Posts Tagged ‘evangelicalism’

The fourth bomb on why young people leave the church we now discuss.  According to Barna headline it is summed up in this sentence: Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.  The article expands to the following.

One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality.

Regular readers of this blog have seen the sexuality issue pop up several times.  For this post two things need to be parsed out: what is official view of the evangelical church, how is it simplistic (and harmful), and what ought we to do?

Simplistic testimonies: Out of Touch and Out of Date.

Evangelical theology is quite often folk theology.  This is not to say that it’s bad.  It is more a comment on how a message gets accepted and how it gets communicated.  You’ve seen it work if you have ever had someone “testify” to the goodness of God or their working in their life.  Evangelical theology is deeply rooted in the folk experiences of God’s winners.  That is, people who can tell us how great it is to live a holy life, all by the grace of God of course.

Exhibit A among “God’s Winners” is Mark Regnerus.  Several years ago, he argued for the case for young marriage.  In it he extolled the virtues of marrying young.  Naturally, he answered many of the objection such as economic insecurity, immaturity, and even a kind of romantic perfectionism.  He wisely admitted that it is unrealistic to expect people to wait.  Instead, he argues that our crisis with sexuality is really a misunderstanding of marriage.  Overall, he feels that inspiring young marriage (and helping people to get there) is the solution to our woes about sexuality.  Not surprisingly, Mark Regnerus married young.

Another issue, we can call it exhibit b for God’s winners, is he frequent testimonies and sharing on podcasts like boundless.org, such as this story about bachelor pastor who got married late in life.  In podcast 246, Steve DeWitt, talks about his lengthy time unmarried life up until age 44.  He shares his thoughts on loneliness, expectations on perhaps always being single, and a scatterings of relationships a long the way.  He remains one of God’s Winners because he remained pure.

Stories like this that help motivate the standard lines of the evangelical sexual ethic.  It can be summed in few sentences: virginity is how the unmarried stay holy.  Multiple partners will make used up.  Young men should not dishonor young women.  Young women should not dishonor themselves.  If you ‘burn with passion’ just get married young.  Marital sex is totally hot.  Look up these in any evangelical message board, any evangelical sermon, and you’ll see these memes repeated ad infintum.

Meanwhile, Tamar tempts Judah like its no big deal.

Meanwhile, Tamar tempts Judah like it’s no big deal.

Overly simplistic, harmful and marginalizing.

For the young Christians the party line creates familiar feeling.  It’s like a baby boomer telling you to “just get a job.” 

Why are these messages so completely out of touch?  Part of it is that the way church leaders dogmatically ignore bad consequences of the evangelical sexual ethic.  Feminist Jessica Valenti outlined some of the interesting lopsidedness of what she pejoratively calls “virginity fetishism.”  At purity balls, young women promise to keep their virginity intact.  Young men promise not to defile a young woman by ‘taking’  her virginity.  Does this not seem strange?  Is virginity only a quality that women have?  Why?  Such a strange emphasis on one gender is damaging.  I like to think that there is a bit more to being a ‘Godly woman’ than what doesn’t happen prior to marriage.  It is also seems to imply that women are not interested in or tempted by sex.  This is such an archaic, outdated notion that I face palm even typing it.

There are however more dramatic examples.  In one instance a kidnapped rape victim, Elizabeth Smart, endured sexual slavery at age fourteen.  She was rescued when her captors brought her out into public.  Why didn’t she just run away the first chance she got?  Elizabeth explained that rape victims struggle with a feeling of worthlessness and that this is made worse by conservative, abstinence only sex ed programs.

Some might say that this is an extreme example.  Indeed it is.  So consider the idea that virginity somehow helps single people prepare for a great marriage.  It is rare to find a Christian in their mid 20s who doesn’t know someone who wasn’t hurt by this myth.  It’s ugly result is a quick divorce to get out of a premature marriage.  One candid story, entitled “My Virignity Mistake” the author tells a story of an expensive marriage, a disappointing sex life, and a subsequent divorce.

She ends with a hopeful note:

Soon after our divorce, he got remarried to someone who suits him better than I ever could have. And years later, I can confirm that I am not that woman who has no interest in sex. I don’t quilt. I haven’t compiled a grocery list in bed in years, and I now know that sex can be amazing … with a bartender who only knows your first name, a pilot you meet on vacation in Costa Rica and yes, with the right guy – sex in a marriage can be beautiful. The key is to figure that out before you find yourself walking down an aisle in a dress that costs more than the family car (my mother has since reminded me). It isn’t the most important thing when it comes to love. But for me, I learned that sex is important enough not to wait. -Salon

As you can see by this quote, this description of sex doesn’t fit with the idea that multiple partners make a person feel used up like a piece of tape that looses its adhesive power.

Shut up and Listen

Many people will see the negative results here -a shamed rape victim, a young divorce, and a lopsided sexual dogma- and insist that these are the results of sin not the morality about sex.  Honestly, can such an attitude really reflect a thorough understanding of how “God’s losers” are experiencing sex?  Remember, part of the problem is that Evangelical sexual ethic is folk theology that’s not just proclaimed but created by the testimonies of folks like a 44 year old bachelor pastor.  I can see no justification to ignore or reinterpret stories of people who failed to get to meet the cut.  These problems are not the result of sin.  These problems are the result of an archaic, out-dated, lopsided, and completely out of touch sexual ideal.

The 80% of young Christians who are having sex anyway likely agree with this point.  If we keep beating the drum about virginity, abstinence, and the virtues of young marriage we expect more young people to leave out of sheer alienation.  If we trudge along with idealistic views of sexual purity, relationships, and dating we will lose the attention of young people who already know it isn’t working.  I can’t emphasize enough that we need to re-evaluate our sexual ethic in light of our contemporary context, rather than appealing to an imagined past or somewhat selective examination of scripture.

Let’s start by honoring young women.  You read that correctly.  The current sexual ethic is not not really helping any woman who feels used up after sex, or is feels guilty about wanting sex.  It bothers me that there are Christians out there who think that dating or marrying a non-virgin is either a taboo or a consolation prize.  We need to erase the virginal purity idea from our minds.  A women’s intrinsic worth as romantic partner no more depends on her not having had sex than a man’s not having viewed pornography.  By way of example, consider this.  Years ago, a friend once asked if she would be ‘used goods’ if she tried to date post-divorce.  I told her that any guy who would think that of her isn’t worth dating in the first place.  Why?  Most likely because he is not totally aware of his own failings when it comes to his sexuality.

More generally, we need to have a more candid two-sided dialogue, when it comes to sex.  You will notice that I did not talk about the famous passage in Corinthians.  Equally, I did not reference lesser known references to the unexpected sexuality of the old testament.  This because I find those conversations hard to start.  The impression I get from most Christian romance media and message-board discussions is that Evangelical zeitgeist is still mired in a very black and white, very dogmatic, way of thinking on this matter.  This is especially true for the organizations like boundless who speak just a bit too authoritatively about purity and romance.  We need to understand what the Bible actually says about sex, and I do mean all of the Bible, not just the verses that reinforce the folk theologies.

Fortunately, the attitude is changing.  Articles such as the ones of shared in this blog, this nice one at Internet Monk, and this wonderful documentary give me some confidence that other people’s stories will be heard.  I hope also that most of the young Christians in what Relevant calls the “secret sexual revolution” will have the confidence to be less secret about it.

Make no mistake: it’s not going to be enough to revise or re-articlate the old ethic about sex.  The current sexual ethic needs to be replaced.  If we expect to keep the coming generations, we need to get sexual ethic that makes sense.  We need to get one that works.  This will begin only when more and more young people become honest and candid with themselves.

God’s losers need to be heard.

This short blog continues a series on the reasons why young people leave the church.  The emphasis for this series is to not to rehash out problems, but to find a solutions.

In the previous blog, we talked about a shallow experience of Christianity.  We talked about how the responses aren’t helping.  The evangelical church knows boredom is a problem.  They know that many people feel that Christianity is not relevant.  The response, over the last 30 years, has to been to create what Catholic libertarian Ann Bernhardt* calls “Super Fun Rock Band Church” as well as baptize sagely life coaching so that young Christians can have better careers/lives.

Rock bands and life coaching can be found outside the church.  Why do we need to stay in church to get it?

What any Church needs to do to retain young people is two things.  First, offer them something that cannot be found outside of the Christian faith.  Secondly, respond to the objection that the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough.  Coincidentally, these are the same thing.

Those of you from reformed traditions probably already have an idea of what the answer might be.  Chances are, you feel it looks like this:

Reformation Begins with the PulpitOkay, I am sure you weren’t thinking of Elvis, but you get the idea.  The perscription is this: if the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough, than we need more “Biblical preaching” or whatnot.  The sermon is the centerpiece of the service, and the minister is the man delivering the word of God to the congregation.  Let’s sing to the Lord for twenty minutes and then listen to a forty minute “conversation” since calling it a sermon isn’t hip anymore.  Does this work?

Maybe.

Looking at the pulpit is a good start.  But it is only a start.  There are at least two problems why concentrating on a minister and sermon aren’t enough.  The first is this: like it or not, the minister is a position of power and authority.

By power and authority I do not mean that he is specially anointed by God.  I mean that he speaks, persuades, and motivates a crowd (power), and is given his position through whatever process his church recognizes (authority).  It is very easy to find examples of individuals who persuade hundreds, even thousands, to believe that what they teach is divine and Biblical.  Yet their teachings are the result of proof-texting at best and outright lying at worst.  Their influence comes from the power of rhetoric, motivational speaking, and use of psychological forces.  Yet the lay-person in church is not truly equipped to understand the difference between the work of a clever speaker and the work of Holy Spirit through preaching.  I blame public eduction.

The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife.

The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife.

It’s natural to think “not my church” or “not my pastor.”  It is my sincere hope that this is the case.  However, even if a minister is perfectly benign, he still wields a fair amount of rhetorical power of a congregation.  Have you ever heard a pastor talk about how many people are going to a special event?  Or how many people were baptized on an Easter Sunday?  These are both examples of social proof, and it’s a damn powerful psychological (but not spiritual) force.  If the sermon is central, than the pastor is bit elevated above his congregation (often literally).  At best, he is a great lecturer of correct teaching.  Sadly, most the ability and power to decide what is correct teaching resides in himself unless the congregation understands how to interpret the Bible as well as he does.  I can’t be the only one that sees a problem here.

This leads to the second issue: “Biblical preaching” is always top down.  It often aims the lowest common denominator.  In other words, the speaker speaks the truth.  The lay people are silent.  There’s a strong performance/audience dynamic here.  The speaker, especially in large churches, must make his message as accessible as possible.  This will help reach new Christians and non Christians.  But what about the members of church who have heard the most accessible messages?  Are they ready to move on to something deeper?

I may sound like I am a bit distrustful of ministers.  Frankly, that’s because many times I am.  My context is probably not the same as many readers.  In southern California, mega churches are often the only game in town.  So it is entirely possible that cult-of-personality leadership leaves me chagrined.  However, I’ve also been an educator.  This leads to what the solution could be.

Don’t teach the Bible: Teach people to understand the Bible.

Years ago, my friend and recounted his experience as a 19 year student at a now defunct Bible college.**  He recalled how he had never heard of concepts like cultural context, the nuances of Greek language, idioms, and in general plain old principles of hermeutics, until he was at college.  My own journey began when I borrowed a book on Biblical interpretation from my then youth pastor’s library.  Like many others, both us began to scratch our heads and wonder why we didn’t get a sense that these concepts seemed to make their way into the sermons we listened to.

These days, I notice that a lot of preaching some to come in several gradients.  We have ministers who are conscious of the principles of hermeneutics.  They successfully apply them to even the most accessible messages.  This means they use the heavy duty work of Christian intellectuals, but still communicate a message people understand.  Others preach questionable folk interpretations (I’m looking at you John Eldredge!), and show contempt for Christian intellectuals (Beth Moore).  Among the laity, I notice that many people would like to know more about how to understand the Bible.  It seems wrong that they’d all have to go to a Christian college to figure these things out.

The solution for a shallow Christian experience is a wiser laity.  The laity could never be expected to know and learn as much as a “professional” minister.  However, they should understand enough to be able to know a good, thorough, interpretation from a purely rhetorical, pop-psychological, folk-wisdom message.  This type of spiritual growth cannot be achieved with sermons alone, because it questions the aforementioned performer/audience dynamic that sermonizing uses.

Rather, churches -espeically large and diverse ones- ought to find ways to facilitate an interactive and more egalitarian way to train its laity.  There’s a big difference between sitting silently before a spotlighted, jumbotroned, holy-man and joining in a lively discussion among peers.  In many education circles, the role of the teacher is not to be some kind of faucet that passively fills buckets, but rather a kind of facilitator, and coach who helps guide learning and discussion.

We have to stop worrying about accessibility of a message.  You can’t expect maturing Christian to stick around if you keep ignoring their needs.  These needs aren’t going to be the same as new Christians.  Not everything needs to be about evangelism either.  Someone who has been a Christian for a few years is ready to talk about things that aren’t going to be accessible to someone completely unchurched.  This is okay.

We need to have serious discussion about how we understand the Bible rather than repeating what we think the Bible means.  Many Bible studies are too quick to jump from Bible verse to applicability to everyday life.  This is why we get tragically flawed folk interpretations of verses like Jeremiah 29:11.  We have to invite the opinions and viewpoints of Christian intellectuals rather than sidelining them.  All of this would make an experience of Christianity deeper.

While many people may dismiss this blog, I hope that I have at least hit a chord some people.  One blogger once commented that if younger Christians can get through an AP class, then they can handle a bit more.  My hope is that churches will pay attention to people like this.  After all, if younger folks are able to work that hard to get into college, than surely they are willing and able to into the grit of serious hermeneutics.

==============

*This woman seriously is nuts.  Barbie Pink AK-47 nuts.  That’s a special kind of crazy.  Here references to “superfun rockband pastors” can be found on her blog.

**At least it still has a website.  Ahh Bethany, how I miss my misbegotten summer camps in your dorms…

This blog continues the discussion on why the young are leaving the Church.

Have ever heard this only partly ironic joke: Don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls/boys who do?  While the phrasing is archaic, the spirit of the statement continues in evangelical culture.  It might be better said today as “Watch out for those video games, movies, music, internet chat rooms and Pokemon.”

demon_with_child

How stupid can you look?

Reason number one why young people leave is that the church seems overprotective.  As the Barna research reports expands:

A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

I can still remember fear-based tactics to encourage a kind of ghetto, tribal, thinking under the guise of spiritual purity or holiness.  Most of the readers can probably know this too.  See if any of these statements sound familiar:

  • Colleges encourage hedonism and secularism.
  • It’s not acceptable to watch movies with nudity, foul-language, violence etc in it.
  • Harry Potter encourages witchcraft.
  • Martial Arts and Yoga worship demons.
  • Halloween is a pagan holiday.
  • Good Christians only listen to Christian music.
  • Is that a “Christian” video game, movie, book, school, person etc?

Most of these look rather reactionary, strange, and often just plain stupid.  It seems very odd to me that a movie or videogame ought to be denounced for sex and violence, but yet we are still expected to read passages like this in the Bible:

 Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give us your counsel; what shall we do?” Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. -2 Samuel 16:20-22 NRSV

I want to be clear with the irony here.  An overprotective church says that sexual content or violence is something Christians shouldn’t watch or see.   However, it’s okay to read a story were a prince usurps his father’s kingdom through sexual exhibitionism.  This is only one example of how the overprotective impulse would have us stop reading the Bible.

Little needs to be said here about Harry Potter, Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, or a host of other forms of entertainment that children and teens have enjoyed.  Harry Potter was actually infused with Christian symbolism.  Pokemon and Magic the Gathering never turned children into little satanists.

But what about movies and television?  Don’t these influence teenagers and young adults?  Shouldn’t we be worried about our Christian witness when watching a film that has a premarital sex, gay people, occult activity, and curse words?  A good Christian could never watch Dexter or Game of the Thrones for sake of these sins in those shows, or so it is said.

I actually do think that movies, television, and video-games influence behavior and even personality.  Yet this kind of mentality concentrates on incidental superficialities, rather than evaluating a work of fiction as a work of fiction.  In other words, an overprotective church complains about some presence of “sin” in a story, but fails to evaluate its role  in the story.

Let’s use Game of Thrones as an example.  Throughout season one, when see Daenerys Targaryen develop as a person.  At the first, she is little more than a pawn (and property) in her brother’s ambitious schemes.  At the end, we see her grow into a self-made monarch-to-be, the mother of dragons, and is also naked.  “Also naked” is the superficiality that an overprotective church fixates on.  There is no discussion about character arcs, themes, or anything else that a work of fiction should be evaluated by.  Someone is naked, and it is therefore “not Christian.”

Doing entertainment differently

Let’s be clear: young people are going to encounter the world outside of the Christian ghetto.  Attempting to censor what they read, watch, play or listen to out of fear will server only to make them resentful.  An overprotective church does the Gospel no service.  It only makes people appear awkward.

The solution to this is two fold.

For the first part, I am indebted to Glenn Peoples over at Beretta Online.  I recommend everyone simply listen to this podcast.  In it, he argues that we should not filter our entertainment between “Christian” and “everything else that is evil.”  If we are to evaluate a song, a film or a video game we ought stop asking “is it Christian?” and instead ask “is it good?”  Plenty of good things came outside of Christian ghetto.  Plenty of things inside the Christian ghetto represent a lousy form of Christianity.  What do I mean by this?  Listen to the podcast.  His accent is really cool.

The second part is this.  When we do evaluate a work of art we should not be counting how many sins it represents.  Rather, we should dig into its substance and evaluate the work of art as a work of art.  In the case of works of fiction, we need to be discussing characters arcs, genres, three acts just to start.  If we’re listening to music, we should be talking about musical arrangements, lyrical quality, vocal talent and so forth.  If we’re playing a video game, we’ll talk about game mechanics, plot development, and other things that make a game fun.

For all of these things, I count myself lucky to be in Southern California.  For all my gripes about “touchy feely west coast Evangelicalism,” it is wonderful to be surrounded by artists, musicians, actors and other Christian creatives who understand their faith well enough to interact well with the creative world.

So go out and watch something sinful tonight.  Read a book where someone does witchcraft.  Get yourself some funny shaped dice and slay a few dragons.  Listen to a rap lyrics was bad language.  Play a videogame where you shoot nazis.

When you’re done, ask yourself “was it good”?

I don’t think God is going to condemn you for your entertainment.

Young people leave the Christianity they were raised with.

Now that is hardly a headline.  Every young person who was raised a Christian has either seen this happen or gone through it themselves.  It is a shared cultural experience.  It happens despite the efforts of many youth and college pastors.

This means that despite the grandiose so-cal mega churches, the inspiring baptisms, and the stories of conversions you hear on Sundays, faith is not passed from one generation to the next.  If there is any church that lasts, it is probably perpetually a church “first generation” Christians.  In sum, Evangelicalism is great at marketing, but terrible at retention.  Somehow, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind.

Why is the younger generation leaving?  Barna research group noted six reasons why young people leave:

1. Churches are over protective.

2. Teens and Twenty somethings experience of Christianity is shallow.

3. Churches come across as antagonistic towards science.

4. Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.

5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.

6. The Church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

One of the most important points of the article is this one:

David Kinnaman, who is the coauthor of the book unChristian, explained that “the problem of young adults dropping out of church life is particularly urgent because most churches work best for ‘traditional’ young adults – those whose life journeys and life questions are normal and conventional. But most young adults no longer follow the typical path of leaving home, getting an education, finding a job, getting married and having kids—all before the age of 30. These life events are being delayed, reordered, and sometimes pushed completely off the radar among today’s young adults.

I am sure that many people reading this blog can relate to these six points.  I also know that many (myself included) can relate to the “non-traditional” lifestyle.

Many of these problems stem from, in my opinion, the mistakes and oversights of Christianity in the United States going back at least fifty years.  So these six points need to be put in a bit historical context.

But we’ve all beaten the problems to death by now haven’t we?

The real turn that we need to make is not discussing problems, but discussing solutions.  That is what the next few blogs will be about.  We need to talk about what Christianity would look like if it had some depth in it.  We need to really get down to the issue on this science thing.  We need to discard some excessive protectiveness for the young.  We need an entirely new sexual ethic.

We need to do some things different.

Over the next few weeks, every Monday, I will post short blogs on each of these issues.  My hope is to generate discussion on solutions.  I hope that everyone will contribute in comments.

As final caveat, I realize that many of the things that people suggest will be dismissed or not taken seriously.  Some things suggested will even look like “compromising with the world” or “being soft on sin” or a myriad of other complaints.  This perspective remains important.  Nonetheless, if we want different results we will have to reconsider what we are doing.

A particular book contained a copy of a personal letter from a high-up LDS official.  The writer said that he did not believe that there was enough historical evidence to believe the Book of Mormon, that he and others had been duped by Joseph Smith’s great story, and that he was going to stick around in the “good ship” of Mormonism anyway.  You read that correctly.  This story illustrates our willingness to believe a good-sounding story, even in the face of evidence (or lack thereof).  If the story sounds nice, if it inspires morality,  then that is all that matters -even if you admit you were lied to.  This tendency can only be stronger when you hear the story from a clever speaker.

Most evangelicals shake their heads in dismay at this story.  However, there is a large wing of Evangelicalism that is equally willing to believe myths.  No, I am not talking about the Bible of course.  I am talking about the founding fathers myths.  The recently maligned David Barton and his book “The Jefferson Lies” is a perfect example.  Thomas Nelson -a Christian Publishing house- pulled its publication due to a loss of confidence.  Christians, not atheists, came out to criticize this latest tome from the religious right.

Despite that, many people persist in ignoring criticism of this book.  This has less to do with its merits, and more to do with rhetorical cunning.  David Barton asserted at the beginning of his book that detractors of his views are evil secularists, modernists, and minimalists and a host of a derogatory names.  These people, according to Barton, are the enemies of our country and have deliberately published lies when interpreting Jefferson.  This helps the reader understand that David Barton is here to give the truth to them.  Any one smell a con?

Furthermore, did you know you can just read Jefferson’s letters for yourself?

My interest, as a Christian, is really only in one section of this book: the final chapter which argues that Jefferson was not an atheist, but was a Christian.  This is something Barton has a serious burden of on.  Put very specifically, Barton must submit that Jefferson was a Christian.  Thomas Jefferson is known for the voluminous, meticulously cataloged collection of letters, writings, and essays that he left us.  So there is bound to be something.  So is Barton’s evidence sufficient?  In this blog, we can look at a few points.

Jefferson affirmed the Apostles’ Creed?

One of the most important claims that he makes is that Thomas Jefferson said certain Christian sounding things.  For instance Barton writes:

In 1776… he [Jefferson] penned his Notes on Religion in which he affirmed that Jesus was the Savior, the Scriptures were inspired and that the Apostles’ Creed “contain[ed] all things necessary to Salvation.”

Here then, it appears that Jefferson affirmed the Apostles’ Creed.  Unfortunately though, the notes on religion are just that: Notes on religion.  This collection of short notes surveys several Christian groups, several heretical group, and summarizes the views of John Locke -espeically when it comes to religious toleration/freedom.  The complete paragraph reads as follows:

The Epistles were written to persons already Christians. A person might be a Xn then before they were written. Consequently the fundamentals of Xty were to be found in the preaching of our Saviour, which is related in the gospels. These fundamentals are to be found in the epistles dropped here & there, & promiscuously mixed with other truths. But these other truths are not to be made fundamentals. They serve for edification indeed & explaining to us matters in worship & morality, but being written occasionally it will readily be seen that their explanations are adpated to the notions & customs of the people they were written to. But yet every sentence in them (tho the writers were inspired) must not be taken up & made a fundamental, without assent to which a man is not to be admitted a member of the Xn church here, or to his kingdom hereafter. The Apostles creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to salvation, & consequently to a communion.

So why did Jefferson mention the Apostles’ Creed here?  Is it because he believed it himself, or because he’s taking short-hand notes on what other people believed?  In another section of Notes on Religion Jefferson wrote:

A heretic is an impugner of fundamentals. What are fundamentals? The protestants will say those doctrines which are clearly & precisely delivered in the holy Scriptures. Dr. Vaterland would say the Trinity. But how far this character of being clearly delivered will suit the doctrine of the trinity I leave others to determine. It is nowhere expressly declared by any of the earliest fathers, & was never affirmed or taught by the Church before the Council of Nice.

Here is another quote:

Another plea for Episcopal government in Religion in England is it’s similarity to the political governmt by a king. No bishop, no king. This then with us is a plea for government by a presbytery which resembles republican government.

The clergy have ever seen this. The bishops were alwais mere tools of the crown.

The Presbyterian spirit is known to be so congenial with friendly liberty, that the patriots after the restoration finding that the humour of people was running too strongly to exalt the prerogative of the crown promoted the dissenting interest as a check a and balance, & thus was produced the Toleration Act

If there is anything in “Notes on Religion” that indicates that Thomas Jefferson made serious commitment to one Christian group or the other, all the while personally affirming the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed, I did not find it.  It doesn’t look like Barton did either.

Jefferson said “I am a Christian.”

Barton makes a bold claim based on two letters: one to Charles Thomson and another famous one to Benjamin Rush.  Both of these letters are nearly as famous as Google itself.  In the letter to Charles Thomson Jefferson said (and is quoted by Barton) “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”  However, we read the complete letter, we find that Jefferson is separating himself from the “Platonists.”  Here again is the quote in context:

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same
materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus ; it is
a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the
texts out of the book, and arranging them on the
pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or
subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of
ethics I have never seen ; it is a document in proof
that / am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple
of tha doctrines of Jesus, very different from the
Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians
and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their
characteristic dogmas from what its author
never said nor saw.

In this letter, -which can be found here– Jefferson refers to his “Jefferson Bible.”  This was the Bible in which he cut out the parts of the Gospels he belied were not authentic.  Jefferson is not affirming, “Christian” in any sense that your average Texas fundamentalist would recognize.

Barton makes a larger quote of the letter to Benjamin rush.  From Barton’s book:

To the corruptions of Christian I am indeed opposed; but no the genuine precepts of Jesus Himself.  I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished any one to be: sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others…

Of course, Barton leaves what follows in that letter.  Jefferson ended that phrase with, “in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”  Furthermore, Jefferson later refers to the influence of Joseph Priestly.  Joseph Priestly was an enlightenment thinker who authored “the Corruptions of Christianity.”  There, he denied both the Trinity and the atonement.  I cannot emphasize enough that Jefferson himself mentions Priestly favorably.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t really mean to deny the Trinity

Barton makes a great deal about Jefferson and the Trinity.  If he can prove that Jefferson affirmed the Trinity, than that is a big point in his favor, but Barton has some background work to do first.  He explains that around 1810 in Virgina a movement called “the primitivists” had gained a lot of popularity.  These primitivists rejected nearly every traditional Christian doctrine in favor of an extremely minimalized adherence to the Bible.  This excluded an affirmation of the Trinity.  Barton than actually quotes Jefferson when he explicitly denies the Trinity, the Eucharist, original sin, atonement.  Barton then acknowledges that these denials are heretical.  On the other hand Barton did say that “Jefferson had openly embraced doctrinal beliefs he was no rejecting,” yet he offered none of Jefferson’s letters to support that here.  So what does David Barton do?

Barton appears to assert that the influence of the primitivists made Jefferson deny the Trinity.  He asserts “it was during his affiliation with Christian Primitivism. that he first expressed Anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813.”  So we are to believe that Jefferson denied a core Christian doctrine late in his life, and it wasn’t really his fault.

The are two problems here.  First, Jefferson had already read Joseph Priestly by at least 1803.  He had sent Joseph Priestly a letter praising the author for his work.  Jefferson mentioned that he agreed with some of Priestly’s views and that he himself had hoped to do similar work.  Jefferson here wrote that he the doctrines of Jesus had been corrupted by people who pretended to be his disciples, that the question of Jesus’ divinity and inspiration were unimportant to him, and that the Jesus belong in the lines of the great moral teachers like Socrates, Cicero, and Seneca.  Therefore, Jefferson expressed these pretty non-Christian thoughts before 1810, when Barton asserts primitivism became popular.  The second problem is this: even if Jefferson denied the Trinity because of the primitivists, I don’t see how that means that Jefferson did not deny the Trinity.  At one point Barton thought that Jefferson “might have changed his position on the Trinity” had he lived a bit longer.  Does this vain speculation count as an argument?

David Barton closes the chapter with this:

Perhaps Jefferson, having once ha d a strong early Christian faith, which later became contaminated and weak, fits the category of 1 Corinthians 3:15 that “if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved but only through fire.”

When I read this, I get the feeling that Barton doesn’t even really believe what he is writing anymore.  It is if he is begging the reader to imagine ways with him that Thomas Jefferson was a dye-ed in the wool evangelical.  These statements are sad for any scholar.  It speaks volumes of how far Barton is willing to stretch things.

Conclusion

David Barton really wants readers to believe that Jefferson was a Christian.  So how did he argue for it?  As you can see by the quotes, David Barton is good at lifting statements out of their context to suit his preconceived conclusion.  If he was doing this to the Bible we would call it poof-texting.  Additionally, he demands a sense of special pleading when it comes to Jefferson’s overt denial of the Trinity.  No contemporary figure would get this “free pass” if they did the same.  Finally, Barton ignored that Jefferson admired Joseph Priestly in this chapter.  By his own words, Jefferson tells us that he was the fan of a scholar who denied the incarnation, resurrection, atonement and the Trinity.  Yes, there were other “Christian” things that Jefferson did that I did cover here, but the very best conclusion you can get from that evidence is that Jefferson believed in a deity, that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and that religious toleration and cooperation ought to be promoted.  None of that is sufficient to make someone a Christian.

Ladies and gentlemen, David Barton thinks he can con you.

This leaves really only one stone unturned.  David Barton, wants you to imagine ways that Jefferson might have been a Christian.  Maybe he would have changed his mind.  Maybe his denial of the Trinity was because of his failing mind.  Maybe all his support of religious cooperation meant more than Unitarianism.  Let me remind the reader this: it is all a nice sounding story, exactly like the good ship of Mormonism.  But the evidence against Barton’s myth is there.  I hope  that members of the religious right have the courage to confront it.

It’s Holy Weekend and I am enjoying myself.

Let me confess something first.  Today on this Holy Saturday I did yoga in the park, brought a latte at indie cafe, and came home to eat a vegetarian, Indian, meal.  None of this appropiate for a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and is actually more fitting for a WUCNA (White, upper-class, new ager).  I’m still pretty relaxed though, and Yoga is pretty harmless.  Meat before idols and all that.

Last night though, was Good Friday.  I enjoy Good Friday liturgies because they challenge the “think positive” culture that permeates a lot of Christianity.  I feel sometimes that the tragedy of the crucifixion is skipped over so we can get to something nice and happy like the Resurrection.  On the first Good Friday, all the disciples, -sans John- ran scared.  While we can understand people running for their lives, can we really understand well-off, first world Christians, ignoring Jesus’ crucifixion, or treating like a optimistic pre-event for Easter?

When I think about the original Good Friday, and when I think about John watching Jesus die, Peter denying him, and Judas betraying him, it seems to me that feeling “good” at the end of good Friday is probably not appropiate.  It’s like having a tap dance at your grandmother’s funeral.

We love Jesus enough to go to church when it feels happy, hopeful, and optimistic.  Do we love Jesus enough to worship when worship causes us to mourn?

Our liturgy last night was written by members of our church.  There was no sermon and other than the musicians, there was no one “on stage.”  We had several readers who read as the rest of listened.  Here are few standouts:

Father, we are so obsessed with getting that we hardly recognize a gift—even when he stares us in the face. Father, we are so obsessed with going to heaven that we hardly notice that when Jesus calls us, he bids us, “Come and die!” Father, we are so obsessed with the logic of profit and loss that we think that following Jesus is a smart investment. Father, we are so obsessed with upward mobility that we think that Christians are better than other people. Send your Holy Spirit, Father, so that we may hear the word that you speak to us on this Good Friday, so that we may recognize Jesus when we see him—among the outcasts of this world.

Here’s another one:

Reader 5: Jesus proclaims and performs the forgiveness both of sins and of monetary debts, the free gift of mercy and of property, the abandonment of self-centeredness and of self-defense, the exaltation of the humiliated and the humiliation of the exalted, reconciliation with God and with our enemies, love for all those who hate us and wish us harm.

Finally towards the end:

Father, send your Spirit this night to remind us that we, too, are sent to the bad people of this world. Remind us that to find them we need not look down. We need only look to our right or to our left—or into a mirror. Father, send your Spirit this night to remind us that, wherever we stand or sit or lie down, we cannot be separated from the people next to us. Remind us that, despite what we have been trained to believe, we are our neighbors. Remind us, too, that you command us to love them in the way you love us.

Further highlights abound, but the communal prayers spoke more than a hundred sermons.  The message I got out of the whole liturgy was that we repent, recognize Jesus death, and realize that call to Evangelism will probably look like that.  No, this kind of message doesn’t make me feel good.  It doesn’t exactly make me happy.  It doesn’t even make hopeful.  There is no room for positive-think self-help sermons on a night like this, yet it is part of the Gospel.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to Easter.

All of us who have responded to Andrew’s Story at Mars Hill in Seattle are quite worked up.  Glenn Peoples at Beretta Online has reminded us that we are only hearing one side of the story.  I am personally grateful to him for doing so.

Andrew has made his case known and Mathew Paul Turner has played the role of the prosecutor.  This means he has the burden of proof and must present evidence.  In my opinion, he has made his case well.  He did not make vague allusions to foul treatment at Mars Hill while calling Driscoll a poopy-head.  He demonstrated a specific incident and has included written statements and correspondence from Mars Hill.  By your own words, be judged and all that.

Is Mars Hill pointing, or pointed at?

The Defendant Takes the Stand

Mars Hill now has a chance to respond.  This is good, because a candid world deserves to hear it.  As a detractor of Mars Hill, I am very happy to listen.  If you are also  not a fan of Pastor Mark Driscoll, then I please put your feelings aside as you read their response.  Maybe Andrew withheld some key information from the incident.  Maybe we can hear from his former leaders as well.  There is no doubt a lot of information that they could share, that would help us understand the situation better.  Let’s hear it:

In recent days, there has been some discussion surrounding Mars Hill Church and our process of church discipline. We do not wish to comment on the specific scenario in question, as this is a private matter between church leadership and members, all of whom have voluntarily agreed to this prior to becoming members. We do want to be as clear and forthright as possible in presenting our theology of repentance, forgiveness, and church discipline and make clear that our convictions on this come from our study of Scripture and our deep love for our members and a desire for them to enjoy the freedom that comes from walking by the Spirit in response to Christ’s work on the Cross on our behalf. At the heart of the process is our deep belief that church discipline is about the grace of God, not penance. (Mars Hill Website)

Oh… huh… well at least they offered a link to Driscoll’s book, Vintage Faith, which explains their theology.

Why would Mars Hill not offer a specific defense here?  I realize that Mars Hill isn’t under some kind of legal obligation, but I would assume that the church is concerned about its reputation before the rest Christendom.  Andrew has went public with this, but I understand that confession is often considered sacrosanct and private.  Maybe Mars Hill did not want to break confidentiality.  Let’s check that book to see if that’s why:

Members of Mars Hill Church are not guaranteed confidentiality regarding issues of church discipline, and understand that in submitting themselves to the authority of the church, issues of a sensitive or personal nature may become known to others. This includes, but is not limited to, notification of the authorities if a crime has been committed or if a real threat of someone being endangered exists, as well as other violations of scripture that may not result in physical danger.

Oh, I guess not.  Though nothing in the Andrew story seemed to imply physical danger or legality.  Maybe they wish to stay mum on the details because Andrew decided to leave.  This makes sense.  If you voluntarily join, and you voluntarily leave, then the relationship is over.  I could see why Mars Hill might prefer to let things be.

There is a sense in which you never really let the unrepentant sinner go. Though you don’t associate with him, you keep calling him back. He is put out for the purity of the church but is always admonished to come back.

Okay.  So Mars Hill is not tight lipped because Andrew left or because of guaranteed confidentiality.  In fact, this seems to imply that they still want to be involved with people who leave.  Though I guess Andrew did leave under bad terms, and is considered an unrepentant excommunicate.  Maybe Mars Hill is doing the best they can do to avoid tarnishing his reputation anymore than he already has:

If someone under discipline begins attending another church, we notify the leaders of that church that they are unrepentant and have been removed from fellowship in our church.

Nevermind.  Mars Hill does the exact opposite.  If you have a bad reputation at Mars Hill, they will do their very best to make sure you have a bad reputation anywhere.  Mark Driscoll is like Khal Drogo: he doesn’t do anything half way.

If you still feel that Mars Hill is tight lipped because it is “private matter,” don’t forget that they circulated a letter to the congregation regarding Andrew after he left Mars Hill.  Also, Andrew has gone public with this, so who are they trying to protect?  The best thing I can think of is that they do not want any current member named and “dragged into all this.”  That much is fair.  However, the response was unapologetic about their actions, and they don’t deny them either.  Is Mars Hill simply owning and acknowledging what they did?  That they feel everything was right?

The Repentance Smackdown

Mars Hill has done well to present its view of Church Discipline.  I realize it is not the entire book, but it still feels a bit lacking.   Here then, is what is mysteriously absent:

First, Driscoll’s chapter offers no details how about how a confessor (the person who hears someone else’s sins) should respond.  They make no mention of announcing Christ’s forgiveness, assuring the sinners that they are loved by God, whether to stay quiet about what you hear, how you might pray for repentant sinner, and pretty much any other act of compassion that I can think of. Remember, the recent statement from Mars Hill said: our convictions on this come from our study of Scripture and our deep love for our members.  Perhaps Mars Hill believes that we should only confess to another person if we sin against that person specifically.  Are we to keep silent then, about all other sins?

Secondly, they detail out all the signs of false repentance and conjoin true repentance with a desire to change our lives.  Yet that desire for change and actual change is seldom instantaneous.  Ask any former substance addict how long they desired change before they had actual change.  There seems to be little room for “same time justified and sinner” in Mars Hill’s church discipline.

Third, there is no mention of the sin of withholding forgiveness, or even a way to make forgiving another person easier.

Here then, are questions to consider:

1. If “true repentance” necessarily causes behavior/life changes, could this not become a salvation-by-works in practice even if it is still salvation-by-grace in theory?

2. Who judges whether or not a sinner has repented truely?  Church Leadership?  Can we trust their judgment as infallible?

3. If someone voluntarily joins a church, then voluntarily leaves, does the church have a right to negatively influence that person’s life?

4. Why is church discipline arranged in degrees of severity of punishment, rather than in degrees of restoration?

5. If you attended this church, had sinned grievously, would you feel comfortable sharing your sins with leaders at Mars Hill (James 5:15-16)?  Why or why not?

In interest of fairness

In deference to Glenn’s post, I’d like anyone who comments in this blog to be candid with their comments, but please avoid inflammatory speech.  I myself am trying to be as charitable as possible, but it is hard -from their response- to think that the conclusions Matthew Paul Turner reached are false.  Still though, if Mars Hill ever wants to offer something more specific, it would be great to hear it.