Friday, March 04, 2005

This Week's Reading

I started this week with a simultaneously grouchy and buoyant interview with Eugene Peterson in the March issue of Christianity Today. I've admired Peterson's work since college, first through his A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, a book of reflections on the Psalms of Ascent which I plan to reread soon. It was rather refreshing to hear Peterson not even bother to give an once of credit to today’s consumer driven churches. He’s known as a writer on "spirituality", but he hates the term, saying:

"That it's a kind of specialized form of being a Christian, that you have to have some kind of in. It's elitist. Many people are attracted to it for the wrong reasons. Others are put off by it: 'I'm not spiritual. I like to go to football games or parties or pursue my career'. In fact, I try to avoid the word."

My favorite line came in response to a question about establishing “intimacy” with God. The use of this phrase bothered him too, since, you know, it’s not the one the Bible used, and so he got off this scorcher:

"All these words get so screwed up in our society. If intimacy means being open and honest and authentic, so I don't have veils, or I don't have to be defensive or in denial of who I am, that's wonderful. But in our culture, intimacy usually has sexual connotations, with some kind of completion. So I want intimacy because I want more out of life. Very seldom does it have the sense of sacrifice or giving or being vulnerable. Those are two different ways of being intimate. And in our American vocabulary intimacy usually has to do with getting something from the other. That just screws the whole thing up.

It's very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel. Our vocabulary has to be chastened and tested by revelation, by the Scriptures. We've got a pretty good vocabulary and syntax, and we'd better start paying attention to it because the way we grab words here and there to appeal to unbelievers is not very good."

As much as I appreciate this perspective, I do find it a bit ironic coming from the author/translator of the The Message, a wildly popular translation of the Bible which avoids using the, um, usual "vocabulary and syntax" we find in the Bible. Hmm.

Further on in the same issue of CT is a very hopeful and sometimes funny feature on the rise of evangelical Christianity in France by Agnieska Tennant. It is a truly amazing story – with the number of evangelical churches in France growing sevenfold since 1960. As in many other parts of the world, most of this growth has come through new charismatic churches. Interestingly, the Catholic churches, with their adoption of the evangelistic Alpha program, have moved forward, at least a little, while the traditional Reformed and Lutheran congregations stay stuck in reverse.

These new evangelical churches are often located in poor and lower-middle class neighborhoods, and often combine France’s multiple ethnicities in way rarely seen in French society outside of the national soccer team. The article points out that without intending to, these churches are providing an alternative and antidote to the Islamic fundamentalists who often control the poor ethnic neighborhoods of the big cities.

One barrier these churches currently face is the French people’s feelings toward our President. His public identification with his faith and his blurring of boundaries of matter of state and church horrify the traditionally secularist French. (Then again, I'm not secularist, and I'm horrified by some of the same things.) But even with their feelings about W aside, the French ideal of laicite makes for some humorous responses to conversion among younger people by their militantly secular parents. Tennant quotes the story of one father when he learned his daughter had gone on a church-sponsored weekend retreat: “Here I thought that she was just going off for a weekend with a new boyfriend! Then I find out it was to read the Bible!”

And amazingly, CT's book review section puts a bitch slap on Bruce Wilkinson's Beyond Jabez, a sequel to his last big hit. (Are we allowed to say that? No, not "bitch slap". Are we allowed to say that a popular Christian author has written a bad book? We'll see).

On Tuesday while eating nachos for lunch, I began wading through the 28 February New Yorker. (No links) The one big article I attempted was “"Nature’s Bioterrorist"” by Michael Spector. It's about the threat of new flu viruses from East Asia. This is scary stuff. The close proximity of ducks, geese, chickens, pigs and people in this part of the world is the perfect incubator for the next great pandemic of influenza. One of my earliest memories is going to see my father in an LA hospital when he almost died from the Hong Kong flu, the last pandemic in 1969. The new one could make that event, and even the great epidemic of 1918 look minor in comparison.

The piece moves between the two main groups of players in the situation: scientists and health workers and farmers. The scientists are very nervous, and the farmers are very sad. Most of these farmers have done their level best for both their animals and for health concerns, but now many have lost their entire flocks and with them, they have probably lost a way of life.

And in the lead Talk of the Town piece, Hendrick Hertzberg takes his shot at the “Jeff Gannon” scandal. “Gannon” (not his real name) is a Republican hack who was given frequent access to the White House Press room, and became notorious for asking softball questions to the President and his Press Secretary. Herztberg remembers the objectively more minor issues which became full-blown scandals during the Clinton administration, and counsels that we ought not to look for the same thing here. Without the opposition party holding at least one house of Congress, there is little chance of any Administration scandal getting traction. That is unless the Republicans, who like to brand themselves as the party of “integrity” decide to get some – but I’'m not holding my breath.

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