Spend a year — as I have just done — writing about a variety of religious beliefs and events for a major metropolitan newspaper, and one can be both inspired and depressed.
Inspired because the people who are on the front lines of faith-based activity are, well, inspiring. Pastors Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, entertainment innovators Mark Burnett and Roma Downey and World Vision CEO Richard Stearns immediately spring to mind as individuals who are making a difference in their communities and in the wider world. Rabbi Steven C. Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is another standout, working, as he was last year, to revitalize a movement facing challenging demographics.
In the heart of Dallas, the Rev. Robert Jeffress deserves plaudits for renovating the historic campus of the First Baptist Church and for presenting a timeless message to his flock in a way that appeals to contemporary ears. The same level of preaching excellence can be seen in David Jeremiah of Shadow Mountain Community Church near San Diego.
So what gets a faith writer down, you ask? Seeing way too many of the picayune arguments leveled at Mr. Warren’s new book, “The Daniel Plan,” which dared to extrapolate principles for healthy living (and eating) from the Bible, even using the vegetarian diet practiced by young Hebrew captives in ancient Babylon as an example.
This was soon followed by commentary in the blogosphere about a clip of a sermon from Mr. Osteen. This time, the complaint wasn’t about the Houston megachurch leader’s alleged “prosperity” teachings (said allegation often being grossly exaggerated by critics), but rather that Mr. Osteen has given up pork and shellfish in his diet for health reasons, and because such foods are restricted in various Old Testament scriptures, including those found in Leviticus.
In several quarters, the reaction was, to put it mildly, fierce. Blogger Jared C. Wilson, pastor of the Middletown Springs Community Church in the center of Vermont, took to the Internet to post “In Praise of Fat Pastors. Sort of,” declaring Mr. Osteen guilty of something many Protestants believe is rank heresy.
Mr. Wilson asked, “In the age of Pastor Fashion and sermons forbidding the eating of pork in service of the gospel of weight loss — I mean, does anything scream ‘Judaizer’ more loudly than preaching the dietary law? except maybe actually preaching circumcision — don’t the pastors who don’t care about their image, their profile, their reputation seem more dignified?”
To underline his point, Mr. Wilson provided a link to the Osteen sermon video clip, as well as a photo of a shirtless Joel Osteen displaying a chiseled physique.
In an email, Mr. Wilson explained his stance: “Anyone who says Christians should not eat shellfish or pork because the dietary law forbids it — as [Mr.] Osteen does in that link I provided — is preaching a false gospel and is like the Judaizers of [St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians]. Under the new covenant, no food is unclean.”
That may be the case, but do we have to make something of this? Those who watch the Osteen video — viewable online at Vimeo.com/5133265 — will see that health concerns, not Biblical commands, were the primary reasons for his decision, one he suggests to, but does not impose on, the congregation.
This kerfuffle is minor compared with some of the larger issues in evangelical Christianity these days, but the way in which some opinions are being framed and expressed troubles me. Whether or not I elect to take dietary advice from Rick Warren or Joel Osteen, I should be able to hear these gentlemen (and anyone else) with a measure of grace. If one disagrees, make the counterargument reasonably, without resorting to extreme examples or rhetoric.
Bob Hostetler, a pastor and a friend whose latest book, “Life Stinks And Then You Die: Living Well in a Sick World” discusses the worldview presented in Ecclesiastes, shares my concern about “something approaching a pathological ‘need to be right’ among many of us in the church. We can be legalistic about our liberty in Christ and judgmental toward those who are less legalistic — or more — than we are!”
Mr. Hostetler adds, “All of us who claim to follow Jesus should be so acutely aware of our own need for constant grace, and so humbly aware of our own weaknesses, that we have no time or inclination to point out the faults — real or imagined — of others.”
If more of us who claim a Christian experience would follow that counsel, society at large might find that faith more credible and more appealing.