Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Friday, September 26, 2008

So that's why I can't remember the pastor's sermon!

Yesterday I drove back to Missouri from a week long workshop in McKinney, Texas called Simply the Story. I thought the training would be a breeze, but boy was I wrong! It turned out to be one of the most intense spiritual/mental exercises I've done in a long time.

In a nutshell, what I learned is that the vast majority of preaching and teaching in the world (especially in the U.S.) is designed for people that are literate, and yet, a shocking 80% of the world is, in fact, illiterate. Further augmenting the problem is that we in the literate world tend to look down on the illiterate world, thinking that just because someone can't read, that somehow makes them spiritually ignorant. Because we tend to look down on oral learning methods as inferior, not only are the world's illiterate people largely cut off from hearing the gospel in a meaningful way, but also many of the world's literate people are as well. Why? Because when we factor in the fact that a good percentage of literate people prefer to learn through oral communication methods, it becomes clear that most of the world's gospel material is written by people that are not only literate, but by people that prefer to learn by literate means. So that's why you and me find it so difficult to remember the pastor's sermon from week to week. And we all thought we were just dense! (Okay, maybe just me)

Enter Simply the Story. The brilliant strategy that Dorothy Miller from The God's Story Project figured out is that when you take a story from the Bible and focus on just that story (hence the name Simply the Story), without pulling in abstract concepts from here, there, and everywhere (including other passages from the Bible), then the story itself will speak to the people. In the STS strategy, the job of the Christian communicator (aka pastor, evangelist, missionary) is to tell the story accurately, and then facilitate group discussions by formulating questions designed to lead the listeners into discovering the treasures of the stories for themselves.

For five days straight I practiced this method with about 50 other people, mostly missionaries, who were all learning this together. As easy as it might sound, the reality is it can be very difficult for people that have been preaching and teaching one way for so many years to learn a different style of communication, even if it's the mode of communication that Jesus most often used! I found that once I practiced reading stories out loud to myself, I picked up on a lot of details that I'd missed even though I may have read the story a hundred times before. Then once I started asking myself a set of questions about the story, truths started jumping out of the pages of Scripture like never before.

For example: In Luke 18:18-27 there 's the story of the rich young ruler that asked Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responded with a question (like He almost always did) "Why do you call me good, no one is good but one, and that's God." Jesus proceeded to give a partial list of the 10 commandments (curiously omitting the vertical commandments) and just when the man thought that he was justified, Jesus told him to go and sell all of his possessions to give to the poor--and follow Him--and then he would have treasure in heaven. When the rich man went away sorrowful Jesus dropped a verbal bombshell on the rich by declaring that it's more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But at the very end, He throws another curve ball into the equation when the disciples asked Him, "Who then can be saved?" and Jesus answered with, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." I've always found this passage difficult to interpret, but after asking a series of questions about the characters in the story, I think I've discovered the point of the story and it's simply this. There's no goodness or salvation apart from God.

I wonder if this might be one of the reasons why so many of our young people today are being lost to secularism and postmodernism. Perhaps they've never heard the gospel in a way that they can understand. What if instead of trying to saturate our young people with catchy phrases (WWJD?) and slick media campaigns, we started retelling the stories of the Bible and let God's Word speak for itself? You mean God actually knew what He was doing when He put the story of Jonah and the whale in the Bible? Imagine that!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Barack Obama visited my house!

The strangest thing happened the other day. I know this may sound like a stretch, but Barack Obama actually visited my family to personally elicit our support for him. Let me tell you that the experience was otherworldly. The whole time I’m thinking why is Barack Obama visiting us? I live in a middle class neighborhood and don’t have any connections with rich and influential people. What’s Barack Obama doing in my house?

Two days later, another bizarre incident happened. After saying goodbye to an old friend that came to visit my wife and me, I looked outside and saw that our visitor had accidentally totaled my car while backing out of the driveway—and then fled the scene of the crime! The next thing I remember happening is I called the local repair shop and guess who answers the phone? Ron Paul! I actually haggled with Ron Paul on the phone for about five minutes only to find out that my car was irreparable. The whole time I’m thinking is it really that easy to get a hold of Ron Paul?

If you find these two stories unbelievable, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The universe is still shifting on its axis. For the record, the above incidents never happened—except for in my dreams—literally. I’m reasonably sure that the whole Barack Obama dream comes from a CNN episode I watched the night before about John McCain’s first run for congress where he literally knocked on people’s doors to solicit votes. Now as to why Ron Paul is working at a local auto repair shop and living in my aunt’s old house, beats me!

It seems like since the start of the Democratic National convention, and the Republican convention that immediately followed, politics has invaded nearly every area of our lives. No matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to escape! Watching bits and pieces of the conventions over the past few weeks, I couldn’t help but notice the glitz, the glamour, and the adulation that goes into elevating our political leaders to near godlike status—and how their star-struck fans so easily bask in the glory of their would be saviors.

John McCain’s adoring fans seem to believe that if only they can get their guy elected to the White House, righteousness and morality will be restored to the land, America will be spared the horrors of a left-wing socialist panzie—and how could I forget—evil will be defeated. Barack Obama’s adoring fans seem to think that all they have to do to end poverty, heal the nation’s racial divide, and save the nation from Bible toting war mongers is put a check mark next to a drawing of a donkey in November. Can it really be that simple?

Enter into human history, Jesus of Nazareth. One of the things I love about Jesus is how He refused to be awed by the powers that be of His day. I would love to have been around when Jesus called Herod a fox, or when He referred to the religious leaders—who held a similar position to modern day mullahs in Iran—brood of vipers. Even more, I’d love to have been a peasant in the crowd watching Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Author Shane Claiborne in His book Jesus for President compares Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to a U.S. president riding into the inauguration ceremony on a bicycle. If Claiborne is right, then Jesus was a lot more of a prankster than I’ve ever imagined Him to be. The question is why would Jesus go out of His way to mock power?

I’m not a psychoanalyst, but I’d be willing to risk a guess. I think that one of the reasons that Jesus came into the world was to crush the all-too-human tendency to look to political rulers for earthly salvation. When Jesus took up a towel to wash His disciples feet, His disciples were offended because they didn’t want their master behaving like a slave, but what they failed to realize is that was exactly Jesus’ point! In Jesus’ value system the powerless is superior to the powerful. Like His mother, Jesus embraced a value system that elevated the poor over the prince, where God puts down the mighty from their seats and elevates the humble (Luke 1:52). Rather than embracing political power to bring about earthly change, which is what Satan tempted Him to do, Jesus put His faith in the upside down Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that puts faith not in the power of the sword, but in the power of self-sacrificial love.

As tempting as it may be to be awed by the power of modern Caesars, followers of Jesus are never to forget that the Word of God tells us not to put our trust in princes (Psalm 146:3). Rather than trusting in the coercive power of the sword to effect moral change in the world, followers of Jesus put their faith in an otherworldly kingdom that rules not with the power of a sword, but with the power of a towel. As eloquent and sincere as they may be, neither McCain nor Obama are going to save the world, let alone America. True power flows from the cross, not from Caesar’s throne.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Do Christians have a Biblical mandate to outlaw abortion?

My name is Aaron Taylor and I’m a pro-life Christian. What I mean by calling myself pro-life is to say that I believe life begins at conception and no human being has the right to take another life. Period. If you ask me whether I believe abortion is a sin I’ll give you an unequivocal yes, and then I’ll be sure to point you to the cross of Jesus Christ if I sense you’re struggling with guilt over a dark past. On the other hand, if you ask me whether I think Christians should try to outlaw abortion, I’m not going to give you a straight answer. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m pro-abortion, and neither does it mean I’m pro-choice. It simply means that I can’t give you a straight answer, and the funny thing is, it’s precisely because of my Christian faith that I can’t come right out and say that Christians are obligated to pass laws to declare abortions illegal.

As a Christian and as a citizen I would love to see the abortion rate in the United States of America reduced to zero. But the question is how do we make that happen? Is it simply a matter of passing a law declaring abortion illegal? My conservative Christian background would answer with an immediate yes to this question, but these days my heart is telling me that passing a law outlawing abortion doesn’t quite solve the problem. For starters, we know that before Roe Vs Wade there were countless backyard abortions taking place. And given that little has changed in the past 30 years to address the root causes of systemic poverty in our nation, there’s little reason to believe this would change if abortion would be outlawed tomorrow.

Then there’s the question of rape and abuse. I think female rape victims that choose to keep their babies are saints, but as a man I have to wonder if I really understand the pain female rape victims that choose to deliver their babies full term goes through—even if they give them up for adoption later. And what about women—or young girls—in abusive situations? There’s been a lot of media attention lately about Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s 17 year-old daughter’s unplanned pregnancy and, make no mistake about it, I’m thrilled that Todd and Sarah Palin have chosen to love and support their daughter to guide her in the right direction to keep her baby. But let’s get real for a moment. Does anybody seriously think that every teenage girl has loving parents to come home to that can guide them through an unplanned pregnancy?

What about the girl who’s father molested her when she was young and fears bringing the child up under the same roof? Or what about the girl whose parents would kill them—literally—if they found out she had sex outside of marriage? Or how about the financially struggling woman that fears the father of her baby will abuse both her and the child if she decides to keep her baby? Even in these extreme cases, my Christian ethic on the sanctity of human life still demands that I could never counsel a woman to have an abortion, but the question is: Do I have an obligation as a Christian to take the further step and impose my view of morality on others by forcing them to do so?

The question isn’t just a moral one. It’s also a Biblical one. If the Bible commands Christians to implement God’s law over society through systems of laws and penalties, then by all means, Christians are obligated to declare anything that contradicts God’s law illegal. While we’re at it, if we’re going to be consistent, we might want to consider the death penalty for the 16- year old girl that takes the morning after pill. After all, life begins at conception and murder is murder. If, on the other hand, it can be sufficiently proven that Christians are not obligated to pursue political power to control other people’s behavior, then the question becomes how should followers of Jesus be salt and light in a world that’s gone mad?

I’m going to simplify this by answering my own question with a question. What would the Church look like if there were a universal consensus that our only moral agenda is to imitate Jesus? Throughout the three years of Christ’s ministry on earth, Jesus displayed the sum total of zero interest in pursuing political power to control other people’s behavior. Jesus was offered political power three times—once by Satan—and He turned it down each and every time. In the Roman culture of Jesus’ day, they had something worse than abortion. People could legally kill their children up until age two, but strangely we never see Jesus leading a campaign to outlaw this barbaric practice. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that the Apostle Paul could care less about how people outside the church behaved. His sole concern was for the moral lives of those inside the church. Those inside the church guilty of gross immorality were judged by excommunication, but those outside the Church, Paul made it very clear that Christians are to have nothing to do with judging them (I Corinthians 5:12).

I realize that what I’ve written so far challenges a deeply held notion in many Christian circles that God has called Bible believing Christians to be the moral guardians of society, but frankly, I don’t give a rip about offending religious people. What matters is what the Bible actually says, not the opinions of man. I ask the question again. What would Christianity look like if followers of Jesus decided that their only moral agenda in this life is to imitate Jesus? Would we condemn the sinner with a sword or would we serve the sinner with a towel?