Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Obama Will Survive the Doom Prophets(reprint)

Authour's note: My apologies, but a condensed version of this column appeared in the Welland Tribune on April 17th, 2009. I posted the lengthier version here after its initial printing, but then needed to pull it off to double check the proper release date. Enjoy.


I paused on the sidewalk outside the pub. A chalked sign announced what I was hearing over the speakers.

"Obama's inauguration. Live! C'mon in."

I glanced in through the window. On the big screen television above the bar was the new president. Beside me, two men in suits and overcoats had stopped to listen. About ten feet away, three men wearing yellow hard hats were leaning against the brick next to one of the speakers, smoking and listening. I listened for a while before continuing down the street to work. People stopping in the street for a presidential inauguration speech? A live presentation in a pub? The last time I'd seen a spontaneously diverse gathering like this was the aftermath of 9/11. Before that, the first Iraq war. Both times, however, the distinct feelings of outrage and fear had been palpable. People united by their anger. Today the scent was entirely different, and it left me feeling strangely buoyed and positive. A president who inspired people, I remember thinking, what a change.

For most of us, the commotion and excitement of Obama's inauguration feels like a long time ago. Less than two months after Obama's visit to the Canadian capital, where people lined up as early as 4am hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president, the news these days are flooded with Doom prophets. From moderates like Peggy Noonan "weightless administration" to extremists like Rush Limbaugh. ("I want him to fail.") Despite Obama's weighted comments about having patience with the economy in his inauguration speech, it seems that the apocalypse sells better than reality.

The Republicans have always done gloom better than the Democrats. Following 9/11, the promise of another imminent attack was used to pass the Patriot Act, which limited individual rights more than any other bill in the last Century, secure "suspected terrorists" in Guantanamo Bay without trial, and start an endless war on a sovereign country that has led to an incalculable loss of life. All this in the name of Doom.

The problem facing the Democrats is that appealing to people's fears is a good strategy. The only silver bullet for them in the past thirty odd-years has been the economy, which Clinton both helped turn and then rode to a popular two term presidency. With the current economic climate however, Obama faces a dual challenge for his time in office. The first is to convince the American public that they are safe, a surprisingly daunting task when you consider the last fifty years, but not terribly surprising when you understand the politics of fear.
From a very young age, we are conditioned to be aware of abnormal -- read negative -- behaviour. We are taught, for example, that people are selfish, when humanity is by far the most cooperative species on the planet.
Every day people open doors for one another, wait patiently in line, smile and say hello, offer a word of kindness, and wait for the traffic light to change. The examples are endless. Yet our tendency is to remember the rare times when those things do not occur. "She cut me off." "He completely ignored me." And so on. The difficulty for Obama will be to convince the American people that they are safe, without saying, "Of course we are. Look at the facts." Accepting that in the past twenty years, the number of deaths due to terrorism is somewhere under 0.0001 per cent of the population, we begin to see how effective the doom prophets can be.

The other problem for Obama is that he cannot use Clinton's strategy, "It's the economy, stupid." And while it was a Republican government that enacted the greatest deficit in U. S. history, the old Conservatives continue to bang the drum of the apocalypse by misstating Obama's proper Keynesian response as "liberal big government." This past month, an op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, "Obama's Radicalism is Killing the Dow." Michael J. Boskin, the economics professor who wrote the article, unsurprisingly chaired the Council of Economic advisers under the first Bush. Another old prophet of doom.

Unfortunately, the constant bleating from the back rows is starting to gain traction. Obama's approval rating sits at 61%. Still high, but it is the lowest it has been since his inauguration. The honeymoon is over. For most leaders, especially Democratic presidents, the task ahead would be daunting if not impossible. Obama, however, has one advantage. We saw it through the campaign. We witnessed it during the inauguration. And we're seeing it now. It is Obama's ability to appeal to our "better" self. To, as he said recently, not mute the public's anger, but "channel" it. To help us notice what we should notice. This counter-intuitive ideology, however, is something that only the great leaders can communicate.

What Obama understands better than most is that genuine influence is much more than getting people to do what you want them to do. It means people finish what you started because they believe. This is the essence of faith. And as Annette Simmons writes in her book, The Story Factor, story is the pathway to faith. People must own their changes, must own their story, because they value their own conclusions more highly than yours. Other methods of influence -- persuasion, bribery, or fear -- are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people -- of their own free will -- come to the conclusion that they can trust you and the message you bring.

In the turbulent times of the early sixties, JFK challenged our view of government with these words: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Martin Luther King, another leader to whom Obama has been compared, inspired a country to revolutionize its social patterns with his vision, "I have a dream." Their stories became our stories. (The power of their influence was great enough to affect a young Wellander, who would later pass those tales on to his son.)

The question for us then, is whose story are we going to choose? Apocalypse Now... or Hope for Tomorrow?

In purely rhetorical terms, as great as Kennedy was, Obama is better. And like Kennedy, his appeal spans a wide demographic. In the coming years, he will need every ounce of those abilities if he is to overcome the prophets that will be barking their message at every opportunity.

The criticisms from Wall Street notwithstanding, until we learn whether the stimulus package worked, Obama's influence remains more felt than political, more art than science. That is not a criticism. While administration and policy are important, the leaders who create new stories for us are the ones who truly affect our lives. I hope that he is re-elected. I hope we choose his story. If only so we can re-discover that feeling we all had the day he was inaugurated. The day we stood outside the pub to hear something we hadn't heard before: a leader bringing people together, without the scent of fear.

That said, if the economy does not recover as quickly as we need it to, he might still not win a second term, the doom prophets will not allow it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Have Christians Abandoned Faith?

Faith is belief in absolutes. Not absolute belief.

The discussion was good natured, but also predictable. At first it was simply a theological question about the "rewards for the righteous in the Old Testament", but as it progressed it became more than that. As more people entered the discussion I saw again and again this idea of what a Christian "gets" for their "righteousness." After a while I logged off and stepped out of the debate.

It always strikes me how people who claim to be studying the Bible become puzzled and then upset when you raise questions for which they have no answers. Or when the answers they give are recycled from a Bible study they took ten years ago and don't make sense. Or worse, when the answers are part of the church creed, and therefore accepted because, well, they're part of the creed. There is this deep sense within much of the church that if you don't know the answer, you aren't "studying" enough. That to be a Christian is to be able to defend what you believe in rational form. The irony is that too often the church settles for the appearance of logic and reason, producing sound bites on talk shows as if the world must see how reasonable Christianity actually is, without considering the essence of faith. And in so doing, they preach a Wal-mart Christianity that is more interested in rewards than service. More interested in proof than questions. And more interested in assurances than doubt. In the end, what we have done is to create a religion that no longer needs faith. Here in the West, Christians have abandoned faith, and it's time to bring it back.

The definition of faith is this: belief that is not based on proof, and in Scripture we find this definition: belief in things unseen. In other words, faith is an assumption, a hopeful one perhaps, but an assumption nonetheless about what will happen or what has happened. Through the centuries, we have heard the expression "blind faith", implying that someone "believes without true understanding, perception, or discrimination."

This is a ridiculous statement, because blind faith is impossible. Often it is addressed towards people who follow others without questions. This has nothing to do with faith, blind or otherwise, and everything to do with ignorance and laziness and selfishness. It is an offense to the very idea of faith that this expression exists. And yet somehow, this expression actually fits into far too many descriptions of today's Christians simply because they are either afraid or unwilling to examine what they actually believe.

The saddest part is that so many of my fellow Christians are sincere, loving people, who have bought into the lie that faith must be blind or it is not faith at all.

Which begs the question that haunts me as I enter discussion after discussion with others in the church...

Why have Christians abandoned faith? Why have so many churchgoers swallowed the lie that what they believe must absolutely be true, or it is not Truth?

Think of the examples from our everyday life. It is hard to trust someone who is unwilling to concede that they may possibly be wrong, isn't it? So why then, do we allow our pastors and leaders in the church speak as though they are not only the mouthpiece of God, but God Himself? It is a hard thing, its true, but if one speaks with absolute surety of their views, we know two things. First, they are wrong, because no one is absolutely right about everything. And secondly, if they did know everything, it would be folly for us not to worship them, because, in essence, they are claiming to be God.

Ignorance is an easy tool, especially in a commoditized church that too often seems more interested in market share than people. Especially at the top of the food chain. It isn't that church leaders are not sincere; so much as, they believe that ignorance is okay among those who follow them. This is not unusual. For example, as much as we like to claim that our democracies are about equality, there is little real evidence of that. The rich rule the country. The rich countries rule the poor ones. It has always been such and I imagine it will always be. However, there is a distinct odour to that kind of thinking when it invades the church, this idea that "we know better than you do."

It also reveals something else at work in our belief patterns, the psychological dependence on these "emotional pillars." What would you say if I told you that the Bible contained some errors? How would your faith respond if I told you that the "Word of God" as John refers to in John 1:1 is not the Bible? (The Greek word is 'logos' not 'graphe' or 'writings', which only occur a couple of times. John was referring to the "ultimate good", a Greek philosophy his readers would understand, ala; Jesus was the 'ultimate good.') The question is important, because in too many of today's Protestants, there is a tendency to idolize Scripture, and instead of broadening our faith, we narrow it down and limit it to a single expression.

I understand much of this, coming from my own background as a Pentecostal pastor, but upon closer examination, it makes no sense. How can we, as Christians, be dogmatic about a story about a virgin birth and people raised from the dead?! Of course it takes faith! Big, open faith that says we accept this but understand that human error and mistakes also happen. How can we become so nasty about doctrinal differences when we believe the Son of God was born as a carpenter, announced by angels, performed many miracles, and had about 120 followers when he died?! Whatever causes us to believe it, it certainly isn't rationalism. And if that is the case, perhaps we need to scale back our assurances and adopt an attitude of humble and open faith. One that accepts we might be wrong. It doesn't mean we need to scale back our convictions, just the arrogance.

The idea of grace is that God moved first, so we have no claim to make for our belief systems. If that is what we believe, than shouldn't we be a bit more open towards people who do not agree with us? If God moved for us, isn't it His job to move for them?

At some point, we need to stop acting as if we earned our way into Christianity, and realize that faith is not about defending God, but loving others. Perhaps then, we will have better things to discuss than how many rewards we get because of our "righteousness."


Friday, April 24, 2009

The Love of Sports!

Hey everyone,

I just wanted to let you know that I've started a new blog, Toronto Pro Sports, for all of you sports fans out there. As much as I love to write about faith and life and culture, there remains the little boy in me who remembers growing up and watching his heroes. I remember going to the games with my dad. Shooting hoops until I couldn't see the net. Running wind sprints in full pads on a cool autumn afternoon.

As a kid, sports were not only my escape, but in many ways they taught me about who I was and what I could be. The temporal boundaries were, and remain, a welcome relief from a life of gray and nuance. Of things I didn't understand. Now, as then, much of my counseling and teaching filters through my exposure to sports, and what I learned in the communities we created both as kids and adults. Mostly, however, the purpose of the blog is to simply enjoy the recreation and relaxing nature of the games. (With good debate, of course!)

I'd love for you to stop by, the peanut gallery is open...


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Necessity of Insecurity

October 2007

"That's stupid. Totally wrong. The Bible is either completely true or it isn't." Jack said.

"What do you mean by 'completely true'?" I said. "That's an impossible statement to either attack or defend."

"C'mon, Steve, you know exactly what I mean."

I nodded. I did know what he meant. I just didn't agree with him.

A few of us had broken off and were lingering in the hallway just to the left of our classroom. We'd just finished the first half of our Biblical Interpretation course and most of us had grabbed a coffee to help us get through the second half. Coming to Toronto to work on my Masters in Divinity had offered a few surprises, not the least of which was the absolute certainty of so many of my fellow students. Partly due to age -- when I was twenty-five I actually did know everything -- and partly by indoctrination, it was difficult for many of them when our professors challenged our convictions. From my perspective, sitting and standing in the small circles outside the classrooms and in the cafeteria and library, regurgitation and rejection seemed the order of the day. Get the grade, reject the idea, and get out. This wasn't true of all my classmates, of course, but in my mind, too many of them thought the professors were out of line for even questioning the traditional belief patterns.

"I mean, c'mon, how are we supposed to convince people that Jesus matters if we can't agree on the basics?" Jack said, continuing his rant.

I shook my head and slid back into the classroom. I still remembered when I'd first come into the church and my time in the ministry as an enthusiastic zealot at twenty-one, when the world had seemed so easy. So... black and white. After fifteen years of brokenness and disappointments and successes, watching my worldview change seemingly every year, there was little to say to my classmate. He'd have to live it to understand it. I had.

One of the important things I'd learned through the years however, something that had really surprised me, was that my attitude had little to do with religion. This pattern of absoluteness carried into every area of my life, from my idea of who should be playing right field for the Blue Jays to the proper way to worship to the best way to prepare roast beef. In many ways, life was simpler then. I didn't need to worry about nuance or insecurity. Just believe, right? It wasn't that my mind couldn't be swayed by good argument, because it was possible to convince me of something else. What I couldn't do, however, was hold two ideas about the same issue in different hands.

And that had nothing to do with my belief in God, and everything to do with what I believed about being human.


April, 2009

I stood on the stoop outside my house, listening to the birds chatter and sing across the street. Spring was here. Another year, and more changes would soon follow. In two short months, I would be leaving my home for the past two years to be married. I thought about all the times on the stoop with my housemates, how we had laughed and cried together, sharing our lives in ways I would never have thought possible when I had arrived. Of all my housemates the past two years, only one had been born in Canada, and yet the bonds of friendship formed in that time could only be described as familial. We shared different beliefs about God, about life, and the "right way" to do things. We never talked about what it meant to be human, but it was the basis of our discussions, because in discussing the "other" things, we were really talking about our humanity.

Most people of faith don't like to hear the idea that understanding your humanity is more important than understanding God. But without the acknowledgement of our own limitations, how can we point to God without assuming a portion of divinity? How can we love and empathize with people around us if we do not understand that we all start at the same point? The only way to share and love and reflect the love the Bible talks about is through our willingness to expose our own insecurities, our own weaknesses, our own unsurety. Humanity is conjoined in her weakness, not in her strength, and in a society that promotes a (misunderstood) Darwinian ideal of the survival of the fittest, it is no wonder that we find community so hard. That we are so lonely and discouraged. Our beliefs about what makes us human are rarely questioned, and yet they are the bedrock from which our lives spring.

A black squirrel hopped onto my neighbour's porch, staring at me with a twitching face as if deciding whether he should run. I smiled and remained still, waiting as he slowly worked his way down the steps and into my neighbour's yard. We all love strong opinions, don't we? I enjoy listening to Simon on American Idol because of the forcefulness of his opinion. Conversely, listening to Paula's barely comprehensible pap ("I love you all!"), is boring. However, there is a great difference between the exchange of ideas and the interpretation of humanity, which is the biggest danger of any form of punditry. It seems as if we're constantly in search of the "perfect" idea, and that there is only one ultimate idea for everything. This is impossible, of course, unless we are God. To me, the greatest sign of a maturing human is their ability to hold different views on the same topic by remembering who they are, and to do so by remembering that they are human too.

I have long decried the idea of strict evangelicalism. I don't like it, because for me, the idea of a strict community is suffocating. There are those, however, who have grown up without boundaries, who see the very same things I see and regard them as a sign of love and concern. It would be unfair -- inhuman -- for me to castigate them for their experience, wouldn't it? To say that there is only one way to "do church."

It is this idea of nuance that so attracts me to Jesus. Not the Jesus most of us grew up with, the one with black and white ideas about tattoos and earrings and wine, but the one who consistently challenged people by their own ideas about humanity. Who is your neighbour? Why do you ignore that race? Who of you has sinned? This is what Jesus addressed, and they reveal so much more than the doctrines we spend too much time debating. Are not these the basics that truly matter? Without unsurety, however, we would never look for answers. Without weakness, we would have no need to share our lives. Without vulnerability, we would have no idea how to be compassionate.

It is because of our weakened humanity that we search for anything at all, and in so doing, it is only then can we find the One who has always loved us, and who asks us to share that love.

Not because we're right.

But because we're human.