Humanity is at once drawn to seek the divine while rebelling against it.  We go looking for God with patricide on our minds.

Religion is stupid and evil

BillMaher_directI don’t know if you heard Jimmy Kimmel’s interview of Bill Maher the other day (I didn’t), but Bill was apparently sweating out the threat that Islamic jihadists now pose to people who mock them (aka Bill Maher).  And he said, “There are no great religions.  They’re all stupid and evil.”

I don’t normally take offense at comedians who are paid to offend.  You know what you’re getting into when you listen to them.  And I generally don’t listen to Maher, because I generally don’t find him funny.  But that comment stuck with me, because he’s actually rallying the hordes against the innocent.

I went to church the other night.  There were 200 homeless people sleeping at my church.  We fix them three meals a day, run a clothing boutique, offer free showers and haircuts.  They’re here for three weeks in January when it’s coldest outside, and then on to another church, such that they can be under a roof from December through March.  We’re not short on volunteers, so I usually just sit and talk with people who are having dinner.  One woman needed help finding a Narcotics Anonymous program, which we host at our church, so I helped her find it.  One woman was looking for a Bible, so I pulled one out of our pews for her.  Generally I just listen to their stories.  And as the 200 or so shuffled off to bed, I heard someone saying to me, of me, “You’re stupid and evil.”

I went to a congregational meeting on Sunday.  We just approved a new budget.  This year we raised our giving overseas by $30,000.  There’s a program in India that uses English literacy training to give people marketable job skills.  They’re helping people climb out of poverty by starting with reading.  And in the midst of that, they introduce whoever will listen to the guy who taught us to love people on the other side of the ocean.  Religious people in America usually give more to charity than their non-religious peers; we again have raised our giving.  And as we pour tens of thousand dollars of our charity into people we’ll never meet, someone tells me that I’m stupid and evil.

Last year we made a donation of about the same amount to an orphanage in Haiti that had lost a building to the earthquake.  We paid for the whole thing.  And the guy living in Haiti at the orphanage leading the build – he’s one of our church members who has moved there to live among and help the poor.  I gather that he’s stupid and evil as well.

But I can read the history of Christianity and so-called Christians as well as everyone else, and I see in my predecessors what is functionally just the same behaviors you see outside the church. And part of me has to agree – yes, religion, and religious people, are stupid and evil.  We always have been.  Just like everyone else.  Atheistic regimes killed 100,000,000 people in the 20th century.  Religious people haven’t done any better with power, just not worse.

But here’s the deal – Jesus wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t evil.  If I have to come to grips with my own stupidity and the darkness within my own heart, I start groping around for someone to bail me out.  The only person I have ever known who without question has earned the right is Jesus.  He isn’t stupid or evil, and only blind stupidity or fiery hatred would make anyone say otherwise.  I’ll admit it – I’m stupid and evil.  I need a savior.  But he’s actually worthy of the title.

So the bottom line is that the common thread between stupid and evil religious people and stupid and evil secular people is not religion, it’s humanity.  And rather than casting stones at we who have called out to a savior for help, in a century where persecution of Christians is at a historical high, you might just as well have the humility to admit that you need a savior too.

Dwindling Religious Freedom

091214 9-11 anniversary kdj10The Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed (D.), just fired the fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, because of a self-published book that reportedly maintained a biblical stance against homosexual behavior.  I have not read the book, entitled “Who Told You You Were Naked?”, but the book can be purchased here.  I honestly don’t intend to buy it myself, because of the 51 reviews on Amazon today, none of them actually sound like they’ve read the book, so I can’t actually tell if it’s worth reading.  A petition to have Cochran reinstated is online here.  I did sign the petition, and I’ll tell you why.

The Hairy Details

Now to have an opinion on this that is actually sound and thoughtful, you have to wade through the specifics.  Your first reaction is best not scrawled on your Facebook page if you happen to be one of those people who follow the guy who told us to love our enemies.  Here are a few things to think through from the perspective of a layman when it comes to legal matters.

1.  The Bill of Rights protects a person’s freedom of speech and religion from the government, not from an employer.  In that sense, a person can be fired for expressing opinions in the workplace or even in the public sphere which the employer feels poorly represents the employer (remember the guy who videotaped himself being a jerk to a Chick-fil-A employee in the drive-through and then got fired?).  Believe it or not, an employer can even make employment conditional on whether or not an employee supports the employer’s political views, unless they live in one of the 8 states Washington D.C., where state laws prohibit it.

2.  However, employers are more significantly limited on hiring and firing when it comes to race, gender, age, disabilities, and, yes, religion.  The Supreme Court ruled in its 1968 case Pickering vs. the Board of Education that employers must use a balancing test to affirm that they are attending both to the right of religious expression of an employee and the need for efficacy in the workplace.

3.  To complicate matters, Cochran gave his self-published book to some of his subordinates, who apparently complained, showing that the viewpoint was not welcome.  This then is a case of a person in power sharing controversial opinions with people whose employment may depend on their supervisor’s perception of them.  It would be similar to a Muslim fire chief giving out copies of self-published literature deriding Christianity on the basis of the Koran.  In the 2006 case Berry v. The Department of Social Services, the 9th Circuit Court ruled that an employee was allowed to discuss his religious views with his colleagues, while he wasn’t allowed to express them to clients or to display religious emblems where clients would see them.  Essentially Cochran could make a case that the balancing test was not used, because sharing viewpoints with colleagues has been deemed legally permissible in similar cases.  It’s actually legal for employers to base a company’s objectives on biblical principles, so long as employees know their employment status will not be affected by their religious viewpoints.

4.  Add to that the fact that in this case, the employer is the local government.  The Mayor fired the fire chief with advocacy from at least one (openly gay) City Council member, Alex Wan.  Cochran was not an employer of an independent company – the fire department is governed by the city government, so far as I understand it.  Government’s relationship with religion is not entirely clean (nor should it be – people are messy), and that’s even more clear at the local level.  The Supreme Court ruled just this last year, in 2014, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, that a city council is allowed to hold prayer before its meetings.  Cochran could also take this as precedent for a free expression of religion that is permissible and modeled in our society.

5.  But now here’s the kicker: Cochran passed the idea of the book before an ethics office who, by all reports to date, gave no indication that there would be a problem, and in fact gave him permission to identify himself as the fire chief on the cover of the book.  And he gave a copy to Mayor Reed, who likewise gave him no previous feedback.  And on that point, most of the rest of the conversation should hang.

How to be a Christian

We can talk meaningfully about what Christians should do in the workplace.  Specifically, don’t try to impose controversial opinions on people who work for you and don’t welcome them.  Remember the whole love your neighbor thing?  Maybe try to be so winsome that people want to hear what you have to say.  And if you are an employer who is religious but who runs a secular business, why not be graciously open about it once and for all and then don’t impose?  Let people know that you are religious and that your religious viewpoint has no bearing on the employment of your employees.  If you’re a Christian, they should be so amazed by how loving you are that they equate your graciousness with your faith.  And after 2000 years of overt persecution, why not try to be especially kind to gay people?

But that won’t solve the legal and political questions here, nor will the best possible behavior by Christians necessarily lead to fair treatment in the workplace or in society (thoughtful Christian groups on college campuses were still “derecognized” last year).

How to be a Leader

This is the reason I signed the petition to have him reinstated.  Cochran was as above board as he needed to be with his employer to give the employer reasonable time to offer a written explanation for their expectations for their employee.  They did nothing.  What they’ve done (and let me be clear – they did this as stupidly as possible), was to sit on their hands when facing a possible conflict until they had a pending crisis and then try to axe the person that they could most likely get away with terminating, namely the person whose viewpoint is least popular in the public square today, namely the Christian.

What they should have done was address the issue ahead of time, set clear guidelines based on the balancing principle of religious expression, required Cochran to issue public statement that his religious views had no bearing on others’ employment before publishing the book (that they had in their hands!), and then had legal and media teams prepare a response.  That would have shown a measure of mature leadership.  As it stands, Reed neglected to prepare.  Reed is still talking about how important diversity is, but I haven’t heard anything from him about what Christians who work for the fire department can expect if they express their opinions.  And Alex Wan, who is enjoying the City Council’s self-rewarded 50% raise as of 2014, might want to remember what kind of society he himself has grown up in as he so eagerly supports depriving someone of employment.

Freedom of Religion

Don’t miss this here – Christians are going to be the brunt of social persecution simply by virtue of saying what they think.  I honestly signed the petition because I don’t want to live in a society like that.  Yes, I want to live in a society that is a mess of religious views and paganism, faithfulness and failure.  I don’t want people robbed of a chance to pursue life, liberty, and happiness by virtue of the fact that they think differently than me, and I want the same favor in return.  In fact, as a Christian, I think I have a responsibility to pray for the prosperity of Babylon so long as I live in it.  So long as I live here, fish out of water that I am, I want the maximum freedom to lead people to Jesus, and I’m so confident that he’s right and real that I’m not bothered by people who think otherwise.

I’m bothered by organized oppression of freedom, which is something that has never worked historically, and is something that is rejected with equal passion by the Constitution and the book of Exodus.  And I’m stunned by the urgency with which that kind of oppression is being practiced by the people who spend most of their waking lives talking about tolerance.  So no, we shouldn’t fire religious people who say what they think in the public sphere – just disagree vocally if you disagree, and let freedom ring.

The Faith of Tolkien

On the advent of the release of the third and final installment of The Hobbit films, and in honor of Advent the greater, I’m amused at the giant story of faith sitting hidden in plain sight in the American culture.  J.R.R. Tolkien was not only a devout Catholic, he was an evangelist.  And his quiet evangelism has shaped a legacy for modern evangelicals in a way that few of us are aware of.  If you, on the other side of this screen, are an evangelical Christian in America or Europe, there’s a pretty good likelihood it’s because of the guy who wrote the Hobbit.  If you hate evangelical Christians in America, you should likewise hate the guy who wrote the Hobbit (troll that you are).

Tolkien describes, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” the great turn of events that must happen in every Fairy Story for it to legitimately qualify for the genre.  He calls that crisis and redemption a “eucatastrophe.” He writes,

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

He then describes how the gospels are a form of Fairy story, though true, and he calls the resurrection of Jesus a eucatastrophe.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my Tolkersfeeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy- story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self- contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Now it’s exactly this kind of thinking that Tolkien shared with his friend C.S. Lewis.  They both worked at Oxford, Tolkien as a professor and Lewis as a tutor.  They gathered together in a pub with friends to drink and read their writings to one another in a group they dubbed The Inklings.  And sometimes they strolled down the Addison walk at Magdalen College together.  On these treks, Tolkien talked to Lewis, then an atheist, about how God wrote himself into his own story in order to bring redemption out of the tragedy of the human condition – the greatest eucatastrophe of all.  Tolkien was influential in bringing Lewis to faith.  Lewis, in turn, encouraged Tolkien to publish his works about hobbits and orcs and dragons.

Most people know what a significant influence Lewis has had on Western European and American society through books like Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and the Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a passionate defender of a propagator of the Christian faith after Tolkien helped him get there.  Most pastors in America have at least dabbled in Lewis, and to this day it is not uncommon to hear him quoted in the Sunday sermon.  His Narnia series alone has sold over 100 million copies, making him one of the most read fiction authors in history.

So the quiet little walks with the evangelical Tolkien created one of the greatest evangelists and Christian authors of the 20th century, one who is still shaping preachers and congregations and readers today.

So as the Hobbit releases this week, Christians should hail this as the great achievement of one of their direct spiritual ancestors.  All the fiery impulse of the good underdog standing up to bullying evil is captured in this Fairy story.  And keeping stories like this alive in our culture will always awaken a moral impulse that makes people wonder at the source of good and evil.  It makes us long for the triumph of good, for the eucatastrophe of our broken world.  Rather than settling for preachy, two-dimensional Christian movies that are painfully overt and poorly written, Christians ought to celebrate works like the Hobbit.  And we ought to call attention to the fact that the literary legacy of one of our most devout is now being fawned over by the movie going public on Saturday night, while his spiritual legacy once-removed is still prodding congregations on Sunday morning.

Chesterton on Christmas

A selection from G.K. Chesterton’s essay, “Christmas,” about retailers marketing Christmas too early.

brown“There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice.”

The God of Protests

Today's headlines

Today’s headlines

The God of the Bible is a God of protest.  He sent protestors into the world known as prophets, who decried the brokenness of the world and the damage wrought by sin.  And he calls you and I to be protestors.

The prophets were performance artists.  They put on public displays to call attention to their protests, often in ways that made them impossible to ignore.  Jeremiah walked around with an ox’s yoke on his shoulders, warning that God’s people would bear the yoke of Babylon because they had not been faithful.  Isaiah walked around naked for three years, warning that the people would be stripped of all they had if they did not repent.  God told Ezekiel to lay down in the street for a year to show that Israel was weighed down by their sins.  (And Ezekiel replied, “A year?!  Can’t I just graffiti a building or something?”) John the Baptist was a performance artist, whose symbolic artwork was to tell people to dunk themselves under water as a way of pointing out that they were living unclean lives.  And then he said that a performance artist was coming whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.

Jesus was a protestor.  And Christmas was the best protest of all.  Because in the midst of humanity’s overt rebellion against our maker, God lay down in the intersection of human life to stop traffic when he lay in the manger.  In that act, God protested our sinfulness not by condemning us, but by joining us.  In so doing, he modeled the kind of protest his followers are called to – one in which we join the most needy, and do so in a way that can’t be ignored.

So in a chaotic world broken by sin, join the God who is the God of protest.

  • If we want to protest racism, tutor a child of another ethnicity.
  • If we want to protest injustice, pay the court fees of the defenseless.


    An artist’s rendering of Jesus

  • If we want young men to take violence seriously, stop teaching boys to celebrate violent sports, media, and entertainment and instead teach them dignity and manners.
  • Do for your next door neighbor what you wish you could do for the entire world.
  • Have lunch at the house of the guy that everyone resents.
  • Pay the hospital bills of the injured person on the side of the road.
  • Stand as close as you can to people who are likely to have stones thrown at them.

Taking to social media with inflammatory rhetoric will not create a world of decency and respect.  Instead we have to act in such a way that we would be confident that it would be a better world if everyone else did the same thing we’re doing.  Or as Jesus put it, we are to do unto others as we would have them do to us.  That kind of protest will stop traffic.

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

Faith in the Next Generation

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 9.23.52 PM

A few thoughts on the call to revive the faith in the next generation.  All hope is not lost.  Read it here….

Preparing for a Church Interview


Job interviews are so stressful that they can cause pain. We think through every word, over-analyze the questions, and beg God to tip the scales for us. And I’m describing what employers like me, not just applicants like you, must endure… In almost 20 years as a pastor (and a veteran of youth ministry myself), I’ve interviewed a lot of potential youth pastors. Through them all, I’ve collected a storehouse of awkward stories, memories that make me wince, and an overpowering determination to help youth workers navigate their next interview with more confidence and impact. Mistakes are golden, of course, as long as we learn from them…

Reposted from Group Magazine.  Read the rest here.

Dreams for Driscoll

It’s now public news that Pastor Mark Driscoll, of the megachurch Mars Hill of Seattle, has resigned.  This comes after a string of inflammatory controversies.  Love keeps no record of wrongs, but Google sure does, so it doesn’t take long to find out that Driscoll was accused of:

  • bullying staff members, who ended up picketing outside of his church
  • using church funds to artificially purchase and inflate sales of his book
  • talking about women in pejorative ways, and
  • using a pseudonymous online account to post profane rants.

After a six week hiatus amidst mounting calls for his dismissal, he’s resigned.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 8.22.53 AMThis now awakens in me a longing to see a story of redemption written here at the end.  The 43 year old church leader still has a lifetime to rewrite the narrative.  I’m reminded of the story of St. Nicholas of Smyrna who, apparently, after slapping another theologian with whom he disagreed, spent the rest of his life doing penitent acts of charity which would eventually form the basis of the stories of our St. Nick.  I’d like to see Driscoll’s turn into a story of resurrection.  So if I had the pen of the divine narrator, this is how I would write it….

Driscoll fades from public view saying little more than that he’s taking a sabbatical with his family. They sell the million dollar house.  His wife begins working as a school teacher, an irony that is not lost on Warren Throckmorton and the last couple of commentators who are following the story, given how militantly opposed Driscoll was to women providing for their families.  The story goes dark for about a year.

Then a photographer catches a shot of Driscoll.  It goes up in the Christian media for a day.  People tweet it.  He’s in San Francisco, and the picture shows him behind a counter, wearing an apron, smiling and serving a meal at a homeless provider.  The picture is fuzzy and no one can get the straight story on whether or not it was him.  He doesn’t show up there again.  Some time passes.  Again there’s a report that Driscoll is working in an AIDS clinic doing bedside visitation with the dying in San Francisco.  Rumors mount.  Driscoll allows one interview, just saying that he is trying to do God’s will and wants to remain private.  Behind the scenes there is a circle of young adults that he’s mentoring in the inner city.  They’re a private band dedicated to spiritual depth and loving the poor.  Driscoll lives an alternative life of a kind of Mother Theresa in the shadows.  He does not seek audiences.  He contracts no speaking gigs.  He doesn’t write…for a while.  Then, a few years later, he releases an autobiography.  It’s a confession.  And it talks with psychological depth and self-awarenesses about the forces that once drove him and the forces that drive him now.  He becomes a Henri Nouwenesque kind of spiritual mentor, and suddenly every large-church pastor in the world seeks Driscoll out.  They want to talk about their failures and their fears, their conflicts and their depression.  He receives them all warmly and never says a word to the journalists about what he’s doing.

Driscoll lives into old age a redeemed man and a true pastor.  He becomes a legend that people talk about with reverence.  The stories of his younger years fade and are eclipsed by the saint that he has become.  Now Driscoll is what every pastor should be – a living manifestation of the Sermon on the Mount.  He is someone who hides in the shadow of the cross and lives as a subplot to a story that is greater than his own.

Just saying, if I were writing a good story, this is how I would want it to go.


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