Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Signs of the Time

Time was when Time magazine was a bastion of editorial conservatism, by which I mean nothing like conservatism of the political or religious sort. I mean, instead, that Time maintained a commitment to editorial objectivity — or at least an attempt at it — when most other "news" outlets in the late 20th Century were gleefully abandoning theirs.

Alas, no more. I picked up the November 13, 2006 issue today while at the dentist's office. The cover copy indicated that inside, I'd find "a spirited debate between atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins" in the cover story entitledGod vs. Science(click the title to read the archived article online at the Time Web site). Curious, I bit, and dived into the article. Done in interview format, the piece is billed as the transcript of a 90-minute debate moderated by a Time correspondent. The exchange however, is something short of spirited (I suspect the editors thought that was a clever play on words) and it delivered nothing like the sort of discussion implied by the title.

From its inception the article assumes that intelligent design, an alternative to evolution that actually predates Darwin's work, is simply the religious wolf clad in new scientific wool. "In recent years," writes article author David Van Biema, "creationism took on new currency as the spiritual progenitor of 'intelligent design' (I.D.), a scientifically worded attempt to show that blanks in the evolutionary narrative are more meaningful than its very convincing totality." Scientifically worded? Very convincing totality? So much for editorial objectivity. So the creationists are mentioned, then dismissed, before the debate begins.

What does take place is a conversation between two scientists — one a Christian and one who, though billed as the athiest in the group, actually attempts late in the game to confess to agnosticism — who despite their differences about the existence of a deity of the sort currently worship by Christian, Jew or Moslem, both accept the prevailing theory of evolution as substantially sound. This is not God vs. Science. Rather its a discussion about whether or not an evolutionist can be a theist without surrendering his key to the lab.

Mr. Dawkins does his best to make it the promised spirited exchange. He twice refers to Collins' position as a "cop-out," the second time, "the mother and father of all cop-outs." He refers to those who believe the Genesis account of creation to be literally true as "clowns" whom theist Collins should ignore. He even trashes one of his own, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (who did more in the last Century than any other living scientist to rescue evolution from its critics by postulating changes to Darwin's classic theory that explained away glaring flaws) by saying that Gould's belief that evolutionary theory and religious belief could co-exist was a politically motivated sham. Collins, to his eternal credit, does not respond in kind. But he certainly is not a representative of those who oppose evolution on biblical grounds.

Van Biema notes that Dawkins is an outspoken member of a much published group of scientific types who are currently on the offensive against religion. The growing list includes Sam Harris, the much publicized and verbally pugnacious author of The End of Faith as well as a posthumous collection of astrophysicist Carl Sagan's skeptical lectures about God.

Personally, I welcome the assault. The rising atheist tide comes at a time when evangelical Christianity, the presumed progenitor of I.D., is in the throes of a much needed self-examination. But Christians are never more like their true selves than when persecuted. Historically, efforts to stamp out their faith have inevitably failed. Christians outlasted Russia's Secret Police and China's Red Guards in the last Century. And they will outlast America's 21st Century Materialists, too. Especially if they're no longer invited to the debate. That'll give them more time to do what Jesus told them to do. Arguing with atheist scientists really isn't on the to-do list.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Church Growth Dressed up as Emergent?

Found this post at the Apprising Ministries blog, concerning Rob Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids — not to be confused with the Mars Hill in Seattle, pastored by complimentarian Mark Driscoll who, last International Women's Day, took some serious heat for statements allegedly not in support of women in church leadership.

Rob Bell, who by all accounts is egalitarian, is pastor of what various observers say is the "the fastest growing church in America." He's certainly got a unique way of expressing the timeless message of the Gospel. And he's got a church of 10,000 that he started in 1999 in a gymnasium.

What many don't know is that gymnasium was pretty full the first Sunday. Somewhere between 700 to 1,000 people were there from the get-go. That's more people than a lot of pastors ever see come through a church in its entire existence (the great majority of U.S. churches number 100 or less).

Many of those attending that first Sunday apparently knew him well. He had helped oversee their spiritual development for four to five years as a pastor on staff at Ed Dobson's nearby megachurch — something Bell neglected to mention in his account of his church plant in his new book Velvet Elvis. Hmmmmmm.

Wouldn't want to take anything away from what he's done or doing, but ... you've got a better shot at 10,000 when you start with 1,000 than the emergent folks meeting in someone's living room.

What's troubling about his story is that it sounds more amazing than it is. You get the image of this guy just kinda falling into ministry (his first formal ministry is a patched-together talk he gives at a retreat when the billed speaker didn't show), and then after he gets some encouragement and completes his seminary education, he goes to Grand Rapids and just wants to preach the Gospel and sort of watches this church spring up around him. He's as surprised by it as you are! "We had no idea how many people would show up that first Sunday." Yeah, but Rob, you probably had a fair idea. I mean, you had a very successful teaching ministry at one of the largest churches in the country for five years. Since everyone at Dobson's church knew for quite some time that you and "several other people" were going to go set up shop in that gym, how likely was it that you'd preach to a room full of empty chairs?

Don't get me wrong. I've seen some of his work, and he has a way of making the Gospel come alive. And truth is, there are a lot of pastors who could start with that 700-1,000 and walk away empty in five years. If you're into church growth, it's an amazing story even without the mythic implication of 0-10,000 in six years. I don't intend here to take anything away from what he's managed to do. It is remarkable. And I believe with all my heart that God's in it, too. But it does rob it of some of its mythic shock and awe when you find that Bell got to bypass, rather than find a way to overcome, those tough-to-get-past church growth plateaus (90, 125, 225 and 350) everyone used to write so much about.

Bell says he's not into church growth. The story that he refused to let his leadership team put up a sign outside the gym is, no doubt, true. Didn't have to. He says the church grew by word of mouth. Probably did. Several thousand mouths, apparently, assuming most adults at Dobson's church knew about the plans.

Bell's not into church growth, but his church plant is an almost by-the-book demonstration of classic church growth principles, developed and first taught, by the way, at Fuller Seminary, his spiritual alma mater.

Bell's not into marketing, either. Really? I happened to pick up his book off the rack at our church book room this morning and found it intriguing. I actually read his abbreviated account of his church's beginnings, which was why I Googled him this afternoon and came to find the above. There are, oh, 70-80 books, maybe, on the racks at church, and dozens of music tapes and other stuff. I'd just stepped in to sorta hide out, because it was that noisy period between services from which we ultra-introverts occasionally need a break. Why did that book catch my eye? Easy: It was smaller than the rest. Had a plain white cover and, in tiny type, running top-to-bottom near the upper right-hand corner, it said, simply Velvet Elvis. In a room full of flash, with authors names emblazoned bigger than book titles, it stood out like a beacon. "What's this about, I wonder?" I said as picked it up. I just hadta pick it up. That, my friends, is textbook good marketing. "In a crowded marketplace, differentiate your product." I'm not criticizing. You write a book, why? Presumably, because you want people to read it. It was good packaging. It did exactly what it was intended to do.

I have nothing against those who feel it is time to update or reinvent or rediscover the gospel. I guess I'll even live with the idea that Jesus had a "secret" message that we're just now unveiling. But this reinvention process is not new. Every generation has repackaged the faith to fit its present realities, complete with revised prayer books, "modern" bible tranlations (can't wait to see the "postmodern" bibles) and all the rest. But, unlike some, I don't pretend for one minute that this repackaging effort somehow escapes being marketing. When you repackage an old product to appeal to a new audience, that's Marketing 101.

The important question is, when you do your marketing, are you telling the truth about your product or trying to make it look like something it isn't?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fortress People & River People

It often seems like there are only two kinds of people: I call them fortress people and river people.

Fortress people, at their best, are conservative: They seek to preserve values, honor traditions, uphold their end of the Social Contract. They seek (and seek to preserve) formal education, and study a thing carefully in order to do it well. They set standards and think it's important to live up to them. They find peace and are most productive in times of stability. When something new is built, their prime concern is that it is built on a strong foundation, so it will last. They avoid error, respect authority, make long-range plans, keep their word. They like the idea that you can build a strong fortress in life (and not just materially), within which they, their families and their friends can be safe and productive. They want to bequeath that fortress to their children.

River people, by contrast, are (again, at their best) progressive: They value freedom, honor creativity, examine and critique the current social contract. They seek experince (the Great Teacher) and learn by doing, believing that even their mistakes have within them the seeds of wisdom. They know that rules sometimes must be broken if one is to do the right thing. They find purpose and are most effective in times of change. And when something new is built, their desire is that it meet a present need. They avoid rigidity, respect originality, adjust their plans as they go, keep their options open. They like that life is an adventure, that you can go witht he flow of it as if it were a great River (hence the name) and they believe that if they, their families and their friends just get out there in the water, they won't drown. Instead, experiments with a variety of swimming strokes will bring their own rewards and the River itself, somehow, will get them where they need to go. They want to teach their children how to swim ... even if it means swimming against the tide.

Question: Are you a fortress person or a river person?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Blessings & Cursings, Part II

OK, now I know the computer gods hate me.

Since last post, the computer gremlins followed me to work, and immediately went to work on my brand new Microsoft Word program on my beautiful, almost brand new MacBookPro. Yesterday afternoon and most of this morning, I couldn't key in Greek letter characters.

Who cares, you say?

As it happened, I was editing a magazine article submission written by a math brainiac in our industry who had peppered his written piece with equations. Greek letters all over the place — or at least there shoulda been. But when I opened the document, everywhere there should have been a beta or theta or epsilon, there was, instead, a little square.

Our IT guys, our art director and I spent about five man-hours yesterday and again this morning, searching "Help," restarting, rebooting, installing new fonts, re-installing old fonts, setting and re-setting preferences, re-installing software ... and scratching our heads. Late this morning, we finally came up with a work-around, but the mystery remains: Where the "Symbol" drop down says I should be able to insert a Greek character, I simply can't.

Turns out our art director can't do it on his Word program, either. Everyone else in our office — none of whom have any need whatsoever to insert Greek characters — can insert alphas, gammas and deltas in Word 'til the cows come home. But not us.

Our art director and I are looking for arcane charms and rituals with which to appease the capricious virtual deities. Suggestions welcome.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

DSL Modems: Blessings & Cursings

I have a great deal of sympathy for customer service people, because they have to deal with people like me.

Especially the folks who sell and maintain Internet-related services. They are patient, enlessly kind, and willing ot explain things but ... too often, I just don't get it.

I do okay if they can tell me something practical to do ("Okay, Mike, now click on "Preferences" — its up in the upper left hand corner ... that's it. Good. You're doing great!"), I can handle that. But when they try to explain to me how things work (or lately, why things aren't working) I'm clueless. My friend Ted tried to explain to me how the Internet works yesterday, and I nodded along with him, because I understood the words he was saying, but the words did not conjure up an image that I could import into my knowledge file. After all these years, the whole deal is still a mystery to me. And no amount of experience with it nor the many conversations I've had with techies talking about it has improved my lot.

Today was no exception. This afternoon, I was trying to find out why I could receive e-mail, but couldn't send it. I installed my new DSL Modem Friday night and was initiated into the world of high-speed access with the help of a very nice fellow from Qwest who talked me through it like a pro (he was the pro, not me). We got everything all hooked up and — WOW — everything seemed to work. And gloriosky, was it fast! While he was on the line with me, I opened my browser and quickly found a couple of my favorite spots. I opened my e-mail program and right away, several e-mails dowloaded. Ah, that works, too! Delighted, I thanked the tech guy, hung up and whiled away a couple of hours traveling the world on Google Earth.

Woke up yesterday, nothing worked. I ended up having to restart my computer and then unplug and then replug the DSL Modem to get things going again. Once it was up, everything seemed to work. I decided to post on my blog again after a long absense, in part because I wouldn't have to wait so #$%&@ long for the old dial-up access to work. So I happily composed a post, put it up and composed an e-mail to everyone I know saying "I"m back" and ... I couldn't send the e-mail. It wouldn't go. It tried, then told me it couldn't do it.

After a long talk with the a techie at Qwest and then a techie at my ISP (a weekender, who couldn't figure it out and will have to have one of the regular 9-to-5 techies call me Monday) I was told I could send e-mail from ny ISP's WebMail feature. I, of course, did not know my ISP had a WebMail feature. So she graciously introduced me to it, and I was finally able to get off an announcement that you could find me here again.

I do feel a little better: Today, neither of the techies I talked to could figure out why it wasn't working. It shoulda. It coulda. I just didn't. And they can't tell me why. So I don't feel quite so dumb.

But I am getting a little niggling bit of paranoia. So far, the only things me and my techie phone pals could figure out to do about my DSL problems has been restart or unplug/replug. In fact, when you call in to talk to a techie on the DSL service line, they even have a recorded announcment suggesting that you unplug your modem and the plug it back in before you talk to the techie, with the assurance that "many times, this takes care of the problem." They don't even know what your problem is yet. Just unplug, replug. It all starts to sound like some strange ritual, performed to appease a capricious virtual god.

Maybe I don't want to know how the thing works, yo?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Emerging from the Monastery

That's a metaphor. I haven't been wearing a robe and shaving a bald spot on the back of my head.

But I have emerged from a somewhat monastic sabbatical from "public" life. My retreat was imposed, in part, by several circumstances of my private life. But I found the exile useful and continued in it for a time by choice when life circumstances no longer required it.

Why the retreat?

First, blogging had become a burden. Too much "look at me" had crept in. I don't for one minute think I've escaped that. But now I think I let it scare me away from something I was meant to do: write. The looky-me serpent is always going to be there, looking to derail and sidetrack me. But now I'm thinking: Better to stare it down, and get on.

Second, I worried that I had nothing to add, really, to the conversation (in the blogosphere or anywhere else, for that matter). And when that wasn't niggling in my brain, I worried that I would add my two cents only to find myself suddenly out of step with people who I'd very much like to walk alongside. Both of these worries persist, but neither justifies silence. Again, better to stare it down, and get on.

Third, despite the insupportable motivations for escaping, I found leave-taking a refreshing experience. I not only stopped blogging, I backed away from several other activities (church-related and otherwise), declined to accept several invitations to participate in several others, and those few in which I continued, I cut back, so they occupied less of my time.

For the first time in years, I spent many hours at a stretch in solitary activities: One was mourning. Old losses and new. An important task I had been putting off. Another was learning to truly enjoy my own company. I walked. I read. I indulged my for movies, I even began experimental cooking again (something I've rarely time and inclination for). I also spent time thinking without feeling the need the need to talk about it or explain it or blog it and worry whether or not I was making an idiot of myself. I really needed that. And I got to where I really liked the quiet and solitude.

As a result, my stress level (which I hadn't thought was so high) abated significantly, and in the calm, I realized it had been quite high indeed.

It wasn't all peace and contentment, however. Since my last post, I have been hospitalized (Thanksgiving Day!) with blood clots on the lungs, a condition from which I am recovering. That was a shocker. On the other hand the three days I spent in the hospital after the inital shock were among the most freeing — and healing — of my sabbatical period. I had no computer, no responsibilities, nowhere to go and had the best excuse in the world to opt out altogether for a long weekend and let others take care of the world! I think it was a God thing.

Sometimes we just need to stop, if only to figure out where we are, where we've been and where God might be leading. So I did.

In the last couple of weeks, I've found myself writing post-like comments in e-mails to others and on other's blogs. I realized that it was time to emerge from exile and start again.