Sunday, September 23, 2012

Guest at Mormon Matters podcast 127: Grace

I was one of the guests in a new edition of Mormon Matters podcast 127: Grace.
Grace is one of the central concepts in all of Christianity, yet also one of its most contested. What is it? How does it work? Do we as human beings have to do something first for it to perform its healing work? Can we even turn from sin without Grace first being extended to us? What, exactly happened in the Garden of Eden (literally or metaphorically) that caused separation from God (a Fall), and what are its effects on (or the state of) our souls that requires the transformative action of Grace?
Certainly, the concept of Grace is no less debated in Mormonism–or at least, as is suggested in this podcast, it is beginning to now enjoy more focused attention. Is Grace a substance/thing that fills in the “gap” between a standard of perfection that God sets forth and everything we can do on our own in showing our desires and faith? Is it the suffering in the Garden and on the Cross that satisfies the demands of an eternal law of Justice? Is it more like an event–our “getting it” regarding God’s love and our worth that leads us to transformation and a new life in Christ, one in which we yield ever and ever more fully to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, becoming godlike in our compassion for all?

And what about all the Grace vs. Works passages we find in both in the Bible and Mormon scriptures? Is Paul’s meditations in Romans about his own sinful nature and the need for Grace the key text for viewing Grace and our own human abilities to respond to God? What are alternative readings of those passages or others within wider Christianity? And, for Mormons, how might one read what seems to be the key passage in the Book of Mormon that declares we are saved by grace “after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23) in different ways? Is it really a temporal “after” (feeding into the God filling the “gaps” model)? Is this really what Nephi is saying? And does this interpretation even jive with other Book of Mormon passages on Grace?

All these ideas and many more are discussed in this terrific discussion among Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists John Morehead, Katie Langston, and Joe Spencer. We hope you’ll listen and then join in the discussion.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Essay at Patheos: Evangelical Reflections on a Muslim World Aflame

My first essay with the Evangelical portal of Patheos has been published. It is a piece that looks at Evangelical responses to religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue. From the piece:
If we're willing to engage in critical self-reflection, evangelicals will acknowledge that in the years since 9/11 few of us have done much to improve interreligious understanding.
To their credit, some evangelicals did get involved in sending well wishes to the Sikhs who lost loved ones in August's gurdwara shooting in Wisconsin. And other evangelicals showed support for Muslims whose mosque was torched in Missouri. But where have large segments of evangelicalism been in response to these recent events, or in interreligious engagement as a result of 9/11? Given the work of evangelicalism in pressing cultural issues, why isn't interreligious engagement on our social agenda? And why, for the most part, have evangelical leaders been conspicuously absent in regards to interreligious engagement? Perhaps it is a combination of indifference plus fear of the fallout when they do try to get involved. When Rick Warren worked alongside the Muslim community in Southern California, evangelicals attacked him for advancing "Chrislam," a syncretistic hybrid of Christianity and Islam.
The whole entry can be read here. Look for my regular contributions to Patheos in the future, as well as others who are part of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

FRD Documentary: Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth

The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy has finished its documentary and is beginning the promotion for the film titled Unresolvable? The Kingdom of God on Earth. From the film's website:
Angered by the barrage of attacks on his faith and desperate for answers, Bryan Hall, a devout Mormon, travels into the heart of the Bible Belt to discover for himself what it means to be a “Christian.”

The world he discovers is more terrifying and heartwarming than he ever could have imagined. Somewhere between the growing movement to establish a Christian Nation and those who believe Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, the lines between fanaticism and devotion are easily blurred.

Ultimately, Hall is forced to face the same questions that he is lancing at his religious rivals. UNRESOLVABLE? challenges viewers to ask themselves the most difficult and revealing question in all of Christianity: Must you - really - love your enemies to be a true disciple of Christ? 
The website includes various video clips, and it will be available for rental or purchase in various venues including starting next week.

"Every good Christian should see this film." 
Richard Land President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission
Southern Baptist Commission

“A must see.” 
Mike Allen Politico Playbook

“Moving and inspiring...a brilliant film every American should see."
Ralph Reed Former President of the Christian Coalition

“It touches the heart and stimulates the mind...a must see!" 
Robert Millet Dean of Religious Education, Emeritus Brigham Young University

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Non-Christian Religions as “Seeping” is Septic: A Better Way Forward

The 11th anniversary of 9/11 last week provided us with an opportunity to remember, reflect, and also ask ourselves what we will do in response to make this a better country and world following that event. Some of that reflection should involve Evangelical consideration of our country’s pluralistic religious makeup.

America is religiously diverse, including is our political process, and many Evangelicals aren’t happy about it. In fact, it is bringing the fears of many to the surface, including some of our most influential Evangelical media figures. In the process, we are embarrassing ourselves and doing the Evangelical community, and others in the public square, a disservice. We can and should do better in the way of Christ.

An example of this Evangelical fear came in connection with the Republican National Convention meeting at the end of August. The RNC took the bold step of inviting Ishwar Singh, president of the Sikh Society of Central Florida, to provide the prayer of invocation for the gathering. The Republicans took this step in the wake of the recent Wisconsin shootings by a white supremacist at a Sikh gurdwara, a place of worship and community gathering. Happy to be a part of this event and to contribute beyond it to the nation, Singh was quoted as saying that, “I hope that my presence Wednesday on the national stage will play a small part in helping Sikhs – and people of all races, faiths and orientations – be seen as part of a great American family.”

But some Evangelicals aren’t ready for those of non-Christian religious groups to be part of the country’s kin. This includes those like Janet Mefferd, host of a syndicated radio program that bears her name, and which includes 110 affiliates across the nation. She is not only unhappy with a Sikh providing a prayer on the national stage of America’s political process, but she also echoed earlier Evangelical protests over Romney’s Mormon background. She said,
“This adds new spin to my view of what’s going on at the RNC right now because you still hear a little bit of talk of God here and there, but it’s different. When Mitt Romney talks about God, he’s not talking about our God and he has yet to give his speech yet. But we now have a party that is allowing people to pray at the Republican National Convention who don’t have the slightest similarity to us, when it comes to our view of God, at all. At all."
Mefferd’s concern over non-Christian religious adherents actively participating in our political process, or at least that of the Republican party, were evident and worthy of discussion, but with the comments that followed she took it to an even darker place:
“And look how far we’ve come. Now, 2012 we have somebody from an Eastern religion offering the invocation at the Republican National Convention. I’m not saying people from different religions can’t vote Republican, but what this really is is a syncretism that is kind of seeping under the door like a gas” (emphasis mine). 
Mefferd’s statements, which likely resonate with many in her large Evangelical audience, are alarming on a number of levels. In his book Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism, Jason Bivins analyzes conservative evangelicalism, which he describes as having a political orientation that is “shaped and spread by pop cultural narratives of fear and horror.” Mefferd’s political and religious rhetoric of fear fits within Bivins’ analysis. The language of other religions seeping like a gas brings to mind an invisible and likely toxic danger. Such concepts poison not only our understanding of other religions within Evangelicalism, but they also taint the perception of us by those in other religious communities. As a case in point, I learned about Mefferd’s comments from a Pagan friend of mine who writes for a blog that is prominent within his religious community. He understands the state of affairs better than many Evangelicals. In response to Mefferd’s comments he correctly observed, “The truth is that non-Christians have been ‘seeping under the door’ for generations, it’s just that we can no longer ignore them, their issues, and their desires. We don’t live in a monoculture where it’s acceptable to ignore voices or views that ‘don’t fit.’”

In centuries past the Jewish people learned how to live as God’s people when they were a minority population due to periods of captivity. Years later the earliest Christians learned how to be love their neighbors as a small and oppressed religious community in the Roman Empire. Somehow, along the way to a Christendom culture in America where the church was dominant and many times influenced the national agenda, Christians developed monopolistic and exclusionary mindsets. Those things that had once been forced upon their spiritual ancestors they are now all too eager to foist upon others.

 But we live in a post-Christendom America. Surveys indicate that while Evangelicalism is still numerically large and influential, it has lost ground, both in terms of membership, and in terms of credibility within among young people, and on the outside as well, where both groups see it as judgmental and oppressive. Engaging others in a post-Christendom environment means that we can no longer assume either a monoculture, or a pluralistic culture with non-Christians who will sit quietly on the sidelines while we hope to exclude them and describe them as a toxic fume creeping under the door of America’s political process.

There is a better way forward among Evangelicals. In the wake of such troubling attitudes, coupled with recent news stories documenting the Sikh shooting and ongoing vandalism and violence against Muslims and their mosques, Evangelicals must involve themselves in relationship-based forms of education and service that combines understanding of those of other religions with the context of personal relationships. This relational context enables us to overcome our misunderstandings, our biases, and our prejudices so that we might be better prepared to live our faith as a part of the great American experiment in pluralism.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"Courageous Christians" and a Film That Sparked a Muslim Flame

As the unrest in the Middle East spills over into other Muslim countries, the debate about the controversial film trailer for Innocence of Muslims said to have sparked the protests continues as well. Print and video media have recently linked it to Steve Klein, an individual connected to an evangelical "counter-cult" ministry called Courageous Christians United. This ministry utilizes confrontational approaches with adherents of various religions, including Mormonism and Islam. In the latter they have an affiliated ministry called The photo above demonstrates the kinds of approaches they use, pointing people to a website in ways that are sure to outrage Muslims.

When news broke about the Courageous Christians' connection to the film trailer the organization's president, Rob Sivulka, posted the following on their website:
We at Courageous Christians United (CCU) had no knowledge of the film "The Innocence of Muslims" or Steve Klein's involvement in it until September 12, 2012. Steve was removed from the board of CCU as of September 14, 2012 because of his involvement in this film. As the founder of CCU, Steve was an honorary board member, but he has never been to any of our board meetings. In 2006, when I wanted to form my own non-profit corporation, Steve gave me CCU, which he was no longer using.

Steve was in no way acting on behalf of our mission organization in the production of the video. While both Steve and the film maker have a right to express their views, that doesn't mean that we here at CCU endorse this movie as a good means to convey the truth about Islam. In fact, we find this film reprehensible and irresponsible, and serving primarily to provoke a violent response. (emphasis mine)
I appreciate the lack of direct involvement that Klein may have had with the film, and Courageous Christians' desire to distance themselves from it. But this statement from Sivulka and his organization has me confused. It also appears disingenuous. As demonstrated above in the photo, the organization has engaged in forms of "outreach" to Muslims at mosques by holding up signs that insult Muhammed, the prophet of Islam. They do similar things in Mormon contexts, holding up signs that insult the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. In each religio-cultural context their has been anger and resistance on the part of Muslims and Mormons. I submit that holding up signs in front of a mosque demeaning the Muslim prophet should be construed as a parallel to the Arabic-dubbed film trailer for Innocence of Muslims which may have at least partially inflamed large segments of the Muslim world. Therefore, how can Courageous Christians pursue the types of activities they do before American Muslims and at the same time condemn a film that functions in the same way among Muslims overseas? Must not the film and the questionable approaches of Courageous Christians be considered "reprehensible and irresponsible, and serving primarily to provoke a violent response?"

In a recent essay at Aslan Media co-authored with Paul Louis Metzger in response to the recent Islamic uprisings we wrote, "What lessons might be learned by Evangelicals as they seek to respond to and interact with the broader religious world, including Islam, in a context that all too easily leads to violence?" As the article continues, among other things, we suggest the following:
Much of the conservative commentary on this event, within and outside Evangelicalism, has emphasized American freedoms of speech concerning the right to share whatever views one might have about Islam. While it is certainly true that Americans have the right to express our convictions, from a Christian perspective our freedoms are informed by love for others; at times, we must be willing to restrict our freedoms for the brethren (1 Corinthians 8) and the world at large. In this instance, it may very well entail restricting our use of our constitutional freedoms for the greater good in the public square here and abroad. With this in mind, we would do well to remember that with the Internet we live in a global village, and the rhetoric, tactics and approval of a controversial pastor or filmmakers can contribute to an international climate of tension that may lead to violence and death in other parts of the world. Simply because we have such freedoms does not mean we must always exercise them; when we do exercise such freedoms, they should be exercised in ways that come down on the side of caution, seeking to contribute to the way of peace for the sake of Americans living and serving overseas, including our fellow Christians living in Muslim lands.
The events connected with the 11th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil provide evangelicals with an opportunity to reflect on our religious identity often formed in hostile relation to those in other religions, and how our attempts at persuading others of our religious convictions might be dramatically less than persuasive, if not offensive and downright counter-productive. For those interesting in considering an alternative vision, see the website of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and our previous essays touching on this at Aslan Media:

"On the Dearborn Drama: Pig-Headed Engagement of Islam"

"Sikhs and Muslims, Shootings and Burnings: A Call to Peaceful Contestation"

Friday, September 14, 2012

Brian McLaren Book Tour in Salt Lake City

October 2 Update: Due to low pre-event registration/ticket sales, McLaren's organization decided to cancel this event. My thanks goes to everyone who got behind this presentation, including Wasatch Presbyterian Church for the venue, First Presbyterian Church for covering travel costs, and all those who were planning on attend. I highly recommend McLaren's book, particularly for conservative evangelicals who many times have dismissed the author for his controversial views and actions. There is much in this volume to consider, discuss, and put into practice, which I will discuss in a forthcoming book review for the Evangelical Channel at Patheos.

Brian McLaren will be speaking in Salt Lake City to promote his new book Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (Jericho Books). The event is sponsored by the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and will be held Saturday, October 6 at 6:00 p.m. at and in partnership with Wasatch Presbyterian Church, 1626 South 1700 East in Salt Lake City. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. This event will include an engaging multimedia presentation on the major themes of the book plus 20 minutes for questions and dialogue, followed by 30 minutes for book signing. Members of all faiths are invited.

About the Book:

When four religious leaders walk across the road, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the start of one of the most important conversations in today’s world. 

Since 9/11 the question has become more and more urgent: How should Christians - members of the world’s largest religion - treat members of other religions? If we maintain an “Us vs. Them” attitude or make conversion the price of love and fellowship, we fuel mutual misunderstanding and hostility. But if we buy tolerance for other faiths at the cost of commitment to our own, we undermine our own faith.

 In his best book yet, widely acclaimed author and speaker Brian McLaren proposes a third alternative to these unsatisfactory options, one built on “benevolence and solidarity rather than rivalry and hostility.” This way of being Christian is strong but it doesn’t strong-arm anyone. It goes far beyond mere tolerance to vigorous hospitality toward, interest in, and collaboration with the other. It is more necessary than ever before.

Simple yet profound, this groundbreaking book shows readers step-by-step how to reclaim this strong-benevolent faith, revealing:

 • How a new understanding of key Christian doctrines can end religious rivalry and foster new relationships,
• How a fresh perspective of Christian and colonial history can replace our lingering “superior” attitudes with empathy and humility, and
• How by standing in solidarity with “the other” as Jesus did, we can become a force against injustice and inhumanity – fulfilling the Christian mission like never before

Blending history, narrative, and brilliant insight, McLaren challenges us to stop creating barriers in the name of God – and in doing so, he invites Christians to become more Christ-like.

About the Author:

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. After teaching college English, Brian pastored Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Baltimore-Washington DC area. Brian has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors for over 20 years. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings in the U.S. and internationally.

Brian’s writing spans over a dozen books, including his acclaimed A New Kind of Christian trilogy, A Generous Orthodoxy, and his most recent title, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words (2011). A frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs, Brian is also an active and popular blogger, a musician, and an avid outdoor enthusiast. Learn more at his website, Brian is married to Grace, and they have four adult children.

Essay on Egyptian Uprising at Aslan Media

My latest essay has been published, co-authored with Paul Louis Metzger titled "Urgent Need: Face-to-Face Encounters, Not Face-offs." The essay looks at the connections of a controversial film trailer and the protests in Egypt, Libya and beyond, and how these events provide for Evangelical reflection. The essay may be found at Aslan Media.

Readers might also be interested in my previous work with Aslan found at these links:

"Sikhs and Muslims, Shootings and Burnings: A Call to Peaceful Contestation"

"On the Dearborn Drama: Pig-Headed Engagement of Islam"

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Podcast: Mike Stygal on Pagan-Christian Relationships and Dialogue

A new podcast by New Wine, New Wineskins is now available, where that organization's Director, Paul Louis Metzger, brought together Mike Stygal, a Pagan from the UK with myself to discuss Pagan-Christian relationships and dialogue. That podcast can be downloaded here. My thanks to Paul, Mike, and new Wineskins for this opportunity. I hope that Christians and Pagans find our thoughts helpful.