Monday, June 30, 2008

The Presbyterian General Assembly Vote to Ordain Gays and Lesbians

The Presbyterian General Assembly has been meeting this last week, dealing with a variety of hard issues. The most divisive is one that has come up repeatedly, the ordination of gays and lesbians. The traditional Presbyterian stance is that those actively engaged in homosexual conduct may not be ordained, and is outlined in paragraph G-6.0105b of the Book of Order:

Those called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

At this most recent General Assembly, the body voted to replace the paragraph above with this one:

Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.

In other words, the GA has voted to modify the constitution to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained. It's very important to note that (a) this doesn't go into effect until a majority of the individual presbyteries vote to accept it, and (b) similar proposals were voted down by these same presbyteries in 1997 and 2000. That means we're not going to (officially) see openly gay or lesbian ministers in Presbyterian pulpits anytime in the next couple of years, though it certainly moves the debate further down the road. There's worthwhile discussion of the topic here, here and here.

As a (not always very good) Presbyterian, I suppose it's time that I stake out my own position on this issue.

It would certainly be easier for me to support the ordination of gays and lesbians, or gay marriage, than to resist it. It's absolutely the direction that Western society is heading, and any attempt to assert a moral vision that isn't supported by the "plausibility structures" of our society creates tremendous cognitive dissonance. The assumption of every TV sit-com, every radio broadcast from NPR, nearly every newspaper article or editorial, is that society is "progressing" towards a more open view of love and marriage, and that anyone who dissents from this progress is hide-bound, racist, sexist, and eventually doomed to the trash heap of history. It's exceedingly difficult to go against the stream on this issue: virtually nothing in our culture will support you if you try to do so.

But as G. K. Chesterton once noted, "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it." And in this case, I believe that it is the church's duty to play the role of "alternative plausibility structure", to explain the Biblical witness in a coherent and plausible way to a world which, frankly, doesn't want to hear it.

I've read all the arguments for and against ordaining gays and lesbians many times, and I agree that it's a complicated issue. But we should all be clear that it's not complicated because the passages in question are all that difficult to understand. The arguments that have been advanced for more inclusive readings of, say, Romans 1:24-27 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 simply don't hold water. If it wasn't for theologians with an agenda, really, the various exegetical or hermeneutical questions about these passages would never even have been raised: the passages are very straightforward. More than that, it's a persistent and sometimes annoying fact that the Bible (a) consistently holds to monogamy as the divine standard for the relations between the sexes, (b) fairly consistently condemns any departure from that standard, and (c) very specifically and consistently calls out homosexual activity as one of the worst ways to depart from that standard. This is different from parallel issues such as "women in ministry" or "slavery", where the Biblical witness was mixed to begin with. The Bible frequently praises strong women in leadership positions, and recognizes the evils inherent in slavery. The Bible never has a positive word to say about homosexuality in any shape or form (and thus establishes a strong counterpoint to the laissez-faire attitude which the first century Greco-Roman world took to the issue of homosexual relations).

The issue is complicated for a different reason: not because the exegesis of the passages in question is terribly difficult, or even that much in question. It's complicated because there are many ways of understanding the nature of Biblical authority, and many of these different ways are legitimate. It's not enough to say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." On many issues, the Bible says lots of things, and points in a whole variety of directions. The New Testament in various places prohibits men from having long hair – but in numerous other places makes it clear that these externals don't matter. It excludes women from leadership while simultaneously praising women in leadership positions. Paul prohibits women from speaking in church, but praises those who publically exercise the gift of prophecy in church. Paul says it's fine to eat meat offered to idols, while Revelation 2:12-26 explicitly prohibits the practice. Paul uses Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone; James uses Abraham as an example of why faith must be supplemented by works. In Bible college and seminary, I often found myself wishing that the Bible looked and felt more like Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology: it would make things a lot simpler.

But the fact is, the Bible doesn't look and feel that way, and nearly all the time now, I'm very glad that it doesn't. It makes for a much more interesting and flexible read, though it does complicate the question, "How should Biblical authority apply to the Church?" In other words, if the Bible says lots of things that point in lots of different directions, how do we then use the Bible to pick out a path for ourselves? And to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how to do this. (Though the best approach I've seen outlined comes from Richard Hays' book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: recommended.)

I can therefore understand why reasonable and faithful Christians would disagree about the nature of the Bible's authority, especially when the Bible itself seems to point in multiple directions. But on some topics, such as homosexuality, the Bible has has a consistent and uniform witness, throughout the Old and New Testaments alike. When this is the case, any understanding of Biblical authority which takes the word "authority" seriously must also take that uniform witness seriously. And in these instances, the Church departs from that Biblical vision at its peril.

In other words, I believe that the real issue for the Presbyterian Church is, "Do we wish to remain a church whose standards and norms are informed and shaped by Scripture?" At some level, I can understand the perspective of those who wish to answer that question in the negative. Reading the Bible is complicated and messy, and doing what it says is harder and messier yet. And the Bible constrains and pinches us in all sorts of uncomfortable ways, particularly when, perhaps even for good reasons, we wish to take a different approach. But without the Bible as our center, without a fairly traditional understanding of the authority of Scripture over the church, I don't see any particular reason for the Presbyterian church, or any other church, to exist; and the chances of it doing so are somewhat diminished.

As Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Because biblical authority is the key issue, this is why I also feel that the question is an important and a central one. I have little difficulty belonging to a church which has a different understanding of, say, church governance than I do, or which feels differently about alcohol, or which emphasizes human free will more than I feel is appropriate. Those are clearly secondary issues: they're not central to the church's identity or mission. But it is exceedingly central to ask (and clearly answer), "Is the Church in some minimal respect under the authority of the Bible?" This is not a question a Reformed church can easily open for debate.

Whatever view of Biblical authority we hold, if the Bible does not constrain us on this issue, where the Bible clearly speaks with one, unanimous voice, it will never constrain us on any other; and if it never constrains us, it has no authority. There are many ways to understand and accept Biblical authority, but none which can survive departing from the Bible when all of the relevant texts point in exactly the opposite direction.

For myself, I have no other choice than to belong to a church which accepts Biblical authority and chooses to live under that authority as best as it can. I can understand those who wish to take a different route: but so long as I believe myself to be following the road of traditional, orthodox Christianity, I will have to respectfully take my leave from any church which chooses to travel otherwise.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

N. T. Wright meets Steven Colbert

I'm a bit late on this, as I don't watch TV and just happened to run across it: but it's fairly entertaining to watch N. T. Wright (a very thoughtful and astonishingly orthodox contemporary theologian) try to explain the difference between heaven and the resurrection to Stephen Colbert. It's not the sort of thing you see every day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Abraham, Isaac and Kierkegaard

My pastor and I today were chatting (over email) about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I took the opportunity to point him towards the "Panegyric upon Abraham" with which Kierkegaard opens Fear and Trembling.

Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard the beautiful story about how God tempted Abraham, and how he endured temptation, kept the faith, and a second time received again a son contrary to expectation. When the child became older he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had separated what was united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more frequently his mind reverted to that story, his enthusiasm became greater and greater, and yet he was less and less able to understand the story. At last in his interest for that he forgot everything else; his soul had only one wish, to see Abraham, one longing, to have been witness to that event. His desire was not to behold the beautiful countries of the Orient, or the earthly glory of the Promised Land, or that godfearing couple whose old age God had blessed, or the venerable figure of the aged patriarch, or the vigorous young manhood of Isaac whom God had bestowed upon Abraham -- he saw no reason why the same thing might not have taken place on a barren heath in Denmark. His yearning was to accompany them on the three days' journey when Abraham rode with sorrow before him and with Isaac by his side. His only wish was to be present at the time when Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw Mount Moriah afar off, at the time when he left the asses behind and went alone with Isaac up unto the mountain; for what his mind was intent upon was not the ingenious web of imagination but the shudder of thought.

That man was not a thinker, he felt no need of getting beyond faith; he deemed it the most glorious thing to be remembered as the father of it, an enviable lot to possess it, even though no one else were to know it.

That man was not a learned exegete, he didn't know Hebrew, if he had known Hebrew, he perhaps would easily have understood the story and Abraham.

This led to a discussion of (a) whether the story was historical or not, (b) whether that makes a difference in how we read it, and (c) how we make sense of the story in the 20th century. Some of my thoughts on those questions follows:

I'm not sure if Abraham is a historical character or not, but I suspect that he was. That said, I'm not sure that all the stories which get told about the gentleman in question are, in fact, historical. For just one example, see the three stories about a patriarch passing his wife off as his sister: twice for Abraham and Sarah, followed Isaac and Rebekkah. Clearly the stories about Sarah envision her as a young woman, not as a 70 or 90-year old, and it's the same darned king Abimelech that shows up in the second Sarah story and the story about Rebekkah. Given this and other inconsistencies, it's hard to buy the idea that the stories are very historical or accurate. At least, my current thinking is that if you'd had a video camera, running over the entire world around 2000 BC, you would have had a hard time spotting this particular incident. (I could be wrong, of course, and I'm not sure I'd have the guts to say that in church: it could easily be misunderstood.)

That said, I have to imagine that these names and characters and tribes got their start somewhere, and that they originated with a real person is as good a guess as any.

I suspect, however, that my 21st century post-modern perspective on the meaning of history and its relation to story is probably an anomaly. I'm not quite sure how the original hearers (or authors or editors or canonizers) would have heard the story. Clearly they weren't thinking history in the modern sense, nor even in the ancient Greek sense of Herodotus and Thucydides: but I also doubt that they would have understood the stories to be "theological fables". My guess is that up until the 18th or 19th centuries, most people who heard the story would have imagined it as actually happening, and "actually happening" in way pretty much like what Genesis 22 says. I also suspect, though, that many of our modern problems with the story wouldn't have bothered ancient readers nearly so much. They were very clear on the need to fear God, and the idea that God could command you to kill someone else wasn't nearly so foreign or horrible to them as it is to us.

But whether this "happened" isn't really the point. (I think it's somewhat different with Jesus -- the historicity of Jesus in general and the "happenedness" of the resurrection in particular is a big deal for Christians, and for me.) The real questions around Abraham are something like: (a) Could God command something like this? (b) Does God command stuff like this? (c) How am I supposed to apply this story to my own life?

Of these three questions, I think it's most informative to start with the last one. I don't really know if God ever commands people to kill their family members, though Jesus' insistence that you must "hate your father and mother" comes uncomfortably close to the same thought. But I do think that the story of Abraham and Isaac plays a key role in the Bible, and any Bible which took that story out would be immeasurably cheapened. Whatever else the story might mean, it tells of a God who can and should terrify us, who may ask us to sacrifice that which we hold most dear, whose command (the story is clear) takes precedence over any merely human or natural tie. Let us be grateful that this God loves us, but let us also remember that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And there is wisdom aplenty -- in that sense -- in this story.

This reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's description of Hazel Motes in Wise Blood:

There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.

As for where the story itself came from (if it doesn't reflect an actual, historical event), there's something like a scholarly consensus that the story originally functioned as an aetiological legend, along the lines of Jacob's vision at Bethel, or Jacob's wrestling with the angel at Penuel, explaining where and why the Israelites worshipped as they did. The particular aspect of worship which the story of Isaac supposedly explains is why Israelites don't engage (by and large) in human sacrifices. In other words, "God told Abraham to sacrifice a ram rather than his son, so that's what we do too."

I don't know if I buy that about the original form of the story or not, but certainly that's not how the story functions in its current context, where it's primarily about yet another challenge to God's promises: and this one, most horrifyingly, coming from God himself.

Of course, as a Christian, I think the real key to the story comes in the cross. The God who asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but then relented, did not relent when it came to His own Son. Somehow understanding that connection makes the story deeper, more frightening, but also easier to accept and hold onto.

I'm an authority on Israel!

Or at least, Israeli high-tech, apparently. I don't often get quoted in the press for Zango, as Zango's PR guys were afraid I'd make a gaffe (otherwise defined as "telling the truth when you weren't supposed to"). But Steve (Hi Steve!) was gracious enough to let me be interviewed for a couple articles for Infoworld on the tech climate in Tel Aviv and Montreal. See here and here.

The Bear in the Backyard

OK, so this was a little odd. I was getting ready to go to work this morning (I'm finishing out the week at Zango), and I spotted something large and black walking past on our patio, maybe two feet from our back door. It took me a second to realize that it was a bear and was distinctly out of place. We've seen lots of coyotes around (and lost a cat to one), but it was rather odd to see a bear, of all things.

I got off a few pictures before it wandered off. They're blurry and worthy of Bigfoot himself (I wasn't paying attention to hand motion), but they give you an idea. Just remember that these were taken as the bear was wandering off: it was originally much closer.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Benny Morris on Israel’s War of Independence

As I was leaving Ben Gurion on my latest trip to Tel Aviv, I happened across the book 1948, Benny Morris' new history of the first Arab-Israeli war. I already had too many books clogging my carry-on luggage (not to mention the shelves in my library, a fact my wife reminds me of frequently), but I couldn't help picking it up. I just finished it tonight, and I have to say, I'm impressed. Given the paucity of primary Arab source material, the book is astonishingly fair and balanced. He doesn't hesitate to criticize the Arab armies and governments for their incompetence – but neither does he shrink from laying out astonishingly detailed evidence for Israeli "ethnic cleansing" during the lead-up to the invasion and afterwards.

My first exposure to the war of 1948, and Israel's actions in that war, came from Golda Meir's autobiography. In My Life, she, well, sugarcoats the reality of what happened to a great degree. She describes – more or less accurately, I believe – a visit that she made to Haifa in 1948, specifically to encourage the Arabs from fleeing to Lebanon, and she confesses that she was greatly disappointed that they chose to flee. The impression she gives is that the Haganah would have preferred to have the Arabs stay. Benny Morris shows otherwise, in sometimes excruciating detail. Golda probably did want the Arabs of Haifa to stay. But that's only part of the reality, which elsewhere consisted of massacres of civilians (by both sides), forced evacuations (by both sides), and the razing of captured villages (by both sides).

Morris points out that while the Israelis probably committed more abuses than the Arabs, this was largely because they captured more civilian areas and won more of the battles: they had much more opportunity to do so. And Morris is also clear that whatever the Haganah's eventual practice and occasional musings by Zionist leaders, it was Arabs who officially and originally espoused "expulsionist thinking". Jewish moves towards expelling Arabs arose primarily when it became clear that the Arabs fully intended to expel the Jews (or worse), and that peaceful coexistence was unlikely. The Arab rhetoric, of course, was far more violent than the Jewish rhetoric, and the Arab practice (when it could be put into practice) was as bad or worse. And of course, it was the Arabs, against the will of the international community, who launched the war in the first place, the war which resulted in al-Nakhba, the Disaster, which has haunted the Palestinians ever since.

That said, it's still exceedingly sad to read passages like this these:

"In practice, neither side, after capturing enemy positions, houses, or traffic, kept prisoners. Captured combatants were usually shot out of hand, or less frequently, after a brief incarceration and interrogation, freed. During the first stage of the civil war, Jews probably killed more POWs than vice versa simply because Jews overran more Arab positions." (p. 153)

"As the town's HIS commander, Yitzhak Levy reported on 12 April, 'The conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty. Whole families – women, old people, children – were killed . . . Some of the prisoners moved to places of detention, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors.'" (p. 127)

"At Ghabisiya,south off Kabri, the villagers – with a tradition of collaboration with the Yishuv – greeted Carmeli with white flags. But the troops opened fire, hitting several villages, and then executed six more (allegedly because of the villagers' participation in the ambush of the Yehiam Convoy two months before). The villagers were subsequently expelled." (p. 166)

"Giv'ati's Fifty-second Battalion reported sending a patrol to the fields of Sawafir, Jaladiya, and Beit 'Affa, where 'a large number of Arabs were seen reaping . . . Most … were women and old men.' The patrol killed eight Arabs and detained three." (p. 303)

In context, when you understand that Israel saw itself as fighting for its life, these actions are perhaps comprehensible. No war has ever been fought without atrocities on both sides. Certainly the US did far worse in World War 2. But it is still sad.

Deception Creek

Doug and I decided to take advantage of our newfound freedom today by doing some fishing along Deception Creek, up Highway 2 near Stephens Pass. We got skunked – well, except for one 4" minnow – but the weather was acceptable, the scenery was amazing, and the creek filled up our senses like a John Denver song. The fishing at Deception Creek has never been great, but you can't beat the view. More pictures here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Moving On

Almost exactly nine years ago, when everyone and their brother was trying to do an Internet startup, my brother Keith and I and a few friends started comparing ideas. As Keith put it, "Ken, could you really look your grandchildren in the eye and tell them that you lived through the greatest business explosion in history, and you didn't try something?" So I got on board: at first, just working evenings and weekends, and in mid 2000, once Zango got its first round of funding, working full-time (or rather, somewhat more than full-time). Our big idea was "desktop advertising": sponsoring content by means of targeted advertisements delivered to your desktop.

How we've done that has changed pretty dramatically over the years, and we've sometimes been more successful at it, and sometimes less. As probably everyone knows, there was a period around 2004 when Zango screwed up pretty big, by not monitoring our publishing network as closely as we should have. But on the whole, Zango has generally succeeded in that initial goal, and in the process, has helped to carve out a unique niche in the very crowded Internet advertising space.

My involvement with Zango, first as co-founder, and eventually as CTO, has been one of the great highlights of my life. The culture at Zango, especially in its technology group, is as positive and ego-free as any company I've seen. We argue, but we argue about the issues, not the personalities, and folks are only interested in getting at the right answer, regardless of whose answer it is. The people there are smart, hard-working, dedicated, and as good a set of folks to work with as I've ever seen. I'm proud of what they accomplished, and I'm proud to have been their leader.

But nine years is a long time, and I've made the difficult decision that it's time to move on. Yesterday, as part of its transition over to its Platrium platform, Zango had to lay off 68 employees, roughly one third of its work force, and I took the opportunity to tender my resignation as well.

No part of this decision was easy, but in the end, I'm comfortable with it. A typical day lately had me starting at 4:00 am (to make my meetings with our Tel Aviv office), and didn't finish for another 12 or more hours. It's been wearing on me. I'm exceedingly proud of Zango, and I'm going to miss the folks there a great deal, but I need to spend some time with Caedmon, I need to remind my wife why she married me, I need to do some fishing, I need to get back to the outdoors. And I need to figure out what I want to do next.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Pictures from Israel

Some pictures from my recent trip to Israel and the West Bank: A menorah in the Tel Aviv Art Market. Some bowls at the Tel Aviv Art Market. A friend in an underground parking garage in Tel Aviv. The breakwater at Caesarea. A fisherman at Caesarea. Classic Bauhaus architecture reflected in a modern office building. The Greek Orthodox church in Jaffa. A modern Tel Aviv hotel. A child in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Censers at the Church of the Nativity. A hand lighting a candle in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Light shining through the incense at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. More here.

Hanna Massad

I just returned last night from another trip to Israel. On this trip, I had the opportunity to travel to Bethlehem again, this time with some friends, to meet with Hanna Massad, the former pastor of the Gaza Baptist church, and his wife, Suhad, one of the directors of the Palestine Bible Society.

After a few misadventures and wrong turns, we met up Hanna Massad and his family at the Immanuel Evangelical Church in downtown Bethlehem. The service was, of course, longer and more exuberant than the Presbyterian services I've become accustomed to, but it was also shorter and less exuberant than, say, a Pentecostal service at an Indian reservation in northern Canada. The church had radio headphones available, with a simultaneous translation from Arabic to English. (And one side note: I've heard any number of times that Muslims worship Allah, while Christians worship God. But Arabic-speaking Christians also worship Allah, along with his only begotten son, Jesus Christ. "Allah", of course, is what you have to call God when you're speaking Arabic, whether you're a Muslim or a Christian.)

After the service, we did a quick tour of a few sites around Bethlehem with Hanna and his family, then had lunch at the Grotto Restaurant near Shepherd's Field. While we were there, we had a chance to get to know Hanna and his story a little bit more. He's a very impressive man: he was born in Gaza, studied at Fuller the same time I was there, became a US citizen, eventually received his Ph.D., and then moved back to Gaza to pastor the Baptist church there. A very little bit about him can be found here, here and here.

He and his family stuck it out in Gaza through death threats and bombings, but were eventually forced to flee to the West Bank last November when Rami Ayyad, a friend and one of their staff members, was kidnapped by an Islamic militant group, and was tortured and eventually executed for refusing to renounce his faith. Christianity Today has stories about it here and here.

As I said, he and his children are US citizens, and his wife holds a green card, so they could move to the US any time they want. The last time he had trouble getting out of Israel (to speak at a conference in the US), Jimmy Carter personally intervened. But despite the danger, they've decided to remain in Palestine and work for the people there. Hanna wants to get back to Gaza as soon as the situation and the Israeli bureaucracy will allow. He has suffered a great deal at the hands of Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians, but I was able to discern no anger or resentment, just sadness and a quiet courage.