Saturday, May 07, 2016

Which calendar?

For those churches that follow a liturgical calendar, Pentecost Sunday falls 50 days after Easter -- this year on May 15. Ascension Day, 10 days prior, fell on May 5, though some churches will mark it on Sunday, May 8, rather than have a special service on Thursday. Of course, a large percentage of churches don't follow such a calendar and won't mark those days at all.

That is fine, as I confess that I have never marked these days myself. However, it seems curious that churches that don't find a need to mark these biblical events will nonetheless observe a purely secular holiday, Mother's Day, on this Sunday.

Again, I can understand the belief that anniversaries of biblical events don't require marking. However, ignoring the church calendar while observing a non Christian one seems to be a strange choice.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Do We Need Jesus in the White House?

Recently, a friend posted on Facebook a picture of Jesus superimposed over a picture of the White House. A caption suggested that the country would be better off when Jesus moved in there.

But, aren't we better off with Jesus right where he is: at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us?

Given that the religious right has attempted to be a force in American politics for nearly four decades, one would think that along with such activism should come among evangelicals an understanding of church teaching, church authority, and how it relates to that of the state. Unfortunately, Americans tend to be doers, not thinkers, and the evangelical movement, not to mention individual Christians, has been harmed by the failure to think clearly about the same.

Christians -- and the world around us -- are much better off with Jesus at the right hand of the Father making intercession for us, for it is with the Father that true authority lies. Christians seem frustrated that it is not the power of the sword that spreads the Gospel -- it is the foolish power of Word and sacrament by which God's church is grown -- but that is the ordinary means that God has used over these last 2000 years.

In the news recently: the Tennessee legislature voted to make the Holy Bible the state book of Tennessee. The governor fortunately vetoed that legislation. In explaining her vote in favor of the bill, one state legislator said she hoped that the legislature would start a great national revival. 

The people of Tennessee are better served by legislators who understand their role of punishing evil and promoting civic righteousness. Revival, if such is to come, will be a work of God, performed through the ordinary ministry of the church. The power of the state is not required.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

When did Christianity start to lose its hold on American Culture?

Taking the long view, I would say around 1770.

Yes, 1770, give or take.

While many evangelicals see the revolutionary period as a golden age in American history -- and in many ways it was-- Christians during that era frequently lamented that religious commitment had waned. While such jeremiads have been common throughout American history, there is reason to think that in this instance they were correct. Clearly, religious fervor had declined since the end of the Great Awakening around 1750. The clergy claimed that the realities of the Revolutionary War distracted the population from religious exercise, and in the aftermath of the war Christians became concerned at the influence of French skepticism making inroads in the culture.

The Second Great Awakening, which began around 1800, provided a religious response to these trends, but it was one that did not come without a cost. As American religion became democratized, traditional forms of religious authority began to be marginalized. In some ways that was a positive for American Christianity: the growth of a menu of democratic religious options meant that most of the people could find something to their liking, unlike in Europe where more limited choices resulted in people dropping out. Nonetheless, Christianity during this period became more emotional and anti-intellectual, which would become problematic as the nation became more diverse. In addition, American Christians became more concerned with religious fervor than with coherent commitments to historic orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, the Protestant mainstream maintained a quasi-establishment role in the country through the 19th century; however, once again, it did so at a cost. The population of the country was becoming much more diverse, as the result of democratizing influences, frontier expansion, immigration, and other trends. This diversity resulted in greater religious pluralism. Thus, in order to maintain that Protestant establishment, American public religion came increasingly to emphasize moral over doctrinal concerns. There is an irony in the fact that many modern evangelicals will cite early American affirmations of the need for religious morality for the health of the Republic without realizing that such moralizing actually represented a decline in Christian specific content proclaimed by the churches.

The standing of the Protestant establishment became further strained in the latter half of the 19th century, as industrial and academic trends tended to push Christian concerns and activism toward the margins. Urbanization proved challenging to the essentially agrarian outlook of much of American Christianity. As American industry began to look to colleges to produce workers capable of meeting the needs of the new economy, the presence of clergy among college directors seemed less advisable, and they began to be replaced with business leaders. In addition, naturalistic philosophy, as well as scientific Darwinism, took American academia by storm. Even in divinity schools, naturalism began to have influence, with the result that many schools began producing ministers that no longer believed in Christianity. One result of this was the withdrawal of many religious conservatives from mainstream culture in a movement known as fundamentalism.

By the 1950's, as noted by historian George Marsden, American thought leaders shared a belief in the goals of America's founders, but they no longer believed in the basis for those goals, which largely consisted of a belief that inalienable rights came from a creator. Efforts at resolving that gap failed, resulting in the deterioration of America's civil debates into an era of identity politics that has continued up to the present. Thus, what emerged in the 1960's had obvious roots in the culture of the 1950's. In that atmosphere of identity politics, beginning in 1980 the Moral Majority (note the emphasis on morality without  any theological commitment and majoritarianism rather than shared commitment) provided foot soldiers for conservative victories for a while, though anyone looking at the demographics of those holding varying views should have recognized that, in fact, the moral relativists had already won. As older generations died out, they would be replaced by those without the same moral, much less theological, commitments.

Thus, American culture had changed long before the recent same sex Supreme Court rulings made the country less hospitable toward evangelical views. Many have responded with a sense of betrayal -- in spite of past Court actions (particularly Roe v. Wade), many still considered this to be a "Christian country." It would benefit them to think more carefully about both their theology and their history.

Of course, Christianity remains broadly influential in the United States, though it may never again hold the level of respectability and influence that it has had in the past. However, that is not entirely a bad thing. Christians should now be humbled from their quest to impose some form of Christianization on the country by political means, thus providing an opportunity to return to basics, i.e., the preaching of the Gospel. The reality is that Christianity has always taught that sound theology is at the core of what the church is, with moral action being the outworking of what we believe. Christian teaching has become sloppy, often not being adequate for those within the church and not providing a compelling message for those outside.

With the lack of social influence, perhaps American Christians can repair those breaches. These days, everyone knows what evangelicals think about gay marriage. The church will be healthier when the world knows what the church thinks about justification by faith.

Friday, March 25, 2016

How the Church Saved Stanley

A few weeks ago, North Point Community Church pastor Andy Stanley created a firestorm with remarks that he made during a sermon at his church. His statements have been reported as follows:

When I hear adults say, ‘I don’t like a big church. I like about 200. I want to be able to know everybody.’ I say you are so stinking selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids. If you don’t go to a church large enough, where you can have enough middle-schoolers and high-schoolers so they can have small groups and grow up the local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big old church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people, and grow up and love the local church.
For one of the more measured responses to these comments, see Presbyterian pastor Todd Pruitt's blog post.

While this is not the first time that Pastor Stanley has said things that rubbed other evangelicals the wrong way, the blow back in this instance was severe enough that he issued an apology on his Twitter account and followed that up with a friendly interview with Christianity Today in which he lamented his remarks as "absurd." In that same interview, while acknowledging that what he said could not be justified, he also regretted that people were focusing on a brief clip (by the way, the clip has been removed as the result of a copyright claim by North Point). He wished that people would listen to the whole sermon.

I decided to take him up on that. In part I did so because I thought the request was reasonable. After all, almost anyone who has preached frequently, including myself back in the day, has said ill considered things that he wished that he could take back. In addition, I was curious: what biblical text could possibly elicit an application involving a rant against taking children to small and medium sized churches. In addition, why on earth would he feel a need to say these things to his congregation? Did he fear that his congregants would return from conversations with family at Easter determined to find a small church to invest themselves in for sake of Christian nurture? Alternatively, is he dismayed that Pastor Naboth still has people to preach to in his little vineyard? Why would he consider this something worthy of attention? The softball interview with CT indicated that such motivations were not in view, but I thought it couldn't hurt to listen to the sermon.

The sermon in which the remarks were made is entitled "Saved by the Church." Questions regarding the specific context of the controversial part will have to remain unclear, as the offending section has been removed from the recording of the sermon posted on the church's website. However, the question regarding scripture text does have an answer: there is none -- and I seem to recall a few years ago that he said to a public gathering that he didn't believe that a minister has any obligation to base his sermon on an exposition of Scripture. Regardless, in this instance he did not. Actually, the sermon contains no Scripture references at all until the final minutes, when the pastor jokes that a sermon is required to make reference to a Bible verse and then talks about the passage in Matthew 16 where Jesus says that he will build his church.

Rather than base his remarks on Scripture, the sermon, which is designed to explain a commitment to planting other congregations, is largely autobiographical, with the pastor spending the majority of the message outlining five ways that the church saved his life. Those ways are as follows:

1. Informed my conscience.
2. Instilled a sense of purpose.
3. Provided the context for life long friendships.
4. Served as a window of God's activity all over the world.
5. Taught me to be generous.

Based on these things he concluded that "following Jesus will make your life better and will make you better at life." In saying that, he mentions as part of a single sentence that this means getting to go to heaven while elaborating on the benefits for life in the here and now.

After exegeting his own life to explain the value of the church, Pastor Stanley then proceeds to apply this to his listeners, with two primary emphases explaining the value of the church and providing the reason for a commitment to planting more of them. One emphasis, which served earlier as his introduction and is brought up again at this point in the sermon, is that the lessons he learned are needed by the next generation, and planting churches represents his commitment to children. The other emphasis is that the church is needed to provide principles that inform the conscience of the nation.

Listening to the sermon left me with a few thoughts, though they are perhaps not what Pastor Stanley had in mind when he urged people to listen to the whole thing. Even without the reckless comments about small churches, the message was disturbing in a number of ways.

Of primary importance, one might think that a sermon on the ways that the church saved one's life might have some focus on how the church proclaimed the Gospel, thus providing the message that saved him from sin and death. That message is entirely absent from this sermon. The death of Christ is only mentioned twice in passing. While making the point that the church provided a window for seeing God's activity across the whole world, the pastor mentioned that Christ died for the world, but he did not elaborate on the thought. Near the end, when talking about Jesus' statements that he would build his church, he argues that the prophecy was astounding because Jesus was about to be crucified and his disciples scattered. The pastor does use the word "gospel" in the context of reading some quotes by evangelical author Phillip Yancey, but what the pastor means by "gospel" is unclear, as his point primarily has to do with the passing down of moral values.

Absent any real gospel emphasis, in the sense of seeing the church as proclaiming the message of Christ's death, burial and resurrection as the hope of sinners, including sinners that are also Christians, there is really nothing to the sermon other than moralism. In recent years, many Christian jeremiads have featured references to the work of Catholic sociologist Christian Smith, whose research suggests that, wittingly or unwittingly, evangelical (and other) churches have largely raised their children to embrace moralistic, therapeutic deism, as opposed to any form of biblical Christianity. That accusation seems to be openly embraced at least in this sermon, which can only argue for the value of the church based on its helping us with things like making life long friends and not lusting after girls. No doubt there is value in those things, but it is hardly the same as teaching me that by the life and death of Christ that I can have forgiveness of sins and an eternal hope that compels me toward my chief aim of glorifying God and enjoying him forever.

Of course, it is not only large modern churches that make the mistake that Pastor Stanley has made in this sermon, but it does point to a reason that if I lived in Atlanta (or one of the other cities where his church has a campus) I would not want to take my family to his church. My pastor, at a church with an attendance of around 200, faithfully, week by week, expounds Scripture (not his personal life), teaching me and my family law and gospel, warning us of sin and pointing to Christ as the Savior of sinners. Whether large or small, that is a church worth joining.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Book Review: "Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ," by Todd Billings

At age 39 and as the father of two children, Dr. Todd Billings, theology professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, learned that he had a cancer of the bone marrow: multiple myeloma. The disease accounts for about 1% of cancer diagnoses and 2% of cancer deaths in the United States: the first number points to its rarity; the second relative to the first, to its lethalness. Indeed, while multiple myeloma remains without a cure, the extensive amount of research given to the malady over the last couple of decades has resulted in a doubling of the median life span from diagnosis:  it is now about 5 years. However, Billings is much younger than the typical myeloma patient, and some of his doctors think that his chances of living a decade are good.

He was 39 at diagnosis. The optimistic only give him a decent chance of making 50. In that case, he won't see his children reach junior high.

In the modern west, it is difficult not to regard longevity as a right -- and early death as an assault on human dignity. In addition, even those who are ardently opposed to the prosperity gospel will often feel the tug -- either internally or externally-- of the notion that adversity is a form of retribution and that ongoing adversity proves a lack of faith. For those who struggle against such views -- and for those simply trying to get their feet back under them after being jolted by hard realities, Billings has written this spiritual memoir combining theological reflection with his own ongoing experience of treatment for incurable cancer. The result, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, is a wonderful gift to those enduring similar suffering -- and to those that would minister to them.

"Rejoicing in Lament" is a book of theological reflection discussing big issues: how a good and powerful God can permit evil, the nature of prayer, and so forth; however, it is not reflection that takes place in a vacuum. Every section of the book mingles meditation on these themes with Billings' experience as a cancer patient. In fact, much of the discussion was taken from his CarePages entries written contemporaneously with the experiences that he is describing. 

And, much of what he describes provides insights that much of the church is in danger of losing, at the peril of its members. Billings emphasizes more than once that diverse sections of the church -- Reformed, Arminian, Roman, Eastern Orthodox -- have expressed truths now largely forgotten.  A large portion of the book is given to discussing the Psalms of lament, with lament involving both expressions of sorrow and protest that things are not as they are supposed to be. The Kingdom, while promised, has not yet come in its fulness, and in the meantime, things are not as they ought to be. In much of the modern western church, emotional expression has been reduced to celebration -- we even say nowadays that we go to funerals to celebrate. Whereas Calvin referred to the psalter as "the anatomy of the parts of the soul," the modern church now has a songbook that is, even projected, paper thin. The result is a hollowing out of the emotional life of the church in a way that also makes her superficial, particularly to those that are hurting.

Any Christian reflection on suffering would be expected to include a section on the Book of Job, and Billings does not disappoint. It is commonly said that Job tells us why there is suffering, though Job himself never learns that. In addition, Billings notes that Job's friends display the same redistributionist thinking about prayer and faith as is common in the modern world. To the contrary, God speaking out of the whirlwind tells us that frequently we will not know why He permits evil and suffering. Rather, Job's conclusion serves to remind us that God is God, and we are creatures. This theme is important to understanding much of the Bible beyond Job. Billings  writes, "The biblical practice of leaving suffering as an open question before God can be difficult to maintain, particularly as we consider the providential care and power of God. Yet, leaving the problem of suffering and evil as an open question is essential if we are to affirm Scripture's testimony about who God is and who we are. It enables us to embrace two sides of the psalmists' testimony: that the covenant God of Israel is the sovereign and benevolent King, and that, because of God's covenant promises, we are to thank the lord when we see his promises come to fruition and complain to him in lament when we do not.... As the New Testament testifies, lament is part of the Christian life until the final kingdom comes." 

Perhaps Billings is at his most poignant when discussing Christian prayers for healing. While not denying the power of God to heal (and while not wanting to come across as the prayer police), Billings says that some prayers in that regard leave the one being prayed for feeling alienated. He pointedly notes that we don't typically pray for the restoration of amputated limbs while asking why a prayer that medicine will bring the cancer into remission shows a lack of faith. He contends that prayers should be more informed by the pattern of lament and trust found in the Psalms, as well as the kingdom focus of the Lord's Prayer.

One of the treatments for multiple myeloma involves transplants of one's own stem cells. In his final reflections following a procedure that was both difficult and successful, Billings writes, "[T]his process of displacement of our old self and incorporation into Christ is a long journey.  It is long because of he persistence of our sin, our love of life that moves away from God's ways and seeks out autonomy rather than communion with God and neighbor. But as I discovered anew during my time of recovery after the transplant, it is also a long journey because until the kingdom comes in its fulness, our lives will be ones both rejoicing and lamenting before our covenant Lord."

I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tainted Histories

In the New Testament, Hebrews 11 lists people and deeds from the Old Testament that demonstrated great faith in God. In the Old Testament, we read some other things about many of those same people:

Noah, following deliverance from the flood, became drunk with a tragic result.

Abraham lied about his relationship to his wife, putting her in a dangerous and compromising position.

Sarah laughed at God's promise.

Isaac was a weak man who ignored God's instruction and was manipulated by his wife and son.

Jacob was a cheater.

Moses was a murderer.

Gideon doubted God's promises. Samson's sins are too many to list. Jephthah made a rash vow regarding his daughter. David committed adultery and tried to cover it up with murder.

Do we see a sad pattern here?

The point of this is not to tear down men and women who are regarded as great, though one might be better off regarding them as ordinary men and women (people like us) delivered by a great and gracious God. 

More to my present point, we see in this something from the Old Testament that makes it remarkably different from the histories produced by most ancient cultures. Those other cultures -- almost universally -- scrubbed their histories of failures and crimes, making their renowned leaders look pristine and great. In the Old Testament, God's people told the truth about their historic figures, for good and for ill.

Given the strength of the Bible, which Christians regard as the Word of God, in such honesty, it is sadly ironic that God's people, in the past and at present, seem to struggle with it so. It is hard to see in our heritage both good and evil. My own denomination provides an example of this. The Presbyterian Church in America was primarily formed as a southern Presbyterian response to theological liberalism -- our founders were concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy, and for that I am grateful and rejoice. Some among them also were interested in resistance to the civil rights movement, and for that I am saddened and shamed. However, it must be acknowledged as true.

Some Americans who are both southern and Christian seem to be struggling with this of late. They will talk about the antebellum period and the "war between the states" as though their "peculiar institution" was not even of tangential significance as a cause of war. They will gloss over the cruelty of Jim Crow. They will forget that the Stars and Bars mostly disappeared for nearly 100 years before reappearing as a symbol of protest -- not against northern aggression -- against civil rights for blacks.

The southern United States through much of our history was not a land of liberty or opportunity -- certainly not if one was black.

These are hard truths. Acknowledging them means admitting that those we admire were tainted by evil. What does it say about our heritage?

The Old Testament would remind us that honesty will reveal that our triumphs are often mingled with tragedy. For Christians, it is a reminder of the danger that even the best among us may be blinded by sin and stand in need of the grace of God.

Unfortunately, a refusal  to face history often results in a failure to understand the present, and those whitewashing the past will provide aid and comfort to those who continue to harbor sin and ill will in the present. For that reason, honesty -- even when painful -- about our past is something that we should all value.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Look at Pew's Religious Landscape Study

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released its Changing Religious Landscape Study updating research previously performed in 2007. News headlines fronted the study's finding that the percentage of American adults (note that all of the information described herein concerns the adult population) that identified their religious affiliation as Christian had declined by 8 percent since 2007. As that news began to depress the faithful, it began to be noticed that evangelicals had actually increased by 2 million adherents during the time frame, causing those believers to declare the larger decline a mainline (read: liberal) Protestant and Catholic problem. While they had grown numerically, the evangelicals had declined by roughly 1% when compared to the overall population. Thus, population growth has outpaced evangelical growth. Nonetheless, relieved to express thanks that they were not like those mainline publicans, evangelical writers quickly told their readers that they could sleep tonight knowing that all is well.

Both versions of the poll's interpretations are overly simplistic and tell only part of the story. Neither Pollyanna nor Chicken Little is right. What is the truth?

Before trying to answer that question, I would urge readers to take time to look beyond the headlines to the actual study. For those not inclined to read the entire study, Pew has a user friendly interactive tool that is actually quite helpful. Quite apart from the issue everyone is talking about, there is a wealth of interesting and useful information. For example, the survey found that evangelicals in the United States are 55% female and 55% married, and that 43% have not attended college. I was surprised to find that 35% had an annual household income of less than $30,000, and 57% had an income below $50,000. This provides a different perspective than might be assumed by those who associate evangelicalism with suburban megachurches, and I wondered if those income numbers are skewed downward by older evangelicals on fixed incomes or if Christianity is really doing that well among folks with meager incomes. Regardless, all of those data points could create some interesting points of discussion regarding Christian ministry and outreach.

The survey also allows for isolation of religious trends in some metropolitan areas. For example, it was interesting to note that evangelicals in Dallas are 51% male, while they only make up 45% of evangelicals nationwide. I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has a theory as to why that would be. Evangelicals comprise over 25% of the population across the southern tier of the country (38% in Dallas), but never represent more than 20% in the north and are in the single digits in some metropolitan areas, thus making clear the extent to which large swaths of the country are really a mission field.

The numbers of evangelicals and Christians in the opening paragraph were developed based mostly on church affiliation, and they are not reflective of extent of commitment, the level of influence one's faith has on his or her life, or the level of understanding that one has of the faith. Churches that got people included in the evangelical grouping ranged widely, from Pentecostal and charismatic groups to most Baptists (but not the mainline American Baptist Convention) to conservative Presbyterians and Lutherans (not the mainline PCUSA or ELCA). The liberal mainline denominations have declined rapidly, and the Catholics are not that far behind in that regard. As mentioned previously, evangelicals have fared better.

But that should not be taken to mean that all is well. Not only have evangelicals failed to pick up adherents from those abandoning mainline denominations, but they also have not been able to really take advantage of the fact that evangelical birthrates are likely higher than other more liberal faith groups. In addition, socially conservative Catholics comprising much U.S. immigration have not found their way into evangelical churches in large numbers, at least not large enough to move the needle on overall percentage. Finally, the time period between 2007 and 2014 includes a serious economic downturn. In previous eras, such national crises tended to be associated with upticks in religious belief, but that doesn't seem to have happened at all during this time.

Finally, evangelicals should not feel good about the increasing numbers of people defining themselves as hostile toward or indifferent to religion. As a percentage of the total population, atheists have nearly doubled from 1.6% to 3%, and agnostics have seen a roughly 40% increase by the same measure. The percentage of those that just don't care has also continued to increase. That growth has tended to be young and highly educated, and the continuation of that trend may have significant repercussions for American culture. How will evangelicals proclaim a robust faith in the face of a growing secularization of the culture.

American Christianity over the last more than two centuries have been accustomed to a largely accommodating cultural environment. While evangelical numbers remain relatively stable, the future promises to provide more headwinds in opposition to evangelical faith and practice. The church needs to gird itself for that reality.