Not the end yet

I have never much appreciated the work of Bart D. Ehrman, so why did I sign up to receive his latest book on the date of its publication? I’m speaking of Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End.

Actually, Ehrman’s book says very little about Armageddon. It’s mostly about the book of Revelation and the twisted history of its interpretation.

That’s why I wanted to read it. Revelation is a longtime interest of mine, and I like to know what others say about it. Erhman says nothing new or surprising, but he says it the same way he says just about everything: in a breathless, sensational, gee-whiz, Discovery Channel way that often sounds quite cynical.

He presents a straightforward account of how Revelation came to be the darling of crackpots and how its dreadful misinterpretation has infected public and private life worldwide. If you’re new to serious Revelation studies or want to be weaned off “end times” trash, this is valuable reading.

Then he gets into how he thinks Revelation ought to be interpreted, and here he gets into trouble.

After chiding fundamentalists and evangelicals for taking the bizarre symbols of Revelation too literally, he starts taking everything way too literally himself. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, repeatedly warns his readers not to take what he says literally. Things are not this, he says over and over, only “like this.”

Even early on (page 31), Erhman snidely remarks that God apparently has body parts – and extremely wooden interpretation of John’s visions in chapter 5 of Revelation.

Ehrman’s jaundiced reading leads him to misread the lion and lamb symbolism. “The book is not about a lion that becomes a lamb; it is about a lamb that becomes a lion,” he says (page 160). No, no, no. You totally missed the point there.

Finally, he dismisses Revelation as revenge porn. “In the end, the right people will get what the wrong people have now” (page 172). He concludes: “…in my view, the God of Revelation cannot be the true God” (156).

The Jesus of Revelation is not the Jesus of the gospels, he says (206). The gospels present a unified portrayal of Jesus as the model of service to others. “I do not need to provide a full discussion of this here – that would require an entire book” (186).

I want to read that book, Bart. But this one and all the others like it, not so much.

Profiles in courage & cowardice

These are some recent profiles in courage and cowardice.

* Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, stands up to the Southern Baptist Church by appointing and standing by a female pastor. The SBC, a bastion of patriarchy, kicks the church out of the denomination.

Saddleback will do fine on its own. The SBC continues its slide into its own manmade version of hell.

* Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas is censured by the state partly because, among other things, he supports new gun safety laws after the Uvalde school shooting in his district.

He also opposes House GOP immigration proposals and stands up for same-sex marriage. And you thought it was tough towing the Communist Party line.

* Walgreens decides not to distribute abortion pills in Kansas and other states because of pressure from antiabortion politicians.

The Food and Drug Administration decided in January to allow brick-and-mortar drugstores to carry mifepristone, part of an abortion drug cocktail that is now thought to account for more than half of abortions in the United States.

In 20 states, Republican state attorneys general warned Walgreens of legal action if it carried the drug. In these states, an attorney “general” means one that defends only certain interests – and they’re probably not yours.

* Meantime, senators Josh Hawley and Roger Marshal are quick to blame “woke” banking for the failure of that big California bank. More likely, the bank failed because of a Trump deregulation proposal that Marshal supported. (Hawley wasn’t on board the GOP doom train at that time.) So forget “woke.” Blame Marshal and his cronies for the bank failure. The opposite of woke, they’re asleep at the wheel.

I could go on like this all day. You can get in on the fun. Create your own list of profiles in courage and cowardice.


Random thoughts on the Asbury Revival:

          This event is like a rain barrel. Looking into it, mostly what you see is your own somewhat distorted reflection. Consider the ecstatic reaction from some and the vitriolic reaction from others. It’s not that “You have to be there.” It’s that wherever you are, you’re going to see from that point of view, and nothing is likely to change your mind.

          Yes, it’s God working in the lives of these people. What God is doing, I can’t say.

          The real test of any revival is what happens afterward. If the lives of the people involved are not significantly changed, there was no revival, just a momentary emotional high for those involved. Emotional highs are fine. But revival ought to mean repentance – that is, change of mind and heart.

          The revival started Feb. 8 at Hughes Auditorium at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. It is a Christian college with Methodist roots. It’s across the street from Asbury Theological Seminary, which trains pastors for ministry in the United Methodist Church.

It started after a regular chapel service. Some students just stayed rather than moving on. They sang songs. They prayed. They wept. They shared testimonies. When somebody started preaching, they listened. It appears to have been a joyful but not overly dramatic event.

          The university basically shut the revival down as of Monday afternoon, Feb. 20. Students only from now on. Apparently the university and the town are overwhelmed by the public response. It also looks to me like the typical reaction of university bigwigs to any spontaneous activity of students that attracts attention: “Shut it down!”

          Some people wonder why it’s happening at Asbury. Well, it’s happened there several tunes before, most recently in 1970. You have to recognize that Asbury is a religious university. A revival is far more likely to happen there than at a secular land grant college. It’s a cultural thing. To have a “revival,” there must be something present for you to revive. It’s an organic thing. The Holy Spirit travels where the Spirit wills, but revivals don’t just happen randomly.

          No question that American churches need a revival. Many are reeling from the effects of the epidemic. Many people who stayed home to stay safe are now staying home for other reasons. Maybe they prefer live-streamed worship. Maybe they have concluded that they don’t need church anymore.

          Yes, American churches need a revival. The toxicity of “evangelical” political involvement has turned off millions. Talk of “Christian nationalism” makes many people sick to their stomachs. (It’s a total contradiction. John 3:16 does not say, “For God so loved America that God gave God’s only Son…”)

          Hovering in the back of everyone’s mind: A restless and uncertain present, and shaky visions of the future. A horrible war in Ukraine. Vicious dictators in Russia, North Korea and China. Threats of worldwide terror. Threats of worldwide calamity because of climate change. American politics in torment. George Santos is all too typical.

Yes, we need a revival. Yes, we need God. Maybe some real good can come from this Asbury thing. That’s what I’m praying for. How about you?

          If you want to check it out, try this website:

Lift your voice and sing

Racist trolls have gone ballistic over Sheryl Lee Ralph singing the first verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the Super Bowl pregame festivities last Sunday.

I will not dignify any of their comments by repeating them. I would point out that though the song is often called the Black National Anthem, it’s mostly known by its formal title. And it’s under that title that it lands as #519 in the United Methodist Hymnal.

Yes, it’s a religious song.

Yes, it’s a patriotic song.

No, it’s not a racist song.

I suspect that if a white woman sang “Dixie,” the Confederates would have cheered.

But a black woman singing a truly patriotic song, not a trashy ditty from our racist past – whoa, that’s another thing.

For the record, here are the lyrics.

1. Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,

ring with the harmonies of liberty.

Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies,

let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

let us march on till victory is won.

2. Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,

felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet

come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last

where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast.

3. God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,

thou who hast brought us thus far on the way,

thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,

keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;

lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;

shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,

true to our God, true to our native land.

I’m sure the governor of Florida has his troops roaming the land looking for white people who feel aggrieved over this song. Let him. Read the lyrics again. Guess which side God is on. Amen!

Charles Wheeler, golf and fear

Notice of the death of former Kansas City Mayor Charles Wheeler reminds me of the only time I met him. It was on a golf course, where he spent a lot of time in retirement. My encounter with Mayor Wheeler that day helped teach me something about playing golf and about living without fear.

          I never played golf much, but when I did it was with Linda’s father, Ed. He had taught me to play, and he remained remarkably patient with my inconsistent and sometimes embarrassing performance on the links.

          One day Ed and I head out to the Blue River golf course in Swope Park in Kansas City. There are a lot of golfers out that day, and we’re told that we’ll have to pair off with somebody, so soon we are introduced to a guy I’ll call Bill.

          The moment I see him, I know I’m way out of my league. The guy has the look. He has the tan, he has the clothes, he has the swagger, and of course he has expensive golf clubs. If he’s not a pro, it’s only because he doesn’t need to support himself with a job of any kind.

          When we introduce ourselves, Ed says he hopes Bill doesn’t mind playing with a couple of duffers, and Bill says he doesn’t mind at all. But then he’s never played with me before, has he?

          As we’re standing around waiting our turn at the first tee, I notice that there’s quite a crowd gathered. Why, there’s Charles Wheeler, the former mayor of Kansas City. And there’s so and so, who’s the head of some political party. And there’s so and so, who’s the CEO of some big corporation.

          There are enough powerful people standing there that we could hold a convention and elect somebody if we wanted to.

          But we’re here to play golf, and eventually it’s our turn.

          Bill goes up to the tee, takes one or two easy practice swings, and then strokes the ball out onto the fairway. It’s one of the nicest shots I’ve ever seen – straight and true and long, just beautiful.

          Now Ed takes his turn. His ball doesn’t go quite as far as Bill’s, but it goes nice and straight.

          And now it’s my turn. And as I place my ball on the tee, I realize that everybody is looking at me. Charles Wheeler and the head of some political party and the CEO of some corporation – all these big shots are looking at me.

          So I’m telling myself, “Just hit it. It doesn’t matter how far it goes or how straight it goes, as long as it gets off the tee. Whatever you do, don’t screw up.”

          It’s that last thought, of course, that gets me into trouble. Instead of being loose and carefree, I am tight and fearful. So I haul off with the mightiest swing I’ve ever made, and when the club hits the ball there’s a crack like a rifle shot, and I just know that the ball is traveling 90 miles an hour.

          The only problem is, it doesn’t go straight out onto the fairway. It goes straight out to the side.

          Suddenly there’s a shout, and people are running and jumping in all directions. It’s like the parting of the sea in “The Ten Commandments.”

          And then I see, as if in slow motion, that the ball is heading right toward Charles Wheeler, the former mayor of Kansas City. It is traveling straight at him at 90 miles an hour, and for a moment he is the one paralyzed by fear.

          Finally, at the last possible moment, he ducks behind a little sapling. The ball hits the trunk of the sapling and bounces off in a new direction, and now more people are running and jumping out of the way. 

          Bill has this look of utter astonishment on his face. He exclaims, “My God, you almost killed Mayor Wheeler.”

          Now that is an exaggeration if I ever heard one.

          Granted, Mayor Wheeler was somewhat advanced in age, and the ball was traveling directly at him and probably would have hit him right between the eyes, but I doubt that it would have killed him.

          Still, I’m thinking I ought to apologize. I walk over to where he is collecting himself, and I tell him how sorry I am that I almost hit him. He gets this sickly little smile on his face and says, “Why don’t you try again? Only put it on the fairway this time.”

          Well, when the former mayor of Kansas City, who has just survived an assassination attempt, tells you to take a second shot, that’s exactly what you do.

          Only this time, I notice that people in the crowd are giving me a lot more room than they did before, and some of them are hugging trees pretty close. I figure I can’t embarrass myself any more than I have already, so I just walk up to the ball and whack it.

          It’s not a good shot, but it’s not a bad shot either. As the ball sails out onto the fairway, I can hear a mighty sigh of relief from the crowd – and there is a scattering of applause, too. I would have bowed, but humility prevented me.

          That’s the day I learned how to play golf. That’s the day I learned that you just walk up to the ball and hit it the best you can, and then you follow it and you hit it again, and whether you land in the rough or on the fairway or the green, you make the best of the journey.

          And you never worry. You never fear. Because fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear will do you in. Fear creates negative attitudes, and negative attitudes create negative results. Faith creates positive attitudes, and positive attitudes promote positive results.

          Don’t be afraid, the Good Book tells us again and again. When we place our full trust in God, we have no fear. We just walk up to the ball and give it a good whack and go from there.

          Charles Wheeler didn’t teach me that. But he was there — in the room, so to speak — when I learned it. Rest in peace, Mayor.

Real holiness

Sometimes it takes a long time for things to get inside my head.

The current schism in the United Methodist Church has its roots in a conflict that goes back more than 150 years.

The Global Methodist Church and its antecedents (including the Good News Movement, the Confession Movement and the Wesley Covenant Association) are all descended from early Holiness factions in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

For example:

During the great Holiness movement “shakeout” from the 1860s onward, most Holiness believers left to join or form Holiness churches, alliances and denominations. But some stayed and have been pushing for their brand of reform ever since.

It has been obvious, for example, that the Good News folks were schismatics in search of a lever that would work. They finally found it in human sexuality, and they’re finally getting their way: a new church of their own. They couldn’t win the battle the way they wanted to by taking over the United Methodist Church, so now they’re forming their own.

The Provisional Discipline of the Global Methodist Church says: “With John Wesley, we believe that a life of holiness or ‘entire sanctification’ should be the goal of each individual’s journey with God.”

Well, that depends on how you define “holiness” and “sanctification,” doesn’t it? Wesley defined them as perfection in love. Haven’t heard a lot of love from the Global Methodist folks; just lies and ill-concealed hatred of those who disagree with them.

No, their version of “holiness,” which we’ll see more and more of as the new denomination matures, consists of following rules. Love be damned, it’s the rules that count.

I wonder how soon the churches that have disaffiliated from the UMC will realize the phony bill of goods they’ve been sold.

Could be like that big church in Texas where the ruling board voted to disaffiliate without submitting the question to members. Just follow your leaders. Do what you’re told. We know what’s best for you. (A fella named Jones runs that church. Why are you not surprised?)

This is a far cry from holiness. Phoebe Palmer and the other great Holiness advocates would be appalled.

Well, the Methodist church has split many times before and doubtless will again. And as the UMC continues to practice “big tent” thinking, some “holiness” folks will stay, just to keep working to unravel the ropes holding up the tent. It appears that’s what they do best. Real holiness? Nah.

Don’t weep, just read ’em

The attack on Salman Rushdie is the inevitable result of book banning from efforts.

Whether book banning or book burning is sanctioned by the state or by pressure groups or by individuals, it is evil.

The militarization of book banning has but one end, and that is the violent suppression of all non-complaint belief and the enforcement of party line.

It has no place especially in a free society, for if some books are banned, society is not free but captive to the whim and power of a few.

Of course, book banners always couch their efforts in high rhetoric. They’re always trying to save the young and innocent from degenerates.

They want to save our children from those who want to “groom” them for unsavory behavior.

And who, I want to know, groomed the book banners?

Who taught them that this was proper behavior?

Who perverted them?

My daughter Erica gave me this T-shirt for Father’s Day. I wear it a lot.

I probably won’t be reading Salman Rushdie, though. I read The Satanic Verses when it came out and was not impressed. But I defend the right of others to read it, even if I didn’t care for it.

*  *  *  * 

Giving a sworn deposition the other day, Trump pleads guilty more than 400 times.

OK, technically he pleads the Fifth Amendment, the right to avoid self-incrimination. Non-technically that means he’s  GUILTY GUILTY GUILTY.

He once claimed that he could murder someone in broad daylight in front of many witnesses and still get off.

Given the rabid response of his followers to the law enforcement raid on his Florida compound, he’s probably right.

*  *  *  * 

The Trump lie machine says the FBI planted evidence and searched Melanie’s clothes. He is a liar for all seasons. Still, people believe this stuff.

The human capacity for self-delusion and self-destruction is sad but borne out by millennia of experience. The big question today is whether the American experiment in self-rule will survive or crash into fascism.

*  *  *  * 

Recently spent two great weeks with family in cabins strung along a lovely trout stream in Colorado. Our favorite place. The time went by so quickly!

Before we’d gone there for one-week trips. Now we wonder how we ever got so much activity crammed into just one week. Maybe that was it. Maybe we crammed things in because we had to because we had so little time together. Now we’re all ready for another two weeks. Not sure when we can make that happen, but we all want it to be soon.

*  *  *  * 

One thing our Colorado experience did was reinforce this conviction: I do not want to live in a world without wi-fi.

Arapaho Ranch, where we stayed in Nederland, just up Boulder Canyon from Boulder, has free wi-fi, but in some cabins the reception is not always robust, especially when several people were online at once.

I survived somehow, but I have the need for speed and the desire for connection.

To answer that frequent Facebook meme, I could overwinter in that little remote cabin – but only if it had good wi-fi.

*  *  *  * 

Speaking of Facebook… No, this has been a good day. No need to taint it.

How we got here

The first sentence is a gem: “At a time when so many books are being written, and so many of them are so long, the reader of any book is entitled to ask why it had to be written at all and, if the book absolutely had to exist, why it couldn’t have been shorter.”

That’s how Walter Russell Mead opens The Arc of a Covenant, subtitled The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.

Why did it have to be written? Because it’s an informative, exciting and exhaustive (if exhausting) review of how Israel has fit into American foreign policy.

Maybe it could have been shorter. (It has 585 pages of text and 70 more of back matter.) I admit to skimming some parts. But most of it is fascinating. I found the chapters around Harry S. Truman and the creation of the state of Israel simply riveting.

The title, of course, is a play on words. The Ark of the Covenant was (heads up, Indiana Jones fans) a receptacle for sacred objects of Israelite identity. The arc of the relationship between America and Israel has been long and not always bending toward justice. But Americans have always had an almost sacred fascination with the place and the people – Jews especially, but Palestinians as well.

One of Mead’s major contentions is that it is simply nonsense to say that Jews control American foreign policy. Whether mouthed by pro-Zionists or anti-Zionists, it’s gibberish, totally devoid of facts and totally contravened by all evidence.

Commenting on the Trump disaster, he notes, for example: “If American Jews controlled America’s Israel policy, the U.S. embassy would still be in Tel Aviv, the annexation of the Golan Heights would not be recognized, and the United States would be pressing Israel on settlement policy.”

Instead, he says, “the attitudes and ideas that shape American perceptions of Zionism and the state of Israel are deeply rooted and widely dispersed in American history and culture.”

He calls the Jewish influence theory “Vulcanism,” after an imaginary planet called Vulcan that was once thought to orbit the Sun near Mercury. Like Vulcan, overpowering Jewish influence does not exist.

To demonstrate, Mead charts complex and evolving American attitudes toward Israel from the Puritans through Trump. Especially important is the era following World War II. “The cascading disasters and crises of the postwar years were so immense, so unprecedented, so complex, and so terrifying that it is difficult for people today to comprehend the psychological and mental state of our ancestors on whose heads the great storm woke.”

For instance, the blizzards of early 1947 in Britain were so crippling economically that the formerly great empire was forced to totally revamp its foreign policy, especially regarding Palestine.

In the turmoil that followed, the state of Israel was born. Ironically, Israel was able to survive early attacks by Arabs partly because of arms sales brokered by Arab-friendly Russia, which hoped to drive a wedge between Britain and America. American influence in this era was spotty, buffeted by many factions and nominally guided by Truman’s guile, determination and simple luck.

Mead’s writing is clear, often elegant and often droll. The Democracy Train is the American idea that American ideals are automatically transferable to other countries. This Great Miscalculation has misguided our foreign policy for decades. In pursuit of a lasting peace in Israel, it shows up as a quest for the Holy Grail, though it often seems more like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a distracting red herring.

You don’t have to be a history nut or a policy wonk to love this book. You just have to be determined enough to tackle a big and complicated subject. It ought to be required reading in the White House, in Congress, in the governments of all 50 states and in the campaign staffs of anyone running for public office.

Enough prideful posturing

I saw it again the other day – on a T-shirt worn by a woman in a public place.

The T-shirt said, “Faith not fear.”

I suppose she was one of those who claim that they have faith in God, and that means they don’t fear coming down with Covid.

With all due respect, that’s horse manure.

Wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance and getting vaccinated are not signs of fear. They are sensible precautions in the face of a deadly virus.

If I wear a seat belt, does that mean I live in fear?

If I don’t prance down the middle of a busy highway, does that mean I have no faith in God?

If I don’t play Russian roulette with a loaded firearm, does that mean I’m a fearful fraidy cat?

How about locking my door at night, washing my hands after using the restroom and … oh, never mind.

Deuteronomy says we ought not to put God to the test. Jesus says that, too. Good enough for me.

          What these T-shirts should read is, “Pride not fear.”

          Pride ain’t faith, baby. There’s a world of difference.

          By the way, I’m just getting over a bout of Covid. Happily, it was one of the milder cases. I was only down for 11 days. Long enough and hard enough for me.

If you have faith and not fear, say a prayer of support for the loved ones of the 11 million Americans who have died of Covid since the pandemic started – not to mention the uncounted other millions from other countries who also have died. And stuff your pride where it should go.

Lost and found

“Mine is a theology of right relationship, in which we week a loving connection with ourselves, each other, with the earth and with a loving God.”

This is part of a statement from a candidate for ministry at a Unitarian Universalist church, as presented in Search, a splendid novel by Michelle Huneven.

The search committee rejects the candidate as being too Christian. Guess that leaves me out of the running, too.

For a short time in college, I attended a UU church with my girlfriend. Later, but before I got into ministry, I also was a guest speaker at a couple of UU churches. The church I attended briefly had a gorgeous Tudor style sanctuary with white walls and dark wood accents. It had a Sunday “service,” but I’m not sure you could call it a “worship” service.

The organ was strong and loud, but the hymns were dreary, and I thought they lacked substance. We definitely were not singing to any deity, nor was “God” ever mentioned, that I recall. I don’t remember any prayers either. There were several readings that, lacking context, had little meaning. The sermons were supposed to be uplifting, but I was never moved beyond the usual wondering, “What’s for lunch?”

The congregation was welcoming in the usual churchy way – which is to say, guardedly. (How else do you welcome new college students whom you’ll probably never see again?) After several weeks, we gave it up. I am not sure what she was looking for. I was fleeing the horrors of a fundamentalist Baptist church. I needed some assurance that Jesus was not a colossal jerk. I had never been in a United Methodist church.

My girlfriend and I did spend many evenings studying in the Wesleyan Center on campus. We camped out in a small room dedicated to John Wesley. The walls of the room were lined with books by and about Wesley. I had never heard of him, and I never cracked a single book besides the ones I brought in to study. Sometimes I wonder how my life might have changed if I’d read from Wesley then, knowing nothing else about him.

Hardly anyone else was ever at the Wesleyan Center, and no one ever said boo to us. Though the place was always open, there didn’t seem to be much happening. It was easy to slip in and out unnoticed several nights a week for a full semester. And then we were gone.

But not quite for good, at least for me. Six or seven years later, I fell in love with a different young woman, and 47 years ago today, we were married. She introduced me to the Wesleyan way of following Jesus. I immediately was hooked, and 30 years ago I committed to ministry in the United Methodists Church.

Michelle Huneven’s book Search kept me up far too late a few nights ago. Relatively close to the end, I couldn’t wait to find out what happened. The ending is tragic. It’s not at all the ending I wanted. But if you know anything at all about the way churches work (UU or Methodist or Baptist or whatever), it’s painfully realistic. (Damn, I hate realistic books. Give me a happy ending any day.)

          Though he didn’t last long in the running, I really liked the candidate I quoted earlier, because he sounds exactly like me. “Mine is a theology of right relationship, in which we week a loving connection with ourselves, each other, with the earth and with a loving God.” Amen to that!