Thursday, March 28, 2013

Taking Prisoners in the War Against Gluttony

In the “Celebrating Small Victories” category, on Ash Wednesday, February 13 I weighed in at an embarrassing 190 lbs. which gave me a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 27.5—overweight but thankfully still well shy of being clinically obese. Sunday, February 17 I preached on the sin of gluttony (see blog post below) and pledged to my congregation to practice what I was preaching. This morning, 43 days later, the scale read 175.5 lbs. (BMI = 25.4)—still overweight but within striking distance of 172.5 at which point my BMI will be 24.9 and I will finally be back in the “normal” weight range for my height. My goal is to stabilize at 160 lbs. by Memorial Day, a weight I don’t think I’ve seen since my college days. Having an accountability group of 150+ does motivate!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Challenges Faced by Pope Francis

From the perspective of a lifelong Baptist, I believe that Pope Francis has assumed leadership of a Roman Catholic Church confronted by two very different challenges. One is the result of a profound moral failure. The other is a complex collection of problems in which theological and cultural issues are deeply—perhaps hopelessly—intertwined. 

The moral problem is the most urgent. It is the shocking disgrace of pedophile priests and the equally scandalous failure of church authorities to face and address the problem. Indeed, instead of confronting the problem, in too many instances there was a conspiracy to cover it up. The result has been hypocrisy squared. First, the hypocrisy of men who had vowed celibacy but who in fact engaged in sexual behavior that was both immoral and illegal in nature. This sin was then compounded by the added hypocrisy of bishops who lied and falsified evidence in an attempt to shield the guilty and protect the image (and financial resources) of the church. We’re not just talking here about a case of Catholics failing to meet some extraordinary code of behavior such as priestly celibacy. This was the failure of men in positions of leadership and trust to live up to the most basic standards of decent upright human behavior. Priests doing things that would get an atheist arrested. I know of nothing more toxic to a Christian community than hypocrisy. It has cost the RCC the trust of its own parishioners and the respect of the outside community. Until this issue is thoroughly and openly vetted and purged, the church will lack the moral authority and resolve to address the other problems facing Catholics. 

The second challenge is actually a long list of separate issues involving both theological and cultural concerns. The ordination of women, marriage for priests and nuns, birth control, abortion, beliefs about homosexuality, a dying European base, diversity of belief and practice in Africa—the list goes on and on. Dealing with these issues is far more complicated than the simple if painful business of true repentance needed to address the moral lapse. It requires the church’s leadership to distinguish between adjustments that are possible without a change in church doctrine, such as the decision coming out of Vatican II to allow the mass to be said in the vernacular instead of in Latin, and changes that would require sometimes profound doctrinal shifts. Addressing these later issues is fraught with peril. It is the difference between a valiant and forthright admission that you were mistaken in your interpretation of Christ’s teachings and a craven collapse in the face of outside cultural pressure from assorted special interest groups. Courage or cowardice. As a Protestant I would obviously differ with my Catholic brethren on any number of doctrines. But for change to be a corrective, it must be for the right reasons. The new Bishop of Rome has a reputation for humility. I hope and pray that with this comes great wisdom combined with strength and vitality that belies his 76 years. With the challenges before him, he will need it.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Review of The Bible

Part 1 of a 10-hour miniseries on The History Channel

The Bible for Dummies came out in 2002. It will soon be eight years since the publication of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible. I suppose it was only a matter of time until somebody tried to do something similar on TV. But who would produce such a show? Which of the cable channels would be most likely to broadcast an over-simplified, dumbed down miniseries about the Bible? Perhaps Fox, with such hits like American Idol, The Simpsons, Family Guy and the like. Or maybe A&E which brought Dog the Bounty Hunter and Storage Wars into our homes. My first guess, whoever, would have been Bravo, which has produced all of those highly edifying Real Housewives of… reality shows. I have to admit I was a little surprised to learn that it was my beloved History Channel that ended up being the culprit. 

In 2002 MAD Magazine did one of their many spoofs—something they excel at doing. This time it was a spoof of one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. Only MADs version was Bored of the Rings. Watching Part One of The Bible I sometimes thought I was just witnessing dumbed down, over simplified story telling. But at other times I thought we had crossed over into parody, a Bored of the Rings approach to the Bible. The dumbed down aspect is forgivable if you accept the underlying premise of the project: an attempt at a sweeping overview of a book as massive and as complex as the Bible in only ten hours (minus time for commercials). With such time constraints you cannot begin to hit all the highlights, to say nothing of exploring the nuisance and complex theological concepts underlying these stories from Scripture. And this also means that you are prepared to accept a lot of what Hollywood calls “compression”. At best this gives you a Reader’s Digest version of the story. At worst you get the Classics Comic Book version of War and Peace. Too often the story compression in The Bible was of the Classics Comic Book variety, requiring numerous voice-overs by a narrator to keep someone unfamiliar with the biblical text from becoming hopelessly lost. We ended up with more a collection of story boards than a story; brief disconnected snap shots with little to connect them. 

But my biggest disappointment was when the creators of The Bible chose to use some of those precious minutes of airtime to indulge in what could only be called parody. Perhaps the most blatant example was the portrayal of the angels that came to Lot’s rescue in Sodom. In over half a century of bible reading it never once crossed my mind to conceive of angelic visitors as ninja warriors, yet that is exactly what we were given in this bizarre episode. Similar creative license run amok was exercised in the scenes showing a young Prince Moses engaged in knife fights with the crown prince of Egypt. I just stared at the TV screen in open-mouth incredulity. I suppose next we will be subjected to some creative cross marketing scheme in which Moses the Action Figure will be given out in MacDonald’s Kid’s Meals. 

Producers Roma Downey and Mark Burnett consulted “a wide range of pastors and academics” in developing the script for The Bible, including their friend, Joel Osteen. Osteen’s involvement could explain a lot. But I am baffled that respected evangelical leaders such as Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church and Leith Anderson, a leading Minnesota pastor and the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, also lent their support to this miniseries. I can only assume that they view this disappointing effort with a sense of pragmatism. Just maybe someone unfamiliar with the Bible—the book—will watch The Bible—the miniseries—and be moved to dig deeper and actually go back to the source material. And once you get people reading the Bible then anything is possible. If God can work His will through the embarrassing efforts of preachers, then surely He can do something with a TV show.