Between Zacchaeus and Benny Hinn

Between Zacchaeus and Benny Hinn

Some headlines get your attention.

Like, “Florida man has completely uneventful day.”

Or last week, “Benny Hinn is rejecting the prosperity gospel.”

I grew up watching Hinn occasionally on Christian Cable. He was known for his entrancing accent, for punching demons, and for dressing somewhat like a Captain of the Starship Enterprise.

But none of this is essential to prosperity theology. The movement is a mostly American phenomenon that guarantees financial and physical blessing in exchange for unwavering faith and monetary “seeds” sown into the coffers of jet-setting televangelists.

I’ve described it elsewhere as a Christian Ponzi scheme that preys upon the poor, the sick, the desperate.

And I don’t say this lightly.

I have been to parts of Africa where the primary exposure to “American Christianity” is by satellite broadcasts of the most egregious and ridiculous of preachers—all promising faith-formulas to “first-world” wealth and happiness.

And I have seen the effects of the Faith-Healer movement (in its distorted forms) on dying loved ones, to whom it was implied that a failure to get better was because they “harbored doubts”—or worse yet, had a caretaker who must be “speaking death” over them.

These teachings are demonic.

And I say that as a fairly charismatic Wesleyan who believes in miracles and is friendly toward of a wide variety of religious traditions: Pentecostals, Presbyterians, even Pittsburgh Steeler fans.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see Hinn distance himself from prosperity teachings.

“I’m correcting my theology,” he said. “I think it’s an offense to the Holy Spirit to place a price on the gospel. I’m done with it.”

BETWEEN ZACCHAEUS AND BENNY HINN

As I watched, I had two reactions.

First, “Wow!” and “that’s fantastic.” I’m glad he’s had a public change of heart.

But secondly: Renouncing isn’t necessarily repenting (though it is a crucial part of it).

One thing I didn’t hear Hinn say was “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry for the poor and dying people I manipulated into sending me their life-savings (or in many cases, their credit card numbers). Instead, he mostly chided others to applause.

“I’m sorry” is an important part of true repentance.

And repentance requires more than words.

ENTER ZACCHAEUS

Case in point: Zacchaeus.

By befriending the diminutive Jewish tax collector, Jesus showed his love for Zacchaeus even before his “deconversion” from his greedy, exploitative ways.

Zacchaeus also swindled God’s people out of money. And Zacchaeus also recanted. But then he did something else. He ante’d up and put his money where his mouth was.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

I hope Benny Hinn does that too–at least in some small way.

CELEBRITY > PROSPERITY

Until then, I wonder if some public “deconversions” (in whatever form) aren’t a symptom of a bigger problem. I wonder if the ultimate idol in the televangelist movement (and for many of us) isn’t just “prosperity” but “celebrity”?

In the age of social media especially, we all feel the pull of that temptation (bloggers, preachers, and book writers especially). Celebrity craves sustained attention.

And few things get attention faster (after it has waned) than a deconversion story.

 

“I was a Christian, but now … ”

“I kissed dating goodbye, but now … ”

“I was a Liberal, but now … ”

“I was a prosperity-gospeler, but now … ”

 

That doesn’t mean that all deconversions are phony or meaningless!

“I used to be a persecutor of the Way, but now … ”

But as with Zacchaeus, repenting is more than renouncing.

CONCLUSION

I’m glad for Benny Hinn’s change of heart.

And I hope it’s genuine.

But the lesson of Zacchaeus is that greed and exploitation must be healed by more than words.

Renouncing isn’t necessarily repenting, but it is a crucial part of it. When these two come together, then the saying will be true, not just for televangelists and tax collectors, but for us all:

“Today salvation has come to this house … For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9–10).

 


 

 

Getting John Chau right

Getting John Chau right

This week, a good friend of mine sent me a new and fascinating article from GQ (that noteworthy Christian publication) on the fatal case of the missionary, John Chau.

I wrote about Chau last year, just after he was killed trying to evangelize an uncontacted tribe off the coast of India.

I tried to find a middle ground between Chau’s harshest critics and what I took to be his cavalier naïveté regarding the danger he posed to the island’s inhabitants—primarily because of the pathogens he may have carried.

“His goal was to minister or die trying,” I wrote.

Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring […]. Even the slightest exposure to the germs Chau carried on his person or his gifts could wipe out the people that he sought to save. Yet “there [he] was, incomprehensible,” firing himself into an island.

That last line was from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the famous critique of Western ignorance and colonialism.

FIRING INTO THE BLOGOSPHERE

So why revisit Chau’s death now?

In short, because I was wrong about it—at least partly.

Across the span of fifty-three pages (Yes, fifty-three), GQ writer Doug Bock Clark reveals how so many of the perceptions about Chau were simply false. He was not the careless and publicity-hungry “adventure bro” that many claimed.

That perception was created by Chau himself, intentionally, to protect the locals who helped him. Bock writes:

He worried deeply that [these people] could be harmed should his mission go awry.

[He] had built a website and Instagram account that looked like those of an adventure bro to throw people off the trail. Instead of desiring posthumous Elliot-like fame, he preferred to be remembered as a fool.

I was also wrong to claim that Chau was completely insensitive to the dangers of the germs he carried. In fact, he spent eleven days in a self-imposed quarantine in hopes of ridding himself of any lingering infections that might harm the islanders.

He was naïve, and dangerously so, since multiple doctors have noted that this quarantine would not have worked. But he was not completely insensitive to the need to minimize his potential for harm.

None of that, however, is why I’ve decided to revisit the story of John Chau.

MAKE “LONG-FORM” GREAT AGAIN

My real reason for dredging up this old story has to do with the remarkable bit of journalistic integrity displayed by (to my knowledge) a secular writer for GQ: Doug Bock Clark.

According to Clark’s website, his pieces have appeared in

The New York Times, GQ, WIRED, ELLE, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Esquire, The New Republic, The Atavist, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times Book Review.

These are not purveyors of evangelical puff-pieces.

Yet Bock’s research on Chau is so scrupulous, so unflinchingly fair, and so winsomely written that it demands to be taken seriously.

Note, for instance, this paragraph, about what Bock found in the waterproof Bible that Chau took with him in his initial (non-fatal) attempt to share the gospel with the North Sentinalese:

I flipped open an edition of the waterproof Bible that had stopped the arrow the Sentinelese boy had fired at Chau.

He recorded the verses that the shaft broke on, which conclude in Isaiah 65:1–65:2: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not…

Bock is clearly moved by this “coincidence” that the arrow broke on just this verse. And the respectful posture carries over to his account of how Chau may have died.

Since a person’s heart and brain present small targets for an island archer,

… the projectile would have been aimed at Chau’s large and soft gut. Once he was crippled, the Sentinelese would have charged in, wielding their long arrows like spears.

But before then, Chau would have had time to confront the fact that he was going to die.

And I have faith that he welcomed his killers with Christlike love.

CONCLUSION

To be honest, I still harbor my old concerns over harm Chau may have caused by his naivete. And I disagree with Chau’s assessment that this lone island should be seen as “Satan’s last stronghold” on earth. (I can think of many others: Washington D.C. for one.)

But I confess to feeling humbled and bested both by the sacrificial authenticity of Chau himself and of his secular “biographer.”

What Doug Bock Clark does in his article for GQ is precisely what is needed in an age deliberately slanted or impatiently planted “hot-takes.”

And that includes my own initial blog post.

Read the whole piece (here) and help make “long-form” journalism great again.

 


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God’s voice, like horses grazing

God’s voice, like horses grazing

“Godless” seems like an apt description of Cormac McCarthy’s violent and disturbing novel, Blood Meridian.

The story is based loosely on events from the 1850s near the Texas-Mexico border. It follows a fourteen-year-old “Kid” who ends up riding with a band of murders who seek Apache scalps for profit. The butchery and racism make it difficult to read.

But like much of McCarthy’s work, Blood Meridian yields theological marrow if one digs beneath the clotted surface. The foremost of these insights comes from an ex-priest named “Toby” who tries to explain the mystery of God’s silence in their nightmarish world.

McCarthy
Why it takes me forever to finish a book…

LIKE HORSES GRAZING

God’s voice, says Toby, is like the sound of horses grazing in the night. We only notice it when he stops talking: “when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep … Don’t nobody hear them.” But if they cease for a moment, every soul awakes.

“God speaks in the least of creatures.” And “No man is give[n] leave of that voice.”

This claim gives reason to respect both the ubiquity and the mystery of revelation. And this resonates with my experience.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing.

HIDDENNESS AND OMNIPRESENCE

Kate Sonderegger explores a related theme in the much-heralded first volume of her Systematic Theology. Her interest is in the relationship between God’s hiddenness and his omnipresence.

Israel’s God is unique in his invisibility. He is not to be depicted by graven images like the gods of other nations. Yahweh is heard, but he is never truly seen. For this reason, Sonderegger claims that God’s hiddenness is one of the most important parts of his revelation to Israel.

He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One. (p. 52)

the Hiddenness of God, His Secrecy and Mystery, emerge not form absence but rather from divine presence. … “Truly,” the prophet confesses, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45:15). (p. 68-69)

I don’t like Sonderegger’s writing (*tongue in cheek).

It makes me jealous, since she has a way with words that is rivaled by few living theologians. But I am serious when I say now that I did not like this particular argument initially.

At some points it sounded too much like what C. S. Lewis lampooned as the “argument for invisible cats.” Here’s my version of that logic:

“Do you see that invisible cat by the sofa?”
“No.”
“Precisely.”

“I hate you.”

But this is not exactly Sonderegger’s claim.

She is not appealing to invisibility to prove God’s presence. She is only reminding us that the apparent absence of a visible “divine specimen” (graven image) is one of the things that marks out Israel’s God as different.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing. We see no “creature” in the darkness, and it is the very constancy of this revelation that can make it like a kind of “white noise.”

But when it ceases, the whole camp awakes.

I’ve written previously about this theme in a post about the “dazzling darkness” (one of my favorites, though I think few others thought so). I noted there that, for Paul, God reveals himself precisely through “invisible qualities” (Rom 1:20). Creation testifies incessantly with speechless words (Ps 19:2-3). Our problem is, it won’t shut up.

CAVEATS

Despite my praise for this line of thinking, there are some important caveats that must be placed alongside the gospel according Sonderegger/Blood Meridian.

  1. God’s voice isn’t always soft and “horse-like” (Ask Saul of Tarsus).
  2. God isn’t left entirely without an “Image” (Re: Jesus and his image-bearers).
  3. God’s “silence” is sometimes the product selective hearing, since acknowledging the voice requires us to change.

(On that last point, note that the ex-priest Toby has set aside his collar for a rifle and a life of violence. He doesn’t want to “wake up” to the reality of his own murderous racism [Let the reader understand].)

CONCLUSION

Caveats aside, the scene from Blood Meridian helps me understand how two brilliant individuals (McCarthy and Sonderegger) can reach opposite conclusions based on similar data:

McCarthy: “There is no God and we are his prophets” (The Road)

Sonderegger: God’s invisibility is the mark of omnipresence.

In fact, “Toby’s” claim is closer to the truth than than the apparent view of McCarthy himself.

The world isn’t “Godless.”

But we need “ears to hear” a voice like horses grazing.


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The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

“There will be millstones.”

That was O. Alan Noble’s succinct summation of the Southern Baptist Commission’s recent report (here) on widespread sexual abuse within America’s largest Protestant denomination.

The findings were heartbreaking. Though I applaud the efforts to bring them to the light in order to elicit change (see here).

Still, the most damning reality in the run-up to this week’s SBC annual meeting was that much more energy seemed to be expended by certain leaders to keep women out of almost any form of leadership than to ensure that they be protected against abuse and cover-up.

The optics were, shall we say, not flattering.

NOT JUST AN “SBC” PROBLEM

It would be unfair, however, to see this as merely an SBC problem. And it would be downright sinful to congratulate ourselves (who reside in other traditions) for being superior: “Thank you Lord that I am not like those people… .”

Regardless of denomination, if you’ve seen one online argument over women in ministry, you’ve seen ‘em all.

At some point in the predictable “Inquisition by Gif,” at least one well-meaning (?) person will make the following two points:

  1. Many denominations that affirmed women in ministry went “Liberal” and experienced numerical decline.
  2. Ergo, affirming women in ministry leads to the package deal of “Liberalism” with all that it entails (Marxism, veganism, compulsory man-buns).

The first point has some basis in reality. The second is absurd even without my parenthetical silliness.

The problem starts, as with so many logical trip-ups, in the linkage of two ideas that confuses correlation with causation.

On the basis of this false connection, the conclusion follows that if the fundamentalist Twitter-verse allows someone like Beth Moore to give a Mother’s Day message at her local church, it’s only a matter of time (probably minutes) before a vegan, Marxist, SBC death-panel forces Al Mohler to don a man-bun and preach exclusively from Rob Bell books.

But he won’t, because: Bonhoeffer.

If this description quickly devolves into exaggerated nonsense that is precisely my point. It is both foolish and inaccurate to equate an affirmation of women in ministry with a drift toward the package deal of “Liberalism.”

“CONSERVING” THE SPIRIT-DRIVEN PARADIGM

One reason is that there are numerous arguments for women in leadership that proceed on the basis of a high view of Scripture.

Though I’m not a biblical scholar by trade, one might begin by noting these two videos by Ben Witherington (here and here), and the fantastic series of blog-posts by my former seminary schoolmate, the New Testament specialist, Nijay Gupta (here).

If these scholars are correct, then Scripture provides both theological basis and real-world examples of women in leadership and ministry—including Deborah, Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and the daughters of Philip. And if this is so, then the “liberal revisionist position” is actually the refusal to “conserve” that Spirit-driven paradigm (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).

So let me be the first to say it (though with a touch of good-natured, imitative sarcasm):

“I’m really worried about the “liberal drift” of complementarianism.”

THE FALLACY OF UNNECESSARY BUNDLING

A further problem in the two points above is the false assumption that “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” are theological package deals that can be simply defined by our contemporary news-cycle.

Whenever this debate arises on social media, the assumption of the “Emojihadeen” seems to be that to care about “Progressive” causes (e.g., racial reconciliation, misogyny, sexual abuse) invariably means that one must not care about “Conservative” ones (e.g., abortion, religious liberty). This is nonsense.

I have spoken of it elsewhere as the fallacy of unnecessary “bundling,” since there are some issues for which our colloquial use of “Liberal” and “Conservative” are just not helpful.

Overall, Christians would do better to stick with biblical categories, as in whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).

CONCLUSION

None of my words  should be taken to imply that a biblical conclusion on women in ministry is either simple or uncontested. The so-called problem passages must be addressed.

Nor am I claiming that complementarians are always motivated by misogynistic drives. Some aren’t. And the SBC has some fantastic servant-leaders. It will not do, therefore, to replace one exaggerated ad hominem with another one.

My argument here is only to urge a “retiring” of the false assumption that affirming women in ministry signals a slide into “Liberalism.”

When we do that, we hazard tethering ourselves to Twitter feeds that may one day be “linked” inexorably to millstones.

 


 

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But the anthem was recognizable

But the anthem was recognizable

I’ve always loved this line from Steinbeck (East of Eden) on the raucous brand of revivalistic Christianity that sought to “save” the American West.

Somehow it manages to be both an insult and a compliment.

They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable.

The churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time…

The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky, and loud and confident. … The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. … And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.

they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt (East of Eden, ch. 19:1).

It is far easier to (1) see only the church’s stains, or to (2) excuse those blemishes without recognizing their full seriousness.

Steinbeck does neither.

In his view, even this prancing, fighting, farting form of frontier Christianity had value; because while the “players” were often misguided, there was enough truth and beauty to make the anthem recognizable.

 


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“Silence” during Holy Week

“Silence” during Holy Week

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel. And it is especially relevant as we now approach the end of Holy Week.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people. But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement. In the midst of the butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering church, and to investigate the whereabouts of his mentor, Father Ferreira.

Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, but rumors now swirl that he has renounced the faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must find out the truth.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, the priest is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The famous missionary has now adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In Ferreira’s place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture could free them. Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

This excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, Rodrigues looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his martyrdom, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christians to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


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This is a reposting of Lenten meditation from March, 2017.

“Tear this temple down”

“Tear this temple down”

There is a horrific irony that the iconic Notre Dame cathedral went up in a hail of flame and ash at the very start of Holy Week.

Holy week, of all times.

Nearly two millennia ago, Christ began this week with some similarly shocking actions in the temple of his day.

He walked into what was arguably the world’s most impressive house of worship, and pronounced judgment by turning over tables and condemning what had become a “den of [leston]” (brigands, robbers, revolutionaries). The event leads to a variety of interpretations, but both liberal and conservative scholars agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple led quickly and directly to his death.

It was the straw that broke the devil’s back.

At his trial, the false charge was that Christ had threatened to destroy the building:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body (John 2:21).

In the years that followed, the early church developed a strange new view of earthly sanctuaries. It was not that they had disdain for buildings. But for them, the body is the only true temple (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19).

God’s Spirit dwells not in brick and mortar but in flesh and bone.

The Spirit resides in the frail frame of an Indonesian teenager, trafficked for her sexual value. The Spirit rests in the elderly man, who suffers from dementia, and is forgotten by his family. The Spirit blows upon the fetus with Down Syndrome, the convict in the county jail, and the CEO in her corner office.

The body is our only temple.

This does not mean, of course, that earthly buildings are either bad or unimportant. Far from it! I feel sickened watching the famed spire of Notre Dame go tumbling into oblivion. What a loss! (And I have written similarly of even ancient, pagan shrines.)

Still, the message of Holy Week is that though our earthly dwellings (of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors) may be stripped to their very foundations “more can be mended than you know.”

 


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*that last line is one of my favorites from Francis Spufford, in his work, Unapologetic.