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Book Review: Believe Me by John Fea


Believe Me by John Fea available through Amazon and other sites.

As someone who grew up steeped in the conservative political world of the Evangelical Christian movement in the US, I was continually stunned by the ability (and willingness) of Evangelicals to continue to make excuses for the seemingly un-Christian behavior, attitudes, and rhetoric of Donald Trump. In his book, Believe Me, John Fea (my colleague at Messiah College) shows how Trump successfully played into what he calls “the playbook of the Christian right”.

Fea traces the history of the Christian right, as well as the long history of the interaction of Christians with politics in our country. He traces how Trump came from an afterthought in the Republican primaries to the widely endorsed “obvious” choice for many Evangelical Christians. For those who wondered how the same Christian leaders who decried Bill Clinton’s immorality as proof of his unfitness for the office of President came to say that Trump’s moral shortcomings didn’t preclude his fitness for office, Fea’s work helps to connect the dots hiding in plain sight. He lays out three key dichotomies that will affect our political mindset:

  • Do we vote out of fear or out of hope? Christians are called to be people of hope. How can we as Christians justify a politics based on fear of those we deem “other” in light of a faith which says we are to love even our enemies and that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek?
  • Do we value power or humility? Christ lauded the humble and attacked the powerful. Should Christians support and value candidates that lack humility and seem eager to garner personal power which they can use to impose their ideas?
  • Do we view history through nostalgia or do we look for the truth? As someone who is white, it is easy to view American history with nostalgia for other eras of our common history that were “great”, but can I admit that people of color might not find those periods nearly as great for them?

Fea is not advocating for Christians to become liberal and vote for Democrats. He spends no time attempting to show that Hillary Clinton was a good “Christian” choice. It is clear from this book that Fea is a dedicated Christian and politically conservative (he calls abortion “a horrific practice” at one point). However, he does not allow his politically conservative views to convince him that he must support Trump and ignore his short-comings. His conclusion is simple:

“Evangelicals can do better than Donald Trump. … It’s time to take a long hard look at what we have become. Believe me, we have a lot of work to do.”

Disclosure: I was given the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this book. Page numbers may have changed before final release and are therefore not referenced in this review.

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Inspired: A Review of Rachel Held Evans’ New Book

I’ve had the chance to read an advanced copy of Rachel Held Evans’ new book Inspired: Slaying giants, walking on water, and loving the Bible again. Here are my thoughts/review of the book. (Page numbers may change before final release and are therefore not referenced in this review.)

What Evans has done here is, in my view, write a love letter to the Bible. She admits having gone through a phase where she realized that the Bible was not as cohesive as many of us would like it to be and struggling to decide what that left her with. Through her wrestling and questions, she returns to scripture with a different view. As she says:

These questions loosened my grip on the text and gave me permission to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be.

This leaves her with the ability to move to a love of the Bible which is in many ways even deeper than the simplistic approach she used to long for. As she continues the above quote:

[H]ere’s the surprising thing about that: When you stop trying to force the Bible to be something it’s not – static, perspicacious, certain, absolute – then you’re free to revel in what it is: living, breathing, confounding, surprising, and yes, perhaps even magic.

I identify with this realization. Having grown up with a conservative Evangelical backdrop, I recall the Sunday School version of many Biblical stories and the constant indoctrination that the Bible was consistent (no real disagreements), inerrant (nothing can be factually wrong), and plain (the real meaning is clear to us in “good” English translations). As I studied science which contradicted the 6-day creation story in Genesis 1 which I was told was clear and inerrant, reread the actual Biblical text which seemed to tell different versions of the same story, and realized that we ignored some “plain” instructions (eating lobster, etc.) while enforcing others (gender roles, sexuality limits, etc.) I realized that perhaps the Bible was not as simple as I thought.

Personally, I have been walking through this journey over the last decade or so and have now returned to a love of Scripture in ways that I would never have imagined before. Evans walks through her journey in ways that felt familiar, yet clearly show her own unique perspective. As a woman, her experience with Scripture/the Bible had additional layers of complexity given the way the text interacts with women, from the empowering examples of Deborah and Esther speaking truth to powerful men and Paul referencing women as leaders in the early Christian movement to the lows of laws treating women as property and Paul telling women in a particular church that they may not speak in the church gatherings.

Evans approach is unique in that she works her way through scripture from creation to the church, mixing in creative pieces imagining a background behind familiar Bible stories. I suspect that some more conservative readers will struggle to accept this way of filling in details not explicitly spoken to in the Biblical text, but the process is not unique to Evans. Her approach is not unfamiliar to those familiar with how Jewish scholars tend to engage the text. Jewish scholars in the Talmud and forward are very comfortable with imaginative engagement with the text. As someone with a Jewish mother, I am familiar with how the traditional Passover seder that we have used for my whole life includes the engagement of scholars with the Exodus story in ways that use imagination to explain the events.

In the end, Evans concludes that the Bible is inspired, the result of “a collaborative process, a holy give-and-take, a partnership between Creator and creator.” This will naturally be messy at times and resist simple approaches as we look for signs of the Creator. Still, with the help of the Spirit, Evans concludes that God has entrusted this text to us and wants us to wrestle with the text and with Him in a relationship.

I believe that this book is a helpful resource for those who realize that the Bible should not be treated as a part of the Trinity but don’t know how to engage the text otherwise. Many Christians have not been given the tools to view the Bible in any other way. In this book, Evans helps readers to build a way forward as they read about her journey. Evans is clearly still in love with the Bible. I would argue that her love is now deeper because it is a love for the Bible as it is, rather than the Bible as we might like it to be from our Western mindset. Inspired is a testament to the depth that can be obtained when we love the Bible and refuse to allow our own desires to tame the amazing (even magical) collection of books which God has seen fit to gift to us.

I highly recommend this book for:

  • Those going through this transition or wrestling. You will see that there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
  • Those who have gone through a similar transition. Reading about someone else’s journey can help to strengthen our love for the Bible.
  • Those who have left the Christian faith altogether. This might help you to understand how someone could possibly love the Bible as it is. Whether or not you agree with her conclusions about the Bible, hearing how she makes peace with it may be helpful.
  • Those who do not see any issue with the Bible as a simple, inerrant instruction manual. To see that there are other ways to view the Bible and still have a deep love and respect for the text. Whether you agree with her conclusions or not, it may help you to see how someone whose views differ from your own can still follow the God of the Bible and love the Bible and the Church.
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De-centering Whiteness

Drew Hart (from his blog at Christian Century)

Another post today based on an older blog post from Drew Hart. As I’ve said before, Drew’s voice has been formative for me in processing issues of race. As a fellow MennoNerd, I’ve valued his ability to aid me in connecting issues of race with the Jesus centered faith at the heart of our shared Anabaptist influence. Since I come out of an almost entirely white Evangelical upbringing, and came into Anabaptism primarily through white influences, the voices of people of color were absent from my experience. In a post from early September Drew points speaks directly to people like me (though his post has a much broader target, God used it to speak to where I am). Here is a taste of the part that I identified with, and which drew me in to the point of his post:

The idea that telling white people that they have privilege as the solution to fix our racial woes was short sighted and bound to fall short of the radical creative transformation that Christians articulate when we speak of God’s reign breaking into our world. I actually don’t blame white people for messing up. If I were white, and someone told me I had “white privilege”, I don’t think I would necessarily know what to do with that. For some people, they find themselves in a perpetual state of guilt and shame, but never finding a new mode of being. They are mentally stuck within a state of awareness of their white privilege, without a new path forward.

When I first became aware of the systemic advantages of my skin color (and gender, etc.), I felt guilty and had trouble figuring out how to move forward. I didn’t want to take advantage of my privilege for personal gain, but also had trouble finding ways to use the advantage to move advance people of color. For me, of course, my perspective is that of a white man. What Drew turns to in his post was an eye-opening realization. The true way forward is to get past the white-privilege model to one that de-centers the white experience altogether.

Another critique I’ve heard made by many people is that models like “white privilege” merely re-centralize white people as the focus, and those that have been marginalized, remain so. White feelings, white action, white guilt, white confession, etc., all become the center of discourse and concern. The attention within this model is squarely on white people. Now, just so I am upfront, I think a lot of attention needs to be placed on the social construct of whiteness and how it operates within society, but that is different than centralizing white people in the struggle for racial justice as the central instruments needed for the creation of a new humanity. Whatever the new model is, it must not centralize white people, nor expect them to take the reigns, controlling where we go next.

He then offers three suggestions, which I will quote from very briefly here:

  1. Since Jesus refused to lord over others, but chose to be a servant to all, the Church must follow that lead. White Christians must renounce any desires to dominate and control everything.
  2. Since Jesus’ Kingdom centralized those who have been marginalized and oppressed, the Church must follow that lead. Christians from dominant culture can no longer follow the lead of mainstream and popular Christianity. Instead, they must find Jesus among the least of these, and follow after him. Dominant culture’s portrayal of Jesus will always be domesticated.
  3. Since Jesus was the liberator of the oppressed, the Church must be liberated itself, so that it can be free to love our neighbors through liberative action and nonviolent struggle that reflects the life-giving impulse of God’s people. This liberated community cannot be achieved through our own productivity and hard work. Liberation and Shalom are divine interventions that come through yieldedness to the Spirit, and through the risk of participating in God’s reign.

This has been helpful for me. While I do want to use my privileged place to speak up for the least of these, I don’t want to use my voice to speak over or instead of those on the margins. This is, in fact, part of my purpose behind posts like these is to not try to restate what someone else from the margins of our culture which was built on white supremacy (and still shows so many of the signs of this history) has already said. Here, I am pointing you to Drew’s post, highlighting some of it, and suggesting you go hear his voice. I am simply offering you a humble statement that I have once again found his post helpful, and suggest you might as well! Go read it!

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Having to Prioritize: Activism or Education?

Drew Hart (from his blog at Christian Century)

On the heels of yesterday’s post about the culture-clash struggle of the poor at our institutions of higher education, I thought I’d point out another instance of this type of struggle. My friend and fellow MennoNerd Drew Hart posted about the internal struggle for those pursuing higher degrees while feeling the pull to be more intimately involved in on-the-ground activism than their educational commitments allow. Here is a taste of Drew’s reflections on the tension. In the full piece he includes a quote from Dr. James Cone revealing that Dr. Cone struggled with the same decision.

I have often been unsure about my decision to pursue a PhD in theology. Are there more practical on the ground paths that I should be taking? And things only got more complicated rather than less this summer when I was studying for my comps. I practically lived under a rock with my books, prepping for my four exams. Meanwhile, protests against the executions of unarmed black men were at an acutely raised level, especially in light of the ridiculous white supremacist responses seen in Ferguson. Where was Drew, at some coffee shop reading and taking notes. Never did I feel as torn about my current obligations as I did then. Am I using my gifts and my body in a faithful manner, given my abilities?

I, for one, have appreciated Drew’s voice and cheer on his academic pursuits, while feeling his tension as well. His work has been so helpful for me as I work to educate myself and work toward a theology that centers those on the margins (more on that in another post). I have found others to connect me to the on the ground protests, but appreciate the voice of Drew (and many others like Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, and Rod Thomas) who can combine  the ability to speak with an academic voice into the issues that underlie the many “isolated” instances with racial undertones in our country with a call to connect the dots behind the scenes which point out the wider systemic issues. Sadly, as a white, male, financially stable, Christian, it is too easy to be blind to the systemic issues. I need to hear from voices who have been on the other side of the systemic issues to which I have been blind for far too long.

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The Struggle of the Poor College Student

Image from Original Article (Credit: Joanna Neborsky)

This is the first in a series of posts hoping to clear out a bunch of interesting articles that I’ve read lately but haven’t had time to blog about here. Today’s post is based on a September article by Vicki Madden in the NY Times about poor students. For me, it came at a good time: the first month of the semester. Still, this piece is a good reminder in the busyness of the middle of the semester as well. Here at Messiah College, we are about to think about Spring semester registration, and issues of retention are always front and center. The post from the NY Times talks about the culture clash that exists for our poor students. They are capable of surviving the academic rigor of college, and even graduate school in some cases, but to do this is in some ways to turn their back on the culture or their home and family. While the piece is not directly about race, the correlation between race and poverty in America certainly makes that an underlying part of the whole discussion of socio-economic status in the United States. Here is a taste of the piece (but you should check out the whole think at the link above):

Urban students face different slights but ones with a more dangerous edge. One former student was told by multiple people in his small Pennsylvania college town not to wear a hoodie at night, because it made him look “sketchy.” Standing out like that — being himself — could put him at risk.

To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from. The transition is not just about getting a degree and making more money. If that was all socioeconomics signified, it would not be such a strong predictor of everything from SAT scores and parenting practices to health and longevity.

In college, I read Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, “Hunger of Memory,” in which he depicts his alienation from his family because of his education, painting a picture of the scholarship boy returned home to face his parents and finding only silence. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.

As the income gap widens and hardens, changing class means a bigger difference between where you came from and where you are going. Teachers like me can help prepare students academically for college work. College counselors can help with the choices, the federal financial aid application and all the bureaucratic details. But how can we help our students prepare for the tug of war in their souls?

I take this as a serious challenge as a faculty member at a small, private, Christian liberal-arts college. We are mostly white, and surrounded by an even more white, middle-class dominated area. We are about 10 miles from the city of Harrisburg, but the Susquehanna River which separates the “West Shore” suburbs from the city on the “East Shore” insulates us from the connection to the communities in which poor students from Urban contexts might feel more at home. Poor white students can feel the isolation from their middle-class and above white classmates given the difference in access to style and technology, just to name two obvious examples. Poor students of color face an even more obvious disconnect from the majority of the student body. If they also face family and friends at home accusing them of turning their back on their heritage and roots, life gets so much harder.

How can we help? There are no easy answers. Certainly, those of us working in this world need to be aware of the situation. While we cannot ask students about their background and income, etc., we can be aware of our students. We need to be looking for those who look disconnected from their classmates. Those who seem reticent to talk to other students are likely to be wary about approaching us as well. We must be proactive and reach out to such students to bridge the gap and support them. We must also ensure that we don’t make the problem worse by the way we speak. Offering encouraging words of support in their struggle can help, but not if done in ways that reinforce the separation they already feel so acutely.

Otherwise, I admit that I need help. While my immediate family was never very wealthy (my dad is a pastor), we were educated. Both of my parents have college degrees, and I have an aunt with a PhD. College was always expected, and I never felt any of this pull from my own family of origin. This leaves me in need of advice and in a position to learn from those like Ms. Madden who have felt this pull and can shed light on this for me. I need to come to this with humility and admit how little I know. I cannot come in and deny the experience of the poor students in my classes, or act as if I am going to “save” them from this struggle by my intervention. Still, I can listen, learn, and support them.

Do you have any experience personally, or with friends or students that you’d like to share? Feel free to comment below!

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Are You Fully Pro-Life?

Benjamin L. Corey

Many anti-abortion Christians call themselves “Pro-Life”. I myself have used that moniker. I now see the short-coming in this view. A couple of weeks ago a friend and fellow MennoNerd named Benjamin Corey posted over at Formerly Fundie a piece entitled What “I Value The Sanctity of All Human Life” Usually Doesn’t Mean (but should). This reminded me of my own journey from being Anti-abortion to being truly Pro-life. You should definitely read his post, but here are a few of the things that I have come to believe are part of truly being “Pro-life”.

  • Unborn children are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected.
  • Orphans are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should work to support those who work in child welfare, foster-care, and adoption.
  • Women who have unwanted pregnancies and contemplate, or have, an abortion are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should minister to them without condemnation, since we serve a God who tells us that he can save and redeem anyone, even me!
  • Doctors who perform abortions because they disagree with my premise above are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should minister to them without condemnation, since we serve a God who tells us that he can save and redeem anyone, even me!
  • Death row inmates, who according to our culture deserve death for their crimes, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. We should minister to them without condemnation, since we serve a God who tells us that he can save and redeem anyone, even me! If God could save Paul, use David and so many others, who is to say that he cannot redeem and change the lives of those we think are beyond hope.
  • The poor, in the US and abroad, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. This means that we must be grieved that many of God’s children do not have enough nourishing food to eat while I sit with too much food and have to make the conscious decision not to eat too much and become overweight. We must move to figure out how to solve the distribution problems that make food abundant in some areas and lacking in others. We also need to work to make good food more affordable in our country, and provide alternatives to the cheap, nutrient deficient foods that so many of the poor rely on because that is all that they can afford. This also should impact how we view resources and the often underpaid workers overseas who work long hours to make the goods we purchase.
  • Immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. Whatever our (US) government says about these people, we as Christians identify as citizens first of a heavenly Kingdom which calls us to love all. This implies that we must offer hospitality and care, both for adults and children. This is especially true for children and those fleeing persecution/danger in their countries of origin.
  • Black and brown bodies are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. When we see media portray our brothers and sisters as in some way deserving the discrimination and police (and civilian) brutality that folks like Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and so many others have been the victim of. Being Pro-life should mean that we fight against the media portrayal of black and brown bodies as inherently threatening. If we make excuses for the killing (often a modern incarnation of lynching) of our black and brown brothers and sisters, rather than immediately grieving their loss and working to change the culture that devalues their lives.
  • Our enemies, those with whom the US is at war, are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. I cannot allow the government to force me to think of my enemies in ways that are inconsistent with Christ’s command to love our enemies.
  • Terrorists are people created in the image of God, and are therefore of infinite worth and should be valued and protected. I’ve heard some describe the apostle Paul as a terrorist, given his desire to persecute (and kill) the early Christians in Jerusalem and beyond. If Christ could reset Paul’s worldview and use him to advance the Kingdom, who am I to say that God can’t work in the same way through someone who is currently using terror and intimidation tactics? Besides, it seems to me that the West has contributed quite a bit to the creation of Middle Eastern terrorist cells by the way we’ve treated our enemies.
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Austin Channing Brown on Reconciliation and Justice

Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown: A Voice We Need to Hear

It is the Jewish New Year, and I’m going to use this as a good reason to restart my blog. Yes, it has been a while. Life has gotten busy, of course, and a move closer to Messiah College’s campus, where I teach statistics, didn’t help. Still, it is time to begin to use this venue again to use my voice, and point to voices I think we all should be listening to.
Today’s post falls into this latter category. I’ve been tracking the various cases of African-American men shot, and often killed, by police officers with no discernible need. This is heartbreaking. To see the reaction has been troubling as well. There seems to be no hope or promise of remorse and apology, let alone truth and justice prevailing. I’ve been at a loss for words about what to say, and how to explain this to my children, two of whom have already been confronted with the reality that their skin color will lead to them being devalued and treated differently because their skin is a beautiful shade of light brown. Still, I’ve felt like I must say something. Thankfully, as I was processing the latest video of John Crawford being shot inside a Walmart while carrying an air rifle/BB gun in an “Open Carry” state, I came across a post by Austin Channing Brown. Channing Brown’s voice is one I’ve come to respect and I make sure I read whatever she writes. (You might want to subscribe via email, like I do.)

Channing Brown’s post speaks to our rush to reach reconciliation without making sure true justice is done. Here is a taste:

Heres what many think reconciliation looks like:

1. Having friends of color
2. Having diverse congregations
3. Serving in justice ministries
4. Hiring a person of color

I know this is going to be a little disheartening, so I am just going to say it. None of these things fall under the umbrella of reconciliation without one very large precondition: Justice.

Wow. I know I’ve been guilty of rushing to these. I’ve pushed friends and pastors to be looking for 2. and 4. recently. But I’ve never really mentioned Justice. Ouch. I cannot hope to express as eloquently and bluntly as Channing Brown does the implications of this jump over justice, so I will just beg you to go read her post. We, especially those of us who are white, must listen and learn from this wise woman.