Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Santa Scale for Measuring Society's Slide Down Secularism's Slippery Slope

OK, I confess. I am a Christmas fanatic. I love the sights, the sounds, the smells, and (yes) even maintain a tradition of day-after-Thanksgiving shopping at 4:00 a.m. This year, we were visiting our second and fourth children and their families in the Ozarks and my fifth child and I still made it to five stores between 4:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Friday morning. Each day between the Thanksgiving and Christmas is filled with viewing “classics” such as “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “The Santa Clause” (one, two, and three). Next week will find me on the roof putting up the huge lighted Costco nativity scene.

Santa Claus has been a bit more ambiguous for me. My Christian convictions led me to ban Santa from the house during the rearing of our first four children. However, the more Tolkien and C.S. Lewis I read, the more it seemed that Santa was not so much a threat to faith or a competitor to Christ as he was a richly nuanced myth conveying some significant spiritual truth artistically supporting rather than contradicting the reality of Christ’s incarnation. So, my fifth child grew up in a Santa-friendly environment.

Santa, and how he is portrayed, can be a barometer of our society and its degree of slide down the secular slippery slope. Last week, viewing "Fred Claus," I learned volumes about how far we have fallen. As portrayed brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, Santa has the same problems as many other mortals. He experiences sibling rivalry, fights with his brother, "Fred" (portrayed perfectly by Vince Vaughn), struggles with his weight, has marital difficulties, and his wife even hints about "other" problems that might profitably be helped by Viagra or Cialis.

Santa has a heart of gold and gives of himself generously to all, including Fred from whom he has been alienated since childhood. However, while Santa may be a “spiritual” person (in the 21st century generic sense), David Dobkin plants him squarely in the moral landscape of today. The banter between Santa and brother Fred may elevate Fred in this redemptive morality play, but at the price of lowering Santa. Santa and his brother Fred finally demonstrate that “repentance conquers resentment” as one reviewer put it. However, there is no hint of Christianity. Religion is not so much untrue as irrelevant. And, in the end, even the North Pole is made better by Fred’s cooler, more hang-loose, non-judgmental style.

Some earlier Santa movies focused on the miracle of Christmas, the unmerited grace of it all, and the unvarying goodness of this mythological figure that functions as a “stand in” for Christ. This movie proclaims the gospel of moral equivalence and teaches that there are really no “bad kids” and that everyone deserves a gift from Santa. How perfectly appropriate for a world where “Merry Christmas” has become “happy holidays.”

To the extent that Santa is a "stand in" for Christ, one must ask the question: "Who is Fred?" Clearly, he has style, panache, and makes people happy accepting their human failures. If the devil could just give God some advice on how to loosen up and become less judgmental, maybe heaven could improve almost as much as the North Pole under Fred's more enlightened approach. Hmmm. No thanks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

ABC to Sell ABC Mission Center to ABC in Order to Endow ABC Office of the General Secretary and Stop Flow of Red Ink That Imperils ABC? Huh???

VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 11/13/07) — At their November meeting, the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board's (MMBB) Board of Managers voted to join a Limited Liability Company (LLC) of American Baptist Churches (ABC) Partners with a goal of purchasing the Valley Forge Mission Center. This was the next in a series of steps that began last June when the ABCUSA General Board approved a proposal to sell the property.

Following the General Board’s decision, the property was offered to Brandywine Realty Trust, a real estate investment trust with a long term lease on the ABCUSA-owned property adjacent to the Mission Center. Included in its lease, Brandywine had a "right of first offer" on the property should ABCUSA ever decide to sell the property. As per the agreement, the property was offered to Brandywine with the anticipation that they would decline the offer due to lease terms that were intentionally favorable to ABC Partners. As expected, Brandywine declined the offer in October which allowed the recent vote by the MMBB Board to take place.

The next step in the process will be for ABCUSA to petition the New York State Supreme Court for permission to sell the property. Because ABCUSA is incorporated as a "not for profit" in New York, that state’s Supreme Court must determine if it is in ABCUSA's best interest to complete the sale. After that decision, the LLC would be legally formed and the property transferred to ABC Partners, which includes the Office of the General Secretary, National Ministries, International Ministries and MMBB.

It is anticipated the sale will be complete early in 2008. Proceeds of the sale will provide an endowment to partially fund the work of the Office of the General Secretary and related ministries.

Please help me understand this.

Last November, didn't Lloyd Hamblin explain to the GB meeting in Orlando that the Mission Center was a poor building? Didn't he stress that the Office of the General Secretary should not be in the land, building, or rental business? Didn't he suggest that the building is inefficient as a rental facility and that it needs a major renovation in order to compete with surrounding rental properties?

And, wasn't the idea of selling the Mission Center an effort to off-load a white elephant building and staunch the flow of red ink imperiling the larger ABC mission effort at home and abroad?

Furthermore, in the famous Tucson meeting (you know the one where they "fixed" the human sexuality issue for all time in the ABC), whenever the denominational restructuring was discussed didn't the Office of the General Secretary receive NO AFFIRMATION? Why does it keep appearing in the picture and in the restructure documents?

Finally, how much will MMBB "invest" in endowing the Mission Center and the Office of the General Secretary? And, if they really have that kind of money, why was it necessary to take corrective action to reduce the rapid depletion of the endowment funds?

Most of my organization's 180 employees are part of the MMBB system at my recommendation. I have been a member of MMBB since the mid 1970s. This does not sound like good stewardship to me. Please tell me how it all makes sound money sense.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

That Slippery Little Word "Heresy"

Early in the last century Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen called "liberalism" heresy and the New Brunswick Presbytery returned the favor by expelling him from the PCUSA. Episcopal Bishops James Pike and John Shelby Spong have often been treated as such. Even Baptist theologian Molly Marshall has been dubbed one by her detractors. Left Behinder Tim LaHaye has called Calvinism "perilously close to blasphemy" if not actually using the "h" word. Slippery little word, "heresy," isn't it?

In Roman Catholic circles, they distinguish heresy from schism (disunity through lack of love) and apostasy (abandonment of Christianity). In the Roman Catholic sense of the term, "heresy" comes in two principle flavors: "formal" (adherence to false doctrine by a baptized Roman Catholic) and "material" (false doctrine held in ignorance by a non-Roman).

For those of us Protestants, we often throw the word around about as loosely as we do political/ideological labels. A "liberal," for instance, is just about anybody to the left of me. Religiously, "I am a conservative evangelical," YOU are a fundamentalist. In this sense, a heretic is anybody who disagrees with me over any point of doctrine. The problem comes when, as a result of seeing through a "glass darkly," we begin to disagree on eschatological schema, patterns of polity, candidates for baptism, or whatever. I have heard Arminians, name-it-and-claim-it preachers, credobaptists, Calvinists, and premil folks labeled "heretics" at one time or another. Some think theonomy is a heresy. Most Reformed folks have no problems calling dispensationalism heresy.

It would seem to me that one might distinguish between beliefs that consign one to hell and notions that are to one degree or another untrue, but not a "salvation issue." In our Protestant tradition, heresy has often been used in a more technical sense of a two-fold move: denying a "crucial" (???) Christian truth + embracing an unbiblical error. But herein lays the rub. Who is to distinguish between a central/crucial doctrine and an "unimportant" one? Might it even be heretical to call ANY doctrine of God "unimportant"?

The origin of the word in the New Testament is instructive. Hairesis denotes . . .1. a choice; 2. a chosen opinion (used only negatively in the NT of views caused by false teachings); 3. a sect or party (holding certain opinions). 2 Tim 3:16 pictures the role of the Scriptures as establishing the "line" ("teaching" - didaskalian), showing where we have deviated from the line ("reproof" - elegmon), directing us in the proper change in course to return to the line ("correction" - epanorthoosin), and how to continue our conduct on the line ("training in righteousness" - paideian teen dikaiosunee). The "geometry" of obedience leads us to follow the line of God's leading in His word. Our "choice" seems responsive to His gracious provision of truth to follow in and error to avoid.

Heresy would seem to involve a very different kind of "choosing," one that exalts the autonomous will of man. "Choosing" to separate from the life-giving truth of God in favor of one's own determinations, differentiations, and decisions, sometimes even forming a schismatic party would characterize heresy. In fact, you might even argue that heretics are those who "choose" a different view than orthodox Christianity and then practice their choice divisively in the church as schismatics.

Another distinction seems necessary. My observation is that conservative Protestants often suffer from degree envy. So we send our best and brightest off to Harvard, Claremont, Chicago, the GTU, etc. for their terminal degrees. They return with their piety and heart for the Lord intact, but often infected with a mindset that destroys the faith from within. Having known and grown close to mentors who are unashamedly liberal, they suffer from bouts of cognitive dissonance. Unable to condemn the pernicious doctrines of their mentors without seeming to slam their academic father-figures, they waffle. However, the next generation of students, taught by the wafflers, begins to move further away from the truth. When they go off to university for their PhD's they return with little heart for the Lord and a decidedly liberal methodology and mindset.

My point being that sometimes a teacher may be unassailably displaying evident piety and devotion, even giving lip service to all of the right doctrines, yet teach in such a way as to infect students with heresy. My concern is that we make the word narrow enough not to throw everyone but me and thee off the boat and yet broad enough to include the professedly orthodox person who leads people astray.

In lecture 39 of Dr. Curt Daniel's History and Theology of Calvinism series, he speaks of the problem of giving sinful humanity an inadequate diagnosis of our depravity and inability. He analogizes to a physician who offers (for a fee) to "doctor" your X-ray to make it look less dire rather than operating to remove the cancer. Daniel says that such a doctor should be "run out of" the ranks of physicians. Then, he adds: "In my opinion, Arminians should be run out of the ranks of theologians too."

Slipery little word, "heresy," isn't it?