Category Archives: Religion

The Rain Baptizes Indiscriminately…

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The late October weather had finally succumbed to the pattern nature intended. It was raining lightly when the man started walking and the temperature had dropped to the low 50s. Leaves left in clumps would cause his footing to slip unexpectedly as he glided across the pavement. The rain had baptized everything overnight.

Although it was lightly misting when he started, the rain had strengthened as he trekked across the innards of the city on a lazy Sunday late morning. His glasses began to look like the upper glass of an aquarium, beads of water obscuring both lenses. The man removed his glasses and headphones as the heavier rain fell. He continued on his way, head up, and frequently smiling though, as the brisk walk was even more enjoyable in the rain and cool air. Except for a couple of other older people enjoying the solitude, the man was left to walk in peace.

A couple of blocks away from the main street, vehicles were hastily exiting the modern and imposing protestant church. Its structures had made tentacles toward the sky and the surrounding urban landscape. Its recent history was one of success if such things were measured by the weight of the coffers and the number of worshippers filling the seats. The local eateries would soon be flooded with those who had just finished their services. The man could almost imagine each driver licking his or her lips as their respective stomachs rumbled. (Faith is difficult with a distracting appetite.)

The man neared the intersection blocked by a canyon of repair and excavation in the middle of the street. He passed a beautiful vintage theatre being remodeled as he approached. Its marbled exterior shone against the graying air. A large white Tahoe SUV approached from the man’s right. As both the SUV and the man reached the intersection, the driver’s window of the SUV lowered. A middle-aged man leaned toward the opening.

The man already had his polite “No” ready, as he imagined the man leaving church was going to offer him a ride, given the weather.

“You’re going to catch a cold, walking in this rain and cold,” he said. Without further comment, he put his window up and drove across the main street, leaving the man momentarily surprised by the driver’s words.

The man shook his head and couldn’t help but laugh, wondering to himself how the driver thought he might have survived so many decades of living if he truly had no understanding of the weather and one’s health.

As the man made his long return back down the main street, he drank in the birds chirping in the newly-installed trees lining the road, the darkened storefronts, and the myriad signs each business chose to place in its windows. After passing the excavated canyon in the street from the other side of the road, he could hear voices as he approached the corner storefront on the next corner. Outside, he noticed a table placed perpendicular to the front, with a flat propane-fueled stovetop next to it. On the table were covered dishes of food, plates, and various cooking items. Even at a few paces away, the man could feel the warmth emanating from the cooktop outside. Above it, the man noted that the storefront had been converted to a Spanish-speaking evangelical place of worship. Just as he crossed in front of the open door behind the cooktop, a small older lady stepped away from the inside wall where she had been leaning.

Looking inside, he noted row after row of metal chairs, some of them occupied by people, all of them animatedly talking to one another. The small lady bid him good morning in Spanish, then English. She waved her hand across the table and asked him in the softest voice whether he was interested in fellowship or perhaps a meal – or a snack to take with him as he walked.

Despite the chill of the air, the man felt his heart beat palpably in surprise from the woman’s kind offer. He took a moment to catch up to the surprise of her offer and then declined. “No, but thank you so much. You don’t know how welcome such an offer is. If you will permit, I will drop by some other day and join you all for conversation and several bites to eat.”

The lady smiled again and told the man, “Anytime. Where there’s food, there’s always an open invitation.”

As the man walked away, his feet seemed lighter and his heart unburdened.

He wondered how such a small place could easily put into practice one of the most basic principles of all the compassionate prophets: that all religion makes its appeal through an offered hand or warm smile and never through accusation.

In peace, he went; so too, that you might as well.

Dinosaurians and Trump

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Many of us share moments, some sublime, some perplexing.

Recently, a respected member of the community invited me to his house for lunch and a bit of jawing. (I know what you’re thinking – he couldn’t be illustrious if he were having me over at his house unless a lost bet was involved.)

One of the great stories he told me was about one of his neighbors. My friend told me that this neighbor knew how to build a car from scratch, plumb a house, wire an entire building, and seemed to know a little about every subject on the planet. My friend had always thought of him as a very smart, capable person.

…Until one fateful day when his neighbor extemporaneously deviated off the normal course of conversation and insisted that the world was only a few thousand years old. My friend is an elder statesman with a wide education, has traveled all over the world, served in the military and worked in a career helping people his entire life – so he’s been around the widest assortment of humans you can imagine. To say that he was flummoxed insufficiently describes the shock of the revelation that his neighbor is a “Dinosaurian,” one of the people who ascribe to the variety of nonsense that humans roamed the earth with Dinosaurs or that the planet is actually very young. Most of the people who believe such things are religious fundamentalists, but some are simply like the Flat-Earthers, cherry-picking whatever conspiracy theory fits their ideas.

Afterward, it seemed as if everything were about his neighbor’s insistence that the planet wasn’t ancient. No matter what the subject might be, my friend either couldn’t get the nonsense of his neighbor’s belief out of his head or his neighbor, previously silent on the issue, seemed to harp on and on about nothing else, as if mentioning it just once opened an invisible floodgate to his nonsensical ideas.

My friend told me that story to underscore the continuing amazement he has toward those who chose Trump as their president- or who continue to defend his actions now that he’s assaulted facts, news organizations, religions, and rational public discourse. Keep in mind, my friend is decades older than me. He also voted Republican all his life, even though he was more progressive than the party itself. He, of course, didn’t vote for Trump in the last election. He couldn’t have imagined voting for Clinton, but he knew a vote for anyone but the major candidates was a vote for Trump, having lived through several election cycles which were disrupted by left-field contenders.

Until this election, he could imagine that the choice wasn’t so grotesque as to be an apocalyptic choice either way. When he thinks of intelligent people voting for Trump, he imagines an army comprised of people like his neighbor, snidely ignoring the mountain of evidence at their disposal. He knows that reason didn’t bring most of them to their decision, even though they’ll insist otherwise. He watches as those who should know better fan the flame of prejudice toward other religions, something he’s observed go terribly wrong in other places all over the world. He’s seen how effective such fear mongering can be in a population. Watching people lose their insurance in the midst of so much concentrated wealth also should be sending a red flag to those in power, in his opinion.

For my friend, he holds out hope that the younger generation will continue to advance the progress we’ve made as a society, one dedicated to helping one another; being smarter, more compassionate and better human beings. He knows that people who voted Trump are either a bump in the road and soon to be passed over by time – or the warning bell for civilized, rational society. He’s not at all confident that we won’t descend into authoritarianism or some hybrid religious state.

 

 

 

The Sunrise Admonition Principle

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If you post glowing sunrises speaking of the beauty of god’s creation but privately judge gays, the impoverished, addicts, Hispanics or Muslims, you are missing the point of a graceful god. If it irks you to read this, imagine the hearts of those you are judging as they live their lives surrounded by distrustful eyes and dark wishes.

In so doing, you are also being dishonest. You are only sharing those things which serve as window dressing, the reflection of things you know which will draw no controversy.

All of us can look at the easy things and rejoice.

Few of us can see our own prejudice against the ‘other,’ much less admit it to the world. Like the admiration for the sunrise, however, the bile of dislike you might feel toward marginalized groups is just as much a part of who you are as that appreciation for light.

If I know you deeply, I can look at your picture of the colorful sunrise and smile – but not fully, as I understand that behind that window you present, there is a sneer of superiority, one which discolors my regard for your worldview.

Who you are is both the sunrise and the concealed dark shadows you guard so closely inside your heart.

Share who you are or change those things which shame you once revealed.

A Word About Religious Expression

From a local pastor and friend of mine: “…I insist on a secular government that prevents any religion from having power in public discourse and allows people who are not interested in religion to be left alone. I believe that my pursuit of ‘the Holy’ is to be between my own ears and will be reflected in my daily relationships with those around me. Be Loving, full of Laughter, and overflowing with Generosity and Grace…”

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An Imperfect Commentary on the Death Penalty

This is an imperfect commentary from the last time the death penalty was a hot topic. I didn’t share it because I seem to have a minority voice.

The fact that DNA evidence has exonerated so many innocent prisoners should give incredible pause to those so assured that justice is both possible and being served when we collectively execute someone. Almost 3/4 of those wrongfully convicted had eyewitness testimony used in their convictions. Imagine being accused of a crime you didn’t commit, your fellow citizens testifying that they saw you in the course of the crime and that the State decides to put you to death. “Yes, it is a small price to pay for the greater good,” you might say, but only because it is not you or someone you know being wrongly accused. It’s true that these cases are rare compared to the volume of our criminal justice system. If you can imagine yourself being accused and facing the death penalty, though, it might introduce the reality of swallowing that sentence.

This argument isn’t even about the rights of the victims or whether most of those convicted of murder have indeed ‘earned’ their sentence; it’s about the undeniable hatefulness of using a system known to have sentenced people to die for crimes they didn’t commit. It is a specious argument to tell those who are against the death penalty that they should be thinking only of the victim, as any system which kills people without being completely sure of its methodology is suspect. I find it difficult to reconcile the clamor for death absent certainty; until we as fallible and negligent humans figure this out, we must proceed with caution.

As a human, I do understand fully the urge to repay monstrous acts with repayment in kind. It’s just difficult for me to translate that to granting the State the same right. The indifference with which the State addresses its business makes it incapable of those qualities which make us all better human beings. I admit my contradictions in this regard.

I can more easily imagine looking the other way while an outraged father kills the monster who has killed his child than I can watch as the State pretends that it hasn’t repeatedly acted wrongly in the past. It’s too high of a price to pay. If, on the other hand, you are certain that all those charged are truly guilty, then proceed with a clear conscience. I won’t judge, but I do look askance at our collective disregard for how disjointed and untenable much of our justice system really can be. This is doubly true especially after personally hearing the shenanigans of a jury in an actual murder trial. I have no expectation or delusion of fairness. There is no jury of our peers, no prosecutorial objectiveness, nor unilateral access to fairness for anyone caught up in the judicial system.

Yes, I do think of the victims and I often wonder how it is that there isn’t more violence in the world. I think to my own childhood and am perplexed that someone in my immediately family wasn’t killed. (Except for my father; his offense was driving while wildly intoxicated and killing my cousin.) I don’t look to religion to guide my beliefs in this regard, because forgiveness toward anyone who has harmed a loved one is a case-by-case scenario, with only those affected capable of offering it. It’s intensely private and personal. I would never sit in judgment for how they choose to react or for their support of a specific punishment.

An eye-for-an-eye conveys a certain satisfaction, of that there is little doubt. But we must be sure that the eye we are poking is the one which first gave offense. Even so, we must be compelled toward reluctance lest we give away a small sliver of our progress as humans.

I’m conflicted about the death penalty in ways I can’t accurately express, for reasons anyone who has ever suffered loss will understand. It is precisely because of that loss I would hope that those on the other side of the coin are guided by a higher cause.

A Modern Hymn

Alternate words written for  one of the few people who reaches even heathens like me. The words are written to replace the hit song, “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger:  “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger   –Link

(If you would rather hear the instrumental version, click here:  “Sister Christian” Instrumental –Link

The greatest folly for anyone is to believe he or she along possesses the answer for all others sharing this planet. It is the certainty of thought that leads to the certainty of action. Each of us distrusts that hidden thing in others which draws them into a narrowing path of lesser acceptance, especially in matters of faith. Even among believers, there is no consensus for all matters which affect our shared world.

Instead of shouting the answer: be the answer. Be the example which requires no explanation. If you are the beacon, people will see your joy, your love, and the example of your life and come to you, asking what divine secret powers your life. That moment is the truest means to open your way of life to them and share it.

People are capable of viciousness regardless of race, religion, color or creed. I use ‘vicious Christian’ as a metaphor, rather than an accusation. Regardless of our specific beliefs, few people would deny that the example of Jesus exemplifies the best qualities we are capable of practicing: ‘do unto others’ and compassion in word and deed. What you believe is a whisper compared to the shout of your daily interaction with others, especially towards those who don’t share your views. We can’t know what resides in your heart, but we can easily measure the content of what emanates from your life.

vicious Christian
oh the time has come
to pretend you’re not the only one
with a say, okay?
why you arguing
and shouting so much
you know this world
don’t want to fight no more
with you, it’s true

it’s dangerous
what’s the price to fight
if we lose what’s in sight
no one can claim the right

soon enough
it might be you outcast
but we’ll protect you
down to the last
ok, let’s pray
vicious Christian
we all love our lives
don’t forget that it’s over soon
it’s true

it’s true…. yeah

dangerous
we don’t need to fight
let’s be each others light
so we’ll finally unite

A Quick Note About Music For the Soul

 

Church can be one of the most majestic and intensely personal connections to life a person can experience. What is strange to me is that we all individually know that many of our most intensely spiritual moments rest with music – and more truth is discovered in quiet moments laughing, hugging, and mutual experience with people who ‘get’ us. Yet so many churches wedge our ability to connect by insisting that one type of music is going to free us to connect with God. If the music is alien to you, you are not going to be truly comfortable. “One-size-fits-all” music is as strangely unappealing as universal theology; it pushes us out and away or, if we lucky, only distracts us from a constant connection. God can be recognized inside some unusual people and any music which connects us deeply to the ‘other’ or those intensely human experiences we share in common is by definition ‘heavenly.’

In the right ears, “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica is religious. My cousin Jimmy taught me this, even though I didn’t initially believe him. Listen to the words and feel them as if someone is asking us to open up and be receptive to a new truth. It’s not for everyone, of course! But it is for some. All genres of music have songs which defy classification and seem to open our hearts.

Expecting an ancient hymn to resonate equally to such a diverse group of humanity reaching out for God is not realistic. Even if people seem similar on the exterior, we can recognize the breadth of difference in how people’s minds work. “Il Mundo” by Il Volo sits on the opposite end of the spectrum – but to the discerning ear, it seems as if angels have grabbed us under each arm and are elevating us to heaven musically. Luckily for me, I find a connection in a huge variety of music and both Metallica and Il Volo transport me to a place which allows me to forget that I’m not necessarily just a corporeal object.

You have a preference in the type of music you enjoy in church. The guy sitting next to you, the one with yellow shoelaces, he probably has another. It’s not logical to expect the same music to resonate in the same way to everyone.

Music is by nature fluid and inconstant. None of the music we call religious would have been recognized as spiritual centuries ago. The way we connect evolves, too. Insisting that music be static is another way to get relegated to the past.

I have done a couple of demonstrations in the  past where I’ve taken a non-religious song and told a story with it, explaining a different context and a personal connection to it. This storytelling allows people listening to not only expand, but to realize that another crazy world of preferences exists in parallel to their own. They also see the person sharing the story in a new way. Increasing human connections in this way seems like a fundamental way to connect with our spiritual nature.

Just a thought…

 

In the Land of Coram Deo

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2-3 months ago, I wrote a short piece and uploaded a draft version of my digital picture “Coram Deo.” (Meaning: “…in the presence of god…) I will put a link in the comments if you want to read past the superficial intention of this picture.

I had another brushed aluminum 16 X 20 painting made with the version I decided to qualify as finished. I can close my eyes and picture the muse that inspires me to make awkward attempts to capture whatever it is in my head that struggles to get out. In my finished version, you can imagine Aslan the lion growling for us to come forward, to pass through the infinite doors that are literally all around us; those same doors we ignore or fail to see. “The Narnia Chronicles” beguiled me as a youngster and although I do not follow the path the allegory asks of me, I do infrequently follow the creativity that it spawned.

Despite being a simple minimalist at heart, I’d rather walk around in a world resembling a landscape of spilled paint cans, each conveying the million words that careen around in our minds but for whatever reason, seldom escape it. ‘Normal’ has its demands, as does the tempest of hurried time, each second allotted to things that we would never choose for ourselves even in two lifetimes.

Here is what I wrote a couple of months ago as I worked on the picture:

The Land Of Coram Deo
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One day soon, we will discover another world, one inhabited by beings who resemble us in appearance, but who treasure the invisible as reverently as we pay homage to the things that suffocate our daily lives. If we don’t find them, perhaps we can move along a path to become them. Our kingdom lies within, no matter how frequently we search outwardly.
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They will draw inspiration from infinite colors, ideas, and creativity. Every aspect of life will serve the dual masters of helping everyone live better lives & finding their better selves. Work, education, and leisure will merge seamlessly into a continuum without alpha or omega.
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In Coram Deo, it is impossible to ask “Are you hungry?” as each person’s needs are addressed by others without prompt or consideration. A neighbor, no matter how different or far, is simply a family member resting under a separate roof.
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PS: “Coram Deo” literally means “in the presence of god.” Each of us has our own idea of life’s purpose and how best to spend the million moments granted to us. We distract ourselves by focusing on that which differs instead of that which binds.
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“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
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I made this picture of Coram Deo, layer by layer. In it, I hope you find something to consider.

I Do Know You

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This post opens softly and as with a strange movie, please stick around for the plot twist… It is true that social media often gives us a false feeling of knowing everything about someone, especially when we jump to hurtful conclusions. Most of the time, it is because we see truth in the words or pictures of our friends and family, uncomfortable truths which prick at our own certainty. We recognize our doubt as treason toward whatever we believe and that doubt often manifests as derision toward others.
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(PS: but if more people at least t-r-i-e-d to use social media like I do, as an outlet for who I am and for expressive purposes instead of innocuous links and memes, we might indeed know who people are. Social media is a wondrous creation, if used creatively.)
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I’ve written about this topic at least a dozen times, because it seems to come back from the dead in new and queasy ways. John Pavlovitz runs across the same things I have, albeit from a different perspective as a progressive Christian pastor. (He recently reminded us about the “Iceberg Perspective” of human interaction.)
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If you are a liberal whose idea of rightness is the ability to change one’s mind, a skeptic with the default position of ‘we should examine this closer,’ or simply someone with the idea that the best or most pragmatic idea gets the most attention, you probably think about these things more than most people.
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For many, they recoil at the idea that we can live in a secular society, one that embraces multiple religions and expressions of faith, as long as none seek dominance, hurt people, or limit others free expression. Some don’t want to hear that their friends believe health care is a right, one which of course should be provided by society as a whole without regard to such subjective concepts as ‘laziness’ or ‘worthiness.’ That prophets such as Jesus were revolutionary precisely because the ‘other guy’ was placed foremost in our priorities, without qualification. For most major religions, there are no pre-qualifications for compassion. Being was sufficient. “Pure meritocracies are for asses,” to coin a new phrase.
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There are so many smart and compassionate people in our world, all with both great ideas and horrendous ones. (Someone thought putting fish on pizza was a great concept, so we can’t always trust even the geniuses running around loose among us.) We can’t judge people too harshly for sometimes believing that aliens kidnap us, that carbon emissions don’t impact our environment, or even when they go crazy and insist that either Bush was a good president; sometimes, they have stupendous and uplifting ideas, too.
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But…
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But, if you post that you hate all members of a particular religion, just ‘know’ that gays and lesbians choose their ‘lifestyle,’ or refuse to listen to any contrary – or new – information and reasoning about life, politics or religion, then I do know you.
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If you say the “N-word” out of hate or even passive superiority (even in quiet moments behind closed doors), don’t want women to be pastors, priests or clergy, think war is often the answer, won’t consider that birth control is often good for humanity, or want your brand of religion to be the only one with a voice, I do know you.
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If you look the to the imperfect past as a roadmap instead of a cautionary guidebook, revere our all-too-human ancestors who thought killing people because of color, religion or manifest destiny was the only answer and wish desperately to return to whatever your version of the good old days might be, I do know you.
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If you think people are lazier, dumber or worse than they ever been, or that the world isn’t improving in multiple ways – and your outlook above life and everything in it reflects that strange belief, then I do know you.
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If you look to the future and see dark shadows instead of the chance at greatness for all of us, I do know you.
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You are the collective ‘us,’ and we can all learn to be ‘the other.’
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But it is uncomfortable to recognize that we are often telling people who we are, incrementally, minute by minute, word by word. As I’m doing now, hopefully while not breaking too many toes.
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It is this revelation and sharing that makes the word ‘alive’ bristle with promise and expectation. Thanks

 

“This is not a daycare” Commentary

Warning: Political/ social issue post about the “This is not a daycare. It’s a university!” gentleman. (President of the Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr. Everett Piper.) If you don’t like reading political or social commentary, skip now. (Or, if you dislike reading my particular viewpoint, definitely skip now.)

My take isn’t what you expect it to be. I did a lot of reading and followed the trail. Skip to the last line of this post if you want a concise message.

Mr. Piper makes a lot of money as president of a private, tax-exempt religious university. And that’s okay. But it does matter that he is an employee of a religious university and that he himself is rich enough to travel around and complain. He spends a lot of time on the air, both TV and radio, mainly espousing some very strident “political correctness” mantras.

Everett’s latest quip is going around social media because of a blog post he wrote, stating, “This is not a daycare. It’s a university.” (Here’s the link to his original blog post, which takes a different tenor when you read it after reading my commentary: http://goo.gl/CjSt1s.) For my commentary, I am ignoring the content of his blog post, as my thesis is one of bias.

As a populist bumper sticker, his quip and blog post is going to be a resounding success. People love the “anti-coddling” message from pundits. It has always played well. It plays exceedingly well to those who divide the world into the two camps of “us” vs. “them,” with the other camp being those who want a secular society or the freedom to be something other than Christian. (Or don’t define their Christianity in the same specific way that Mr. Piper might.) If you are the one being silenced or ridiculed, of course, you have an entirely different viewpoint. Christians hold the current majority here in the United States, although the range of beliefs and versions of it in all honesty seem to have splintered it into 2 main groups: exclusion or inclusion.

Ignoring the message of his blog post, the key point to note is that he is the president of a university – a position which gives him access to public and private forums anywhere conservative views are welcome. He doesn’t appear in non-partisan or secular panels or shows willingly. In other words, he himself isn’t keen on open discussion or free thinking.

Interestingly, he often complains about the “war on Christians,” as well as the intolerance of those who find fault with religious intolerance itself. (If that sounds complicated, it simply means that he should be able to discriminate against those who don’t follow his specific version of religion and that those who disagree shouldn’t be able to question him about doing so.) He makes insinuating references to the White House and other religions. He often attends and participates in anti-gay conferences.

I get it. I really do. But…

Everyone sharing his latest quip should do so knowing that he is not revealing his bias openly to those who aren’t familiar with his message.

There is a reason he was so angry with the allegorical student in his blog post.The reason he used the “victimized” student as an example is that he sees himself as a victim. He feels victimized that he must deal with non-Christians on an even field and that society pushes him to be inclusive. He wants a society and school where he can tell the gays, non-Christians, anyone looked down upon by his version of religion, that they must be silent and accommodate his religion. Or else. He could let his life teach by example but he prefers to ensure that others don’t have the opportunity to live differently.

Many people are going to see his bumper sticker version of “no coddling.” They will share the quote without reading or investigating to see his bias.And while Christians who agree with Mr. Piper on all the issues will still enthusiastically agree, there is a real danger in such thinking. When you are the majority, it is easy to silence opposing views. If the tables turn, however, you will want a society which ensures that religion remains the domain of personal choice.

He’s right: it isn’t a daycare. But if he isn’t espousing truth and learning without bias, it isn’t a university either. Universities don’t demand unified thinking, even if they are built in the spirit of Jesus, who himself was as rebellious as any thinker could possibly be.