Theology

The Danger of 'Orphan Theology'

THE MAXIM states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But what happens when well-meaning Christians construct and lead others down that road? In her new book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (PublicAffairs), investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce explores how some evangelicals have fueled the global adoption frenzy—and how adoption reform advocates are trying to stem the tide of trafficked children (and the rampant spread of misinformation) across borders. Sojourners contributing writer Brittany Shoot recently spoke with Joyce.

Brittany Shoot: Why do you think it’s been primarily evangelicals who have led the surge in international adoption?

Kathryn Joyce: The idea of the “global orphan crisis” needs some unpacking. People who talk about this crisis often cite UNICEF estimates that there are between 150 and 210 million orphaned children in the world. While the figures actually refer to a wide range of orphaned and vulnerable children in need of services, often people only hear the word “orphan” and presume these children are parentless kids in need of new homes. In fact, most of these children have a surviving biological parent or other extended family who may need some support.

Additionally, adoption has become a powerful metaphor in many evangelical churches studying and preaching what has become known as adoption or orphan theology. Many leaders within the movement teach that earthly adoption is a perfect mirror of Christian adoption by God, and it’s a way that Christians can put their faith into action in a very personal manner. Evangelicals have been encouraged to adopt by this theology as well as by other developments in their churches or denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2009 resolution that asked its members to prayerfully consider whether God was calling them to adopt.

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Too Happy?

IN THE PAST 150 years, the songs historically known as “Negro spirituals” have worn many costumes. They emerged, of course, from the Deep South during the days of slavery, when songs such as “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” or “Wade in the Water” were first sung by anonymous psalmists wielding hoes or pulling cotton sacks. Since that time they’ve been dressed in the style of the European art song, sung as grand opera, or even faithfully mimicked by well-meaning white folk singers.

The spirituals entered the mainstream of American culture through the performances of the Fisk Jubilee Singers from Fisk University in Nashville who, fresh out of slavery themselves, toured the North in the 1870s. In the 1950s and ’60s, the old standards were resurrected, and slightly rewritten, as marching songs for the African-American freedom movement and then echoed across the world as anthems for human rights from South Africa to Northern Ireland to Eastern Europe.

After all that, the spirituals can probably even survive being remade into “smooth jazz,” which is more or less what happens to them on Bobby McFerrin’s new album Spirityouall. Readers of a certain age might remember McFerrin as the guy who, in 1988, conquered the known pop music universe with an airheaded ditty called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The tune was so infectious that it should have had a warning label from the Centers for Disease Control, but instead it dominated radio, won some Grammys, and, to McFerrin’s eternal horror, was used as theme music by the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign.

McFerrin’s been doing penance ever since. He really is a talented guy with a wide-ranging and versatile voice and an old-time scat singer’s gift for improvisation. But he wasn’t faking the feel-good optimism of his signature song. That unrelentingly positive spirit of “Don’t Worry” floats through everything he sings and, to my ears, sets up some serious cognitive dissonance with the spirituals.

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Is a Messiah’s Work Never Done?

 man walking through open doors, Mopic / Shutterstock.com
man walking through open doors, Mopic / Shutterstock.com

The Jews believe that the Messiah is yet to come.

Christians believe the Messiah is coming back.

Those of other – or no – religions haven’t noticed much difference and don’t really care.

But all would agree that there is plenty of work left to be done.

We, by any standard, are far from an age of any Messiah — an era of justice, peace, and restoration seems as distant or alien or even incomprehensible as a blockbuster sci-fi film.

But perhaps, in some odd way, that is the point.

The Trinity and God’s Nonviolent Atonement

Stained glass illustration of the Holy Trinity, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com
Stained glass illustration of the Holy Trinity, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com

You may not realize this, but senior pastors throughout the world were on vacation last Sunday. Not because they were celebrating the American holiday weekend of Memorial Day. No, senior pastors the world over were conveniently on vacation because it was Trinity Sunday.

Of course, I can’t blame pastors for taking a nice weekend vacation and leaving the challenge of preaching the Trinity Sunday sermon to their associates. I’ve always had a hard time with the Trinity — not because of the math. I was always horrible at math. I frequently tell people I became a pastor and a blogger because I failed Algebra. So, the concept that 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 has never been an issue for me.

Pastor’s Tornado Tweets Stir Up a Theological Debate

John Piper's Twitter page
John Piper's Twitter page

Oklahoma’s devastating tornado stirred up a theological debate that was set off from a series of deleted tweets referencing the Book of Job.

Popular evangelical author and speaker John Piper regularly tweets Bible verses, but two verses he tweeted after the tornado struck some as at best insensitive and at worst bad theology:

“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19

“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20

In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to afflict “blameless” Job, killing his 10 children, livestock and servants. While Piper’s tweets didn’t mention the tornado by name, critics said it was too close, and inappropriate.

Piper, who recently retired from the pulpit of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, is a leading theologian of the neo-Calvinist movement that’s sweeping many evangelical churches. In essence, Desiring God staffer Tony Reinke wrote, Piper was highlighting God’s sovereignty and that he is still worthy of worship in the midst of suffering and tragedy.

The Megachurch vs. Minichurch: Do Popularity and Growth Really Matter?

Churches vector,  Baobaby Studio / Shutterstock.com
Churches vector, Baobaby Studio / Shutterstock.com

“God is doing amazing things!” is the Christian way of saying, “Look, we’re popular.”

The idea that faithfully following God’s will is associated with people attending (or donating to) churches, ministries, and organizations is a fallacy that can be debunked by simply looking around us. Islam is growing, Mormonism is growing, and so is Kim Kardashian’s Twitter following. They could all use the exact same logic: that popularity equals success. If we gauge God’s favor by the numbers of followers we have then Justin Bieber is probably God’s newly anointed prophet. 

But Christians are addicted to popularity. Denominations focus on church planting, pastors obsess over attendance, budgets rely on congregational turnout, and we pay special attention to Christian leaders who are famous.

In a Westernized culture captivated by success and money, we often make judgments based on the size of a church — or organization, ministry, and community. But our preconceived opinions are often wrong.

God, a Tornado, and John Piper’s 'Satanic Theology'

John Piper's Tweet
John Piper's Tweet

Many of my liberal friends never call themselves “Christians.” Their hesitancy is usually a reaction against conservative Christians who, let’s face it, are an embarrassment to the name. You know what I’m talking about – those who make crazy claims like natural disasters occur because God is angry at homosexuals. And then there are those who use phrases like, “legitimate rape.

Influential pastor John Piper provides the latest example. While most of my friends on Facebook and Twitter lamented the devastation wrought by the Oklahoma City tornado, Piper decided to show off his biblical acumen with this tweet:

"Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead." -Job 1:19

Piper’s tweet is a bit ambiguous. His reference to Job doesn’t say that God caused the tornado, but Piper has historically claimed that God causes these types of disasters. In fact, this wouldn’t be the first time Piper has tweeted something so theologically insensitive. A few years ago Piper claimed God caused a tornado in Minnesota because God was angry at homosexuals. Piper’s god is a fickle Cosmic Jerk.

Power of a Personal Pronoun: 5 Suggestions for Gender Inclusivity

Male & female figures, StockThings/Shutterstock.com
Male & female figures, StockThings/Shutterstock.com

I remembered after the first lecture I came home and told my husband about the pronoun, but as I read through all 20-something lectures, I noticed it again and again. I was the theologian; was the believer.

Was this difficult for my professors to do? Did it take lots of conceding to women’s different or special needs? Or, rather, was it a possible and reasonable upsetting the “status-quo” that still often tells us that “he” or “man” means everyone and that I’m just too touchy if I refuse to accept that.

This small kindness was, I think, one of the best things about my first semester of seminary. These two white men — one in his early 60s and one in his early 30s — were incredibly intentional about the female pronoun being the “default” for the generic personal pronoun.

New & Noteworthy

WAGS AND WISDOM
Critically acclaimed author Sue Halpern writes about experiences with her trained therapy dog, Pransky, illuminating seven classic virtues along the way, in A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. A charming and insightful book. Riverhead Books

GOD AT THE BORDER
In Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration, Kristin E. Heyer develops a theological analysis, mainly rooted in Catholic thought, that examines the injustices of the current U.S. immigration system in the light of concepts of social sin, Christian family ethics, and broader policy considerations. Georgetown University Press

FOR BUDDING WRITERS
Skipping Stones, a nonprofit literary magazine for young readers ages 8 to 16, is celebrating its 25th year of encouraging creativity and multicultural and environmental awareness. Published five times a year, each issue includes poetry and prose by children and book reviews and resources for parents and teachers. skippingstones.org

FINDING MUTUAL RESPECT
The two-part film In the Footprints of Francis and the Sultan: A Model for Peacemaking explores the historic meeting of St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malek al-Kamil and how it continues to inform a powerful model for interreligious dialogue today. FranciscanMedia.org/francissultan

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What God Has Joined

WITH TROUBLING DIVORCE RATES, the trend among younger couples to postpone marriage or abstain from it altogether, and other factors, some feel we are in danger of losing marriage in this society. The institution is arguably in serious trouble.

This period of intense media focus on marriage—while more and more states legally affirm marriage equality and the Supreme Court ponders two related cases—offers the opportunity to examine the institution of marriage itself. How can we strengthen and support marriage, a critical foundation of a healthy society? How can we, as church and society, encourage the values of monogamy, fidelity, mutuality, loyalty, and commitment between couples?

A study by the Barna Research Group a few years ago found that “born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce,” a fact that pollster George Barna said “raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families.” Our authors in this issue wrestle with what it takes to build long-lasting marriages, rooted in and offering a witness to God’s covenantal love. —The Editors

MY HUSBAND AND I have been married to each other for 42 years. Does this make me an expert on heterosexual marriage? Not really.

My experience over 40 years as a pastor, teacher, and theologian helps some in thinking about marriage, as I have counseled couples and performed countless weddings, in addition to my personal experience. But as a contextual theologian of liberation, I know that to extrapolate from your own experience, or even from that of a small group, means you end up colonizing other people’s experiences through ideological privilege. In short, what that means is you think you know more than you really do. Hence, using social, political, and economic analysis is crucial if we are to think theologically in context about marriage.

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