Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Two Items of Note

I had two items published this month.

First, my regular column in the Key Peninsula News, in which I write some paragraphs addressing the issue of violence in our society. The final formatting in the paper squeezed it more tightly than I wished, but the thought is there just the same.

Second, I was featured in the "Books That Changed Me" column in the Covenant Companion, the award-winning magazine published by the Evangelical Covenant Church. I shared my love for the poetry of Luci Shaw, and specifically how one of her books saved my faith.

Unfortunately, neither article is available for reading online, so you'll have to pick up a hard copy if you want to read either one.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Shopping at Wal Mars

Note: This is not a post about Wal-Mart

I generally avoid shopping at Wal Mart. I just don't think it's a healthy practice to spend my money there.

That's not to say I'm judging people who shop at Wal Mart. That's their choice. Although, if given the chance, I would encourage them to shop elsewhere. I just don't think that Wal Mart is good for the world.

But let's be clear: it is possible to be a good person and still shop at Wal Mart. I can imagine a father or mother shopping for groceries at Wal Mart, and taking those groceries home and cooking up a nice meal for their family, all out of love for their family and the desire to share a meal together. And the family will eat and be filled, which is a good thing. I can also imagine a man or woman picking up a copy of It's a Wonderful Life and some popcorn at Wal Mart, taking them home, and enjoying a wonderful family night building up a sense of tradition and love of the season. In fact, I can imagine a person picking up a book at Wal Mart, taking it home and reading it, and thus learning something and being a better person. To that end, good can come from shopping at Wal Mart.

But this isn't a post about Wal Mart.

There are tens of thousands of people who go to work at Wal Mart every day, people who put in their eight hours and go back to hearth and home; the paycheck they are paid by Wal Mart puts a roof over their head and food on their table and medicine in their children and perhaps covers a family vacation to the coast. And you know that gentleman who stands at the door of Wal Mart, saying "hello" to all who enter? I happen to believe he's a genuinely nice man who genuinely cares about people and really does want them to have a nice shopping experience. So it's not as if I think everything about Wal Mart is bad. There is much good there.

(remember, this isn't really about Wal Mart)

On the whole, however, I believe Wal Mart does more harm than good. It puts too many local shops out of business. Causes too many empty or struggling downtowns and main streets in small towns from Iowa to California. It sells cheap junk made by struggling people in dirty factories too far away for us to care. While the food bought there may fill the body tonight, over the long-term all the additives and high-fructose corn syrup and highly-processed food substances are not healthy. The food they are selling is literally killing us in the form of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and the like. Not to mention the local farmers driven out of business by the corporate factory farm system that allows Wal Mart to sell food cheaply.

"But they're just giving the customer what they want," some will argue. And that's probably true. But it doesn't wash the blood off their hands. Wal Mart takes money from local economies and sends it away to corporate coffers and the accounts of shareholders in cities far away. The world would be a better place if filled with local shops who knew their customers, who sold local products, who took their profits and reinvested in the local economy.

So yes, you can shop at Wal Mart and have a richer life. You can work at Wal Mart and be a good person. But the entity that is Wal Mart still does more damage than good. So I choose not to shop there, and whenever possible, I encourage people to shop locally, to buy organic, to support the mom-and-pop store down the street.

But, this isn't really about Wal Mart. I just wanted to show that it is possible to think about things in a way that isn't exactly black and white, good vs. evil. It's a bit more complicated than that. But I also wanted to make the case that, while a thing might create space for individual good, it can, on the whole, still be less-than-good.

What this was going to be about: a particular church across the water from us over there in Seattle. But then I realized, it applies to a lot more than just that one church over there. In fact, I could think of a few more churches to which it applies. Plus. . .if I name that one church, we'll never get to the issues at hand. My former pastor Gary once (wisely) told me "you can talk issues and theology all day, but once you name names, you'll lose the discussion because it becomes personal." So I'm taking this a slightly different direction than I planned at the start.

Still. . .in thinking about those churches, be they in Seattle or Federal Way or Tacoma or Redding or Tulsa or Orange County, the principle is the same.

I know a young man whose life was probably saved through the ministry of that church. This man was walking down some dark roads, engaging in self-destructive behaviors, falling deeper into depression, and then found Jesus in that church. It turned his life around.

I have friends who attend those churches. Some who have done ministry trips with those churches. I know young men who are passionate about studying the Bible and living lives of righteousness, abandoning the pleasures of the world in pursuit of Christ. I know young people who engage in theological discussion, who serve the poor and weak, who act kindly and with compassion, who desire nothing more than to serve God with their lives. And they worship at one of those churches, and it has been good for them.

It's just that, on the whole, I don't think those churches are good for the Kingdom of God. I think, like Wal Mart, they deal well in volume and sales, but the country isn't better off for it. A few people may be better off, but the rest of the world is all the poorer. I think that, like Wal Mart, sometimes the brand becomes the thing, and the celebrity pastor takes on the mythical character of Sam Wal (he's such a down-to-earth guy; he's so genuine, he just wants to do what's right). A lot of work goes into defining and defending the brand. Consumer market forces take over - evangelism turns into marketing.

It gets difficult, of course, because whenever somebody tries to criticize one of those churches, or point out the many ways they fall short of true biblical health, then somebody will say "but it's been good for me!" and you can't argue with that. Or when one of their pastors sends out an offensive tweet criticizing, say, the President of the United States, and calling into question his very faith, everybody defends said pastor either because a) they've been suckered into thinking this pastor always does what's right, or b) they'll excuse that behavior in light of all the good he's done.

Okay, forget that part about not naming names. Can you go to Mars Hill and be a good Christian? Absolutely. But would the world be better if, instead of a few Mars Hills, there were hundreds of small, healthy missional churches scattered throughout the city? Yes. Can you go to Christian Faith Center and be a good Christian? I suppose it's possible. But, overall, is the world healthier because of the size and influence of Christian Faith Center, and the particular theology it espouses? I don't think so. And do these churches do more harm than good? Overall, you can be the judge. But I think so.

Pastor Driscoll, Pastor Treat, and so many others might mean well. They might be decent people. They might have started with a healthy idea of building a church. But somewhere along the way, what had been a nice little community store church turned into a cultural behemoth that cheapens society and undermines the fabric of our culture. I can point to individuals who have had a positive experience at Mars Hill. But we can also point to the consistent stream of bullying, insults, petty attacks, and manipulative techniques coming out of those churches. We can talk about the caustic atmosphere they bring to Christianity, in which each and every question and critique is treated as a direct challenge that needs to be crushed. We can talk about the men being taught to control their wives, and the women being taught that subservience is their greatest good in life.

We can talk about the bad theology, be it the particular neo-calvinism of Mars Hill or the Prosperity Gospel at Christian Faith Center, and the way it seeks to control the gospel and those who profess to follow it. We can talk about the horror stories coming out about *alleged exorcisms in Driscoll's office, the shunning of those who dare challenge authority, the blaming of women when their husbands stray, the judgment and condemnation of those who hold to different doctrinal understandings. The appearance of pride and arrogance rather than humility and service. The gospel that seeks to define boundaries rather than cross those boundaries in love. Silly but offensive tweets on inauguration day.

Can you go to Mars Hill or Christian Faith Center or Bethel Church and be a good Christian? Absolutely. Can you grow in your faith and experience Christ there? I know you can. Have those churches done good in the name of Jesus? Yes, they have.

But would the world be a better place if more people found healthier local churches in which to grow and serve? Would I recommend people find someplace else to worship and serve? Yes. Yes, I would.