Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Review of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace and Reason

Honoring God in Red or Blue
Author: Dr. Amy E. Black
Recommended for: Anyone wanting a well-rounded view of American politics / politics & faith
Read from September 29 to October 05, 2012
208 pages

What got me into this book was my concern over the lacuna of Christian voices showing civility in American public discourse. It is easy to find examples of strident, unloving and even damaging rhetoric parroted by people of faith who genuinely care about the direction of the country. Christians seem to have little trouble stating convictions on issues, but we rarely articulate those convictions effectively. We often sound our victim-whines, complaining that we feel shut out from political power. And we are, too often, silenced by our own ignorance or clumsiness. After a quick scan, I judged that Honoring God in Red or Blue would echo my concerns and address them.

Amy Black, a Wheaton professor with an M.I.T. doctorate in political science and experience as a Congressional Fellow, speaks directly to fellow Christians in an encouraging tone, educating and informing her audience on the basics of American government and politics without condescending. Though much of the book covers what we should have learned in Civics 101, Dr. Black's explanations target adults who need not just reminding, but refocusing. Part 1 reviews the reasons for political involvement, the relationship between religion and politics and the purpose and limits of government. This section alone makes the book worth reading, especially for those who may be expecting too much from a system that was designed to work slowly, through compromise rather than through tyranny of anyone's platform or party.

"Black and white" may be helpful stereotypes for categorizing moral issues, but those absolute categories do not realistically reflect the process of politics. Dr. Black counsels, "It is possible to stand on Christian convictions and still make compromises." Honoring God in Red or Blue advocates active political involvement, but as a means of demonstrating love in action rather than sanctioning lust for power in the name of Christ. Listening, humility, respect and informed action are the means through which Christians may pursue a better society.

After giving a primer on the roles of local,state and federal government in Part 2, which also features a helpful discussion of the relationship between church and state, the book explores the question of how faith and politics may interact. (Part 3 is the "how to" section.) How have various faith traditions interacted with the state? How do we disagree peacefully, and what if Christians have serious political disagreements? The author unpacks her core premise here--that humility and respect are necessary for fruitfulness in political involvement--and applies it to how we tackle debate and disagreement over the "hard issues," things about which we may have a common goal but a different solution than our opponents. The book highlights the issue of poverty as an illustration, offering several plausible solutions that may differ, yet be acceptable within a Christian worldview.

The final few chapters offer a helpful analysis of political campaigning and informed voting.

Throughout Honoring God in Red or Black, the author speaks with a voice that is as non-partisan and ideologically dispassionate. This stance results in a guide that is practical and informative. Sidebars on how to understand statistics, how to fact-check, the rise of the Tea Party, separation of church and state, etc. add to the book's value. Yet for all these strengths, a significant weakness of Honoring God in Red or Black is its failure to build a strong enough biblical and theological foundation to support a positive Christian vision, one that does not detract from the author's core assumptions, but takes them and goes farther and deeper in seeking to redeem what is broken in American society and politics. The principle of love is too broad. Even humility and respect are not enough.

While American Christians need Christian character if we are to effectively engage in the political sphere, we also need a philosophy that embraces and applies the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) as discipleship of "the nations," the Great Commandment (Luke 10:27) as loving God as well as neighbor,and the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:26-28). Core biblical assumptions like these have implications for respecting life AND the environment, for upholding the design of marriage AND not hating or fearing others who do not agree but are also made in God's image--moral and societal issues that require a greater prophetic voice from the church, yet not absent love and respect. Such a developed, positive political philosophy may be beyond the scope of this book. Still, Honoring God in Red or Blue provides sane, useful and faithful counsel and wisdom for those who want to be involved and make a difference in a pluralistic culture that is desperate for clarity and sanity.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Someone (Worth?) Dying For

Worth Playing?

As MIKESCHAIR releases their second full-length Curb Records CD, A Beautiful Life (8/23/11), there has been no small amount of chatter over the first single, "Someone Worth Dying For."

As this post is being written, the song sits in the top 20 on the monitored Christian A/C chart. Many of the strongest Christian radio stations in the country have added the song, but a few haven't. And their reasoning intrigues me: it's the song's theology. The problem seems to be in the word "Worth" in the title and chorus

Stay with me for a little theology-breakdown. 

Man-Centered or God-Centered?

If you had told me a decade ago that Christian radio stations might actually consider evaluating a song theologically and holding it off because it reflects a man-centered view of salvation, I would have sneered in disbelief. In fact, for at least the last 15 of my 25 years in this industry, I've been praying for artists, producers, labels, radio music directors and program directors to become more theologically aware and God-centered in the way they make, evaluate, and disseminate the music we all hear. 

So, I love the fact that my peers are concerned that "Someone Worth Dying For" grounds God's saving grace on the intrinsic worth of humanity, as if God experienced cognitive dissonance, unable to bear the consequences of His own judgment on us--as if that motivated the cross OR that the song reinforces a therapeutic gospel: that Jesus died to fix our tarnished self-image. If only we could see ourselves the way He sees us! I love that some people don't want to play or listen to any song that misrepresents the character of God, the nature of human depravity and the sovereign grace of the atonement. But.

The problem is, they picked the wrong song to fight this battle.

Careless Exegesis

I hate to say it, but it's the age-old problem of careless exegesis: you read the title and think you know the message of the song. To break it down, the phrase "someone worth dying for" occurs in the chorus, just after these lines: 

. . . I wanna believe,
Jesus, help me believe that
I am someone worth dying for

a simple prayer from someone who senses their innate unworthiness. Of course, the felt-need in the song is not a theological unworthiness (compared to the holiness and perfection of God) as it would (should) be in a sermon; it's an existential unworthiness, a feeling that, compared to everyone else, I don't measure up:

Am I more than flesh and bone?
Am I really something beautiful?. . .

The soul-vacuum the chorus expresses is clearly man-centered, but that same soul is brought immediately into a theological context:

. . . Yeah, I wanna believe, I wanna believe that
I'm not just some wandering soul
That you don't see and you don't know. . .

so that the soul's real problem is estrangement from God. That estrangement is recognized in the dramatic circumstance of the song and clearly emerges as the song's major theological theme. All of this is just the DNA of the chorus.

The Anatomy of Verses

As for the opening verse, the voice (narrator) paints a series of postage-stamp portraits of broken people: the wife waiting up at night / the man struggling to provide / the son who chose a broken road / the girl thinking (she)'ll end up alone. Each of these dramatic situations anticipates a response of the listeners in a popular audience, for whom the song is intended. Just like a trained preacher, the song studies its audience as well as its subject. And it directs all who have just been called out to a simple petition: God, can you hear me? / Oh God, are you listening?

I remember my own experience of coming to faith in Jesus Christ: one of the biggest transformations of my life happened when I realized that God knows my name! This is consistent with God's meticulous providence--his care of his creation and creatures, the sparrows, which are known and cared for by God, and which are used by Jesus as an illustration of the superior worth of men and women made in God's image:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Luke 12:5-7).

"Someone Worth Dying For," I contend, expresses a theology of human worth in this sense, NOT as a motivation for God's initiating the plan of salvation or saving any individual, a great salvation which is sola Gratia (by grace alone):

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Crossing the Bridge

Nowhere in this song is salvation merited by human work or intrinsic worthiness. Witness the bridge, a key point in popular song construction which often expresses a new point or reinforces the main theme:

You're worth it, you can't earn it
Yeah, the cross has proven
That you're sacred and blameless
Your life has purpose

The affirmation of self-worth in "Someone Worth Dying For" is, I conclude, Christological, not anthropological (Christ-centered, not man-centered). And in case someone wants to be more exact, let me remind you this is poetry, not a sermon. Again, the dramatic circumstance of the poetry expresses the felt-needs of the intended audience, but it doesn't end there. Those needs are immediately brought into a theological, Christ-centered context where the riches of God's grace are presented as the answer to estrangement from God together with its fruits: self-alienation, self-hatred, and self-centered love (narcissism).

Just one more point. It is unfair to evaluate a product of composition in isolation from its context, whether it be the assumed meaning of a verse isolated from its inner and inter-textual setting or the supposed intention of a lyric isolated from the surrounding songs and the corpus of one's work. The songs immediately preceding and following "Someone Worth Dying For," which are "Save Me Now" and "You Loved Me First" clearly demonstrate the authorial intention of "Someone Worth Dying For." Clearly the author has the intent of "preaching" the Good News through this song.

A Reason To Sing

And that's what has me exercised that some are keeping the song off their stations or making careless comments on iTunes. Not because I don't agree with their theology, but their exegesis. In our efforts to reform Christian pop music, let's be careful to read the genre right (poetry, not sermon, essay or systematic theology) and put the themes, allusions, illustrations and metaphors in the right context.

If we need an example of truly man-centered theology in popular Christian music (including worship songs), unfortunately we don't have to look very far. Fortunately for MIKESCHAIR, they aren't on that list.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

From Disaster to Hope: A Personal Perspective

I’m not sure the date March 11, 2011 will emblazon itself on my memory like December 26, 2004. On both days, the earth shook, the deep awakened and swept thousands away. Both days can be quantified by earthquakes measuring nine-point-something on the Richter scale. Both quakes and resulting tsunamis set records in the number of deaths and did damage into the billions of dollars. But unlike the recent Sendai earthquake off the coast of Japan, I wound up in the middle of the recovery effort, thanks in large part to the folks I serve in The JOY FM community. Unlike this recent disaster, I can look back in wonder on what God did six years ago to bring glory and good out of tragedy.

A Tsunami of Support

On a cool January morning in 2005, I went on the air with my team, linked with other stations in our small, southeastern network, trying to raise $75,000 to build about a village-worth of permanent homes in South India, the third-hardest hit area of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. We announced the rebuilding effort as the result of having a local church contact within India who had connections on the coast to move in and rebuild small homes for families who lost everything. Pastor Paul had no idea, nor did we, that the small effort to rebuild a village was going to suddenly become a massive initiative to lead the country in restoration, setting the pace for government projects in several devastated areas.

By the time we got off the air, just after 10:00 a.m., we had received gifts and pledges totaling $720,000 – nearly ten times what we were asking! By the end of the day, the total was $1,000,000. I got to deliver “the check” personally, due to a previously-arranged trip to India. I presented it (symbolically) to Pastor Paul on the very beach where 60 families had just buried their loved ones. Initially, our presence there was suspect to the locals. Now, having returned five years later to see 650 permanent homes, I have been greeted with open arms. 

A God-Thing?

To say “it was a God-thing” is almost profane. The sacred orchestration of so many pieces coming together in just the right way so that a legacy of Christian love and Gospel-giving (the Good News of Jesus’ redeeming love made tangible in bricks and sweat) is a holy witness to God’s good providence and His determination to “so love” the world (John 3:16). As one listener put it: “We wanted to rebuild a village, but God wanted to build a city!” Actually, He is building his kingdom there through the ongoing missionary efforts of many connected with the areas in which we have built “Homes of Hope.”

I don’t know what God is doing or what He will do in Japan. But I know this: a tragedy of any size—personal to global—is an opportunity to see the goodness of God in action. We can all do something that eases pain, feeds hunger, shares hope and saves a life.

To give to relief efforts in Japan, visit the dedicated JOY FM page:  http://www.thejoyfm.com/headline/japanese-earthquake

To see videos from Bill’s trip back to India, visit the blog site:  http://bricksandsweat.wordpress.com/