Thursday, June 26, 2008

James Dobson Misrepresents Barack Obama’s Views on Religion

This past week, Dr. James Dobson, Founder of Focus on the Family, used his organization’s radio broadcast to criticize a speech on religion and politics given by presidential candidate Barack Obama two years ago. Before commenting on Dobson’s remarks about Obama’s speech, I must admit that I stopped paying attention to Dobson a long time ago. While I had been introduced to him when I grew up in a fundamentalist church, a church that took every word he said as “gospel truth”, I came to find his rhetoric often divisive, unreasonable and unhelpful for making real contributions to the common good.

Yet this past week, when I learned of his criticism of Obama’s speech, I took a few minutes to listen to Dobson’s program and to re-read Obama’s speech. On the broadcast, Dobson and Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s Vice President of Public Policy, played snippets of Obama’s speech on religion and offered their observations. What is interesting is that Obama made this speech in June of 2006 and Dobson is just now publicly commenting on the address. What drew Dobson to make his remarks, however, is even more interesting.

Obama referenced Dobson’s name in his speech along with making mention of Rev. Al Sharpton in the same context. Obama referred to the two religious leaders as a way of demonstrating the diversity within the Christian faith in America. Dobson and Minnery, however, accused Obama of attacking Dobson, even suggesting that Obama equated Dobson with racial bigotry. Yet, no common sense person who reads or hears the speech would understand Obama’s mention of Dobson as disparaging of him. Obama does not come close to attacking Dobson.

This deliberate misrepresentation of Obama’s mention of Dobson’s name, however, serves as the Focus on the Family leader’s entree into misleading his audience about Obama’s views on religion. Both Dobson and Minnery accuse Obama of diminishing religion and people of religious faith, particularly Christians. They also charge Obama with not acknowledging the strong Judeo-Christian tradition of this country. Yet, Obama says nothing close to this. In fact, he is clear to argue that religion has played and continues to play a significant role in this country and in the moral choices of people of faith. Far from neglecting the religious tradition embedded in America’s history, Obama affirmed that “the majority of great reformers in American history” were “motivated by faith.”

Mr. Obama also states, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square.” He goes on to clarify, “So, to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into the public policy debates is a practical absurdity.” These statements, and others like them, demonstrate not only Obama’s strong support of people of faith and his encouragement of religious ideas in the public arena; they also shine a bright light on the darkness of Dobson’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech.

But Dobson continued to ridicule Obama’s speech by suggesting that Obama has a lack of respect for the Bible itself. Dobson comments, “he's (Obama) deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology.” Yet, what Obama does in the part of the speech where he talks about the Bible is to ask the honest question concerning the use of the Bible as a basis for our moral debates. Obama is not against using the Bible in this way. In fact, he calls for all of us to read our Bibles.

But he is saying that we would find it difficult, even if the entire American population only professed the Christian faith, to agree on what biblical passages, from the numerous and diverse moral statements in scripture, speak with greater authority on moral issues. Obama is far from disparaging of the Bible, as Dobson accused him. In fact, his view expresses the very nature and struggle of biblical interpretation to find an honest way to reconcile the ancient biblical witness with the moral questions of a modern pluralistic democracy.

What Obama suggested in his speech is not that religion be banned from the public moral debates. Indeed, a reading of the entire speech clearly shows that he strongly supports religion and people of religious faith. However, he rightly argued that while a person’s morality might be based on religious faith, in order for that person to win support for a moral viewpoint in the public debate, one must express a moral argument based on reason and not solely on religious rhetoric. In a democracy founded on the clear separation of church and state, where people from all faiths or no faith have rights, making moral arguments based solely on religious beliefs will not go far. This, however, is not at all disparaging of Christians or people of other faiths.

Dr. Dobson has taken Obama’s statements out of context and has misrepresented them. Well-meaning and thoughtful Christians should put no stock in what Dobson says about Barack Obama and his views on religion and the Bible. Dobson has acted in an unchristian manner, for he has not spoken the truth in love. Rather, he has spoken a lie that misrepresents and mischaracterizes the views of a fellow Christian. Well-informed Christians would do better by reading Obama’s speech for themselves. Obama’s view calls for a more reasonable, respectful, and civil conversation about the role of religion in public policy making than Dobson is willing to have.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Cross Must Again Become the Focal Image of Christianity

What does it mean to be Christian? The word, as far as we know, is first used in Acts 11:26 when the disciples are called Christians at Antioch. The term itself means one who follows Christ. But in our modern society, where Christianity has been so intertwined with American culture, the word has lost its original meaning, and its common use clouds our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

If we take the word literally, however, we can look back to the words of Jesus to define what exactly it means to be a Christian. Jesus’ famous statement defining what it means to be his disciple serves as the most pertinent and precise explanation of what it means to be Christian. Jesus states, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

This may seem confusing to those of us in a modern world where crucifixion is abhorred as a cruel practice, but we can gather from Jesus’ statement meaning and practice that defines what it means to be his disciple, to be a Christian. Our interpretation, however, must not simply be a spiritualizing of what Jesus says, as is common practice among many Christians. To do so would move too far away from the meaning of Jesus’ statement that it becomes unrecognizable.

Rather, our interpretation should be one that appropriates the declaration to our modern context while at the same time remaining connected to the original intent of the definition, and particularly to the interpretation of early Christians.

We know that the cross was a symbol of Roman tyranny, and that crucifixion was practiced by the Romans on many who were considered enemies of the state. Jesus was far from the only one killed on a cross, and far from the only innocent one who suffered this fate. Thus, in the context of Roman jurisprudence, Jesus was just another enemy of the state that needed to be silenced.

But the earliest followers of Jesus reflected on his death and reached a different understanding of the image of the cross. Though the cross was still a ruthless tool in the hands of an oppressive government, for them the cross had shifted from an external symbol of Roman tyranny to an internal symbol of faithfulness for the Christian community.

Thus, for these earliest Christians, the cross served symbolically as the norm of a community that existed in a world not yet submissive to the rule of God. The cross became symbolic of the internal ethic of the community and the social formation of that community in opposition to Roman power. The symbol of the cross represented for them a new way for being human; one in which the virtues of Christ served to form a counter-cultural movement.

In an environment like Rome, where power, wealth, and status were of prime value, the cross served as a constant reminder to the Christian community that there was now a new world order, a new way of living that was aligned to the virtues of Christ and not the virtues of the political domination of the world’s power.

In light of their experience of Jesus and their redefining of the symbolic nature of the cross, these earliest Christians understood that the virtue of sacrificial service, not domination, was the new norm. They viewed the inclusive welcoming of all, not exclusion of any, as their ritual. Humility, not power, became their characteristic. And simplicity and sharing, not indulgence, became their practice in Christian community.

In the fourth century, however, for the Roman Emperor Constantine, the sacred symbol of Christ, the Chi-Rho, became the symbol of earthly power and might. In essence, a second shift took place that moved the understanding of the cross as a symbol of self-less discipleship to one by which to conquer through domination, oppression and violence. Christianity, then, moved from the marginalized alternative community of character and political formation to the dominant symbol of power in the West.

In our modern political environment, the religious conservative movement of the last three decades has once again led to a shift of the story of Jesus and the cross. The cross has become once more a symbol of political power, and the church has been swept into being part and parcel of one political agenda. Those entrapped by this movement view the cross at a distant, preferring to see it as only an object on which Jesus died for our sins, rather than taking the cross as their own and seeing it as the symbol of vulnerability and openness.

It is time for another shift, one that leads us back to the early Christian understanding of the cross as the power of God, and not the power of humans. Shifting our understanding of the cross back to how early Christians viewed the cross would lead the church to find afresh its identity as an alternative community in which individuals are not formed by power, greed, exclusion, and self-interests, but are shaped by the norms of Jesus and his cross. This is what it means to be Christian.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sacred Time and Space Invite Us into the Worship of God

One of the beliefs shared by the great religions of the world is the importance of sacred time and space. Throughout the Hebrew tradition, sacred days and seasons recalled and celebrated what God had done in Israel’s life. Of prime importance was the celebration of the Passover and the Day of Atonement. For the earliest Christians, the first day of the week was a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

Likewise, there are certain places that are considered sacred. Isaiah’s vision of God took place in the temple, the sacred space for the Jews. But geographical locations were also important. Mountains and deserts often served as places where God appeared to people in the biblical narratives. Thus, both sacred time and space are vital to authentic worship and can function to draw us into the experience of God.

One aspect of sacred time is the holy seasons that have always been significant to the worship of the church. While our daily calendars structure our time of work, play, etc., the Christian calendar structures the year of worship. The seasons of the church such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost create a sense of sacred order and serve to move us to the center of our faith; the work of God in the incarnation of Christ.

Furthermore, celebrating sacred seasons in worship connects us to the eternal church throughout the world. When we celebrate the sacred seasons we are participating in the eternal and universal language of the gospel that crosses the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. Yet, these sacred times are not merely celebratory reflections on the past; more importantly they shape our symbolic world in the present, revealing to us the reality of God for our own lives and the hope we and the creation have in God’s good future.

We can even speak of the specific day of worship as sacred. Christians have designated Sunday as the Lord’s Day, the day set aside for the church’s worship of God. While there is no prescription as to the specific time on Sunday that corporate worship should take place, it is important to understand that whatever hour is set for community worship there ought to be clear demarcations that separate sacred time from secular time. Periods of communal worship should open by calling the people to the sacred time of worship, thereby designating the reason the church gathers.

The value of sacred time also necessitates a sacred order to the worship service. Worship that incorporates singing songs of praise, praying prayers of confession, celebration, and intercession, reading Scripture, confessing our faith as a community, passing the peace of Christ to others, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and hearing the proclamation of the word creates a sacred rhythm to the communal worship experience. This kind of worship values the importance of the theological drama of the gospel and functions to move the people of God to leave the sacred time of communal worship and to go and live out their faith in the secular time of the world.

Sacred space is also essential for worship. While the experience of God can occur anyplace, the sacred space of a church sanctuary can create an atmosphere that invites us to worship God. Sacred space would include the design of the structure itself; however, the use of specific objects in worship is also important to authentic worship.

Symbols such as the cross, and fixtures such as the pulpit, the Lord’s Table, and the baptismal fount or pool function to remind us of the foundations of our faith: the word of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the renewal of the Spirit. While these objects should never be the recipients of our worship, they can and do serve as focal images that point to what God has done for us in Christ.

In efforts to be relevant, however, some churches have lost a sense of sacred time and space. These movements argue that the use of sacred time and space is outdated and does not create an atmosphere of spontaneity in worship. In some of these churches, traditional sacred seasons have been pushed aside for more topical themes and the sacred rhythm of worship has been replaced by appeals to emotionalism. Moreover, church sanctuaries have taken on a more contemporary decor in which the front of the church looks more like a concert stage than a sacred place.

But in an attempt to be relevant to our culture, these approaches to worship have dismissed the historical and theological importance of sacred time and space for worship. Much more than relevant to worship, sacred space and time can create worship experiences that draw us out of our egocentrism and invite us into the authentic worship of God.

Among the 6th century Celtic Christians of Ireland and Scotland the importance of sacred space and time were given the designation “thin places”. Thin places are places or times in which the barrier between the material world and the world of God become so thin that we can experience the presence of the divine. While the thin places in our personal worship can appear anytime and anywhere, the reverent use of time and space in shared worship can create thin places that invite us into the worship of God.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Authentic Worship Relives and Reclaims the Jesus Story

Isaiah chapter 6 narrates a dramatic vision in which the prophet is taken into the throne room of God where he sees God clothed in majestic splendor. In this scene of worship, Isaiah’s experience of God brings him to see God as the ultimate reality, and through this worship experience, Isaiah is transformed.

As I reflect on this scene, I am confronted by questions about how we do worship today. The foremost question to address regarding worship is who do we worship? The obvious answer to this query is of course God. Christianity is a monotheistic faith in which we believe in and offer worship to the one transcendent God. In this belief we share common ground with those who practice Judaism and Islam. All three religions worship the God of Abraham.

Yet there is one crucial distinction that separates Christians from these kindred faiths. From its genesis, Christianity, which originally began as a small Jewish sect, was distinct in that followers of Jesus offered worship to the risen Christ together with their worship of God.

In their singing of hymns to Jesus, sharing sacred meals in honor of Jesus, and praying prayers to Jesus, they gave to Jesus worship that had been traditionally reserved for God alone. Thus, worship in the early church was not only Theocentric, it was also Christocentric; Christ centered worship that acknowledged and responded to what God had done in Jesus.

For these Christians, however, the event that was the definitive work of God to which they responded in worship was the death and resurrection of Jesus. An expression of this can be seen in scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation, where Jesus is worshipped as a slaughtered Lamb.

It is probable that the worship scenes of which John writes in Revelation reflect worship practices of the first century church. Early Christians would give praise and adoration to Jesus, the Lamb, not only because they believed him to be divine, but more importantly, because he had been crucified and resurrected. These worship gatherings were celebrations of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thus, authentic Christian worship, then and now, rehearses and celebrates not only who God is, but specifically what God has done in Jesus Christ.

The worship we find in the early church told a narrative and rehearsed the story of Jesus with theological depth that led to existential transformation. Worship both looked backwards to what God had done in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and forward to the eschatological hope of Christ’s return. In doing so, this worship gave meaning and grounding to the believers’ existence in the present world gone awry.

From reading about Isaiah’s experience, and by reflecting on the worship of the early church, we can deduce themes that illustrate the existential results of authentic worship of God. Worship humbles us before the transcendent God. Worship also de-centers our profane existence by drawing us out of ourselves and into the reality of God. And worship transforms and renew us to live the gospel story.

I fear, however, that in our self-centered and entertainment driven world we can lose sight of the theological meaning and power of worship. With the accessibility of various styles of worship, and with a great number of churches shifting to more casual and entertaining styles, I cannot help but perceive a dumbing down of the theology of worship as a potential problem.

This is not true in every instance where contemporary styles of worship are practiced, but these approaches to worship, if not performed with careful reflection, can lead us to ignore the theological drama that relives the Christ event and that grounds the church in the “already, but not yet” of God.

The narrative movement of worship, through historic worship practices that invite participants to relive and reclaim the story of Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb, draws us not only into a remembrance of God’s past work in Jesus, and an awareness of God’s present work in us and in the world, but also into the dawning of God’s future triumph over evil.

Worship is the central act of the church through which we offer adoration to God and to Jesus, and through which we encounter God’s presence and goodness through rehearsing the story of Jesus. While worship cannot be defined by style, and worship itself must not become an idol, reflecting on the biblical and historic roots of worship indicate that through the theological drama of worship, we, like Isaiah, can come face to face with God and we too can be transformed.