The Book of Romans: [1] Intro, Background, & Author

ColosseumThe book of Romans introduces the epistles (letters) of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. It is the longest of Paul’s letters, and the most in-depth in addressing the central beliefs of the Christian church: the nature of sin, salvation, the relationship between grace and law, and Christ’s central role in restoring man to right relationship with God.

Authorship, Date of Writing and Background

Saul of Tarsus, a fire-breathing Pharisee, was present at the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem. He subsequently launched an intense persecution against the Christians, who he viewed as a heretical cult of Judaism. On his way to Damascas, with written authority from the Jewish high priest to arrest Christians and bring them to Jerusalem, he encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, was struck blind, and had his vision restored 3 days later when he converted to Christianity through the courageous intervention of Ananias, a Christian disciple in Damascus.

Paul wrote this letter in Corinth, Greece (a church he had founded) during his third missionary journey (Acts 15:25–26; 16:23; 1 Corinthians 1:14). There being no public postal service, the commendation of Phoebe, a woman who lived in Cenchrea right next door to Corinth, probably indicates that she carried the letter to Christians in Rome (16:1–2). Paul had never visited the church at Rome at the time of its writing.

The Roman church was predominantly Gentile (1:5–6; 13, 11:13, 22–31; 15:15–16). The origins and founder of the church at Rome are not known; the Roman Catholic Church claims it was established by the apostle Peter, but there is little evidence other than some early tradition to support this), but he planned to visit the Christians there and gain their support for a mission to Spain farther west (15:24,28). So the letter takes the form of a self-introduction in terms of the gospel he proclaims.

There is no serious dispute among scholars that the author of this letter is the apostle Paul. Date of writing is 56-57 AD, from Corinth.

References:

  • Paul’s description of his conversion to the Galations: Gal 1:11-24
  • Paul’s description of his strict adherence as a Pharisee to every aspect of the Law: Phil 3:2-11

Healing Faith

 

A repost of an essay from several years ago on suffering and faith.

 
chainsA reader named Katherine recently e-mailed me. She had lost her husband, a man some years older than she, to multiple myeloma and Alzheimer’s disease. She is a Christian, and is struggling to make sense of his death, and the difficult questions of why God allows suffering. She writes, after giving me some details of his life, death, and fine character, and asks:

Why does God allow such terrible illnesses to such a kind person? I know there is really no answer as I know all about Job. The thing I am really afraid is that I prayed for his healing, and it did not happen. When I became a Christian back in the 80’s, the health and prosperity gospel was big at the time, and I guess it really influenced me more than I care to admit as I now know it is false. Even though I know it is false, I have become obsessed that God did not answer my prayer because of not being able to get rid of all the sin in my life (as if this were possible to do). One of the teachings of that movement was that if your prayer for healing went unanswered it was either because of lack of faith or sin in your life. I kept thinking that I don’t always put God first in my life, and that I spent more time reading secular magazines than reading my Bible and listening to more secular music than Christian music. These were my “main” sins, at least in my mind and thinking. Can you shed some light on this for me? I would be very appreciative.

The problem of suffering and evil is an ageless one. It poses a particular challenge for Judaism and Christianity, because of the seemingly insoluble tension between a world filled with suffering and evil, and the belief in a God who is good and all-powerful. Solutions to this dilemma, both adequate and inadequate, abound. It is the desperate hope of the atheist that this logical incompatibility proves beyond question the nonexistence of God. Others, less willing to ditch a Divine order, have concluded that God is good, but impotent; or that God is detached and uncaring, or capricious, or moody, or sadistic — and therefore not good.

It must be said plainly that answers to this paradox are neither simple nor entirely satisfactory. The dilemma as it stands may be solved in a global and satisfactory way — as has been done by both Judaism and Christianity — but invariably the lofty principles seem to break down at the moment when a solution is most needed: in the time of crisis when we ourselves experienced the depths, hopelessness, and irrationality of suffering in our own lives. CS Lewis, whose tightly reasoned treatise The Problem of Pain provides an extraordinarily deep and thorough discussion of this dilemna–later in life nearly repudiates his faith and sound theology after the death of his wife, a process painfully detailed in his diaries, A Grief Observed. It is indeed unsettling to watch Lewis discard all of his carefully reasoned and theological understandings of pain and suffering in the brutal crucible of unbearable pain and loss. Nonetheless, he ultimately comes to terms with the paradox, and undergoes an embracing of this profound dilemma far deeper than the intellectual by means of his own trial of fire.

At the heart of this difficult issue lies the human heart. God undertook a vast and dangerous experiment when creating man: He wanted, not merely another animal — of which there were countless — but an animal capable of something He alone understood: love. He gave this exalted animal vast intellect — but this was not sufficient to engender love. He gave His creation powerful emotions, the capacity for both creation and destruction, which He alone had possessed — but this also was not sufficient. For love — the utter, uninhibited emptying of self for another — required that most dangerous license of all: free will. Having created us thus, designed with the capacity to love, we must of necessity be utterly free to choose — for choice is the very heart, the very essence of love.

It was, by all visible measures, an experiment gone wildly awry. Having given this creature the extraordinary capabilities required to love fully — intellect, emotion, passion, empathy, the ability to feel intense pleasure and pain both physically and spiritually — he set this creature free to love — first of all Himself, and then others of like kind. And the first choice of this masterpiece of creation was the decision to turn away: to replace the intended objects of love with the sterile altar of self. Thus was unleashed the monstrous liability of a truly free creature: the ability to hate, to cause pain, to kill, to destroy.

A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.

If we are to be honest, much of the pain and suffering which comprise the evil of the world is due to nothing more than this: that man, having been given the ability to choose, chooses wrongly, and uses the gifts and abilities given for the purpose of love to instead elevate himself at the expense of others, often in ways stunningly malicious and utterly wicked. Look around you, at the world both near and far: pride, selfishness, greed, lust, rage, jealousy — all these things manifest themselves in our lives and those of others, causing great pain and endless suffering. The child abused; the wife abandoned; the drive-by shooting; the greedy CEO who bankrupts the company and rapes the stockholders; the serial killer and the rapist; genocide; wars of conquest; torture; senseless massacres: these are the actions of men and women putting self above others — and each of us does it, to a greater or lesser degree, though we minimize our own roles to justify our own actions. We all wish for a world where God would eliminate evil — but all assume that we ourselves would be the only ones left standing when His judgment is delivered. A world in which God eliminated evil would by necessity be emptied of all mankind.

Yet there also exists those evils which have been called, in days past, somewhat ironically, “acts of God” — those circumstances or events which cause pain and suffering, not directly engendered by human evil. Thus the child is born with a severe birth defect; hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes cause death and destruction; chronic and devastating diseases fall upon those who seemingly deserve a far better fate. It is with this, this seemingly capricious evil, with which we struggle most earnestly, straining to understand, yet to no avail.

Judaism and Christianity both imply that some such evil may be consequential, the result of punishment or predictable consequences for the malfeasance of man. A more robust theology is less accusatory and thereby more coarsely granular — maintaining that such evil has entered the world because of the fall of man. Under such design our divine divorce has corrupted not only behavior, but our very natures, and all of creation. Yet such theology is of little comfort to those who are the objects of such seemingly random evil; we demand to know of God, “Why?” — and in particular, “Why me?” Yet there is no answer forthcoming, and we are left assuming a God either powerless to stop such evil or unwilling to do so.

Yet the problem of a good God, an omnipotent God, and an evil world of His creation is not entirely insoluble. Much lies in our projection of human frailty onto the nature of the Divine, and the impreciseness of our definitions of good and omnipotent. When we say God is good, we tend to mean that God is “nice” — that he would never do anything to cause us pain or suffering. Yet even in our limited experience, we must acknowledge that pain and suffering, while not inherently good, may be a means to goodness. We choose to have surgery or chemotherapy, though painful and debilitating, that our cancer may be cured. The halls of Alcoholics Anonymous are filled with men and women who, having faced both personal and relational destruction, have used their former liabilities as a gateway to a new, more fulfilling life — one which could not have taken place apart from their harrowing journey through alcoholism. To a misbehaving child, the discipline of a loving father is not perceived as good, but such correction is essential for the development of personal integrity, social integration, and responsibility.

Our inability to discern the potential for good in pain and suffering does not by necessity deny its presence; there are many who, when asked, will point to painful, difficult, and unbearable times in life which have brought about profound, often unexpected good in their lives, unforeseeable in the midst of their dark days. There surely is much suffering which defies our capacity to understand, even through we strive with every fiber of our being to find the goodness therein. But the fact that such inexplicable suffering exists, and that answers are often lacking, does not preclude the possibility that God is good, or that such suffering may ultimately lead to something greater and more noble than the pain endured.

We are … not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms

In our egocentricity we often neglect to look for the benefit in our suffering which comes not to us, but rather to others. Caring for someone suffering unbearably provides an opportunity to the caretaker to experience selfless love, compassion, tenderness, patience and endurance — character traits sadly lacking in our selfish world, which routinely turns its back on suffering to pursue an untroubled life of self-fulfillment and self-gratification. It is not inherently evil to be called to give beyond our means and ability — as caring for someone suffering always demands — for in the exhaustion and inadequacy thus revealed, we may discover unknown inner strengths, and come to a richer, and more fulfilling dependence on God. We are, as CS Lewis so accurately described, “not merely imperfect creatures that need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their arms” — and finding how shallow are our reserves of love, compassion, and strength, we may through this brokenness seek to acquire them, humbly, from their Source.

But surely an omnipotent God has the power to stop suffering — is He not either impotent or evil when failing to use such power to remove our suffering? The omnipotence of God, like His goodness, is but dimly perceived. For the power of God is in perfect harmony with the purpose of God, and is thus used to advance these purposes for the greater good. Thus, the good deed of creating man with free will — and thereby capable of love — by its very nature restrains the omnipotence of God to violate that free will. The evil of the world exists in large part, if not wholly, because this free will has been abused. Yet the abuse of free will must be permitted, that the proper use of free will — the laying down of arms, the surrender to the sovereignty of a wholly good God — may take place, freely and unfettered as required by love. God must tolerate the existence of suffering and evil, that all may have the freedom to choose the good — though many will refuse to do so.

Yet he does not merely tolerate the presence of suffering, but provides for its very redemption: that suffering, though itself evil, may ultimately produce good. Thus pain, suffering, death, and evil need not triumph: they may provide the means that some may turn toward the good, or bring forth further good for themselves or others. This is redemption: to buy back that which is destructive, worthless, of no value, evil, and make it worthwhile, valuable, even priceless.

Christianity, throughout its history, has struggled with and largely resolved the problem of pain, within the confines of the mystery of God. Yet Christianity in its many doctrinal eddies has sometimes chosen the wrong path and the wrong answers to this challenge. Such errors generally fall into two broad categories: the concept of suffering as punishment or retribution from God, and the manipulation of God for man’s gratification. The first of these runs counter to the core doctrine of the cross: that God has chosen to provide in Christ a sacrificial lamb — that Christ, through his suffering, may bear the justice of God, so that we may see the mercy of God. Our suffering is not a punishment for sin, as such punishment negates the purpose of the cross. Correction, it may be; discipline, it often is; opportunity, it always is; punishment, it never is.

The countering position — that of God as divine opiate, ever present to kill our pain — is a variant of the faith which has become perniciously widespread, feeding on a culture of ease and self-gratification which creates God in its own image. Thus God becomes a font of wealth, of health, of prosperity, of a trouble-free materialistic lifestyle, a divine vending machine whose coinage is faith. Faith, however, in such a worldview is no longer a profound trust in a God who is beyond understanding and infinitely wise, but becomes instead a means of buying from God all which we demand. Hence, we may be wealthy, if we only have enough faith; we may be healed, if our faith is sufficient; we will not suffer if we will but strengthen and enlarge our faith. Our faith must be prefect, lest our pleas go unheard. The strength of faith matters more than its verity; we charge the gates of heaven with the bludgeon of self-will.

The perniciousness and destructiveness of this perversion of historical Christian faith lies in removing from the hands of God decisions of life and death, health and illness, wholeness and suffering, while burdening us with the hopeless demand that we steel our faith to impossible heights to coerce and manipulate the will of God. That such efforts are typically fruitless seems self-evident: God most surely is capable of healing — and does indeed do so often, even dramatically at times — but most surely does so in accordance with his divine wisdom and will. Should His wisdom dictate that suffering, poverty, brokenness, even death and despair would better serve the purposes of drawing men to Himself, what measure of human obstinacy and recalcitrance will change this will? When such “faith” proves futile, it destroys trust in God, and not infrequently leads to utter loss of belief, a bitter agnosticism born in false expectations and misplaced hope.

We demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding

Hence, we demand of God that which we alone deem to be good, then blame Him when He pursues a greater good beyond our understanding. This is the struggle to which Kathleen is alluding, as she questions the goodness of God in failing to heal her husband, blaming her own “sins” for his untimely demise. To us, such a healing seems only good — in so far as it mitigates our pain and loss, as well as that of those we love — but like the surgeon’s knife, sometimes such pain must not be withheld that evil may be conquered by the good. Were he healed, and restored to full health, would he not then face death on yet another day? Our lives have both purpose and a proper time: we live for that purpose, and we die when that purpose is fulfilled. That those who are left behind cannot grasp that purpose — and appropriately suffer profound pain and loss at this separation — does not negate that purpose nor impede its culmination.

We live in a time when our expectations of health, of prosperity, of a pain-free life are increasingly met in the physical realm, while we progressively become sickly, impoverished, and empty in the realm of the spirit. Despite our longer lives, we live in dread of death; despite our greater health, we obsess about our ills; despite our comfortable lives, we ache from an aimlessness and purposelessness which eats at our souls and deadens our spirits. Though we have at our command the means to kill our pain–to a degree never before seen in the history of the world–yet we have bargained away our peace in pursuit of our pleasure. The problem of pain has never been an easy one; in our day, it has not been solved, but rather worsened, by our delusions of perpetual comfort and expectations of a trouble-free life.

Until we come to terms with suffering, we will not have comfort; until we embrace our pain, peace will never be ours.

Meditation on Good Friday

Today is Good Friday. It has been my custom, on this extraordinary day, to post an old meditation on the meaning of the cross, called Three Men on a Friday. Today, however, I feel led to meditate on something rather different, though not unrelated.

Good Friday, of course, is the Church’s remembrance of its most central truths: that God became man, was crucified to pay the price which we could not pay, and was raised victorious on the third day. Good Friday is a somber day, a day to remember that we individually are responsible for the torture and agony which befell Christ — that he hangs on the Cross in our stead.

Yet, in the deep sorrow and humility which we bring to mind on this profound day, there is also an extraordinary hope: that in our greatest disasters, in our biggest failures, in our most agonizing and painful moments, there is a purpose, a plan, a hope which is both utterly irrational, yet absolute and sure.

Good Friday teaches me that failure is not to be avoided at all costs, but instead embraced as a great opportunity. Good Friday teaches me that my lifelong struggle for perfection is doomed to failure, and is chasing after the wind. Good Friday teaches me that I have no idea what is best for me, that pain and suffering have a purpose which I need not, and often should not, understand. Good Friday teaches me that God can make sparkling diamonds out of filthy coal, that my worst attributes, my most painful failures, the most disastrous events which have befallen me beyond my control, are but the building blocks of a new and far better life in hands of God.

I have recently shared some of the struggles in my life, especially my professional trials, and these have indeed taken no small toll on my spirit. Beyond that, like many, I have watched as a country which I love, whose institutions and traditions have blessed and prospered millions, is undermined and corroded by greedy men lusting for power who serve only themselves. Like many, this has been most painful to watch, engendering much anger, frustration, dismay, and discouragement.

Yet I must not forget that I too am greedy, that I too seek to control others and manipulate my world for my own benefit and betterment. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves, and our instincts scream to return evil for evil. Yet by so doing, I enslave myself to those who would enslave and destroy me.

The Cross teaches me another way. It teaches me, quite simply, that God is in control of all things, and that His ways are not my ways. It teaches me that the darkest hour comes before dawn, that God can use evil for good, and that only by bending my will and my knee before Him, no matter what the cost, can my own victory and deliverance, and that of others, be purchased.

We are at war. This is a war, not merely of bombs and guns, nor of words and arguments, nor of politics and power. It is an ancient war, from the very beginning of time: a war between the will of man and the will of God. One way is the way of hatred, anger, revenge, and destruction, whose outcome, no matter how fleeting its seeming victories, will inevitably and invariably lead to defeat and destruction. The other way is that of submission, of self-crucifixion, of “not my will but Thine.” Every fiber of my being strains against this way; every inclination of my will and spirit runs contrary to such surrender. Yet on the Cross, surrender, humiliation, agony, and defeat became the very instruments used of God to reconcile man — stubborn, rebellious, hateful man — to Himself, and to bring new life, and new power, and new hope to those who would follow in the irrational ways of God. And this war must be fought and won, first and foremost, within me.

Yet in this way of submission, brokenness, and humility, we are not called to passivity nor defeat. We are called — each in our own way, using our own gifts — to do battle. For some this will be a way of persuasive words, or prophetic proclamation of the evil which surrounds us. For some it will be writing letters, contributing money, volunteering time and effort, running for office, becoming involved.

But for all, first and foremost, it must begin with prayer, with self-examination, with the submission of every aspect of our lives to the will and wisdom of God, for judgment begins with the house of God. It is time, quite literally, to be on our knees; it is time to fast, to repent, to make amends, and take hold of that joy and purpose which can only come by aligning our wills with that of Him who paid the ultimate price to make us whole.

We do not know — we cannot know — what the outcome will be; the ways of God are vastly higher than our capacity to understanding, and our efforts will come to naught if we try to bend the plans of God to the will of man. We must submit to crucifixion if we are to see the Resurrection.

There are many paths, the broad leading to destruction, the narrow to life. May God give us the will and the wisdom to follow that narrow path.

Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Before the joys and trials of family get-togethers, the bacchanalian consumption of endless pounds of poultry, and the weariness of holiday travel tempered only by the thrill of a TSA patdown, it is perhaps fitting to pause and reflect a moment on the reason for the season we celebrate this week: Thanksgiving.

Like most of our holidays, Thanksgiving has become commercialized, sterilized, and neutered, long ago detached from its original significance, its spiritual roots withered and wizened, lost in the ever-longer lead-in to the crass commercialism of Christmas. To be sure, we nod in its direction, with cursory platitudes of gratitude for material blessings and bountiful food. Yet our lives betray the truth behind the truisms: we are a most unhappy, ungrateful, ungracious, and resentful lot. We who reside amidst the greatest wealth ever accumulated, suffer from an acquisitive sickness, a deep and abiding unhappiness which even greater and ever more cannot heal. We live in expectation more than acceptance, revenge rather than reconciliation, greed not gratitude. For all we have, we have not peace, and thanksgiving is the farthest thing from our minds and hearts.

So what then of gratitude, of true thanksgiving? It is not the cheap grace of the smug acknowledgment of all we possess, lest we be seen by others as a selfish boor. Nor is it some warm emotion poured forth like spirits from a crystal decanter, transparently empty after its contents are spilt. It is indeed poorly expressed by words alone, which cost far too little to repay our debts.

It is, rather, a proper sense of perspective, grounded in a larger vision of purpose. It recognizes, first and foremost, that we are limited and flawed, not the pinnacle of evolution but the pride — and the problem — of creation. We are magnificently made but fatally flawed; we aspire to the stars but stumble in the mud. What we have is not what we have earned, but we we have been given — and far too often used not for glory but for gain.

Thanksgiving tells us that we have a higher purpose, a calling which draws us toward the divine, in order that His highest purposes are fully served. It tells us we are hopelessly handicapped in our pursuit of this noble calling, waylaid in wanton selfishness and frivolous foolishness, distracted from our goal by baubles and the banal. Indeed there is little hope of restoring our vision but by grace, by the gracious hand of God to guide, empower, and correct us. It is in this extraordinary reality that true gratitude is found, that we who have hated the good have, in spite of ourselves, been called back home, in forgiveness and with vision restored, to be made useful and purposeful again, to be made new.

This grace empowers gratitude, for it opens all things, both good and bad, to the possibility of redemption. For the good we may be grateful, not merely that it blesses us, but that it enables and empowers us to serve and give to others. Our trials and liabilities, too, become tools by which we may reassess and redirect our lives, growing in empathy for the suffering of others, and in trust in the inscrutable goodness and wisdom of God, who uses evil for good. Our thanksgiving is a celebration of freedom — the freedom to transform all things, whether good or evil, to the higher purposes of God.

A cynical and empty culture knows nothing of this miracle of grace, and thus has no gratitude, no graciousness, no humility or hope. We are called, in this season of Thanksgiving, to be a light shining in a dark and empty world, which by disowning transcendence has destroyed its hope.

Let us, then, be truly grateful this Thanksgiving, for the grace of redemption, the hope of transformation, and the mercy shown to us through Him who is most gracious.

Have a most blessed and fruitful Thanksgiving.

Meditations on Good Friday

Today is Good Friday. It has been my custom, on this extraordinary day, to post an old meditation on the meaning of the cross, called Three Men on a Friday. Today, however, I feel led to meditate on something rather different, though not unrelated.

Good Friday, of course, is the Church’s remembrance of its most central truths: that God became man, was crucified to pay the price which we could not pay, and was raised victorious on the third day. Good Friday is a somber day, a day to remember that we individually are responsible for the torture and agony which befell Christ — that he hangs on the Cross in our stead.

Yet, in the deep sorrow and humility which we bring to mind on this profound day, there is also an extraordinary hope: that in our greatest disasters, in our biggest failures, in our most agonizing and painful moments, there is a purpose, a plan, a hope which is both utterly irrational, yet absolute and sure.

Good Friday teaches me that failure is not to be avoided at all costs, but instead embraced as a great opportunity. Good Friday teaches me that my lifelong struggle for perfection is doomed to failure, and is chasing after the wind. Good Friday teaches me that I have no idea what is best for me, that pain and suffering have a purpose which I need not, and often should not, understand. Good Friday teaches me that God can make sparkling diamonds out of filthy coal, that my worst attributes, my most painful failures, the most disastrous events which have befallen me beyond my control, are but the building blocks of a new and far better life in hands of God.

I have recently shared some of the struggles in my life, especially my professional trials, and these have indeed taken no small toll on my spirit. Beyond that, like many, I have watched as a country which I love, whose institutions and traditions have blessed and prospered millions, is undermined and corroded by greedy men lusting for power who serve only themselves. Like many, this has been most painful to watch, engendering much anger, frustration, dismay, and discouragement.

Yet I must not forget that I too am greedy, that I too seek to control others and manipulate my world for my own benefit and betterment. We hate most in others what we see in ourselves, and our instincts scream to return evil for evil. Yet by so doing, I enslave myself to those who would enslave and destroy me.

The Cross teaches me another way. It teaches me, quite simply, that God is in control of all things, and that His ways are not my ways. It teaches me that the darkest hour comes before dawn, that God can use evil for good, and that only by bending my will and my knee before Him, no matter what the cost, can my own victory and deliverance, and that of others, be purchased.

We are at war. This is a war, not merely of bombs and guns, nor of words and arguments, nor of politics and power. It is an ancient war, from the very beginning of time: a war between the will of man and the will of God. One way is the way of hatred, anger, revenge, and destruction, whose outcome, no matter how fleeting its seeming victories, will inevitably and invariably lead to defeat and destruction. The other way is that of submission, of self-crucifixion, of “not my will but Thine.” Every fiber of my being strains against this way; every inclination of my will and spirit runs contrary to such surrender. Yet on the Cross, surrender, humiliation, agony, and defeat became the very instruments used of God to reconcile man — stubborn, rebellious, hateful man — to Himself, and to bring new life, and new power, and new hope to those who would follow in the irrational ways of God. And this war must be fought and won, first and foremost, within me.

Yet in this way of submission, brokenness, and humility, we are not called to passivity nor defeat. We are called — each in our own way, using our own gifts — to do battle. For some this will be a way of persuasive words, or prophetic proclamation of the evil which surrounds us. For some it will be writing letters, contributing money, volunteering time and effort, running for office, becoming involved.

But for all, first and foremost, it must begin with prayer, with self-examination, with the submission of every aspect of our lives to the will and wisdom of God, for judgment begins with the house of God. It is time, quite literally, to be on our knees; it is time to fast, to repent, to make amends, and take hold of that joy and purpose which can only come by aligning our wills with that of Him who paid the ultimate price to make us whole.

We do not know — we cannot know — what the outcome will be; the ways of God are vastly higher than our capacity to understanding, and our efforts will come to naught if we try to bend the plans of God to the will of man. We must submit to crucifixion if we are to see the Resurrection.

There are many paths, the broad leading to destruction, the narrow to life. May God give us the will and the wisdom to follow that narrow path.

Addendum: The code at the top of my home page pulls up random quotes, each time the page is refreshed. Upon posting this, the above quote from Whittaker Chambers came up:

To those for whom the intellect alone has force, such a witness has little or no force. It bewilders and exasperates them. It challenges them to suppose that there is something greater about man than his ability to add and subtract. It submits that that something is the soul. Plain men understood the witness easily. It speaks directly to their condition. For it is peculiarly the Christian witness. They still hear it, whenever it truly reaches their ears, the ring of those glad tidings that once stirred mankind with an immense hope. For it frees them from the trap of irreversible Fate at the point at which it whispers to them that each soul is individually responsible to God, that it has only to assert that responsibility, and out of man’s weakness will come strength, out of his corruption incorruption, out of his evil good, and out of what is false invulnerable truth.

Wow.

‘They Need to Be Liberated From Their God’

I’ve been incommunicado for a while, in no small part for reasons shortly forthcoming. But lest you be left completely high and dry, here’s a little nugget for you.

The WSJ has a book review of Son of Hamas which will definitely be on my reading list when it comes out:

Mosab Yousef is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founder and leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Throughout the last decade, from the second Intifada to the current stalemate, he worked alongside his father in the West Bank. During that time the younger Mr. Yousef also secretly embraced Christianity. And as he reveals in his book “Son of Hamas,” out this week, he became one of the top spies for Israel’s internal security arm, the Shin Bet.

Matt Kaminski describes the book as follows:

The book, a Le Carréesque thriller wrapped in a spiritual coming-of-age story, is an attempt to answer what he says “is impossible to imagine”—”how I ended up working for my enemies who hurt me, who hurt my dad, who hurt my people.”

“There is a logical explanation,” he continues in fairly fluent English. “Simply my enemies of yesterday became my friends. And the friends of yesterday became really my enemies.”

Just to whet your appetite — back soon.

Dredging Bottom at The Atlantic

Many of us have been struggling to understand the nature of our current economic meltdown. Was it greedy bankers, who made unscrupulous loans while passing the risks on to others? High-rolling hedge fund managers who resold the risky bundled securities and reaped millions? Politicians and political activists who pressured banks and lending organizations to make risky loans to minorities and low-income customers or be castigated as racists and bigots? Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or the FHA?

Let the confusion end: The Atlantic has hit the news stands with a breaking revelation: It’s the Christians! To wit: Did Christianity Cause the Crash?

… recently, critics have begun to argue that the prosperity gospel, echoed in churches across the country, might have played a part in the economic collapse. In 2008, in the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton, a professor of religious studies at the University of California at Riverside, warned:

Narratives of how “God blessed me with my first house despite my credit” were common … Sermons declaring “It \'s your season of overflow” supplanted messages of economic sobriety and disinterested sacrifice. Yet as folks were testifying about “what God can do,” little attention was paid to a predatory subprime-mortgage industry, relaxed credit standards, or the dangers of using one \'s home equity as an ATM.

In 2004, Walton was researching a book about black televangelists. “I would hear consistent testimonies about how ‘once I was renting and now God let me own my own home,’ or ‘I was afraid of the loan officer, but God directed him to ignore my bad credit and blessed me with my first home,’” he says. “This trope was so common in these churches that I just became immune to it. Only later did I connect it to this disaster.”

Whew! That was easy! Who knew? But is it really that simple? What are the facts on which this startling conclusion is based?

…Kate Bowler found that most new prosperity-gospel churches were built along the Sun Belt, particularly in California, Florida, and Arizona --all areas that were hard-hit by the mortgage crisis.

Makes sense: these were rapidly growing areas of the country; with rapid growth and cheap credit, lots of homes were getting sold. And lots of new churches and churchgoers would be expected. So, these Sun Belt areas grew quickly, had a lot of new churches (some of which were the “prosperity” variety) and ended up with a lot of foreclosures. But surely there has to be more evidence than that…

Nationally, the prosperity gospel has spread exponentially among African American and Latino congregations. This is also the other distinct pattern of foreclosures. “Hyper-segregated” urban communities were the worst off, says Halperin. Reliable data on foreclosures by race are not publicly available, but mortgages are tracked by both race and loan type, and subprime loans have tended to correspond to foreclosures. During the boom, roughly 40 percent of all loans going to Latinos nationwide were subprime loans; Latinos and African Americans were 28 percent and 37 percent more likely, respectively, to receive a higher-rate subprime loan than whites.

So, a lot of foreclosures occurred in the Hispanic and black communities — and the prosperity gospel was increasingly popular among these groups as well. Pretty damning, I’d have to say. Pretty much nails it down, don’t ya think?

Or not.

Seriously, there’s really not much more to the “evidence” in this article than that. Sure, they mention that some of the banks were marketing to prosperity Gospel churches, and some pastors were a bit cozy with the banks as well, and seemed to be encouraging debt. But really, that’s about it. Perhaps some numbers would be nice: how many of these churches’ members actually ended up foreclosed or financially destitute? What percentage of foreclosed homes were purchased by these church members? If you’re going to make the claim that the prosperity churches are a major factor in the housing meltdown, wouldn’t some hard facts and numbers be, you know, reasonable to provide?

Oh, and here’s a little mental exercise for you: imagine their cover blaring forth: “Did African-Americans and Hispanics Cause the Crisis?”

Sigh. From a once-great magazine to garbage journalism, chasing Newsweek to the bottom of the literary barrel. What drivel. This is their cover story? Jeez.

Where to begin? The prosperity Gospel churches and their televangelists have always been favorite targets of the mainstream media and pundits who want to get a handle on “Christians” and what they think. They are easy targets because they have such high media visibility, and their preachers often have an ostentatious lifestyle which almost begs the accusation of greed and hypocrisy. And sometimes, as happened with Jim and Tammy Baker and Jimmy Swaggert, they hit paydirt.

What seems to go unnoticed is the the “health and wealth” churches, although culturally highly visible, are very much a fringe movement in Christianity, bordering on cultic at times, and are regarded by most mainstream evangelical and Catholic theologians and scholars as being heterodox at best, if not outright heretical — the antithesis of the core Christian doctrines about concern for the poor, the spiritual benefits of suffering, the dangers and bondage of debt, excessive materialism, and an unhealthy focus on wealth. They are widely ridiculed and little respected among most Christians in my experience, and I suspect their stated numbers of followers is inflated more than Obama’s “jobs created or saved” stats.

True, there will always be an appeal for a message that promises you wealth in the now and joy in the hereafter, and so it is no surprise that their congregations are often large. But neither is the teaching of these prosperity preachers solely devoted to wealth acquisition; there is a strong emphasis by most on morally upright living, self-discipline and spiritual development, and they often have ministries to the divorced, victims of domestic abuse, the homeless, and drug and alcohol recovery. Not everyone in the pew on Sunday is looking to cash in on God.

No, the real motivation behind this article has nothing at all to do with any serious attempt at understanding the housing crisis and its causes; it is a gratuitous slap at conservative Christians, and the nefarious politicians and preachers who supposedly exploit them:

Few of Sarah Palin \'s religious compatriots were shocked by her messy family life, because they \'ve grown used to the paradoxes; some of the most socially conservative evangelical churches also have extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce.

They just can’t help themselves, can they? What does Sarah Palin have to do with the housing crisis? And precisely what are these “extremely high rates of teenage pregnancies”, etc., etc.? Facts and hard numbers don’t matter when your proffering a political and religious hit piece. Or this:

There is the kind of hope that President Obama talks about, and that Clinton did before him --steady, uplifting, assured. And there is [Pastor] Garay \'s kind of hope, which perhaps for many people better reflects the reality of their lives. Garay \'s is a faith that, for all its seeming confidence, hints at desperation, at circumstances gone so far wrong that they can only be made right by a sudden, unexpected jackpot

The real “desperation” comes not from sincere-if-misguided congregants of some prosperity gospel churches, but rather from a dying journalism industry, which having lost all objectivity and the respect of their readers, have become naught but petulant, pathetic harpies hoping to score a journalistic jackpot at the expense of religious conservatives.

It’s not working, fellas — nobody’s listening to you or reading you anymore.

Perhaps the money we gullible Christians save by canceling our subscriptions to your sad rag can go towards a bigger home someday.