Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

You know that movie? The one where there are good guys and there are bad guys.   And the bad guys are doing terrible things to society and the good guys are fighting them. And it looks like the good guys will lose, but then in the end they eliminate the bad guys.

Yeah, it’s Star Wars. No, check that. The Avengers. Or maybe I mean Die Hard. Uh, is it Braveheart? Or maybe that classic western, Shane. No, it is every James Bond movie ever made. Wait, of course. It is….The Little Mermaid.

Yeah, OK.  The Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story is a very common formula. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite stories. For that matter, it’s a favorite story in a lot of other places in our culture.

Actually, the movie I have in mind is The Green Berets, with John Wayne (who did a few films, it seems, with this formula).

The film is about the Vietnam War. It came out in 1968, right in the middle of the war. There is a moment early in the movie when a group of reporters receives a history lesson. It’s obvious there is some controversy about the war and the public has been invited to a press conference to hear the soldiers’ side of the story. A reporter named Beckworth asks the Green Berets about the South Vietnamese government, pointing out they do not have free elections or a Constitution, even though a committee was formed to write one.

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there nothing he cannot do?

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there anything he cannot do?

The officer with the Green Beret-ish name of Sargent Muldoon then gives everyone a little history lesson to explain why the U.S. military is supporting South Vietnam.  (The clip in the link above is of the whole press conference in the film, about four minutes long.  The history lesson begins around minute 2:30, if you want to see that part):

“The school I went to Mr. Beckworth, taught us that the thirteen colonies, with proper and educated leadership, all with the same goal in mind, after the Revolutionary War, took from 1776 to 1787, eleven years of peaceful effort, before they came up with a paper that all thirteen colonies would sign, our present Constitution.”

With the history lesson out of the way, the movie then heads off to Vietnam where John Wayne and the good guys fight bravely for the free world. This includes a cute boy whom the film writers decided to give the very un-Vietnamese-ish name of “Hamchunk.”  (OK, that last comment has nothing to do with the point of this post.  I just have a little mental spasm every time I think about a movie giving the name “Hamchunk” to an Asian boy).

It’s typical John Wayne fare and fun if you like that sort of thing. The theme song is catchy.

As a historian, though, I can’t help myself. Sargent Muldoon has some factual problems. For instance, the United States actually had a constitution before The Constitution — it was called the Articles of Confederation. But truth be told, that doesn’t bother me too much. Hollywood regularly messes up its historical facts and this is the type of goof that most people wouldn’t remember anyway.

The bigger problem I have is this: it’s the Good Guy vs. Bad Guy narrative.

Now, Good Guy vs. Bad Guy stories are often fun and exciting. A lot of interesting plots and stories have been told with this simple formula. And on a certain level, it reflects something that we all should know (and Christians should know): that ultimately, some day, good will triumph over evil in this world.

But it stinks as analysis for how the world is today. And it stinks as a formula for how good will ultimately triumph over evil.  And it stinks as analysis of human nature.

(Sorry to be a spoil sport here, for all of you John Wayne fans. Be thankful you are not my kids, who had to endure this sort of thing from me when we watched movies).

The problem is this: I instinctively identify with the Good Guys in these films. After all, I like to think of myself as The Good Guy. The one who is right, and knowledgeable and can handle evil in the world through my own wits, courage and effort.

And that kind of thinking tends to blind me to my own limitations, my failures, and the sin within me. In fact, I like that blindness.  Who wants to see their own limitations, failures and sins?

But (spoiler alert) I am not going to overcome the sins of the world by my own effort, even if I join up with a bunch of other Good Guys. Apart from saving the world, it is a problem in dull, ordinary, daily life when I lose sight of my deep need for God’s grace and wisdom and guidance.

OK, we Christians know this. We know these movies are just entertainment.

Do we?

This brief observation about advertising is brought to you by Apple's logo. Have you ever seen it before?

The brief observation in the text to left about advertising is brought to you by Apple’s logo. Have you ever seen it before?

Here is something to consider: isn’t it true that if we hear a story over and over and over again, (without reflection or an alternative story to challenge the dominant story) it is likely to seep into out being, without us realizing it. Shoot, it doesn’t even have to be a story. That’s why advertisers work so hard just to get us to recognize their brand. It works.

Here is an alternative story to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story: though all people are good in the sense that they are created by God, all people are also stained by sin and limited in their understanding. The Good News is that God offers us forgiveness and grace and wisdom. But we cannot generate it without God.

But back to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story that is so common. The Green Berets is interesting because it consciously tried to make the connection between entertainment and real life.  It did not simply situate itself as entertainment. Produced at the height of the controversies over the Vietnam War, it was clearly a statement about how to solve the problem of the war. Trust in our own goodness and toughness and righteousness, and we will defeat the evil of communism.

That story, in so many other forms, seeps deep into the soul of our culture. So I think we ought to think more deeply about the way that human nature is portrayed in the everyday stuff around us.

As it turned out, the Vietnam War was a lot more complicated than The Green Berets made it out to be.   Whatever righteousness and wit and courage we Americans had was not enough to shape that conflict the way we wanted it to be shaped. In real life, the Good Guy story did not come true.

The Good Guy/Bad Guy story is not, by any means, just a conservative characteristic. There are liberal versions. For radicals in the 60s, the solution was to work for a revolution to overthrow the bad guys controlling the system. Many leftists in the 60s were sure that revolting against the Establishment would produce a good society. Some thought the North Vietnamese were the Good Guys. That didn’t work, either.

For liberal idealists, the solution was just to believe in the goodness of all human beings, a stance captured in John Lennon’s hit, “Imagine.” The Beatles made some nice music but let me just say that the Christian rocker Larry Norman, in his song “Readers Digest,” gave what I thought was the most succinct critique of this view of human nature: “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.”

Here, then, is a parting thought that I plan to expand upon later: democracy (and other institutions, like the church, the family, business, education, movies, rock songs etc.) work best when they are built on systems that, to paraphrase James Madison, recognize that humans are not angels.

The Bible vs. The Qur’an

No, this is not a post setting up a heavy-weight battle between two powerhouses who slug it out, like the Rome vs. Carthage, or the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, or Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner.

Not exactly, I guess.  But you know where my faith commitments lie.  So I confess that I want to make a theological point about how God works in the world and what that has to do with language.

If you have had some instruction in world religions or if you just pick things up about the world, you might know that, when it comes to language, Christians and Muslims view their sacred texts in different ways.  Christians believe that the Bible can be translated into any language and it will still be sacred.  It’s still the Bible.   Muslims, however, believe the Qur’an is only the Qur’an if it is read in Arabic.  You could translate it into English, but if you do that, it is no longer sacred and it is no longer authoritative.  In other words, to truly read the Qur’an as a sacred text, one has to read it in Arabic.

So what?

Mandinka boys....who actually seem a lot like boys everywhere, regardless of the language.

Mandinka boys….who actually seem a lot like boys everywhere, regardless of the language.

I began to understand the significance of this a number of years ago when I participated in a seminar led by Lamin Sanneh.  Sanneh, who today is Professor of World Christianity at Yale Divinity School, grew up as a Muslim in the Gambia.  His people were the Mandinka.  As a young boy, Sanneh was sent off to Qur’an school to learn the sacred scriptures. That meant, of course, that Sanneh had to learn Arabic. As I recall him telling the story, Sanneh internalized the message that his own language, Mandinka, which was spoken at home, in the market, and in the fields, was not a language fit for the holy things of Allah.

Years later, Sanneh was drawn to Christianity.  In the midst of the process of exploring Christianity, he had been struck by the reality that the Bible was translated into the Mandinka language.  All his Islamic training, of course, had taught him that one had to work very hard to master a very special language in order to approach Allah, (assuming one was a privileged male with access to Qur’an school to begin with.)  Yet here was Christianity, translating its sacred text into Mandinka.  What kind of God was this, whose holy words could be spoken in this language used by little girls, and pottery merchants, and goat-herders?

Translation, then, not only made it possible for the Bible to be spoken in Sanneh’s heart-language.  Biblical translation implicitly declares that God cares about the Mandinka language, Mandinka culture, and Mandinka girls and Mandinka pottery merchants and Mandinka goat-herders.  Not to mention Swedes, Brazilians, Kikuyu, Japanese, and Arabs.  This is a profound and mysterious way the incarnation works.  God meets us where we are.

I was reminded of this while reading John 4 this morning.  This is the wonderful story where Jesus stops to talk to the woman at the well.  The setting alone blows me away, when I think about it.  God did not have to become flesh.  And even then, God could have appeared anywhere in history, in any way, to anybody.  So, of all the prominent, godly, smart, talented, or notable people down through history whom God could speak to, God chooses to have a compassionate face-to face conversation with an unknown Samaritan woman of dubious reputation.

What kind of God is this?


Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman? I Know the Answer.


New Picture (1)If you can trust historians, however, my great-great grandfather was a self-made man.  Zopher Case (yes, that was his real name — the nearly-biblical spelling was real, too) received the following treatment in the 1882 History of LaGrange County, Indiana:  “Mr. Case is representative of the self-made man. He began with nothing, at the age of twelve, working for $3.00 per month. By labor and economy, he has acquired one of the largest and finest stock farms in the county, and at present owns 800 acres, having given the remainder to his children.”

But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t trust historians.

Wait a minute. Don’t trust me when I say you shouldn’t trust historians.

Anyway, my point is that the LaGrange County historian may have gotten the facts right, but the idea of the “self-made man” is a flawed concept.  Zopher Case was not a self-made man.

We Americans sure like the idea.  We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character.   And the idea is still alive and well today.  A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school:   “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.”  There it is.

This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works.   It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.

How was God at work in the life of Zopher Case?  What does God have to do with his economic status?   Most American evangelicals would probably try to answer that by looking for characteristics of his spiritual life.  Was Zopher Case inspired by God to work hard?  Did God help him through the tough times?  Did Zopher flourish because he grew in Christian discipleship?

Those are good questions, but I would like to draw our attention to something else.  Consider the birth of Zopher Case, an event that stems from God’s creational activity.

What did Zopher Case do to get himself born in 1816 in Ashtabula County, Ohio, twenty years before he moved to Indiana?  He did not earn that birth through hard work, wits, high moral character, intelligence or “labor and economy.”  Furthermore, had he been born as a black man or an Indian or a woman, his opportunities would have been very different.  While I am sure that ol’ Zopher worked hard, he did not begin with nothing.  He was born with economic, familial and cultural resources that many others did not have.

Who made this man?

Who made this man?

For instance, what if Zopher Case had been born in Suipacha, Argentina in 1816?  (Disclaimer:  I actually do not know a thing about Suipacha except that it is a town outside of Buenos Aires.)  From the colonial era through independence and up to the present, small classes of wealthy elites have owned most of the land in just about every country of Latin America.  One family in Argentina in the 19th century owned 1.6 million acres of prime land – that’s bigger than the state of Delaware.  Another family in Mexico in 1848 owned 16 million acres, a piece of land about the size of South Carolina.  Right after independence, a group of 500 individuals in Argentina owned 21 million acres, which is about the size of Indiana.  If Zopher Case were born in 1816 in Suipacha to a family of modest means, it is very likely that he would have ended his life as a hired hand on a ranch, without any land to his name.  Furthermore, it is likely the same fate would have been true for his son, Riley C. Case, and his son, Riley L. Case, and his son, Riley B. Case and his son, Jay Riley Case.  (Apparently, my family found “Riley” to be a comfortable and reliable name. They must have been spooked by “Zopher.”)

But Zopher Case was born in Ohio and moved to LaGrange County, Indiana when he was twenty.  He was able to buy land there.

I have benefited economically from Zopher’s efforts.  My grandfather grew up on that farm.  The prosperity of the farm and the educational opportunities of LaGrange County (we also often forget that none of us earned or paid for our primary school education) enabled my grandfather to get a college education at Purdue University in 1914.  He used that degree to become a high school principal and then a county extension agent.  When the Depression hit, he not only had a steady job, but extra capital, which he invested – and he continued investing through the 1980s.  When my grandfather passed away in 1988, his estate passed down to my father and aunts.  My parents did not enjoy an especially high income on my father’s salary as a Methodist minister, but they then found themselves with a fair amount of capital.  So when I entered graduate school in 1993, my parents became our banker:  they purchased a house in South Bend that our family moved into.  We were able to make payments to my parents (enjoying generous terms in the deal) even though my graduate school income technically put my family of five below the poverty line.  When we left South Bend six years later, we owned half of the house.  We used the capital from that house to buy the house where we now live in North Canton, Ohio.

Meanwhile, about 174 million people in Latin America make less than $2.50/day.

I have worked hard in my life (well, maybe not so much during those junior high years), but I am still not a self-made man.  Nor was Benjamin Franklin.  Nor are you.  For some mysterious reason, God decided where and when you would be born.

What do we do with that reality?  More on that in a later post.

Are Evangelicals Effective at Dealing with the Poor?

Feel free to chime in on this one.  We are going to try to understand evangelicals better.

This is kind of a funny project for me, since I identify myself as an evangelical.  I go to church with these folks.  And I study these people.  You’d think I’d have this figured out.

Well, this is what I do know: evangelicals are good at evangelism.

Granted, we have all probably run into a zealous evangelical or two somewhere in our life who awkwardly thrust a tract in our face or fired off personal questions about heaven and hell in the first sentence they ever addressed to us.  One might question the effectiveness of evangelistic efforts that make the Christian faith look as inviting as a colonoscopy.

But this has not been evangelicals’ main methodology.  Through a variety of other ways in the past couple of centuries, such as revivalism, evangelicals have been very effective in bringing others into their branch of Christianity.  Though evangelicals did not exist in any clear way in 1700, they now make up about a third of American society.  The vast majority of African Americans who have embraced Christianity in the last two centuries have come by way of evangelical churches.  During the last few decades, evangelical churches have been growing while mainline Protestant groups in the U.S. have been in decline.  In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the growth has been even more dramatic.  Evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals, have grown remarkably in China, South Korea, sub-Saharan Africa, Guatemala, Brazil and many other places.  Say what you will, evangelism has been very effective in these regions.

But let’s return to the question I’m kind of avoiding:  are evangelicals any good at dealing with the poor?

This is a more complicated question.  Here are a few different responses that I have come across:

A)  No.  Evangelicals mostly see the poor as people to be evangelized.  With a few exceptions, like the Sojourners crowd, white American evangelicals through the twentieth century looked with suspicion on anything that sounded like the “social gospel.”  And they looked with deeper suspicion upon any governmental programs aimed at the poor.   This “evangelism-only” impulse carried over into the missionary movement, so that Latino and African Christians in the last few decades have upbraided American evangelical missionaries for promoting a partial gospel that neglected issues of poverty.

B)   Yes.  Even though many evangelicals distanced themselves from social causes in the mid-twentieth century, there has been an upsurge of concern and activity since the 1970s.  Those Latino and African Christians who chided American evangelicals were evangelicals themselves, after all.  And no less of an evangelical icon than Billy Graham came on board with their theological arguments at the 1974 Lausanne Conference.  Since the 1960s, we have seen the growth of agencies like World Vision, Compassion International and Habitat for Humanity – organizations that were all founded by evangelicals and still receive the bulk of their support from evangelicals.  And evangelicals had always formed the backbone of older organizations directed toward the poor, such as the Salvation Army and rescue missions.

C) Not really.  Evangelicals often have good intentions, but their effectiveness is limited by an individualistic approach to poverty.  Thus evangelicals will send relief supplies to victims of earthquakes or hand out soccer balls on short-term mission trips, but these are temporary efforts that do little to address long-term systemic and structural issues of poverty.  Evangelicals need a theology that can address issues such as political inequities, class structures, economic systems and institutional racism.  Because they think individualistically and their theology is individualistic, evangelicals often don’t understand the role that structures and institutions play in poverty.

D)  Somewhat, but more indirectly than directly.  When evangelicalism, particularly Pentecostalism, spreads among the poor of the world, it instills certain behaviors among converts that have economic benefits.  Converts develop habits of self-discipline and are transformed in ways that order is brought to disorderly lives.  Evangelical Christianity provides hope for the future, which encourages and empowers its adherents to persevere through difficult economic situations.

There are more explanations, but that seems like a good place to start.

What do you think?





“Lincoln:” My Complaints

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”    – Thaddeus Stevens.  Supposedly.

“I can’t play Lincoln. That’s like playing God”   – Henry Fonda



Isn’t it just like a historian to complain and nitpick about the flaws of a good movie?  You may not know any historians, but I do.  We are like that.  Just ask my daughters.

Yes, I have complaints about this very good film, “Lincoln.”  And frankly, they are not insignificant complaints.

My first complaint:  Steven Spielberg has a tendency to confuse Abraham Lincoln with Jesus Christ.

To be fair, he is not the first.

It has been a habit for Americans (particularly from the north) during the last century to make Lincoln into a demi-god.  As a result, it is very difficult for any of us to get an accurate bead on this guy.  Before I ever became a history major in college, my own

Is this person like anybody you have met?

mythic impressions of the man were shaped by dollar bills, luxury vehicles, pennies, granite monuments, state capitals, high schools, toy cabins, highways, Illinois license plates, and a trip to his boyhood home in southern Indiana when I was about ten, which left me with a memory of his mother’s tombstone set in a dark woods.  That was kind of creepy.  This image was balanced, or further confused, by a particularly memorable cartoon (which apparently is not shown on TV anymore because of its racial stereotypes) where Bugs Bunny suddenly appears in a stove-pipe hat, beard and long black coat and says in a deep, serious voice (to Yosemite Sam, who plays a Confederate officer), “What’s this I hear about you whippin’ slaves?”  It’s just difficult to imagine Lincoln as a recognizable human being with all this material buried deep in one’s subconscious.

Let me, then, give Spielberg credit for making Lincoln look less than perfect in a couple of key ways.  Lincoln gets deeply frustrated with his family (an unavoidable response if one were married to Mary Todd Lincoln) and even strikes his son in one scene.  And throughout the film, Lincoln struggles with his conscience as he tries to reconcile his high anti-slavery goals with the dirty process of politics.

And, yet.

While Spielberg’s Lincoln wrestles with the ethical dilemmas of dirty politics, he never seems to waver in his rock solid conviction that everything must take a back seat to ending slavery.  And unlike most everyone around him, he doesn’t doubt that blacks deserve full legal, political and social equality.  This Lincoln is inspiring.  This Lincoln is thrilling.  This is the Lincoln that every (white) moviegoer wants to be.

And he is not the real Lincoln.

Now it is reasonable to argue that, for those weeks in January of 1865, Lincoln was firmly convinced that he had to get the 13th Amendment passed.  The film does, after all, only focus on these few weeks.  But by leaving out (or just plain missing) the Lincoln of 1862, the Lincoln of 1861 and the Lincoln of 1858, we end up with a Lincoln who is, in the words supposedly spoken by Thaddeus Stevens, “the purest man in America.”

Historians know better.  Most Americans do not.  Spielberg is like Disney:  his portrayal of a story will become the definitive version.  So his Lincoln will be what the next generation of Americans remember and believe about Lincoln.  That’s not all bad, but there are problems.

Any high school history teacher worth her salt will tell you that Lincoln’s highest desire had always been the preservation of the Union and that his antislavery convictions came in second.  Lincoln always opposed slavery – he was consistent about that throughout his life—but his first love was for nation-state.  That meant that in 1862 he did not have the power to abolish slavery in the southern states, especially if it meant damaging the Union as it was presently constructed.  He wrote, famously, to Horace Greeley in the summer of 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” In his First Inaugural Address in 1861 Lincoln reassured the southern states that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” 

Obviously, Lincoln changed his mind between 1861 and 1865.  That is the key.  Lincoln’s greatest internal struggle did not revolve around whether to stoop to log-rolling and horse trading and playing dirty politics in order to push through the greatest measure of the nineteenth century. His biggest dilemma was whether or not he really ought to push through the greatest measure of the nineteenth century in the first place.

Nor does Spielberg’s Lincoln deal effectively with the real Lincoln’s internal struggle with his own racism.

Ouch.  Painful subject.   We are OK if our demigods have minor flaws, but it is just too much to attach racism to them.  Better just leave those questions alone.  Spielberg accomplishes this task masterfully.

The reality is that Lincoln believed blacks had the right to freedom but he was not sure that they were fit to live as social equals with whites.  Some samples:  In his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said about the black man, “I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects–certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.  But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.”   Hmm.  He fudges a bit on social equality, though he does come out pretty strong on a type of labor equality.  But then we have this declaration in another debate with Douglas:  “While I was at  the hotel today an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and the white people.  [Great laughter.]….I will say then, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races–[applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people; and I will say, in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality.”

And lest we think that Lincoln, that wily politician, was simply saying what he did not believe in order to curry support from racist voters in Illinois, we have other evidence.  For instance, in the summer of 1862 he met with black leaders to try to convince them that they ought to embrace colonization.  This plan promoted the wholesale migration of free blacks to some other country.  In this case, he asked them if American blacks would move to Central America.  His justification?  “Your race are suffering, in my judgment, the greatest wrong afflicted on any people.  But even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race…. It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”  (The African American leaders politely, but firmly, refused).

The purest man in America?


But it is at just this point where Christian theology is far more helpful to us than the modern faith in human purity.  (Or the modern faith in the human purity of a few select heroes and demigods).  Why should we be surprised by Lincoln’s racism?  Abraham Lincoln, like you and me, was a sinner.  More importantly, (and this is a point that many evangelicals miss), Lincoln internalized social norms and cultural patterns that were also a product of a fallen world.  In other words, we also inherit cultural sins, most of the time without even realizing it.  Lincoln, like the vast majority of white Americans of the mid-nineteenth century (and arguably just about every white American of that era), was socialized by a culture that viewed blacks as inferior.  To greater or lesser degrees, this racism came out in his behavior and attitudes.

In one sense, Lincoln could not help the fact that he was shaped by a racist culture.  But that does not make the racism of nineteenth-century whites acceptable.  It was still wrong.  It still harmed others.  It still prevented Lincoln and others from loving their neighbor as themselves.   And it demonstrates one way that original sin operates on humanity – through the cultural norms and practices that shape them.

It is not surprising, then, that those who do not believe in this kind of sin desperately want Lincoln to be a pure and shining example to all of us, one that we might be able to achieve if we just try hard enough.  Nor is it surprising that we buy it.  That reaction fits well with Christian theology also.

Strangely, perhaps, this is not my biggest complaint with the film.  That will come in my next post.





Canned Chicken Broth, the Really Cool App, and Bad Theology

Hand flippers.  You have to admire Ben Franklin, that quintessential American, for inventing hand flippers for easier swimming.  He was eleven years old.  It may not be his greatest invention, but it did help get him elected to the International Swimmers Hall of Fame, (not in 1717 when he was eleven, but in 1968.)

Like most Americans, I love the conveniences that have been invented and developed over the years.  I’ve never used Franklin’s hand flippers, though I do wear bifocals.  And I must say I indulge myself in all sorts of conveniences.  If I were to list the conveniences that I enjoy (and ought to be thankful for) the list would include automatic garage door openers,, Arby’s, direct deposit, refrigeration, Netflix, drive-up windows, disposable diapers (that was a while ago), escalators, frozen pizza,, Kensington clickers (for remotely changing power point slides in class), thermostats, self-checkout lines, lawn mowers, Google docs, indoor plumbing, Dunkin’ Donuts, credit cards, remote

It just makes cooking a bit easier.

car locks, alphabetization, Post-It notes, mail delivered to my home, my computer grading program, car radios, email, the invisible fence for our dog, Turbotax, air conditioning, the private bathroom connected to our bedroom, taco seasoning, interstate ramps,, the Land Ordinance of 1785 that arranged Midwestern roads into grids, online fantasy baseball, and, of course, canned chicken broth.

Ah, the pursuit of happiness.

Except that, of course, happiness doesn’t really work this way.

From the above list, Elisa and I made use of the following conveniences when we lived in Kenya:  lawn mowers, refrigeration (in our home, but not in Mbote Kamau’s butcher shop where we bought our meat), escalators (going up, but not down, in one mall in Nairobi), indoor plumbing, alphabetization (sometimes).

Nothing else. No canned chicken broth.

And were we less happy in Kenya than we are now in the United States?

No. Imagine that.

If prodded, most American Christians would probably admit that conveniences and material possessions do not produce or guarantee happiness.  Our actions, however, indicate we haven’t fully convinced ourselves of this.

For instance, it is common for American evangelicals who have returned from a short term mission trip to Guatemala or Zambia or Haiti to say, “they have so little, and yet they are so happy.”

Interesting, isn’t it?  Despite what we tell ourselves, we are still surprised to discover that Christians in poverty could be joyful.  And that rich Christians are not always joyful.  Dig a little deeper, and we can be slightly amazed to actually encounter joyful Christians who endure hardship, suffering, injustice and deep pain.

A historical observation:  there are signs that it is getting harder and harder for American Christians to accept the idea that one can be joyful if we do not have conveniences and material prosperity.  A century ago and even fifty years ago, most Christians would not have grounded their own happiness in the center of their theology.  Whether we realize it or not, we seem to be doing that very thing today.

Strong evidence here can be found in Christian Smith’s excellent study of the spiritual lives of teenagers, called Soul Searching.  (For a wide range of reasons, I highly recommend this book).  In an extensive sociological study of teens across the country, Smith found that teens may identify themselves as Nazarene or Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist or Jewish, but most of them are really Moral Therapeutic Deists.  In other words, if you break down what they really believe, it goes like this:  God exists though He is not particularly involved in our lives.  We are all basically good.  The purpose of life is to be happy.  God does actually get active when we are in trouble – then he will come and fix our problems.  Smith says in this way of thinking, God is like a Divine Butler.

Smith is a brilliant scholar, but I’d suggest that we could adjust the Divine Butler metaphor.  I don’t know anybody who has a butler.  Few people read P.G. Wodehouse anymore (and that is certainly unfortunate).   I think instead is fitting to say that most teens see God as a Really Cool App.  He’s there in your pocket, and whenever you need him to fix a problem, you pull him out and punch in your request.  He’ll just fix it too, because He wants you to be happy.  That’s what He is there for.  And that is what the Christian church should be doing.

If you read my previous post, you will recall my story about the student who questioned the Christian nature of Malone because I would not let her into a class she wanted.  Apparently she thought it was her right to get the course schedule she wanted.  It seems that increasingly our culture defines the pursuit of happiness to mean that happiness itself is an inalienable right.  And shouldn’t the church support our inalienable rights?

American teens did not invent this thinking.  They are just being socialized by the culture they grow up in, which is why most believe the purpose of life is to be happy.

This is Bad Theology for a number of reasons.  It assumes that the world and even God Himself revolves around us as individuals.  It fails to adequately account for our individual sinfulness, for if we constantly try to arrange everything according to our individual desires for happiness, we will make others around us more miserable.  Since we are in control of the Really Cool App, we place God on our terms, turning to him only when we are desperate.  And then, upon discovering that the world is not ordered for our convenience, that we can’t always get what we want, and that we can’t really control the Really Cool App, we will get very frustrated and disappointed with God.

I don’t know how these impulses will unfold in American culture or the American church in the years to come.  I do know from personal experience that at the desperate point where the world does not work the way I want, I finally am able (after I get over my frustration and disappointment) to accept the grace of God in a way that I had not before.  Joy follows.

That is my hope for the future of American Christianity.



Revivals, Idolatry and Politics

I went to a good, old-fashioned revival last week.  I found it interesting that in this age of mega-churches and coffee bars in the foyer and big-screen HD technology, this meeting still had many things that I had seen before in revival meetings.

Consider the following features: it drew a big crowd and opened up with music.  We were told to go out and go door to door to spread the faith in our neighborhoods.  We were told that we shouldn’t be shy to talk to our co-workers and neighbors and friends.  We were told we lived in a broken society and we were part of the solution to set things back down the right path. Then we hit a musical interlude in which a quartet sang “Amazing Grace.”  And finally the main preacher got up and stirred the crowd with an impassioned message, reminding us that we were part of something bigger than ourselves.  Right before the final music, he told us that the greatest hope for earth was….

Wait a minute.  I’m sorry, I got confused.

This wasn’t an evangelical revival.  It was a political rally for Mitt Romney.  (Four blocks away from my house, actually, at the local high school baseball field).

The similarities of the Romney rally to evangelical religious revivals are not merely interesting coincidences.  (And let me just annoy both the die-hard Democrats and die-hard Republicans among you by saying that Obama rallies and Romney rallies are pretty much structured the same way.)

There is a historic connection between political campaigns and revivals.  As early as the 1740s, George Whitefield and other evangelical revivalists pioneered techniques for preaching to large audiences – often outdoors.  By the early 19th century Baptist and Methodist revivalists (like the circuit-riding guy on the horse on my blog masthead) had perfected these methods.  They became so widespread and so effective that politicians picked them up for their own campaigning purposes.  These rallies have been a part of our political culture ever since.

I wonder if this is more than a historic curiosity, though.  This past Sunday, while speaking on a totally different topic, my pastor pointed out that we make idols out of all sorts of things, and we aren’t even aware that we do it.

In the passion of a political campaign, we can make politics and the United States itself into an idol.  It seems to me that the subtle similarities to evangelical revivals can stoke hopes and desires that this candidate, this political party, this policy, this nation will save us from the woes that beset us.

Ponder this:  at the close of his rally the other night (right before the fireworks), Mitt Romney declared that America is the hope for the world.


Jesus Christ is the hope for the world.

Wise political leaders, well-crafted policies and effective governments can bring order to society and limit evils and sins that we humans inflict on one another.  We need to do the best we can to work for good government, which has an important role in this world.  That role, however, is not that of savior.  Politicians, policies and the nation cannot eliminate those evils or sins, nor can they truly save us from them.

American political leaders have long had a habit of slipping into over-the-top rhetoric because it gets American audiences fired up.   We hear it and we don’t even realize that we are asking the United States to take on the role that only Christ can fulfill.  In 2008 Barack Obama declared that “the United States is the last great hope for humanity.”  Sarah Palin proclaimed that “America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has known.” Abraham Lincoln, that kindly, avuncular, home-spun Midwesterner on our penny said “My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.”

How do you like your idolatry?  It comes in tasty Democrat, Republican and historic flavors.

For those of you who want a sophisticated and challenging theological discussion of these things, I would recommend Theopolitical Imagination by William T. Cavanaugh, particularly his essay, “The Myth of the State as Savior.”

Otherwise, ponder (and pray about) this question this election season:  when, where and how do we slip into this kind of idolatry?  And what kind of citizen is Christ calling me to be?