Category Archives: In the News

What Should Christians Do About President Biden?

“What Should Christians Do About President Biden?” I hear that question, though perhaps in a less respectful form, regularly. It is more like, “What about Biden?” or “Did you hear what Biden’s done now?”

Most of my friends are Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. In conversations about politics I, who did not vote for either of the major candidates, generally find myself on the outside. I sometimes try to reframe, or perhaps enlarge the frame, of such conversations to include God’s plans for the church and the world and Christian responsibility within those plans.
What is that responsibility? What should Christians do about Biden? The biblical answer is that
they should pray for him. St. Paul urged “that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” As the Bible scholar Christopher Wright put it, “Paul commands all kinds of prayers for all kinds of rulers.”

How should we pray for rulers like President Biden? Continue reading

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Masks in America: Hiding, Revealing, Transforming

It would not be surprising if the words for “mask” in the world’s languages have been used more in the past year than in all recorded history combined. That is impressive, given the length of time masks have been around. In 2018, archeologists discovered a 9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask in the Middle East. One could argue that the earliest masks, although not face masks, were worn by Adam and Eve when they donned fig leaf coverings and tried to hide from the Lord.

Ancient Egyptians wore masks in religious rituals. They also placed masks on the faces of the dead to protect them on their crossing to the afterlife. In the Far East, masks were worn both for religious ceremonies and for theatrical productions. Classical actors routinely performed in masks, which explains why the ancient Greek word for actor was “hypocrite,” which means, “the one under the mask.”

Masks sometimes serve as identity markers. The mask marked the stage performer as an actor, the shaman as a healer, the chief as an authority. In West Africa, certain masks identified their wearers as intermediaries through whom petitions might be delivered to the dead.

More often, though, masks are worn to hide one’s identity. In ancient religious ceremonies, masks sometimes hid the wearer from malicious spirits. Historically, judges in many cultures have donned masks to protect themselves from reprisal from both friends and enemies of the accused. Today, companies are working to design “masks” that hide people’s identity from facial recognition software.
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Hope, Presidents, and Inauguration Speeches

I write this on the day that Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. I thought President Biden’s inauguration speech was well-written and, at times, dynamically delivered. The theme, to which he returned again and again, was the need for national unity.

A secondary theme, a prerequisite for presidential inauguration speeches, was hope. The president brought those themes together when he called all Americans to unite to fight hopelessness. Picking up the hope theme later in the speech, he promised, in the words of Psalm 30, that though “weeping may endure for a night … joy comes in the morning.” Near the conclusion of the address, he said: “Together we will write an American story of hope…”

Every U.S. president in my lifetime has spoken of hope at his inauguration. This may be because inauguration day is a day of hope in the U.S. or it may be that Americans are naturally a hopeful people. They extend hope like a line of credit, placing it at the incoming president’s disposal.

What is the substance of this hope to which presidents routinely refer? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as the hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions worldwide. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, indeed “the last, best hope of man on earth,” in terms of an “opportunity society” where all of us “will go forward.”
Peace also figures into inauguration day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world built on international policies rather than on weapons of war. John Kennedy pledged to engage in a “peaceful revolution of hope” to assist “free men and free governments” south of our border.

Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom form the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain them is far from obvious. Certainly, the united efforts of the American people play a necessary role. But presidents have assumed another dynamic is in play and that assumption is questionable.

That dynamic can be described in a word: progress.
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What Story Are You Living In?

The county in which I live has the second highest positivity rate for COVID-19 in the entire state. The county with the highest rate is right next door. Our governor has extended the restrictions placed on gatherings. The compulsory closure of businesses continues.

With businesses in our state and around the country shuttered, Congress is still at an impasse over the next coronavirus relief plan. They will almost certainly agree to something – political survival likely depends on it – but it will be too late for many businesses and the people they employ.

More bad news. Dr. Anthony Fauci and other infectious disease specialists are expecting a surge of coronavirus illnesses just in time for Christmas. Doctors and politicians are urging families to avoid holiday gatherings this year. The effect of a COVID-19 Christmas on relationships, suicide rates, and the economy is unknown but ominous.

We live in a constantly changing story and, in America at least, we do not agree on what the story is. Is it the story of a convincing victory by the Democratic presidential contender or is it the story of massive voter fraud and an election hijacking? Is it the story of a devastating pandemic or of media hype?

Because we cannot agree on the story, we can hardly talk to each other. There was a time when there was broad consensus on the outlines of the American story. Certainly some of the plot lines – who was best qualified to carry the story forward, for example – were open to debate, but we mostly agreed on the story’s major themes.

This was largely true of both men and women, home-grown and naturalized citizens. Because of slavery, black Americans saw the past differently, as did people of Indigenous American descent, who were subject to broken treaties, theft of land, and mass extermination. But even within these groups, the future story held a similar shape.
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Forego Thanksgiving, Try Again Next Year?

2020 has been called the annus horribilis (“the horrible year”) and described as hellacious, apocalyptic, awful, and exhausting. The pandemic rages on, with some areas seeing higher infection rates than ever before. Many people are out of work and out of money and, as the coronavirus spikes, some are out of time.

Those who manage to avoid the virus can’t sidestep the measures taken to prevent its spread. In my state, restaurants are closed, mask requirements are in place, high schools and colleges have moved online, and theaters are shut down. Sports stadiums are empty. Churches, like ours, are seeing half their members attending worship gatherings.

Experts warn that the pandemic is causing anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. A review published in The Lancet linked an increase in mental health problems to the boredom, loss of freedom, and uncertainty caused by quarantine. Children and teens are most at risk.

We have heard the welcome news that an effective vaccine is around the corner, but many Americans are wary of taking it. Even those who are eager for the vaccine may be looking at the summer of 2021 before they are able to get it.

As if the pandemic was not bad enough, there was also the election. Usually after a general election, the nation recovers and, to some degree, reconciles. This year’s election did little to decrease divisiveness but rather increased it. Many people have lost faith in the election process, while others have doubts about the transition process.
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How to Go Through Post-Election Withdrawal

Politics may be our most wide-spread addiction. With a dealer on every corner, it is always available. Media reporting and commentary provide an endless supply of partisan views.

As soon as someone starts coming down from the last high, a tempting report from CNN, or a Fox News update, or a tweet from the president can draw them right back in. During a general election year, it is possible to remain politically intoxicated for months.

Like other addictions, dosing on politics brings users pleasurable feelings which they then want to repeat. These feelings include the sense of belonging, the gratification of being right, and the heady shot of being in power.

There are deleterious side effects as well. Huffing politics can and often does lead to anger. It leaves one vulnerable to hatred of “the other”. Should one’s side win, it can result in arrogance; lose, and it can result in soul-wounding pride.

During the presidential campaign, I heard stories of how political addictions were destroying families. A pastor friend of mine related the bitter story of a married couple whose adult son warned them that he would disown them if they voted for the wrong candidate. He wasn’t joking.
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What Will You Be Doing on Election Night?

I think I’ll watch a movie on election eve, probably “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and has a stellar cast, including the great James Stewart.

In the movie, an unlikely replacement is chosen for a recently deceased U.S. Senator. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, taken advantage of by a worldly-wise press, and pictured as a dumb ox to the nation.

Senator Smith runs afoul of some corrupt senior members, who determine to ruin him, vacate his seat, and replace him with a more compliant member. Plans are made and steps are taken to humiliate the young senator, break him, and drive him out. In spite of the temptation and corruption, Smith manages to remain true. It is, in many ways, a story for our time.

“Mr. Smith” is my plan for election night. I won’t be watching the results into the wee hours of the night. I will pay no attention to the exit polls. By election night, I will have already done what I can do to influence the election – pray and vote – and what I cannot do, control the outcome, I will leave to God.

Perhaps this seems too laissez-faire. This is, after all, the most important election in our lifetimes – or at least that is what people keep saying. Even if they are right, fretting about the outcome will not change it. Worry will accomplish nothing, as Jesus explicitly taught. I will pray and vote, but I will trust God with the outcome.

The Bible pictures God as big enough to handle circumstances, even ones that are as volatile as ours. The psalmist says that God brings down one person and exalts another. The prophet adds that “he sets up kings and deposes them.” I think the same could be said of presidents. This election will not and cannot undermine God’s supreme authority.

Still, what if America gets it wrong? What if we, confused by fake news and misled by spin masters, choose the wrong person?
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People of Truth in the Age of Disinformation

A passage in the prophet Isaiah seems to me to capture the current state of our nation: “Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”

The journal “Science” published the peer reviewed paper, “The spread of true and false news online,” by Soroush Vosughi and others in 2018. The authors drew on an exhaustive study of Twitter feeds from 2006 to 2017, which examined around 126,000 news stories tweeted by 3 million people more that 4.5 million times.
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Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Future

In September, the British news website “The Guardian” published a story written entirely by an AI – an artificial intelligence that “learned” how to write from scanning the Internet. The piece received a lot of press because in it the AI stated it had no plans to destroy humanity. It did, however, admit that it could be programmed in a way that might prove destructive.

The AI is not beyond making mistakes. I noted its erroneous claim that the word “robot” derives from Greek. An AI that is mistaken about where a word comes from might also be mistaken about where humanity is headed. Or it might be lying. Not a pleasant thought.

Artificial Intelligence is based on the idea that computer programs can “learn” and “grow.” No less an authority than Stephen Hawking has warned that AI, unbounded by the slow pace of biological development, might quickly supersede its human developers.

Other scientists are more optimistic, believing that AI may provide solutions to many of humanity’s age-old problems, including disease and famine. Of course, the destruction of biological life would be one solution to disease and famine.

Hawking worried that a “growing” and “learning” computer program might eventually destroy the world. I doubt it ever occurred to Hawking that his fears regarding AI could once have been expressed toward BI – biological intelligence; that is, humans – at their creation.

Did non-human life forms, like those the Bible refers to as “angels,” foresee the dangerous possibilities presented by the human capacity to “grow” and “learn”? Might not the angel Gabriel, like the scientist Hawking, have warned of impending doom? Continue reading

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Will God Answer Your Prayers This November?

Tens of millions of people are praying that the Biden/Harris ticket wins the presidential election. Tens of millions of people are praying that the Trump/Pence ticket wins. That means that whoever wins in November, tens of millions of people will be disappointed.

The fact that millions of people can pray for mutually exclusive outcomes is a problem, if not for God, at least for theologians. But it is also a problem for the people doing the praying. They passionately desire a particular result. They genuinely believe their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others – the nation, even the world – hangs on a positive answer to their request.

Yet tens of millions of people will not receive a positive answer to their request. What are they to think? That God has abandoned them? That God does not care; that he is, as the ancient Greeks believed, apathetic about human needs?

Many of us have prayed desperately for something – in my case, healing for a family member – only to be disappointed. What is a person to think then, when the job that was absolutely perfect (or at least urgently needed) falls through or when a son or daughter sinks deeper into self-destructive behaviors?

This is sometimes referred to as the “problem of unanswered prayer,” but I’ve noticed that unanswered prayer is a much bigger problem on some occasions than on others. If my prayer for nice weather for the church picnic goes unanswered, I can say, “Oh, well, the farmers needed the rain more than we needed the sun.” But if my prayer for my child’s survival goes unanswered, I will not say, “Oh, well…”
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