Eugene Peterson, Homosexuality, and the Cult of Popularity

[As I note at the bottom of this piece, Peterson has since recanted his statements in the first interview. I have attempted to locate the full text of his correction. In the original interview his statements seem lucid, reasoned, and not forced in any manner. Now he claims confusion and the equivalent of being misunderstood. I am sure in the days and weeks to come this story will continue to develop. As more information comes to light I will update as appropriate.]

Yesterday my twitter feed exploded as word got around that Eugene Peterson publicly admitted he supported gay marriage and the homosexual lifestyle in general. Peterson is an evangelical pastor/author hero, perhaps best known for his translation, or paraphrase, or misinterpretation (depending on your theological position) of the Bible called The Message. Now, all kinds of other evangelical pastors/authors etc., are all agog trying to figure out how such a paragon of evangelical virtue could risk becoming a pariah. I, for one, am shocked that everyone else is so shocked.

Like just about every theology student who attended school in the late 20th century or early 21st century, I was handed a steady diet of Peterson books (I think the total number of his books is over 30). My memory is kind of hazy, but I think my first exposure to Peterson came with his book, Working the Angles or maybe The Contemplative Pastor. Having read Peterson I am struck with a couple of observations. One, he is a wordsmith, of that you cannot deny. He can say absolutely nothing in such flowery and impressive language that you really think he has said something. But his content is much like cotton candy – sweet, but nothing there. Second, his theology begins with his feelings and ends with his emotions. To wit, he defends the right of women to preach and to lead in churches. What is his evidence – to what does he refer in defense of his position? His mother was a pastor. That’s it. Well, not entirely. His mother was a much maligned pastor, those who disagreed with her “pastorate” were “bullies.” So it was doubly incumbent upon Peterson to defend her (and every other woman’s) right to be a “pastor” and lead a congregation. It comes as absolutely no shock to me that his defense for accepting the homosexual lifestyle and for approving of gay marriage is – he knows some really, really nice homosexuals.

Peterson is just another in a long line of individuals who illustrate the truth that “narrow is the path that leads to eternal life, and few there are that find it.” Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Eugene Peterson – unmistakable luminaries in the evangelical and/or emerging church fold who have “shocked” the religious world with their “discovery” that homosexual behavior is something to be embraced and promoted. Their paths are  unique to each individual, but share some remarkable similarities. That is to be expected. When you sell your soul to the cult of popularity, there really is very little room for originality. I expect there will be many more to come – and increasingly there will be progressives within the Churches of Christ to join their ranks. Too many of “our” luminaries have hitched their wagons to the McLarens and Bells and Petersons of this world to risk denouncing them now.

Earlier today I posted a long quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, asking a serious question: why is the church so insipid today? Why has the church lost it’s power? His answer is compelling – and indicting. The news that one of the most popular evangelical writers today has rejected the plain teaching of Scripture, as evidenced by 2,000 years of near-universal consent, is simple evidence as to the truth of Bonhoeffer’s reflection.

To borrow a phrase from Peterson’s The Message, enjoy your fame, folks, because when “all hell breaks loose” on the day of God’s wrath, there are going to be some really “shocked” best-selling authors – and disillusioned followers.

NOTE: Within minutes of posting this original article, I happened to check my twitter feed (again) and lo and behold, Peterson is renouncing his aforementioned declaration. HOWEVER, in reading his “retraction” I am thoroughly unconvinced. His answers in the original interview were direct and unequivocal – he welcomed a practicing, unrepentant homosexual to lead his congregation’s music ministry, and he unequivocally affirmed that he would perform a same-sex marriage. Now, he is claiming some sort of misunderstanding due to all of the “hypothetical language” that was used in the interview. Really? Is it too difficult to answer a simple question – would you perform a same sex marriage? Whether his original declaration or his retraction is genuine, it is going to be really, really interesting to see how the LGBTQ lobby handles this brouhaha.

As they say in the news bidness, stand by for updates.

Why is the Church No Longer Different? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

I found this gem in my reading today. It is just another example of why I find Dietrich Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so contemporary, even though he was murdered 72 years ago. The paragraph is kind of long, but a powerful statement:

The church was different once. It used to be that the questions of life and death were resolved and decided here. Why is this no longer so? It is because we ourselves have made the church, and keep on making it, into something which it is not. It is because we talk too much about false, trivial human things and ideas in the church and too little about God. It is because we make the church into a playground for all sorts of feelings of ours, instead of a place where God’s word is obediently received and believed. It is because we prefer quiet and edification to the holy restlessness of the powerful Lord God, because we keep thinking we have God in our power instead of allowing God to have power over us, instead of recognizing that God is truth and that over against God the whole world is in the wrong. It is because we like too much talk and think about a cozy, comfortable God instead of letting ourselves be disturbed and disquieted by the presence of God – because in the end we ourselves do not want to believe that God is really here among us, right now, demanding that we hand ourselves over, in life and death, in heart and soul and body. And, finally, it is because we pastors keep talking too much about passing things, perhaps about whatever we ourselves have thought out or experienced, instead of knowing that we are no more than messengers of the great truth of the eternal Christ.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, London: 1933-1935, vol. 13 in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English ed., trans. Isabel Best, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 2007) p. 323-324.)

Anyone see their church, or their preacher in those words? Any preacher see yourself in those words?

Shame on us! Shame on me!

Jury Duty?

I suppose of all modern problems, serving on a jury rates pretty low on the list. Never-the-less, the envelope that carries my jury duty summons has to rate at the very top of my least favorite to receive. The entire process of jury duty selection and service is among the most distasteful, and in my humble opinion, spiritually vexed problems that I face.

Many Christians view serving on a jury as a sacred honor – a privilege second only to active service in the military or law enforcement. I am thoroughly ambivalent. I understand all the flowery defense of the need for juries and the responsibility we have to serve. I just cannot get away from a nagging question – can a Christian participate in a flawed system and not thereby share in its guilt? To what extent is the cog just as guilty as the entire machine?

The jury summons that recently crossed my desk contains the following paragraph:

The right to trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons by both the United States and ********* Constitutions. The success of the jury system depends upon citizens performing their solemn duty to serve as jurors, while acting with integrity in discharging this responsibility.

Pretty high commendation. Just two questions – Is it true? and Is it Christian?

Let’s start phrase by phrase. A trial by jury is guaranteed to all persons. Check. No doubt, and no problem with that at all. Second, the success of the jury system depends on citizens (note the distinct lack of any qualifying adjectives) performing their solemn duty. Okay, well that one is a little more slippery. The trial of a racial minority by a racist jury is no success at all – it is a travesty and a crime itself. A trial involving a complicated legal question by an uninformed and basically ignorant jury is an equal travesty. So – the success of the jury trial system depends upon an educated and completely dispassionate jury. Such are rare, if not completely extinct. Third, the jurors must act with integrity. Here is where you lose me completely. Judges are not compelled to act with integrity – only to correctly apply the law. The suppression of critical evidence, the permission to allow certain witnesses – all may be legally correct, but integrity goes far and above legality. Defense attorneys are especially exempt from acting with integrity – it matters not at all to a defense attorney if his or her client is actually guilty, only that he or she be defended to the fullest extent of the law. And what about the state – can anyone say with a straight face that the state is required to act with integrity? It seems like every month, if not every week, a prisoner has been released after serving years, if not decades, in prison for crimes they did not commit. How many innocent individuals have been executed? All of these variables are somehow mitigated by a jury that acts with integrity? In many trials the only way a jury could act with integrity is to throw the entire court into jail for 30 days.

You see, the entire purpose of a legal system is to adjudicate truth and responsibility. If judges only have to dot “i”s and cross “t”s from a legal standpoint, if defense attorneys have to aggressively defend a client regardless of their guilt or innocence, and if the state’s attorneys can massage and/or withhold exculpatory evidence – how in the world can a jury be said to “act in integrity”?

Of course the rejoinder is that the jury is not responsible for the judge and his or her decisions, the jury is to weigh the merits of the case and not pay attention to the defense or prosecution attorneys. But, if the jury is misled, if the jury does not get to hear all of the pertinent evidence, if the jury is manipulated by high-sounding but vacuous rhetoric – how can the end result be said to have integrity? If the jury acquits the guilty, or if they convict the innocent – is it not thereby guilty of a gross crime, regardless of whether they acted “in integrity” according to some vague regulation?

The justice system must be based on a search for the truth, and as a protection for the immediate victim and for society at large. Our system is upside down. The entire system is designed to protect the rights of the accused; and the victim and society be . . . well, you get the picture.

As I said – I am utterly ambivalent. I know the importance of our legal system. As someone once said, it may not be perfect, but it is the best we have. But because of my experience both as a participant in the system and as a more than casual observer I see how bent and broken the system is. I also know that I am utterly powerless to effect any kind of change.

So – by law I am required to show up for jury duty, and to obey the law of the land I will comply. And if forced to serve, I will serve as dispassionately and with as much integrity as I can muster.

And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently argued, I will pray with all my heart and soul that God’s mercies can forgive the sins of those forced to do what their conscience objects to.

Quit Crying – It’s Our Fault!

Yesterday’s daily Bible reading made me a little queasy:

For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. (Obadiah 15)

Our God is a crafty one, he is. He figures out the absolute worst punishment for every infraction: he lets the criminal decide his punishment by virtue of the crime.

In the United States the two most vocal groups are (1) those who believe that all is lost, that our culture is minutes, if not seconds, away from annihilation, and (2) those who believe that we have not moved far enough, that we need to keep pushing to free it from any semblance of a Christian heritage.

I think God has listened to both, and taking both into consideration, has allowed our culture to become exactly what it is – and is becoming. Just consider:

  • We have pushed the idea of individualism to the point that there can be no collective, no “union” at all. We are radical individualists, and that is just a grenade toss away from anarchy.
  • We have obliterated the distinction between the genders, or sexes, depending on which word you prefer. No longer is there “male” and “female” but only one’s chosen preference, how one “identifies” at the moment.
  • We have spent billions, that’s billions with a “b,” on the “war on poverty” and all we have to show for it is a permanent underclass that depends entirely upon the government for its existence. When you can make more money (in cash and benefits) from doing nothing than in working an entry level job, why work? We now have multiple generations mired in this web of laziness and entitlement.
  • We have spent even more on the “war on terrorism.” How’s that “hopey, changey” thing working for you? I kind of miss getting on an airplane without getting undressed in front of hundreds of my fellow would-be terrorists.
  • In the church we have focused almost entirely upon generic evangelism to the virtual elimination of the concept of discipleship. Oh, we are baptizing large numbers of people – people who have no issue with abortion, with gambling, with greed, with a government that starts wars with reckless abandon, with a malignant form of capitalism that is destroying our environment as well as our family structures, and with a doctrine that begins with the phrase, “I think . . .”

So – what do we have to show for all these achievements? We have athletes, teachers, and other public figures who are censured, and sometimes lose their jobs, because they say something that “offends” another person. We have a permanent underclass that increasingly makes demands that will soon be impossible to meet. We have a culture that is so confused about gender that we are even arguing about the definition of “mother” and “father.” And, we have a weak, beggarly church membership that views the church as a social club and not a collection of individuals following a crucified messiah in absolute discipleship.

In other words, God looked down on us and said, “Okie fine, if that’s the way you want it – that is the way it will be. I’ll be here when you figure out that your nest is too foul to live in, but until then, don’t come crying to me.”

Do you realize that God told Jeremiah 3 times to stop praying for the Israelites! God told a prophet 3 times to just stop it, DON’T PRAY FOR THESE PEOPLE. (7:16, 11:14, 14:11)

I wonder what he would say today?

I, for one, do not believe our culture is so far gone as to be unredeemable. However, I also stand firmly in the footsteps of Barton W. Stone, David Lipscomb, and dare I mention his name, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who all preached without fear or favor that the only way this generation will be saved is through the mighty power of a holy God, and through the working of his Holy Spirit.

We are not going to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ve drank from that poison long enough. It’s time to pray for a revival – a holy revival – where we all start by getting down on our knees and confessing:

“Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

Maybe then God can start to clean up the mess we have made of ourselves.

Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection (#14)

If I have not made clear by now, I need to emphasize something – these Undeniable Truths are NOT something that I have mastered. I struggle to live out all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, every day or week or month. They are not mountain peaks that I have conquered, but rather signposts to (hopefully) keep me on the straight and narrow path.

So, please do not think that I offer #14 as some kind of “do what I say and what I do” kind of moralism. Rather, #14 in given because I believe we all struggle with the intersection of doctrine and discipleship, of orthodoxy (right thinking) and orthopraxy (right action).

14.  Theology cannot be separated from morality and ethics. Healthy, genuine theology demands action. Orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy.

I have heard it said that right action can lead to right thinking. I disagree – at least on the level of principle. I do not want to suggest that right behavior can never lead us to right thinking, but in my experience what passes for behavior leading to doctrine is simple eisegesis, the practice of coming to a conclusion and then searching for an acceptable proof text. Let me illustrate:

In a textbook that I was given to read for my doctoral studies, the author used an incident in the life of the seminary in which he was working as proof that behavior can lead to a positive change in doctrine. It seems the faculty of this seminary was confronted with a crisis – young women were demanding to receive the same ordination for ministry as young men. Many women had been taking the courses leading to ordination, but could not be ordained because of denominational practices. It was decided to change the policy and procedures and to ordain the females. A fervent search was then made to justify the decision on the basis of biblical precedent, and, lo and behold! The precedent was discovered after thousands of years of mysteriously being hidden in the bowels of a male dominated, patriarchal church. The author was emphatic that, had it not been for the change in practice, the change in the doctrinal position would never have been made. His point was that orthopraxy (at least, in his mind) can effect a change in orthodoxy.

As I said, I am not going to categorically deny that this can occur, but as the above case study suggests, the change in the doctrinal position had much more to do with political correctness and the financial stability of the seminary than in any guiding of the Holy Spirit. This, in my mind, was as blatant a case of eisegesis, of a decision in search of a proof-text, as I have ever seen or read.

No! Right action, right behavior, faithful discipleship comes as a result of right thinking – of proper doctrine. A change in circumstance might drive us to re-read and re-study Scripture – in fact it should. But we must never change our behavior or re-structure our discipleship and then go rummaging through the crevices of Scripture looking for a piton upon which to hang our conclusions.

I believe my Undeniable Truth #14 can be beautifully illustrated by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Early in his youth he was as nationalistic a German as a young boy coming to age during World War I could have been. In his early sermons he clearly taught that wars could be fought and killing could be justified if one’s nation or family was at risk. Years later, as he witnessed the developing violence of the National Socialists (the Nazis), he realized the gospel taught another truth: no wars should ever be fought and no killing can ever be justified. But Bonhoeffer did not become a pacifist or conscientious objector and then look for a Scriptural blessing. He was driven into his pacifist convictions through a long and painful study of Scripture, primarily the Sermon on the Mount.

[Technical aside here. Much has been made of Bonhoeffer’s compliance with, and some would say promotion of, the attempted murder of Adolf Hitler. At this point in my study, and I believe with adequate justification, I do not believe Bonhoeffer would have attempted a biblical justification of Hitler’s assassination. He would have justified it on the grounds that it was necessary to end the war and to save thousands, if not millions, of lives, but I am not sure he would have done so on a purely theological basis. He wrote frequently enough about the guilt that the conspirators were acquiring to convince me that he would have confessed that the assassins (and conspirators) were clearly guilty of murder, but that God’s grace was sufficient to cover their guilt, and the value of saving innocent lives was worth the death of one “tyrannical despiser of humanity.”]

Right doctrine, without faithful discipleship, is meaningless. We can have all the “i”s dotted and all the “t”s crossed and all the jots and tittles in their right places, but if all those teachings do not result in changed lives, what good do they do?

I think we need to spend more time thinking about the eternal consequences of passages such as Isaiah 58:1-1-8, Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13 (and 12:7), Matthew 23:23-24, and James 1:27 (among many others).

Let us not be guilty of becoming theologically perfect, and practically useless.

Evangelism – to What?

I have been struggling for some time to find a way to express some impressions I have regarding the status of the church of Christ and its role in American society today. What I see happening in the United States today in terms of the disintegration of morals has been equaled only by the period of 1860-1900 and the years 1914-1945. What differentiates those epochs from today is the crushing circumstance of three wars (the “Civil” war, and World Wars I and II). The rapid and, I would argue, unparalleled evaporation of Christian ethics today is unique in that we are not being faced with a military enemy (foreign or domestic); we are being destroyed by our innate human capacity for self-destruction. As Pogo so famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Enough of the political and economic lecture – what of the church? Is the church not focused on the kingdom of God, of setting things right, on the most basic Christian duty of evangelism? I think in some convoluted kind of way the answer is yes, and therein lies the problem. I simply do not have any confidence that the church knows what it is evangelizing for.

Over the past few months I have been been trying to come to grips with the concept of evangelism. I am not by nature an evangelist. I am hoping that by nurture I could possibly be made one. But I have been utterly unable to discover a source that addresses the twenty-first century situation on the one hand and the message of the New Testament on the other. In other words, what I find is either a complete sell-out to contemporary culture on the one hand, or a hackneyed, right-wing, reactionary, escapist Pharisaism on the other. As I see the New Testament, neither is healthy, sound, or Biblical – however you want to describe it. If followed to their logical conclusions, both will kill the church.

If I can summarize my understanding of evangelism it would be this: the word itself means “sharing the good news.” If you see the gospel as “good news,” that means by definition that the gospel is confronting, or overcoming, “bad news.” The bad news is that, even though God created the world good, through man’s rebellion it (and mankind) has become evil. Thus the gospel is the good news that overcomes the evil. The key word that both the left (cultural accommodationists) and the right (reactionaries) want to avoid is the word sin. The cultural accommodationists want to deny the word outright, and the reactionaries see it everywhere but in themselves.

To understand evangelism aright, we must all, every single one of us, admit to ourselves and confess to others that we are utterly incapable of good in-and-of ourselves. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11) “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:22-23). This is the admission that neither the far left nor the far right can make. The left dismisses it as absurd, the right cannot take it upon themselves. Therefore neither the church of cultural accommodation nor the church of the self-righteous can properly evangelize. 

It is at this point that I turn, once again, to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know, I know. Some of you probably have to grit your teeth when I mention Bonhoeffer. I cannot help it though – I am drawn like a magnet to the clarity of his vision and the honesty of his writings. Born in 1906 he was old enough to be aware of the events of WWI (one of his older brothers was killed in action) and he died just weeks before WWII ended. Therefore, few men have had a more “up front and center” position from which to observe, and critique, the world and the church’s reaction to it.

One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s response was that he relentlessly attempted to get the church to confront the sin of both the eroding German culture, and the complete refusal of the church to oppose the Nazis. Modern readers love to quote Bonhoeffer as he stood up to Hitler (yea, Dietrich!). But how many sermons have you heard, or how many memes have you seen on Facebook, that repeat Bonhoeffer’s blistering attacks on a naive, complacent, and even complicit German church (boo, Dietrich!). Too many people want to turn Bonhoeffer into some 19th century American evangelical. To be sure, Bonhoeffer would not be welcome in many American church buildings today. He knew well the meaning of the word, SIN.

I just wonder today, as I ponder what it means to be an evangelist in the year 2017, if the church is not killing itself by trying to do something it totally misunderstands? My main question is this, “What does it matter if people are being baptized into a church that no longer believes in its core message?” What good is evangelism if there is no sin, if there is no “bad news” to destroy? And what good is a church that cannot admit to, that cannot confess, its own sin? If we say there is no sin, or if we say that we are not sinners, do we not make God out to be a liar? (1 John 1:10)

It seems that everyone today is mourning the decline of the church in America (and, indeed, in most of the industrial “West”). This, I believe, is good. We cannot change something that we do not recognize is wrong. But we cannot change something by mindlessly repeating the mistakes that got us here. We must go back to the core message of the New Testament – of the Bible even. We are, every one of us, miserable offenders. Only if we begin here can we move toward evangelism.

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy wais like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter life a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy Holy Name. Amen.” (A general Confession to be said by the whole congregation, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1662, emphasis mine, PAS)

How to be Remembered

Once upon a time I was asked how I wanted to be remembered. I was flummoxed. It was not the first, nor the last, time I was speechless, but the experience was unnerving. I still remember how uncomfortable I was, and that feeling still remains today. How do you want to be remembered?

So, I was reading in Eberhard Bethge’s magisterial biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the other day, and I found it. I found the sentence that describes perfectly how I want to be remembered. It was penned by Bishop George K.A. Bell, Bonhoeffer’s friend and confidant during the stressful years of the church struggle, and later during Bonhoeffer’s dangerous work with the German intelligence agency and his connection with those who were conspiring to get rid of Adolph Hitler. Bell wrote in a 1948 forward to Bonhoeffer’s book, Discipleship:

He was crystal clear in his convictions; and young as he was, and humble-minded as he was, he saw the truth, and spoke it with a complete absence of fear.

(Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a Biography, rev. ed. p. 362)

Now, that is how to be remembered.