Friday, May 31, 2013

Remembering the 1983 Sixers

The Battle in the Middle: The Sixers' Moses Malone and the Lakers' Aging Warrior, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the happiest night I have ever experienced as a sports fan. That was the night my hometown Sixers exorcised the demons of six years of frustration that had tormented the franchise ever since they scored a major coup in buying the contract of Julius Erving from the New York Nets prior to the 1976-77 season. They did it by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers, 115-108, in game 4 of the NBA Championship Series to complete an improbable sweep of the defending champs.

I had experienced Philly championships before, of course: the 1966-67 Sixers, the 1973-74 and 1974-75 Flyers, and the 1980 Phillies. But this wasn't the San Francisco Warriors or Kansas City Royals the Sixers were facing. This was the hated Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the vaunted dynasty who had defeated the Sixers in two of the previous three championship series and would go on to defeat the Boston Celtics to win the championship in both 1985 and 1987. And, most importantly, the Sixers did it in an utterly dominating fashion that no other team in the city's history has ever duplicated.

The Sixers' road to glory began in 1975 when, just 3 years removed from amassing the worst 82-game record in NBA history (9-73 in 1972-73; the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59, were even worse in that shortened season), they lured ABA superstar forward George McGinnis away from the Indiana Pacers. Big George teamed with guards Doug Collins and Fred Carter to lead the team to 46 victories and the franchise's first playoff appearance in 5 years. When Erving was purchased the following fall, the Sixers immediately catapulted into the league's upper echelon. Led by Erving, McGinnis, and Collins, the Sixers led the Eastern Conference with 50 wins and defeated the Houston Rockets to earn a spot in the 1976 Championship Series with Bill Walton's Portland Trailblazers. Despite winning the first two games at home (in both of which I was in attendance), the team faltered, losing 4 straight with McGinnis mired in a dreadful slump and Maurice Lucas distracting the youthful Darryl Dawkins with a fight in game 2. The team, it was felt by the entire city, had a lot of unfinished business to attend to. The team seemed to agree, starting an ad campaign in the fall of 1977 with Erving looking directly into the camera and saying, "We owe you one. We owe you ... one." (Never mind that the Doctor later was candid enough to admit he never thought they owed anybody anything.)

But, as anyone familiar with the vicissitudes of Philadelphia sports could have predicted, the one turned into two as the Sixers, despite coasting to 55 victories in the regular season, lost to the Washington Bullets in the Eastern finals, due in part once again to the subpar performance of McGinnis. As a result, the Sixers dealt the offensive-minded McGinnis to Denver in exchange for defensive specialist Bobby Jones, a sound move that would reap dividends in just a few seasons.

After a disappointing 1978-79 season, the team rebounded with a vengeance in 1979-80, winning 59 games, bettered by only the Boston Celtics' 61 and the Lakers' 60. But they whipped the Celtics in 5 games in the Eastern Conference finals, only to succumb to the Lakers when rookie Magic Johnson scored 40 points in the absence of MVP Abdul-Jabbar in the deciding 6th game. The following season the team was even better, winning 62 games (tied with Boston for most in the league) with Erving named the league's MVP. Nevertheless, in shades of 1968, disaster struck in the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. Up 3 games to 1, the Sixers promptly lost three straight by a total of 5 points, allowing the Celtics to proceed to the finals to demolish the overachieving Houston Rockets. The following year was more of the same: 58 wins (second only to the Celtics' 63) and an Eastern finals duel with the Celtics. Once again, the Sixers jumped to a 3-1 advantage, only to lose badly in games 5 and 6. The Dallas Times Herald's Skip Bayless dubbed them "Chokeadelphia" and confidently predicted a Celtic victory in game 7. Second-year guard Andrew Toney had other ideas, however, earning the nickname "The Boston Strangler" with an electric 34-point performance to lead to Sixers to victory. Once again, it was the Lakers, not the Rockets, who awaited the Sixers in the finals. And, once again, the Lakers prevailed in 6 games. The Sixers, it seemed, were at an impasse. They needed to do something to push them over the top. And so, like the team did so often in the 1970s and early 1980s, they did something.

The Doctor in Action

What they did was trade solid center Caldwell Jones for the man who was quickly becoming the league's most dominant big man, Houston's relentless Moses Malone. The results were dramatic. After 57 games, the Sixers had blown away their competition with a 50-7 record. Four of their starting five were selected to play in the All-Star Game: Malone, Erving, Toney, and point guard Maurice Cheeks, the paragon of selflessness and reliability. All told, the Sixers ended with a 65-17 record, second best in franchise history behind the 1967 team's 68-13 mark. Malone averaged 24.5 points and 15.3 rebounds per game to run away with the league's MVP award. The gracefully aging Erving chipped in by averaging 21.4, while the assassin-like Toney used his arsenal of drives and jumpers to average 19.7.

But they were just getting started. Malone set the stage by predicting a clean sweep of the playoffs, a feat never before accomplished: the Sixers would win in "fo', fo', fo'." Well, the feat still has never been accomplished, but the Sixers came close. In the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they defeated the New York Knicks, 4 games to 0. In the Eastern finals, they defeated the formidable Milwaukee Bucks in 5 games. They only faltered in game 4, when the Bucks used a 4th quarter rally to avoid the sweep. This inexorably brought on yet another finals date with the hated Lakers, who had vanquished George Gervin's San Antonio Spurs in 6 games.

The Boston Strangler
The Sixers won two hard-fought games at home before whipping the Lakers, 111-94, in Los Angeles in game 3. In game 4, the "Showtime" Lakers jumped to a 65-51 halftime lead, and were still leading by 11 going into the 4th quarter. But it was that 4th quarter which demonstrated to me how great that 1983 Sixers really were. Throughout the quarter they chipped away at the lead until, with just over 2 minutes to play, Erving stole a pass and took it all the way to put the Sixers up for good. As a fitting coda, tiny Mo Cheeks punctuated the victory with a breakaway dunk (the only one I ever saw the Hall-of-Fame worthy player make in his long career) as time was expiring. The Sixers were simply too good in every phase of the game. They were, above all, too explosive to be stopped by anyone but themselves. Malone ended the game with 24 points and 23 rebounds. Toney added 23 points and 9 assists. Erving added 21 and Cheeks 20.

And they made no 3-point shots the entire game (indeed, they only attempted one, a Toney miss). Indeed, watching that game again after 30 years impresses one as to how much the game of professional basketball has changed—and not for the better—in the past thirty years. Players moving without the ball, few isolation plays with 8 players standing around, mid-range shots, a lack of "physical," Detroit Piston "bad boy" defense (i.e., how the game was designed to be played), centers who actually play the post like centers, and dominate as a result. These are all elements of the game I love which are all too rarely found in today's edition of it. And waning popularity with large segments of the population is the result.

It is difficult to assess the lasting legacy of this team. Each of the next three seasons they won more than 50 games, but never again reached the finals. Drafting Charles Barkley in 1984 somewhat offset the decline of Erving due to age and Toney due to a chronic foot injury. But the final straw came when the Sixers traded Malone, their best player, after the '85-'86 season for Jeff Ruland, whose name has become proverbial in Philadelphia for "damaged goods." Thus the '83 Sixers, as great as they were, never were a dynasty, and it is for this reason that they are, in my view, chronically underrated when lists of the NBA's greatest teams are drawn up. But that is a shame. In my 50 years of watching the game, I can think of only two—Wilt Chamberlain's '67 Sixers and '72 Lakers—that I would rate as clearly better. The two teams they most resemble in terms of dominance are their peers, the '85-'86 Celtics of Larry Bird and the '86-'87 Lakers of Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Bulls that won 72 games? Sorry, as great as Michael was, the rest of his cast couldn't hold a candle to the "supporting players" who played with Wilt, Moses, Larry, and Magic.

In the 30 years since that long ago May evening, Philadelphia's four major sports franchised have won a grand total of one championship (the 2008 Phillies). This is a drought of major proportions. By comparison, New York (including New Jersey) has won 14, Los Angeles 13, Chicago 9, Boston 9, Detroit (!) 8, San Francisco/Oakland 6, Dallas 5, and even tiny Pittsburgh 5. The magnitude of the drought has caused this hot-headed, pessimistic Irishman no small consternation. Upon reflection, however, I settle down in recognition that this is how it's always been in Philly (I first started following pro sports in earnest with the 1964 Phillies, after all!). And the prolonged dry periods only serve to make the rare championships all the sweeter. And for that the names of Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, and Bobby Jones will always bring a smile to my face.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Elmore James Remembered


Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death, by heart attack at the age of only 45, of one of the true, under-recognized greats of post-War Chicago Blues, Elmore James. Indeed, I would venture to guess that many of those who have even heard of James know of him only via an off-hand remark by blues scholar Dan Aykroyd's Elwood J. Blues in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. But if one has ever listened to the early, Brian Jones-led Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Johnny Winter, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan's Fabulous Thunderbirds, or even the Beatles (on their late song "For You Blue" from Let It Be), one has heard the indelible lick for which James is most famous. This, of course, is the bottleneck slide electric guitar-propelled shuffle which he learned from fellow Mississippian Robert Johnson, which was destined to become one of the most recognizable sounds of the blues and its popularized offspring, rock 'n roll.

James's signature song, which gave his backing band their name ("The Broomdusters"), was an electrified version of Johnson's 1936 classic, "(I Believe I'll) Dust My Broom." James, who recorded for multiple labels in the 1950s, recorded the song for each of them, including Flair in 1955, on which, for copyright reasons, he had to rename the song "Dust My Blues." The riff is so perfect, and James's vocals so impassioned, that this is a tune of which I never get tired. I leave you with a number of versions of the song for your listening pleasure.

1. James's original recording for Trumpet Records, Jackson, Mississippi, 1951, with Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) on harp:

2. James's searing early-1960s recording on Fire, with saxophones replacing Williamson's harp:

3. Robert Johnson's original 1936 acoustic version:

4. Howlin' Wolf (with a youthful Hubert Sumlin on guitar and an aged Son House snapping his fingers), from 1966:

5. Johnny Winter and The Allman Brothers Band, 1972 (Johnny and the late Duane Allman: history's two greatest slide players):

6. Johnny Winter with Derek Trucks, 2012:

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Chris Broussard, Jason Collins, and Assessing Genuine Christianity


[For my initial reflections on this matter, see here]

Buried deep beneath the surface of the recent media hullabaloo over the self-"outing" of NBA center Jason Collins is Collins' own claim to be a Christian. Such a claim runs counter to the opinion of many, including ESPN commentator (and Christian) Chris Broussard, who has been roundly condemned by the secular public (and segments of American Christianity as well) for the following comments he made on air about the issue:

Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly, like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, whatever it maybe, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the bible would characterize them as a Christian.
Even a generation ago, such comments wouldn't have rustled the leaves of public opinion, let alone sparked the outrage that has led such organizations as and (allegedly) Faithful America to call for Brouusard's suspension because of his "hateful" opinion. Of course, that was a time before the politics of gender identity and sexuality gathered momentum to the point where they now outpace the science they assume validates their views and which, by the way, needs to be taken into consideration by many of those with more "traditional" views on the matter.

Collins, however, cites his own Christian upbringing as influential in developing his own worldview:
I’m from a close-knit family. My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding. On family trips, my parents made a point to expose us to new things, religious and cultural. In Utah, we visited the Mormon Salt Lake Temple. In Atlanta, the house of Martin Luther King Jr. That early exposure to otherness made me the guy who accepts everyone unconditionally.
In the wake of Broussard's commentary, many self-identified Christians have tripped over themselves in the rush to condemn Broussard condescendingly ("Those benighted evangelical traditionalists ...") and lend their support to Collins for his "courage" in outing himself. In the Washington Post, twelve Christian leaders, among them the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson, opined that it's "okay to be gay and a Christian." Such opinions as those shared by Broussard, it is alleged, "[misrepresent] the ever widening nature of the gospel of Christ, who engaged with those on the margins, and placed in leadership people who were not powerful by worldly standards." They rejoiced that Collins now "has the freedom to be faithfully and authentically himself with the world," and expressed the prayer that "God will open the eyes of Chris Broussard and help him mature in his faith." As they continue their major perspective shines forth brightly:
May Broussard see that Christianity is not a faith that is closed off to those who are different from him, but one that continually expands, reaching out to the neighbor and the stranger, sharing the good news. We encourage Broussard to listen with humility to LGBT Christians, their lives and stories. It is through listening that we learn."
Meanwhile, over at the Huffington Post, the openly gay UCC minister Emily Heath, while acknowledging Broussard's right to express his opinions, lamented that Broussard, in effect, invalidated the faith of, not only Collins, but of innumerable people like her. According to Heath, it's not for him to decide who is and who is not a Christian: "what I am sure of is that Jason Collins should be the one defining his own faith, and not Chris Broussard." She continues:
For most of us who are gay and Christian, we understand that some Christians believe we are "living in sin." We also understand that our faith does not hinge on their acceptance. While people like Broussard believe we are "walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ," we are pretty sure that we are actually living as the people God created us to be. And so, really, it doesn't matter much whether or not Chris Broussard has seen fit to "characterize" us as Christian. That's not his call.
Even straight Christians got into the act. At the Huffington Post, Presbyterian minister Richard Brand reminded us of the commonplace observation that "Jesus himself said absolutely nothing about homosexuality." Anyway, such a strict attitude about matters of sexual morality is, in Brand's view, somewhat beside the point:
Jesus seemed to be much more concerned about our relationship with each other, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and those in prison, caring for the widows and children, giving our wealth to the needy, than he was about strict rules and obedience to some rigid rituals.
Finally, over at Red Letter Christians, Kathy Vestal announced that we should all be "proud" of Jason Collins, not for being gay, but "for being courageous enough to put his own life on the line in the hopes of making tomorrow just a little better for someone else."

At bottom the issue is one of definition. What does it mean to be a Christian? Is anyone in a position to define the requirements so as to exclude others who may desire to be labeled as a Christian? For many, like Rev. Heath, the answer to the latter question is a clear "No." It is for each of us to define our "faith" on our own terms. For most of Collins's lionizers, however, there appears to be a tacit understanding that being a Christian simply means accepting Jesus' teachings, though the scope of those teachings seems to be tendentiously circumscribed. Collins himself points to Jesus' teachings on "tolerance and understanding." The signers of the article in the Washington Post point to Jesus' practice of welcoming the marginalized. Brand speaks of Jesus' ethic of love, manifest in the treatment of the poor, as relativizing such matters as "strict rules." And, lying just underneath the surface of the discussion is the subtext that Jesus' gospel frees people to be the people they were "created" to be, people who would remain oppressed if traditional ways of thinking were perpetuated.

Of course, such thinking allows for a lot of leeway in defining who is a Christian.  And that certainly serves the agendas of those who would like to marginalize large swaths of the Christian canon, particularly liberal Protestantism's bête noire, St. Paul. The New Testament, however, is hardly as nebulous as they would like. Simply put, a Christian is a disciple of Christ (Acts 11:26). Being such, according to the church's earliest tradition, involves both commitment to Jesus and persevering adherence to the well-defined theological content of what the New Testament authors refer to as the "gospel" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4). At bottom, as St. Paul writes elsewhere, a Christian is one who confesses that Jesus is the risen Lord (Romans 10:9-10). Such commitment, however, carries with it demands that cannot simply be shunted off to the side and conveniently ignored. Our Lord himself said:
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” (Luke 6:46-49, NIV)
Over the years I have taken a lot of heat for pointing out how American Christians to my right have failed to grasp the implications of living by what Scot McKnight has called "The Jesus Creed" (i.e., love God and one's neighbor). The point likewise applies to those Christians on my left. Love is indeed the mark of the Christian. And love for one's neighbor certainly entails sacrifice for the poor and marginalized. But such concerns for love and social justice cannot legitimately be played off against the so-called moral demands of the Torah. Rev. Brand implicitly lumps people like Broussard together with the Pharisees, those "nitpickers" who ignored the prophetic call for mercy in the interests of strict law-keeping (e.g., Matt 9:13). Elsewhere, however, Jesus tells his disciples to "observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell you" (Matt 23:1-3) because of their scrupulous desire to obey the very Torah Jesus came to "fulfill" (Matt 5:17), and whose imperatives he proceeded to intensify in terms of a radical focus on the inward dimension of its demands (Matt 5:21-48).

Collins and his supporters point, quite rightly, to Jesus' call of the marginalized and, indeed, of "sinners." In contrast with Jewish sectarianism that drew the lines ever more tightly around those who "really" obeyed the Torah, all in the hopes of hastening the advent of the anticipated Kingdom of God, Jesus, like his predecessor John, called the entire nation to repent and to put that repentance into concrete, observable action. As was to be expected, Jesus' message implicitly pointed to the inadequacy of the piety of even the most observant Jews, and was accepted primarily by those who brought nothing, morally or religiously speaking, to the table (that's the point, by the way, of the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, at least in its historical Sitz im Leben).

But the point that so many "progressive" Christians ignore is that societal "marginalization" per se is not the issue. The Pharisees, not to mention the sectarian Essenes, were not wrong in condemning the moral laxity of "sinners," prostitutes, and tax collectors. Where they went wrong was in the assumption that they, by their intensified observance of the Law, could be shown to be the true "remnant of Israel" and hasten the advent of the Kingdom of God, and their own concomitant vindication, thereby. They failed, in other words, to realize that they, just like the "sinners" they condescendingly despised, needed to repent and get with Jesus' kingdom program. When we get to the post-Pentecost situation of the early church, the matter is intensified further when, through St. Paul, Gentiles—the ultimate "outsiders"—are included as full members of God's eschatological covenant people. Yet the rationale for their inclusion is not some merely humanitarian concern for their previous "marginalization," but rather is eschatological, based on the understanding that God was now fulfilling his promise to Abraham to have a world-wide people. And their inclusion was not without cost to them: they had to "[turn] from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

Indeed, it is a basic hermeneutical mistake to proceed as so many today do, namely, to argue as follows: (1) Jesus accepted the "marginalized" in his day; (2) Therefore, Jesus accepts the "marginalized" today; (3) homosexuals are marginalized in American society; (4) Therefore, Jesus accepts homosexuals today just as they are. In a sense, of course, it is entirely true that Jesus (and God) accepts people as they are. He can hardly do otherwise, and all without exception are, in biblical parlance, "ungodly" (Romans 4:5), with nothing in their hand to bring to the table. True as that is, however, God does not allow sinners to  remain "as they are" after coming to Christ. Nor did Jesus in his ministry in Judea and Galilee in the early 30s CE. Just as rich, unethical tax collectors like Zacchaeus demonstrated their conversion by tangible acts of restoration, so adulterers and other such "sinners" gave up their sinful ways upon joining the company of Jesus' disciples.

Even though the story clearly is not part of the Gospel of John as originally written, the famous pericope of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) comports well with what we know of Jesus elsewhere. Some scribes and Pharisees, desirous of "testing" and trapping Jesus (akin to their desire to trap Jesus in the matter of Roman taxes [Mark 12:13-17]), bring to him a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. Should she, they ask,be stoned, in accordance with the Torah? (in light of the Deuteronomic injunction of Deut 22:22-24, some have suggested she was in fact betrothed at the time; though cf. Ezek 16:38-40). Jesus, however, refuses to answer their question. Instead, he simply says to them: "Let the one who is without sin among you cast the first stone" (John 8:7). Unfortunately, this saying has been popularly understood to portray a "liberal" Jesus who plays fast and loose with the strictures of the Law, reducing them to little more than inconvenient adiaphora. The verse, however, deliberately echoes Deuteronomy 13:9 and 17:7, where the Torah says the witnesses must be the initiators of the execution by casting the first stones. Jesus is not saying that one must be a paragon of sinless perfection to be able to judge adultery (Carson). Such would invalidate even the office of judge. Rather, it means that the one doing the casting must not have been guilty of the sin in question. Here this might be a tacit acknowledgement that the scribes and Pharisees in question had conspired to set the woman up, in which case they could have been viewed as abettors of the offense and clearly in attitudinal violation of the Torah, whether or not any of them had actually been guilty of the physical act of adultery.

Most important, however, is Jesus' ultimate response to the woman herself: "Go, and sin no more" (poreuou, [kai] apo tou nyn mēketi hamartane) (John 8:11). The use of the present tense in the prohibition may be meant to indicate that Jesus was aware of her actual guilt in the matter. More importantly, however, the command indicates that Jesus, even as the merciful Judge, does not condone sin and, indeed, disallows continuance in it for those who would follow him in discipleship.

This means, of course, that everything hinges on whether or not it can be determined whether or not Jesus would have condemned homosexual practice. This brings us back, once again, to the observation, repeated ad nauseum in the current discussion, that Jesus never discusses the issue. More "progressive" types like to deduce from this that the issue is thus not essential to Christianity, and that such matters as "love" ought to define our response to this as to other issues, even if that means overturning what the rest of the Bible says about it. 

Such is merely a diversionary tactic, however, using contemporary understandings of what "love" entails to marginalize inconvenient material elsewhere in Scripture. In any case, even if it mattered, the observation about Jesus' non-mention of the issue is true only at the explicit, surface level. As I argued in depth last summer, both the Jewish context in which he ministered and his definitive comments on God's purposes for human sexuality as laid down in Genesis 2 demonstrate without serious doubt that Jesus, like all his Jewish contemporaries, would have condemned homosexual behavior as counter to God's intention for humankind and, hence, as sinful and not an option for his followers. And this means that what, not only the Old Testament, but St. Paul as well say about homosexual activity cannot legitimately be squeezed out of the conversation.

And Paul is clear, not only in Romans 1 but in 1 Corinthians 6 as well, that such activity is sinful. What he says in the latter text is most instructive, for it speaks directly to the issue for which Chris Broussard is being vilified, namely, whether one can be an active, unrepentant homosexual and still consider oneself a Christian. The relevant text reads as follows:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11, ESV)
Paul is quite emphatic on the point. Both passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in male homosexual intercourse will have no place in the kingdom of God. By definition that means that they are not genuine Christians and followers of the one we claim as Lord. Such activity is, along with the other vices listed in the text, representative of the old life from which the Corinthian believers had been saved.

This does not mean, of course, that genuine Christians will never commit such sins, or any other for that matter. With reference to the matter at hand, this does not mean that people with a homosexual orientation are immediately delivered of such attractions once they become Christians. It doesn't even mean that God promises deliverance from such attractions at all during the present life. Heterosexual Christians should come to grips with this, if they haven't already, and learn to sympathize with homosexually-oriented brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, what the text does mean is that any professing Christian who lives an unrepentant life characterized by such behavior thereby throws his or her profession into question. St. Paul indicates this in his response to the peculiar Corinthian "boasting" in the matter of a man cohabiting sexually with his father's wife, i.e., incest:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy or swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:9-11, ESV [alt. JRM])
The apostle here both acknowledges the profession of the sexually immoral man and calls into question whether or not he has a genuine claim to being a Christian brother (tis adelphos onomazomenos). The apostle had internalized the principle Jesus laid down in the Sermon on the Mount, that a tree is known by the type of fruit it bears (cf. Matt 6:16-20). Christians, as Martin Luther famously said, are simul iustus et peccator ("at the same time righteous and a sinner"), but they are not sinners simpliciter. Christians may commit acts of fornication, homosexuality, or theft, but, as my mentor Harold Hoehner used to say, "There is no such thing as a Christian fornicator. There is no such thing as a Christian homosexual. There is no such thing as a Christian thief." Such acts, when committed, must be repented of, and the lifestyles to which they lead are antithetical to what it means to be in union with the Christ who died to save humanity from those very sins.

Much more could be said, of course. But the long and short of the matter is that Chris Broussard, though he may have expressed himself inartfully and in an unwise manner considering the current cultural climate, was nevertheless correct when he said that living in unrepentant sexual immorality does indeed disqualify a person from legitimately claiming to be a Christian. Of course, only God knows the heart, and the proof of the pudding comes at the end of the road. Nevertheless, if assurance of being a Christian is what one desires, the best one can offer is what Paul labeled the man living in incest at Corinth: a practicing, unrepentant homosexual who claims to be a Christian is a "so-called" brother or sister. Listening to the "stories" or "narratives" of homosexuals is essential, of course, if only to understand their struggles and reflect on the injustices they have historically endured. Nevertheless, such stories, no matter their postmodern appeal, can never trump the clear teaching of the Scriptures that the church confesses to be their sole authority for faith and life. This we must maintain as Christians despite the cultural obloquy that will be the inevitable result of such a stance. Christian ministers have the right to disagree with Scripture, of course. If they do, however, let them have the courage and integrity to emulate Thomas Jefferson and desist in calling their views "Christian," when they are demonstrably otherwise.

Needless to say, this is only a part of the story. We must, as citizens of a secular democratic republic, demonstrate tolerance for homosexuals as with all others who live and think differently from the way we do, remembering that God has distributed his common grace to all sorts of people for the furtherance of human society and flourishing. We must likewise always emphasize the primacy of love in our dealings with the homosexual community, refusing to magnify the gravity of what we consider to be the "sinfulness" of their lifestyle vis-a-vis others which we may find less "tempting" to emulate. And  frankly, many of us will have to repent of our failure to live that way in the past and present. Likewise, we must remember that a traditional, "negative" view of homosexual practice does not necessarily commit a Christian to a certain "conservative" view of how Christians should respond to the various "gay" issues now dominating the discussion in the public square. How one goes about working for God's inaugurated kingdom is a matter of genuine debate, the answer one gives to which has potentially significant consequences for how we are viewed by the wider world. It is to that question that I will devote my third and final post on this issue.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 5: The Early Christian Community of Goods in Jerusalem

Raphael, The Death of Ananias (1515), Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[For previous installments in this series, see here, here, here, and here.]

Luke, more so than any of the other Evangelists, develops the primitive Christian tradition that the eschatological era inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would bring with it a radical societal transposition, wherein the rich and powerful would be brought low as the poor, marginalized, and powerless would be exalted. Jesus, as we have seen, programmatically defined his mission in terms of fulfilling the Isaianic promise of proclaiming "good news to the poor" (Luke 4:16-21), introduced his "Sermon on the Plain" by pronouncing blessing on the poor and woe on the rich (Luke 6:20-26), and drove his point home with the powerful parable of "Dives" and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

But what difference do Jesus' counterintuitive pronouncements make concretely for the life of his followers? Are they, as I was implicitly taught in my youth, merely to be "spiritualized" and/or relegated to some future instantiation of the kingdom on earth (i.e., the "Millennium"?), thus allowing disciples to go on living in the present as if Jesus had never uttered these logia? My hunch is that most American Christians, if they have even bothered to consider these texts seriously at all, would tacitly agree with such a proposal, even if they might experience a passing twinge of guilt in the process. To do so, however, would be a mistake. And the places to look for a better alternative are two oft-(willfully) misunderstood texts in Luke's sequel to his Gospel. I am speaking of the two passages in which Luke describes the practices of the early Christian community in Jerusalem, in both of which he speaks of the believers' practice of a community of goods. The texts read as follows:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, NIV)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37, NIV)
These two texts fit somewhat awkwardly with the presumed worldview of most Western, especially American, Christians, for whom the church's practice smacks of an unseemly, if not ungodly, "communism." [As an aside, Christian views of socialism, at least in theory, were not always so uniformly negative as might be imagined today. Witness the nuanced discussion of the great Cambridge New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham, Brooke Foss Westcott, here.] Thus in my undergraduate days at a very conservative Bible College I was explicitly taught that the earliest community's practice was not only not normative for the church's practice today, it was demonstrably an empirical failure. Indeed, my teachers considered this "mistake" on the part of the apostles to be the reason the Jerusalem church was "poor" and in need of famine relief 13 or so years later in 46 CE (Acts 11:27-30) and the Apostle Paul's famous "collection" for them, which he delivered a decade or so after that. Indeed, the presumed "loss of capital" incurred by this practice is blamed as the most probable cause for the Jerusalem church's subsequent poverty by no less an exegete and historian than I. Howard Marshall (Luke: Historian and Theologian [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970] 208).

A little reflection, however, should cause one to realize that such a notion undercuts the transparent purpose of Luke's accounts. Luke, after all, wrote his work long after the Jerusalem church's poverty had become entrenched and Paul, his hero, had delivered the collection from his mostly-Gentile church plants throughout the Empire. Yet he still presents the primitive community's practice in a positive light. Indeed, the early chapters of Acts read like an episodic history, with summarizing paragraphs like those found in Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-37 serving as "strings" connecting the "pearls" of the individual episodes in which the acts and words of the early apostles that dominate the narrative are recounted. Theologically, these "strings" serve the purpose of demonstrating the consequences of the apostles' words and deeds: God was bringing into existence a community of "believers," his new "saved" people, through the irresistible power of the apostolic message. Not only this, but the "community" aspect of this new people is defined under the rubric of four elements that characterized their life together: devotion to the apostles' teaching, "fellowship" (koinōnia), the "breaking of bread," and "the prayers" (2:42). 

Over the years I have heard countless sermons on this text in which these four elements are stressed as marks of healthy ecclesial praxis. In none of them, however, have I heard the preacher encourage emulation of the community of goods described by Luke in verses 44-45—and this despite the fact that Luke explicitly portrays this community of goods as an expression of the "fellowship" to which the church committed itself in its earliest days. He does this linguistically by means of the adjective koina in verse 44: "And all who believed were together (epi to auto) and would have (eichon [imperfect tense]) all things in common (koina). Here Luke not only describes the earliest church as a society rather than as a group of saved individuals (cf. C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1: Acts I-XIV [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994] 168), but presents the community of goods as the concrete manifestation of that communitarian perspective in the believers' daily life.

Luke's positive perspective on this primitive practice is, if anything, even more pronounced in the second of his summarizing paragraphs. In verse 33 Luke comments that "great grace was upon them all." At this point the ESV—to cite but one so-called "literal" translation that here doesn't live up to its stated aims—places a full stop and has verse 34 ("There was not a needy person among them") begin a new thought. But such a reading ignores the conjunction gar ("for") which provides the syntactical link between the two clauses. Luke would have us understand that a causal relationship exists between God's favor resting on them and their practice of a community of goods. Indeed, the latter practice provides the warrant for such a claim, and signals God's grace as the impetus for their practice of economic sharing

The ultimate theological significance of this passage, however, may be found in the Old Testament background to the seemingly innocuous introductory words to verse 34. "There was not a needy person among them" (oude … endeēs tis ēn en autois). For this text unmistakenly echoes Deuteronomy 15:4-5, 7-11:

However, there need be no poor people among you (LXX: hoti ouk estai en soi endeēs), for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. ... If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
The point is a clear one. The early church behaved (the preponderance of imperfect tense verbs in these paragraphs indicate that this practice was a habitual or iterative one that took place over a good length of time) in accordance with a theological understanding of their identity as the eschatological covenant people of God. In other words, the earliest community, as beneficiaries of Jesus' gospel for the poor (Luke 4), saw fit to implement the radical economic costs of discipleship articulated by Jesus during his ministry and thereby embody their claim to be the true people of God.

Of course, as all American preachers and teachers are quick to point out, in contrast to secular socialistic schemes—not to mention similar schemes in Jesus' day, such as that of the Essene sectarians whose literary deposit was discovered at Qumran in 1948 (cf., e.g., 1QS 6:19-22)—the earliest community's practice was entirely voluntary. Barnabas is singled out as an example of the type of relinquishing of property and consequent economic redistribution undertaken by the church (Acts 4:36-37). Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, are judged not so much because they didn't give everything, but instead because they lied about the scale of their divestment (Acts 5:1-11). Some Christians, like Mark's mother Mary, retained ownership of her house while using her domicile for the benefit of the community (Acts 12:12-17). And so it has always remained.

To make this observation, however, does not undercut the paradigmatic quality of the earliest community's actions. Nor does it excuse the contemporary American church of its economic obligations toward the poor in its own communities. New Testament scholars have long bemoaned the persistence of crassly individualistic notions of being the people of God in the American church. Some worldviews indeed are very hard to eradicate or even modify. But we as the people of God must never forget who we are—the eschatological people of God, the foretaste of that full ingathering that will populate the promised new earth—and what that means for how we are to implement the social transposition announced by our Lord. For some of us that will entail looking at the poor with a new set of glasses, Christian rather than American in focus. For others, most of us I suspect, that will involve a renewed appreciation for the economic implications of following the One who pronounced blessing on the poor. May the Spirit work to effect this transformation of how we understand ourselves and the times in which we live. Soli Deo Gloria!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Theologian and Preacher Doppelgangers, Part 2

Back by popular demand, here are more theologians, biblical scholars, and preachers and their look alikes in the wider world.

1. R. C. Sproul (Systematic Theologian, Ligonier Ministries)/Sandy Baron (Actor, played Jack Klompus on Seinfeld [d. 2001])



2. Clark Pinnock (Professor of Theology, McMaster Divinity College [d. 2010])/Bill Nighy (English Actor)


3. Rudolf Bultmann (Professor of New Testament, University of Marburg [d. 1976])/Walter Cronkite (Anchor, CBS Evening News [d. 2009])



4. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Civil Rights Leader [d. 1968])/Bo Jackson (Heisman Trophy Winner; Running Back, Los Angeles Raiders; Outfielder, Kansas City Royals)



5. Judith Gundry (New Testament Professor, Yale Divinity School)/Kristin Scott Thomas (English-French Actress)


6. Richard Averbeck (Professor of Old Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)/Jason Alexander (Actor, "George Costanza" on Seinfeld)


This next one comes courtesy of my old pal, Bob Crouse:

7. Ann Graham Lotz (Evangelist; daughter of Billy Graham)/Cindy McCain (wife of Senator and former Presidential Candidate John McCain)


8. John R. W. Stott (Anglican Cleric, Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, London, Chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II [d. 2011])/Bill Maher (Anti-Religious Agnostic Comedian, Political Commentator, Writer and Producer of Documentary Religulous)


9. Dale C. Allison, Jr. (Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary)/Richard Harris (Irish Actor [d. 2002])


10. John F. Walvoord (Professor of Systematic Theology, President, Dallas Theological Seminary [d. 2002])/John Gielgud (English Actor [d. 2000])


11. T. W. Manson (Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis, University of Manchester [d. 1958])/Henry Travers (English Actor, "Clarence" in "It's a Wonderful Life" [d. 1965])


12. Philip Yancey (Author; Editor, Christianity Today)/Phil Spector (Record Producer and Songwriter; Convicted Murderer)


And now, two of my oldest, most accomplished, and closest friends, both hailing from the great Philly area:

13. Herbert W. Bateman, IV (Professor of New Testament, Grace and Southwestern Baptist Seminaries)/Steve Buscemi (Actor)

(photo by author)


14. James F. "Putter" Cox (Pastor, Hamilton Bible Fellowship, NY; Chaplain, Colgate University)/Jonathan Goldsmith, "The World's Most Interesting Man" (Actor)

(photo by author)


Friday, May 17, 2013

Some Belated Reflections on Jason Collins's "Coming Out"

When I first heard the news a couple of weeks back that longtime bench-warming center Jason Collins, most recently of the Washington Wizards, had decided to "come out" as gay, my initial reaction was "So what? Where's the story here? Who cares?" In a sense, I thought then as I do now, the very fact that this is considered a "big story" simply reinforces the impression that western culture has declined to the point where real issues are trivialized and the trivial are magnified. Of course, at a deeper level, the very fact that this story is considered eminently newsworthy is Exhibit Z demonstrating an inexorable cultural change for which large segments of the American public, so-called "evangelical" Christians, are inexcusably unprepared.

Let me be up front. I am a Christian. I also am an "evangelical" theologian who is convinced the Bible consistently teaches that homosexual behavior is sinful, and who wrote extensively on that subject in this forum last summer. I am not naive, however. I know that studies and surveys, both here in the USA as well as in the UK and in continental Europe, have demonstrated a fairly consistent (admitted) homosexual/bisexual rate of 3-5%, with rates in some American cities (San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Boston) exceeding 10%. I have worked and now work with both lesbians and homosexual men. Indeed, though the administrators may be wont not to trumpet the fact, I taught gay students at the ultra-conservative Christian college located in ultra-conservative Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I was a Professor for 8 years. So to hear that a current player is gay came as no surprise to me.

That is why the cover of the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated struck me as more than a little odd. "The Gay Athlete"? Come now. What serious American sports fan has not heard of 2-time Pro Bowl tight end Jerry Smith of the Washington Redskins, who succumbed to AIDS in 1986, having never publicly admitted his homosexuality? Or Glenn Burke, the light-hitting outfielder of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late '70s, who likewise died of AIDS-related complications in 1995? Or what about athletes in Europe, such as Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas who, like Collins, came out near the end of his playing days in 2009? Indeed, who in their right mind doubts the ever-forthright and loquacious Charles Barkley when he claimed last week that "of course" he played with gay players, three in particular, in his 16 years in the NBA?

In a sense the whole discussion is a bit odd. We all know of gay politicians. To be sure, in the past most were in locked closets, as it were, such as the presumed homosexual President James Buchanan, whose mansion may still be visited today in Lancaster. Today, of course, many are more forthright, such as Barney Frank, the former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. [Unfortunately, we are also aware of apparently gay politicians in denial, such as former Republican congressman Larry Craig of Idaho. It all depends, it seems, on one's constituency and ideology.] Gay actors, of course, are a dime a dozen: formidable Shakespeareans like John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, and Ian McKellan; comics and television stars like Stephen Fry, Raymond Burr, David Hyde Pierce, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jim Parsons. Few are surprised at this phenomenon, and thankfully it is becoming less common for gay celebrities to suffer deleterious career consequences for their sexual orientations alone (witness the rejuvenation of Ellen DeGeneres's career as a talk show host, for example). Likewise, there are gay musicians galore: Little Richard, Billy Preston, Elton John, Rob Halford, Freddie Mercury, Joan Jett, and a host of others in various segments of popular music. The same goes in the classical sphere. I am hardly less excited for the prospects of the great Philadelphia Orchestra because their youthful new Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is gay. Nor, for that matter, did I ever refrain from listening to the New York Philharmonic when the famously bisexual Leonard Bernstein was at its helm. Even more significantly, the great Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had a well-known same-sex orientation (shared by his brother Modest), which led to the collapse of a short-lived marriage and may or may not have (debate rages on the subject) produced the depression that plagued him throughout his life and which, no doubt, contributed to the most exquisite melancholic passages in his musical output. Foremost among these, of course, is the devastating Adagio lamentoso of the finale of his 6th symphony, the last piece he ever composed. The case has been made (though it is increasingly doubted today) that Tchaikovsky's homosexuality played a key role in producing this (deliberate?) swan song of Russia's greatest symphonist. Listening to that most tragic of symphonies, only the dullest self-righteous Philistine would let what he might view as the composer's personal failings detract him from appreciating the profundity of the music or, indeed, contemplating the dire fate that awaits us all.

The point is that a person's sexual orientation is irrelevant in terms of how that person makes a contribution to society. And it is wrong for anyone to be marginalized, let alone persecuted, for that reason alone. After all, a fundamental tenet of the Christianity I hold dear is that all people are sinners and bring nothing to the table of their own doing when they must stand before the bar of God's justice. Homosexual behavior is indeed, according to the Bible, sinful. Recent attempts to rehabilitate it and pretend it isn't are born of a hermeneutic of wishful thinking. Nevertheless, there are no legitimate grounds for claiming that homosexuality is "more wrong" than fornication and adultery—including divorce for biblically-disallowed reasons, on the word of Jesus himself. And certainly Jason Collins's homosexual proclivities are no more troublesome—and in terms of quantity certainly less so—than Wilt Chamberlain's famous boast that he had slept with 20,000 different women (certainly an exaggeration, as it amounts to more than one a day between 1951 and 1991, when he made this "estimate"), let alone former Seattle Sonic Shawn Kemp's fathering of 7 children with 6 different women.

But  ... sports, like the military which likewise saw its ban on gays overturned, are not the arts. It is—or at least has been until recently—culturally unexpected for male homosexuals to excel or even to desire to compete at the highest level in one of America's last bastions of unmitigated machismo. And so, predictably, Collins's announcement became the latest occasion for yet another skirmish in the tiresome culture wars that have raged in America over the past generation or so.

Right away it became de riguer to brand Collins as a "hero" for having the "courage" to come out (for an example, see here). Some (for example, MSNBC's Thomas Roberts ) even had the temerity to compare Collins with Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers' star second baseman who broke Major League Baseball's inexcusable color barrier back in 1947, at a time when racism was decidedly more culturally acceptable than it (thankfully) is today. As such Collins's announcement plays right into the modernist "progressive" view of history, in which, one by one, the "arbitrary" barriers preventing an egalitarian society are toppled by the forces of justice.

Just as predictably, an equal and opposite reaction was offered by America's cultural conservatives, not least by many purporting to speak for "evangelical" Christians. ESPN's Chris Broussard was roundly condemned for his outspoken view that, as a Christian, "I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is." And, to make his point even more controversially, he added, "If you're openly living in unrepentant sin ... that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ." This latter comment was controversial because Collins claims to be a Christian.

The matter was just beginning to heat up, however. For Collins outed himself on the very day that right-wing Christian hero Tim Tebow was released by the New York Jets. For many of Tebow's supporters, it wasn't his marginal abilities that led to his demise, but his outspoken Christian testimony. Over at US News and World ReportPeter Roff noted the contrast in the media's portrayals of Tebow and Collins. At CNN, John Blake blogged about how "evangelical" Christians are fast becoming a hated minority in America. Nothing, however, caught the imagination of conservative Christians more than the following cartoon drawn by The Chicago Tribune's conservative political cartoonist Scott Stantis:

The Christian rejoinder to the popular culture's lionizing of Collins has been met by a not-unexpected surrejoinder of sorts. Some, such as Stefanie Williams in the Huffington Post, have scathingly ridiculed Christian claims to persecution while exaggerating the dangers inherent in being an open homosexual. More significant, however, are the countless comments I have read in the dozens of articles I have perused on the matter in the past couple of weeks. The accusations are harsh, and they are made with alarming (for a Christian) regularity: Christians are bigots; Christians are intolerant; Christians are hypocrites. How should a thinking Christian respond?

First, many of today's evangelicals might not like to hear it, but the fact remains that Christians are, as Blake argued, a distinct minority in American culture and, as such, have no right to expect, let alone impose, their views on the culture as a whole. This is something that the Christians among whom I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s took for granted. In youth group we would sing the ditty, "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passing through." I heard countless sermons on Philippians 3:20, where St. Paul contrasts the "enemies of the cross of Christ," whose "end is destruction," whose "god is their belly," and whose "minds are set on earthly things," with Christians, whose "citizenship is in heaven," from which they "await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." Of course, much of such preaching and singing carried with it unbiblical dualistic and quietistic overtones. Nonetheless, the sense of living as "exiles" on an earth still awaiting its ultimate redemption was palpable, and rightly located the church in its "alien" position in the midst of the present evil age.

Indeed, contrary to the apparent expectations of all too many Christians, the New Testament teaches that hostility, not entitlement, is the expected lot of God's people in the present world. Nowhere is this more clear than in Paul's first letter to the young church at Corinth. There, to a group of people in thrall to their culture's love of "wisdom" and rhetorical brilliance, the apostle deconstructs the culturally-assumed understanding of what true "wisdom" entails, identifying it with God's act in the ignominious cross of Christ:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called,both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25, NIV)

Moreover, the consequence of this shocking epistemological revolution is the inevitable rejection of the message of the cross by those who do not possess the Spirit of God:

The natural person (psychikos anthrōpos) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he understand them, for they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14, tr. JRM)

In other words, it is the gift of the eschatological Spirit of God which enables this epistemological revolution. Those without the Spirit just don't and can't "get it" because they lack the requisite "equipment" necessary to do so.

Why, then, are today's "evangelicals" so shocked and angry when the world despises their viewpoints and appears unable even to articulate their beliefs properly? The answer, I believe, has much to do with Jerry Falwell and his creation of the so-called "Moral Majority" in the late 1970s, which was then followed by the "marriage" of conservative Christianity with the increasingly right-wing political policies of Ronald Reagan's Republican Party, creating the so-called "Religious Right," whose influence is certainly waning in the present day. Frankly, I never understood the appeal of Falwell, the erstwhile Southern segregationist and promulgator of old-fashioned, legalistic fundamentalism. Religiously, he represented a variety of Arminian revivalism which ran against my own developing theological sensibilities. Even worse, however, by identifying traditionalist Christian moral teachings with those held by the "majority" of Americans, he not only mistakenly wed Christianity to the culture of the nation as a whole, but also served to marginalize and demonize the perspectives of the culture's movers and shakers in the Northeast and West Coast—an effort to divide and conquer akin to Richard Nixon's less than a decade earlier when he spoke of the "silent majority." Worst of all, however, he and his minions laid Christians bare to the related charges of selective self-righteousness and hypocrisy. It is one thing, of course, to adhere to biblical standards of morality (and. for Falwell and the like, "morality" was almost exclusively related to sexual and "right to life" issues; the call to "love your neighbor as yourself," and the societal implications of that call, were, and are, largely ignored in such circles). It is another to insist, in a secular "liberal" democracy, that one has the right and obligation to impose and enforce that morality on society as a whole. It is this lack of nuance, of course, that has led large swaths of conservative Christians to lionize such self-righteous nincompoops as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, which has only served to silence authentic Christian witness even more in the early 21st century. And when the "conservative Christians" of South Carolina, who condemned Bill Clinton for his infidelities back in the 1990s, last week voted en masse to elect Mark Sanford, the lying, adulterous former Governor who had used state money to fund his dalliances, to the U.S. House of Representatives, one would not be amiss to reflect that something seriously had gone wrong with the movement. The result, as Scot McKnight asserted last week, is that "[t]he politicization of the evangelical movement has proven to be far more disastrous than beneficial." And this goes, I might add, for the Christian left as much as for the Christian "right."

On the other hand, attempts by more secular, "progressive" voices to lionize Collins for his "courage" and to downplay or ridicule Christian concerns about persecution or, better, prejudice against them, likewise need to be exposed for the ideological hyperbole that they are. It is true, as I have argued many times, that American Christians' complaints about "persecution" are unseemly. Such complaints both misunderstand the true nature of persecution—ridicule and mocking are not the same as persecution—and dishonor the multitudes of their genuinely persecuted brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia. At the same time, however, secularist mockers of Christianity exaggerate both the assumed cultural privilege enjoyed by Christians and the perils of being openly gay in America. Indeed, reading authors like Williams, one would think that being gay in 21st century America is as perilous a scenario as being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century.

Such is, frankly, ridiculous. Yes, bullying of gay or presumed to be gay teens still occurs. So-called "hate crimes" against gay people occur, like they do against all sorts of different people considered "other" by the perpetrators. Such acts are despicable, and any Christian worthy of the name would agree wholeheartedly. But watch television and movies. There are gay characters a-plenty. And they are, almost to a person, portrayed favorably. Contrast this with how religiously conservative people are portrayed. Almost without exception, they are viewed as unintelligent, self-righteous, hypocritical zealots. Yes, it's a stereotype that plays well in comedies. That I can appreciate. But the same portrayals are found on "serious" dramas where they can be used as a too-easy scapegoat. This is the standard portrayal of religious folk in the culture of America that its citizens are fed day in and day out. And for writers such as Williams to ignore this or to pretend it isn't this way is disingenuous at best. Indeed, a case could be made that, in the current cultural climate, it took as much courage for Chris Broussard to articulate, rightly or wrongly, his disagreement with homosexuality on national TV than it did for Collins to announce to the world that he was gay while getting paid for it.

More troublesome is the claim that Christians, by opposing homosexual practice, are being "bigoted" and "intolerant." According to the Oxford Dictionary, "bigotry" is defined as "intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself." What the dictionary doesn't articulate is that connotation of the term involves holding to opinions that are unreasonable. Likewise, "tolerance" and "intolerance" have undergone a not-so-subtle transformation over the past generation. Rightly understood, "tolerance" involves the ability of a person to "tolerate" opinions different from those he or she holds, no matter how strongly. Certainly there are some Christians who aren't "tolerant" in that sense, but most certainly are. In that case, simply disagreeing with certain views does not constitute one a "bigot." The trouble, of course, has arisen because of the interface of the notion of "tolerance" with the postmodern ethos in which all viewpoints are considered to be personally or culturally constructed and, hence, relative. If there are no "absolute" truths (other than the axiom that there are no absolute truths, of course), then claiming one's view is absolutely true, no matter the authority for the claim, is by definition a manifestation of "intolerance."

It is here that the Christian must make his or her stand. All dreams of a "Christian America" must be abandoned as not merely impracticable, but unbiblical as well. And this means that all the hand-wringing among Christian conservatives over "gay marriage" is much ado about not-so-much. Elsewhere I have argued that the government get out of the marriage business and stick to offering civil unions for both hetero- and homosexual partners. Certainly one can remain convinced of the sinfulness of homosexual behavior and yet insist that gay partners are granted civil rights and legal protection which heretofore they have not received.

But, if a Christian is to remain faithful to Scripture, he or she must maintain that homosexual behavior is one of many manifestations of life lived "not the way it's supposed to be." It is ironic that a culture which increasingly despises or denies the Christian god in the interests of pluralism and secularism has managed to create a goddess of its own, to which all are expected to genuflect. I am speaking, of course, of the goddess Tolerantia, "tolerance." This is a goddess that directly challenges the claims of Christ to exclusive allegiance. And the Christian believes that it is to the exalted Christ, not to Tolerantia, that the name "Lord" has been granted and at whose feet every knee will one day bow. If that means increasing cultural marginalization, so be it.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the church's first two centuries, the early Christians, like the Jews before them, were often referred to by Greco-Roman writers as atheioi, "atheists," because they refused to adhere to the prevailing religious syncretism and acknowledge the Roman Pantheon along with their triune God (for texts, see here). Increasingly it appears as if the western church in the 21st century is entering a similar cultural landscape. The real question to ask is whether or not they will remain faithful to the Lord who bought her with his own blood and has called her to shine the light of the gospel in the midst of a broken and fallen world.