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Richard John Neuhaus, RIP
Saturday, January 10, 2009, 11:09 AM

Richard John Neuhaus was one of my favorite writers. Who doesn’t open his copy of First Things immediately to the back to see what Neuhaus would have to say? That is, who didn’t open immediately to the back, since those days are now gone with the death of one of the most articulate thinkers of our age.

I had just corresponded with Neuhaus a few weeks ago and was looking forward to being with him next month at a conference honoring Robert George at Union University. Now he’s gone, and will be missed by everyone with a concern for a culture of life and a civilization of meaning.

This week’s Weekly Standard features a moving, personal eulogy of sorts by Neuhaus’s protege J. Bottum. It’s worth reading.

This morning, I’m thinking about a striking line in one of Neuhaus’s books, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Neuhaus, the Catholic convert, there wrote:

“When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers through my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of ‘justification by faith alone,’ although I will thank God that that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misundertood doctrine was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways…these and all other gifts I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.”



Transracial Adoption and the Gospel
Thursday, May 29, 2008, 12:17 PM

Years ago I was adopted into a family of a different ethnicity than my own, and it was traumatic. You should see how long it took me to learn Hebrew.

This, and the fact that I’ve adopted two children from the former Soviet Union, led me to read with great interest a current report about so-called "transracial adoption," the phenomenon of parents who adopt children of a different ethnicity or cultural background.

The report — issued by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute — is against trans-racial adoption. The New York Times reports that the report does not conclude that transracial adoption produces any kind of psychological or social harm in children, but that "these children often face major challenges as the only person of color in an all-white environment, trying to cope with being different."

Now, on the one hand, I can see why the social workers would have such concern. As I’ve asserted repeatedly elsewhere, contemporary American rootlessness atrophies the human spirit. It is probably impossible to quantify just how damaging to our happiness this current age of hyper-mobility and commercialized sameness is.

Moreover, the 1970s and 1980s gave us a popular culture view of transracial adoption as novelty at best, condescension at worst. Movie audiences roared with laughter when Steve Martin narrated in the opening minutes of The Jerk: "I was born a poor black child." Television audiences cooed as the theme song to one seventies sitcom told the story, "A man is born, he’s a man of means; then along come two, and they got nothing but their genes, but they got diff’rent strokes."

The joke in both instances is how nonsensical the concepts seemed: a white Midwesterner with African-American parents; two streetwise African-American kids growing up in a Park Avenue penthouse. The laugh tracks belied an American wink-and-nod at the idea of a familial racial unity-in-diversity.

Even so, the discouragement of trans-racial adoption is counter-productive and dangerous. Yes, we live, even still, in (in the words of one transracial adoptee quoted in the Times) a "very race-conscious society," often to the point of hatred. But is the solution to this to discriminate on the basis of race at the adoption process, to allow homes to be knit together, separate but equal, decided on the color of skin?

Old George Wallace once stood in the schoolhouse door, and now his much more progressive-seeming heirs stand in the orphanage door. But both are saying the same thing, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." And both pretend that they’re just being "realistic" about racial discrimination.

Right now, there are untold numbers of children, many of them racial minorities, languishing in the foster care system in the United States. Would the social workers really have us believe that it is better for an African-American child to grow up bounced from home to home in this bureaucratic limbo than to be a child to parents whose skin is paler than his? Do they really believe that a white Russian child would do better to live in an orphanage until she is dismissed at eighteen to a life of suicide or homelessness than to grow up with loving African-American parents?

This approach loves the abstract notion of humanity more than actual humans. It neatly categorizes persons according to their racial lineages rather than according to their need for love, for acceptance, for families. Our love for neighbor means we ought to prioritize the need for families for the fatherless — regardless of how they’re skin colors or languages line up with one another.

But there’s an even bigger issue here: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Is Easter Too Scary for Preschoolers?
Monday, March 17, 2008, 3:11 PM

Jesus was dead, and I mean really dead, on a cross, but he’s not anymore.

That’s how my son Timothy, a few years ago when he was three, explained to neighbors why he was so excited about Easter. No one referred me to a therapist, or to a cognitive development seminar. Those around me didn’t see the horror of what I was doing to my children. Neither did I.

We didn’t know that the Gospel, like Ginsu knives and blood pressure medicine, ought to be kept out of the reach of small children. 

At least that’s what one church was told recently, by a publisher of children’s Sunday school curricula, according to Two Institutions, a blog about family and church matters.

The pastors at this church in Raleigh, North Carolina, were perplexed when they saw the Holy Week Sunday school lessons for preschoolers from "First Look," the publisher of the one to five year-old Sunday school class materials. There wasn’t a mention of the resurrection of Jesus. Naturally, the pastors inquired about the oversight. It turns out it was no oversight.

The letter sent from the publishing company is up on the Two Institutions blog website. I had to read it three times to make sure I wasn’t falling for a Lark News parody. It turns out this publisher has decided that the Gospel is too scary for preschoolers.

"Easter is a special time in churches," the letter from the publisher says. "It’s a time of celebration and thankfulness. But because of the graphic nature of the Easter story and the crucifixion specifically, we need to be careful as we choose what we tell preschoolers about Easter."

The letter continues:

"In order to be sensitive to the physical, intellectual, and emotional development of preschoolers, First Look has chosen not to include the Easter story in our curriculum. Instead, we are focusing on the Last Supper, when Jesus shared a meal and spent time with the people He loved. We have made this choice because the crucifixion is simply too violent for preschoolers. And if we were to skip the crucifixion and go straight to the resurrection, then preschoolers would be confused."

The curriculum marketers must know how bad this sounds, so they reassure the church they believe that the Gospel is for all people. Leaving out the cross and the resurrection is actually to help children come to Christ. They write, "We’re using these formative preschool years to build a foundation for that eventual decision by focusing on God’s love and telling preschoolers that ‘Jesus wants to be my friend forever.’"

The publishers note that there is an  "alternate ending" to the kindergarten lesson that "tells a simple version of the Easter story" for older preschoolers, for those churches that want it. What kind of evangelical world do we find ourselves in when the Easter story is an "alternate ending" to the story of Jesus, at Eastertime?

Jesus wants to my friend forever? Who is this Jesus? And where is He? Apparently, He’s a Christ without a cross, without an empty tomb. He spends time with His friends, and loves us. Does knowing this, apart from the Gospel, actually prepare preschoolers to see themselves as sinners in need of a Mediator before a Holy God?

No, a Jesus who is not crucified, buried, and resurrected, does not save, and doesn’t help ease the way to salvation. Jesus as moral teacher, inspirational rabbi, or "forever friend" apart from the Gospel only prepares one for old-fashioned Protestant liberalism, the notion that what matters is that I’m civilized, ethical, and enculturated as a Christian. That’s not Christianity.

At Pentecost, the apostle Peter delivered a Gospel proclamation that cut the heart of his hearers to the quick of repentance by preaching that the dead body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb, but had been raised by the power of the Spirit. Peter thundered: "Let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36 ESV, emphasis mine). When the people cried out for direction as to how to be saved, Peter continued: "For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:39, emphasis mine).

The apostolic preaching included raising up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, a nurture and admonition that is nowhere in the Scripture abstracted from the Gospel. Indeed, the very idea of an ethical system, or a love of Jesus, that is not rooted and founded in Christ crucified and resurrected is something far different than the message of Christianity… no matter to whom, and for how long, it is given.

If this were just a Sunday school publisher, we could ignore it. If this were one isolated incident, it would not be worth mentioning. But it is not. The temptation that comes to all of us, in every era of the church, is to have Jesus, without seeing ourselves in the gore of his bloody cross and the glory of his empty grave. In the way that we speak of Him to our children, or to skeptics, or to seekers, we sometimes believe we’ll gain more of a hearing if we present Him as teacher but not as a former corpse. It is too disturbing, we think to ourselves, too weird.

Peter thought that way too. Not the bold preacher of Pentecost, mind you, but the Peter of just a short time before that, the Peter of Caesarea Philippi. Peter certainly knew Jesus as friend, and he had just confessed that He was Messiah and Son of the living God. But when Jesus began to teach that He must "suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and on the third day be raised," Peter was outraged (Matt 16:21).

Peter was no preschooler, but he was disturbed. Matthew tells us that he began to rebuke Jesus. His cognitive development was not yet to the point where he could understand such things. This will never happen, Peter said. He loved Jesus. He wanted to be with Jesus. He wanted to stand with Jesus. He just didn’t want the Jesus of the cross or the empty tomb. Jesus didn’t call this shallow theology. He didn’t call it inadequate teaching. He called it Satan (Matt 16:23).

Our children need to hear the Gospel. They need to see Jesus. That’s graphic, sure. It’s confusing, of course. And not just for kids. But it is the only message that saves. It’s the only message that prepares one for salvation. It is, as Paul says, that which is "of first importance," the message he received from Jesus Himself (1 Cor 15:3-4).

The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the Gospel. That’s the first word. If we cannot speak of that, we would be better off not speaking of Jesus at all, rather than presenting another Christ, one who meditates but does not mediate, who counsels but is not crucified, who is accessible but not triumphant over sin and death.

The apostle Paul told us the word of the cross would be folly to those who are perishing (1 Cor 1:18). He didn’t warn us that it would sometimes also be folly to those who are publishing. No matter. It is still the power of God

This Easter, preach the Gospel… to the senior citizens, to the middle-aged, to the young adults, to the teenagers, to the seekers, to the hardened unbelievers, to the whole world. And, yes, preach the Gospel to the preschoolers.

I’m not saying it won’t be scary. The Gospel will disturb the children. And, if you understand it, it will disturb you too.



Evangelical Fetus Fatigue
Thursday, March 6, 2008, 11:04 AM

Justin Taylor links today to what I believe to be a powerful and prophetic call from philosopher Douglas Groothuis regarding what he calls "fetus fatigue" among younger evangelicals. Specifically Groothuis speaks of those evangelicals who wish to "broaden the tent of evangelical concern."

I agree with broadening the tent, and am concerned about poverty, the environment, racial justice, and other issues, and am frustrated by the apathy with which some conservative Protestant churches have approached such things. Still, one should be as shocked as Groothuis is at evangelicals who are willing to embrace political leaders who embrace abortion rights, often dismissing the unborn as "one issue among many."

Groothuis writes:

"It appears that millions of evangelicals, especially younger ones, are experiencing fetus fatigue. They are tired of the abortion issue taking center stage; it is time to move on to newer, hipper things–the sort of issues that excite Bono: aid to Africa, the environment, and cool tattoos. Abortion has been legal since they were born; it is the old guard that gets exercised about millions of abortions over the years. So, let’s not worry that Barak Obama and Hillary are pro-choice. That is a secondary issue. After all, neither could do that much damage regarding this issue.

"Evangelicals (if that word has any meaning), for God’s sake, please wake up and remember the acres of tiny corpses you cannot see. Yes, the Christian social vision is holistic. We should endeavor to restore shalom to this beleaguered planet. That includes helping Africa, preserving the environment, and much more. However, the leading domestic moral issue remains the value of helpless human life. Since Roe v. Wade, approximately 50 million unborn humans have been killed through abortion. Stalin said, "One death is a tragedy. A million dead is a statistic." Too many are now Stalinists on abortion. The numbers mean nothing, apparently. The vast majority of these abortions were not done to save the life of the mother, a provision I take to be justified. Things have reached the point where bumper stickers say, ‘Don’t like abortion, don’t have one.’ It is simply a matter of private, subjective taste. But how about this: "Don’t like slavery, don’t own slaves’? Two human beings are involved in this matter, inescapably. . . .

"Evangelicals, for God’s sake, please wake up. Remember the least, the last, and the lost: the millions of unborn human beings who hang in the balance (Matthew 25:31-46). No, this is not the only issue, but it is a titanic issue that cannot be ignored. Rouse yourself to recover from fetus fatigue. God is watching."

Read the article. Pray for the "fetuses." And for the "evangelicals" too.



EPPC on Election ’08
Sunday, February 17, 2008, 2:23 PM

The Ethics and Public Policy Center offers several thought-provoking essays on election 2008. Yuval Levin writes a piece, originally published in National Review, on Sen. John McCain as an "honor politician," a breed of politico not quite "conservative" in a traditional sense but that’s not necessarilly, in Levin’s view, an entirely bad thing. Levin concludes: "Conservatives should view McCain not as a hostile force, but as a foreign and unfamiliar presence, bearing real potential as well as real risk."]

Even more interesting is Christine Rosen’s article on gender politics and the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton. Clinton offers the worst of American feminism, without its more positive claims. Rosen writes:

The political has always been personal for Hillary. It is this eerily seamless merging of the two that leaves some voters unsettled and others impressed with her discipline. In the final primary debate in Los Angeles, she avoided answering a question about her husband’s role in the campaign by saying, "I have made it very clear that I want the campaign to stay focused on the issues that I’m concerned about, the kind of future that I want for our country, the work that I have done for all of these years. And that is what the campaign is about." Hillary’s choice of language is noteworthy: she talks about "the kind of future I want for our country" rather than what the country needs. This is the language of paternalism, and just as "paternalistic" has become a pejorative term in political parlance, so too, might Hillary’s unique brand of maternalism – a stern and instrumental, mommy-knows-best progressivism that has at least had the effect of irrevocably undermining the tenets of difference feminism.

Finally, James Bowman, in an article written for the American Spectator, looks at the utopianism at the core of enthusiasms for the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama.

However much or little one thinks of any (or all) of these politicians, these essays speak to some of the more important underlying issues for Christians, issues neglected entirely by the horserace coverage of MSNBC, Fox News, Air America, and Rush Limbaugh.



The New York Times and Antony Flew’s God
Saturday, December 22, 2007, 11:13 AM

The New York Times Sunday Book Review looks at Anthony Flew’s book, There Is a God. The Times wonders if Flew has become an American as well as a theist, because of the Yankee prose in the book. The review seems to suggest that someone has ghostwritten the book for Flew, given the differences from his earlier argumentation. I suppose the Times is confident that such evidences of design point to an intelligent purpose behind them. Oh, wait.



Christian Ethics for 2088
Thursday, December 20, 2007, 12:59 PM

Would you ever baptize a robot? How about a human clone? How about some other form of bio-engineered human life-form?

Last week I taught the first-ever "D-term" December class here in Southern Seminary’s School of Theology. The course, Introduction to Christian Ethics, ended with a reflective analysis examination required of all of the students. They are working on them now, but I thought I would post the question here.

For the exam, I chose a deliberately outrageous example, an ethical and theological dilemma none of them would have ever faced. The reason for this is that I wanted them to think through issues that are not standard boilerplate ethical questions in the evangelical repertoire. The students are graded not on the final conclusion to which they come, but on how they get there. How they process the question through the prism of biblical revelation and a theology of the Christic mystery at the center of the universe, the coming Kingdom of Christ, the uniqueness and dignity of human beings in the image of Christ, the creational order, the conscience, and prudential wisdom in making hard decisions.

Question:

It is the distant future. You are 106 years-old, and in good health with a sound mind. Your great-grandson, Joshua, is a young pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention (now called the Galactic Immersionist Federation). He is seeking your counsel because, as he puts it, "I’ve got a question and there’s nothing about this in the Bible."

Modern technology has enabled infertile couples to engineer what the press of the day calls "robo-frankenbabies." These babies’ bodies are constructed partially with, as in the Frankenstein novel of old, body parts from human corpses and partially with body parts produced via human cloning. These children are real flesh and blood in every way, except with a robotic brain. This cyber-brain is programmed with advanced artificial intelligence so that the child is able to truly think on his own. He is able to express joy and sorrow, grief and gladness, the full range of human emotions.

At Vacation Bible School (now called "Reverb"), Aidan, age eleven, came to see your great-grandson, the pastor. Aidan’s parents are unbelievers, but he has been moved by the Gospel presentation given at the end of Reverb week. He cries in Pastor Joshua’s office. In fact, he is convulsing in tears.

"I know I’m a sinner," he said to Pastor Joshua. "And I know that I deserve to go to hell." He continued through his sobbing, "I love Jesus, and I want to know Him. What must I do to be saved?"

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Rudy and the Evangelicals
Tuesday, November 27, 2007, 1:28 PM

Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Rudy Giuliani means evangelical Christians have "grown up" to accept a social liberal with strong national security and low-tax credentials, right? Don’t bet tomorrow morning’s protein shake, according to two observers of social conservatives in America.

In National Review Online, Touchstone author Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Jon Shields of the University of Colorado argue the Robertson endorsement means little. Of the media speculation that the Robertson move means a new day for evangelical voting patterns, they write:

One problem with this view is that it assumes Robertson has a rank and file to lead. Robertson’s endorsement might have meant something ten years ago when he sat atop a thriving Christian Coalition. Today his endorsement means almost nothing because the Coalition has collapsed.

This reality dawned on Republican Party elites after the relatively poor turnout of evangelicals in 2000 caused President Bush to lose the popular vote. So in 2004, Republicans did not lean on Christian Right organizations to get out the evangelical voter. While the Democratic Party continued its longstanding practice of mobilizing voters through auxiliary organizations, such as unions and MoveOn, the Republican Party centralized its grassroots mobilization in its campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. It did so to great effect.

Wilcox and Shields conclude:

Even if Rudy wins the nomination and employs someone as talented as Karl Rove to build his campaign machinery, it is unlikely he can command the loyalty and devotion of evangelical citizens in critical battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. While Bush is a socially conservative born-again evangelical, Rudy is thrice divorced, publicly adulterous, and a social liberal to boot.

Indeed, Giuliani’s reported glee over Robertson’s endorsement reflects a profound failure to appreciate the new realities of Republican-party politics. Old-line leaders like Robertson now have little sway among ordinary social conservatives, many of whom have become disillusioned with a party that seems largely indifferent to their deepest concerns. So, even if Giuliani succeeds in getting most leaders on the religious right to support him in a general election match-up with Hillary Clinton, his candidacy is not likely to ignite the social conservative base in ways that enabled Bush to triumph in 2004. After all, churchgoing Americans are not likely to pound the pavement next fall on behalf of a candidate whose personal conduct while holding elected office, is reminiscent of Bill Clinton. For this reason, the foot soldiers associated with the unions and MoveOn could very well win the turnout wars and help propel another Clinton to the White House.

My own thoughts on the "maturing" of evangelicalism on the abortion issue can be found here.

Regardless of whether Giuliani, Clinton, Romney, or anyone else is the next President of the United States, it is true that evangelicals have some "maturing" to do when it comes to political action. But maybe maturity means something quite different than flexibility on justice for the unborn. The next year or so may show us where we’re headed for some time come. 



Prophet Sharing
Saturday, November 24, 2007, 3:00 PM

Pop quiz: What was Lyndon Johnson’s religious affiliation? Don’t know? Don’t care? Neither did the voters in 1964 (in 1960, it mattered that he was Protestant, generically, just to balance out the ticket with John F. Kennedy). So what changed? That’s the question posed by Peggy Noonan in this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Noonan laments the heightened attention to candidate religion in the 2008 presidential election. Noting the lack of attention to George Romney’s Mormonism in 1968, compared to his son’s religion in 2008, Noonan writes:

No one cared, really, that Richard Nixon was a Quaker. They may have been confused by it, but they weren’t upset. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, was not Greek Orthodox but Episcopalian. Nobody much noticed. Nelson Rockefeller of New York was not an Episcopalian but a Baptist. Do you know what Lyndon Johnson’s religion was? He was a member of the Disciples of Christ, but in what appeared to be the same way he was a member of the American Legion: You’re in politics, you join things. Hubert Humphrey was born Lutheran, attended Methodist churches and was rumored to be a Congregationalist. This didn’t quite reach the level of mystery because nobody cared.

Noonan pleads with the American populace to get over the religion question, whether it is asking Gov. Romney whether he really believes the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri, or whether it is expecting Sen. Clinton to prove how her Methodist upbringing leads her to reform the managed care health system. She writes:

We should lighten up on demanding access to their hearts. It is impossible for us to know their hearts. It’s barely possible to know your own. Faith is important, but it’s also personal. When we force political figures to tell us their deepest thoughts on it, they’ll be tempted to act, to pretend. Do politicians tend to give in to temptation? Most people do. Are politicians better than most people? Quick, a show of hands. I don’t think so either.



Louisiana Turns a Corner
Sunday, October 21, 2007, 7:08 AM

In 1991, my old Ford Futura had a "Vote for the Crook, It’s Important" bumpersticker on it, signifying support for the corrupt and contemptible Edwin Edwards’ candidacy for governor of Louisiana. This was a bit odd since I was a registered voter in Mississippi, not Louisiana, and since I had (and have) nothing but disdain for Edwards. Still, he was running against former Klansman and American Nazi Party sympathizer David Duke, and it was a real contest. Things have changed.

Last night, post-Katrina Louisiana signaled that the state has turned a corner to a post-Duke, post-Edwards era with the election of the nation’s first Indian-American governor, Bobby Jindal. The election of Jindal, a conservative pro-life Republican who will also now be the nation’s youngest governor, was a cakewalk at the polls but not on the campaign trail. The Louisiana Democratic Party insisted on referring to Jindal as "Piyush," using his given Indian first name rather than his preferred "Bobby" (which he chose from watching The Brady Bunch).

When the veiled references to a former Hindu sitting in Huey Long’s chair produced nothing but yawns from the voters, Jindal’s opponents turned to his Roman Catholicism. Citing Catholic apologetics articles Jindal has written for the New Oxford Review, advertisements run in heavily Baptist northern Louisiana deemed Jindal "insulting" to "Louisiana’s Protestants." Baptists and Pentecostals, though, stood by Jindal.

Louisiana is just one state and, I’ll be the first to admit, not representative of the rest of the nation. But Louisiana just elected the son of Indian immigrants who looks like he’s twelve years-old on an ethics reform platform. They turned aside race-baiting and old Catholic-Protestant rivalries in the process. And they didn’t even have to elect a crook to do it.


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