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Q&A: Dodson talks doubt … and faith in Jesus

March 28, 2014



Let me introduce you to Jonathan Dodson, lead pastor of City Life Church here in Austin, who took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the importance of doubting the claims of Christianity (yes, you read that right) and contributing to your city culturally and how Jesus shouldn’t be used for political agendas.
I first interviewed Jonathan back in 2008 when his young congregation (then known as Austin City Life) was meeting at the Hideout coffee shop/theater downtown. He described his church as “theologically conservative but culturally liberal” (though see in this interview how he addresses the conservative/liberal problem) and talked about the importance of worshipping on “common cultural ground” and how the church should go to the city, not the other way around.
Dodson, who holds master’s degrees in divinity and theology, has been active in national and local church planting efforts and is the author of the newly published Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection (which we’ll discuss below) and the forthcoming The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing. He lives with his wife Robie and children Owen, Ellie and Rosamund. In his own words, he “enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, smoking his pipe, and following Jesus.”
I should also mention the film component of Dodson’s new book — a documentary about the lives of Benjamin and Jessica Roberts after they left the church and how they coped with a sense of emptiness by using drugs and then eventually rediscovered their faith in Jesus. You can watch it in four installments here. Made by Christian filmmakers at MovingWorks, it’s beautifully shot and compelling, raw and provocative. There will be a screening followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker and the couple on April 19 at Alamo Drafthouse — appropriate Easter vigil film fare.
Describe City Life Church: What are your basic beliefs, your mission and the demographics of your congregation?

The mission of City Life Church exists to renew cities socially, spiritually, and culturally with the gospel of Jesus. Like the early Christians, we believe that our presence in the city should enhance not drain urban resources. We see social, spiritual, and cultural brokenness in the city, and in our lives, and are committed to an enlivening power for the whole person and city, which comes from outside of ourselves, in Christ.

We gather on Sundays, downtown, in Ballet Austin next to Austin Music Hall and though out the city in homes, pubs, and parks during the week. We have a lot of kids, young adults, and families with a few older families sprinkled in (we’d love more). We are a church that reflects the creative ethos of our city—entrepreneurs, artists, students, DIYers, and so on.

Our beliefs center around Jesus as Christ and Lord. He is a forgiving Redeemer and a benevolent King. His authority gives us a north star for living, as opposed to subjective personal beliefs, and his loving grace nurtures deep spiritual satisfaction we can’t find anywhere else. His gospel is the good and true story that Jesus conquered sin, death, and evil through embracing the brokenness, injustice, and sin on the cross, and through his resurrection is making a whole new world. All other doctrines are secondary to our belief in him. We do not believe we are superior to any person or faith, but we do believe in the supremacy of Jesus.

Our mission is adapted from Jesus, whom we see in the Gospels reversing the order of things—the proud are humbled, the marginalized are brought into the center, the diseased are healed, the deranged are given sanity, and sinners are forgiven. We are trying to follow in his footsteps, but we’re also aware of our own weakness, which is why we return to his forgiving grace for our own pride, love of comfort, tendency to just take from the city.

Since we believe the church should be display of God’s grace to the city, we put the mission in the hands of our people. This happens through our 4 neighborhood churches, who together work socially in three low-income apartments in our city to love and mentor kids, teach them the life-changing message of Jesus, and provide nutritious meals. This is carried out in partnership with Hope Street and are also deeply committed to Austin Children’s Shelter. Since the Heavenly Father loves the orphan, we believe he has sent us to bring his message of acceptance, forgiveness, and healing though Jesus.

We also believe that Christians should be exemplary neighbors and citizens culturally. So we teach, train, and encourage people to add value to the city through their work. We have quite a few entrepreneurs who have created a number of businesses in Austin, leading to job creation and cultural flourishing. Our musicians have been engaged in making great culture, starting Music for the City.

Your new book Raised? invites skepticism as a gateway to belief in the resurrection. This is an interesting approach — acknowledging how unbelievable the claim is that Jesus died and rose from the dead. How did the book come about and what makes your approach unique?

Spending significant time in three creative class cities (Minneapolis, Boston, Austin), I’ve tried to listen to people’s concerns and objections to Christianity. A lot of people have really good questions and doubts about the Christian faith. When I step back and look at just our core beliefs, it’s pretty audacious to claim that God became a baby, died such a unique death that it absorbed the evil and sin of the world, and that he came back to life after three days in a cold, dark tomb. In a scientific age, that’s really hard to swallow. We just don’t see people come back from the funeral home. I don’t blame people for doubting it. Christians should doubt their faith more and skeptics should press into their doubts to discover deeper reasons for faith or unfaith.

If you doubt the resurrection, you’re in good company. The disciples, Jews, Greeks, and Romans of Jesus time all did too. If you came to a Greek in the 1st century and told them Jesus rose from the dead, they’d scratch their head and say, why would he want to do that? The body is contaminated, a cage, and dying is our freedom. Different Greeks had different spins on this, but essentially no Greek person would find resurrection desirable. Jews also would scratch their heads since they believed in one big resurrection of everyone at the end of time to face judgement. So one person, in the middle of history, didn’t fit with their age-old their theology. But Jews and Greeks changed their beliefs about resurrection instantly. They turned on a dime, changing centuries-held beliefs overnight. What would provoke philosophical Greeks, and staunch Jews, to change their mind in an incredibly short amount of time? The only plausible explanation is that they encountered a risen Jesus or heard the news from someone that did. Why else risk the scorn, ridicule, mental and spiritual instability, of switching you beliefs just like that?

So I say doubt it but doubt it well. Let’s not assume the arrogance of our cultural scientific moment and rule out the supernatural. Lets be more open-minded, do good history, and then consider the difference such a teaching has. It is worth risking the scorn? I believe so.

In our email exchange, you used the term centrist to describe your views. I’m so accustomed to hearing that word in a political context. What does it mean in the Christian world?

Briefly, we try to avoid liberal and conservative camps in our theology and politics and center our views on Christ. Conservative views often add to Christ teachings, saying we have to clean up, be more moral to be accepted by Jesus. Liberal views tend to subtract from Christ’s teachings, denying his clear claims to be God, to have died for the world, risen from the dead. We don’t what to add or subtract from the Jesus we see in the Bible and have met through profound personal encounter. We prefer to be centered on him, and not use Christianity of Jesus for strong political agendas. Jesus’ agenda of grace cuts right through the camps.

He confronts us in our bentness away from him (left or right, self-righteous or unrighteous), and says very clearly—“You need me. You need forgiveness for trying to add or subtract from me. And I’ll forgive you and give you a life better you can make for yourself. But you have to give up on yourself and give into me, where you will find perfect acceptance and love, enduring hope and joy.”

As these interviews are geared toward improving our religious literacy, I like to ask folks about misconceptions. Is there anything about your particular theology or church that you think is misunderstood?

I think I’ve addressed a few of those already. I do believe in what you are doing, Eileen, that we should all become more religiously literate. Let’s talk more about the deep things of life and culture with one another, respectfully, truthfully, and winsomely. And let’s work together of the renewal of our city. Let’s understand, not just blindly accept, the wonderful weirdness of Austin.



Q&A: Harish Kotecha tackles misconceptions about Hinduism, highlights charitable work

March 3, 2014

If you don’t already know him, let me introduce you to Harish N. Kotecha, a Hindu community leader here in Central Texas. He’s agreed to be my guinea pig in my effort to improve religious literacy through short Q&As with people of different belief systems. These will be small snapshots into world religions (and atheism) with the hope that we might learn something new, correct a misconception or two and even be inspired to pursue more knowledge on our own.


It made sense to me to start with the oldest religion — Hinduism — and to call on one of the nicest and hardest working faith leaders in the Austin area. A bit about Harish: He was born in Uganda and lived there until dictator Idi Amin abruptly expelled the country’s Asian population in 1972. Harish and his wife Shobhna fled to the U.S. where Harish worked for IBM as an engineer/manager. Now retired, he’s devoted himself to community, helping to develop Hindu temples and leading/participating in various civic and cultural organizations. He energized the Hindu community in Austin to help with the resettlement of Bhutanese refugees in recent years and remains committed to resettlement efforts. In 2010, he founded Hindu Charities for America “with the vision of motivating the Indian communities across U.S. to help with education of homeless and other economically disadvantaged children.” As Harish sees it, this country has given him a home and prosperity, and he wants to give back. Harish and Shobhna have a daughter, Sonia, who works  for CASA in Travis county, and son, Savan, a successful songwriter.

Here is our interview:

You are very active in getting the word out about the Hindu community in Central Texas through your charitable and interfaith work. What should we know about your faith community?

By and large, the Hindu community of 15,000 to 20,000 in Austin is mostly educated, economically well off and fairly traditional. There are six large places of worship and various cultural and civic organizations that are helping keeping the culture alive. It is said that UT at Austin typically had three to four thousand Hindu students while the Indians in Austin are doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT experts, entrepreneurs, and employed in companies in a professional capacity. The culture and traditions are deep rooted and the ties with India are strong for many. There is a focus on education of the children.

A friend of mine recently dedicated herself to Sanatana Dharma under the teacher Sri Acharyaji. We’ve been talking about her spiritual practice quite a bit lately, and it’s got me wondering about labels. She doesn’t call herself a Hindu or refer to her belief system as Hinduism given the non-Vedic origin of these terms. How do you feel about these labels?

As I understand it, Sanatham Dharma or “the eternal truth” is the oldest religion and not founded by one person. There are four Vedas, the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedas are the primary texts of Hinduism. They also had a vast influence on Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Traditionally the text of the Vedas was coeval with the universe. Scholars have determined that the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas, was composed about 1500 B.C., and codified about 600 B.C. It is unknown when it was finally committed to writing, but this probably was at some point after 300 B.C.

Just as have we have teachers or trainers to acquire various skills, in Indian culture, to learn and practice religion, religious teachers (Gurus, Swamis, etc.) are common. People follow the one they feel comfortable with. Fundamentally, we all understand truth is one, but there are many paths to learn truth and there are many names give to the same truth. God is one; there are many ways to realize God. For example, Harish is one, but people know him as husband, father, employee, friend, social worker, etc., depending on the role he plays on the screen of life. Similarly there are different forms of the one and same God.

Given the multiplicity of religious teachers and religious practices, labels develop – it is human nature. Better understanding is reached from teaching of writings of those understand. Sri Pravartak Acharyaji’s teaching appears to evolve from Vedas and Hinduism. Many will say that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion. There was an interesting article in Newsweek by Lisa Miller that is titled: We are all Hindus – Hinduism, as some maintain, is a way of life.

Hinduism is the most challenging (in a good way!) religion I’ve studied. It is ancient and complex with such a wide range of beliefs and practices. I think Westerners have a lot of misconceptions about the religion. I’m sure you have a long list to choose from, but can you give me just a few examples of what people in the West get wrong about Hinduism?

This is an interesting question. Over past several years some reporters have asked this question. The most common misunderstandings I have come across are:

  • Hinduism is a Polytheistic religion – meaning there is a belief in many Gods. This is untrue – Hindus believe there is one God, but there are many paths to realize God. It is the only religion in the world in which a person is given the freedom to choose to relate to God in the way that suits them best, whatever that may be.
  • Hinduism has thousands of Gods: Hindu scriptures state that there are many divine/spiritual beings in the universe – It has been interpreted to mean that there are many Gods. This was most likely never intended to be taken literally, as the Hindu scriptures are full of symbolic metaphor and esoteric meaning.
  • Hinduism supports the caste system: Caste system came about not though Hinduism but by people who looked down on others. It unfortunately became part of Indian culture and got related to religion.

Along those lines, what is the most challenging aspect of being part of a minority religion here in Texas?

The most disturbing thing from my experience has been conversion of Bhutanese Hindu refugees to Christianity. These folks came in as refugees to a country totally alien to them. They are innocent, not knowing what they are getting into. With offer of material benefits, jobs, availability of services, many have been coerced to convert to Christianity. Not in Central Texas, but in some other parts of the country, a few of those who were converted committed suicide. Another incident is where a Hindu inmate was baptized in a correctional facility! There was no reaching out to temples or Hindu community by the Prison Ministry. We have since then registered a couple of temples to the Prison Ministry.

Hindus and Jews do not proselytize. So such incidents, while such practices are common in many parts of India, are disturbing to experience in Central Texas.

The religion beat’s disappearing act

February 20, 2014

Veteran religion reporter Julia Duin posted a state of the God beat on Get Religion. It’s illuminating. And depressing. But I can’t say it’s surprising. When the Religion Newswriters Association held its annual conference in Austin this past fall, it seemed that every other person I talked to was a former staffer at one newspaper or another. Many were freelancing, which is a hard way to make a living.

Julia provides some grim anecdotes about the disappearance of the religion beat in newspapers across the country. I’m sad to see the beat fade at my local paper, the Austin American-Statesman. But in this day and age, specialty beats are an endangered species. As an advocate of religious literacy, I see the lack of a dedicated religion beat — and, for that matter, the lack of dedicated newspaper readers — as a real problem. Good religion writers educate us not only about people with different beliefs from our own. They also shed light on our own beliefs, our own tribe, so to speak. Again, you need readers to be effective. The bright spot in Julia’s GR post is what’s happening with Religion News Service, which has assembled a freelance team of some of the best faith reporters in the country.

But — there’s always a but — I do take issue with one of Julia’s observations on coverage of atheism and secularism. She writes:

… [S]pecialists have had to get current with the fast-growing ranks of the “nones,” which, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, are an estimated 19.6 percent of the American population. Their numbers have ballooned in recent years, as have the numbers of outspoken atheists, creating an interesting conundrum for religion-news specialists because coverage of the non- or anti-religious gets tossed in the lap of the religion reporter. On one level that’s logical, but, still, stop and think about that for a minute. How many stories do sports writers produce about people who hate sports? Do fashion writers cover those who hate fashion?

This comparison doesn’t work. Atheists are actively engaged in the discussion about the role of religion in public life. Many of the “nones” are searching for meaning and rituals and are crafting their own set of beliefs and traditions for their families. Heck, we even have atheist churches now. And on top of all that, Christian leaders are constantly talking about reaching the “unchurched.” They are constantly lamenting secularism in this country. Believers and skeptics go hand in hand when it comes to comprehensive religion reporting.

Otherwise, this is a post worth reading and reflecting on. Where are you getting your religion news these days?

US Postal Service stamp ad = religious persecution?

December 3, 2013

Ah, religious persecution. It can come in so many forms. Torture . Imprisonment. US Postal Service advertisements.

Yes, the USPS omitted a religious Christmas image from its advertisement for holiday stamps. Hanukkah was featured. Kwanzaa was represented. But the third stamp in this holy trinity? A tasty-looking but very secular gingerbread house.  Some Christians are in an uproar. The post office DOES sell religious stamps (e.g. Madonna and child) to commemorate Christmas, and a spokesperson for the agency said the gingerbread design is new, which is why it was featured in this year’s ad. But the outrage persists out there on the Internet.

A former classmate of mine wrote on Facebook that her post office in Georgia did not display any Christian stamps, and when she inquired about them, she was told, “We have them. We just can’t display them anymore.” This woman is an evangelical Christian, and she was deeply troubled. As were her Christian friends, one of whom wrote the following comment: “Let the religious persecution begin!”

This is religious persecution? You sure? Here, let me help you sort that out: The answer is no. A poorly-conceived stamp advertisement in a country where you are a member of the majority religion does not amount to religious persecution. Sorry. You are not in danger of losing your basic human rights. You are not in danger at all. You might want to save your outrage for the plight of your fellow Jesus followers in North Korea or Iran or Pakistan. You might consider other actual forms of religious persecution perpetrated against Baha’is and Muslims and Buddhists. (Having interviewed such victims, I can tell you, their stories will make you shudder.) You might even spend some time reflecting on the meaning of Christmas and how much it depends upon the correct postage.

Look, we can and should have discussions about how we talk about religion in this country, how Christian privilege works and how silly political-correctness can be. But let’s at least have a little perspective.

A new Muslim brotherhood sparks criticism — and that’s OK, folks

September 11, 2013

There’s a lot of buzz over the new fraternity at the University of Texas Dallas. It’s a Muslim frat, the only one in the country, according to reports I’ve read. Alpha Lamda Mu, also identified as Alif Laam Meem, will bring together young Muslim men with shared values that  set them apart from most other fraternities. These guys won’t be doing any keg stands. No mixers with sororities. They will focus on serving the community, networking and adhering to the guidelines of their faith.

From the Huffington Post:

Founder Ali Mahmoud told The Huffington Post that the idea for the group came about as he and a childhood friend settled into college life at the University of Texas, Dallas, and considered their social options. Mahmoud’s friend expressed his plans to join the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity to enjoy the social scene as well as the networking opportunities, particularly in the post-graduation context, but worried about the less academic aspects of being in a frat. They joked about how it would be great if a fraternity with Muslim values existed, and out of that joke, Alif Laam Meem was born.

So what precisely are Muslim values? I mean, aside from abstention from alcohol and pre-marital sex, what are the expectations for aspiring members? How do the brothers decide who makes the cut? The FAQ on the frat’s website offers a rather vague explanation (but stay tuned because a critic of this venture makes the story more interesting).

Alif Laam Meem will not tolerate any behavior that is outside of the boundaries of moral principles and mannerisms. We will have fun and enjoy ourselves as brothers, but we will not engage in any activities that are not allowed within the religion. … Our ultimate purpose is to serve and please Allah by following the model of manhood left by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Like I said, kinda vague. But it sounds very wholesome and lovely. Right? Adam Abboud, a Muslim student at Cornell University, says no. I stumbled upon his response to the Muslim fraternity chapter after some folks from a Listserv I’m on blasted his Tumblr piece as hateful. Personally,  I was relieved to find out that not everyone was doing cartwheels over Alpha Lamda Mu. Not that I opposed the formation of the frat. I don’t. But sometimes it’s nice to add more depth to the conversation. To hear a different point of view. And this one, happily, comes from a Muslim.

I am all for Muslim unity and coalition, but we need to revolutionize what that looks like, rather than adopting discriminatory structures.

Abboud’s piece is provocative in that it addresses homosexuality, gender identity, misogyny and equality. Read on, and remember, this is a Muslim man writing:

ALM operates under male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, heteronormative privilege and fundamental understandings of Islam. For one to join ALM, they must buy into a narrow understanding and interpretation of religion as defined by these “Muslim” leaders. ALM ultimately reproduces privilege in the Muslim community; the fraternity maintains male-hetero power structures within the ever-changing landscape of [Muslim Student Associations] and Muslim populations across college campuses.

Fascinating. And, I think, encouraging. It is always good to be reminded that people of the same religion are not monolithic in their worldview. Yes, let’s talk about the definition of  a “good Muslim.” Let’s hear different opinions among young Muslims on sexuality and gender. Good for the guys at UT Dallas who created something meaningful to them. And good for Adam Abboud for challenging everyone to consider the implications, which is not, in my book at least, being a “hater.”

In the interest of equality and giving the sisters their due: Alpha Lamda Mu is not the first Muslim foray into the Greek system. I did a little searching online and found this 2005 piece from AltMuslim. It looks like Gamma Gamma Chi is still going eight years later.


Evangelicals evolve on immigration

April 9, 2013

The Wall Street Journal ran this article about evangelical attitudes on immigration on the front page today.  The placement tells me that a) shifting views among conservative Christians are surprising and b) what these believers think (and how they vote) matters. Some 300 evangelical leaders will gather in Washington next week to lobby lawmakers to overhaul immigration policy.

In some cases, according to the article, pastors who advocated a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants wound up alienating their flock. But it sounds like more people in the pews are coming around and seeing the immigration dilemma through a new biblical lens. Welcoming the stranger, helping the needy, doing what Jesus might have done.

The reporter also notes a more practical incentive:

[The evolving position on immigration]comes as many evangelical churches, much like the Republican Party, see an opportunity to add members from the swelling Hispanic population.


Of course, there are many, many evangelical conservative types who reject the biblical argument for amnesty. Texas U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith makes this pointed remark:

“The Bible contains numerous passages that do not necessarily support amnesty and instead support the rule of law,” he said. “The Scriptures clearly indicate that God charges civil authorities with preserving order, protecting citizens and punishing wrongdoers.”

Don’t get me started on all the vile laws Smith’s God has charged authorities with upholding. But it’s true that the Bible can be used to justify or condemn illegal immigration.

I wrote about this in a column a few years ago and quoted James R. Edwards, Jr. who wrote this conservative policy paper on immigration and the Bible.

Another observation in this rather disjointed post: The online comments on the WSJ piece were pretty nasty. An example:

Let’s just take every barefoot beggar the world has to offer, sign them up for food-stamps, housing assistance, Welfare & cell phones; hope they get enough to qualify for an auto loan, and call it a day.


Guns, God and Greg Abbott

March 21, 2013

So you may have noticed Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has been generating some interesting publicity. First there were the web ads urging New York gun owners to moved to Texas. The pop-up ads when clicked directed people this Facebook page.



He posted the picture on his Facebook page. OK, I get it. Abbott likes gun rights. And while I see both sides of the gun debate currently gripping this country and really don’t have a strong opinion either way, I wonder if in the wake of the Newtown shootings the AG of Texas should be lamenting the absence of guns in our nation’s classrooms. Just feels a bit, I dunno, unseemly.

But what really stands out to me (as someone who has covered this issue in the press) is the suggestion that the Bible is not taught in schools. In fact, a great many schools in Texas are teaching the Bible in elective courses because of a legislative mandate in 2008. Abbott surely knows this. But he’s playing for effect here.

Speaking of those Bible courses, you may have already seen news reports showing that the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network did a study of the Bible courses and found many to be problematic. No surprise there. BUT the report is really fascinating and illuminating. I was looking for a kind of anti-conservative Christian bias, but honestly I didn’t see it. The report illustrates not only what public schools in Texas are doing wrong with these Bible classes, it also shows how some are doing it right. Highly recommend reading the full report.

But back to Abbott’s Facebook post: The image generated a mix of comments. What do you make of it?