Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Testimony of The Anointing With Oil

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will heal him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

  • James 5:13-15, World English Bible (a public domain translation)

Today, for Lutherans, is the 6th Sunday after Epiphany. And at the Lutheran church which I attend on a somewhat regular basis, we had a very interesting service. It was the “Service of the Word for Healing,” based on the apostolic instruction given in James 5:13-15. This service is a yearly tradition at that church, and during the service there is a time set aside for worshippers to come forward to the front of the sanctuary, where Communion is normally dispensed, and to receive prayer and the anointing with oil from the elders.

Today was only the second time I have attended such a service at that particular church, and it got me thinking. (I should mention that my attendance at such a service at that church was not my first experience with a healing service. More on that below.) The pastor preached an excellent homily from Mark 1:40-45 about our Lord's willingness to grant the requests of beggars – especially those in need of healing. Then there was a time of general prayer, followed by the invitation of those who wanted to come forward for the anointing of oil and prayer by the elders. The invitation was low-key in a typically Lutheran way, not like the high-pressure “altar calls” so prevalent in many evangelical megachurches.

And people came. As they came, I thought about the passage in James. By coming forward for individual prayer and anointing, a person is basically admitting two things: first, that he is not physically superhuman, and secondly, that he is not morally superhuman either. I remembered also the shyness bordering on terror which I experienced the first time I attended a so-called “healing service” supposedly modeled on the instruction in James 5:13-15. It was during an “All-Night of Prayer” at the abusive church I used to attend long ago, that we took some time to pray for the sick and otherwise needy and to perform the anointing with oil.

(One note about my former church: it inspired a lot of blogging and writing on my part. If ever I needed help in launching a literary career, I guess the Assemblies were good for something. I vaguely recall hearing Joseph Wambaugh saying on some late night TV show that writers need at least one nervous breakdown in order to boost their output. My breakfast club of a church wasn't quite that bad, but it came close. Maybe I can get some money from my story one day ;) You can't make this stuff up.)

Anyway, my former church had a culture which fostered an exaggerated show of outward righteousness, as an aid in competing for prized positions of privileged ministry. To ask to be anointed with oil was asking for trouble, as it was an admission on your part that you weren't picture perfect and didn't have every hair in place. Such an admission could and would be used against you. (I found that out the hard way.) Today as I remembered this and our former head honcho and his deputies (the “mature,” the “victorious,” the “overcomers,” the “prominent men”) praying prayers of pious exaggeration for those who actually did ask for anointing, I thought about the secret lives of these men and the scandals which would later destroy their churches, and I wondered if any of their high-sounding prayers ever made it beyond the roof of the building.

Fast forward several years to the first time I attended a Lutheran “Service of the Word for Healing” at the church I now attend. Gone is the freaky experience of abusive, fringe evangelicalism. Instead, the people at my church are all quite mellow, uncomplicated and easy on the nerves. Many of them are older. (Some are over eighty years old.) The pastor is very down-to-earth as well. Yet at this “Service of the Word for Healing,” I feel a bit of the same shyness bordering on terror. I would like to go forward to receive anointing – but a wall of impenetrable reserve surrounds me and I keep to my pew – even as nearly the entire church, both young and old, goes forward to participate in the anointing service. The service ends, and I have not gone forward.

My mind returns to the present this morning, as I am sitting in my pew and once again I hear the invitation for those who want prayer and anointing to come forward. Again there is the shyness and terror. Yet again, I see nearly the entire church going forward to the altar. My turn comes. I have needs. I have sins. And this time, I make a choice and find myself in the aisle, walking forward with the rest. And it's as if Heaven itself is shouting at me, “Welcome to the club!”

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Yuletide Rumination

(Note: I have posted this same essay on my other blog, because I believe that it deals with themes that are appropriate for both blogs. If you don't like mixing politics and religion, beware of this post.)

It's that time of year again, isn't it? (For some retail store chains it's been that time of year since before Halloween.) And along with this time of year there are many people who are torn between celebrating, ignoring or denouncing the Christmas season.

As for me, being a Christian, and someone who has for several years had a love affair with ritual and ceremony, I enjoy the thought of having a special season, culminating in a special day, to celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Note, however, that I did not say that I enjoy the thought of shoving that particular celebration down the throats of any who disagree with me. To those outside the orbit of Christianity, I can only hope that my life may persuade you to think about things you would not ordinarily consider. On the other hand, there are those who claim to be solidly inside the orbit of the Faith who oppose Christmas because it's supposed to have evolved from pagan holidays, and because we don't see Christmas celebrated by the apostles in the book of Acts, yadda yadda. To such people, whether they be Plymouth brethren, Jehovah's Witnesses, subbotniks (субботники), or others, I have a deal to offer you. If you promise not to rain on my parade, I promise that I won't insult you by wishing you Merry Christmas (or Happy Birthday, for that matter).

I have to admit, however, that lately I can't really get into Christmas. Partly it's because for the last few years, I haven't been able to attend church on Christmas due to visits to relatives. But increasingly it's because in this country, the Christmas season has been so thoroughly corrupted to serve the interests of capitalism. Every aspect of the season – even those aspects that were once baldly religious – has been converted into a Pavlovian goad to make people buy stuff. (Just this week I was at Trader Joe's and on the way into the store, I heard a non-stop stream of pop-soft rock arrangements of religious carols and other seasonal music being broadcast into the parking lot, thanks to the outdoor intercom system.)

Christmas has become the complement of the 4th of July in a certain way. Independence Day is supposed to be a celebration of freedom, yet “freedom” in this country has been redefined by corporate interests into a justification of addictive behavior. Christmas on the other hand is a commercially broadcast appeal to go out and act like an addict. For those who don't choose to live like addicts, Christmas has become a dangerous time of year. Just try bicycle commuting on a daily basis any time between Thanksgiving and New Years and you will see just how dangerous, as you find your life being threatened by tantrum-throwing consumatron beasts in big SUV's. (How many people will be trampled to death or pepper-sprayed at stores between now and New Year's?)

The pushers who run our society have succeeded in turning Christmas into a rather strange season. And this particular Christmas promises to be very strange indeed, as the consequences of our addictive behavior increasingly catch up to us. One of those consequences is the weather. Around here in the Portland metro area, it has been very unsettling – not in a violently demonstrative way, but in a creepy, unsettling way.

For one thing, there has been almost no precipitation this month. According to the Weather Underground site, average precipitation for December should be 4.32 inches. We have received less than two tenths of an inch so far. Not one flake of snow has fallen in the Portland metro area since October. Daytime high temperatures have been exceeding historical averages – not drastically, but by enough to cause concern for those who should be paying attention. I can't predict the future, but I suspect that this may turn out to be a very dry winter. A dry winter may mean a hot summer, and an extreme fire danger, which is not typical for this area. There is a lot to burn here. We may also be introduced to something else that is not typical to this area, namely, drought.

Even with this year's La Niña weather, global average temperatures are beginning to move into dangerous, potentially irreversible territory. Atmospheric CO2 levels are now at 390.31 parts per million. Our addiction is destroying our climate, yet like many dysfunctional families whose members are addicts, our society is unwilling to talk frankly about the consequences of our addiction. This week, as I walked through my neighborhood, I was treated to a sight that I haven't seen since I lived in Southern California – houses decorated with Yuletide lights, Santa Clauses, and fake icicles – and not a speck of snow on the ground. It would be most ironic to find that some of the residents in those homes were listening to Bing Crosby singing about his dreams. This year I think I'll buy myself a weather thermometer for Christmas.

I must bring this short meditation to a close. I will shortly be driving down to So. Cal., and I have a few things to do yet. My MP3 player is loaded full of interesting stuff that I haven't yet heard. One thing I have is a LibriVox recording of The Slavery Of Our Times by Leo Tolstoy. It promises to be good listening for those who don't want to be addicts. Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Culture Shock, Upside The Head

Over the last year or so, I've been been wrestling with a rather intricate conundrum. My particular rat's nest of a conundrum – my Gordian knot – my paradox – I now lay before you, whoever you are who may happen to read this blog.

Those of you who have followed my writings know that I used to belong to a fringe, abusive church, and that involvement in that church was a damaging experience for many of the members, including myself. A summary description of that church was that it was both legalistic and excessive in its demands and its strictness, and that this was due to the particular character of the narcissist who was our “head honcho.” The head honcho fostered a culture in which people were measured on the basis of the “authority” they were allowed to exercise over each other, and this led to people competing intensely for positions of “leadership” from which they might boss each other around.

Leaving that particular church meant leaving that culture behind, and the act of leaving produced in me an intense “gun-shyness” regarding authority, strictness and discipline. That gun-shyness extended to my treatment of children, because in our old abusive breakfast-club of a church, it was often considered a godly thing for adults to be extremely heavy-handed and rigid in dealing with children. (If you want to know more of what I'm talking about, see Abuse in Christian Families, Assembly Kids, MK's and PK's and Critiques of 'First Time Obedience'.) For years after leaving, I dealt with both adults and children with a great deal of fear and trepidation, anxious not to make an idiot out of myself by relating to them according to the manner I had been taught in my old 'church.' After leaving, I wanted very much to become a decent person. In fact, I still want this very much.

Fast forward several years, and here I am, living a thousand miles away from where that old church used to be. Now I'm living in a multicultural, multi-ethnic city, and I've had the chance to get to know several people and families from places other than the United States. As I have observed some of them, I've sometimes been taken aback at the strictness of their culture. It goes against the persona I've built up over the last several years – a persona like that of sympathetic, relational Dr. Malcolm Crowe, or like Pete Dixon from Room 222. Yet as I've talked to older members of these cultures, I've heard many who were thankful for the strictness, including people who thanked their teachers back in the old country for spanking students. It's been hard to wrap my Americanized mind around that one...

At the same time, something else has been happening over the last year and a half. I've been teaching engineering courses at a local college campus. I must admit two things about myself when I started teaching college students: first, that I naively believed that college students attend class because they want to be in class, and they are intensely interested in the subject matter. (After all, who in his or her right mind would pay money to attend classes in which they had no interest?!) Second, I tended to relate to my students as if I were Dr. Malcolm Crowe or Pete Dixon. There was only one hitch, however. When I graded assignments, I tried to assign grades based on an honest assessment of a student's competence rather than using grades as a means to build self-esteem. In my book, an “A” grade therefore means that a person is an expert. If a student can't demonstrate expert knowledge, then I can't give that student an A in good conscience.

This approach to grading has caused some, er, friction. I can see that friction in some of the instructor evaluations I have received from students, as well as some of the conversations they have had with me. A number of evaluations submitted by students have complained that I am too hard in my grading or that the class is too difficult or that the material is hard to understand. Students have turned in sloppily written reports and when I have marked them down for sloppiness or poor grammar, the students have become almost combative, insisting that correct grammar, punctuation and spelling have nothing to do with a correct grasp of technical principles. I had a student this summer who yelled at me during a class lab session because I marked down one of his homework assignments due to incompleteness. (The assignment called for a computer plot of a circuit function, and I guess he thought that the plot was “optional”!) This same student protested to me that he was an “A” student and he couldn't understand why I would not give him an A for substandard work. (If ever I wanted to throttle someone... but steady there! Temper, temper...) I had another student who complained that the course required too much reading on his part, as he was dyslexic and couldn't concentrate for very long. When I checked with the student liason, she mentioned that this particular student had never mentioned dyslexia to her. I've had two students try to answer cell phones during exams. I've had students get teary-eyed because I would not accept late work, even though the syllabus clearly stated that late work would not be accepted.

In short, I've seen Americans (and foreigners who have been Americanized) – grown ups, mind you – who act like children with a monstrous sense of entitlement. And here I am in my living room, looking at another batch of student evaluations and seeing in my mind's eye some of the faces who were in my spring term class, remembering some of the battles that were fought, the excuses that were made. On my computer I have open a number of Web pages written by journalists and academics who have sought to probe the roots of the present college student culture of entitlement. Some of them trace its origins to the constant efforts made in upscale schools to guard and build up the self-esteem of students, regardless of whether such self-esteem was realistic or not. Many of these kids have grown up into incompetent adults, yet no one dares to tell them the ugly truth. It's like being among people who don't have the guts to tell a person that his fly is unzipped or that his shirt is buttoned wrong.

At the end of a quarter, I must stay up late finalizing grades in order to submit them before our school's deadline. On such nights, I have fallen into the habit of listening to Youtube videos of young (teen and pre-teen) classical and fingerstyle guitarists. I have a handful of favorite artists, and they are all very, very good. The funny thing is that only one of them is an American citizen, and his parents are Chinese. These people did not get as good as they are without pushing themselves. On the other hand, in the faces of many college-bound Americans today I can see one more sign of the impending death of the American empire. (That death is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way.) Empires grow stupid before they die. (I'll have more to say about that on my other blog.)

Meanwhile, here's a question. Cutting a person open can be a very good thing, or a very bad thing. Getting knifed by a mugger is a bad thing. Having a surgeon perform an operation on you can be a very good thing. In the same way, strictness (or “firmness,” if you will) can be a very good thing if handled properly, and a very bad thing if mishandled. On the one hand, in American evangelicalism we have muggers, murderers and practitioners of mayhem (like Bill Gothard, the Ezzo's, Michael and Debi Pearl, and others). On the other hand, we have a nation of people in dire need of some surgery.

So then, is there a right way to be “strict” or “firm”? Is it possible to learn to do “strictness” or “firmness” the right way?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Poor On Purpose

There is a moral aspect to the way each of us chooses to respond to the world in which we live. This is true even when we are considering problems that at first appear to be purely technical. Take the depletion of the Earth's resources and the decline and collapse of the global economy, for instance. Among the writers and bloggers whose work I enjoy reading is a man named Dmitry Orlov, author of ClubOrlov, a blog which chronicles the ongoing collapse of the United States. His latest post, Financial Totalitarianism, should arouse the interest of students of the Good Book.

In that post, he writes, “A particularly annoying question I am often asked and have come to hate is: 'How do I invest my money for it to survive financial, political and commercial collapse?' The short answer is: 'Nohow...'” Orlov goes on to criticize the foundations of greed and avarice on which modern American society is based, then he makes the following statements:

You cannot create your own money system, and you cannot change the way the money system works; either you are in the money system, or you are out. Most of us lack the ability to sever all ties with the financial realm, but, as with so many things, having the right attitude is very helpful. To that end, let me drop a Bible-bomb on you. (I do this as someone quite free of any religious sentiment; I just find the Bible to be an interesting and useful work of world literature, filled with highly quotable, pithy remarks.) Here's a particularly nice quote from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Never has a truer phrase been written. Many of the more recent self-styled or so-called “Christians” have attempted to distort it to mean that it doesn't imply depriving yourself of any worldly goods, and that “poor in spirit” is a special, strictly spiritual sort of poverty. That is, of course, nonsense. You do not have to dig deep for the real meaning: “Poor” just means “poor,” and “in spirit” means “on purpose, not as a result of, say, injustice, misfortune, or being lazy, stupid or a gambler.” Oh, and “blessed” means “not damned.” Accordingly, Christian monks take the vow of non-acquisitiveness, which is a virtue, with the corresponding vices of stinginess (“what is mine is mine”) and greed (“what is yours is mine”). It is rather difficult to embrace such basic tenets while remaining within a culture that has elevated avariciousness and rapaciousness to the status of virtues. But here is a key insight: being poor on purpose is much easier than being poor as a result of suddenly having less than you are accustomed to having.

Now Orlov is not a Christian (he has not been “born again”), and he is not writing this in the context of Christianity or “spirituality.” But notice how accurate he is in his interpretation of the plain meaning of Scripture. Regarding the relationship between true Christians and their possessions, he seems to be far more direct than Arthur Simon, author of How Much Is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture (Baker Books and Arthur Simon, 2003). How Much is Enough? begins to lead its reader down the road to Biblically based, simpler, less materialistic living, yet at its outset it hedges its bets, as in the following words: “God points the way, but provides no paved road through the wilderness. Each follower of Jesus faces this challenge...Decisions about the use of money and use of our lives more often involve shades of gray than sharp contrasts between black and white...” To be fair, I haven't finished reading the book. And yes, I acknowledge that for every finger I point, there are three pointing back at me. But from the start, I think Mr. Simon will probably let his readers off a little easier than he should. (It is nice to see such a study coming from the Lutherans, though ;) )

Now let's take another look at one of Mr. Orlov's statements: Many of the more recent self-styled or so-called “Christians” have attempted to distort it [Blessed are the poor in spirit...] to mean that it doesn't imply depriving yourself of any worldly goods, and that “poor in spirit” is a special, strictly spiritual sort of poverty. That is, of course, nonsense...It is rather difficult to embrace such basic tenets while remaining within a culture that has elevated avariciousness and rapaciousness to the status of virtues. To this, I can only say “Amen.” It's hard for those of us who are thoroughly marinated in materialist American culture to grasp and start to obey the plain words of the Lord Jesus Christ. It really takes a break with this culture in order to start thinking and acting clearly. That includes making a break from the toxic culture of mainstream American evangelicalism. If a man who admittedly has no religious sentiment can see plain Scripture truths that befuddle the great mass of American evangelicals and their leaders, it seems to indicate two things. First, it may be that Mr. Orlov is himself not far from the Kingdom of God (Mark 12:34). He may well be standing in a place full of wild possibilities. Second, it seems that many American evangelicals have missed the Pilgrim's Progress trail head and have instead hopped a ride on the Celestial Railroad. They may literally be facing a Hell of a surprise once they get to their destination.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month - My Two Cents

Several bloggers have declared January 2011 to be Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month. I feel obligated to add my hearty "Amen" to this declaration. Let's keep putting pressure on the power-mongers, control freaks and abusive leaders who have ruined so much of American evangelicalism. To find other bloggers who are writing posts dedicated to this month, just Google "Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In The Way of Jehonadab

The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, saying, Go to the house of the Rechabites, and speak to them, and bring them into the house of the LORD, into one of the rooms, and give them wine to drink.

Then I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, the son of Habazziniah, and his brothers, and all his sons, and the whole house of the Rechabites; and I brought them into the house of the LORD, into the room of the sons of Hanan the son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was by the room of the princes, which was above the room of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, the keeper of the threshold. I set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites bowls full of wine, and cups; and I said to them, Drink wine!

But they said, We will drink no wine; for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, saying, You shall drink no wine, neither you, nor your sons, forever: neither shall you build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any; but all your days you shall dwell in tents; that you may live many days in the land in which you live. We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons, or our daughters; nor to build houses for us to dwell in; neither have we vineyard, nor field, nor seed: but we have lived in tents, and have obeyed, and done according to all that Jonadab our father commanded us...

  • Jeremiah 35:1-10, World English Bible (a public domain translation)

I've been “out-of-pocket” for the last several weeks. This has been mainly due to taking on a part-time teaching position as an adjunct at a local college. But now that finals have been administered and grades have been given, I have a bit of time to breathe and to think. (These were two pastimes I was sorely missing.)

One of the themes that was in the back of my mind is the subject of people, families and communities whose choices have positioned them for maximum survivability in this present time of resource depletion and economic collapse – even though they made their choices for entirely different reasons at the time those choices were made. I've recently met or read about a few such people and families, and have noted those elements of survivability in their lives which they chose for cultural or religious reasons, without necessarily thinking beforehand of the application of those elements to hard times. One characteristic of all these people is their separateness from the prevailing American culture. I'd like to explore the spiritual, Christian side of that separateness in one or two posts of this blog. The purely secular side of this theme will be explored in my other blog, The Well Run Dry. Sometimes the thoughts from both blogs will overlap.

And so we come first to Jehonadab and the Rechabites, of whom we read a little in the passage from Jeremiah which I quoted above. Who were the Rechabites? According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Rechabites were “...members of a family descended from Hammath, the progenitor of the house of Rechab; otherwise known as the Kenites (I Chron. ii. 55), who were the descendants of Hobab (Jethro), the father-in-law of Moses (Judges iv. 11). In Jeremiah (xxxv.) it is recorded that the prophet took some Rechabites into the Temple and offered them wine to drink, and that they declined on the ground that Jehonadab, son of Rechab, their ancestor, had commanded them not to drink wine or other strong drink, or to live in houses, or to sow seed, or to plant vineyards, and had enjoined them to dwell in tents all their days. Jeremiah used this fidelity of the Rechabites to their principles as an object-lesson in his exhortations to his contemporaries...

...the Rechabites were a people who endeavored to resist the customs of settled life in Palestine by maintaining the nomadic ideal; that they existed at different times in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms; that they were especially interested in the worship of Yahweh (the LORD); and that the Chronicler connects them with the Kenites...”

According to the Bible, the Rechabites got their start on the road of separateness via their father Jehonadab (as spelled in 2 Kings; in Jeremiah, his name is spelled “Jonadab”). Jehonadab was a contemporary and acquaintance of Jehu the son of Nimshi, who was anointed king of Israel by the prophet Elisha in order to assassinate the current king, Jehoram the son of Ahab, and to destroy those who worshipped idols in the northern kingdom of Israel. It was via Solomon that idol-worship gained a foothold in the kingdom of Israel, and by means of the rulers of the northern kingdom it had become firmly entrenched. Jehu asked for the allegiance of Jehonadab, which Jehonadab gave to him as they both helped to eradicate the worship of Baal from Israel. But Jehu insisted on maintaining the worship of two golden calves which an earlier Israelite king had made in order to keep his subjects from the true worship of God. (This was a political move, in order to secure his authority over his subjects.)

It is possible to speculate (and some have speculated) that when Jehonadab saw that there had been no real change in the direction of Israel, he became disillusioned with Jehu and chose to withdraw himself and his family from the prevailing culture. By the manner of his withdrawal he created a family structure and culture that was uniquely survivable, in that it had no stake in the established culture of the land, and therefore nothing to lose from the destruction of that culture. The alternative he created was a culture and structure uniquely suited to the preservation of spiritual truth in the midst of hard and uncertain times.

You might say that Jehonadab looked at the evils of his nation's culture, the likely Divine judgment they would receive, saw the “pages of their book on fire” and read “the writing on the wall”, to borrow from a song I listen to a lot.

Which brings us to the subject of how Christians should relate to the present culture of the United States of America. Modern American culture is a universal solvent, in that it dissolves and assimilates anything exposed to it. It should be fairly obvious that our culture is also extremely corrosive and toxic. There are abundant obvious signs that these statements are true, from the garbage broadcast via television and other media to the PG-13 language that has become common even on elementary school playgrounds, to the goo that resides in the flash memories of so many mp3 players, to the disappearance of decent behavior among many members of the broad public. (Speaking of American culture as a universal solvent, I remember a ride on the MAX a few weeks ago during which I observed four Asian teens getting on at one of the stops. Their accents were unmistakable, and marked them clearly as foreign-born, yet they were each wearing baggy shorts at least three sizes too big for them, along with oversized T-shirts that hadn't been washed in a few days and bling jewelry and sideways baseball hats with flat brims, and they were all cussing and swearing like homeboys – even down to the rhythm of the cuss words. Peculiar...)

The Pharisaical members of the American Religious Right are quick to point these things out as “Sinnnn-Fullll!!!” And they are right – much of what we see in American culture is a sinful, sensual, lustful contradiction of Biblical morality, modesty, decency and propriety. But the American Religious Right is just as bad as the things they criticize. And in criticizing the surface symptoms, they conveniently ignore one of the root issues of American culture, namely, its full-throttle, reckless, crass materialism and greed, a materialism and greed which the American Religious Right practices with reckless abandon. For American culture is a construct which has been created by its masters for the sole purpose of making people crave things, thus prompting them to spend money. Popular religion has been co-opted by the masters of our culture, who would have us believe that the blessing of God consists solely of having lots of stuff, and that God wants to “bless” America forever, no questions asked. Spokespersons for this point of view include such sharp-as-a-bowling-ball thinkers as Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, Pat Robertson, and the Tea Party.

Yet perceptive people can see that America's days of hedonism are numbered. They see the “pages of our book on fire” and “read the writing on the wall.” They don't even have to look as far as Divine judgment to see that this is true. Anyone who can do college level math and who is well-read and well-informed about present economic, environmental and resource trends can see that the global economy in general, and the American way of life in particular, are in deep – possibly mortal – trouble. Books such as Limits to Growth, Reinventing Collapse, and Eaarth, and reports like the 2007 Energy Watch Group Oil Report lay the case out very clearly. Where I think Divine judgment comes in is in seeing how this nation has both obtained and spent our abundance, and thinking that because of our choices and the kind of people we've become there will be no miracle forthcoming to rescue us out of the consequences of those choices.

I think the best thing any real Christian living here could do is prudently and wisely withdraw from the prevailing culture, in order to keep his hands clean and to preserve something of enduring value in the hard times now upon us. But here a question arises: is a healthy, Godly escape from this culture possible? I stress the word “healthy” here. For there are plenty of recent historical examples of unhealthy withdrawal – from Jonestown to David Koresh to wacko fundamentalist “Christian” dominionist/supremacist super-patriot nutcase groups like Vision Forum, Bill Gothard, and the Honor Academy of Dave Hasz and Ron Luce. Abusive churches like the Assemblies of George Geftakys and other nut-cases would all like to emphasize the message of “Be ye separate from all else...” with the corollary, “that you may be entirely OURS!”, spoken with a ravenous snarl just as soon as you have come between their jaws. Abusive religious parents (especially fathers) who have drunk the Kool-Aid of the Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements might look at the example of Jehonadab and say, “Cool! I get to be the absolute boss of my own new culture!” I am also aware that there may be survivors of such abusive churches, groups and families who cringe at reading this present post, who have flashbacks at the very thought of being “separate” from the prevailing culture, and for whom the discussion of “separation” brings up all sorts of unpleasant experiences of legalism.

Yet this present culture is going down. And God commands us to be separate from it. Though we are in the world, we are not to be of the world. “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” - James 1:27, World English Bible.

Jehonadab was able to achieve this separation for himself and for his family, and to do so in a healthy way. What would modern-day Rechabites look like in these present-day United States of America? Can we American Christians achieve a state of healthy separation without totally screwing it up?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Christianity and the Economic Growth Paradigm

History abundantly shows that the Christianity of the first few centuries was vigorously opposed and persecuted by the Roman Empire. Christianity was a threat to Roman culture and Roman power on a multitude of levels, the spiritual level being foremost. I hypothesize (although I don't have time to research this thoroughly) that the Faith was a significant threat to the Roman economy and its holders of concentrated wealth and economic power. Few things upset wealthy people more than any kind of threat to their wealth. (Try removing a food bowl from under the snout of a German shepherd and see what happens to you.)

The Scriptures contain abundant warnings, rebukes and condemnations of the very practices on which the modern global money economy rests. Yet “Christianity” is not persecuted in much of the First World – especially in the United States, which has a powerful evangelical voter base led by influential, wealthy men (and a few women). I suggest that the “Christianity” espoused by these people bears very little resemblance to the actual proto-Christianity outlined in the New Testament – the Faith which calls us to simple living, the renunciation of materialism and oppression, and the love of our neighbors, a love which is expressed in sharing our material possessions with our neighbors. The Faith outlined in the Good Book condemns the rape of the earth, the murder of indigenous peoples, and the oppression of the poor, yet these are the foundations on which modern industrial economic growth is built.

What if the Church in the First World began with unified voice to actually preach the Faith outlined in the Scriptures? What if we all (not just a few on the fringes) began to teach one another and outsiders to live simply and to stop being good consumers? What if the Church actually began to acknowledge the backstory behind the recent prosperity of the First World, and especially of the United States, and began to refuse to participate in that prosperity? I can't tell you everything that might happen, but I imagine that we who call ourselves Christians would be a lot less popular.

I leave you with a reading from the book of Acts. I read this about a month and a half ago. (Now I am in 2 Kings.) Enjoy.

About that time there arose no small stir concerning the Way. For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen, whom he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, “Sirs, you know that by this business we have our wealth. You see and hear, that not at Ephesus alone, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away many people, saying that they are no gods, that are made with hands. Not only is there danger that this our trade come into disrepute, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be counted as nothing, and her majesty destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worships.”

When they heard this they were filled with anger, and cried out, saying, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The whole city was filled with confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul’s companions in travel. When Paul wanted to enter in to the people, the disciples didn’t allow him. Certain also of the Asiarchs, being his friends, sent to him and begged him not to venture into the theater. Some therefore cried one thing, and some another, for the assembly was in confusion. Most of them didn’t know why they had come together. They brought Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. Alexander beckoned with his hand, and would have made a defense to the people. But when they perceived that he was a Jew, all with one voice for a time of about two hours cried out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

When the town clerk had quieted the multitude, he said, “You men of Ephesus, what man is there who doesn’t know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great goddess Artemis, and of the image which fell down from Zeus? Seeing then that these things can’t be denied, you ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here, who are neither robbers of temples nor blasphemers of your goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen who are with him have a matter against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them press charges against one another. But if you seek anything about other matters, it will be settled in the regular assembly. For indeed we are in danger of being accused concerning this day’s riot, there being no cause. Concerning it, we wouldn’t be able to give an account of this commotion.” When he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly.

– Acts 19:23-41, World English Bible (a public domain translation)