Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tweeting the Scriptures: Bad for the Church or Good for the Faith?

Lisa Miller, the former religion editor for Newsweek magazine and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, has written an article for on the future of the church. Her article, entitled "How technology could bring down the church", compares the general population gaining access to the Bible in the common vernacular four centuries ago - and the changes which that brought about - with the new trend for making the Bible available to today's religious consumers in digital format (tweets, Bible apps, etc.).

At the heart of her article is the statement, "Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation, which was aided by the advent of the printing press and which helped give birth to the King James Bible, changes wrought by new technology have the potential to bring down the church as we know it." Miller then goes on to approach these developments from two angles: first, there is the aspect that people with easier access to the Bible have an opportunity to develop their own thoughts and interpretations and discuss them with others without depending on a pastor or minister to interpret it for them ("the interpretive lens of established authorities", as Miller says). However, as she says in her second point, traditionalists are concerned that this sort of access and freedom of interpretation moves people away from committing to an established "church home".

I personally applaud making the Bible available to a much wider audience, and if it makes people think, question and debate with others about their particular interpretations, so much the better. Yes, I can understand the concerns of those Miller identifies as "traditionalists" that perhaps making the Bible available in these there-at-your fingertips formats will dissuade people from going to Sunday services. But does it necessarily have to?

One point left out of this story - and I have no way of knowing whether the traditionalists didn't mention it, Miller didn't include it, or the editors stripped it out - is Matthew 18:20: "Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them." Isolating this verse, of course, as a rationale for not going to church certainly brings along its own potential for controversy. On the website, columnist Wayne Jackson argues against this verse being used as justification for personal assemblies outside of organized church. Jackson says, "Such attempts to manipulate the Holy Scriptures for frivolous purposes are shameful travesties that bring no credit to those who so employ them."

But Jackson also uses the example of thinking that four people getting together on the golf course will allow Jesus to be in their midst - which I feel is a frivolous example (to use his word). What about a group of four or five who gather with their iPads to discuss the scripture passage of the day? What about a group of ten who gathers in a home for worship and prayer because they no longer feel welcome in the church where they have been congregants for many years?

I suppose that at the end, I agree with Miller's basic premise: that making the Bible available in a manner that utilizes today's technology will change the church as we know it.

But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bin Laden is Dead - But is Celebrating It a Legitimate Reason to Set Aside Christian Behavior?

When the news broke late last night that a naval SEAL team had infiltrated Osama bin Laden's compound just outside of Islamabad, Pakistan and killed him, I - along with millions of others - watched as spontaneous celebrations broke out in Washington, New York, Annapolis and Colorado Springs. What should have been a time of pride in America and the work of our intelligence forces and military, however, instead resulted in a time of emotional conflict for me.

In watching the celebrations, I was stunned by the feelings of vengeance and hatred spilling from the mouths of many in attendance. I was appalled by the newspaper headlines screaming phrases such as "Rot in Hell!" Truthfully, I was discouraged by the actions of men and women who were acting in a manner which would have provoked outrage were they watching crowds in the Middle East carrying out similar "protests".

Moreover, I have been feeling a very deep sadness. I remember very well where I was on September 11, 2001, and the tremendous - almost overwhelming - sense of sadness that we all felt on that day, both here in the United States and around the world. At that time, families across the country turned to the church and to their faith to sustain them through that difficult time. In watching the news last night, however, the one thing that I didn't see was anything close to prayer. Instead, I saw many people turning to the Old Testament theology of "an eye for an eye" - which completely discounts the message of the New Testament. And how long can we - how long should we - continue to take an eye for an eye? As a friend of mine pointed out today, if we continue doing so we will put ourselves in a position of being simply the blind leading the blind.

I am proud to be an American, but distraught by much of what I have seen during the past 24 hours from Americans.

I remember what Diana Butler Bass wrote about her daughter's reaction in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. After hearing a radio report about what had happened, she asked Diana whether bin Laden was the one who hurt all of those people; when Diana responded yes her daughter said, "Maybe we should pray for him". It was a powerful thing to say then - forgiveness of our enemies, from the mouth of a child - but it seems to have been forgotten since.

I talked to several friends today - all clergy - who were kind enough to listen to my doubts and guilt. Yes, guilt - guilt that if I were to talk about any of my feelings out loud, my feelings of anger at the jubilant reaction of fellow Americans, I would somehow be labeled as being un-American. The question in my mind, despite the guilt, was whether it is even more important to exercise our faith and be models of Christiaity at this time.

One friend asked me - setting aside, for a moment, what I think I should be feeling - what it is that I would express to God. My answer was a rambling one: the frustration at the reaction of many among the crowds. Anger and sadness over the fact that, even today, people cling to the "eye for an eye" mentality. Disappointment that a country where 78 percent of the population claim to be Christian, and yet quickly throw that out the window when it is easier and more expedient to express joy over a death. Sadness that the evil in the world never ends, the killing never ends, and the need for retribution never ends.

Her response really gave me pause for thought: "You know how I keep saying that the things we criticize in others are the things we struggle with in ourselves? Here it is. We criticize them for their anger while the emotion we feel toward them is anger."

Another response also hit me, but from a completely different direction. This, in an email response to me from Archbishop Tutu: "You are wonderfully sensitive and God is proud of you. A Jewish saying when the Israelites were celebrating the drowning of the Egyptians during the Exodus. God asks them, 'How can you celebrate when my children have drowned?'"

Taken together, these two responses have brought together a reflection in my mirror of a flawed person - a person whom God loves, who grieves when people celebrate the death of another, and who has anger towards others because of their anger.

Yes, I am flawed. You are flawed. We humans are all flawed. But if we weren't, I don't think there would have been/be any need for Christ to come into the world.

If there has been any comfort in my struggle today - aside from the support received from family, friends, and one big mentor - it has been the quotations and prayers that many have shared. In particular, many have turned to the "Prayer for Our Enemies" from the Book of Common Prayer. It reads:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I would echo that: deliver us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge - and deliver me from my doubts, sadness, disappointment, and anger.