Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

An excellent short article about Europe's agony (and ours)

I never read the editorials in The New York Times. I don't know who writes them, but I find them predictable to a high degree, and boring as well. It's the news analysis that I value most. For instance, I have long admired Steven Erlanger. In a short space, he is able to capture insights and put them into context with superb clarity and narrative drive. His articles call for rereading, since they are layered and penetrating. To my mind, this is one of the best brief analyses of the jihadist threat that we face today:

It is disturbing to me that most younger people do not read news analysis. They get the news in bits and pieces, but television, cable, online news bites, social media offer little in the way of depth. Unless one is practiced in searching out well-informed analysis from sources like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, etc., the impressions one receives from the news media are dangerously superficial. There are only a few journalists who are able to do the job of an Erlanger, and they are not to be found unless one is willing to search for them. The New York Times has its flaws, of course, but I still find it to be essential daily reading for analysis of the news.

Another somewhat longer article in today's paper, by the impressive, experienced Adam Nossiter, reports in interesting detail about the problems that now plague the admirable (theoretically, that is) open borders of the European Union. We don't understand these issues in any depth; we prefer quick, self-righteous dismissals. I hear people every day talking about how stupid the French are, or how incompetent the Belgians are. Those are easy comments to make, and their mere simplicity is comforting to those who want mere simplicity in their opinions, but if we and our European allies are to make any progress, we need to consult people who have a sophisticated and subtle grasp of all the factors involved. The Nossiter article is gripping in its description of failures across the board, and its appeal for "a permanent exchange on the European level" is made in a concise, accessible form. Here is the link to the Nossiter piece:

Friday, March 18, 2016

What our politics are doing to us

Can this be believed?
Yes, it can. Trump is not the only one who has overturned a number of rocks. The darkest and worst in human nature has been encouraged to crawl out into the light, in the name of Christ who is the Light of the world.

Cruz's supporter, Kevin Swanson, is not the only one to go after the Girl Scouts. Franklin Graham has taken the same position. Unlike Swanson, he has not called for executions, but the ferocity of his approach is a notable contrast to the embracing manner of his father. It is sad to think of Billy Graham, still living in Montreat with Parkinsons' disease, probably unable to understand the details of what his son is doing.  I don't have any inside information about that, but three years ago when Billy Graham's profile appeared on a full page of The New York Times, recommending a vote for Mitt Romney, many people concluded that the son had taken over the father's name and image without the father's knowledge.

In any case, this sort of hysterical emphasis on gender issues while ignoring the great threat to our truly American values, which are symbolized the world over by the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me"). These extreme views are a deeply disturbing picture of Christianity to set before our body politic. Franklin Graham's organization, Samaritan's Purse, has by all accounts done some wonderful humanitarian work among refugees and victims of war and disaster; how tragic if this ugly side of its founder comes to dominate the public image of his ministry. The need for America to be open-hearted and engaged in the opening of its "golden door" has never been greater. It is unwise to be foolishly idealistic about immigration--we need better screening--but a terrorist is very likely being made every few hours in the misery of the refugee camps where thousands of young men are easy picking for the Islamic State. The closing of doors to the thousands upon thousands of refugees and migrants now languishing in terrible conditions in Greece and other places is a reproach to Christian consciences everywhere.  Does Liberty still lift her lamp of shelter and welcome? or will we give in to fear and a sense of impotence? Will Canada become the new image of the New World because we have become so xenophobic? May our God, so often invoked so carelessly, give us grace, guidance, and courage to be true to our unique image in the world.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Preachers, who's the subject of the sentence?

When I have taught homiletics (preaching), I have always put a lot of emphasis on subjects and verbs. It's remarkable how infrequently many of today's preachers make God the subject of active verbs. Usually it's the human being who is given the verbs. "We can find God if we put ourselves in the right place." "Mary was ready for God's announcement." "There are transfigurations in life for all of us if we look for them." (These are actual quotations.)

On the op-ed page of the New York Times, a woman who teaches writing at Dartmouth explains:

I teach freshman writing at Dartmouth College. My colleagues and I consistently try to convey to our students the importance of clear writing. Among the guiding principles of clear writing are these: Whenever possible, use human subjects, not abstract nouns; use active verbs, not passive. We don’t want our students to write, “Torture was used,” because that sentence obscures who was torturing whom. (October 22, 2015)

This is a crucially important lesson for preachers as well as writers. Active verbs have power. Passive verbs can be used as avoidance--as in the now-ubiquitous "Mistakes were made."

The biblical story has God as its unfailing subject. God is not for us to find; God has found us, and keeps on finding us, and will chase us down even in Sheol (Psalm 139:8). I am pretty sure that the failure of so many preachers to tell this story is a consequence of the weakened theology and biblical interpretation that has pervaded so many of the mainline seminaries for so long. We simply do not know the full dimensions of "the strange new world of the Bible" which tells us of a God who does not and will not fit into the usual human religious grammar.

If preachers can learn this, it will transform preaching.

The complete op-ed piece is here: