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A recent telephone interview study by the Barna Group presented a series of 20 “agree-or-disagree” statements to 1,008 self-identified Christians to determine “whether Christians have the actions and attitudes of Jesus as they interact with others or if they are more akin to the beliefs and behaviors of Pharisees, the self-righteous sect of religious leaders described in the New Testament.”
Here is a sample of statements Barna used to describe Christ-like actions and attitudes:
“I listen to others to learn their story before telling them about my faith.”
“I see God-given value in every person, regardless of their past or present condition.”
“It is more important to help people know God is for them than to make sure they know they are sinners.”
A few Pharisee-like actions and attitudes were:
“I like to point out those who do not have the right theology or doctrine.”
“I prefer to serve people who attend my church rather than those outside the church.”
“People who follow God’s rules are better than those who do not.”
The findings revealed that only 14 percent of Christians identified with Christ-like attitudes and actions, and just over half of the nation’s Christians agreed with the Pharisaical attitudes and behaviors in describing themselves. Whether we realize it or not, more than half of us see ourselves as self-righteous, judgmental and narrow. Just like the Pharisees. I think that is ironic.
Actually, it is more than ironic because we have been taught to think of the Pharisees in such a historically inaccurate way, and surveys like this only reinforce and perpetuate the misconception.
Churchill was right when he said, “History is written by the victors.” We put all of the Pharisees into the same broad category, and assume we can dismiss them completely as rule bound, rigid, violent and fearful of all change. Today we use the word “Pharisee” to describe behavior we don’t like in ourselves and others, but we should not be so quick to paint them all with the same brush.
In fact, the Pharisees might well have been the populist, social activist, loose constructionist, iconoclastic religious figures of their day. The Pharisees were, on the whole, extremely popular with the people because they were the party of laymen and “the common man” instead of the elitist Sadducees.
Unlike the Sadducees who held to a literal interpretation of the Torah, the Pharisees allowed for contemporary application and understanding of the spirit of the Law. They believed in the written law but also believed the oral traditions of the people – their stories. They believed people must use their reason as well as their written codes. They believed in local control and freedom of worship. When times and circumstances changed, they worked to harmonize the teachings of the Torah and to discern the application to new situations.
The Pharisees were the champions of distributed power and struggled with the priests and “clubbish” leadership to democratize faith and practice and remove it from the control of a centralized and inherited bureaucracy. They were in every sense of the word the “progressives” of their day.
I’m not jousting at the windmill of changing our perception of Pharisees. Unfortunately, I think the way we use the term is likely to remain – however misleading it is. Still, I think we can take a lesson from history.
How does a populist movement committed to progressive values become so vilified as the very embodiment of what it sought to correct? Is there a chance that current progressive evangelical movements focused on social justice, the environment, fair trade and other issues will share the same fate?
I hope not, but that history has yet to be written.
I enlisted in the Navy in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam war. I discovered six months after enlisting that my draft number was #1 so I saved myself some time as it turned out. As well, by enlisting I was promised the opportunity to travel. That’s one promise they kept! While I was not by any stretch a fit for the structure of the military there were benefits.
In July, 1969 I was stationed in Sicily and working as a clerk in the base legal office. We heard a rumor that the Secretary of the Navy, John Chaffee, was going to visit Sicily. After a quick visit to the base he and his entourage were scheduled to spend a day in Taormina, a spectacular Greek city and tourist resort on the north end of the island. I volunteered to be his driver because I lived off the base and had been to Taormina several times and knew the roads pretty well. It was, frankly, a surprise when I got the assignment.
There was a caravan of cars and vans packed with admirals, ranking officers, journalists and aides. Some of them had a mild interest in the history and sites of Taormina but, sadly, most of them were more interested in the clubs and night life. By the time we had found everyone something to do that night there were very few of us left in the group. Secretary Chaffee invited all of us up to his suite at the hotel overlooking the cliffs down to the sea. It was a perfect night with the moon out. Secretary Chaffee had a large monitor installed in his quarters and there was some buzz going around about a moon landing. I stood in the back and waited to see what they were talking about.
The monitor came to life and there was the lunar module but with one difference. This was not a commercial feed. It was a military feed and we were getting the direct reports from the astronauts themselves. Seconds after Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface, Secretary Chaffee made a call to him and congratulated him on behalf of the Navy and the whole country. I’ll admit I did not fully grasp what was happening but I knew it was important. I knew I had a brush with history from the back of the room.
So, when people say “where were you when we landed on the moon?”, I have a good memory.Comments
When the girls were young, I took them on road trips over the Father's Day weekend. We never made plans. We just headed out in a direction they chose and stopped when we got somewhere interesting.
One year, we wound up in Natchez, Mississippi. What the girls forgot was how much I love history and they ended up with me on a double decker bus tour to see all the homes and get a feel for the history of Natchez and how it developed from a small huddle of tents on a riverbank in the 1700's to become by 1850 the home of fully half the millionaires in the United States.
As we rode (and they slept) it struck me there were four stages of development in Natchez and each stage produced a different set of innovations and leaders.
Stage 1 brought pioneers and pirates. Life was rough and tumble and Natchez was barely a foothold on the riverbank. No one knew if they were going to survive and those who did were unusual people. Life was uncertain. The wildness was everywhere.
But Stage 1 also forced a number of innovations along the river. The pioneers needed new maps and new tools for navigation. They needed new weapons for protection and so created a whole system of forts and posts that made it possible for the next wave of people to come.
Stage 2 brought the traders. Life was relatively safe. Traders don't like risk that outweighs opportunity. There were markets to be explored and companies to be built along the banks of the river. The traders loved traffic! The word "commerce" literally means "to traffic wares" and that is what they did. But they needed a way to move those wares to the markets and exchange them for goods they could not buy or make in the frontier. The two great innovations of the traders were the organized system of trading companies that stretched north and south - and the use of steamboats for getting their goods back and forth. The traders moved Natchez from a settlement to a city.
Stage 3 was the planters. The enormous homes of Natchez were built by the planters. These were not homes built on plantations for those were in other parts of the state or in other states altogether. These were the town houses of the plantation owners. Life was genteel and cultured. They traveled to Europe and imported the finest materials and products of the world. This was the period of great wealth and comfort for plantation owners of Natchez. The focus of most innovations in this period was making life even more comfortable. Plate warmers, indoor plumbing, fly catchers and ceiling fans.
Stage 4 began with the decline of Stage 3. This was the era of preservers. There are hundreds of people in Natchez today dedicated to keeping these homes and churches as close to their original condition as possible. There are thousands of people in Natchez who make a living because those people do their work so well. The business of Stage 4 is preserving the glory of Stage 3. People come from all over the world to tour the remains of Stage 3. The innovations are not so exciting as those for pirates, pioneers and traders but they are breakthroughs in paints, sealing wax and preservatives. Innovations all the same.
Each of us would fit best with a particular stage, I suspect. The benefit of our individual lives though is we get to live through all of them as we get older. There was a time for being a pirate and soon (for me) there will be a time for preserving those things I have learned to value and have built over the years. Not much glory, perhaps, but things I want to keep. Life is much like a town where you get to live through all the changes.Comments
Candice Millard, the author of "Destiny of the Republic", a biography of President James A. Garfield, tells the story of Chester Arthur, the Vice-President who became the President after Garfield's assassination.
Chester Arthur, the son of a Baptist minister, was selected to be the Vice-President of James Garfield's as a way to secure the electoral votes of N.Y. where Arthur was a political pawn of the powerful Roscoe Conklin machine. It was said that Arthur was rarely at work before 11. and was known for his parties and elegant clothing. He was very wealthy having made his money selling and collecting fines on illegal imports as a customs official in New York, the largest and busiest Customs House in the country. He could not have been more unlike President Garfield who was known as a hardworking and incorruptible politician. On July 2, 1881 a man supporting Arthur's faction of Republicans shot President Garfield. As he shot the president the man shouted "Arthur will be president." Garfield held on to life as Arthur hid in seclusion.
Toward the end of August, a letter came to the house from someone unknown to Arthur named Julia Sand. The first few lines echoed what many people seemed to think of Chester Arthur: "The people are bowed in grief," Sand wrote, "but—do you realize it?—not so much because [Garfield] is dying, as because you are his successor." In other words, Sand said, Americans were upset that Arthur might become president. The letter continued "Great emergencies awaken generous traits which have lain dormant [sleeping] half a life. If there is a spark of true nobility in you, now is the occasion to let it shine. . . . Faith in your better nature forces me to write to you—but not to beg you to resign. Do what is more difficult & more brave. Reform!" With these words, Arthur became the President determined to reform. During his administration he instituted reforms and changed corrupt practices that everyone assumed would only become worse when he entered office. When he died one journalist wrote, ""No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe."
In a time when many of us are skeptical about the quality of political leadership and the corruption of the process and the people, it is good to remember that change can come from the most unlikely places.Comments
One of my favorite books is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I'm sure that's so because I like his premise that some decisions and appraisals made quickly are more accurate than those made after deliberation. Having said that, I don't like to find books that challenge that! Unfortunately, that is what Daniel Kahneman does in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Most of us (and especially those of us who consider ourselves intuitive) have what he calls "cognitive illusions". This is a false belief that we intuitively accept as true. While we think we make good decisions on our own experience or our ability to judge situations, we actually have a poor record of success if we stop to analyze the results.
He illustrates this with a personal example. When he was twenty-one years old, he was a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces. He was given the job of setting up a new interview system for the entire army. Up to that point, decisions about appropriate assignments for new recruits were made as a result of informal fifteen minute interviews. The system, while entrenched and thought effective, had failed completely. "When the actual performance of the recruit a few months later was compared with the performance predicted by the interviews, the correlation between the actual and predicted performance was zero." Zero? Zero.
Predictions based on simple statistical scoring were generally more accurate than predictions based on expert judgment. However, the experts were understandably reluctant to change as they suffered from "the illusion of validity." While they and others sincerely believed they could predict performance the truth was they could not. Believing is seeing – even if it's not there.
Another example. During WWII it was widely believed that bomber crews surving thirty missions had done so because their performance had improved with experience. "It was obvious to everyone that the old-timers survived because they were more skillful. Nobody wanted to believe that the old-timers survived only because they were lucky." As it turns out, luck is exactly why they survived. "There was no effect of experience on loss rate. So far as I could tell, whether a crew lived or died was purely a matter of chance. Their belief in the life-saving effect of experience was an illusion."
I work in a field that regards discernment and experience highly. We make decisions about people and projects all the time. We often make them too quickly, convinced that our expert skills and years of experience makes our judgment more valid. I wonder what our record would look like if studied? Personally, I will make sure that never happens! After all, I'm an expert.Comments