Friday, October 29, 2010

Here's a vote for a Christian voice
April 2006

By Paul Viggiano

After six months of regular church attendance, the atheist/attorney finally called for an appointment. I was thrilled! Was there a transformation? Had the Lord touched his heart? People come to church for all sorts of reasons. Why had he been coming so consistently? I was more than happy to meet with him; a bit curious, too.

He sat across from me in my study. He had listened to me for hours. Now I would listen to him. A thinker, he had pondered Christianity, but there were roadblocks. He voiced them.

"Why do Christians insist," he asked, "on forcing their political and ethical beliefs upon others?" I hadn't anticipated this question. He just didn't understand why something as personal and intimate as one's faith, had to spill over into politics. After all, faith is so holy and politics is so ... political.

I'd heard this before.

As a Christian, I am often bombarded by some undefined segment of our culture chastising me for seeking to "force" my beliefs on others and, as a March 15 letter to the editor asserts, "insist that they live by morality."

There seems to be legitimate confusion and even frustration. Here's my explanation:

I asked my lawyer/friend if he thought I should vote. He said I should. To him, voting was serious business. People ought to vote! Good Americans vote! But isn't it logically necessary that, in the very act of voting, one is seeking to force his beliefs upon everyone who is voting against whatever he is voting for? (You may wish to read that sentence again ... I'll wait.)

It doesn't seem consistent to tell me I should vote and then tell me that I shouldn't seek to force my beliefs upon others. That is exactly what voting does.

Walk with me into the booth:

The propositions and candidates stare at me from the confusing little punch-card booklet. Vote "Yes" vote "No" vote for "ME!" It seems I have some decisions to make. Should marriage be only between a man and a woman? Should it be illegal to terminate babies prior to birth? Should murderers be put to death? Should creation be taught in schools? Should the Pledge of Allegiance include some reference to God?

These decisions lie before us. Can you hear the question begging? When we vote, whose beliefs should we be seeking to force upon others? I believe the reasonable and conscientious vote to all of the above should be "Yes." It's someone else's belief that the vote be "No." Either way, somebody is seeking to force his beliefs on somebody else. In a society where people vote, this is simply unavoidable.

Since voters necessarily seek to force their beliefs upon others, it would appear that the actual objection is against those who have a religious genesis for their system of ethics and beliefs. People don't want religion forced upon them. If by saying this people mean they don't want to be forced to attend church against their will, I say "Amen."

But people fail to understand that Christianity is a world view. My faith is not like my health club or butcher who I visit and then forget about when I move on to a different category in my life. My faith informs every aspect of my life, including politics.

Why is it appropriate for certain people to vote in a manner consistent with what they learned from their parents or tabloids or sit-coms, but it is inappropriate for me to vote in a manner consistent with what I've learned from reading sacred scripture? After all, I think the scriptures are the zenith of truth and wisdom.

Why does the origin of my ideals somehow disqualify them (or me) from playing a part in the public arena? Why are the teachings of Moses and the Apostle Paul considered unacceptable influences in the venue of civic conscience, while the sentiments of Reiner, Moore and Penn are deemed admissible? It seems hardly fair to disqualify my opinion because you don't like its origin.

My attorney/friend's confusion was assuaged. I'm not sure if he was convinced. But if he wasn't, it's not because there was no reasonable answer to his question.

People should vote in a manner consistent with their highest beliefs. The Christian source for the highest ideals is the Bible. It trumps all human wisdom. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart," the Proverbs teach, "and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight." That includes politics.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Afternoon at the Mosque

Dialogue and - delightfully - definitions at mosque open house
By The Rev. Paul Viggiano
Posted: 10/24/2010 05:31:42 PM PDT
Updated: 10/24/2010 09:58:49 PM PDT

In an effort to assuage the general discomfort many Americans' experience vis- -vis the Islamic religion, the Islamic Center of South Bay (along with numerous other mosques in Southern California) hosted an open house. I attended and, for the most part, it was a profitable and illuminating event.

I was delighted at the panel of Muslims who were willing to address politically charged questions without the normal political equivocations. There was an open and unanimous denouncement of the actions of terrorists committing atrocities in the name of Allah. One professor on the panel, Dr. Jamil Momand, explained that a fatwa (an Islamic decree) had been signed by the Islamic community uniformly branding the terrorist activities as heinous.

Significant disparity arose during the afternoon regarding the history of the Islamic religion. The panel had a different view of history than many of the visitors. Several guests saw Muslims as the perpetrators of great evil, whereas the panel saw Muslims more in the role of victims - especially over who has a right to the land in the Middle East. Clearly, the different communities have conflicting resources regarding actual historical events.

What I found particularly helpful and instructive were the panel's answers to the religious distinctions between Muslims, Jews and Christians. One panelist, Hafez Hafez, was quick to point out that Muslims believe in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But further analysis showed that the Muslim's view of Christianity differs from a Christian's view of Christianity. Whereas they believe Jesus was a prophet, they do not believe Jesus to be the son of God and vehemently disagree with the notion of Jesus dying on the cross to deliver men from the guilt of their sins.

According to Islam, men are saved from hell by acknowledging their sin and stopping it. This is substantially inconsistent with the Christian's view of salvation, which is obtained by the grace of God through faith in the cross and resurrection of Christ - good works following as evidence of true faith.

The virtually impossible question that couldn't be answered by the panel was: Does anybody ever truly stop sinning and just how good does one have to be to escape hell? It was here that the words of the late John Gerstner rang true, "the Christian faith is the only religion where men don't save themselves."

The source of the disagreement about the person and work of Christ, according to the panel, arose from variants or errors in the Bible. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are respected by Muslims who view themselves as descendants of Abraham through Ishmael (whereas as Jews and Christians would identify more with Isaac) and men of "the book." Nonetheless, their respect for the Scriptures only goes so far. They were very clear that the Bible has errors but the Quran does not.

Arguments for the veracity of the Quran were given by panelist Adeel Syed. These arguments included the beauty of its writing, its effect upon people, its fulfilled prophecies and its consistency with science. Similar arguments are often made for the Bible.

It may sound odd for a Christian minister to find this kind of dialogue refreshing - I certainly do not agree with the Islamic religious propositions. But living in a society where so few are willing to make any clear authoritative statements whatsoever becomes nauseating - as is evidenced by today's political campaigning.

Dialogues are reduced to meaningless drivel if people aren't willing to make, and seek to defend, some form of propositional truth.
Truth loves a definition. And though I do not agree with the truths espoused by the Islamic religion, at least they had the courage and integrity to state them, which made the event profitable.

The Rev. Paul Viggiano is pastor of the Branch of Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Torrance (e-mail:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Where in the Constitution?

I do not know the Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell at all, other than the hype over her supposed First Amendment debacle. But in her defense:

Separation of church and state is not mentioned in the constitution.

The clause, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is not synonymous with the phrase ‘separation of church and state.’ In context this clause means the government would not (as it literally states) make a law respecting the establishing of a religion. The most obvious example they were seeking to avoid being something similar to The Church of England. There would be no Church of America.

Demonstrably more foolish than anything Christine O’Donnell said was Ken Paulson’s drivel (even when he had time to think about it). The President of the First Amendment Center said the First Amendment “means that creationism cannot be taught in America’s public schools.” Now this is what should have made everyone laugh.

Blinding flash of the obvious moment: The Declaration of Independence states: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” If, Mr. Paulson, the First Amendment means that creationism cannot be taught, how is it that the Declaration of Independence refers to a Creator (with a capital ‘C’)? Acknowledging a Creator necessarily supposes a creation. And I’m pretty sure the Declaration of Independence is a government document.

Who made you president of the First Amendment Center? I declare myself president of the First Amendment….ummm….Alliance, yeah, Alliance.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Open-minded approach undermines church foundation
By The Rev. Paul Viggiano
Posted: 02/28/2010 06:05:29 PM PST

Some might consider it the most closed-minded statement in the history of the world, when Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through Me." The Presbyterian Church USA's "Religious and Demographic Profile of Presbyterians" is clearly uncomfortable with such an exclusive statement.

Almost 40 percent of the panel, made up of members, elders, pastors and specialized clergy of the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination apparently disagree with Jesus, believing there are other religious paths to heaven for those who are sincere.

A snapshot of this Universalist disposition among PCUSA leaders may appear forbearing and charitable, but is it truly? Is a doctor magnanimous when he tells his cancer patient there are numerous remedies for his disease when there is really only one?

And the question remains, which paths are included and how sincere must one be? Why would they say there are many paths but restrict themselves from saying any path will do? It is this departure from orthodoxy that is compelling many of my Christian friends and pastors in the PCUSA to rethink whether they wish to remain in that denomination. There appears to be a serious misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Jesus never presented Himself as one among many options.

Jesus didn't come to evaluate religions but to rescue fallen humanity. People often ask me if I think people go to hell because they're Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. The answer is "no."

Hell is not the consequence of an errant religious view; hell is the consequence of sin. People go to hell because they're sinners; it's an all-inclusive club.

Jesus didn't come to help us figure out how to overcome our sin, He came as the Lamb of God to take away our sin. This teaching is so central to a Christian, that to deny it is to deny one's faith altogether. Jesus, as the Savior of men's souls, is also a unique aspect of the Christian faith. Christianity is the only religion where men don't save themselves.

Such a denial of the clear, orthodox teaching of the Christian faith is endemic of Western Evangelicalism's anemic condition and subsequently the anemic condition of the culture. The PCUSA serves well as a case study exposing our culture's willingness to believe falsehoods.

A life and worldview that offers itself as true, while at the same time agreeing that a contrary life and worldview is also true, has adopted contradictions - which is a nice word for falsehood. We can amicably disagree while still maintaining intellectual honesty, but to say we agree with a system of thought that is contradictory to our own is simply nonsense.

And because of our willingness to believe nonsense, we elect officials who hold Bibles, take photo ops at Sunday morning church services and then engineer legal systems that run head-on collisions with the words in the very Bibles they tote. It has become the swan song for Western culture, which doesn't want to believe in absolutes.

In light of these things, the closed-minded statement of Jesus, so far from being an embarrassment to Christians who don't want to appear overly restrictive, becomes a necessary statement for any religious leaders who actually believes that what they teach is true. The actual question is not whether a person believes in exclusive truth, but which exclusive truth.

The calculated ambiguity that pervades our current ethical and political landscape can only last for so long. Eventually people must ask just what it is we believe. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro and similar atheistic religious leaders filled the gap in the 20th century - offering their citizens the absolutes necessary for a culture to survive. Their exclusivity resulted in more deaths and destruction than any previous century in the history of man.

A time will come when Americans must fan away the smoke and mirrors that have come to represent the nonsense by which we are governed. What will the answer be? What, or who, will we be a nation under?

If the religious leaders in one of our nation's largest denominations are willing to adopt falsehoods, how can we expect more from our political leaders?

There are more than 20 nations in the Middle East that define themselves as Muslim nations. I believe they are mistaken in their religious and political convictions. But what are we? Even our churches don't want to be defined as uniquely Christian.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What role does God play when disaster strikes?
Devastation like that in Haiti can be immensely productive, giving the world the opportunity to do the good works to which God has called us.
By The Rev. Paul Viggiano
Posted: 01/31/2010 04:36:24 PM PST

After taking a special offering for the Haiti earthquake, a gentleman exiting the church paused. "Doesn't God cause earthquakes?" he asked. "Yes," I nodded. "Then why are we praying and raising money if this is what God has determined to happen?"
Good question. Let's consider some options:
Atheists generally offer a bald scientific explanation to events like earthquakes. "There is no need to bring God into the equation," they suggest. "It's merely the shifting of tectonic plates."
But why do the plates shift? Why is the world made in such a way and by whom? Any child pushing to the infinite regress of such an answer leaves those relying on science frustrated at their limitations — let alone seeking to define an event as tragic and not merely the necessary results of a big bang whose latest major episode was on stage at Port-au-Prince.
Others ascent to a God who didn't want an earthquake, but couldn't do anything about it. God, according to this view, began the world but has limited involvement. He's like an insurance company that sells a policy then sends an adjuster to restore the damaged goods after the house has burned down.
This God is not ever-present and there is no telling when He might show up or what He might do. As one who has suffered great sorrow, I find this view of God neither biblical nor comforting. He's the fair-weather God who has chosen to leave us on our own.
Most believe in a God who doesn't really want earthquakes but merely allows them. He is the likable, somewhat harmless God desiring the best for everybody, permitting awful things to happen then promising to the make the most of it. This God is the master of damage control. Somehow, someday, we'll see that God did something good as a result of the earthquake.
One major weakness in this approach is that there is no telling when God actually starts repairing the problem. How good does the event have to be before we realize that God, the fixer of problems, has arrived? There is no telling when, or if, God is at work at all.
Another more biblical, honoring and highly consoling view of God in the midst of catastrophe is one which recognizes that God has His own holy, just and glorious purposes for every last single event in the course of human history - whether joyful or tragic. This knowledge may not make all the sorrow disappear, but it does rescue hearts from despair.
The 16th-century reformer John Calvin challenged his congregation to understand "that ignorance of providence is the greatest of all miseries, and the knowledge of it results in the highest happiness." Calvin explained that it is an insult to God to suggest "that man stands exposed to every blind and random stroke of fortune referring to the misery which man should feel, were he placed under the dominion of chance." In short, the earthquake in Haiti wasn't just bad luck.
Many in clerical robes seize these opportunities to speak of God's judgment in the face of earthquakes. But since the last prophet died some 2,000 years ago, we're simply not privy to such information.
So what good purpose could God have for tragic events He ordains?
The disciples of Jesus once asked Him why a certain man had been born blind — was it his sin or the sins of his parents? He answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him." God works in the hearts of men through tragedy; sometimes that's just what it takes.
The Scriptures teach that God appoints the day of prosperity as well as the day of adversity. The Scriptures teach of God bringing famines to pass that people might know where to go for eternal food. Much is said of Jesus, the calmer of storms. But the Scriptures also teach that Jesus is the raiser of storms as well.
Christ is the master catechizer and all the earth is His classroom. His instruction revolves around Himself as man's sole help in heaven and earth.
Devastation like that in Haiti can be immensely productive, giving the world the opportunity to do the good works to which God has called us. It can also be supremely redemptive, as we pray that eternal healing becomes a primary issue in the hearts of those in the midst of calamity.
God doesn't merely make the best of a bad situation; the bad situation itself has a holy design. Think of the arch crime of history, the crucifixion of Christ; it was the darkest and, at the same time, the most glorious event in the history of creation.
The Rev. Paul Viggiano is pastor of the Branch of Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Torrance.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Christmas 2009

Bumping into a good friend at Cookin’ Stuff, she conveyed a frustration she was experiencing this Christmas season—she couldn’t find any Christmas cards. There were plenty of cards out there. Greeting card companies aren’t going to miss out on the grand capitalistic opportunity which apexes this time of year. But the cards weren’t specifically about Christmas.
She found cards mentioning the holidays but not which ‘holy’ day. Cards abound where she was greeted by the season with no mention of why the season existed or what made it a season at all. Plain and simple, it was her experience that the first syllable in the word Christmas was evaporating.
I took a poll. I began asking people about the meaning of Christmas—I felt like Charlie Brown. Answers ranged from “It’s a time for family” to “It’s when we give gifts to one another” or a very generic “It’s a holiday.” Christ is being systemically removed from Christmas. It’s as if we’re comfortable with any greeting so long as Jesus is excluded.
Even at the lighting of the White House Christmas tree we heard a redefinition of what it all means. President Barack Obama announced that “It represents a tradition that we celebrate as a country—a tradition that has come to represent more than any one holiday or religion, but a season of brotherhood and generosity to our fellow citizens.” Brotherhood and generosity are admirable, but Christmas represents the birth of Christ—specifically.
So why the headlong pursuit to remove Jesus from Christmas? Even references to God are acceptable, just not Jesus. There seems to be something about the name Jesus that upsets people. As I sit here in Starbucks I can imagine mentioning God in normal conversations with people without them getting all uncomfortable with me. Mentioning Jesus is almost always followed by termination language—“Well, have a good day.”
God can be so harmless when undefined. There are all sorts of gods out there who are happy to be enjoyed or ignored. But Jesus taught that we’re either for Him or against Him. He is not to be ignored. When people start talking about Jesus you know they have a specific God in mind. God is not wax nose we can twist to our liking but the God who has a rightful claim to our very lives. This Jesus becomes inconvenient to an increasingly secular society desiring undefined leadership. This Jesus has to go, and this holiday which bears His name is a pesky hurdle.
Twenty-first century America is trying to accomplish just the opposite of what Constantine accomplished the fourth century when he turned pagan holidays in Christian holidays. Constantine believed the most effective way to Christian-ize a society was to create seasons or holidays which would be observed on a regular basis; these events would then be absorbed into the very fabric of their culture. As an emperor Constantine didn’t have to be subtle; he simply made it the law.
The approach used to extricate Christ from Christmas is much more subtle—insidious might be a better word. Just seize the language and make it mean something different—“These are not the droids you’re looking for.” How are Christians to respond to this cultural effort to evacuate Christ from the building?
For one, there needs to be a continual reminder of what the birth of Christ stands for. The eternal Son of God became flesh and blood to save sinners. The Father provided a body for the Son to do the Father’s will, which was to die on a cross to pay the price for sin and delivers souls from death. This is what the Bible calls the gospel or the good news. It does seem sad how hard people work to eradicate good news; perhaps nothing testifies more deeply to the corrupt nature of the human heart.
Secondly, the church needs to recognize that it is not the primary responsibility of the culture to contend for the faith; it is the church’s responsibility. Strictly speaking the only true holiday for Christians is the Lord’s Day or a weekly Sabbath where God’s people gather to worship. The gospel is to be faithfully presented in these settings as a message of hope and joy.
It is when churches are set aflame with the hope of Christ—of Immanuel (God with us); a genuine godly prosperity will begin to set its dew upon cultures surrounding those churches. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, God foretold the response of the surrounding nations: “For what nation is there that has God so near to it…what great nation is there that has such statues and righteous judgments as are in all this law?
Is Jesus the reason for the season? He’s the reason for any season.