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Archive for August, 2008

In the late ’90s, my wife and I spent almost four years living in Central Florida, where I was an editor for New Man magazine at Strang Communications. So, it’s been interesting this week to see two of our Florida acquaintances playing significant roles in the events of the just-concluded Democratic National Convention.

Cameron Strang, the founder of Relevant magazine, is the son of Christian publishing pioneer (and my old boss) Stephen Strang. Cameron was set to give the Monday-night benediction but later backed out and suggested a replacement in his friend, Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller. I think the attention that Cameron received from the national media for not praying at the convention was probably more significant than any closing prayer would have been, since he had opportunities to share his faith and ideas on major TV and radio broadcasts. The drama surrounding his decision to back out of the benediction (and to attend the DNC in the first place) was one of the big religion stories of the week. The bottom line: Barack Obama has struck a major chord with the younger generation of evangelical Christians that Cameron represents.

Then Pastor Joel Hunter had the honor and formidable task of leading the benediction on the closing night of the convention following Obama’s big speech. Joel is the senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. My wife, Dana, and I attended Northland during our four-year tenure in the Sunshine State. We both came to know Joel as a thoughtful, authentic, and dynamic pastor/preacher who while clearly proclaiming the unadulterated Gospel of Christ also preached compassion, tolerance, and bridge-building to those who do not share our Christian faith. As far as pastors go, I wish I could’ve brought him back to Chicago with us when we moved home. 

Joel is a pro-life conservative who wrote an excellent book on the interaction of faith and politics called A New Kind of Conservative (earlier on he had self-published the book with the title Right Wing, Wrong Bird). Anyway, I’m sure Joel also heard from some conservative evangelicals who were upset about his participation in the DNC. And then, last night when he invited the audience to personalize their prayers by closing it in whichever way their faith tradition dictated (albeit Joel’s “In Jesus’ name” was the only closing that the TV audience could actually hear), I turned to my wife and said, “He’s gonna get flak for that one.” But that gracious gesture—and Joel’s confidence that his God is big enough to work through a prayer that respects the various beliefs of a pluralistic audience—is just like the Joel Hunter we remember.

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Tonight, exactly 45 years after Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, Barack Obama will officially accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Quite heady stuff, given our nation’s bumpy history on the race-relations front. In commemoration, here are a few of the thought-provoking articles and reports I’ve encountered over the past week.

  • Does King+45=Obama? Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page connects the historic March on Washington to Barack Obama’s historic campaign and reflects on what it teaches Americans about themselves. 
  • Dr. King Goes to Washington. NPR’s Steve Innskeep interviews MLK biographer Taylor Branch and civil rights activist Roger Wilkins about that fateful day in which King flipped the script and declared, “I have a dream!”
  • From Washington to Denver. In this New York Times report by Michael Powell, veterans of the 1963 March on Washington who are in Denver this week for the Democratic convention reflect on the trials of the past and the hopes of the future.
  • Will Obama’s Rise Endanger Civil Rights? New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns surveys the ambivalent mood among some in the African American community regarding Barack Obama’s success. Awhile back, I posted about “Why White Supremacists Like Obama,” but this article examines what might be considered the opposite: Why some black civil rights leaders are dubious about an Obama presidency.
  • ObamaKids. Finally, in this essay from New York magazine, scholar and author John McWhorter speculates about how an Obama presidency could transform race relations in America simply through the symbolic signals it sends. He writes, “[I]f Obama becomes president, there will be a shift in the conception of race in this country that neither side in the culture wars can control. It’s all about youth. Think about it. If Obama is elected to two terms, an entire generation of 10-year-olds will come of age having been barely aware of anyone other than a black man in the White House.”

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Just for the record, I’m a registered Independent. Still, party politics is enthralling stuff, and I’ve been enjoying the Democratic National Convention this week. (I’m looking forward to the GOP’s convention next week, too.)

Here in Illinois, the Democrats currently rule the day. Those of you from the Land of Lincoln (and now Obama) know that the state’s top Democrats have been bickering amongst themselves so much and for so long that hardly anything gets done. It’s actually become something of a joke—a depressing joke. That’s why I was blown away by an excellent public radio report I heard on the way home from work today. Apparently, an unexpected gesture by U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. sparked a reconciliation hug fest among Illinois Democrats. I love stuff like that, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans. Read and listen to the story from WBEZ in Chicago here.

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The big storyline from Barack Obama’s selection of Senator Joe Biden as his presidential running mate is that Biden compensates for Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience. But a secondary theme is one of racial reconciliation. Back on January 31, Biden’s off-the-cuff remark about Obama being “clean” and “articulate” was criticized as having derogatory racial overtones, and it pretty much doomed his announcement of his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Later, Biden had to apologize again for racially insensitive comments he made while campaigning in New Hampshire. “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent,” he had said in an ill-fated attempt at humor. Still, most folks agreed that Biden was not a racist; he just suffered occasional bouts of foot-in-mouth disease.

Marc Lamont Hill of The Root suggested several weeks back that a Biden pick would underscore the Obama campaign’s spirit of reconciliation, and at least one other political blogger made a similar observation today. I do hope this theme gets some play from the media. With race being invoked and manipulated in such an ugly way earlier in this long presidential battle, it’s nice to see such a prominent example of racial reconciliation in action.

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Over at his A Man from Issachar blog, Rev. Eric Redmond calls our attention to the release of an eagerly anticipated book from Duke Divinity School professor J. Kameron Carter. The book, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford, 2008), presents a fresh perspective on the social and theological construct of race in our world. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s product description at Amazon.com:

In Race: A Theological Account, J. Kameron Carter meditates on the multiple legacies implicated in the production of a racialized world and that still mark how we function in it and think about ourselves. These are the legacies of colonialism and empire, political theories of the state, anthropological theories of the human, and philosophy itself, from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment to the present.

Carter’s claim is that Christian theology, and the signal transformation it (along with Christianity) underwent, is at the heart of these legacies. In that transformation, Christian anti-Judaism biologized itself so as to racialize itself. As a result, and with the legitimation of Christian theology, Christianity became the cultural property of the West, the religious ground of white supremacy and global hegemony. In short, Christianity became white. The racial imagination is thus a particular kind of theological problem.

Sounds like a challenging—and likely controversial—thesis. Perhaps if we were more willing to confront race as a theological issue, it would change the cultural conversation for the better. What do you think? If you get a chance to read the book any time soon, please let me hear your thoughts.

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Twenty Years Gone

Back in high school, one of my favorite Led Zeppelin songs was “Ten Years Gone” from the Physical Graffiti album. It was a melancholy sort of song, and I did melancholy really well as a teenager. With Robert Plant’s pensive lyrics about days gone by and Jimmy Page’s layer upon layer of forlorn guitar, it was a great song to listen to after a breakup or when you were feeling especially misunderstood.

I thought about “Ten Years Gone” a lot over the weekend because I journeyed back to my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, to attend my 20-year high school reunion. Twenty years! Wow. In some ways they went by really fast. But if I’m honest about it, there were some really long days—long years—mixed in between my high school graduation and now. (For instance, I thought 1992 would never end.) Each season of life represents its own little eternity, I guess.

Anyway, it was good to see folks whom I hadn’t seen for, like, 20 years. Old best friends, old girlfriends, old acquaintances I wish I’d gotten to know better back in the day. I’d never been to a class reunion before, so it was a somewhat surreal experience, like being handed a mirror where objects appear exactly as they look to the rest of the world. Seeing my peers from high school today gave me a glimpse of what I really look like. No longer can I carry on with the false notion that I still look like I did when I was 26. Finally, I understand why the twentysomething on the street addresses me as “Sir.” Sometimes the truth hurts—as does my back and creaky knees. 

Actually, it was fun to see how we have all evolved and progressed over the years. We are now doctors, bankers, machinists, police officers, artists, sales execs, engineers, business analysts, editors, you name it. We have spouses and kids and mortgages. We really did grow up.

Sadly, at least two of our Class of ’88 classmates had passed away. When you look at them in the yearbook, with those senior-year smiles, they seemed poised to live long, exciting lives. It’s sobering to think that a few more of us will probably be missing by the 30-year reunion. But life goes on. 

Being apparently the only thing approximating a minister from my graduating class, I was given the honor of saying a prayer before the dinner. What a privilege! As I prayed, I was filled with joy and appreciation for each of the people in that room. I knew a few of the folks there from as far back as grade school and middle school. As I looked at them, some looking like more refined versions of their old high-school selves and others looking like totally different people, I was thankful for having had the chance to be touched by their lives. We were all so different, yet forever joined together by those exhilarating, intense, sometimes heartbreaking four years that we spent together at Auburn High two decades ago.

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You’ve got to think that Ben Stiller and the studio behind his new movie about a movie, Tropic Thunder, are overjoyed about all the controversy the film is stirring up. After all, when you’re trying to promote a movie, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

This article from the Chicago Tribune explores the reactions about the film from people with intellectual disabilities and their various advocacy groups. If you’re unfamiliar with the controversy, it pertains to the recurring derogatory use of the term “retarded” by characters in the film.

I haven’t seen the movie (and probably won’t anytime soon), but everything I read about it makes it clear that it’s a satirical take on the bloated egos of Hollywood actors and filmmakers and the absurd lengths that they will go to hold on to their fame and relevance. As Ben Stiller notes in this interview with NPR, the “joke” is ultimately on them.

If I do end up going to see Tropic Thunder (or renting it down the road), it will be mostly due to my intrigue over Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of an Australian method actor who undergoes a radical pigmentation surgery to turn himself into a black man for a role in the fictitious Vietnam war film being made within the movie. I find that whole premise, along with images of the “black” Downey, simply hilarious (since I frowned upon a white church’s blackface fiasco last year, I suppose I’m opening myself up to charges of hypocrisy on this one). But the use of the R-word seems to fall under a different category.

What do you think? Should we make exceptions for the use of offensive terms like the R-word when it’s done in the service of satire and subversive art? Or should this kind of thing always be off limits?

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Here’s an interesting report from the Associated Press on the current mood among white supremacist groups regarding a potential Barack Obama victory in November.

He’d be a “visual aid,” says former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, in trying to bring others around to their view that whites have lost control of America. Obama’s election, says another, would jar whites into action, writing letters, handing out pamphlets rather than sitting around complaining.

Hmm. So, does this mean that white supremacists may actually be rooting for Obama? This article may point to a possible reason for their restlessness. Meanwhile, this report notes that some political pollsters are concerned that the centrality of race in this year’s presidential election may compromise the accuracy of their data. Which may cast some doubt over a new study released this week by the Barna Research Group that finds Obama enjoying greater support among faith-driven voters, including Christians (though not evangelicals), than John McCain.

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I was buried in a writing project when the CNN special Black in America first aired a couple weeks back, so I missed writing about it then. I caught it in bits and pieces. If anyone out there has comments or reviews they’d like to share here, please do. Related to that special, CNN.com has an interesting story up called “Why Americans Prefer Their Sundays Segregated.” Among others, the article quotes Christian reconciliation leaders Michael Emerson (co-author of Divided by Faith) and Curtiss DeYoung (who, along with Emerson and others, co-authored United by Faith). The piece examines race relations in the church from the first century to the present day, and offers some good stuff to chew on, as we continue to grapple with the reality of racial division in the church.

Also, on a totally unrelated note, the ABC News site has a touching and powerful interview with singer Steven Curtis Chapman and his family who are still dealing with the accidental death of Steven’s little daughter Maria Sue back in May. When I worked for Today’s Christian magazine, we featured the Chapman family on our cover one year and did other stories on them as well, so it was particularly difficult to learn of Maria’s loss. But from watching this Good Morning America interview with the Chapmans, it’s clear that they are walking through this tragedy with their faith intact.

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Looks like I’m on a Barack Obama kick again. Sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist posting about this latest curiosity that came to my attention today when I received a press release from the Christian Newswire. It’s about one of the current campaign ads from John McCain. I hadn’t seen it yet, but the press release prompted me to look it up on YouTube. The ad, called “The One,” portrays Obama as something akin to the Second Coming—but the sarcasm is obvious. And the ultimate, implicit message is that Obama is a false messiah. In fact, the ad bears an eerie resemblance to something you’d find in the Left Behind books. You can check it out here or by viewing above.

Anyway, in the press release Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, attempt to distance themselves from this notion that Obama is “The One.” It’s actually fascinating, and a little weird, to hear Tim LaHaye explaining, in all seriousness, why Obama cannot be the antichrist:

“I can see by the language he uses why people think he could be the antichrist,” adds LaHaye, “but from my reading of scripture, he doesn’t meet the criteria. There is no indication in the Bible that the antichrist will be an American.”

Of course, some would argue that Obama is not a real American, which means he could still be in the running for that antichrist title.

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