vision also has stated they will not take a formal stance on things like divorce/remarriage, evolution or female pastors, as it should be...there’s disagreement on those, and Christians on both sides of the issue that both have convincing arguments. They know that they are a company that represents Christianity as a whole, not one particular view of Christianity, and that ultimately, those issues should be discussed at a church level. It’s not like they are God handing down a declaration of what is counted as Christianity. We all like to think that only our denomination is the right one with all the answers, but it's simply not true.
But instead of inspiring unity World Vision was shown that fear of homosexuality outweighs a lot of Christian’s desires to help the poor and hungry. They just couldn’t support an organization that might work alongside those that Jesus himself would probably welcome. I feel like homosexuals are the lepers of today...people who Christians are afraid to touch, afraid to show compassion to for fear of getting “infected.” Sometimes I’m outraged at how so many Christians put “calling out sin” above “love your neighbor.” It’s just Not. As. Important. Telling someone they’re a sinner rarely endears them to Christianity. We all know that already. But I saw a lot of formerly skeptical atheists give a nod to World Vision’s initial decision and how they were impressed at their openness. I bet they’re doubly turned away now, hearing the new decision. How many of those who might have embraced Jesus are now forever hardened against the church because of how they are seeing Christians behave in this situation? We claim to be loving and then we go and abandon an already struggling child because our ideas were challenged. It saddened me greatly hearing World Vision recant something that just yesterday I viewed as a step in the right direction of loving and recognizing our fellow human beings the way we are supposed to as Christians.
I have to restate, this is not a debate about whether being gay is a sin or not. I’m not going there, let’s not debate that. It is the fact that Christians were so fast to immediately drop over 2,000 children that they sponsored just because World Vision said they would not take a hard stance. Church leaders even told their members to pull their funds. That is wrong on every level. We should be ashamed that the world is seeing Christians in that light. If you disagree with the policy that much, fine, at least finish out the year and don’t renew again, go support another charitable organization. But don’t abruptly stop supporting someone who relies on you, in a spoiled fit to prove that you hold the power.
I think I’m going to go sponsor a child now. If you agree with me that Christianity is more than political stances and religious rules, please consider doing the same.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Do People Actually Reject the Living God?

With the prevalence of social media, it is easy to find people very vocally proclaiming why they do not believe in God. Oftentimes, it is because of how other people have presented God or done things in God's name, usually connected to hate, violence, and vengeful wrath. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield shares many examples of this from the LGBT community in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. These individuals say they could never believe in a God like that. In The God-Shaped Brain, Tim Jennings shares an anecdote of a patient saying that, to which he responds, "Good for you. I wouldn't believe in that God, either."

The traditional Christian response is to assume that these individuals are truly atheists or agnostics and do not love and appreciate the Living God. But I've been wondering if that's necessarily true. In these types of situations where the only explicit exposure someone has had to the construct of the Divine is this negativistic view of God and this construct is rejected, are these people necessarily rejecting the true God? Or are they simply rejecting a false, man-made God? Is it possible that they, in fact, recognize, appreciate, love, and even worship the Living God who transforms people's lives but just don't recognize him by name because of what they've been taught?

When labels and categories can be so destructive because of stereotypes and misrepresentation, is the label someone gives God necessarily important if they recognize him and relate to him anyway?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Do We Really Need More Churches?

There's an old movie theater about a block from our church, which shares the corner with two other churches. A couple of months ago, my wife and I noticed a ton of people milling around the theater on Sunday mornings and new signs popping up. We discovered there was a new church that sprung up there. I don't know much about it except that it's aimed at young people and families with a contemporary vibe.

Often, I hear of churches in the US advertising how many churches they have planted in their area or around the country. Being a church planter is seen as one of the holiest roles a Christian can play.

But I've been wondering if we really need more churches, at least in most of the US.

Going back to the new congregation, that now makes at least four congregations within one block of each other (the other three are all about 125 years old, by the way). What purpose does that serve? Does it really help spread the Gospel and bring more people to Christ? I'm skeptical of that, as there's evidence that oftentimes new congregations' members are really just unsatisfied attendees of other churches. So the amazing growth of plants isn't necessarily people being added to the body of Christ; it's simply a rearranging of congregational membership.

Now there is definitely something to be said for having congregations that will meet the various diverse needs of the community. But in most urban to suburban areas, there will be a congregation that has just the type of worship style or ministry you're looking for. Do we really need another one duplicating existing efforts?

Sometimes a need isn't being met. Is the best option to just start another new church? What about efforts to work within your existing congregation and start a new ministry or outreach effort? Some church organizations do not respond well to change, so leaving may be the best option, but perhaps there's another existing congregation who is willing to partner rather than you having to start out on your own.

I don't know anything about this new church or what the reason they've started is, so this really isn't a critique on them specifically. If they can touch people's lives, then that's wonderful. But it got me thinking again and reflecting on the increased fracturing of the Church and wondering what benefit it actually provides today.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Expositional Preaching on Ruth

My faith has increasingly focused on the centrality of love in the Gospel. My professional perspective is oriented toward love in relationships (not always framed in those terms, but with that concept). So Paul Miller's book, A Loving Life In a World of Broken Relationships, sounded intriguing. It was better than a pop-theology/pop-psychology book in that Miller grounds most of his assertions in the Bible. But in reality, it was essentially a series of expositional preaching lessons on the Book of Ruth.

While the topic of expositional preaching can be controversial in itself (some say it's the only way to preach, others think it's horrid and unhelpful), I think it can be useful, but if done right. While I found it interesting doing a sort of in-depth study on Ruth, the re-connection Miller attempted to make to the contemporary world was not terribly smooth. Some of the major problems were with his misrepresentations of psychological processes and groups of people with whom he disagrees.

For instance, a central punching bag in the book is what Miller terms a "feeling culture." This refers to putting feelings as primary and paying attention to them as an element of authenticity. Miller claims some parts of prioritizing feelings that are just simply not true. He asserts that people from this perspective believe that in order to be authentic, you have to do what you feel. Not true. As a psychologist, I definitely put a priority on both feelings and authenticity, but feelings are only one part of who we are. Ignoring them is as inauthentic as letting them bulldoze over our rationality and other priorities. He also claims that the Christian value is to just not let our feelings affect us. This is a major myth in conservative Christianity, and it's just not possible. The reality is that emotions (what he really means by feelings) are always occurring within us and always affecting us. That's part of being human. But that does not necessarily mean that we choose to behave based on what our emotions are moving us toward.

He also makes big claims about other groups/movements/perspectives, like mysticism and meditation. Having studied both academically, I can say that Miller clearly does not understand these concepts, instead going for oversimplistic stereotypes created by people who have had little to no exposure to what these ideas are really about. Unfortunately, Miller uses these various constructs to differentiate his claim of what love is. If he truly understood these other cultures, he would know that they are not necessarily as different from his approach as he thinks they are. They're definitely not as threatening.

Arthur Morey narrated the audiobook, and I've listened to many of his books. He has a great voice, but this book just fell flat. It sounded almost monotone. I'm not sure it was Morey's fault, but perhaps the unengaging content that felt like a dry sermon. I had trouble listening to the whole book and regularly found myself having to rewind because I tuned out. It's really unfortunate because there was potential for a lot of good in Miller's text. It just needs a major revision for accuracy.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Brain and Theology

Tim Jennings' new book, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, is advertised a bit as the newest exploration into neurotheology. As a psychiatrist, he has appropriate qualifications into the discussion, similar to Curt Thompson and his Anatomy of the Soul, which I reviewed a few years ago. In short, there were a lot of great points made in the book, but they weren't neurotheology or even centrally about the brain.

Jennings' work seems more to be a consolidation of his personal theology with examples from the Bible, his patients, and some neuroscience. His rationale for a loving God is frequently compelling, especially in the context of real-world relationships. He takes quite a literal view and interpretation of the Bible (or at least approaches it that way in his book), but he comes to very different conclusions than many biblicists, which I greatly appreciate. There were many explanations of biblical passages that he offered that were new to me and very moving and compelling. I hope more wrath-focused biblicists would read this book to offer a different option on how to still value the holiness and authority of Scripture while understanding it completely differently.

Ultimately, though, the title of the book seems like a bit of a false advertisement. Jennings definitely has neuroscience in the book, but that really wasn't central. Some of his theological theses weren't even supported by neuroscientific findings or interpretations. It seemed like he had many more anecdotal examples from his practice than brain science. That's not to say the anecdotes were bad; they were excellent and compelling. I found them excellent examples of the importance of paying attention to spiritual concerns while engaging in mental health treatment.

The narration by Sean Runnette was good (I've liked his stuff in the past). He kept me engaged and interested to continue listening. Although I wonder if there would have been a different nuanced emphasis if Jennings did the narration himself. I regularly prefer nonfiction read by the author, especially with texts that can be so personal, as with this one.

Overall, Jennings' work gives some good, multifaceted arguments for a loving, non-wrathful God that desired a relationship with each of us. I've heard many reasons for this theology in the past, but he offered several new narratives that are more moving than mere theology. Unfortunately, the book was lighter on neuroscience than the title advertises, and I wish he wasn't so dependent on a very literal approach to the Bible, which I personally find unnecessary and unsustainable. But this approach may be effective in reaching the people least likely to experience the loving, living Lord.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, February 24, 2014

Meditating on the Names of God

Names can be powerful things. Those of us how have children can all probably relate to how much we thought and debated about what word they would be labelled with the rest of their lives as central to their identity. Lucky for God, He wasn't limited by just one name. :)

I've seen many short devotionals and works of art based on the many names of God. In his short book, Your Great Name: Discovering Power for Your Life in the Awesome Names of God, Michael Neale explores some of the names of God used throughout the Bible and based on his song, Your Great Name.

For well-studied biblical scholars, there probably isn't much new information, but I don't think that's how this book is meant to be used. Texts like this remind me that worship and being in awe of God isn't necessarily just about getting information and understanding. Sometimes it's simpler, just hearing the names of our Lord and meditating on them. Frankly, being able to listen to a short audiobook, taking a break from having to be as critical of a thinker, actually helped me feel more connected to God.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

Theology in Fiction

When the Les Misérables musical came out a year ago on the big screen, it spurred a new wave of discussion of the theological concepts presented in Victor Hugo's time-honored novel.

While I normally review nonfiction books on faith, religion, and theology, it's actually quite refreshing to review fiction and recognize how powerfully it can convey theological points. Oftentimes, fiction can do so more effectively than systematic theologies. And Les Miz is a perfect example. The themes of love, grace, and mercy triumphing over the rigidity of the law are lessons we constantly need, especially in our current cultural landscape.

Up for review here is Focus on the Family's radio theatre version. I actually listened to it over a year ago before the film came out, but in the midst of flying to Florida for our baby, having him born, getting used to having an infant, etc., writing a review ran away from me. But that's not to say the audio drama was poor. Much to the contrary, it was an excellent presentation of the tale. I've never read the actual story (my attention span is too short for that :) ), so some of the subplots and specific stories used by Focus were quite new to me.

Listening to it made me really reflect on how elements of stories are chosen for adaptations. In fact, I think a great way to use this version is in conjunction with the film. Together, they probably present a more accurate picture of the overall tale, each exploring certain nuances that the other misses. This gives a much richer exploration of the story and characters and leads to much more valuable theological insights.

Additionally, some Christian audio drama can be quite heavy handed and cheesy. This one did not come across either way to me. It is one I would recommend to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, February 10, 2014

Faith, Gender Identity, and Suicide @DavidOlson11

Back in November, one of our local freeway interchanges was shut down after a man suicided by jumping off the overpass. I recently discovered that man was a transgendered woman, Kaylee Johnson, who also struggled with her faith because of gender identity issues. David Olson's article about Johnson stated:
Johnson had a hard time reconciling her faith in God with her gender identity, after leaving the Mormon faith she grew up with and relied on for support, because she didn’t feel accepted by the church. 
She was stung by rejection from people she loved and whose acceptance she desperately wanted, especially some members of her family, Chambers said.
I didn't know Johnson, so I can't speak to what influenced this final attempt. But as Olson's article states, many transgendered people struggle with faith and consider or attempt suicide. A lot of focus has been on the impact of religion on homosexuality and suicide, as I've written about before. While this awareness is wonderful, anyone familiar with LGBT issues know the T usually gets the least attention. And those falling in the T category are often even more misunderstood than non-heterosexual orientation. Greater misunderstanding=greater persecution.

Regardless of one's beliefs on LGBT issues, I hope all can agree that suicide is tragic and not a desirable outcome. Everyone, especially those of us from faith communities, need to act in ways that prevent such destruction, not contribute to it. People of the Christian faith need to remember that Jesus loved, supported, valued, and spent almost all of his time with the people who were misunderstood, rejected, and devalued. That sort of action positively changed lives, unlike the condemning and criticizing and judging of the Pharisees.

We have the opportunity to literally save people's lives by how we treat them. And even for those who value the next life more than the current one--we can't save someone if they're dead. So please, remember our faith-based priorities when encountering those who are different from and those we don't understand. It could be the difference between life and death. Literally.

Monday, February 3, 2014

From One Extreme to Another Without Support

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield's book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, is almost an understatement. Butterfield's text tells of some of her journey from an activist lesbian English department chair specializing in LGBT studies and publicly critical of the Religious Right to a Christian in a heterosexual marriage homeschooling her children as part of an ultra-conservative denomination. That alone would catch most people's attention, as it did mine.

Right up front, I have to give Butterfield kudos for being willing to share her experiences and "secret thoughts" honestly. She's had quite a life, and if more people were willing to put themselves out there to be honest about their journeys, our world and ability to be spiritually transformed would probably be improved.

Unfortunately, there are major limitations of this book. It is advertised as exploring her conversion experience and "journey into Christian faith." Very little of the book deals with her change of heart and mind. Most of it focuses on her post-conversion development.

With moving from one extreme to another, Butterfield did not really provide any explanation as to what made the change. She just vaguely says that she was convinced of the Christian faith. I also give major kudos to the pastor who walked with her without judgment or pressure. Butterfield explains that this played a major role. But it doesn't really provide an explanation as to why she made such a quick, radical shift to the polar opposite side of the spectrum. If she were able to explore that process, this text could potentially be much more helpful for many individuals who struggle with the many challenging questions she brings up in the book.

Butterfield clearly has very strong critical thinking skills, yet she seems to regularly drop them when explaining her theological convictions. For instance, she defends her Reformed Presbyterian stance of only a capella versions of Psalms (never using movement or dancing) by saying, "I believe God directed us to sing Psalms during worship to the exclusion of man-made hymns" because that's what Jesus sang. Um, how does she know that's what Jesus sang and without instrumentation? Did she forget about David worshipping through dance (also not allowed in her denomination), instruments, and clearly not singing Psalms in group worship, since he wrote many of them?

Her tendency to make large, absolute statements about theological truth without adequate support made her lose credibility to me. She really lost my support when she quoted Jay Adams (for those unfamiliar, he reads the Bible extremely literally and thinks it provides everything we need to know about humanity to the exclusion of anything else, like psychology) as having strong biblical and intellectual legitimacy. I've read plenty of books by people with whom I disagree theologically (and I differ from her on most points), but I can at least follow their line of reasoning. She has some of the best scholarly credentials, but doesn't apply them and actually provides some of the weakest explanations and support of any book I've read.

However, I would give this book two stars to give her credit for putting herself out there, for maintaining and promoting hospitality, diversity, and openness to people who differ from her, and for advocating for adoption (obviously close to my heart). I do have to say that I was quite impressed and even surprised by the ability of her denomination, which I would classify as ultra-fundamentalist, to accept people as they are. If more of these congregations would approach others like Butterfield and her colleagues do, then we would see more conversions and fewer condemnation of Christianity.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).