Friday, October 21, 2011

Retarded Isn't Stupid, Mom, by Sandra Z. Kaufmann

Raising children with special needs can be full of challenges.  Every parent has the task of providing children with a safe, nurturing environment at home, school, and in the community, but the task can be much more daunting if the child has physical or mental disabilities.  Likewise, every parent struggles with letting go of the strings and control as children approach adulthood.  Parents of children with special needs have to struggle with how many strings to let go, how soon, and then worry over and question every decision.

In Retarded Isn't Stupid, Mom, Sandra Kaufmann tells her story.  When she is told that her daughter, Nicole, has mental retardation, her world is permanently and inextricably changed.  In her sometimes brutally honest and consistently insightful narrative, Sandra tells stories of the good times, struggles, and failures of her family's life together with Nicole from early childhood to early adulthood.  Besides her experiences as a mom, Sandra returns to college to complete her degree and ends up as a researcher in a UCLA ethnographic research group studying the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.  So her researcher's eye adds to what might have been a typical parental narrative.

Sandra's stories will make you laugh and cry.  Much of the focus of the book involves her helping Nicole work toward independence.  Nicole, who repeatedly shows her resourcefulness and independent-mindedness in spite of her intellectual shortcomings, announces to her parents that she wants to move out.  Against all logic and reason, they agree to help her get set up in an apartment.  Shortly, her boyfriend moves in, leading to constant worry about pregnancy.  Together, Nicole and her boyfriend--whom she would eventually marry--go through the typical trials of a newly independent couple trying to make it with their low-paying jobs.  Facing the usual struggles, not to mention prejudice, mistreatment, and bad luck, with aplomb and determination, Nicole makes her way with some success.

One thing I hadn't thought much about before is friendships among adults with intellectual disabilities, and friendship between disabled adults and typical adults.  The ideal would be for such friendships to get past the point of one helping the other, or serving the other, to both serving, loving, and learning from the other.  Nicole sees the distinction here.  At one point, in a conversation with Sandra about a trip to Universal Studios, Nicole said she'd like to go back with her sister, Jill, and Jill's boyfriend, "If they wouldn't be offended by us."  After that conversation, Sandra wonders, "What would it be like to know that all the 'normal' people in the world, even brothers and sisters, merely tolerated you?  To know that they would never permit the close sharing of reciprocated friendship?"

Sandra acknowledges that she and her husband do help Nicole in many ways; without their help, her struggles would be immeasurably greater.  Even with the support that disabled individuals can access from community programs, as well as from government assistance, just getting by can be a huge challenge.  For Nicole, many "angels" in her life helped her out with assistance on the job, at home, and around town.  I was challenged to think about how I can be an "angel" to people with disabilities in my life.

Sandra bares all as she struggles with letting go of control in Nicole's life.  Managing her own money, maintaining her own apartment, even opening up to the possibility of pregnancy, Sandra finally lets go and lets Nicole learn on her own, growing from her many mistakes.  The Kaufman family's experiences are instructive for any parent, but parents of disabled children especially can relate to and learn from the hard choices they have to make.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hell, no? Hell, yes!

He wears all black and stylish glasses.
How can we not believe what he says?
Rob Bell knows how to make a splash.  When we moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1998, Bell preached at the Saturday night service at a local megachurch.  In 1999, he founded Mars Hill Church, which, by the time we moved back to Texas in 2002, had taken over a shopping mall, where thousands of people attended multiple services every weekend.  His best-selling books and teachings have raised eyebrows in the church world, but none more than his most recent book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell, a gifted communicator who captivates his readers and listeners, couches weak theology in entertaining and thoughtful messages, leaving them wondering how anyone could disagree with him.  In Love Wins, Bell makes the case that a God who loves us and created us for fellowship with him would not toss us into a fiery pit of eternal suffering.  Bell loves narrative theology, the story of God.  He says, "Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn't do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn't a very good story." 

Another gifted communicator whose resume parallels Bell's in some ways is Francis Chan.  Chan started a church in Simi Valley, California, in 1994 which now has thousands of members and has planted a number of other churches.  He also has a couple hot-selling books, especially Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God.  His theology is, shall we say, more in the mainstream of evangelical theology.

Also wears black.  Also shaves his head.
No cool glasses.  Hmmmm. . . .
Partly in response to Bell, Chan co-wrote, with New Testament scholar Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We've Made Up.  They argue that while we may not always understand the ways of God, the full testimony of the Bible teaches the existence of hell, where there is actual suffering.  While Bell certainly does quote scripture, he does so in a selective way to fit his "story."  Chan approaches scriptural themes more comprehensively.  On universalism, for example, in Philippians 2, Paul writes that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord."  Taken alone, that sounds like it could teach universalism.  But in chapter 1 of the same letter, Paul writes of those who oppose Christ being destroyed, and in chapter 3, he says the destiny of the "enemies of the cross of Christ" is "destruction."

Given the choice between story and scripture, I have to choose scripture.  Bell is certainly a good storyteller, and avoids dogmatic statements while making some really good points.  I have to agree with him that we have over-simplified the gospel to mean mere fire insurance.  But he goes too far the other way, stopping just short of declaring himself a full universalist, but still strongly implying that all will eventually be saved.  Hell is not a place to him, as taught in so many passages in scripture, but it is a state of horrible conditions on earth: famine, holocausts, domestic abuse, sexual slavery are all forms of hell.  Jesus will redeem the earth and rescue us all from this earthly hell.  Amen to Jesus' redemptive work, but as hellish as those human experiences are they are not hell.

Not so fast, Chan and Sprinkle argue.  Jesus taught in the context of a Jewish theology and culture that firmly believed in hell as a place of suffering.  He never denied that, and that cosmology is supported in his teaching.  Good stories aside, the one story we should avoid is the one that starts, "If I were God, I would never. . . ."  That seems to be Bell's take: if he were God, he would not send anyone to hell.  But just as the clay can't tell the potter how to shape it, much less understand it, neither can we understand all the ways of God.

My pastor, Jack Deere, has responded to this and other heresies in some recent sermons.  (There, I said it: heresy.  Bell is teaching heresy.  Jack never names Bell, but I am thinking he would agree.)  He made a couple of relevant points.  First of all, we should never put our own reason before scripture.  Sure, we might be able to come up with some good arguments to support a point of view, but it our conclusions are out of line with scripture, we have to lean on God's word.  A second, related point is that mysteries are OK.  Predestination, Trinitarianism, inspiration, all leave us with unanswered questions.  But the author of those questions is much bigger than we are, and we can't expect to have perfect understanding of his ways.

Both Chan and Bell have a compelling writing style and a refreshing humility when it comes the their teaching.  But Chan's approach, based in scripture, must prevail.  It's not without a cost, though.  If there is an actual hell, where people who don't know Christ will suffer, the burden is on us who do know him to live as if that's true.  People we meet every day, people we love, are destined to suffer there.  Our task is to partner with God in leading people to relationship with Christ.  It would be much easier to agree with Bell, that we'll all end up in heaven anyway, so no big deal, but I'm afraid we don't have that option.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

A measure of a great biography may be the extent to which it elicits a desire to learn more about the subject and read his or her writings.  With this extensive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas has certainly accomplished both, as far as I'm concerned.  I think I first became aware of Bonhoeffer while I was in college, through his Discipleship, or The Cost of Discipleship as most English translations title it.  Other than than, I had no more than a vague, one or two sentence idea of his involvement with the plot to kill Hitler.  That did become a defining element of his life, as it lead to his execution, but, as Metaxas tells the story, there is much more to the man, his ministry, and his work in public and church life.

As a young pastor and theologian during the Nazi's rise to power Bonhoeffer opposed the German church's easy assent to the dictates of the Nazi party, including excluding anyone of Jewish heritage from ministry positions, and supplanting the message of the cross with the message of the twisted cross of Nazism.  As a leader in the confessing church movement, and as head of a new seminary founded as an alternative to the Nazi-tainted seminaries of the German church, Bonhoeffer rose in status and became a target for the Gestapo.
I think I would have liked Bonhoeffer.  Maybe we can hang out in heaven.
While telling Bonhoeffer's story, Metaxas does a beautiful job of portraying life in Germany in the years leading up to and including the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party.  Bonhoeffer's family, not rich but certainly among the intellectual and cultural elite of Germany, had close connections in academic, political, and military circles.  For the most part, these groups did not welcome the rise of Nazism; they hoped for its quick demise, and bemoaned its unlikely entrenchment in German politics and governance.  That surprised me as much as anything: in spite of the powerful opponents to Nazism, and there was much, Nazis managed to gain unprecedented power.  Many common Germans, not just Jews, opposed the Nazis.  I can't help but think most of Germany was complicit in Nazi crimes, but Metaxas makes it clear that many opposed them, even in the military.

I particularly enjoyed Metaxas's portrayal of Bonhoeffer as a defender of the faith against theological liberalism and against Nazi attempts to dilute the work of the church.  The ready acquiescence of the German church distressed him.  Neither was he very impressed with the academic theology he encountered in the U.S. during his stay in New York, at Union Theological Seminary.  Of the students, he had this to say: "There is no theology here. . . .They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level."  He also had a hard time finding good preaching:
In New York they preach about virtually everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life. . . . The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. . . . I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro.
Bonhoeffer himself has been, at times, championed by theological liberals, due in part to some fragmentary writings that he left behind, the unfinished nature of which lead to some misinterpretation.  On religionless Christianity, an idea which, Metaxas points out, has "led to a terrific misunderstanding of Bonhoeffer's theology," Eberhard Bethge said the "isolated use and handing down of the famous term 'religionless Christianity' has made Bonheoffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God."  Contrary to his liberal interpreters, Bonhoeffer's theology, Metaxas writes, "was dedicatedly Bible centered and Christ centered."

As Hitler's power increased and life for Jews and the confessing church (not to mention the disabled and many other groups), Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to return to New York for an extended stay as a lecturer.  He could easily have stayed in the U.S. for the years, perhaps even through the duration of the war.  But Bonhoeffer knew his place and his work was in Germany.  He joined the Abwehr, military intelligence, and worked as double agent.  Besides working on behalf of the church, he helped smuggle Jews out of the country and was a part of the plot to kill Hitler.  (This plot was portrayed in the movie Valkyrie, but I don't remember that Bonhoeffer was named in the movie.  Obviously it involved many in the military, as well as many civilians.)  I was interested to read about Bonhoeffer's struggle with the ethical issues of his work.  Lying, deceiving his government, even plotting to kill a head of state became justifiable in light of the actions of the Nazi government.

Bonhoeffer was arrested not because of his involvement with the assassination plot, but because of his covert intelligence work.  Later, however, after the near-miss with Hitler, the Fuhrer wanted vengeance on everyone he could find who was involved.  Bonhoeffer's name made the list, and he was hanged only days before the Allies claimed victory, and weeks before Hitler took his own life.

Metaxas's biography, a terrific read with just the right blend of historical background and detail about Bonhoeffer's life, renewed my interest in Bonhoeffer.  On my shelf I have copies of The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Ethics.  I read the first two, but I'm not sure I ever tackled the third.  I'm inspired to do so now, and to wonder what Christendom lost with Bonhoeffer's early death.  What more can we ask of a biography: a great writer writing a great story about a great man.  Worth a read.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Inside the Revolution, by Joel C. Rosenberg

It's refreshing to read a perspective of the Middle East that is both informed, from an insider's perspective, and is Bible-centered, from someone knowledgeable about Biblical prophecy.  Joel Rosenberg, a Jew by heritage, Evangelical Christian by faith, has worked as an advisor with U.S. and Israeli leaders, and, as founder of the Joshua Fund has worked extensively on humanitarian projects throughout the Middle East.  He has written a series of novels in which Biblical prophecies play out in today's climate, and has written Epicenter and Inside the Revolution, non-fiction books about the Middle East. 

I was particularly impressed by a promo for his books that pointed out his foresight.  Check this out, from his Wikipedia entry:
Nine months before the September 11th attacks, Rosenberg wrote a novel with a kamikaze plane attack on an American city. Five months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he wrote a novel about war with Saddam Hussein, the death of Yasser Arafat eight months before it occurred, a story with Russia, Iran, and Libya forming a military alliance against Israel occurring the date of publishing, the rebuilding of the city of Babylon, Iran vowing to have Israel "wiped off the face of the map forever" five months before Iranian President Ahmadinejad used similar language, oil and natural gas in Israel (a major gas discovery occurred in January 2009).
All of this to say, Rosenberg has extensive experience in the Middle East, and has uncanny insight into trends and events as they occur, even before.  Whether or not he's right on every point, he deserves to be listened to.

Inside the Revolution is really three books as one, as indicated by the subtitle: How the Followers of Jihad, Jefferson, and Jesus are Battling to Dominate the Middle East and Transform the World.  In the first section, Rosenberg details the threat of Islam from those who believe Islam is the answer and jihad is the way.  This is the message we hear from many on the right: Iran wants to wipe out Israel, American is the great Satan and Israel is the little Satan, the Koran teaches Jihad against infidels, radical Islam won't rest until the whole world is under sharia law.  Based on his account, it's worse that I thought.

The second section, on the followers of Jefferson, showcases the vast majority of the Muslim world, those leaders who truly desire Jeffersonian democracy and an Islam that does not do violence against its enemies.  They believe Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way.  These are the Muslims President Bush refers to when he says Islam is a religion of peace.  It's hard to believe, if you only listen to reports of terrorist attacks and threats and IEDs and insurgents.  But Rosenberg makes the case that Jeffersonian Muslims are on the rise.  Based on his account, it's better than I thought.

The third section is most encouraging.  In pockets of the Muslim world, revival is breaking out!  Many Muslims are becoming Christians.  They believe that Islam is not the answer, and Jesus is the way.  Of course, by the very nature of life in the Muslim world, we don't hear much about these Christians.  But some Muslim countries do enjoy a measure of religious freedom.  It's fascinating to hear about these MBBs (Muslim background believers) who are following Jesus and evangelizing the Muslim world.  Prepare to be amazed both by the incredible stories of faith under persecution, and the miraculous ways our loving God reaches out to people in these countries that lack much Christian witness.  He wrote more about the conversion of Muslims in the booklet Inside the Revival

Rosenberg's reporting is thorough, and the cast of characters is huge.  Inside the Revolution provides valuable insights into the recent history and current trends in the Middle East.  Unsurprisingly, he is strongly pro-Israel, which will bother some of his Muslim readers.  He also clearly holds a pre-tribulation rapture view, which some of his Christian readers will nod in agreement with, but others (like me) pause and wonder if he's right.  (Side note: I was curious about his fiction, so I picked up Dead Heat, which starts with a nuclear attack on the U.S. and ends with the rapture.  He writes in page-turning, pot-boiler style, but raises some good questions, not the least of which is, How do we protect the U.S. from a terrorist attack like this one?  It would be very easy for a dedicated band of bad dudes to pull off an attack that makes 9/11 look mild.)

Another side product I looked at was his documentary, Epicenter, which is based on his first non-fiction book by the same name.  The video focuses more on the first 1/3 of Inside the Revolution, the threat of Islam.  Even though the threat comes from a tiny portion of Muslims in the world, it's hard to overlook.  A small group of people can do a tremendous amount of damage, physically, culturally, and otherwise.  So in spite of the hope Rosenberg offers in Inside the Revolution, I can't help but focus on the threats, and the possible scenarios of Dead Heat and his other novels.  There's no question that Islam poses a grave threat to the U.S. and to the hope of peace around the world.  Rosenberg reminds us that whatever the state of the world, God is in control, has a plan, and loves his children.