6.11.2018

A House Built on the Sand: Struggling Churches, Seminaries, and the Death of BibleWorks

On June 15th, (THIS WEEK,) BibleWorks will be closing down operations.  Support will continue
for users who have the most current version BW10, but for people like me - who still get by with one of the previous versions - good luck. I'm tempted to upgrade while I still can, but it's hard to know whether it's worth it - when the future is so uncertain.

I was an early adopter of BibleWorks back in the 90's. And I used the same old version for years, until I got ready to start Seminary. That's when I purchased BibleWorks 8 - and I love it. Maybe I'm part of the problem - because I'm content with the tools that I have - and can rarely be tempted to upgrade anything unless something breaks.  But I'll be sad to see them go.

I don't think it's just me though.  As I see it, there is a bigger problem responsible for the demise of BibleWorks, one that ties in with our Seminaries, and our Churches too.  Nearly the entire ecclesiological infrastructure here in the United States, is built on our faith in the power and natural wisdom of our nation's economic system.  We run and promote our churches like businesses. All of our institutions are economic legal entities.  We structure and run them like busineses. We promote them like products. We are utterly bound to the success or failure of this economy - its fickle consumers, and our ability to thrive by marketing ourselves as a product.

After the recession seminaries took a big hit economically - as people reconsidered the kind of education they wanted to go into massive amounts of debt for.  Many long term professors were let go so that younger (and cheaper,) professors could be brought in.  Many extension campuses were closed as visions of expansion were scaled back.  Some seminaries are even going entirely virtual.

Moody Bible to Close Spokane Campus, Cut Chicago FacultyFuller Seminary also plans to cut extension locations. (CT, NOV 9, 2017)

Now BibleWorks is shutting down operations, I assume for economic reasons.  Church attendance is down too, if we are to believe reports about the "nones".  Some, like mine own congregation, wonder how much longer we can continue to keep the doors open.  And yet, while Seminaries may close, ministers need to be trained. While people can still study the Bible, we still benefit greatly from tools like BibleWorks, and while Church's may have to close their doors, believers still need somewhere to worship.

Never before have we had so desperate a need for a new way of existing as the church.  I think we've have put too much faith in our economic system, the power of advertising, and the wisdom of our business strategies. So much in fact, that it seems like we barely know what church is without them. Instead of building relationships and communities around faith in Jesus, we have become increasingly transactional in our mode of operation, and detatched from one another. We tweak the music, we tweak the name, we engage broadly in service projects, but not deeply in people's lives. We engage in vigorous self promotion - but we fail to appeal because we are trying to sell something the world doesn't want. And we are trying to compete with others who are willing to offer the same services - without Jesus.  And if our churches are struggling - the collapse of our seminaries, and missionary societies, and every business financially dependent on the church will follow. 

It reminds me of Jesus' parable of the house built on the sand.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”  - Matt 7:24-27

The church is a family after all, not a business or a product. You can't market it, marketing is antithetical to its mission. All this stuff seemed to be working very well, but that was when churchgoing was the respectable social norm. That era is over - and we have become the victims of market forces.

It makes me angry, that something as fickle as the economy could have such a huge effect on the operations of the church.  We need to look elsewhere for our inspiration. That is the primary purpose of this blog. Sure I post write a lot of posts about Sci-Fi and Pop Science, but my hope is that those posts, which generate a lot more traffic btw, will open the door to greater engagement with the main concern of this blog. The New Reformation that might be possible in the new digitally connected world.

I think we can learn from open collaborative modes of organization like the kind we see in the emergent forces of nature, and in the communities that develop free and open source software. These models, far more than our business management structures, reflect the creative and life supporting models established by God. Maybe this is not a time of tribulation, but a necessary disruption that will trigger the reorganization of a more vital way of being the Church in the future. It will all depend on our ability to adapt - to hold on to what is vital and let go of what is dragging us down.




6.02.2018

The Marshmallow Test's Squishy Conclusions About Success and Poverty

The Marshmallow Experiment was a study performed by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the late 60's and early 70's.  In the study children were given a single marshmallow, which they could eat right away, but they were also told, that if they are able to wait for a predetermined amount of time, they would be given two marshmallows.  

A follow up study on the children in the 1990's seemed to show that those who were able to delay gratification went on to perform better in school, and had greater overall economic success in life. These findings were popularized in a book by Mischel, titled "The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control is the Engine of Success.These days you can find a tons of videos of people performing the Marshmallow test on kids across Youtube The experiment has also been cited by numerous self help gurus. 







However, a new study performed by NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan suggests those findings are - well - a bit squishy.  

On June 1, 2018 article in The Atlantic reported that this new study found only limited support for the idea that delayed gratification lead to better outcomes. Instead, it suggested that the capacity to hold out for the second marshmallow was mostly shaped by a child’s social and economic background—and that that background is actually what determined a child’s long-term success.  Here's how I understand these findings. 


  • Children from a more economically privileged background perceived their situation from a viewpoint of abundance "I get access to stuff all of the time. I've been offered the choice between one or two marshmallows, and two is better than one - so I'll wait."  
  • Children from an economically underprivileged background operate from a viewpoint of scarcity and uncertainty. "Someone just offered me a marshmallow now, or two if I can wait. I can never be certain of the future. I want a marshmallow. One real marshmallow is better than the promise of two."


The message that Willpower = Success In Life, has been accepted as common wisdom in our culture.  I even bought into the theory myself for a while myself.  It's easy, because the conclusions present us with a way to take control of our future (and who doesn't want to do that?).  But that may actually be an empty promise. This is not to say that will power isn't an important life skill. But in reality there are so many other factors that play in to how well we do in life. 

We have a tendency - especially in this country,  to assume that a person's success is determined by willpower alone.  There is also a myth, touted especially in conservative circles, that poor people don't get ahead because they waste their money on drugs and alcohol, or nails, large screen TV.s and fancy clothes. I cite Senator Chuck Grassley's comment in 2017, about why poor people don't invest,

"I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies."

It reminds me of a SNL skit with Steve Martin, where a husband and wife are distressed over their bills and mounting debt. Just then a man walks in with a solution, a program to get out of debt called "Don't buy things you can't afford. I love Steve Martin, but I hated the skit.




It, like the Marshmallow Experiment, plays right into conservative stereotypes about poverty.  Stereotypes like the woman wearing furs and paying for her groceries with food stamps, or the man begging for cash on the corner who drives away in a Rolls Royce. Everyone knows someone whose seen someone like this - or so it would seem. 

The fact is, when you're poor there are a lot of hurdles you have to jump just to live at a state of normalcy.  For instance, it is generally recommended that you should not spend more than 30% of your income on rent/housing.  The people for whom this is possible have what is called "disposable income" - this allows them to do things like have a savings account, and pay off emergency expenses when they occur, instead of going into debt.  It allows them to plan for the future.  

For people whose housing expenses are greater, say over 50 percent of their monthly income, savings may be nearly impossible.  A $400 emergency car repair means completely different things to these two groups of people. And many people don't seem to get that.  It is especially concerning for Christians who don't get it.  

Self control is a valuable character trait, but it alone is not enough for a person to lift themselves out of poverty.  Society has a responsibility to properly value the time people put into the work they do.  If you don't make enough money to weather life's financial crises no amount of willpower will can keep you from the debt spiral. Books like Elizabeth Warren's "The Two Income Trap," and Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickeled and Dimed," have been helpful in giving me a broader more objective understanding of poverty and my own financial struggles. 

Poverty is a moral issue, not a moral failing, but a matter of justice. 



3.07.2018

Faith, In The Worlds of Marvel



Some Christians may be surprised, but within the Marvel Universe there are Christian characters - and their faith is not presented like the butt of some joke. Consider some recent films.

Aunt May's faith came across in the first Spider-Man movie, When Norman Osborn discovers that his enemy Spider-Man is actually his son's best friend - Peter Parker. He is instructed by his alter ego - the Green Goblin, to attack Peter's heart. His Aunt May. Here we see her praying for Peter with a picture of him and her now deceased husband Ben.


Steve Roger's faith also comes across in Captain America's skepticism towards Black Widow's comment, about the Asgardian's status, as possible gods - in the first Avengers film. "There's only one God ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that."


Likewise, the mutant, Nightcrawler is also a man of faith, and it's an integral part of his origin story - this was told in the second X-Men film. Here you even see an example of him sharing his faith with Wolverine, one of the most cynical and walled off members of the X-Men, in the X-Men animated series from the 90's.


Some Christians may choose to nit-pick and find a reason to dismiss the significance of this, or to cast it in some nefarious light. But the important thing to notice here is not the depth or accuracy of the character's theology - but that these are respected characters - so their faith is not presented as something to be mocked or easily dismissed.
I don't expect comic books to teach my faith, that's not their job But when they portray a world where there is a place for sincere belief - I believe it's important to acknowledge the service they do to making the real world a place where civil discourse is possible in our culture. Can we realistically expect anything more?

3/15/2018 UPDATE

Thanks to J.D. Wofford, for pointing out a glaring oversight in the comments.

I forgot to include Daredevil in this list of Christian characters in the Marvel Universe. How could I have missed that. I love the Netflix series. My only excuse could be that I binge watch the episodes when they drop and since I haven't watched it recently Netflix was not at the front of my brain when I was thinking of these examples.

Matt Murdock (Daredevil,) is another Christian character in the M.U. who spends his days trying to help people as an attorney - and his nights doing all the other stuff that attorney's can't do - does he ever sleep? As a good Catholic he struggles with the kinds of decisions he is confronted with. Many times his inner struggle is revealed to us through his visit to the confessional. Here is such a scene from the awesome Netflix mini-series. 

2.12.2018

Monday Meme's: No Fear


Do you still see the slogan "No Fear" around anywhere?  I do, occasionally. 

According to Wikipedia the slogan "No Fear," is a lifestyle brand created in 1971 by Mark and Brian Simo, and Marty Moates of No Fear Inc.  It's associated with extreme sports, mixed martial arts, and a general contempt for social norms.

I used to see these window decals all over the place in the 1990's. The slogan was very popular then. And like every other trendy thing, it inspired a Christian clone in the Evangelical Subculture.


The Christian version would say "KNOW FEAR: Proverbs 1:7", because - you know - "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." 

Now I'm not really a big believer in T-shirt or bumper sticker evangelism - but that doesn't stop me from identifying what's wrong with this message. Actually, I'd recommend scraping the slogan "know fear" and just adopting the original slogan - which is just fine.

Why reject "Know Fear"?
Because it sounds like a threat.  What the Bible actually means by the word "Fear" here, is reverence, not terror - but your average person on the street doesn't know that. To them, it makes God sound like the villain preparing to inflict pain on his captive "You will know the meaning of Fear."

"No Fear" is already perfect
There really is nothing about the slogan "No Fear" that prevents Christians from adopting it as their own and subverting the meaning.  1 John 4:18 says "There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear." Is there any message better than that?

I think the slogan "No Fear" subverted by the text 1 John 4:18 is a much more powerful message than the "clever" bit of wordplay based on Proverbs 1:7.  Its not repulsive, and it gets to the heart of the Gospel. But I guess that means you can't sell your own decals - what with the Trade Mark and all. Shoot.


2.05.2018

Monday Meme: COEXIST



You've probably seen this meme on a bumper sticker.  Occasionally I'll be riding in the car with another Christian and have a chance to point it out to them, and ask them what they think about it. Usually the ones with very strong convictions say they don't like it. They'll say "it's relativism" or "new age bull crap".  I know where they are coming from.  

There is no way around the fact that Christianity is a proselytizing belief system. The great commission is spelled out in Matthew 28:19 "Go and make disciples of all nations. . ." One way of looking at this is "I know the truth, and you believe lies. If you do not recognize this, you are my enemy and I must give you no quarter."  This response is ingrained by the Evangelical Media Culture which is hostile and highly politicized. This response is not helpful, instead of building bridges it builds walls. That's when I tell them I think it's Biblical. "No!" they say, "How do you get that?"  That's when I like to point out this passage from the Apostle Paul.

18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mineI will repay,” says the Lord. 20Rather, if your enemy is hungryfeed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
 - Romans 12:18-20

Here we see that what Paul advises is very different from what passes for wisdom today.  Instead of giving no quarter, he says if your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is hungry give him something to drink. 

We've forgotten that our battle is FOR flesh and blood, not against it.  These people with beliefs so different from our own are not obstacles, they are our mission field.

10.02.2017

Philip Shorey and Curse of the Vampire

Back in June I interviewed Philip Shorey about his participation in the May Day Parade, and his new book Kill Your Art. What you don't know, is there was another project that didn't make it into the final blog post. Philips comic book, Curse of the Vampire. At the time Philip and I decided that the interview should focus on Kill Your Art. We decided to save this part of the interview for early October. I think it was the right decision.  Here is the missing part of the interview.

Mike: I see you’ve come out with this comic book called Curse of the vampire. I love creepy things. I visited the Del Toro Exhibit here in Minneapolis this summer.  For that reason alone, I’m drawn to read this thing – but what makes this story different?

Philip: It’s a vampire comic about Jesus. It doesn’t romanticize the vampire like modern vampire stories do. Vampires are everywhere today, in pop culture, but its like “Oh the poor vampire. They’re stuck between life and death.” And the vampire is this glamorous kind of thing. It can live forever - locked in its youth. So in this story, and in early stages of vampire folklore vampires were seen as pure evil. As dark creatures of the night to be feared, terrible beasts. That’s how vampires are portrayed in Dracula, and Nosferatu. It’s not your modern cultural perspective on vampires.

So when I watched Nosferatu as a kid, I saw it, and I just, for some reason, saw the Gospel very vividly in that film. Its that old classic horror 1922 movie. German expressionist film Nosferatu, I just saw the Gospel in it, and I wanted to do something with that concept. I left it alone for many years.  A couple of years ago, I saw it again, with a live ensemble. I really didn’t like how the music portrayed the vampire, at least, I didn’t like how the music portrayed the woman. So what you get in this film is, you get this woman who really has this christ like character because she offers herself to the vampire to get rid of the vampire. To save the village from its curse. To save her love John harker. So then, once the vampire is seduced by this willing sacrifice, he forgets about the sun, and so the next morning he’s destroyed. So once the vampire is destroyed, all that were under his curse are set free from his spell.  So its like, the cross? She willingly gives herself to the vampire.  The resurrection and then death is destroyed, and now the curse of sin is lifted off of everybody. And so then the relationship is restored between her and the community and John Harker – her loved one. So, I didn’t really change anything. I partnered with an artist in Brazil, and he didn’t know any English – we used Google translate to talk about everything, we’d never met before. It was a very beautiful relationship that we formed. He’s a Christian guy. He came out of the Goth Metal scene in Brazil, and he has this incredible talent of using this very Tim Burtonesque and Edger Allen Poe style of art and drawing, and he didn’t know where to use it for the Gospel. He wants to do something for Christ, but your normally not going to see that kind of style in a bulletin at church, you know?

So he was struggling. And it’s amazing you know, because I had the same problem, I used to write lots of creepy circus music and I loved it, but I didn’t know how God could ever use that. Until he introduced me to an evangelistic circus that was trying to develop, and it was the perfect fit for my creepy circus music. But anyway, we worked together, and we put this comic together, and I wrote it, I produced it, we printed it and its available on Etsy, you can search for “Curse of the Vampire” and you can buy it in bulk. The idea is that you buy 50 copies at Halloween and hand them out to Trick or Treaters. Or just have them in your pocket, because, its just this beautiful comic where you can just give it to someone and say “hey do you want a vampire comic” and they’ll be like “yeah”. They’ll read the vampire, I mean it’s not for everybody – but for certain people who are most jaded by Christianity pretty much. But they’ll read the comic and they’ll realize, “Oh, what’s this all about? it’s beautiful, its entertainment, its artful?” you know, “what’s this all about, this is interesting? What did the director mean by all of this?” And then they’ll naturally be intrigued to read the Gospel message, and read the parallels – how it ties in. There’s scripture, and there’s an invitation at the end. There’s a place for a little message by the person that is giving it out. Or you can tell people, “here is a vampire comic about Jesus, do you want it?”  And most of the time they’ll say yes, because they’re so intrigued, and that just seems so strange – they want to see what its all about. So, we’ve handed it out at ComicCon, Metal shows, in the street corners, leaving them at lobby’s, for businesses, with all the other magazines . And we’ve had people just look at, for an hour, over an hour, just read the Gospel message over and over – just soaking it in. It’s just going to connect with people in a way they won’t get in a church, they won’t go to a church. They’ll see a tract and they’ll see “oh, it’s about Jesus” and they’ll throw it away. So this is going reach people, and hook them in, because its beautiful, it speaks their language. This is like Paul on Mars Hill to the “T,” right now. Speaking their language, finding those Gospel themes in their culture, and then using their story to share with them who Jesus really is. . .

If you are on Facebook, you can like Philip's Curse of the Vampire page (here).
If you'd like to order copies you can connect to his Etsy page (here).

9.22.2017

Is the Success of the Church Directly Proportionate to the Abilities of It's Members?

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.
 - Acts 28:11-15

Several passages in the New Testament support a concept called The Universal Priesthood - or The Priesthood of All Believers.

  • Jesus gave the Great Commission to all of his followers (Matthew 28:19-20). 
  • Paul teaches that the church is a body made up of many parts and that each one has an important contribution to make (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). 
  • Peter refers to them as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).


As people think about how they could possibly live out such a high calling, many people turn to prominent New Testament figures like Paul as a model for their individual Christian lives and ministries. After all
  • He always had the right words (consider the epistles).
  • He has a proven track record (a successful string of church plants).
Is the answer really that we all just need to be more like Paul? I don't think so.  I would contend that this exemplification of Paul presents a rather lopsided view, which has more to do with our false notions of leadership than it does with Paul himself.

It has been called the Great Man Theory: the belief that the wheels of history turn by the actions of uniquely gifted people, and I think has been historically paralyzing to the church.
  • What if I can’t speak like Paul?
  • What if I can’t achieve the kind of things he did?
If this view of leadership is correct then the extent to which we don’t live up to greatness the church will suffer. If that's the case, maybe it would be best to leave the work of ministry to someone else.

If we take a closer look at Paul though, we find that this view has caused us to selectively limit our reading of him, to those traits that we think can explain his success. This over inflated view in turn eclipses the role that God played in the development of the early church.  I’d like to take a few minutes to examine some of these perceptions.


Myth 1 - Paul always had the right words:  When we think of Paul's communication abilities we immediately turn to the epistles. However, the epistles are carefully composed letters; they provide no evidence that Paul was a gifted speaker.  In fact we have testimony to the contrary.  Paul himself admits that he does not come across as wise or eloquent (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).  And in his 2nd letter we find out that the Corinthians agree (2 Corinthians 10:10).  Paul asks the Colossians to pray that he might be able to speak his message clearly (Colossians 4:4). And Peter tells us in his first letter that Paul is often hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). In reality, Paul gives the credit for his persuasiveness to the power of the Gospel – which itself is living and active and is at work in the world. He tells the Colossians that the Gospel is growing throughout the entire world (Colossians 1:6) speaking of it as a force in and of itself.

Myth 2 - Paul’s success record: Many people have perpetuated the myth that Paul was responsible for single handedly evangelizing the entire Roman Empire, which simply is not true. While the book of Acts focuses on his ministry, if you look a bit closer you see that God did far more through the  collective contributions of average people than He did through any one individual – including Paul.

Before Paul even set foot on the mission field God had used ordinary men and women to spread the Gospel throughout the empire. Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost had heard the Gospel and taken the knowledge of Jesus home with them. Parthians Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt and Libya, Cretans Arabs and Visitors from Rome (Acts 2:5-12). These Jews had homes in far off countries established during several historic and strategic exiles in Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome. These pilgrims traveled from their home countries to Jerusalem because they were Jews, but they returned home as Christians - and brought the Gospel with them.

This brings me to the purpose of my passage.  It says when Paul arrived in Rome he was greeted by followers of Jesus who belonged to a pre-existing Christian Church, and that he was encouraged and thanked God at the sight of them. Why was he encouraged? Not just because he had arrived at the end of his journey, or because there would be people to look after him. He was encouraged because the Gospel had gotten there before him. The church Paul that greeted Paul upon his arrival to Rome was a beautiful example of how God had been at work all along, laying the foundations of the church, and supporting the contributions of all believers. The success of the early church didn’t depend on the abilities of exceptional people like Paul, but on the collective contributions of each of its ordinary members: a word here, a good deed there. No one person could take credit, or understand how it all fit together, but God was orchestrating it all to bring about His kingdom.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:20-31