What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: The Grapes of Wrath

Standard

Over the last few weeks I have run across quotes, allusions and references to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” everywhere I turned.  I had a very kind High School English teacher who didn’t believe in torture, so I had never the book.  But I figured maybe God was more cruel than my English teacher and was now requiring that I read it.

So I was obedient to the calling and found a cheap copy on Google play.  As it downloaded, my wife warned me in a way that echoed Dante, ‘to abandon all hope ye who read that book.”  Although she had never read the book herself, her words were vindicated by a 1 star Google review by someone named Megan that said, “Horrible! I only read this because I had too for English class.  The whole time I’m thinking dafaq? is going on.”

I ignored my wife’s and Megan’s reservations and resignedly finger flicked my way through the book.  As my finger perfected the side swipe, my mind, heart and soul spent the week surviving the Great Depression with the Joad family.

As I struggled my way across Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California with the Joads, I was often tempted to think, “I am glad we have come such a long way in the 75 years since this was written.”  Honestly, we kind of have.  I mean right now as a nation we do a lot better at feeding and housing homeless people than at any time before and better than most countries throughout history.  Despite popular belief this assistance does not just come from the government, but a large amount of individuals, churches, NGO’s and for-profit organizations give a lot of time and money to helping the less fortunate.

Still, I hesitate to write off “The Grapes of Wrath” as an antiquated story from that time when we evicted ranchers from their ancestral homes, lured them into traveling across the country, starved them to death and then insulted them by calling them, “lazy.”  Instead, the book seems to contribute to the very timely and relevant discussion about the two golden rules that war within us.  The first golden rule is that Scriptural one about loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others as you would like to be treated.  The second golden rule is much more persuasive, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”

The story begins with a bank that has the gold making the rule that farmers in Oklahoma had to leave the land of their ancestors because one man on a tractor could do the work of 10 without one.  The man on the tractor gets paid extra if he uses the tractor to bulldoze the ancestral home.  The story continues as scheming merchants and used car salesmen make up the rules of “fair” trade, leaving the homeless ranchers with junk cars in exchange for their priceless heirlooms.  Along the road, power hungry policemen, angry store operators and fearful property owners set the agenda by which the Joads must live.  Sometimes this results in violence.  Most of the time it merely results in the tyranny of an empty stomach and the pain of feeling useless and unwanted.

Steinbeck summarizes all of this with the sentiment that the Joads, “were weary and frightened because they had gone against a system they did not understand and it had beaten them.”  That sentence might be a worthy contender for thesis of the book.

But Steinbeck doesn’t let the second golden rule win the day entirely because the Joad’s story is filled with sudden bursts of compassion.  A one-eyed used car parts seller practically gives the Joad’s a car part for free.  The preacher traveling with the Joads confesses to a crime he did not commit so that the father who was accused of the crime could escape.  A starving mother feeds a group of hungry children the last little bit of stew she has.  Then there is the wonderful and classic diner scene where a cook gives a family a loaf of bread for 2/3rds of its cost. His wife goes one step farther and gives the children free candy.  This encourages some truck drivers to give a gracious tip.

But every crime of compassion comes with its own punishments and rewards.  The woman feeding the children gets yelled at by their mother.  The preacher’s confession gets the uncle to confess he has been hoarding $6.  In the end he keeps $2 for himself, which he wastes on liquor.  The one eyed used car seller gets a tongue lashing about feeling sorry for himself by the person who benefited from his generosity.  And in the diner, every act of compassion is followed by another act of compassion that is also accompanied by crude insults towards the beneficiaries.

I would like to think in the 75 years since the Great Depression ended we have become a more compassionate people who love our neighbors instead of inventing rules that favor the wealthy.  And perhaps we have.  Yet reading “Grapes of Wrath” gave me pause because I sense it is still not ancient history.

After all, I work with the 21st century migrant population and they are not unlike the Joads.  I spent three years working with homeless men in Kansas City and while some of them were born and raised there, the majority landed there with no money, looking for a fresh start.

Then I moved to the small town where I pastor.  It is filled with those who have migrated here from larger cities.  Most of them are young and dirt broke.  They moved here in beat up trucks or with no car at all.  They were running from a bad situation that usually involved drugs, alcohol and a broken romantic relationship.  They are desperately craving a new start but they never known anything different than what they ran from.  As I have gotten to know them, I find they are not unlike the Joads, “being beaten by a system they do not understand.”

Yet there are sudden bursts of compassion among both the inner city men and the small town migrants.  And these acts are quickly punished and rewarded all at the same time.  The offer of a place to stay comes with expectations and household rules that when broken yield angry brawls and hurt feelings.  The financial help from churches comes with the expectation that you will go to church there (a temptation I fight often to never convey).  Free babysitting is only free so long as the parents buy the babysitter the next carton of cigarettes.  The offer of free dinner comes with the expectation you bring the alcohol.  And lent money is always expected to be repaid, if not in dollars, in video games, movies, and cigarettes.

The rules and methods of compassion are opaque in such a world, just as they were in 1933.  Do we educate those who don’t know about the system so they can get along better in it?  Do we seek to reform the system and let some of those without the gold make the rules?  Do we vilify the wealthy as corrupt beneficiaries of the evil system?  Do we launch a revolution?  Or do we, who have the goldm visit the homes of the Joads?  Do we climb in their truck and travel across the country with them, letting their hope become our hope and their despair become our despair?  Do we listen to their stories, write them down and publish them to remind everyone else that our systems and structures and powers and authorities still leave much to be desired?  From what I understand of Steinbeck he advocated for all of the above but he seems to have been most successful on that last part.

So until the Bible’s golden rule trumps that other golden rule, I will seek to do the same.  I will visit the homes, travel with the people, listen to the stories and advocate for a better world.  To do any less would be to ignore the neighbor God called me to love.

The Burden of Having Too Many Opinions

Standard

I am opinionated.  I have way too many opinions about way too many things.  That is not a confession per say.  I kind of like my opinions and I worked really hard to get them.  I have read well over 1,000 books in my life and many more articles online and in print.  I spent many years and much money to get a bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree.  During these years my opinions were tested with the fires of academia.  So I don’t necessarily regret having opinions, though sometimes they cause more problems than they are worth.

Awhile back I did try to subject myself to a process called, “de-opinionating.”  I researched all my opinions by reading books, perusing news articles, watching TV shows and having conversations with people.  I did it all in the hopes of deleting some of my opinions.  It didn’t work.  All that reading and watching and conversing just got me more opinions.  Now I have so many that I don’t know what to do with them.

This week I read a few blogs and news commentators and even the dreaded comment sections.  I found that I am not alone in having no idea what to do with all my opinions.  Everybody has all these opinions about Palestine vs. Israel and ISIS Vs. Iraq and Russia vs. Ukraine and Mark Driscoll vs. pretty much everybody.  But not one person knows what do with these opinions except to write them in less than gracious but very colorful prose on the internet and then viciously attack those who disagree.

So if you clicked over here today looking for a new opinion, I apologize because I am choosing not to write down my opinions with the exception of the opinion that I have too many opinions.  Instead, I want to offer that if your opinion just makes you angry, bitter, hostile and frustrated, it might not be worth having, especially if you have no power over the details of the situation.  (Dang it, that is another opinion!)

I think maybe Mark Driscoll should do more than offer a shallow apology but I have no control over getting him to do more and I don’t know what else he should do.  I long for there to be peace in the middle east but it is way above my pay-grade to solve it and if I tried I would probably only make everything worse.  I think Putin is.  .  .well, the ex KGB communist he is, but I can’t even afford a plane ticket to Russia right now so what do I know?

Well, I know that today I had lunch with a new friend who makes much less money than I do but insisted on paying for my meal anyway.  After that I met with a retired high school chemistry teacher and showed him around our new town because he plans on moving here.  He was a wonderful guy who had a fair share of opinions himself.  Then I spoke to the mayor about local problems and frustrations and assured him I was there for him.  Tonight I will meet with our group of 20 or so teenagers.  That will be fun and I hope to get to know and like them a bit better.  They live such troubling lives.  Before youth group I am going to prepare dinner for them and read a little bit.

If someone did give me authority over peace in the middle east and violence in Iraq and who gets to be President in Russia I would probably make all the wrong decisions.  But luckily God didn’t call me to be opinionated.  God just called me to seek peace in the city where I find myself.  That might be a great deal harder than forming opinions about global events but it also might have a bigger impact on the world in the end.

Or maybe I just have too many opinions.

Christian Fundamentalism Part 2: Why It Isn’t So Bad

Standard

This post is the second in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read post one here.

Yesterday I gave some biographical information about my experience with Christian fundamentalists and ended with a working definition of 21st century fundamentalism.  I believe its two defining characteristics are the belief in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and the clinging to 1950s American culture as the standard for Christian society and living.

I want to begin today by repeating what I tried to say yesterday.  Often when dealing with fundamentalists I am guilty of committing the straw man fallacy where I meet a conservative Christian and immediately picture them as an angry, closed minded, sinner who thinks they are better than everyone else.   I am repenting of that sin in these posts and instead trying to engage with the fundamentalist Christians I know and explain them in a way that is more honest.

When I put aside my hasty stereotypes and engaged with Fundamentalists I found that they are nowhere near as bad at being Christians as I assumed they were.

First off they really do want to see people join the church and become Christian.  They fear becoming irrelevant and are grasping at anything (politics, movies, music, etc) that will get people to hear them out.  Although I felt panicked and awkward when they announced their latest propaganda movie, I still advertised it to some non-church youth I knew because I legitimately thought the movie would get the kids interested in God.  And so I do share and celebrate the evangelical thrust of the movement, even if that thrust turns more into a rhino charge at times (well, most of the time).

Second, the fundamentalists I know will listen to a reasoned argument from Scripture.  What they will not respond to are exaggerations and generalizations.  For example, when I make the statement, “Obviously God wants us to care about poor people” they shrug me off.  But when I open my Bible to the verses in Deuteronomy 15 about open handed care and concern for the poor, they listen.  When I blandly state, “well your sin is as bad as theirs” they roll their eyes at me.  But when I read Romans 1 and show them that gossip is next to adultery and how Paul’s argument about “their” sin suddenly turns to the claim that “you are without excuse” they seriously rethink their legalistic attitudes.  If you open Scripture with them they will pay attention and I find that admirable.  However, if you keep Scripture close and substitute it for generalizations they will turn on you.

Third, they are a very generous bunch, at least the ones I know.  They give a lot of money to a lot of non-profit organizations who specialize in social justice.  Ironically fundamentalists hate the phrase “social justice” but when I bring up sex trafficking they are the first to write a check or ask me what to do.  They donate to homeless shelters, teen pregnancy clinics, missionaries and third world farmers.  And they certainly give well above 10 percent to the church.  Their belief in the generous God in Scripture certainly encourages generosity on their part.  Unfortunately a lot of their money goes to conservative politicians, 6 day creation curriculum and Bible museums but that is not the limit to their generosity.

This brings me to a story about the most fundamentalist family in our town.  This is the family that goes to the “Fundamentalist Baptist Church,” think Obama is the anti-christ and that Jesus is coming back tomorrow because Israel fired a rocket yesterday.  They readily try to test me in conversation to see if my Christianity is strong or weak.  They turn every conversation about the weather to a heated debate about abortion or homosexuality or Obamacare.  Simply put, they have a tendency to annoy me.

However, a year ago a girl in the high school got into a brutal argument with her mom and was thrown out of her house.  She had nowhere to stay, so the fundamentalists took her into their all ready crowded home.  She went with them on family vacations.  Though they were financially strapped, they still bought her clothes and school supplies.  All this was incredible in and of itself but then they did something I did not expect.  They scheduled meetings between the girl and her mother and worked with them on reconciliation.  Their purpose was clearly stated to me: “Our goal is to see them forgive each other, get along better and have a more peaceful home.”  In the end they accomplished their goal and the girl moved back in with her mother.

The non Christians in town, and some Christians too, took sides.  They gossiped about the girl or her mother using not so friendly terminology.  They stood on the sidelines and cheered or booed their team but the fundamentalist Baptists did the messy work of peacemaking.

A few months before that another wealthy fundamentalist-leaning family in town discovered a family of six who was homeless.  THey invited them into their mansion to live for a month.  It was a very gracious act.  Another family drove an orphaned girl halfway across the country so she could get to the public university that had accepted her.  Ironically this is the same family that bad mouths all public universities.

It was these stories and others like them that convinced me to rethink my blind hatred and vicious anger against them.  It is these stories I try to remember when I meet the fundamentalists on the road and they insist I advertise their new 6 day creation seminar or side with their hatred at the Obama administration.  I will not do either but I will at least smile and nod and welcome them as the eccentric Christian cousins they are and celebrate God’s work through them.

I hope you keep that last post in mind when you read my post for tomorrow.  .  .see you then.

Christian Fundamentalism Part 1: What is It?

Standard

I graduated from an evangelical, fundamentalist high school where I was taught about an evil dragon named “Atheistic Humanism.”  It breathed in the oxygen of scientific evolution and breathed out the fires of progressive culture.  It flew on the wings of mainstream media and public universities, all while burninating God’s timeless truths contained in Scripture.  He had even infiltrated our Christian universities where evil professors who pretended to love Jesus actually taught old earth evolution.

Front Cover

I owe my dragon metaphor to this wonderful book by Alister McGrath.

I rushed into college ready to slay the evil dragon only to realize that secular humanism was not a dragon at all but a feeble, old man who had fallen on his own sword.  After realizing the dragon was dead, I threw off my fundamentalism and embraced traditional Christianity, a faith founded by Jesus, articulated in the ancient creeds, testified to in the lives of the saints and preserved in the sacraments of the church.  After digging deep into historic Christianity, I naturally came to reject the actual dragon who had raised me, Christian Fundamentalism.

What I thought Fundamentalism Was. . .

I learned why the fundamentalists were wrong, why they were harmful and why my denomination firmly rejected their teachings for 100 years and counting.  I left seminary ready to rush out in the world and slay this evil dragon only to dash into the cave and find another feeble old man who had fallen on his own sword.

Yet, like the famous Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail fundamentalism was claiming it only had a flesh wound.  Even with all their limbs cut off they still tend to be rather obnoxious.

What it actually is.

In my small town we only have a few fundamentalist families left but every time I talk to them or they insist I promote one of their creation seminars or attend one of their propaganda movie nights, I walk away feeling anything but edified.  Instead I am filled with an odd mix of frustration, panic, anger and even a little hatred.  I pray about those experiences often and these prayers have led to deep questions.

How do you define Christian fundamentalists?  Are they really as harmful as I was led to believe?  If not, then why do I catch myself blindly hating them?  Why had the mere mention of a “young earth” seminar and a fundamentalist propaganda movie scared me half to death?  And, of course, are they the problem or am I?

This post is the first in four posts that seek to answer these questions through my real life encounters with fundamentalism.  Somehow in college I began judging an abstract stereotype instead of engaging with the real people who have fundamentalist views.  So I want to revisit my assumptions about this passionate but dying group of evangelical Christians in light of my conversations with them.  Tomorrow’s post will be about the good I have experienced from fundamentalists because they are not an all together evil lot.  The third and fourth will be about why I still am not a fundamentalist either theologically (post 3) or in practice (post 4).

Before I get there, I have put together a working definition of Christian fundamentalists based off the people in my community.  Calling every Christian who votes Republican a fundamentalist is a bit harsh although every fundamentalist I know votes Republican.  Neither is the term to be equated with Pharisaic legalism.  I know plenty of legalistic Christians who are not fundamentalist.

Instead, fundamentalists in the 21st century have two defining characteristics.  The first is that they believe in the absolute inerrancy of the English translations of Scripture.  The second is that they believe that “traditional America,” which they relate to 1950s suburban America was the best expression of the Kingdom of God and any move away from 1950’s gender roles, marriage definitions, United States politics, moral etiquette, church and family structures etc. is a move away from God.

I hope this post and the next few will begin an honest and down to earth discussion about this segment of American Christianity and that it engages further conversation.  Click on back tomorrow!