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Thursday, January 29, 2009

altering the environment

In a recent Question of the Day over at the Zeray Gazette, John asked, Do you think that anthropogenic global warming is real?

The majority or respondents said no for various reasons, most of which sound specious to me. Today I want to address one curious claim that a few people mentioned, the idea that we as human beings don't really have as big of an impact as we want to believe.

Now I'll grant that human beings, as a species, have an inflated sense of our importance within the universe. Still, if we look at our history, we can see many ways in which human beings have made significant changes to our world, for better or worse.

  • We've created the domestic dog, a subspecies of wolves, and further refined it into hundreds of breeds.
  • We've eradicated the smallpox virus globally through effective vaccination
  • We've reduced the effects of flooding through numerous Army Corps of Engineers projects, and created lakes where none existed before
  • With large-scale dams we've brought water to formerly dry areas, and have dried up rivers
  • Factory pollution has created rain with the acidity of vinegar, capable of destroying all life in lakes into which it drains
  • Enough oil was dumped into the Cuyahoga River that the river caught on fire several times between 1936 and 1969
  • We've sent tons of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the stratosphere, where they are steadily depleting the protective layer of ozone
  • We've introduced invasive species into new environments where they have displaced or threatened native species
  • We've disrupted entire ecosystems by eliminating one or more species deemed to be pests
  • Through deforestation in tropical rainforests we've sent thousands of species to extinction

It's a big world, but we've managed to alter our environment in many ways. Is it really so hard to believe that the burning of fossil fuels, which at current levels produces 21.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, also has an effect on this fragile earth?

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Monday, January 26, 2009

monday music: simple gifts

From last week's inauguration:


Sunday, January 25, 2009

more on faith and fear

John Meunier has some thoughts related to my recent post faith and fear.

He tackles the issue of fear from a different angle:

I saw Frank Langella, the actor, interviewed by Charlie Rose the other day. One of the great realizations of his late life, he said, was coming to understand that his fear was and is the major drive of our lives. Fear is what causes us to not try new things. Fear is what chases us into all kinds of choices and talks us out of others. It is only when we cease to be driven by fear, that we learn to love, he said.

Langella was not talking at all about faith. His savior was psychological analysis. But his diagnosis seems spot on to me.

The hitch is that we often do not properly locate the source of our fear. We experience it as a vague and amorphous presence that seems to rise up from many places. But we never quite put our finger on it. We often try to “get over it” by just pressing forward or acting as if it were not there. If we pretend it is not there, maybe it will go away.

One Christian response to this condition is to name that fear. John Wesley called it fear of “the wrath to come.”

Yes, there is that kind of fear, the fear that we must confront and overcome if we are to grow. I know a lot of people who have been driven to God because of that intrinsic fear. For other people, the catalyst has been something else. (In my own case, it was a crushing sense of loneliness.) But I won't deny that fear motivates some people to seek God.

But there is another kind of fear, the kind that is not intrinsic but imposed. The kind that leads evangelists to say, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" and takes any hint of uncertainty as an opportunity to press the issue and make the sale.

John makes the point that John Wesley used fear as a conversation starter:

Awaking people to their true state was his first goal.

Now I want to preface my next remarks by saying I could very well be wrong about this, and I don't mind anyone using the comments to try to change my mind.

In Wesley's day perhaps fear of the wrath of God might have been a productive way to begin a conversation. Today, not so much. Not when we are bombarded by advertising designed to convince us that something is missing in our lives, and that the product being advertised is the solution. In this atmosphere, salvation can easily become just another product for sale to cynical consumers. If Christianity is nothing more than eternal fire insurance, it's doomed. That's not a product people want to buy. (I don't have anything beyond anecdotal evidence to support this, but it seems to me that's a common view, especially among younger people today. Or else the people I know are naturally more cynical than most.)

But a vibrant Christian faith is more than just fire insurance. It is a transformative process, a journey of a lifetime and beyond. And as Christ transforms us and leads us into lives of service, we become equipped to help prepare the kingdom of God on earth. (Yes, the kingdom of God on earth. Don't we pray for this every week in the Lord's Prayer?) Questions beginning with, "If you died tonight..." shortchange the process, leaving us focused on ourselves and some heavenly reward. I don't think that can be the foundation of a mature faith.

What do you think?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

rev. lowery's prayer

Amid the controversies surrounding the selections of Rick Warren and Gene Robinson to offer prayers at inaugural events, this guy didn't get much attention. But the Reverend Joseph Lowery managed to deliver a prayer that was both humble and eloquent, both inclusive and true to his own faith tradition.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

pascal's climate

Tim O'Reilly has some interesting thoughts connecting the issue of climate change with Pascal's wager.

In my talks I've argued that climate change provides us with a modern version of Pascal's wager: if catastrophic global warming turns out not to happen, the steps we'd take to address it are still worthwhile. Given that there's even a reasonable risk of disruptive climate change, any sensible person should decide to act. It's insurance.

Some of the benefits of taking steps now to avert potential climate change include:

  • Major new sources of renewable energy at an affordable price
  • New jobs related to renewable energy will stimulate the economy
  • Reduced dependence on oil from potentially unstable or hostile nations
  • Reduced costs related to pollution
  • Industries better prepared to compete in the future

The downside? O'Reilly can't think of one, and I can't either. If we take climate change seriously and act accordingly — even if we're wrong, we'll still end up with several benefits. If we don't take it seriously, and we're wrong, we have everything to lose.

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faith and fear

A couple of interesting posts on faith and fear, from two different perspectives:

James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix says:

Fundamentalists increasingly take measures to try to insulate themselves, and in particular their children, from other viewpoints, and in particular discussions of topics related to science or the academic study of the Bible.
Honest investigation, on the other hand, involves faith. Faith that it is worth getting to know the Bible better, even if it turns out to be a far more human and far less perfect collection of writings than we had hoped.

You can read the whole post here.

Meanwhile, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism says:

I think there's ample reason to believe that many forms of religious belief are motivated by fear - not necessarily metaphysical fears about death or meaning, but more tangible phobias. Consider the evidence I cited, in posts like "Groundhog Day", that many who call themselves Christian consider legalized gay marriage the worst disaster that could possibly strike a society, worse than Hurricane Katrina, worse than 9/11.
I think atheists do offer an antidote to the irrational fears described above. Our solution is the simplest imaginable: the recognition that there are no gods, no demons, no hells, that there are no divine overseers standing over your shoulder with whips at the ready, that society will not be punished if we recognize the equal rights of gays, and that you will not be boiled in oil for eternity if you vote Democrat, have premarital sex, or learn about evolution in school.

You can read the whole post here.

To be honest, I think the ugliest thing about Christianity is the pervasiveness of preachers and apologists who try to scare people into the faith, and who seek to reduce their flocks' exposure to other viewpoints. But serious questioning, now that can lead in either of two directions: It can produce a deeper faith, or it can lead to the end of faith. I can understand why some people might retreat from the tough questions; nonetheless, that retreat is motivated by fear. It does no one any good to believe on those terms.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

monday music: stand like steel

Taking a stand in the face of oppression is never easy; sometimes it is fatal. But because of the sacrifices of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Steve Biko, we can all enjoy more freedom today.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

on grace

Grace, which is charity, contains in itself all virtues in a hidden and potential manner, like the leaves and the branches of the oak hidden in the meat of an acorn.

- Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude


Thursday, January 15, 2009

proving the virgin birth?

Peter Kirk has a post with the intriguing title A proof of the Virgin Birth? in which he discusses a post from the Anglican Curmudgeon reviewing Frank Tipler's book The Physics of Christianity.

Tipler is, by all accounts, a first-class physicist who happens to hold the belief that science can prove the truth of Christianity. Evidently, among the things Tipler discusses in this book is the unusual phenomenon of parthenogenesis. According to a quote I've lifted from the Anglican Curmudgeon, Tipler makes this startling claim about Jesus:

I propose that Jesus was a special type of XX male, a type that is quite rare in humans but extensively studied [footnote omitted]. Approximately 1 out of every 20,000 human males is an XX male. . . . An XX male results when a single key gene for maleness on the Y chromosome (the SRY gene) is inserted into an X chromosome. One possibility is that all (or at least many) of the Y chromosome genes were inserted into one of Mary's X chromosomes and that, in her, one of the standard mechanisms used to turn off genes was active on these inserted Y genes. (There is an RNA process that can turn off an entire X chromosome. This is the most elegant turnoff mechanism.) Jesus would then have resulted when one of Mary's eggs started to divide before it became haploid and with the Y genes activated (and, of course, with the extra X genes deactivated). . . .

To be honest, I had never heard of XX male syndrome before this. But here's what Wikipedia has to say about this condition:

Symptoms include small testes, gynecomastia and sterility. Many individuals with this condition also have effeminate characteristics.

Is this really Tipler's image of Jesus? I'm not sure whether to laugh or to just shake my head. But if nothing else, this provides a nice counterpoint for the hyper-masculine Jesus preached by Mark Driscoll.

It would also explain why Jesus had no children.

Regardless, such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. And Tipler claims to have it. Evidently, analysis of blood stains on the Shroud of Turin and a lesser-known relic, the Sudarium of Oviedo, indicate…well, here are Tipler's own words, again quoted by the Anglican Curmudgeon:

The standard DNA test for sex is the amelogenin test I mentioned earlier. The Italians performed this test, which gave 106 base pairs for the X form of amelogenin and 112 base pairs for the Y form. There is a phenomenon called sputtering, which can cause the actual value obtained to differ by 1 base pair from the expected value.

The Turin Shroud data show 107 (106 +1) but no trace of a 112 base pair gene. The Oviedo Cloth data show 105 (106 - 1) but no trace of a 112 base pair. The X chromosome is present, but there is no evidence of a Y chromosome. This is the expected signature of the simplest virgin birth, the XX male generated by an SRY inserted into an X chromosome. It is not what would be expected of a standard male.

So what can we conclude from this? Nothing, really. Tipler backs his speculation with more speculation. In the 1980s a radiocarbon test dated the Shroud of Turin to the 13th or 14th century. A number of Turin enthusiasts have argued that the test was botched, but thus far no one has taken a second sample for dating. Without any positive evidence that the shroud is ancient, I see no reason to accept that the DNA from blood stains on the cloth belonged to Jesus.

And if I don't accept it, it's probably safe to say that non-Christians won't accept it either. So just who is Tipler trying to convince? Himself?

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

inaugural prayers

Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson has been chosen to deliver the invocation at Sunday's inaugural kickoff event. Robinson is the second controversial pastor to be chosen to speak during the inauguration. California megachurch pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren will be delivering the opening prayer on Tuesday.

The controversy surrounding both choices stems from their vocal advocacy on gay rights issues: Warren has been outspoken in his opposition to gay marriages in California. Robinson, who is gay, has long been a critic of Christianity's treatment of gay people.

Personally, what I'd like to see is for Robinson and Warren to sit down and say a prayer together. This issue shouldn't tear the church apart, regardless of who is right.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

monday music: between the wars

Because peace is such a fleeting thing…


Sunday, January 11, 2009

This is the kind of prayer we need to see more often. Hat tip to Monk in Training.

A Jew's Prayer for the children of Gaza

If there has ever been a time for prayer, this is that time.

If there has ever been a place forsaken, Gaza is that place.

Lord who is the creator of all children, hear our prayer this accursed day. God whom we call Blessed, turn your face to these, the children of Gaza, that they may know your blessings, and your shelter, that they may know light and warmth, where there is now only blackness and smoke, and a cold which cuts and clenches the skin.

Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza. Shield them from us and from their own. Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief. Deliver them from us, and from their own.

Restore to them their stolen childhoods, their birthright, which is a taste of heaven.

Remind us, O Lord, of the child Ishmael, who is the father of all the children of Gaza. How the child Ishmael was without water and left for dead in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, so robbed of all hope, that his own mother could not bear to watch his life drain away.

Be that Lord, the God of our kinsman Ishmael, who heard his cry and sent His angel to comfort his mother Hagar.

Be that Lord, who was with Ishmael that day, and all the days after. Be that God, the All-Merciful, who opened Hagar's eyes that day, and showed her the well of water, that she could give the boy Ishmael to drink, and save his life.

Allah, whose name we call Elohim, who gives life, who knows the value and the fragility of every life, send these children your angels. Save them, the children of this place, Gaza the most beautiful, and Gaza the damned.

In this day, when the trepidation and rage and mourning that is called war, seizes our hearts and patches them in scars, we call to you, the Lord whose name is Peace:

Bless these children, and keep them from harm.

Turn Your face toward them, O Lord. Show them, as if for the first time, light and kindness, and overwhelming graciousness.

Look up at them, O Lord. Let them see your face.

And, as if for the first time, grant them peace.

With thanks to Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol HaNeshama, Jerusalem.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

christian bashing in america?

Henry Neufeld has a good post titled What Can We Christians be Thinking? in which he discusses, among other things, a list of the Top Ten Instances of Christian Bashing in America drawn up by some organization that calls itself the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission (CADC).

More than half the items on the list are simply examples of people exercising their right to freedom of speech or freedom of expression, voicing their disagreement with one aspect or another of some form of Christianity.

Ironically, while one of the items is the criticism Sarah Palin received for identifying as a Christian, another item is Barack Obama's identification as a Christian. The CADC claims its research shows otherwise.

So, for those keeping score at home: If the CADC criticizes someone for identifying as a Christian, it's research. If someone else does it, it's bashing. I'm glad we could clear that up.

For a more thoughtful response to the CADC's list, and to other recent examples of Christian lunacy, see Henry's post.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

liars, cheaters, and thieves

PC Magazine columnist and self-professed "cranky geek" John C. Dvorak points to survey results released by the Josephson Institute's Center for Youth Ethics. The survey paints a bleak picture:

STEALING. In bad news for business, more than one in three boys (35 percent) and one-fourth of the girls (26 percent) — a total of 30 percent overall — admitted stealing from a store within the past year…

CHEATING. Cheating in school continues to be rampant, and it's getting worse. A substantial majority (64 percent) cheated on a test during the past year (38 percent did so two or more times)… Students attending non-religious independent schools reported the lowest cheating rate (47 percent) while 63 percent of students from religious schools cheated…

As bad as these numbers are, they almost certainly understate the magnitude of the problem:

IT'S WORSE THAN IT APPEARS. As bad as these numbers are, it appears they understate the level of dishonesty exhibited by America's youth. More than one in four (26 percent) confessed they lied on at least one or two questions on the survey.

One of the reasons cheating is so rampant, Dvorak argues, is that schools encourage it:

In fact, children in school are trained to cheat better and better over time. Want to stop cheating in classroom testing? Put the kids in a supervised room of cubicles where they cannot see each other—and put a cell-phone jammer in the room. There would be no cheating. If there were any concern whatsoever about rampant cheating (as there should be), then every school in the country would have one of these rooms for testing.

While this sounds like a good idea, it's not feasible. Most American schools barely have enough money to cover their current costs. American taxpayerss would not be willing to fund a cheat-proof testing room for every school in the nation.

Dvorak's next suggestion sounds a lot more practical:

Plagiarism is also being handled incorrectly. The Internet should be a tool for helping students write papers. Children should be encouraged to rip text from sources and put it into their papers. But it should all be accounted for with simple citations. Lift whatever you want and tell the teacher where it came from, then comment on it—just as a blog post would.

This sounds like a great way to turn the Internet into a tool for building critical thinking skills — and job skills. The ability to critically evaluate information — particularly that which can be found online — is only going to grow more important as we move more fully into the information age.

Dvorak continues:

And let's take modern education to the next level. Why are today's students forced to perform with 19th-century methodologies? Why do they have to write essays at all? Why can't they produce a PowerPoint presentation? Or create a video? Or a podcast?

I don't know about this. Writing is still one of the most basic skills for surviving in the modern world. Nonetheless, it's worth considering whether one of these other formats might sometimes be an adequate replacement for a written report.

Regardless of the merits of Dvorak's ideas, the Josephson Institute's survey results make it clear that something needs to change.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

dawkins' god delusion revisited

A blogger named Philobyte has found my March 2007 post The God Delusion: A Source Criticism and is not impressed.

It's good that someone religious has read Dawkin's God Delusion. One would hope for some debate of facts and attitudes, but instead there is only sarcasm.

Actually, the technical term is satire, but I'll try not to quibble.

As I read The God Delusion, I was struck most by the unevenness of the book. Dawkins raised some serious issues which show the hollowness of Intelligent Design (ID), he struck some mortal blows at the philosophical "proofs" for God's existence, and he pointed to double-blind experiments on intercessory prayer that have shown it not to be effective.

Dawkins also likened religious instruction to child abuse, he alternately referred to God as an imaginary and an immoral being, and he alleged that suicide bombers take their faith more seriously than soup kitchen volunteers.

The God Delusion is a book with two separate voices competing for attention. So I thought I'd play a little game of source criticism. Philobyte was disappointed with the tack I took:

So you expect some examples of poor research, or self contradiction in the essay, you will be disappointed. The writer sets up "sources" of inspiration for Dawkins:

Erm, no, I set up "sources" who were the "actual authors" of the book. There is "H" who has most of the good arguments, and "A" who comes up with the insults. Then there is Dawkins himself, "R", who blends the writings of "H" and "A", with mixed results.

Of the two "authors", "H" has the more modest goal … to disprove the "god hypothesis", which is:

There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

"A" is antagonistic toward all possible concepts of a divine being:

I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

Now I don't really believe The God Delusion had multiple authors; the "H" and "A" labels are simply a convenient way to sort out the book's two voices.

But for the sake of discussion, I'll drop these imaginary sources. Richard Dawkins is the one whose name is on the book; he is responsible for the ideas found therein — regardless of who might have actually penned them.

Had Dawkins stuck with the premise of debunking his god hypothesis, this would have been a devastating critique of all "proofs" of the existence of God. Dawkins knows, however, that many believers do not see their deity as a hypothesis; that they would respond simply by saying, "That's not the God I believe in," so he tries to either shoehorn them into the same mold, or dismiss them as not being sincere.

Consider Dawkins' handling of polytheistic religions:

Was Venus just another name for Aphrodite, or were they two distinct goddesses of love? Was Thor with his hammer a manifestation of Wotan, or a separate god? Who cares? … Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it.

Now I'm no more a believer in Wotan than Dawkins is, but I can't see how this gesture could even begin to cover Dawkins against a charge of neglect. Does Dawkins have a clue about the meaning of the ancient myths (or modern myths, for that matter)? Does he have any familiarity with the work of Joseph Campbell, or of Carl Jung, in understanding how mythology can shape our lives? Does Dawkins show even the tiniest glimmer of understanding of the power of myth? I don't think he has ever looked at mythology beyond maybe a superficial glance.

You see, in the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies, the gods did not create the universe. Had Dawkins wanted to relate his dismissal of mythology to the god hypothesis, he could have pointed to that fact alone, and said nothing more. But Dawkins has a higher goal in mind, that of attacking all religion. He explains in chapter eight:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, 'sensible' religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

Now just how mythology teaches children that unquestioning faith is a virtue, Dawkins never addresses. He just assumes that we'll take his word without questioning.

Moving on, here's Dawkins on non-theistic religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism:

Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.

This shows Dawkins' gross ignorance, not just of these religions, but of what constitutes a religion. Certainly non-theistic religions don't mesh with Dawkins' god hypothesis, but Buddhist non-theism is very different from atheism. Buddhist non-theism is more about recognizing that the ultimate answers must come from within. This is not incompatible with belief in supernatural beings which may help or hinder the individual in finding those answers. Many Buddhists pray to the Buddha or to other spiritual guides. Meanwhile, Confucian rituals such as taking shoes off when entering the home or burning money as an offering to dead ancestors can hardly be called an ethical system or a philosophy. These are religious rites, performed by religious people who are not the least bit concerned about proving a hypothesis about a creator-god.

So once again, Dawkins is not speaking in the context of the god hypothesis; if he were, these religions would be outside his scope. He's looking to his larger goal of abolishing all religion. But if Dawkins wants to be taken seriously, he needs to explain why Buddhist and Confucian prayers and rituals should be considered a philosophy and not a religion. Where should we draw the line between the one and the other? Or, failing that, Dawkins needs to explain how these religions make the world safe for fundamentalism and teach children that unquestioning faith is a virtue.

I've raised just two very basic questions in this post: What is the power of myth? and, What is the dividing line between religion and philosophy or ethics? In the more than 400 pages of The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn't even begin to address either of these. If he really wants to make the case that religion in all its manifestations is dangerous, he needs to do better than that.

I haven't even touched on Dawkins' lack of understanding of the monotheistic religions; as time allows, I'll address that in a future post.

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monday music: white winter hymnal

Seattle-based Fleet Foxes released this, their debut single, in the middle of the summer, but any time of year is a great time to listen to this song. I don't even know half the lyrics, but that doesn't matter. This song is about vocal harmony, and there are very few who can do harmony like Fleet Foxes.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

more evangelical than i realized

In a recent post, John Meunier comments on Mark Noll's book The Rise of Evanglicalism, which discusses David Bebbington's four ingredients of evangelicalism. By this definition, John says he qualifies as an evangelical.

How do I rate?

  1. Conversion - the belief that lives need to be changed

    I certainly agree with this one.

  2. Biblical priority - the belief that the Bible contains all spiritual truth

    I'd have to hedge on this one. I think the Bible contains enough spiritual truth. If someone had nothing but the Bible as a guide, they could still learn everything they need about spiritual life and salvation. But I would have to say I see the Bible as the first word, not the last word, in spiritual matters. I may need to expand on this in a separate post.

  3. Activism - dedication of all believers to lives of service for God, especially the spreading of the good news and the carrying of the gospel to those who have not heard it

    I agree with this one to a point. I think all believers should be dedicated to lives of service for God. I also think sharing the gospel is important, but it is only part of the work of the Kingdom of God.

    Having been involved in several missions projects, both locally and globally, I have learned what my skills are, and evangelism is not one of them. I think the church of Acts 6 was wise to recognize that different people could serve in different capacities, and that some people "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" might indeed be better suited for waiting on tables than for preaching.

    Evanglicalism, it seems to me, has a tendency to belittle these other forms of ministry.

  4. Crucicentrism - Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin

    Here I agree fully, although the word "sin" probably has more definitions than there are Christian denominations. So here's my definition: Anything less than perfection is sin. Not a single person among us has the inherent power or ability to reach perfection on our own, so Christ's death is important to us all.

So by this standard I'm mostly evangelical. On two of the four points I agree, and on the other two I agree with reservations.

But the word evangelical still makes me queasy. In the United States, the word has taken on disturbing connotations: An evangelical is someone who attends a megachurch, suspects the end of the world may be near, hopes to Christianize the culture anyway, views the nuclear family as the essential building block of society, and votes Republican. I'm sure this does not reflect all evangelicals, but I've met a lot of people who fit this entire profile.

Personally, I like Bebbington's definition much better. I'd like to see American evangelicalism move back in that direction.

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