Announcement = Lections, Hebrew and Greek notes, now being posted at another website

Parma Psalter Psalm 1

Psalm 1, Parma Psalter (13th century)

This is important. For the past several months I have been posting Lections, Hebrew notes, Greek notes, and even sermons at another website. I can tell from the Stats (how many people visit this website, where they live, which posts) that (1) this website does not see a lot of traffic and (2) some of the traffic is for my Lections and Hebrew notes posts. To those people I say welcome and thank you.

However I created a second website which is devoted more to Bible and theology. Which includes Lections, Hebrew notes, Greek notes (which I have started preparing and posting), Sermons, and occasionally some cool quote or not so cool thought about Scripture and Christian doctrine. The idea was…

To start a separate blog that focuses on theological and biblical topics and stays away from politics and culture. So if church members peruse this blog hopefully they will not come across anything too controversial. Although good theology must sometimes risk controversy by challenging false teachings and the spirit of the age.

I was inspired partly by a an Anglican priest in Massachusetts – who is from my home town! – who maintains at least two separate blog sites. One is more strongly focused on Scripture, theology, and so on. The other is more “personal” about his hobbies and interests. I was increasingly concerned that Mangy Dog – which regularly delves into culture and politics – was mixing the personal and sometimes more controversial with more “neutral” topics like Scripture, theology, Christian ministry, and so on. What if people are interested in what I post on these topics and are put off by what I post on other topics?

The point of this specific post is to say thank you for visiting! you are very welcome! if you are here to check out posts on Scripture and theology – including Lections, Hebrew and Greek notes – I encourage you to visit my other blog site Plenum Creaturis. I will start the process of deleting and/or moving to the other site those posts that deal with Scripture, theology, and ministry. I greatly appreciate your interest in those topics and those posts.

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Morning coffee 2017-09-07 – Rob Bell and false dichotomies

Ed – Made this “sticky” mostly because of the second part which discusses apparent contradictions in Scripture and how the early Church fathers approaches these hermeneutical difficulties.

Collin Huber, “What Rob Bell gets right and wrong about the Bible” at The Gospel Coalition = https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-rob-bell-gets-right-and-wrong-about-the-bible. Sigh. To be honest I do not care to spend time and attention on Rob Bell. Not because I think he is terribly good or terribly bad as a pastor or teacher. Mainly because I grow tired of the impulse to focus so much time and energy on the latest popular writers and speakers. So this year I must… read… this writer. And next year we must… read… that writer! As if we are being blown back and forth by the latest winds. I resist what appears to be an assumption that my ministry and my faith are determined by whatever writer is popular this year and/or by whatever book is trendy in certain circles.

Huber reviews Rob Bell’s recent book What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. Which is rather ambitious title. And already hints at the approach Bell advocates. I recently switched from 22 years of ordained ministry as a Baptist Christian to serving as the pastor of a small congregation in the United Methodist Church. A prominent Methodist church in this city promotes and advocates What Is the Bible? I am neither a fan nor a critic of Bell. I read one of his books and thought it was somewhere between okay and good. I am a little skeptical of Bell. Partly because he draws on sources that I do not entirely trust. And partly because he is associated with a movement within Christianity that I regard with some skepticism.

Huber attempts to describe both the strong and the weak in this book. The strong is the “literalely” rather than “literally” approach to Scripture. “Bell means appreciating individual texts for their distinctive genre and their place in the overarching narrative of Scripture. Doing so means studying the poetry of the Psalms in a different way than the Gospel narratives or prophetic and apocalyptic books. Readers of Scripture need to appreciate qualities like genre and plot if they hope to arrive at a sensible understanding of the text”. Well sure. And that right there is an important point to which I will return.

Where Bell veers off in a different direction is the nature and purpose of Scripture. Huber summarizes =

From the start, Bell explains that the Bible is “a book about what it means to be human” (4). He describes it as a library of evolutionary thought written to deepen our understanding of what it means to live an enlightened life (281). Starting with Abraham, Bell treats the biblical narrative as focused on a “new tribe” committed to blessing the world and displaying love as opposed to perpetuating the cycle of violence prevalent in the ancient Near East (12). Over time, he claims, Abraham’s offspring compiled and edited the Hebrew Scriptures to create a progressive and enlightened ethic aimed at “raising [the] consciousness” of its readers.

According to Bell, the creation story of Genesis was arranged during exile in Babylon as a peaceful alternative to the violent pagan creation myths (289–90). Satan also took literary form during this time as a way of thinking about evil, which resolves some of the apparent contradictions between Old Testament books (275). Discussing Leviticus, Bell explains that the sacrificial system was a human invention put in place to deal with feelings of fear and guilt (244).

Bell treats the New Testament similarly when he contends that Jesus didn’t have to die. Rather, he claims Jesus was murdered, and the writers of the New Testament simply interpreted his death in light of the sacrificial system. According to Bell, Christ didn’t come to die for the atonement of sin. Instead, his life was spent putting “flesh and blood” on the words of Scripture. He was a physical interpretation of the Torah and left his followers a similar responsibility to “make decisions about what’s written in the Bible” (161).

We can ask if Huber summarizes Bell accurately. And we might agree with Bell on specific points yet disagree strongly with his overall approach. That is where I land. I agree generally with mainstream biblical scholarship. That the first creation story probably was composed during the exile as a response and alternative to the creation myths popular in 6th century Mesopotamia. Satan is a rather late development and even then not the Satan we are used to in the New Testament. And sure Jesus both interprets and incarnates Torah. There are pieces of truth in what Bell writes at least as summarized by Huber. The overall approach however strikes me as strange. And not even taking Scripture on its own terms. Disagree with or reject Scripture. But at the very least attempt to understand it the way it appears to understand itself. Which is not necessarily how “fundamentalist” Christians understand it. (In “quotes” because too often the term is used to insult and dismiss rather than describe. I have seen people do that.) Yet not how Bell characterizes Scripture in general or Jesus in particular. The tricky part is identifying to what extent Bell comes to Scripture with his own set of assumptions and conclusions… and is looking for ways to make Scripture fit what is mostly an alien worldview. Attempting to force Scripture to conform to the ways of a broken and rebellious world.

Addendum 2018-05-09 = (Although it is not my area of expertise I would say the purpose of the Levitical system is not to deal with feelings of fear and guilt. It has much more to do with fulfilling the purposes of creation. In fact to bring up “fear and guilt” might have much more to do with how modern readers react to Levitical legislation than the original nature and purpose of this material. Generally speaking narratives attributed to the P or Priestly source are more positive.)

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Morning coffee 2018-06-27 – When reverence and civility are dead (or) le deluge

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In the last couple weeks we have seen an increase in public figures (generally members of the Trump administration) being heckled harassed accosted protested while out in public doing “private” things (like visiting a restaurant or watching a movie with children) and in one example told to leave a restaurant. I will go ahead and state clearly where I stand. This is bad. This is dangerous. And if those who engage in this sort of behavior are not able to articulate any limiting principles (in other words can they state clearly where this stops) then this behavior will generate a series of negative results. This behavior has already done that.

And so far many people (including friends of mine) are justifying this with explanations that in my opinion serves one function. To rationalize hyperbolic behavior. I will refrain from quoting some of the justifications I have seen and heard. To put it bluntly and with respect to otherwise good and intelligent people I do not find their justifications persuasive. I will risk saying what seems to drive more extreme behavior is hyperbolic rhetoric. So someone holds views with which I disagree. That someone expresses her views in a setting/situation where people normally express their views. This next step is crucial. I then characterize her views as “hurtful”. So for her to express views with which I disagree is no longer simply “different views being expressed” it is now “hurting me/hurting members of my group”. (It is a form of dehumanizing the other. If I stick a label of “monster” on another human being then I can behave monstrously toward that other person.) With the wave of a rhetorical wand I can now respond to “hurting me/us” with hurtful actions. I no longer have to stop at waiting for her to pause… then I express my views… and we have a civil conversation that goes back and forth… we both make some good points… we understand each other a little more… there is a chance of persuading the other.

Now I can yell and shout at her repeatedly to the point where she cannot do her job. I can shut down her speech (even if she reserved the room and advertised the event and so on). I can be so disruptive she cannot have a quiet meal at a restaurant with her family. I can even hit her.

“What? No! We are not calling for violence!” Oh? We have seen plenty of that over the last few years. I can call her a Nazi. We fought Nazis in World War Two and used physical violence to stop them from getting their way. If she is a Nazi – again this is a crucial step in the thought process – then I can punch or hit her in the head with a bicycle lock and give her a… No wait. If she is even accompanying a Nazi to his car at a liberal arts college I can hit her in the head with a bicycle lock and give her a concussion. Because she associates with Nazis. Because they are destroying the United States. Because they are fascists hypocrites you name it.

A couple years ago I finally figured out how people justify extreme behavior. Because many ordinary civil and well behaved people wonder “are they crazy? what makes them think they can do that?” The key is hyperbolic thinking and rhetoric. If I characterize political disagreement as hurtful or destructive… as a kind of existential threat – and not simply the usual political disagreements over the course of history and my side happened to lose an election and/or court case and is not getting its way – then I can justify no longer being bound by the usual norms of behavior in the public square. I can shut down people engaged in lawful speech. I can hound them and their children out of a public establishment. We can hit them. We can throw excrement at them. We can kill them. We can desecrate their graves.

The handful of dear readers realize that those last few examples are real. These things have happened. Maybe not in the last few years (the politicians who were shot managed to survive) but within the last 50 years.

We are past “politics as usual” because the political outlook I favor has never lost before. Because for decades we were marching along the historically determined path of progress toward what I think is the one true destiny of human society. And the last election was a slam dunk. It is absolutely outrageous and inexplicable that our candidates lost and their candidates won. And they are working within and in accordance with the operating rules of our political system to implement policies that they think are best. Which we would never do if our candidates won.

And yes at this point I am being sarcastic. Which is not very respectful. However what I find completely ridiculous and absurd is this “yeah but these times are different and we can throw out the usual rules governing civil discourse and disagreement and do anything to shut down and stop the political opposition from getting their way”. I am surprised the opposition is not focusing their efforts on more peaceful protest.

Other writers and thinkers are doing a vastly better job than I of explaining why this sudden effort at breaking/changing the rules is foolish and dangerous.

Glenn Reynolds “Is America headed toward a civil war? Sanders, Nielsen incidents show it has already begun” at USAToday = https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/06/25/sanders-nielsen-incidents-suggest-new-us-civil-war-underway-column/729141002/.

Marriage counselors say that when a couple view one another with contempt, it’s a top indicator that the relationship is likely to fail. Americans, who used to know how to disagree with one another without being mutually contemptuous, seem to be forgetting this. And the news media, which promote shrieking outrage in pursuit of ratings and page views, are making the problem worse.

What would make things better? It would be nice if people felt social ties that transcend politics. Americans’ lives used to involve a lot more intermediating institutions — churches, fraternal organizations, neighborhoods — that crossed political lines. Those have shrunk and decayed, and in fact, for many people politics seems to have become a substitute for religion or fraternal organizations. If you find your identity in your politics, you’re not going to identify with people who don’t share them.

@neontaster

neontaster civility

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Afternoon no coffee 2018-06-25 – Original sin and Adam

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John Farrell, “Saving Adam: Evolution and Original Sin” at Commonweal = https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/saving-adam. A longish article that explores the relationship between historical and dogmatic theology regarding the first human beings and original sin on the one hand and on the other hand how the Darwinian theory of evolution challenges those theological doctrines. Difficult to summarize briefly a key point Farrell makes is that even after many Roman Catholic theologians accepted (at least in broad outline) the theory of evolution they did not adjust or “update” doctrinal theology regarding Adam and Eve and original sin. Complicating the picture is different understanding of just what original sin is. Is it inherited biologically through human reproduction? And is it sin? an inclination toward sin? or something else such as inheriting an environment that is damaged and warped by sin? Such that human do not inherit guilt biologically but rather they inherit – perhaps more precisely they are born into – an environment that quickly results in sin.

Ulrich Lehner chimes in on the issue briefly in his book God Is Not Nice.

This is an issue I have sometimes thought about. Exactly who and when were the first human beings represented in Genesis 2-3? (Attentive readers please note they are not “Adam and Eve” until after they rebel. Until then Hebrew ‘adam appears to mean “human/humankind” rather than the name Adam.) If evolutionary theory describes how humans eventually developed then at which exact moment did we cross the line between “highly evolved apes” and “human beings who bear the image of God”? who are given a choice between “manage the world with God and under his divine authority” and “try to become gods and not by grace”? and who attempt to decide for themselves what is good and evil – as explained by Reuven Kimelman in his excellent exegetical essay?

If I understand the article Farrell cites approvingly the work of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI. That the key moment was not the evolution of the human body but the creation of a special soul. Which sounds similar to Genesis 2:7.

וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,[a] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Farrell concludes:

But there remains the nagging question of the soul’s special creation. In 1996, Pope John Paul II expanded upon Pius’s earlier assertions on the soul, and he added his own view that the emergence of the human being, endowed with a soul directly created by God, amounted to an “ontological leap” in the history of evolution, one that could not be uncovered or located by science. Can the special creation of the soul be integrated into an evolutionary understanding of our emergence as a species?

As it happens, perhaps the best answer to this question was provided by the man who would succeed John Paul II as pope. Back in 1973, Josef Ratzinger was pondering the question of the soul as it related to evolution, and his solution is as startling as it is simple. Ratzinger looked back to Teilhard’s observation that the history of matter is best understood as the prehistory of the spirit, a spirit that emerged when man spoke out for the first time to recognize the Thou beyond himself and beyond the world. “If creation means dependence of being, then special creation is nothing other than special dependence of being,” Ratzinger wrote in his book Dogma and Preaching.

The statement that man is created in a more specific, more direct way by God than other things in nature, when expressed somewhat less metaphorically, means simply this: that man is willed by God in a specific way, not merely as a being that “is there,” but as a being that knows him; not only as a construct that he thought up, but as an existence that can think about him in return. We call the fact that man is specifically willed and known by God his special creation.

From this vantage point, one can immediately see that an adam emerged in history at that moment when a human being was first capable of forming, however dimly, the thought “God.” As Ratzinger writes, “The first ‘thou’ that—however stammering—was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed.” If this is true, then the theory of evolution neither invalidates nor corroborates faith. But, as Ratzinger acknowledges, “it does challenge faith to understand itself more profoundly and thus to help man to understand himself and to become increasingly what he is: the being who is supposed to say ‘thou’ to God in eternity.”

Over the last several years I have studied Orthodox Christian theology. I have come across a few times the concept that human beings are the “interface” between physical and divine/spiritual. We are both. We are the point at which material creation connects and communes with the Triune God. And (borrowing heavily from the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna among others) we also are the point at which the Triune God is represented within material creation. We turned down our original vocation. And Christ became incarnate partly to heal this radical breach. Once again the divine/spiritual is joined with the material/physical.

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One year later

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It is one year after I left the church where I served for 18 years. We were committed to leaving well. By which I mean leaving on good terms and on a positive note. Everything I said about the reasons for leaving was true. However that is not quite the same thing as sharing the whole truth. For the first few months I wrestled with the desire to share the fuller story. I thought about one day trying to write a short book. That probably will never happen. Human beings are imperfect and the world is broken and damaged by human sin and rebellion. We sometimes see or experience wrongs and hurts for which we will not see justice. At least not until the eschaton.

I have elsewhere hinted at the deeper reasons for leaving. I dearly loved ministering with internationals. Quite frankly I did not want to leave. However what was at first a good place to fulfill my call to pastoral ministry was no longer a good place to serve. The church changed over time. The co-pastor experiment was not working. Those last few years were rough. And the last year was roughest of all. I was being treated with disrespect. Most of that happened off stage when church members were not around to witness it. And most of it was verbal so there is little if any documentation. People spoke to me in ways that indicated they did not value my abilities education experience and long record of generally faithful ministry. I am convinced what prompted these shifts is that I was not advancing the agenda of the handful of persons who were officially or effectively in charge.

Excursus = At my performance review I said this last year was “rough” and my boss said yeah because of my accident and brain injury. Here is the problem. That last year was the second year after my accident and injury. The first year after the accident was not that bad. But the year after that was the most stressful and miserable I ever experienced at that church. Why? What changed?

The handful of dear readers might note my use of the agentless passive construction.  “I was being treated with disrespect”. Back in graduate school I spent one year teaching  first year undergraduates how to write at the university level. It was a great experience. And the university provided excellent training. I bring this up because one of the things stressed to our students was generally to avoid using the passive voice. A chief function of the passive voice is to obscure the agent. (For example the famous political tagline “mistakes were made”.) I use the agentless passive above in order to avoid saying who were the handful of people who treated me badly.

I stand by my opinion of what I saw and experienced. However I pray for the grace to let go and let God deal with the persons who so disrespected and devalued me along with my background and abilities. A year later we have started to say a little more to people. Yesterday an international asked me point blank “how were you able to leave Church of the Nations?” and we still did not say much except that the church had been changing and it became “untenable” or “uncomfortable” to work there. We have not said much. And despite what I said earlier most people seem to know a little. They saw and heard things. Although to be perfectly blunt what they saw and heard was only a fraction. I saw and heard more. There were some serious problems with the co-pastor experiment. It was mostly a disaster.

There is a room at the back of that church – speaking metaphorically – full of truths that have not seen the light of day. There are truths that were withheld from the church. Although I will not share them they do exist. I believe that church will struggle to be healthy and thrive so long as the truth is not stated and acknowledged openly.

I know because sometimes I called people to ask how they are doing. Sometimes that person would say “by the way we left the church/we are looking for a new church” and proceed to explain why. Some of the reasons they gave were interesting. Some were surprising and a little troubling. I am not the only person who has a story to share. Many people were hurt and deeply wounded during their time with that church.

Time to land the plane. I do not plan on telling my full story. I have thought a great deal about how much to share and how to say it. This paragraph might be a good summary. It comes from one of the most repellent experiences during my 18 years there.

That was not the moment I decided it was time to leave that church and find a new setting in which to fulfill my call to pastoral ministry. Whenever someone decides to leave a place there are negative as well as positive reasons. Even if everything were awesome and perfect… given my education and experience and age and abilities it was probably time to leave. However that was a day on which the negative reasons were thrown into such sharp relief that I was confronted with the severity of the situation.

I could not continue in that setting to fulfill my call to pastoral ministry with integrity. I was increasingly being pressured to conform to a vision of the Christian faith that I do not shareIt was increasingly evident that my training, experience, and abilities, not to mention my own views and convictions, were no longer valued or respected  much

(That right there summarizes the main reason it was past time to leave.) What mattered most was saying and doing what I was told to say and do. I was increasingly being treated more like a hireling than an ordained minister. [Ed = And was being scolded for not meeting expectations that were never clearly laid out or discussed with me.] The handful of dear readers might say “no way” however I can share plenty of examples that support this conclusion.

I stand by everything I have written above.

Addendum 2018-07-10 = I failed to give proper credit to the many people of that church who were generous, supportive, and encouraging to me and my family during our 18 years there. Especially during the two years after my accident. What is so difficult about what I experienced is that there was much that was good and positive. It was not all stress misery and disrespect. To be sure there were problems (which I will not mention here) even before we first arrived back in 1999. And to be honest there continued to be regular ongoing problems with how ministers (including me) were treated. It was never a very good environment in which to grow in vocational ministry. I need to acknowledge and express gratitude to the faithful believers who demonstrated in word and action that they did value and respect me, my abilities, my intelligence and education, and my eighteen years of generally faithful service among them.

The difficulty with which I struggle is that the last few years… along with the (often petty) disrespect that a handful of people inflicted… was so rough that I sometimes have trouble remembering the good and positive things we did and experienced. Unfortunately that is why to a large extent I have stayed away and not had much to do with the many wonderful and supportive people who were so kind and encouraging toward me and my family.

Edited 2018-11-16 – Changed a few things to “tone down” some of what I wrote.  I was angry when I wrote it.

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Review and notes = God Is Not Nice by Ulrich Lehner

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Notes_UlrichLehner_GodIsNotNice_201805 (PDF)
Notes_UlrichLehner_GodIsNotNice_201805 (DOCX)

God Is Not Nice by Ulrich Lehner is relatively short and immensely important for how the Christian church thinks about, talks about, and relates to the one true God who created the heavens and the earth. The book is a curious if not entirely surprising combination of “not that” but “this”. By which I mean much of the book describes and challenges the “Nice” concept of god (without a capital G) that has largely taken over the Christian church. The “not that”. And tries to steer us toward “this” which is the true God we encounter in Scripture and in tradition (without attempting to say these are two separate things, or one is primary, and so on). The true God is mysterious and awesome, satisfies our deepest longings and desires, and invites us to adventure in faithful communion with him.

Although the book is relatively short I took extensive notes which are posted here and to a large extent speak for themselves. I will not attempt to summarize everything but share a few thoughts and comments. Lehner seems to trace the shift from true mysterious and awesome God (this) to a concept of god (that) who is a nice idol (a deity fashioned by ourselves) to the Enlightenment and/or Industrial Revolution. That theologians, pastors, preachers, teachers for around 300 years have been proclaiming Enlightenment ways of thinking and feeling. (More on that later). The results include a faith not worth dying for. A faith that does not inspire resistance to evil ideologies. Because what we care about most is not God himself* but how this nice god helps us avoid pain and get what we want.

*This is a minor problem with “God talk” in English. God is not male or female. And yet English has personal pronouns like he/she, him/her, himself/herself. (We cannot really use a “neuter” pronoun like itself because that connotes a non-personal referent. (Classical Hebrew has grammatical gender but only masculine/feminine. So non-personal referents also get “he/him” or “she/her”. Be aware that grammatical gender does not imply or determine ontological gender.) Some groups try to get past this problem by using terms like Godself. In the United Methodist Church “he/him” is replaced regularly with “God”. Gets a little repetitive but there you go.

At the risk of saying too much… the nice concept of god is pretty much the dominant understanding of god I encountered at the increasingly liberal** church where I served for 18 years. And the damaging effects of this approach are what I saw and experienced on a regular basis. Rod Dreher calls this Moral Therapeutic Deism (borrowing the phrase and the concept from other writers). This was a church where some people confided in me how much the dominant approach to Christianity at that church did not satisfy their souls. And if someone did express anything like traditional faith in the awesome mysterious God that person could be questioned, challenged, even accosted by more aggressive proponents of the nice concept of god. I witnessed this and experienced it first hand. Lehner at one point states this dynamic (advocates of the nice god approach criticizing those who advocate the more mysterious awesome God) is why many “serious” thinkers have given up trying to address these questions about who God is and what God is like.

**Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” or “traditional” are both sloppy and convenient. By “liberal” here I mean “contrary to traditional Christian faith and outlook, identifying with ‘progressive’ ideas and causes” which raises the obvious question of what “traditional” and “progressive” mean. I am not saying “liberal” or “progressive” are always bad or wrong. I have shared elsewhere that I agree with some “progressive” points but do not identify as such simply because I do not share what appears to be the “progressive” framework. (I am unable to find the post that states this most clearly.) Update = I think this was it.

Several months ago Derek Rishmawy attempted to discern and describe (not critique) the consistent characteristics/stances of those who present themselves as Progressive Evangelicals. What struck me as odd (not wrong) about his list is that I would agree (at least in part) with about half of the items on his list. And yet I would not identify as Progressive Christian.

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