Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

ImageOffended by this picture?  Put God and money in the same headline, and you’ll get unwanted attention.  Of course, a chrome-domed financial guru like David Ramsey can take little flack.  Gurus like him assume a fundamental axiom: one’s habits/choices determine one’s financial well being.  Recently, Ramsey posted a list (not of his own making) of the habits of the poor versus the habits of the wealthy.

In reaction, a trio of Bloggers from Her.meneutics (Caryn Rivadeneira, Rachel Marie Stone, and Marlena Graves) denounced his list.  They implied that the list showed a contempt for the poor, did not apply to the third world, and rightly said that it is not easy (and maybe not possible) for the 1st world poor to follow the “rich” people habits.

Rachel Held Evans hit the nail on the head when she wrote:

One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.

Overall, the fair criticism raised important questions.  Marlena Graves acknowledged in her twitter feed that Ramsey helped people.  RHE did the same in her article.  By far, the best point made was that correlation does not imply causation.  What does mean?  It means that the first time you read that list, you might think that regular gym time will help you get rich.  But what if it’s the other way around?  What if it’s your 85k a year job that provides a nice gym? It’s the one of the building’s first floor.  The one you go to before you commute home elsewhere in Silicon Valley. Also, Marlena Graves is right that many of these habits will simply be impractical for the bus-riding, two-job working, members of society to follow.  Who can encourage their kids to read or volunteer if both parents are working 60+ hours in a week?  What is the point of networking when you have no skills?

But were these strong words as constructive as they could have been?  It’s true that nothing in this list applies outside of the first world.  But was it supposed to?  Ramsey’s niche audience in evangelicalism is the American Middle class.  He can’t be faulted for speaking primarily to their context.  Does the list show contempt for the poor?  Yes, someone who does show contempt for the poor can think these things.  But does everyone who think these things show contempt for the poor?  Finally, it’s a low blow to call Ramsey’s message part of the prosperity Gospel.  I’ll believe that Ramsey is one of them when he says that Jesus’ disciples were rich, sprinkles gold gust from his pulpit, or similar tripe.

Is Dave Ramsey’s fundamental axiom totally wrong?  I worked as teacher’s aide to an “at risk” community.  One day, I learned that many vocational programs at the school were cut.  This cut had a noble intention (“get them all to college!”), but it had the practical effect of denying those students opportunities that were available to their middle class counterparts.  So yes, there are plenty of when outside forces keep the poor, poor, in America.  At the same time (and there’s no delicate way to put this), I listened to 15-17 year old girls talk casually, candidly, and even enthusiastically about how they planned to have a baby -while still in their teens.  Can anyone really deny that this is a poor choice that is indicative of a poor lifestyle?

The most constructive approach is not to attack perceived contempt of the poor.  Neither is it to opine that such a list applies only first worlders.  It certainly is not helpful to hyperbolicly group Ramsey in with people like this:

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Did you budget for those shoes, or is that on your credit card? Stupid Tax! Stupid Tax!

The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to take the best of criticism from RHE and her.menuetics.  We should realize that correlation does not imply causation.  The habits can either help get your rich, or are things you can do when you’re already rich.  Second, take the criticism that some of these are going to be harder to do when your poor *and* that many of these can be done regardless of your net worth.

If we can find habits that people can do regardless of their net worth, than those are quite possibly the ones that should be endorsed.  I won’t go through them all, but here’s a few openers for everyone’s thoughts:

Habit 1: 1. 70% of wealthy eat less than 300 junk food calories per day. 97% of poor people eat more than 300 junk food calories per day. 23% of wealthy gamble. 52% of poor people gamble.

If we define “junk food” as sugary snacks, pre-packaged chips, and anything loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, than this is something that does not depend on your net worth.  No matter where you live, you can pass on soda and snickers.  Gambling is very much something that is anyone’s control.   Casinos are designed to separate fools from their money, regardless of the skill or talent of the fool (yes, I realize that poker and other games are exceptions, but these are exceptions); thus it is obvious that avoiding gambling will more likely bring financial success.

Habit 5: 81% of wealthy maintain a to-do list vs. 19% of poor.

Does anyone think you must be financially successful before you can make a to-do list?

Habit 13: 67% of wealthy watch one hour or less of TV every day vs. 23% of poor.

In the her.menutics article, TV was almost lauded as one of the few leisure’s of the poor, which is maybe why they can’t not watch a week long Honey Boo Boo marathon or other poverty porn.  I strongly disagree with this.

The list will go on.  Go ahead and read it and ask: which habits can you do, no matter how much money you have in the bank?

A NASA engineer predicts the rapture in 1988. A career eschatologist declares that Christians should plan to be off the earth by the year 2000. A chorus of bloggers and ministry leaders ascribe a prophetic connection between the book of Isaiah and the violence in Syria. What separates the final group of speculators from the rest? Only that time has not yet proven them wrong. (That, and they probably have not collected their full share of publishing royalties) All speculate about news events. All look at real life, far away, violence as if it was exciting action movie. All are as committed to Christian Zionism as fish are to water.

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The Bible says this civil war will lead to war in Europe. What no? ahh… well the Antichrist will arise from the German Empire. They’re our allies now? Dammit. Well the rapture will occur now that 9/11 happened… I’m sure of it this time…

Christian Zionism, broadly termed here, is the belief that events in the middle east have prophetic significance. This leads to speculation about future events. The Bible is used as if it were a crystal ball.. Why should anyone take the alleged prophecies about Syria in 2013 any more seriously than the now false prophecies about the Soviet Union or the rapture in the 1980s? It is easy for Christian Zionists to invoke 2 Peter 3:3-4. Yet this is little more than self-affirming circular reasoning. It begs the question, “what do these prophecies even mean?” While many Christian Zionists believe their method of interpretation is self-evidently true, conservative, and literal, I submit that it is none of these. More practically, the political consequences of their teachings are destructive.

On a message board years ago, a Christian Zionist once explained their methods this way: Just as Jesus’ generation was meant to watch for signs of his first coming, so must contemporary Christians must watch for his second. Specifically, any current event will help us make sense the prophecies. So when a news event (Syria) seems to match something in the Bible (Isaiah 17) than that is enough reason to believe that prophecy is being fulfilled. Of course, they are often clever enough to not nail down exact dates, but their speculations nevertheless reflect what they think the Bible teaches.

The problem with this method is that any event in history can look like a fulfillment of prophecy. The commercial success of the literature mentioned earlier proves this. Considering the list of failed predictions (and there have been a lot of failed predictions!) maybe it is a good idea to re-evaluate the method before deciding that preventible armed conflict is per-determined by God.

Many others explain that their methods are conservative because it reads the Bible literally whenever possible. This way they avoid (as LaHaye famously put it) confusing metaphors. But are they consistent? Many Zionists interpret the seven churches addressed in the opening of Revelation as seven symbolic church ages even though the letter itself gives us no reason to do so. This is only one example of the inconsistency of “literal whenever possible.”

If anyone is going to understand the Bible, especially the apocalyptic visions, we need a deeper examination. Consider the following questions when applied to Isaiah or books like Ezekial, Revelation or Daniel. What is the literary context of this verse, passage, and book? When was it written? What was the political situation of the original audience? What is the genre of this or that passage? How would someone living at that time interpret that genre? What kinds of idioms, metaphors, hyperbole, etc would these ancient people be intuitively familiar with, but are not used (and not known) in our culture? How does it compare to similar, non-canonical literature of the same genre? None of these questions can be adequately addressed in a single twitter post, a news article, a Sunday sermon, or podcast. In fact, if anyone makes you feel that understanding Isaiah 17 (or anything else apocalyptic) is intuitive and easy, they are oversimplifying. If anyone cannot answer these kinds of questions, then their interpretation is not worth your attention, time, or money.

This is not a poorly written thriller novel.

There is more at stake than mere theological disagreement. Crystal ball gazing and Christian Zionism have serious, concrete consequences. Right now, the public overwhelmingly opposes United States military action in Syria. Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, already upped the ante when he unambiguously stated that he his country would provide further support to Syria if the United States intervenes. Furthermore, there are allegations that the gas attacks came from the rebels not from the Syrian government, despite what the Whitehouse administrations says. At the time of this writing, things are smoother over via diplomacy, but the two super powers are still cold warrioring it. While Christian Zionists may look at this as an exciting, inevitable, new chapter in prophetic progress, it looks to everyone else like a conflict that can be prevented. Indeed, it is a conflict that should be prevented.

I spent my high school years in a denomination that taught the crystal ball gazing approach to scripture. I happily left it behind, especially when I learned of alternative views. The crystal ball approach makes Christians look foolish when the prophecies do not come around. We look even more silly when we revise our interpretations, rather than admit that something is wrong. Its methods of reading scripture are intellectually troubled. At best, it helps American Christians ignore the plight of Christians in the middle east. At worst, it inspires a nearly fetishistic fascination with violence in far away countries. Most notably, now, with the conflict in Syria.

To close, I’d like to ask all Christian Zionists to do the rest of Christendom a favor: please just stop. The crystal ball gazing isn’t helping anyone.

This blog continues the perpetually prolonged discussion on why young people leave the church.  Now at last, we discuss the second hottest topic out of the original six at the Barna research.  Young people leave the church because it comes of as antagonistic towards science.  The Barna research expounds:

One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

No one can hardly do this subject justice in one blog.  I hope then, to keep the comments brief and allow others to expand in comments.

Who is actually at fault here?

If Christianity is perceived as anti-science, than who is actually at fault here?  I mean this very seriously.  Is it entirely the dogmatic young earth creationists out there who give Christianity a bad name?  Or is the folks like Dawkins whose beliefs about science versus religion are equally dogmatic?

Consider the famous play Inherent the Wind.  The play dramatized the famous scopes monkey trial: a classic, early 20 century, courtroom case about evolution.  In the play, William Jennings Bryon is portrayed as religious fanatic who refused to read Darwin’s godless nonsense.  He ends the play in a kind of crazed mania.  However, during the actual trial, William Jennings Bryon is a bit more cool headed.  He did, in fact, read Darwin thoroughly.  The irony here is that the original court transcripts are available for anyone to read.

Another issue is the famous Galileo trial.  You will still find people on the internet who believe that the church thought the earth was flat, and that geocentric astronomy was written in the Bible.  This story is frequently told as if Galileo was the first person to look at the universe ‘rationally’ and his religious detractors were knuckle dragging barbarians.  This is not true.  The geocentric model was handed down to western civilization from Ptolemy -hardly a religious source- from the ancient world.  It was based largely on observation.  It tracked the motions of the sun, predicted eclipses, and it didn’t have to explain why “the earth moves even though it we don’t observe it.”  The Roman Catholic Church has long sense acknowledged that it was wrong to put Galileo on house arrest.  Furthermore, there were rational reasons to be skeptical of the heliocentric model.  The geocentric model has never been intrinsic to Christianity anyway.

I do think there are Christians who are anti-science.  However, I think that the perception that Church is anti-science isn’t not entirely the shoulders of Christians.  We can’t be held accountable for theatrical exaggerations or a simplified, anachronistic, text book telling of major scientific paradigm shifts.

Dropping it like it’s Hot

There is one point that Christians are at fault.  It’s one doctrine that needs to go away.  It’s called Young Earth Creationism.  I feel the need to be blunt on this one.  Young Earth Creationism -with its instance that the earth is less than ten thousand years old- has already been declared “embarrassing” by William Laine Craig.  That’s William Laine Craig, the conservative evangelical scholar at Biola University.  Some might say that we should “teach the controversy.”  It’s also true that Christians can disagree on this issue.  It this is true, now remember why young people leave.  They’re turned off by this entire debate.  Who is making the trouble then?   Consider that Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, was dis-invited from a home schooling convention because of “unchristian” behavior and rhetoric.

It is not that I think that Young Earth Creationism is bad for that reason only though.  I feel the dogma is riddled with holes and is ad hoc in responding to them.  It is a superficial interpretation of scripture promoted by sophistry and cute cartoons.  It is not that I simply think that YEC is the wrong.  It is that I feel it is so wrong it doesn’t even deserved to be discussed.  Is the church antagonistic towards science?  Not it is not.  So let’s kick YEC to the curb already!

Other Alternatives

There is at least one promising alternative to the (perceived) antagonistic attitude towards science.  Before going further, it needs to be clarified that this is not really about science itselfbut rather issues about the philosophy of science.  The former most high school students have a surface level grasp on.  The latter is not usually covered except by upper level college courses.  I guess what I am saying is, you’d have to be have a pretty exception home school program to hear about this one.

Consider the approach of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga.  The really simple version of is like this: given a fully, unguided, naturalistic evolution, why should we trust our senses and our minds to fully understand reality?  This is not a scientific question that can be answered in a scientific way.  Trustworthy senses and minds are an assumption of science.  However, we know that there are cave-dwelling creatures that never evolved eyes, thus they cannot perceive the reality of light.  What would make us so sure that we have the adequate senses to understand all of reality?

Plantinga’s lines of argument endorse something he calls Augustinian Science.  While this is a complicated subject in itself, the thrust of the argument is this: anytime you do science you assume certain things about reality.  For Christians, we should have no problem assuming that God exists.  This doesn’t mean that we should freely invoke God anytime a scientific problem comes up, but it does it mean that we can be more consistent when we trust our senses and our minds.

Is this a perfect solution?  Honestly, this isn’t even a complete presentation.  Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction.  If we want to keep the younger generation, than we can drop the whole “creation versus evolution” framework that young earth creationistism has set up.  Equally, we can avoid the “science versus religion” framework that atheists seem to pigeon hole us in.

Plantinga’s approach, in my opinion, satisfies both requirements.  It isn’t dogmatically tied to a particular interpretation of Genesis 1-11.  Furthermore, it reminds full-blown atheists that they have deep seated assumptions about science, reality, and what philosophers call metaphysics.  It deals with the whole faith versus science issue where the problem where the actual problem lies: philosophical assumptions about knowledge and reality.

Maybe we can give young people a bit more intellectual credit and assume that they can sort it out.

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.

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*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 is a continuation, of the series on why young people leave the church.   The idea of this series  to suggest possible right turns and solutions.  This next section has proven increasingly difficult to write.  Primarily because it deals with Christianity becoming “deep.”  This faces problems of its own because depth in spiritual experience is a notoriously subjective thing.  Ultimately, this issue will be dealt with in two parts.

Here then is the problem according Barna.

  • One third say ‘Church is Boring’
  • One quarter say ‘Church is not Relevant to my Career Interests.’
  • One quarter say ‘The Bible is not taught clearly or often enough.’
  • One fifth say ‘God is missing from my experience of Church.’

This blog addresses the first two.

Church is Boring

If the church is boring, than it seems the obvious solution is to make church exciting for young people.  While this might be intuitive, what if if it makes things worse?  Let’s be honest here: we’ve been doing the Christian rock thing, we’ve had all kinds of contemporary worship, we’ve gotten all the young dynamic pastors youth group games, hell we’ve even had Christian videogames and collective card games.  This has been going on for at least thirty yearsand it still isn’t working.

Entertaining, exciting, Christianity actually backfires.  One Redditor put it nicely:

At least in Protestant churches, it seems that a lot of youth ministries try to be “hip” by portraying Jesus as their buddy, like a dude who hangs out with them but also happens to be God (see “Jesus is my homeboy” paraphernalia for example). By extension, a lot of youth pastors will try to be a friend, like they’re “just one of the guys” instead of an adult mentor. Instead of attracting young people to the church, I find this approach very alienating and annoying. Young people don’t need another friend, they have plenty of those already. What they’re looking for is answers to the bigger questions, and if you fail to deliver on that because you’re just trying to look cool, pretty soon they’ll stop taking you seriously. –Reddit

As further evidence consider this.  High church liturgy is, by many people’s account, rather boring.  If young people are leaving the church for lack of hip pizzazz, than any church that centers on the smells and bells, cannot hold a youth’s attention.  Consider though, that a Catholic colleges can still pack a mass.  Also consider that there has been a resurgence of interest in high church liturgy among the emergent (or whatever we may call this group) over the last decade.

044-Youre-making-rock-n-roll-worse

If young Christians are bored in church, entertainment is not the solution.  If they need to be entertained, they can find plenty of ways outside church.

Relevant to Career Interests

What about the next issue?  That is, Christianity is not relevant to career interests.  Here the intuition might be to find ways to make Christianity relevant to anyone’s career path.  In many cases, I believe this is needed and laudable. Right now, I enjoy working under the guidance of a faithful Christian.  Patience, as a Christian virtue, is something that certainly applies in a businesses context.  More generally, if we consider the financial collapse of the last few years.  We all understand why some businesses could have benefited from Christian ethics (or really, ethics of any kind).

The risk though, is same as entertainment: an individual can get everything they need outside the church.  What then is the need to Christianize them?  Wouldn’t this annoy people who have spiritual needs, but get only baptized businesses advice from the pulpit?  Too much “relevance to your career interests” can produce a sermons that are a re-wash of cultural values.

Maybe the question itself is wrong.  Perhaps answering the question “How is Christianity relevant to Career interests” but rather, “how are your career interests relevant to Christianity?”  This question does two things.  First, it forces a serious reconsideration of what we actually value.  Maybe the church isn’t wrong, maybe we’re doing something wrong with our lives.  Maybe we need to look again at the parable of the builders and concentrate on those last verse, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”  A second, and less radical, application of this question flip is this: no matter who you are, no matter what you do, God calls you.  God called both humble fisherman (our usual heroes), but he also called doctors (Luke), scholars (Paul), soldiers (Cornelius), and priests (Joseph of Armathea).

Rather than looking for Christianity to help our careers, perhaps we should consider what place our careers have in God’s kingdom.

A Right Step

What then is the solution?  We cannot simply keep offering young people something they can get elsewhere.  Careers and entertainment can be had elsewhere.  It seems the better thing to do is to offer something that cannot be found in the world.

While this feels very simple, I think maybe a little simplicity is needed.  That of course, is a the subject for another blog.

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.

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.

Hateful preachers are like cassette tapes. Why do people still listen to them?

A few years ago, I criticized Pastor Mark Driscoll’s angry, self-righteous, antics. At the time, I had only read praises of his popularity, and thought I was one of the few critics. Turns out I am far from alone. The entire zeitgeist of Christian blogs is starting to turn on this guy. Examples include Rachel Held Evans and sojouners magazine. Free speech and the internet topple tyrants: whether they rule Middle Eastern countries or Seattle area churches.

Is it over the top to call Driscoll a tyrant?

You can judge it for yourself if you read the story of “Andrew” in part one and part two. Please read through it in its entirety, but here’s the skinny if your in a rush. A young guy named Andrew attended Mars Hill. He became engaged to one of the elder’s daughters, but then fell into sexual sin with another girl. He confessed to his fiance, his small group leader, and others of his own volition. The reaction was not positive. They demanded that he sign and agree to a contract, in which he would have to share -in detail- his sins and was forbidden to date. Andrew felt that this was both invasive, creepy, and voyeuristic. He decided to leave Mars Hill. When he announced this, a letter was circulated to the Mars Hill community, detailing his “lack” of repentance. It detailed instructions on how members of Mars Hill were to treat him. According to Matthew 18:17.

Here is the verse:

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But he does not listen to you take one or two more with you so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every face may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. -Matthew 18:15-18 NASB

Now, Driscoll thinks that last verse means that you should shun someone from your community and publicly shame them. I ask you though, how did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors?

What makes the Driscoll method of church discipline so horrid is not that it is a bit cult like, but that Andrew was doing the right thing. No, not that he cheated on his fiance and lied about, but that he actually had the courage to come out and confess it. So is this how confession is supposed to work? That we should muster courage to confess, and then become chastised for it?

I’ve already discussed what I think confession could look like for evangelical protestants and why it directs us to what people already want their churches to be. Here though, is the Book of Common Prayer. The church leader responds to someone like Andrew with this statement:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinnerrs who truly repent and believe in him of his great mercy forgive you all your offense; and by his authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, if a Lutheran minister says something like this after a prayer of public confession:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us and for the sake of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of his dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, fogives us all our sins. As a Minister of the Church of Christ and by his authority, I therefore declare unto you who do truly repent and believe in him, the entire forgiveness of all your sins: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

In both cases, the reference to “authority” is an allusion to Matthew 18:18 (“whatever you bind on earth…”). Leaders, ministers, and lay people are given an “authority.” We are given the authority to represent Christ to penitent sinners like Andrew. How should we represent him?

Andrew confessed his sin. He confessed because the Holy Spirit convicted him. There was no “finding out” and no coercion. He confessed it to the person most hurt by it. He went further confessed it to leaders. Mark Driscoll does not seem to think this enough “true repentance.” Forgiveness must be earned. Sign the fuckin’ contract, or we’ll shame you.

How would you do it?

I will admit, I have heard only a few confessions in my life. Many people reading this have probably heard more. I have never been involved in a addiction recovery group. I am completely ignorant of how church discipline is handled in charismatic circles. Neither am I a pastor or official leader. Of course, you don’t have to be to hear a confession. I’d like to know though, how would you react to Andrew? What is your church’s policy? How would your leaders react to some dark secret a member shared with them?

In closing, I am happy that Andrew had the courage to not only confess, but to leave a church that he felt abused by. That could not have been easy, since he is several states away from home and family. If he ever wants to, he could do what many evangelical diaspora do. He could check out a local Lutheran, Episcopalian, or otherwise “liberal” protestant church.

We’re a pretty fun bunch, actually.

By now, you have all already seen the “Love Jesus / Hate Religion” meme.   That video is exactly the kind of message I believed when I had been a Christian for about four years.  As I type this, I have been Christian for well over ten.  Please keep that in mind.  If you haven’t watch the video yet, please pull yourself out of the cave, and watch it now.

The video’s author,Jefferson Bethke, is sincere.  He wants all of us to see and understand something that he sees.   But what if we already see it?  What if Bethke, in his zeal, has missed a few things?

Now, the entire performance is a spoken word poem, which means terms can be little fluid.  Still, there is a very important question that has to come up here:

What is Religion?

I’ll share what Bethke says, and then offer my own definition.  No, we do not mean the same thing.  I have no problem being “religious.”

Religion according to Bethke’s poem.

Without picking out every section, I’ll comment on a few lines/stanzas.  Let’s start with the part I like.

Because if grace is water, then the church should be an ocean
It’s not a museum for good people, it’s a hospital for the broken
Which means I don’t have to hide my failure, I don’t have to hide my sin
Because it doesn’t depend on me it depends on him
See because when I was God’s enemy and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said I want, that, man
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see so much better than just following some rules

Bethke really wants people to understand how important Grace is.  He wants people to understand what Grace means to him and what grace means to everyone.  Yet, as someone who self identifies as “religious” I agree.  I get it.  I’ve been involved with Lutheranism for the last few years.  We’re so full of grace that I played drinking games with church friends.

Would it surprise Bethke to know I understand how tiresome the rules are?  That I too feel that they are foolish?  However, I learned those rules from people who preached like Bethke does.  People who told me that “it’s a relationship, not a religion.”  That probably doesn’t surprise many readers of this blog.  Those darken the doors of non-evangelical churches do so because we were tired of those rules.

Let’s look at another important line:

Why does it [religion] build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor

I attended a Lutheran Church in my hometown and I also attended a nice missionary church in Seoul South Korea.  We built churches.  That cost money.  It is little bit like pouring an expensive bottle perfume onto Jesus, even though it could’ve been sold and given to the poor.  (Check out John 12:3-5)

One church building was used to regularly house “families in housing transition.”  One of the families was a single mom and her five year hold daughter.  I spent most of the evening working on a coloring book with the child while the mom got much deserved evening of relaxation.

In Seoul, we were renovating our building.  We were also collecting money to pay rent for a woman in need due to medical emergencies.  Furthermore, we also held an event to collect donations for North Korean refugees.

Do church buildings fail to help us worship God?  Don’t Church building provide a means to serve the poor?

Here’s another verse.

Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man

One of my favorite sayings come from an early Christian Mystic: do the crops grow because the rain falls from heaven, or because the farmer tills the field?  I think all Christians, even religious people like myself, believe that God gets our attention first.  Our response, though, might still be considered “searching for God.”

Here though is the real kicker.  Read these next few lines:

What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion
What if I told you voting republican really wasn’t his mission

I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor

Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see

You can tell a lot about what people mean about a word by how they use it.  In these lines, Bethke tells us that religion is something Jesus doesn’t like, republicans probably do, and that it does bad things.  But what is “religion” itself?  Try this: re-read these stanzas, and mentally replace “religion” with the the phrase “bad thing” or “evil.”  Would the meaning of the stanzas change at all?

The word “religion” is an evangelical idiom, and is used like a curse word.  It is catch-all phrase to describe beliefs and practices that they don’t like -and indeed could be bad.  This can be anything from self-righteousness, to recited prayers, or in Bethke’s case, a self-accusation of hypocrisy.

Does everyone use “religion” that way?

Another definition of Religion

Here are a few of my own habits and beliefs.  You might share a few of these, and Bethke probably would too.

1. I believe in a specific, monothestic, God and accept a specific book as his revelation over all other books that allege divine inspiration.

2. I go to church about every Sunday.  I consider, at minimum, two other days of the year extra important.  These days are called “Easter” and “Christmas.”

3. I pray to the aforementioned God.  I often do this with other people who share my beliefs.

4. I believe that this God expects that I act in the world and has a purpose for not just people who worship him, but all of humanity.  In fact, my Church in Seoul was built specifically to introduce people to this God.

5. Certain rituals are very important to me.  “Baptism” is one, another is this thing called “the Lord’s Supper.”

6. While I have never done a Youtube video, I have a blog that often refers to this God, his followers, the authoritative book, and other the history connected with these three things.

Now what word would you use to describe me?  Would you say that I practice a religion?  Even if you do not agree, you have to admit that most people outside of the evangelical world think that the phrase “religion” applies pretty well here.

That then, is why I have no problem owning the term “religious” or “religion.”  I am a religious person.  So is Bethke.  So are you if you share a few of those beliefs/habits.  Why should religion imply ‘bad’?  Couldn’t the above list be morally neutral?

Now, some people might ask why bother harping on this?  Religion might be a curse word, but what is the big deal?  To some extent there isn’t a problem.  There is no need to begrudge Bethke on his differing usage of the term.  He is perfectly sincere in his beliefs and has even responded in a very fair and considerate manner to the criticisms of his poem.  Despite that there are two problems, one smaller and a another larger.

There is a problem with communication.  The Evangelical world wants to reach people outside of it.  I suspect then, that they might consider how their audience understands this word.  Many people know what Evangelicals mean, but I think others might be confused.  Can you imagine someone joining an Evangelical church because “it’s a relationship, not a religion” but then feeling tricked when they are expected to get baptized?

The more serious problem is one of association.  Evangelicals are not the only people who use ‘religion’ like a curse word.  The New Age, synergistists use it often too.  You’ve seen these people on Opera.  They call themselves “spirituality experts” and are quick to explain that all human spirituality is fundamentally the same.  According to them, god isn’t really Incarnate in Jesus, or Triune, or active as the Holy Spirit.  Those are rather subjective expressions of a spiritual whatever.  The spirituality experts often ask “Are you spiritual or are you religious?”

Why shouldn’t Christians say that we are both spiritual and religious?  As Christians we have a long tradition of mysticism, prayer, and devotion like any other faith.  We also have pretty clear cut, creedal, and religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible with New Age synergism.  The spirituality experts might call this short sighted, but I say that it is rude and superficial to lump all religions together.

I don’t feel that a “I got Jesus, not religion” attitude is as very strong when talking with people who keep trying to redefine Jesus for you.  Why not take ownership of the word religion, so that we can disassociate ourselves from the new agers?  They may accuse of us of never getting in touch with god, but we own them no justifications or explanations.

One final thought.

My friends who studied youth ministry have also studied developmental pyschology.  According to them, adolescence is often marked by radically disjunctive, black or white, thinking.  There is not always an appreciation for the grey in between.

Watch the video one last time, will you?