Sox, Little, Big, Clarifying Bush¬â„s Faith

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Last night I enjoyed the eclipse of the moon and watched the Red Sox accomplish the exorcism of the great Bambino’s curse. Having lived in Boston for seven years, I can only imagine the complete work stoppage that will characterize the place today as fans bask in the fulfillment of a sacred rite and take their place in the annals of sports history eight wins in a row? Coming back from 0-3 against the Yankees?

I awoke this morning to read about human’s “little prehistoric people” (I wish I could talk to Tolkien about this!) and a 1/2-ton man who had obesity reduction surgery (that’s a lot of Krispy Kremes).

Then I turned to the NYT and read the fascinating editorial “Faith, Hope and Clarity,” by Robert Wright a visiting fellow at Yale’s University’s Center for Human Values. Seldom will you read a piece aimed at clarity that produces the precise opposite so perfectly. Wright claims to help us understand George Bush through citing excerpts of “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers, which the President says he reads each day to make sure he is “in the word.”

Don’t get me wrong I think the public deserves and needs an explanation for how the President’s faith relates to his life and thought. My own Physician, a thoughtful erudite man actually sought my counsel just this past week, wanting to understand how he should factor in the religious dynamic of this campaign, concerned about some of the comments President Bush has made that made my Dr. friend wonder if he could actually draw the line between his personal theology and public governance.

The answers will not be found in Mr. Wright’s piece, which is exhibit-A of “bad exegesis.” Interpreting any text requires understand the original language in context and Mr. Wright exploits Chamber’s turn of the century “exchanged-life” theology without regards for language or context.

On Bush’s source of optimism? “Chambers was Scottish, and he conforms to the stereotype of Scots as a bit dour (as in the joke about the Scot who responds to “What a lovely day!” by saying, “Just wait.”) In the entry for Dec. 4, by way of underscoring adversity, Chambers asserts, “Everything outside my physical life is designed to cause my death.” So whence the optimism that Republicans say George Bush possesses and John Kerry lacks? There’s a kind of optimism in Chambers, but it’s not exactly sunny. To understand it you have to understand the theme that dominates “My Utmost”: committing your life to Jesus Christ – “absolute and irrevocable surrender of the will” – and staying committed. “If we turn away from obedience for even one second, darkness and death are immediately at work again.” In all things and at all times, you must do God’s will.”

On Bush’s lack of introspection and limited powers of reflection? “But what exactly does God want? Chambers gives little substantive advice. There is no great stress on Jesus’ ethical teaching – not much about loving your neighbor or loving your enemy. (And Chambers doesn’t seem to share Isaiah’s hope of beating swords into plowshares. “Life without war is impossible in the natural or the supernatural realm.”) But the basic idea is that, once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable. “If you obey God in the first thing he shows you, then he instantly opens up the next truth to you,” Chambers writes.And you shouldn’t let your powers of reflection get in the way. Chambers lauds Abraham for preparing to slay his son at God’s command without, as the Bible put it, conferring “with flesh and blood.” Chambers warns: “Beware when you want to ‘confer with flesh and blood’ or even your own thoughts, insights, or understandings – anything that is not based on your personal relationship with God. These are all things that compete with and hinder obedience to God.”

On Bush’s lack of concern for people who differ with him? “once you’re on the right path, setbacks that might give others pause needn’t phase you. As Chambers noted in last Sunday’s reading, “Paul said, in essence, ‘I am in the procession of a conqueror, and it doesn’t matter what the difficulties are, for I am always led in triumph.’ ” Indeed, setbacks may have a purpose, Chambers will tell Mr. Bush this Sunday: “God frequently has to knock the bottom out of your experience as his saint to get you in direct contact with himself.” Faith “by its very nature must be tested and tried.” Some have marveled at Mr. Bush’s refusal to admit any mistakes in Iraq other than “catastrophic success.” But what looks like negative feedback to some of us – more than 1,100 dead Americans, more than 10,000 dead Iraqi civilians and the biggest incubator of anti-American terrorists in history – is, through Chambers’s eyes, not cause for doubt. Indeed, seemingly negative feedback may be positive feedback, proof that God is there, testing your faith, strengthening your resolve.”

In each case Chambers is applied literally, without theological nuance and in an inflammatory way as applied to President Bush.

Now what are the lessons?

1) We better learn to read in context ourselves. I doubt that the average lay person understands basic interpretive rules whether reading Chambers or the Bible and that ought to concern us.

2) We better stop misinterpreting today’s culture without reference to language ands context. Whether lifting quotes from today’s music, films, games or novels, people of faith are experts in vilifying through sound bite deconstruction. Learn context, language, genre before trying to understand a work of art.

3) We better take more seriously our role of communicators of faith and gospel to a befuddled general population. Evangelicals have been so pre-occupied with winning political power plays they have been basking in their newfound influence, not realizing or caring that the broader culture does not understand their language, practices and beliefs and is often fearful, and sometimes justifiably, of their views.

If Christians don’t learn the language if culture and interpret faith to it, culture will reach conclusions about us with or without our input. I’m reminded of Dwight Ozard’s prescient warning: “The greatest mission field we face is not in some faraway land. The strange and foreign culture most Americans fear Is not across the ocean. It’s barely across the street. The culture most lost to the gospel is our own our children and neighbors. It’s a culture that can’t say two sentences without referencing a TV show or a pop song¢â‚¬¦ It’s a culture more likely to have a body part pierced than to know why Sarah laughed. It’s a culture that we stopped loving and declared a culture war upon.

Amen.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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