Monday, November 24, 2014

Prelude to Wilson's Grand Jury Decision

For his sake, I almost hope they indict him.

It's early in the afternoon on this November Monday, and news has already ricocheted across the Internet that the grand jury convened to examine the evidence against Darren Wilson has reached its decision.

A press conference is being set up in St. Louis County for later this afternoon, with the delay buying time not just for members of the grand jury to put some distance between themselves and the media, but also to allow law enforcement agencies throughout the St. Louis region time to brace for whatever civil disobedience might follow the announcement.

If Wilson is no-billed, many pundits expect blacks to protest forcefully against what will be perceived as racial injustice.

Yet if Wilson is indicted for some form of excessive police force, it may be the best scenario not only for Wilson, but for the St. Louis community.

Not that I hope Wilson committed a crime.  An indictment isn't a verdict; it simply means that sufficient evidence exists for a case to be made against the defendant.  And that evidence needs to be put into a legal context.  In the short run, it would mean more agony for Wilson and his family.  Yet in the bigger picture, for him and us, having this whole sordid case play out in a public courtroom for all the world to see might be the only way of diffusing the racial animosity that militant segments of the African-American community have been trying to foment.

Of course, this assumes that Wilson is either genuinely innocent and the evidence presented in court vindicates him, or that Wilson is genuinely guilty of the charges brought against him, a jury finds him guilty, and a suitable punishment is rendered.

If legitimate, objective justice is not done should Wilson be indicted, then we're just delaying the public's acrimony.

Many pundits have mistakenly drawn correlations between Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown and George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin.  Yet these two tragedies are not similar in many respects.  Nevertheless, cooler heads pleaded with the public to let Zimmerman's public trial play out in front of us, even though doing so required a type of patience in which angry mobs don't like to indulge.  When Zimmerman was found not guilty, there was anger, but no terrible riots, mostly because everybody had access to the court proceedings.  Even when many of Zimmerman's jurors expressed regrets over their verdict, it was clear that the case was not as simple as white versus black.

It's just as probable that Wilson's shooting of Brown is more complex than mere race, too.  Unfortunately, however, it's difficult to sustain the level of angst and resentment necessary to provoke mob violence as a criminal case unfolds in a public courtroom.  If anything, the traditional secrecy of grand jury deliberations may have helped to stoke the suspicions and cynicism of people who want Brown's death to be about race and police brutality.  Even if that evidence is released to the general public immediately after the press conference today, it could be too little too late for people who are too emotional to be rational.

Police unions probably wouldn't want Wilson indicted for anything, and plenty of conservative Americans who believe black activists drag racism into every cop shooting would likely howl in protest, too.  So let's refresh our memories just a bit, even with the ancillary yet disturbing vignette of police officers intentionally firing tear gas at a media crew during one Ferguson demonstration this past summer.  It's no secret that law enforcement agencies across the country have developed a bad reputation of heavy-handedness, especially when it comes to people who are not white-skinned.  The question that still remain, regardless of the grand jury's decision in Wilson's case, is a question of unnecessary aggression by law enforcement personnel, and the degree to which that aggression is race related.

Should Wilson be indicted, and this case go to trial, this question of police aggression would hopefully be central both to Wilson's defense, and to the prosecution.  Which would mean that, hopefully, we could have a cathartic, soul-bearing conversation on this topic both inside the courtroom and out.  If Wilson is no-billed today, then the question goes back into the closet, until the next sensationalistic episode where a white cop shoots to death a black person.

This is why I almost hope Officer Wilson is indicted today.  Even if the truth can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow.

For everybody involved.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Obama's Deportation Order is a Big Tease

If anybody still doubted that illegal immigrants are a big political pawn, President Obama defeated those doubts last night.

In a predictable public relations stunt at the White House, the President announced his unilateral plan for "protecting" approximately five million illegal immigrants from deportation.  His plan is an executive order, a potentially powerful tool at any president's disposal if they want to stir political pots or navigate around pesky bureaucratic potholes.  But an executive order is not as robust as a law.

He says his plan is legal, humane, and proactive.  He even went so far as to insinuate that it's a legitimate part of "how our democracy works."

But Obama's feigned idealism is no better than the obstinacy of right-wing Republicans whom Democrats say are stalling progress on immigration reform.


Because Obama's grand gesture last night was performed for an audience of desperate illegal immigrants across the country who likely have a poor grasp on what Obama wants from them.  Obama isn't acting in their best interests - or even in the interests of his fellow Democrats, who will have to face a new order in Washington when Republicans take over the Senate next year.  If Obama really wanted to be an agent for the type of legitimate change he wants to see in America's immigration laws, he would have resisted the temptation to showboat with this executive order.

Genuine, legitimate change in our immigration laws needs to be more comprehensive than any executive order can embrace.  Illegal immigration isn't just about deportations; it's about how people can breach our borders illegally in the first place.  It's about the many reasons why people will break our laws to leave their homeland.  It's about why undocumented workers can find work here.  It's about why American employers will pay below-market wages while they profess allegiance to free market economics.  It's about the inequity of tolerating illegal immigration that's biased towards Hispanics because they have a land bridge to our country, while African and Chinese illegals, for example, do not.

And then, to top it off, genuine, legitimate immigration reform will address how all of these issues are interrelated, and how they affect individual people.  Individual lives.  Lives that shouldn't be treated as pawns.  By their native government, or ours.

Instead, Obama's speech proves that, at least for now, he's acting in his own.  It's his own political life and legacy that he's focused on.  He's licking his wounds from the bruising midterm elections that recently depicted his presidency - not only in the minds of Republicans, but also in the minds of Democrats trying to get re-elected - as impotent, and even incompetent.

Obamacare, the President's signature bit of legislation, is failing on many levels, and is ripe for a massive overhaul when Republicans take control of Capitol Hill.  Practically every bit of the President's foreign policy - what there's been of it - is in tatters, with even Hillary Clinton distancing herself from her tenure in his cabinet.  Race relations across America seem to be worse now than when our first black president took office.  Income inequality is growing, even as the President golfs his heart out and vacations on elitist Martha's Vineyard.

Against this backdrop of disappointment and dysfunction, Obama apparently has decided that little of it is due to his own lack of leadership skills, so maybe he needs to start taking the bull by the horns and setting policy unilaterally.  Even if that policy really isn't policy after all, but pretentious grandstanding to the detriment of real people who can't legally vote in the United States!

Illegal immigrants.

Whatever you think about illegal immigrants, they are real human beings with genuine emotions, aspirations, and expectations.  Shucks, they wouldn't be here illegally if they didn't desire certain things for themselves, would they?  Nevertheless, whether you believe they all need to be deported, or whether you believe we need to grant blanket amnesty to every last one of them, you have to admit that the President pretty much threw them under the bus last night.

Sure, Obama said that the United States will not deport five million people.  He says they'll even be able to work openly.  But can any of those five million illegals rest easily in these promises?  They're not promises, are they?  It's almost guaranteed that Republicans will strenuously work to counteract the President's executive order, perhaps even taking it to court.  Meanwhile, it's been said that during Obama's administration, upwards of 400,000 illegals have been deported each year, which represents a dramatic increase from deportations conducted during George W. Bush's administration.  For as long as Obama's executive order can be considered to be in effect, might he simply be reshuffling his expectations of our border security agencies from focusing on deportations to, perhaps, reassigning personnel and resources to border patrols?

Immigration activists have been hounding Obama's administration for years about all of those deportations, and perhaps this is his way of trying to kill two birds with one stone.

But executive orders are not permanent.  Even though last night's may score Obama some incidental political points, the people he's pretending to help should find no security in what he says.  He cannot assure them of the permanency of their stay here.  Perhaps they won't be deported tomorrow, but what about next summer?  Or after the general election in 2016, when experts suspect a Republican could easily re-take the White House?  How is this any way to plan for the future in one's new homeland?

To illegal immigrants, Obama is simply a big tease.

And that's what's so discouraging about last night's charade.  Republicans have already begun using the President's pontificating to further demonize illegal immigrants, and will probably be able to find some way of eventually neutering just about everything Obama said last night.  The mainstream media refuses to report factually and objectively about this topic, which means confusion will continue to reign among the general public.  That could mean Democrats will embark upon a new legislative season on Capitol Hill even further behind in their platform than they were yesterday afternoon, since they'll have to make up for ground that they lost in the President's impotent executive order.

And who will pay for all of this?  Yes, the American voter will, in terms of lost productivity (!) within our legislature.  But the people who can't vote here legally will be the biggest losers.

Again, it doesn't matter what you think about the broader issue of illegal immigration.  There is no way illegal immigrants -  or, for that matter, legal immigrants and native-born Americans - benefit from what the President did last night.

Once again, illegal immigrants have emerged from this debate as mere pawns in the political petulance and manipulative power plays that have consumed Washington.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Truth Beyond Cosby 'He Said - She Said'

I really, really, really like Bill Cosby.

He's genuinely funny, he's G-rated, and he's been a stellar advocate for racial harmony.

Well, at least he's G-rated in public. For years, he's been quietly dogged by accusations of sexual impropriety behind the scenes.  In 2005, his lawyers reached an out-of-court settlement with a Pennsylvania woman over her charges of molestation after the police determined there wasn't enough evidence to officially charge the celebrity.

And as celebrities go, Cosby has been one of the biggest.  After earning tens of millions of dollars annually during his smash hit comedy's run on NBC during the 1980's, he reportedly considered buying the network from its parent company, General Electric.  From his TV shows to his Jell-o commercials to his many public appearances, Cosby personified the prototypical father and husband, since his marriages and family lives - both onscreen and off - seemed so stable and robust.  When a son of his in real life was killed in 1997 during a botched robbery, the country was shocked by the reminder that such indiscriminate tragedy can strike even a beloved patriarch like Cosby.

Unfortunately, it's been the alleged tragedies of a premeditated sort that have suddenly blown up in Cosby's face, as a fifth woman has recently come forward with new claims of Cosby as a sexual predator.  A former supermodel says that Cosby drugged and raped her in a hotel room years ago - all of these incidents happened years ago - which fits a pattern of abuse each of Cosby's other accusers have outlined.

Making matters worse for Cosby is that one of his lawyers scoffed at the most recent accuser, contemptuously suggesting that hers represents a desperate grasp for notoriety and relevance as her career fades.

Nor does it help that Cosby's response to all of this current furor has been silence.  Indeed, Cosby's response has been brazen in its timidity.  He's either personally said he doesn't talk about such allegations, or he lets his lawyers say it for him.  And on the one hand, it's an understandable response:  if they're not true, why dignify such sordid accusations with an official response?  On the other hand, if they are true, appearing to take the high road by not talking about them can look equally meritorious to the public.

And speaking of Cosby's public, it currently seems as if most Americans want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and honor our memory of him with deference to his steady insistence that the allegations completely lack merit.

Yet, what if the allegations have merit?

In a way, this is exactly the type of "he said - she said" dilemma that makes many allegations of sexual misconduct extremely difficult to investigate, let alone prosecute.  Compounding this dilemma is the fact that Cosby has been a Hollywood star since the 1960's, and a black one at that, which makes him quite rare when it comes to America's celebrity universe.  One of his accusers has publicly stated that Cosby is an "untouchable," and that's why she never went public earlier with her story.  It's only now, as she sees what may be her final chance at wresting an apology from him, that she's come forward to join the growing chorus against Cosby.

It's hard to see what else these woman could hope to gain from their allegations, except perhaps an apology.  Whatever statutes of limitations there may have been have likely expired, so it's not like Cosby faces any jail time.  He's already reached some sort of financial settlement with one of his accusers, so maybe these other women see this as a chance to get some money out of him before the 77-year-old edges ever closer to death, which would end their money hopes.  But Cosby's passing would also end their hopes of getting a personal apology from him, if indeed, he really did to them what they say he did.

As Cosby and his representatives remain mum on these charges, Hollywood's public relations machine has decided that he's no longer worth the liability.  Upcoming talk show appearances have been cancelled, a new television project with NBC has been scrapped, and his signature series, the Cosby Show, has been pulled indefinitely from cable TV re-runs.  Not because Cosby is guilty, but because the entertainment industry loathes associations with damaged brands.  And Cosby has suddenly become a damaged brand.

Not just from the accusations against him, but his own attempts at ignoring those accusations.

Die-hard Cosby supporters would counter, "well, what else is he supposed to say, other than that they're not true?"

And you know what?  It's hard to come up with anything else to say, isn't it?  We're back to the "he said - she said" dilemma, in which nobody really wins.  Cosby can continue to deny, and lose a few media projects that would have paid him a fraction of what he used to command.  But whether it's fair or not, the aura of suspicion gets thicker with each woman who tells her story.  And the women, for all of the public's sympathies for victims, are treated with suspicion as well, since we don't really know if they're inadvertently making Cosby the actual victim.

Besides, if her story is accurate, what should any female supermodel be expecting - rightly or wrongly - when she's alone in a hotel room with a man?  If something did happen, might she simply be harboring regrets?

Meanwhile, the deeper danger in all of this can be seen in how it affects other victims of sexual abuse.  If an abuse victim doesn't have irrefutable, obvious evidence to back up their claim, the skepticism they may face can make coming forward with an allegation frightfully foreboding.  If the abuser happens to be a highly-regarded or powerful person with far more resources at their disposal - whether in the form of public admiration, money, or influence within the industry employing them, the odds of a victim achieving credibility become even longer.

Whomever is lying when it comes to the Cosby allegations is not only working against their own self, but they're reinforcing the public's weariness in trying to parse the truth out of similar cases, whether they involve international celebrities or not.

The most we can hope for is that the truth comes out sooner rather than later, not just for the benefit of whomever is the victim here, but for all future legitimate victims of sexual abuse.

And perhaps the innocent victims of false accusers, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Settle for First Things Marriage Pledge?

Is this the answer?

First Things, an evangelical think tank with Roman Catholic sympathies, has come up with the "Marriage Pledge" to try and resolves what appears to be an imminent capitulation by United States courts to gay marriage.

In the Marriage Pledge, ministers who oppose gay marriage can affirm their position and vow to only perform religious marriage ceremonies, with no civil aspect involved.  In other words, the couple married by the minister will be wed before God, but not the state.  The couple will still need to arrange for a marriage license separately.  Currently, most churches help the couple handle this detail in conjunction with the religious ceremony.

At first blush, the idea fits nicely with my own personal idea, in which the Church reclaims marriage altogether, revoking the very term "marriage" from any civil ceremony, and restoring matrimony as not just a religious act, but a distinctly Judeo-Christian one.

Pretty counter-cultural, huh?

With the Marriage Pledge, meanwhile, there is no sweeping, defiant revolution.  There is no judicial advocacy, or vote, or legislation, or any stand of any kind in the public square.  It's simply an online vow by pastors who will no longer sign marriage licenses.

It reads, in part:

"We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage.  We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates.  We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings.  We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life."

Sounds reasonable, right?  No fuss, no muss, no bitter, drawn-out legal battles.  No Constitutional amendments, no public scenes of anxious piety, and pastors can avoid the whole gay marriage mess and get back to other things.

This way, the church takes care of how the church believes marriage should be viewed, and the government takes care of the parts of marriage that deal with taxes, legal relationships, property, and census statistics.  Separation of church and state, right?  And if the government wants to do the whole equality thing, then so be it.  At least they're not dragging religion into it, and forcing ministers to violate their conscience.

Besides, this is how it's already handled in other countries, gay marriage or not, and evangelicals don't seem to have a problem.  The government does its bit of paperwork, the church does its bit of sacredness, and voilĂ , you're married! 

Of course, even though about 60 ministers have already signed the pledge, deciding to not sign a marriage certificate is something any minister could do with little fuss or fanfare, as long as they advised the couple beforehand.  Maybe some ministers already are, and simply haven't broadcast it.

Which brings up the point being raised by people who have a problem with this Marriage Pledge:  what does it resolve, besides getting conservative pastors out of the politics of marriage?  How does not signing a government-mandated marriage certificate publicly testify to one's belief that God has ordained holy matrimony to be between a man and a woman?  Period?

When I've said that evangelicals should wrest matrimony away from the state, I guess I've envisioned something a bit more public and decisive.  After all, marriage is a public commitment, expects public support, and usually benefits from public incentives, such as deferential tax codes and private property rights.  When I've advocated for the separation of marriage and state, I've kinda assumed that it would involve the government no longer calling the licenses it gives, acknowledging two peoples' marriage, as a "marriage."  It could be called a "civil union," or a "legally-binding contract recognizing the emotional relationship between these two extra-close people."

But the government shouldn't give out marriage certificates.  Seems to me, only a God-honoring minister of the Gospel should be able to do that.  After all, the government has merely joined the church's bandwagon when it comes to acknowledging that marriage and family are the most logical ways of managing a population.  If two gay people want a document from their government saying they have the right to be emotionally attached to each other, then I guess I don't have a huge problem with that.  And if the government wants to give people who've entered into such deeply emotional relationships special privileges when it comes to property ownership, then I guess it would be simply another form of taxation or business relationship.

What First Things' Marriage Pledge seeks to avoid, however, is the brutally honest dilemma that commands the gay marriage debate.  This Marriage Pledge represents a convenient "out" for our society, and neuters the whole idea that Christ's followers have the privilege here in the United States of advocating for God's design of marriage.

Granted, it certainly looks like the battles for the hearts and minds of American voters are nearing their end, with the Supreme Court increasingly siding with gay marriage advocates, and hardly anybody seriously believing a Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage can win the 38 states necessary for ratification.  And personally, I don't see the tide turning, even though I mourn the loss of our society's understanding of the moral role marriage and family should play in it.

Neither, however, do I believe that this battle over the sanctity of marriage has reached an irrevocable impasse.  I even see a benefit in our dialog over marriage, since the evangelical church's misguided tolerance of divorce has played such a twisted role in undermining the whole "sanctity of marriage" notion.  We've been more flippant about marriage in the church than some gays are who seek to marry people they truly, deeply love.  Indeed, the flaw here isn't in marriage, but in the way we've been treating it.

There are many advocates for gay marriage who labor under the misapprehension that if they can force Christian ministers of the Gospel to officiate at gay weddings, then gay marriage will have become acceptable in the eyes of our whole society.  Some even want gay marriage to represent the idea that God Himself approves of it, and that we can prove it by conducting gay weddings in theologically conservative churches.

For such people, who hope for such things, the Marriage Pledge created by First Things will serve as a wake-up call, and that isn't a bad thing.  So maybe ministers can sign the pledge, or even begin to refuse endorsing civil marriage certificates, but remain committed to the advocacy of heterosexual marriage in the public square.

If this issue is too important to ignore, as signers of the Marriage Pledge likely believe it to be, than it's too important to escape.  Right?

On any number of issues, public opinion may still end up being decidedly against us evangelicals.  But "while there is still day," why settle when it comes to marriage?

Can't we do better?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Both Shoes Drop Today for Malls

This is about as official as it gets.

Today's Dallas Morning News is reporting that two large regional malls here in north Texas will soon "revert to lender" in a grim reality check for America's bricks-and-mortar retail industry.

Can we finally say with all certainty that the era of the Great American Mall is now over?

So long, carpeted hallways and seating areas lined with potted palm trees.  So long, glassy skylights, mirrored escalators, and cheesy Muzak.  Not every mall is going to disappear from the American landscape, of course, but today's news means that the Foot Lockers, Abercrombies, and Spencers' of generic mall-dom are facing a paradigm shift when it comes to staying relevant for consumers.

Malls have been dying and closing all over the United States.  But Dallas is the city that made shopping a sport.  Its most successful enclosed mall, NorthPark, has been a profit machine since it opened in 1965, and is one of the world's most successful even today.  But in all of Dallas, only one other viable mall remains - the Galleria - and the city's suburbs have seen fortunes turn for their malls as well.

Granted, some of those malls were located in places they never should have been to begin with, but others simply couldn't keep up with the frenetic pace of commercial development over the past fifty years in this booming part of the country.

But of all the malls to face the ignominy of falling into receivership, these two particular malls here in north Texas had so much going for them.  Collin Creek Mall opened in 1981 in Plano, and Vista Ridge Mall opened in 1989 in Lewisville.  Both Plano and Lewisville are even more prosperous today than they were back when these malls opened.  Each mall is situated at a crossroads of two major freeways, near major corporate business campuses and desirable residential subdivisions.  Neither Plano nor Lewisville have the poverty, racial discord, crime, and municipal dysfunction that Dallas has, and that could discourage retailers.  Each city boasts a decent mix of races and ethnicities (at least for suburban Texas), reputable public schools, well-paved streets, and robust outlooks for future civic success.

Of the two cities, Plano is the more affluent, since its location closer to north Dallas has enhanced its ability to siphon off a lot of choice spillover from Big D's economic success.  Indeed, Toyota recently announced that it's moving its North American headquarters to Plano, practically confirming the city as the best place in the country to relocate a Fortune 100 company.

Nevertheless, being more of a middle-class city hasn't diminished Lewisville's livability index.  Chase Bank, for example, has been funneling back-office jobs from the Northeast to Lewisville for years.

Any way you look at it, if you're searching for poster children to depict the Lone Star State's economic vitality, both Plano and Lewisville fill the bill.

So what does it say that each city has a mall about to meet the equivalent fate as foreclosure?

In the case of Collin Creek Mall, its owners have not kept their property competitive with newer, more stylish, and more exclusive shopping centers.  The name of the game in retailing is being better than one's competitors, and Collin Creek has languished on its dated laurels for most of its existence.  Luxury shoppers are always on the move to whatever's more prestigious, and Collin Creek seemed to take its demographic for granted.  As Plano has continued to evolve as one of this region's wealthiest cities, it seems as though Collin Creek's owners figured its high-profile, convenient location was all the marketing it needed.

It wasn't.

In the case of Vista Ridge Mall, the plethora of Walmarts and other big-box retailers who all viciously compete for middle-income shopping dollars likely doomed it.  Whereas enclosed, climate-controlled shopping should be a no-brainer in an extreme weather state like Texas, it's hard to beat drive-up shopping and the Internet.  Whereas not keeping itself trendy enough likely crippled Collin Creek's profitability, Vista Ridge's downfall probably represents the more universal scenario for the average mall.  And it's a scenario the retail industry knows all too well by now:  the combination of big-box stores and the Internet is a one-two punch for bricks-and-mortar establishments.

No amount of trendy remodeling and upscale boutiques can save the average mall if shoppers are convinced they save more money in a big-box environment.  And it's hard for any physical store to beat the convenience of shopping online.

So it looks like both shoes have dropped today.  Bleak has now become the default outlook for malls on both the luxury and mainstream sectors of the enclosed regional mall phenomenon.

I remember my first visit to a mall, back in the mid-1970's, in suburban Syracuse, New York.  The mall was built onto the back of a stand-alone Sears department store, and was called Penn-Can Mall.  Even as a kid, I was in awe of its practicality - particularly in snowy Syracuse - and what I thought was its luxury:  It had its very own toy store!  Not just a toy department, like Sears had.

Penn-Can went defunct in the 1990's, mostly due to the collapsing local economy in upstate New York.  What's left of it is now a car dealership.

Considering the prime real estate upon which both Collin Creek and Vista Ridge malls sit, if they do end up closing, there will likely be no shortage of options to replace their empty stores and enclosed hallways.

In many ways, the American consumer has already moved on, which is why malls across the country are facing a similar fate.

But at least one mall invention will continue to flourish not only in America, but around the world:  the food court!  You can find food courts today in airports, office buildings, schools, and even megachurches.

Shopping tastes may change, but eating tastes still require a personal, physical, in-your-face experience.

Let's hope nobody ever figures out how to Instagram dinner.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Can Science Deceive on Adam and Eve?

Who were Adam and Eve?

For an increasing number of evangelicals, this is a trick question.

Should it be?

Most evangelicals who read the Biblical account of creation in Genesis literally believe that Adam was the first human being to ever exist in our universe, and that Eve was the first woman to ever exist in our universe.

However, that literal view is considered by many religiously conservative scientists to be merely one of several interpretations of Genesis, and a flawed one at that.  According to conventional science, it would be genetically impossible for the diversity of humanity we have today to have come from two individual hominids.  The more realistic, scientific scenario would be that somehow, some sort of pack of thousands of humans evolved, from which a male and female emerged who, for whatever reason, became the focus of Genesis 2.

According to this analytical view of Adam and Eve, it isn't so much that the two of them actually existed, but that they mark the beginning of God's interaction with His creation on interpersonal emotional and intellectual levels that He'd heretofore been unable to.

Who, then, were Adam and Eve?  It depends on how deeply you subscribe to the increasingly popular academic exercise called "evolutionary creation."  It's an exercise that purports to combine cutting-edge science with rational theology to resolve what has been one of the biggest leaps of faith that the Bible has expected of its readers.  And that leap of faith has been to accept the notion that Adam and Eve really were the first two humans, from whom the billions of people who populate our planet today have descended.

Of course, traditionalists claim it would be heresy to say that the Bible is wrong, and that Adam and Eve were anything other than humanity's literal, original parents.  But the human mind can be incredibly clever, and a group of science advocates who purport to also be evangelical Christians have embarked on one of the most ambitious and well-funded programs to challenge traditional notions of who Adam and Eve were, and indeed, of how our world came into existence.

Their main mechanism for advocacy and promotion is an organization called BioLogos, based in Michigan.  BioLogos holds seminars, provides training to pastors, conducts classes for religious schools, and conducts other initiatives to promote evolutionary creation as a practical way of combining science and faith.  They're tired of having their scientific professions being belittled by non-science-trained theologians and religious zealots who barely survived high school biology.  They say science doesn't contradict scripture, and that when we say it does, we evangelicals are harming our witness to the world's intellectual community.

And they claim they can mix evolution and creation without abandoning the general validity of the Bible, the orthodoxy of the doctrine of original sin, and the theories of evolution that they say make more sense than blind, uneducated, provincial faith.

So, who were Adam and Eve?

According to their blog, there are three basic ways evolutionary creationists can logically interpret the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis.  Each of these options relies heavily on regarding the Bible as a piece of high literature; each also accommodates science; and each manages to avoid directly refuting the Bible:

One option is to view Adam and Eve as a historical pair living among many 10,000 years ago, chosen to represent the rest of humanity before God.  Another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an allegory in which Adam and Eve symbolize the large group of ancestors who lived 150,000 years ago.  Yet another option is to view Genesis 2-4 as an 'everyman' story, a parable of each person’s individual rejection of God. 

The problem with such hypothesizing, however, is pretty simple:  Isn't the created superseding the deference our Creator has every right to expect from us as we grapple with His creation narrative?  Each of these options is based on the notion that we can pick and choose portions of the Bible that are more convenient to interpret as poetry.

But how do we know God intends for us to read Genesis as allegorical poetry?

This type of rationalizing has been done ever since the books of the Bible began to be written.  Mankind has always presumed for itself the ability to abrogate, ignore, or re-fashion parts of the Bible that pose difficulties for how we'd really like to live, or even how we'd really like to do ministry.

Duhh... this was the very impetus behind original sin, wasn't it?

Meanwhile, wasn't the Bible created to serve as God's testimony to all of His people on this Earth, regardless of when they lived, or where they lived?  We humans may consider some of what he wrote to be ambiguous, or open to certain types of interpretation.  But none of it can be open to new revelation or interpretation that wasn't available to people groups who've had access to it since its first books were written.  Granted, when He came to Earth, Christ did not contradict any of it, although He blew out of the water a number of misconceptions people held about Him.  Still, nothing Christ did during His time on this planet cast into doubt anything that had been written beforehand.  Not even the account of who Adam and Eve were.

So now, just because we have high-tech testing protocols that use sophisticated yet subjective dating patterns for minerals and other chemical compounds, science can now portray a scholarly new way of looking at creation that contradicts what millennia of theological teaching has held?

Have the Jewish and Christian religions been wrong about Genesis since it was written?  Are there other parts of the Bible that treat the first few chapters of Genesis as an allegory, or a parable?  Are there any credible strains of ancient, historic Hebraic or Christian cultures that embraced Adam and Eve as mere caricatures of humanity?

And what does it say about one's belief in Christ that God could use such a strange, illogical path to secure our redemption as sacrificing His own Son, but couldn't have simply commanded this universe into existence?

Or, maybe God could have commanded this universe into existence if He'd wanted to, but it makes for such a big barrier when trying to convert skeptical scientists, that it's best to cut God a little slack and build a more logical, empirical process of Creation so mankind could eventually prove how fascinating God really is?

That's really what evolutionary creation is all about, isn't it?  It's about being unwilling to believe something for which we truly need to have faith.  Not only is traditional creationism a dated notion, it demands an enormous amount of faith.  Creation presents too many challenges to the skeptic, the dogmatic, the inquisitive, the empiricist, the rationalist.  So, even if we can stretch creation's theological boundaries to where it's just barely within Christianity, we still need to make it more intellectually correct, more believable, more plausible, more provable.

Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with science, or exploration, or inquiry, or curiosity.  Even if the people doing the discovering don't acknowledge God when they learn a new fact about our universe, such discoveries do glorify God, as they continue to prove His sovereignty, creativity, and power.

At what point, however, does evolutionary creation cease to honor God, and seek to honor mankind instead?  At what point does evolutionary creation stop pointing to the Creator, and begin to accommodate the created?

Which better captures God's power and sovereignty, anyway?  That from two individual human beings He personally created, all of humanity could come?  Or that He orchestrated some primordial ecosystem to metastasize and re-create itself over and over until a suitable human-type being eventually emerged?  Some people say it takes greater faith to believe in evolution instead of creation, but that's not exactly the type of endorsement for which evolutionary creationists are striving, is it?

Few of us like to leave our comfort zone.  For traditional evangelicals, it's uncomfortable to contemplate any option than a literal Adam and Eve, with Genesis representing the literal history of our universe.  It's what our great-grandparents were taught, and what even secular Christian culture has been comfortable in tolerating for generations, even as the theory of evolution has been evolving since the 1800's.  For scientists, it must be uncomfortable being unable to look fellow academics in the face and say that you have to take something on raw faith.

Perhaps traditional evangelicals like me are genuinely too uneducated to know all of the empirical challenges to creationism that exist in modern science.  But having an education doesn't necessarily mean that one has learned true facts.

If faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen, does God need evolutionary creation to still be the Creator?

And if He doesn't, why would we?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ask Yourself: God's Glory, or Whose?

Here it is, folks:

When it comes to spiritual questions, cultural disputes, and how we intend to interpret any passage of the Bible, this is how we should do it:  Interpret everything in the Bible and life itself in deference to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  Everything.

Interpret everything in a way that gives glory to the Holy Trinity.

Straight-up, no-holes-barred, every time.  No cultural exceptions, no circumstantial qualifications.  Ask yourself, "who gets the glory?  God, or me, or humankind in general?

It's as simple - and profound - as that.  Isn't it?  Do we each need to be an expert in Hebrew, Greek, or seminary-speak?  Do we need to get some evangelical celebrity or political guru to weigh in with an opinion?  When we read God's Word, and when we consider how to apply it to our daily lives, no matter the subject at hand, won't the right way to act be the way that best glorifies God?

If we're living for God, instead of ourselves, these won't sound like trick questions.

Nevertheless, as I wander around our evangelical subculture and listen to different people say different things about their interpretation of faith, it never ceases to amaze me how we all - every one of us - approach God's Word from some degree of our own, unilateral, personal perspective.  We view the Bible, faith, God, His Son, and how we're to live our lives through a prism of our own preferences, experiences, assumptions, education, and hopes.

Yes, that's part of being human, and of our sin nature, but it's also part of the sanctification process, through which we're supposed to be progressing, not languishing, or regressing.

Unfortunately, we tend to forget that our cultures - even in religion - can work against our sanctification.  We're taught that since God loves us, and created us each as individual people, we have a right to think however we want to think.  We're taught that God expects us to think for ourselves.  The more liberal we are, the more we're taught to value other people, and how they think, and what they think.  The more conservative we are, the more we're taught that other people should think like us.  Which, if you think about it, is as inaccurate an ambition as letting everybody believe whatever works for themselves.  As long as the humanity for which we advocate has a decidedly lateral and horizontal focus, instead of a vertical one, we're probably not honoring God.

At least, we're probably not honoring God as much as we'd like to think we are.

We're in trouble when we consider our opinions to have at least as much weight as God's do.  We forget that we're always interpreting, because humans cannot create truth.  We can only respond to it.  On the other hand, God interprets nothing, since He is the Source of all things.  He is omniscient, omnipresent, and sovereign.  We're not, so we interpret how God's Word applies to various situations in our lives, whether that interpretation is fairly direct, or vague, or apparently not supported by much of anything.

What should matter more should be our desire to honor God in all that we do, endorse, and believe.

Sure, some of us are more accurate than others when it comes to how we believe God is glorified.  As our society has devolved into an "all roads lead to Rome" sort of universalism, however, and narcissism has ossified our ability to critique our own motives, it's easier to fall into a reverse pattern:  evaluating what faith can do for us, rather than acknowledging what God has already done, is doing, and will do.

Both inside and outside the church, for example, we treat issues like gay marriage as if we're entitled to craft a viewpoint based on variables that are relevant to our experiences.  Instead, shouldn't we be viewing everything in light of how each thing - person, experience, fact, ideology, motivation, emotion, reflex, fear - exists as a manifestation of God's revealed word and will?

In other words, we can argue 'till the cows come home about love, relationships, fidelity, marriage, selflessness, covenants, commitment, lifestyles, wants, needs, feelings, romance, and how we think or believe God would want us to act when it comes to gay marriage.

But what do you think honors God about gay marriage?  And what does God say honors Him regarding heterosexual marriage?  God has given us some pretty specific facts regarding marriage, sexuality, covenants, and purity that, in and of themselves, aren't open to as much interpretation as we often like to presume.  We like to believe that we are autonomous actors in His presence.  We've seen how our ideas about things can change over time, as we experience new people, and participate in new relationships.  So surely, God changes, too!  Right?

Well, He doesn't.  He tells us He's unchanging, and that what He said when each book of the Bible was first transcribed is as relevant and factual today as it was then.

Besides, we haven't yet answered the question:  what is it about gay marriage that brings glory to God?  The ability of people to marry each other regardless of gender - how does that bring glory to God?  Is love bigger than God?  Is commitment bigger than God?  Is human sexuality and gender assignment bigger than God?  Is what we want to do bigger than what God wants us to do?

What right do we have to decide whether or not marriage honors God in the first place?  That right comes from God Himself, correct?  What right do we have to decide whether or not gender matters when it comes to marriage?  For that matter, what right do we have to decide that even heterosexual marriages can be terminated simply because one or more spouse has tired of it?

People get divorced because they want to get divorced.  Meanwhile, where does God ever say that divorce honors Him?

Don't we make these conversations much more complicated than God intended them to be?  Of course, conversations about gay marriage aren't complicated to people who don't want to honor God with their view of it.  And they're not complicated to people who deeply desire to honor God with their view of it.  To be frank, the only people for whom conversations like gay marriage are complicated are people who struggle with imposing their own personal sense of superiority upon God, Who will not share His holy superiority with anybody or anything.

Actually, it's probably a good struggle to have, as long as you're willing to realize that, ultimately, you're not in control of your life.  You're not able to change God's view of sexual perversion.  A society can vote to allow gay marriage, but such a vote doesn't change God's will.  But that reality doesn't mean much when we concentrate more on what we want, than on what honors God.

No, living lives that honor God isn't necessarily easy for us, but being purposeful about honoring God shouldn't be a difficult desire for us.  To the degree that it is, that's the degree to which we haven't given Him the Lordship over our lives that He desires - and deserves - to have.

Every child of God's has been bought with a Price.  And that Price is His holy Son, Jesus.  Therefore, we are to honor God with our lives.  We are to live in deference to Him, out of thankfulness for Christ's sacrificial death on our behalf.

If any of us aren't living this way, then perhaps He's not yet our Lord.

And if you find that last sentence particularly offensive, then it's probably because you know He's not. 

Meanwhile, we can never err on the side of God's honor.  But we can certainly err on the side of ours.