Tuesday, April 17, 2012

AIDS, Promiscuity and the Power of Monogamy

From an early age I watched the evening news with my parents. It was part of our nightly routine - eating dinner and watching the news (sometimes at the same time). One distinct memory was watching Reagan's re-election campaign against Walter Mondale in '84 (I was 6). My parents were (and are) ardent Democrats, although they knew in this case that Mondale didn't have a chance. I remember watching coverage of the space program and local news of happenings around Austin, TX. I was on the local news once with my mom when news cameras came to our house for a story going on in our neighborhood. A brush with greatness.
But my exposure to the news had negative effects as well. For instance, throughout the 1980's and early 90's AIDS coverage was on just about every news broadcast that came on the air. People were absolutely freaked out about this epidemic, and the media never ceased to report on famous AIDS deaths, research towards vaccines/cures, controversy around homosexuality and prophylactics, and the general fear that this virus could overwhelm our nation and world. After exposure to these news stories I began to have my own paranoia about the disease. As a kid this kind of news coverage was scary. In fact, not being fully educated on what AIDS was, I thought I might have AIDS! It seemed like everyone else did! I suppose that's the danger of knowing only partial facts, as well as being too young to really understand what a sexually transmitted disease is.

I recently read a book called Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS by Jonathan Engel. I think it's a must-read for anyone interested in knowing more about the history of AIDS and the current crisis. It's a well-documented and carefully researched work that deals with AIDS' origins, a history since the late 1970's, as well as various specific topics such as the AIDS crisis in Africa.

There was one aspect of Engel's research that I found particularly interesting, and that was his perspective on the media coverage of AIDS, especially from the late 1980's to early 1990's - the time when I was a kid watching the news. His research shows that the way in which AIDS was presented to the average household in America was that of a potential pandemic that would eventually take over the world. However, the statistics even then demonstrated that very view average, middle class Americans with fewer than 6 sexual partners a year had AIDS or even, based on lifestyle choices, had a very good chance of contracting AIDS. However, my guess is that even moderately educated adults during this period of history would shutter at what seemed like the impending doom of life on earth. The reasons for this pandemic portrayal are complex, but to put it simply two factors were involved: First, at the early stages of AIDS there were simply many unknowns about how and when the disease was transmitted, not to mention the fact that it was clear early in the research process that finding a cure was going to be difficult, if not impossible. Secondly, there were many political factors in view. Due to prevalent homophobia that was completely out of control in many parts of the U.S., many fought to defend homosexuals against accusations of AIDS as a "gay disease" - and rightly so. AIDS isn't a "gay disease". However, in a effort at such a defense an inaccurate picture of the AIDS crisis was painted and sold to millions. The truth is that AIDS was relegated primarily to certain segments of society -drug users, highly promiscuous individuals (in the late seventies, early eighties this was primarily homosexuals, especially those involved in bath houses of large metropolitan areas), as well as recipients of blood transfusions. These demographics are not the demographics of a coming pandemic. Granted, heterosexual middle class Americas could contract AIDS - but they rarely did.

Engel's research is not a bash on the media, although irresponsible journalism was certainly a factor. His research simply shows a growing awareness of a terrifying virus that seemed to have no cure and no end to its ability to mutate RNA strands in uncontrollable ways.

However, despite the nature of AIDS in America as primarily relegated to certain groups of people, the story of AIDS in Africa is very different. Homosexuality, and promiscuity in homosexuality, seems almost non-existent in most of Africa. In Africa, middle class non-drug using, non-blood-transfusion-receiving people, were getting AIDS, beginning in the 1980's, and the disease spread, and continues to do so, like wildfire. Before reading the book my theory was that this was due to rape and prostitution. Although prostitution is a strong factor, the biggest factor is simply promiscuity. In many parts of Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, promiscuity is a way of life. Traditional sexual social mores which support the unquenchable sex drive of men, as well as accept the degrading of women in prostitution, rape, and abuse, serve as the standards for poor moral choices and the conduit for the spread of the deadly virus.

The book is obviously much more sophisticated and technical than can be covered in this post. And I'm not criticizing Africa as a continent (or the countries within it) - other countries, Thailand for instance, deal with their own sets of challenges with the disease. But it struck me as interesting, and sad, how multiple sexual partners (prostitution of course included) is, at it's root, the greatest challenge to defeating AIDS. Many of the individuals studied in Engel's work were recorded as having thousands of sexual partners per year on average. Those kinds of statistics make AIDS almost unconquerable. (Unfortunately, on another note, funding to find a cure for AIDS is becoming more scant. Combination therapy has allowed AIDS victims to live for many years, thus making the search for a cure optional, in the eyes of many.) We as Americans would do well to continue the fight against AIDS in Africa, because the death toll is reaching staggering numbers, and continues to climb.

Reading Engel's work and reviewing AIDS statistics and history, reminds me of the power of monogamy. Unfortunately many view monogamy not as powerful, but as confining. But it's the exclusive nature of monogamy that provides safety, comfort, trust, and health - not to mention true sexual fulfillment. A world living by these standards may only be possible in a Utopian society (or the future society with Christ as reigning king), but at the very least we need to fight for the sanctity of commitment, purity, and the gift of marriage.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scripture and the Authority of God

Scripture and the Authority of God is a book by NT Wright that was recently re-released with a few changes and additions from the original book titled, The Last Word. Authority is an effort by Wright to demonstrate how the Bible has authority in the present and continues to serve as the church's unwavering basis and dynamic guide throughout history. Written as a 'popular level' work, Authority is less polemic than other works by Wright (just as Justification) but also not designed to be primarily an academic study. The best audiences for this book are probably pastors, lay Christians, non-Christians seeking answers (although there's enough Christian terminology to cause a person to get lost) and seminary students in their early years of study. Overall, the book delivers a strong case for God's authority working through the vehicle of Scripture, but comes up short in making a specific ontological case regarding the nature of Scripture itself.

Very early in Authority NT Wright pulls from his hip pocket something he loves to do in almost every work I've ever read by him, as well as every sermon I've heard him preach. He loves to say that we (Christians) are coming to the text of the Bible with the wrong questions (or at least asking the right questions in the wrong way). In the preface he says: "Having made the Bible the focus of my own professional work for many years, I have become convinced that we are asking at least some of the questions in the wrong way." He goes on to describe an article he's written in the past concerning the Bible's authority as well as chapter 5 of his magnificent work, The New Testament and the People of God, in which he describes the biblical story as a 5-act play (also Authority 122ff). We are currently living in the 5th act, which is the last phase of God's eschatological plan for humanity and all creation. Then what are the right questions, Dr. Wright? He lays them out as such: 1. In what sense is the Bible authoritative in the first place?; 2. How can the Bible be appropriately understood and interpreted?; 3. How can its authority, assuming such appropriate interpretation, be brought to bear on the church itself, let alone on the world? These are great questions, and Wright logically works through each one methodically and candidly. However, as Wright plainly states, he believes these questions are the most important ones, and other questions that have been asked are perhaps not the most critical of questions. An example of such questions might be, "Is the Bible historically reliable?". "How do we know if the Bible is divinely inspired?" "Is the Bible free from error?". If these questions are the most pressing for the reader, he or she will walk away disappointed. These are not the questions of this book. 

Understanding what questions Wright is asking is essential in understanding his work. He's essentially asking questions about how the Bible could be viewed as authoritative, but he always answers those questions in terms of how God uses the Bible as an authority. In chapter one Wright defines what he means by the authority of Scripture: "...the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture". (Authority, 21) In other words, the authority of the Bible is never spoken of apart from the authority of God. Such an approach may seem on a surface level axiomatic, however, many traditions speak about the Bible in terms of it's efficacious nature apart from the dynamic and ever-present working of Father, Son and Spirit. (Many systematic theologies attest to this fact as Bibliology is often the basis of its foundational theology, vs. Theology Proper.) In fact it's this apparent tension between the authority of God and the authority of Scripture with which Wright deals:

"...how can we speak of the Bible being in some sense authoritative when the Bible itself declares that all authority belongs to the one true God and that this is now embodied in Jesus himself. The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew's gospel, does not say, "All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write," but "All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me." This ought to tell us, precisely if we are taking the Bible itself as seriously as we should, that we need to think carefully what is might mean to think that the authority of Jesus is somehow exercised through the Bible. What would that look like in practice? In particular, what happens when we factor in Jesus's own redefinition of what 'authority' itself might mean?" (Authority, XI)

Wright works throughout the book to resolve that tension and does so mainly by means of a brief history of the various views of the Bible, within and without the church.

In short there are three things of central importance for Wright about which the role of the Bible within the church should remind us: God is a God who speaks; God's transforming grace enables us to think in new ways - i.e. reading a book in order to be changed by God is not counter intuitive; and lastly, that the resurrection of Jesus forms the basis for the mission of the church to the world.

Across the board this book is engaging, well-written, and theologically astute. Wright's efforts at tying the authority of Scripture back to the Triune God as well as to the mission of God is a praiseworthy, and ultimately successful, effort. In addition, although brief and perhaps at times painted in broad strokes, his historical analysis of the history of scriptural interpretation is helpful. Wright is often criticized for commenting on modernism too harshly, however this book seems to offer a balanced approach. Where Authority might fall short is due to the many epistemological reasons that the church can view the Bible as authoritative - namely, it's historical credibility, it's resilience throughout history, etc. That's not to say the Bible can be understood fully apart from God's authority, but it does have some credibility within the subject of Bibliology apart from Theology Proper. Part of this issue however goes back to the questions that Wright is trying to answer, as discussed above. But Wright's purpose in this particular work does not change the need for other questions about the Bible to be asked and answered - whether or not Wright thinks those are the right (or best) questions. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Chips, Salsa, Beer, and Theology

For the past 18 months or so, I, along with a handful of other friends, have been meeting on a quarterly basis to talk about theology. We meet at Kerbey Ln (a 24 hr Austin restaurant) where we eat, drink, and discuss a book we've read over the 3-4 preceding months. These meetings have been refreshing and encouraging. The busy-ness of life fades into the background when we commit an evening to our thoughts about God, sharing a meal, and friendship. It's usually about 3 hours after we start, around 11:30 or midnight, that we reluctantly leave our booth, which the waiter has long since stopped checking on for refills, and tiredly return to life's duties.

Although I don't want to over-spiritualize our little theological book club, I also don't want to underestimate its powerfully sacred nature. What we do every few months is create a space for dialogue to flourish. This dialogue is not the empty words of 'how are you doing?' 'Fine, how are you?' 'Good!' 'Yes, good!'. Instead, it's the dialogue of faith - believers reading together, asking tough questions, and doing so apart from denominational/organizational restraints (within reason - we all bring our baggage). Pretense (well, mostly) is gone. So this is a sacred space, where the deeper truths of God intersect with the simplicity of life. 

It's this intersection of the sacred and profane, spiritual and secular, earthly and heavenly, that I find fascinating. I find it fascinating first of all because 15 years ago I would have considered those things to have been mutually exclusive. However, now I find them so intertwined that it actually takes conscious effort to separate them, if even separating them is necessary. Now I see all of truth as God's truth, and all of life as God's gift. For example, one of our group members talked about how he worships God while listening to Radiohead. Although that sounds bizarre, I know what he means. I think anyone who loves music knows what he means. If you are a jazz musician and you had the opportunity to visit the smokey jazz club, The Five Spot, in New York in 1957, to hear John Coltrane play, you would be in heaven. Or if you are a fan of the British Invasion and stepped into the crowd at Shea Stadium in 1965 to hear the Beatles give one of their most famous concerts, you would be in heaven. Neither Radiohead, Coltrane, nor the Beatles had (or have) intentions of leading anyone to Christ. However, the appreciation of great music, just like the appreciate of anything great in this world, always returns to the Father, Son and Spirit. Music only exists because God has created people who make it. It may be 'secular' in its message and in aspects of its form, but it's the creation of the created - and it's beautiful. It has aesthetic value completely apart from whatever message the song writers might be trying to send to his (or their) listeners.

But, back to the sacred space. Despite the intersection of the sacred and profane, sacred space is critical to Christian living. And it's not just a nerdy theology group that creates sacred space. Ultimately, it's the job of the church (not the organization per se, but the people, who are the church). At our small group on Wednesday nights we have about 18 people who are all parents of young kids (except one couple - but at our church, it's only a matter of time). We drop our kids off with baby sitters after a long day, and all us adults converge on one house with food in hand, prepared for 2 hours of sacred space. We do mundane things - we eat, we talk about kids, the weather, football, vacations, work - or whatever. And then we huddle around and pray for one another. And we open Scripture and talk about last Sunday's sermon. In so doing, we step out of the normal rhythms of life and create a period of time (albeit short) in which we create sacred space. Note: We don't do so at the expense of the mundane or earthly. Instead, we join the two. We eat, we pray, we talk, we read the Bible. But it's in the sacred space that we slow down the grind of regular life and invite the Holy Spirit to do his work.

Those are just two example of sacred space. There are many more. We had one last night with our family as we talked to our children about Advent and read from Isaiah 9 and Luke 1. And I'll have to say, that kind of sacred space takes a lot of work. It's not always easy getting four kids to listen to Bible reading at 7:30 in the evening. But it's worth it.

Our theology group meets this coming Thursday to step into that sacred space together, with beers in hand, and chips and salsa ready for devouring. We may even say something helpful to one another in the span of three hours, Lord willing. Or, we may even have a conversation with the wait staff that will spark something of the spiritual in his or her mind that was previously not there, or that lay dormant too long. That's when the sacred and profane, spiritual and secular, meet.

(Anyone reading this is invited to come! Thursday at 8:30 at Kerbey Ln. We're talking about Rob Bell's book Love Wins, which if you have a copy you could probably read it in a few days.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


A thirteen-year-old boy whose family is part of our local church congregation died this morning at 11:30am. I didn't know him well, but I did observe that we was a sweet and compassionate kid. When my oldest son, who's 7 now, went to Rock the Rock (our version of vacation bible school), this young man reached out to and ministered to him. I am praying for and grieving with this family.

This is the second tragic death that I've been associated with in the last 7 days. One of my best friends' sister passed away after intermittent battles with cancer. She was 30 years old.

Some people leave us way too early. And we grieve over these. From their vantage point however, now safe in Jesus' arms, seeing him face to face and not through a glass darkly, they are in paradise. What would we do without this hope? And as St Paul says, hope is not wishful thinking. Hope does not disappoint us (Rom 5.5).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mystery Spoiled by a Word

One motif for understanding theological method is built on three approaches that work together in balance: Cataphatic, Pietistic, and Apophatic*. Cataphatic is the part of doing theology that deals with reason. This involves using one's mind towards the development of doctrine. The Pietistic approach involves the worshipful aspect of knowing God. This requires that we experience God and interpret belief about God existentially.

The third approach, Apophatic, deals with the aspect of mystery. While Pietistic and Cataphatic approaches have much to affirm intellectually and existentially, Apophatic approaches preserve the aspect of mystery within Christian theology, while at the same time affirming reason and experience. It supports the idea that we are limited in not only our knowledge of God, but our ability to know God. This is due to epistemological challenges from the human perspective, as well as to the nature of God - who is infinite, omniscient, and wholly 'other'.

These three aspects of theological method provide a nice balance for one another. If the Pietistic approach is too accentuated then the emotional and existential is too emphasized. If the Cataphatic approach is too emphasized then our reason will become god, and the search for truth primarily an intellectual pursuit. If the Apophatic is too emphasized then it's easy to, as one of my professors used to say, "punt on second down." We will too quickly chalk everything up to mystery instead of doing the hard work of discovering truth. 

But despite the contribution of all three, the Apophatic approach is especially interesting to me. This may be due to the traditions from which I come, which speak very little about mystery. It may be due also to my lack of knowledge regarding Eastern theology.

I am reading Brennan Manning's book The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus (previously titled Lion and Lamb) from which this quote comes:

"When Catherine of Sienna, a dynamic contemplative in action, was asked to describe the God of her personal experience, she cried, "He is pazzo d'amore, ebro di'amore" - crazed with love, drunk with love. Yet her words are feeble and inadequate, as are all human words, because Mystery is spoiled by a word."

Words are useful, and I think they help our understanding of God - after all, God speaks to us through his word. But although they contribute to our understanding of God, they don't complete it. Knowing God is a holistic affair - mind, body, heart, soul, strength, experience, etc. God desires our whole selves

But the inadequacy of words is not an excuse for not using them. The word musterion appears in Paul's letter's often, describing the work of the gospel in bringing the Gentiles into the fold and creating what we know as the church. The mysteries of God are the deep and ineffable things of God which we believe and proclaim, but only partially understand. Perhaps on the day when we see Christ face to face we'll fully understand those truths. Whether or not we'll have the words then to describe what we experience remains to be seen.

*I have Dr. Scott Horrell to thank for introducing me to this method.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

Friendship and the Incarnation

I've learned a lot about friendship in my 30's. One of the things I've learned is that I have often not been a good friend to others. I tend to be 'out of sight out of mind' with friends, I don't follow up well, and I don't initiate simply spending time together. My wife often teases me for not keeping up with old friends, and, sadly, it's true. But over the past two years I've learned more about the positive aspects of being a friend, and mainly because I've learned from the example of new friends.

This is on my mind because my good friend Jon Lamb just moved to Kansas. We said our goodbyes on Saturday after twelve men from our church packed his Penske truck (in 45 minutes by the way), ate breakfast tacos and bid farewell. Jon and April have become dear friends to us and we will miss them already. I've learned a lot about being a good friend from Jon as well as from my friend Chris Kedroski and many others in our church.

Although I haven't always been a great friend, I've had the good fortune of having a lot of friends throughout my life. In college I had John 15.15 posted on my dorm room wall: "I no longer call you servants because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you." I have often thought about what a sublime truth that is - the second Person of the Trinity, the Incarnate Son of God, calls us friends.

I think it's interesting that in John 15 Jesus calls us friends based on what he's learned from the Father. It's not only the information passed on by the Father, to Jesus, and then to his disciples, but the example the Father sets for the Son that reveals the Father's will for his Son and all his children. Since the disciples are learning to follow Jesus in the context of being his friends, I wonder what role friendship plays in local church discipleship. Many of my formal discipleship relationships have not been in the context of natural friendships. In some cases friendships grew, in others they didn't. But I think much of my discipleship has come with 'rubbing shoulders' with friends who also have their eyes fixed on Jesus.

Praise God for his Son, my Savior, my Lord, and my friend. And praise God for friendships that help me to more like Jesus.