May 27, 2009 § 7 Comments
by Matthew Raley
There is only one issue that concerns me anymore.
I went through a conservative optimist phase in my not-so-distant youth, when I thought American society was salvageable by political means. I also went through a conservative pessimist phase, during which I groused about how days gone by were better than these.
I remain a conservative, but I follow the issues the way a sportsman follows athletes — without a sense of personal investment. Today, I’m unimpressed with the teams of both right and left. Neither offers a coherent vision of what our culture should be.
The religious right is convinced that gay marriage is the tipping point for culture, where we shoot off the slippery slope into free-fall. So evangelicals across the country have poured resources into this battle appealing to the average American’s supposed traditionalism.
Take that point of view apart.
1. The tipping point for our culture came decades ago. There was not a Christian campaign against no-fault divorce in California, the innovation that actually pushed the institution of marriage off its foundations. If evangelicals want state law to reflect marriage as God designed it, they should campaign for “One man, one woman, til death us do part.”
Evangelicals won’t be campaigning that way anytime soon because they’ve embraced the divorce culture. Statistically, as has been documented many times, there is no difference between the practice of evangelicals and other Americans. Anecdotally, I learned about divorce as a child by watching the splits of my parents’ church friends.
Consider the consequences of so many broken evangelical families.
When the world says life is about personal fulfillment not personal holiness, we apparently agree. Christian counselors are sending couple after couple to the divorce courts on this basis — and it’s not as though this is a secret among evangelical church-goers. Our counseling center routinely helps couples who lost hope because of their Christian psychologists. In living this way, we have taught several generations of children that evangelical religion is about crying out to God on Sunday and being selfish during the week.
We have, indeed, manufactured the unbelieving majority in our country. The cynicism of young voters about traditional values was learned from church, not from Hollywood.
Gay marriage is not the tipping point. That point is long past.
2. Having entered the political fray with a fractured base — a base that opposes threats to marriage in principle but that is under the thumb of family courts in fact — the religious right has little option but to find enemies and blame them. That’s elementary, abc stuff. If the base is not united, your tool is fear.
So the enemies are homosexuals.
This strategy is Pharisaical. Which is to say, it is the wrath of man leveraged to produce the righteousness of God. And like all works of the Pharisees, it is doomed to ignominious failure.
Gays are not my enemies.
3. Appealing to the self-righteousness of the average American is anti-Gospel. The Bible teaches that the average American does not need a Savior from the sins of others, but from his own.
So much for the team on the right. The left has its own problems.
1. Not so long ago, the left was portraying the family as an oppressive institution. Academically, many analyzed family relationships in terms of economic power. Politically and culturally, many more worked to eliminate the legal and economic incentives to marry and stay married, to “educate” young people out from under sexual “repression,” and to stigmatize the traditional family as a relic of 1950s conformism.
To a great extent, the left has succeeded in blasting away the living culture of marriage. But now that the oppressive structure has been overthrown, it seems to have an Arcadian mythic elegance. I sometimes wonder if same-sex marriage is leftism, wistful for bourgeois tenderness, bringing a picnic to the evocative ruins.
2. Last fall the response of some to Prop 8′s victory was to search out its supporters and harass them. This was condemned by many gay marriage supporters for what it was, thuggery. But there is still an unwillingness, most recently expressed by the New Hampshire legislature, to codify religious protections into law with regard to this issue, as if those who oppose gay marriage, as I do, should be compelled to endorse it.
This elevation of gay marriage over the health of civil society will inflame, not persuade.
The maneuvering of left and right leaves me cold because it obscures the one issue I care about.
Marriage is an expression of Jesus Christ’s redeeming love for his church. I care that his power to transform and nurture is exhibited deeply in my relationship with my wife and sons. I care that his power is exhibited in the congregation I serve. I care that his power should reach people who at this moment may be antagonized by his name.
I’m grateful to the homosexuals who have come to the church, and those who’ve admitted me into their lives as a friend. In a time of rancor, I appreciate the chance to show respect and care even in the face of profound disagreement. I am confident that Christ can and will show himself in this way.
The California Supreme Court’s decision yesterday contributes nothing to this overriding project.
May 27, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Art, whether visual, literary, or musical, deepens its emotional impact by making references to other works, famous people, or events. If we know the reference, it can take our imagination in an unexpected direction.
The Bible uses references to itself in the same way. It not only strengthens its teaching, but speaks to the reader’s emotions. In this sermon, we study the many different ways in which the Bible uses this method.
May 26, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
I like this reading a great deal. It’s not too fast, for one thing. For another, Mai Suzuki plays with guts. I can hear the pitches in the pizzicato section of this movement, something I can’t always say. Though she has a tendency to push her tone, I would say the edge she gets is appropriate and satisfying.
May 21, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
A church is not a business. A church is a town.
Many kinds of people live in a town, and they stay because, in their diverse ways, they are connected to the town’s life. A doctor can live in the same town as a carpenter because both contribute to its vitality. A town has different sections in which people congregate at different times for different reasons. The variety of resources available — available in an organic and free way — is what makes the town feel lively.
A town doesn’t have a mission, in the business sense. It has a culture. It doesn’t tell residents where to go, or what their priorities should be, or what skills they should have. Such a town would be oppressive. A town is attractive if the way of life it offers is strong, meaning there’s energy and laughter and productivity. Businesses contribute mightily to that life, but ultimately they are nurtured by the town.
So with a church. It is a congregation of differences united in a life.
Churches often become oppressive because they drive out diversity, as if they were businesses working a plan. Seeking to be purposeful, such churches instead become destructive.
I think one of the toughest challenges of pastoral leadership is nurturing oneness in diversity.
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column this week that caught the problem.
He describes the traits that make a good business executive. Three studies of strong executives, he says, have shown that “warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.”
Such findings swim upstream. Many leadership books emphasize that the CEO should be out relating to people, showing his or her human side. There is a glut of writing on team dynamics, on inspirational leadership, and on “vision,” as if business people are temperamentally unsuited for their jobs.
There is also a deep-rooted aversion to business culture among professionals in literature, education, and the arts, who use business as a cuss word, and think the marketplace is inherently crass.
Brooks is onto the cultural animosity that makes the critique empty.
The personality types that make great business people are not strong on being reflective or expressive. “For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.”
What we have here, Brooks says, is one culture sniping at another. It’s just, They should be more like us.
“Fortunately,” he writes, “America is a big place. Literary culture has thrived in Boston, New York and on campuses. Political culture has thrived in Washington. Until recently, corporate culture has been free to thrive in such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond.” He wonders what a drive for control from Washington will do to the nation’s life.
Churches should be big places — even the numerically small churches. They should have little districts where the arts, social action, scholarship, and enterprise all thrive, and those districts should be open to traffic, so that people congregate at different times and for different reasons.
Like a town.
We all read 1 Corinthians 12 about the body and its diversity, and we all agree with it. But we tend to say, “Yeah, those people really need me,” in blunt rejection of the text’s point.
These days, churches seem to cater to specific interest groups. They gather a demographic — Mosaics, say — and they base their oneness on their shared cultural perspective, implicitly or explicitly criticizing all the others. This is an illusory oneness, and the illusion is ugly.
Actual oneness in Christ comes when people of diverse races, professions, and ages form a way of life together founded on his atoning death and resurrection. They form a culture based on love. They live together in a little town. I have seen that this oneness is attractive.
And, as a pastor, I have learned that I cannot nurture it by remaining a small man.
May 20, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
This sermon is an overview of the doctrine of Scripture, asking what the men who wrote the Bible claimed they were doing. Is the Bible a human book, or a divine one? How much of the Bible is inspired?
I’m not sure Luke composed any of his gospel sitting on a bull, but it’s a marvelous engraving.
May 19, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Christopher Raley
The man who smokes holds his thoughts with finger tips
and rolls them like the rosary beads of morning.
Every slip of action, every fault of line
is a meditation for the great strength of always future.
Last week burdens clutter spaces of now
like little shards of broken glass landscape the road.
The man takes them in, one by one, slow fingers at his lips,
and draws thoughts upon the debts at his feet.
Last week clouds clear blue and dying green to shine brighter
a contrast that will grey and brown hills for summer.
The road that climbs between the market and the church,
the dark-trunked olive trees that shade the blinkless goat chewing—
life is a frame for staring while time taps ashes to pavement.
Sometimes a car crosses the fault-line of past to horizon,
and the man who smokes purses his lips and points his squint toward freedom.
May 18, 2009 § Leave a Comment
I can do four presentations about my book that are suitable for many groups and settings. My biographical info and picture are on the About Matt page, and you can click here if you’re interested in having me speak to your group.
A Fresh Look at the Samaritan Woman
Meet the woman at the well as she really was. Peel away layers of misconceptions, generalizations, and assumptions about her. Discover why a woman hardened by abuse and competing religious agendas engaged with a Jewish rabbi named Jesus (John 4:1-42). A sermon or a workshop presentation in one session (45 min).
From St. Helena to Sychar
Tour Main Street in a place taken over by a new regime. See the impact of the diversity culture as it changes the town’s demographics, spiritual priorities, and moral compass. The changes in St. Helena, California are similar to those in Sychar (John 4:1-42), where Jesus met the Samaritan woman. Be refreshed by encountering the Savior who is bigger than any cultural regime. A single-session workshop presentation or a sermon (45 min). Works best with interaction.
Four Ways Jesus Spoke to Hostility
Discover the practical ways Jesus met the Samaritan woman’s antagonism (John 4:1-26). With each step, you’ll go beyond pat answers and cross the barriers people put up against the gospel every day. You’ll also see how Jesus’ methods will deepen your own spiritual life. A single-session workshop presentation or a sermon (45 min). Works best with interaction.
Can the Bible Speak to People Appropriately?
Some believers think the Bible can’t minister to people today unless we fix it, force it to behave. Others think Christians are duty-bound to be culturally offensive, lest they compromise the Bible. Is it possible that we don’t know the Bible well enough? Discover how Jesus used Scripture to open up a healing dialogue with a hostile listener. A sermon with detailed exposition and theological material, also suitable as a lecture (55 min).
I can also do a retreat or conference:
The Diversity Culture: Creating Conversations of Faith
Session 1: Barriers
A hard look at the cultural divide between evangelicals and the diversity culture, covering media narratives, identity formation, postmodern attitudes, and negative experiences.
Session 2: Truths
A theology from the Gospel of John for healing our relationships in the diversity culture. This theology is grounded in the doctrines of the Bible, the community of believers, and the resurrection of Christ as applied by John.
Session 3: Strategies
A close examination of how Jesus interacted so successfully with the Samaritan woman (John 4).
A series of retreat or conference presentations (1 hour each) that survey the content of the book. Though challenging, the sessions include many stories from personal experience, as well as media references that will engage listeners. The presentations can be tailored to any church audience, but would be especially helpful for training leaders.
May 15, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Another link sent by conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett from the North State Symphony’s program for this weekend. Here is Karl Bohm and the Vienna Symphony with the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E flat.
May 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
My email command center refreshes the inevitable advertisements whenever I so much as breathe. So I find myself confronted with faces smoothed from wrinkles and thighs cured of cellulite — all by the miracle of photoshop. When the screen isn’t filled with skin, there are rows of teeth.
I understand the intent. I’m supposed to be repelled by the yellow teeth, and attracted to the white ones. And, lo, I am repelled by mouths full of yellow, though the sight of lips drawn back and gums glistening with you-know-what isn’t exactly delightful.
But I have to admit that I’m not attracted to the white teeth either. For starters, they’re just another photoshop fantasy. Also, when drawn-back lips reveal yellow, the implication is one of age, disease, perhaps odor. When the lips and gums show stark white, it’s like my computer screen is growling at me. I don’t know whether to laugh or run.
Furthermore, it’s just a fact: some chemical compound stripped this person’s teeth. And if the toxin is capable of that, what’s it going to do to the liver?
Ultimately, what bothers me about the pictures of white teeth is that I’m looking at the newest pose of self-absorption. Face against mirror, lips stretched, looking up, looking down, evaluating the yellow. Do this pose once and you’ll never be able to stop, because we’re always wondering, “Am I hideous?”
Yesterday I finished unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters.
This is a serious book, a salutary contribution to the debate about evangelical problems. It is filled with careful analysis, rigorous comparisons of data, and balanced conclusions. The book is honest, the statistics illuminating, and the interviews well-selected, yielding an account of outsiders’ perceptions that rings true.
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons give, on the whole, sensible guidelines to change these perceptions. I do not find a compromise of the gospel in this book, or a wavering on moral standards. The most commonly repeated admonition is to listen to outsiders before correcting them. You should read unChristian and be instructed.
I only have one concern about this book. The frame it adopts is mistaken. On the back cover, scattered through the pages, and stated in the first sentence is the way the authors want us to interpret their data: “Christianity has an image problem.”
Like members of any subculture, evangelicals are sensitive about how they look to outsiders. They feel like they cannot belong to the mainstream, like they can never be understood, like the ways of their group are an embarrassment. They scheme to prove the outsiders wrong, to show who they “really are,” which involves getting the rest of the subculture to look right.
The seeker-sensitive movement was a particularly ruthless example. We were told that our churches were comprehensively embarrassing. We were told to look and sound different. If you didn’t go along, then you didn’t care about The Lost.
Kinnaman and Lyons are not peddling that old message. They go deeper into the issues, and their prescriptions for evangelicals are often aimed restoring simple godliness.
But I think they made a mistake in catering to the evangelical obsession with image. We’ve been gum-to-mirror evaluating the yellow for years. We’ve rinsed our teeth with chemicals over and over, asking each time, “Do we twinkle now?” Our smile has only become more frightening.
The long, hard look unChristian offers at what we are doing and saying is needed. But the most powerful impression I get from it is that evangelicals are self-absorbed. The root of their problem is their vanity. The spiritual change we need will not come from image-sensitivity, which can only motivate changes of systems, mission, and presentation.
We have to be new.
Such transformations require us to pull our faces off the mirror and gaze upon the image of the invisible God.
May 12, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
To many Christians, the Bible is like an ornate barrier between them and God, something they can neither climb nor enter. This sermon starts a series called, “Receiving the Bible’s Full Impact.” It’s a study of John 12.