Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Abstinence Education Debate

The Christianity Today blog for church leaders/pastors, Out of Ur, posted a brief clip of an article regarding the ineffectiveness of Church-based abstinence education programs. The whole post:

"Our collective efforts to deter premarital sex are not that successful: 41 percent of churchgoing, conservative Protestant men's relationships become sexual within one month, barely lower than the national average of 48 percent. We expend so much energy to generate so little difference."

The general tenor of the article seems clear, but without the whole thing it is a little hard to read the author’s full intent. Nonetheless, I would like to push back on a couple of issues this raises.

The Data

First of all, it is not at all clear that abstinence based education is ineffective or even unwanted by teens and families. Some of the newest data gathered by the HHS show not only that families want abstinence education, but that it does appear to be effective in changing the beliefs and behaviors of students.

Teen-sex advocacy groups have pushed for an end to abstinence education funding, despite the fact that a recent HHS study showed most teens and their parents support the core message of the program. The study, The National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents, was posted Monday to the HHS website after significant grassroots pressure. It calls into question whether recent sex education policy decisions truly reflect cultural norms or clear evidence-based trends. According to the findings, about 70% of parents agreed that it is “against [their] values for [their] adolescents to have sexual intercourse before marriage” and that “having sexual intercourse is something only married people should do.” Adolescents gave similar responses.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure from non-abstinence based programs to ignore this kind of data or rely on older surveys that seem to show a greater support for sexual license. So it is interesting, if not very telling, that it takes pressure to get this kind of information released.

And further (in the link for the “talking points”):

“Abstinence-only program helps kids postpone sex,” read the Reuters headline on February 2, 2010.

A landmark study was released February 1, 2010 that measured three distinct sex education programs, using a randomized control study. It is published in the February edition of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine and adds to the growing body of research showing the effectiveness of abstinence education programs. It found that abstinence education was very effective at reducing teen sex and worked better than both “comprehensive” sex education and “safe” sex programs.

The research has been widely covered by every major media outlet, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today. Even those who have been hesitant to acknowledge the value of abstinence education in the past have called this study a “game changer.”

This study signifies rigorous research demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence-centered education and joins 17 other abstinence studies with positive behavioral impact included in the NAEA document, Abstinence Works 2010.

So I don’t think the issue about the effectiveness of abstinence education is nearly as closed as some think it is. But I have another concern beyond the data.

The Value

Even if we can come up with conclusive proof that funding for abstinence-based education is not “producing results,” exactly what kinds of results are our actions bound by? True, the church wants to see a serious decrease in sexual activity in teens, but are we willing to give up the message of sexual purity simply because of some studies funded and promoted by organizations invested in teenage sexuality?

If we give up on the message of sexual purity at an early age, exactly when do we expect young people to “become adults” and suddenly decide on sexually healthy lifestyles? Will it magically happen at 16? 20? 30? 40? If we allow a message of sexual license and birth-control to be their education early on, how can we take ourselves seriously when we want them to be sexually pure in their 20s or when they are married with kids?

The church’s message is either sexual purity or it is not.

The smart abstinence-based education programs will continue to refine and target their message to reach kids when and where they need it and be as effective as possible. And the smart church will not give up on them.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Our Work is Soulish

The pastor lives on the belief that Christ holds everything together.” M. Craig Barnes

That line means more and more to me all the time. What pastors do is not predicated on our abilities to “make things work” or get people to do the things we want them to or look the way we want them to look. Our work is soulish. That means we can’t always see or touch what we work with, and just try and measure success!

The holiday season always makes for a busy benevolence fund, and this season is no exception with life so hard for so many right now. I sat across from a man the other day who had nothing but the clothes on his back and what he had in his hands. As we talked I was torn over what I could do for him. He needed the right place to say so he could look for work. He needed cash for a new ID and food stamps. He needed clothes and food. He simply needed about anything anyone could give him. What on earth could a shepherd of souls give a guy in his situation?

The more I let him talk, the more he revealed about his walk with God. Before he lost everything he called himself a Christian, but he let the simple success of his life become his god and he lost track of the One, True God. His life became wrapped up in his own vices, and they ate him alive. But now, with nothing, God had his attention. God is speaking through His Word like never before. God is waking him up at night to prepare him for what he needs to do. The more I prompted him down these paths, the more he sounded like the Psalmist. Over and over he would say that he was learning that it was better to have nothing and have God than have all the riches in the world and lose his Lord.

Before he left, we were able to find some clothes in the church and I gave him some resources and the number of our food pantry. He’s been there before and he will be back again. We did what we could on that day to help his immediate, physical needs.

But the pastor lives in the belief that Christ holds everything together. It isn’t the food, the half-way house, the clothes we gave him that will hold him together. It is Christ. Maybe he needs to be in the place because that is exactly where God wants him; it is exactly where God can speak to him. And if his future is going to be more God-breathed than his past, he needs to listen to the Lord in his poverty and brokenness before a job and money and a place to live tempt him to forget again.

Pastors and churches do what we can to help the immediate and very real needs of people and families. But if we forget that it is Christ that holds everything together, what have we given anyone?

In Praise of Hospice Care

I had a grandfather and Heather had a grandmother who passed away under hospice care. Elizabeth Edward's recent death has brought the value of hospice care to the top of the news, and that is a good thing. In an article about her death, Eleanor Clift notes:

The experience made me a believer. Tom [Clift's husband] had endured all kinds of draconian treatments. When those treatments were exhausted, and the cancer was advancing, his oncologist suggested hospice. I remember being upset at first because I knew it was the end of the road, but it was time, and for someone whose death is inevitable and imminent, spending those last days at home is the gift that hospice offers. Its holistic approach to health care provides counseling along with pain medication.

Elizabeth was a champion of hospice, both the comfort it brings and the reality that it helped her face. She put it best in a statement meant for hospice and palliative care workers in the fall of '08 when she said, "Throughout my life, both personally and professionally, I have had the opportunity to see how people have been affected by illness and loss and the role the healthcare system may have played as they dealt with change in their lives. I also know that people can find a great deal of hope, even in the most challenging of life's situations. Hospice and palliative care professionals support and care for people at a time when hope can be hard to find. The professionals of NHPCO know more than I will ever know about providing that care; I know more than I wish I knew about receiving it, and I am happy to share my perspective with them."

End of life decisions are very difficult, complicated and heart-wrenching things. Hospice is probably the best option (when available) to provide pain mediation, the presence of family, and dignity.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

I can't come up with a clever title for this one, but it is about another recent set of criticisms of Intelligent Design

I recently ran across a hit piece in the Huffington Post about how Intelligent Design is “losing” Catholics and read through it to find out what it had to say about who was being lost and why. The piece was typical of mass media pieces on ID – full of acerbic ad hominem, false association and characterizations and blanket cruelty. So the piece is of no interest to me except for what it considers “lost” Catholics.

The first example the article cites is from a philosopher, Edward Feser, who writes from a Catholic point of view (I actually find his larger project fascinating). His particular critique is that the ID argument lacks metaphysical teeth and fails to account for God’s continual, efficient causality in the natural world. In comparing it to Paley’s argument he writes:

The problems are twofold. First, both Paleyan “design arguments” and ID theory take for granted an essentially mechanistic conception of the natural world. What this means is that they deny the existence of the sort of immanent teleology or final causality affirmed by the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic tradition, and instead regard all teleology as imposed, “artificially” as it were, from outside.

The metaphysically necessary connection between the world and God is broken; in principle the world could exist and operate just as it does apart from God.

I find this critique of ID interesting in that I have never run across one of the scientists within the ID movement claiming to make an inherently ontological argument about the continual, metaphysical connection between God and the universe. It seems to me that as the post cited above continues what Feser is really after is a classic critique of arguments for God’s existence not being able to account for the metaphysical complexity of the Christian God. Great. He’s probably right. But that’s not the burden of ID. Feser seems to have erected a straw man and proceeded to knock him down.

The second example Farrell uses in the HP article has all the shock value he wants but none of the follow-through. The physicist, Stephen Barr, writes:

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

If true, that is serious stuff. A scientific argument that has failed to produce any serious results or insights – bad news. There is a more thorough response to Barr’s criticism here, but I want to address a couple of his theological moves.

The older (and wiser) form of the design argument for the existence of God—one found implicitly in Scripture and in many early Christian writings—did not point to the naturally inexplicable or to effects outside the course of nature, but to nature itself and its ordinary operations—operations whose “power and working” were seen as reflecting the power and wisdom of God.

This particular criticism of ID might feel as if it comes out of left field, because it does. At the risk of sounding repetitive – ID does not concern itself with what we might call the imminence of God in the workings of nature. In addition, Barr stretches the category of “design argument” to imply that it doesn’t properly include an argument explaining the beginning of nature. And in addition to philosophical design arguments, there are plenty of explicit places in Christian Scripture that don’t imply, but state a doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

He goes on:

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view.

Even if he is right, who cares? This argument, which is the bulk of his theological argument against ID, is neither here nor there. I wonder if I am going to sound repetitive if I point out ID isn’t concerned with New Testament theology as a foundation for their research on DNA or the statistical laws of information.

And that brings us back to the piece in the Huffington Post. The title is, “Intelligent Design: Losing the Catholics.” Neither Feser nor Barr were ever proponents of the ID position. You can’t lose what you never had.

I wonder if the editors at the Huffington Post have worked with a dictionary recently.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Feeling Our Way Through Narnia

This headline caught my eye this morning. Like a lot of people I am looking forward to the latest Narnia movie and hoping it will be good. But leave it to an actor to be a fly in the soup. The headline reads:

Narnia fans' fury after Liam Neeson claims Aslan - the symbol of Christ - could also be Mohammed

The article is quite clear that Aslan is an obvious and deliberate symbol of Christ. But Neeson has different personal feelings about the matter.

Ahead of the release of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader next Thursday, Neeson said: ‘Aslan symbolises a Christ-like figure but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.

‘That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids – that’s what he means for me.’

What fascinates me is how something so obviously Christian and Christological can be said by anyone familiar with the books to also symbolize Islam, Buddhism, and the catch-all goodness of modern secularism, child mentoring. Well, here’s how.

In a world rife with political correctness – the feeling that the worst moral offense possible is a judgment of anything – we now live according to our feelings. Notice how (and he is certainly not alone) Neeson has a personal feeling about the symbolism of Aslan. And his personal feeling trumps all facts and reality, well, because he exemplifies a moral world where facts and reality are secondary to personal feelings about things. We are becoming people with oatmeal for brains.

There are too many contradictions in Neeson’s feelings to spend time on. But again, that doesn’t bother the politically correct feeler. After all, things like contradictions in fact are of lesser importance than one’s personal take on a matter.

This is no simplistic or frustrated attack on “political correctness” or our vague postmodern world. This is serious stuff and Neeson’s feeling about Aslan is just a harmless example of a vicious cancer on the modern human mind and soul.

Why are people – more and more of them – run by their personal feelings on things in the light of direct contradiction of fact and reality? We have traded the exercise of thinking about truth for feeling about self.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Recapturing the Vocation of Pastor

M. Craig Barnes
The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life
Eerdmans, 2009.

In my perfect world the kinds of books ministry majors in Bible colleges and seminaries would read are exemplified by this offering by Barnes. Instead of the corporate style leadership models and the slick gimmicking of church growth seminars, future pastors would soak in views of pastoring that begin and end with biblical influences and remain solidly against the reigning cultural models. Barnes has written such a book.

The goal, it seems, is to clarify a confusion pastors live with right now – what it means to be a pastor. It seems to be a great problem if men and women are entering professions they can’t properly or deeply define, but I think he is right. We have simply let the role of pastor be defined for us in recent decades and we need to work to recover its true meaning.

The image Barnes uses to control the book is that of pastor as a “minor poet.” Major poets are the larger-than-life biblical and historical figures who change almost everything, but the vast majority of us fit into the “minor poet” role as we work on translating the truths of God into a fuzzy and broken world. All in all, I think the metaphor is a helpful one. From time to time it seems a bit stretched, but it really comes home in some of the final chapters as Barnes uses T.S. Elliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry” to help define the pastoral vocation. I was surprised at how helpful that rubric was.

The book is short but important. If you are a pastor, I challenge you to pick up this book and others like it to re-ground your vocation and break away from the definitions placed on you from the outside. If you know someone wanting to be a pastor, give them this book and see how it strikes them. I found it encouraging, helpful and needful at the same time.

Who Is A Pastor, Anyway?

Craig Barnes has written a wonderful book on the vocation of pastoring in his The Pastor as Minor Poet. While I intend to write up a more formal review, I thought I would take a few excerpts to reflect upon first.

I am convinced we have a crisis of definition in the evangelical pastoral world. We don’t know – and I include pastors in this – what a pastor does or what his or her role is in a church or society. That might come off as a little over the top, but I grow more convinced of it all the time. Barnes notes:

The hardest thing about being a pastor today is not the long hours, the demanding congregations, the eclectic responsibilities, the fishbowl existence, or the relentless return of Sundays. Those who have taken the vows of ordination have long shouldered all of that as the yoke of Christ. But only within the last two generations have the clergy been forces to bear an additional burden that is far from light – confusion about what it means to be the pastor. (pg. 4)

And I think it only gets worse the more churches give into the pressures of becoming part of the entertainment culture our congregations live the rest of their lives in. This add the pressure of the unquenchable thirst for “more” and for amusement at every turn. The church is something different, and the pastor is someone different.

Most of the leadership models within the pastoral world are of no particular help at all. Barnes writes just a few paragraphs later:

Much of the current literature on leadership that is being taught in our seminaries has come from secular universities such as the Harvard Business School. It’s presented as if the principles of corporate management can easily be baptized for leaders o congregations. (pg. 5)

They can’t. Though churches balance budgets and pay bills they are primarily the work of Christ. And though pastors need to be comfortable reading and understanding balance sheets, they are not accountants or corporate leaders. They are primarily and always spiritual shepherds.

There is so much to say and to reflect upon.