The swing of the pendulum

No non-profit has a better fundraising letter than does Mars Hill Audio. Typically 3-4 pages each, I usually save the thoughtful, essay-like letters by Ken Myers for my personal library. This summer’s letter examines the nature of Christian hope, and how many in the church have substituted an empty optimism for the solid hope offered by Christ. One aspect that is affected by this is the church’s attitude toward the world:

When I was a boy, many American Christians assumed that an alliance with the world was a bad thing. From [John 14:27], from Romans 12:1f., from James 1:27, from I John 2:15, and from many other less explicit biblical texts, they knew that worldliness was a condition fervently to be avoided by faithful disciples. Unfortunately, they believed that worldliness was adequately defined by delighted participation in almost any kind of cultural activity; movies, card-playing, alcohol, and tobacco were especially singled out, but the general principle was that “worldly” meant “bodily.” Since that time, the gnosticism implicit in such attitudes has been abandoned by many Christians, a change for which we must be grateful. But it seems as if American Christians have moved from assuming that all cultural activities are inherently suspect to assuming that all cultural activities are inherently innocent and beyond criticism. Rejecting a bad definition of worldliness, we exhibit almost no collective concern whatsoever about avoiding worldliness rightly defined.

In short, many Christians have swung the proverbial pendulum too far in the opposite direction, leaving just as far from the biblical mandate as they were before. Read the rest of the letter [PDF] for what Myers sees as a solution to the American Church’s missing of the mark.

I’ve mentioned it here before, but I’ll mention it again: a subscription to the Mars Hill Audio Journal is worth its weight in gold, although an MP3 subscription is only $30. Unlike other “talkies” (radio, podcasts, etc.), MHAJ has a long shelf life, and an uncanny ability to make you listen to some segments again and again to mine them for all their worth.

Mansfield vs. the millitant atheists

It’s hard to walk through a bookstore these days without tripping over the stacks of books by “evangelical” atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. These writers and others like them seek to not only raise the profile of atheism, but to subvert influence of theists.

Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, whom I had the opportunity to hear not long ago, tells us in The Weekly Standard that their malevolence toward religion is atypical of previous appearances of atheism throughout history. They are not content to be distant observers, but seek to attack the beliefs of even the individual.

Observes Mansfield:

It is not religion that makes men fanatics; it is the power of the human desire for justice, so often partisan and perverted. That fanatical desire can be found in both religion and atheism. In the contest between religion and atheism, the strength of religion is to recognize two apparently contrary forces in the human soul: the power of injustice and the power, nonetheless, of our desire for justice. The stubborn existence of injustice reminds us that man is not God, while the demand for justice reminds us that we wish for the divine. Religion tries to join these two forces together.

True to form, Mansfield, says a lot more in a little space. Go. Read.

[HT: Acton Powerblog]

Politics, religion, and a funny word called hermeneutics

What benefit can examining a political candidate’s religious beliefs have for voters? Not long ago, I wrote a post on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s comments regarding her self-described Christian beliefs. A reader named Ron commented:

In fact, that part of the Constitution coincides with my personal interest about the religion of a politician. All I want to know about a politician’s religion is that they aren’t going to favor one religion over another and that they aren’t going to favor believers over non-believers or vice versa. In other words, I want to know they respect the Constitutional separation of church and state. In other words, I personally apply no religious test for public office. Nor do I apply a gender test, a race test, or any other test not related to the candidates character or position on the issues.

The [article about Clinton’s religious views] is unimportant to me. Strike that. Actually I think it’s too bad it was printed. The subject is what is unimportant to me.

Why indeed would a candidate’s religious beliefs be a legitimate topic of discussion if all of the above conditions that Ron proposed are met? If the candidate doesn’t give extra favors to one religion over another, why should such information belong in the public debate?

Here’s one reason: hermeneutics — a $20 word for the interpretation of texts. And how a person approaches a religious text says a lot about how they might interpret other texts. If a candidate approaches the Bible with a heterodox hermeneutic, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suspect that this will be the way he or she approaches the Constitution of the United States.

If Sen. Clinton sees the Bible as a “living, breathing, document” subject to the winds of change, she’s likely to read the Constitution the same way. People tend to interpret texts of a doctrinal nature — be they civic or religious — in the the same manner. Therefore, when we interpret our politicians, analyzing their own religious interpretations can indeed be helpful.

Hillary Clinton: Church Lady

In case you missed the glowing New York Times profile of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s faith over the weekend, you missed intriguing tidbits like the fact that she carries a Bible along with her on the campaign trail. Also included in the piece was this very telling portrayal of her beliefs (emphasis mine):

In a brief quiz about her theological views, Mrs. Clinton said she believed in the resurrection of Jesus, though she described herself as less sure of the doctrine that being a Christian is the only way to salvation. As for how literally to interpret the Bible, she takes a characteristically centrist view.

“The whole Bible gives you a glimpse of God and God’s desire for a personal relationship, but we can’t possibly understand every way God is communicating with us,” she said. “I’ve always felt that people who try to shoehorn in their cultural and social understandings of the time into the Bible might be actually missing the larger point.”

That she rejects historic orthodox Christianity is clear — no major confession of faith through the ages has ever expressed belief that there is salvation outside Christ. What remains a little unclear is the statement that we can’t possibly understand God’s communication. If she means that she herself can’t understand it, that’s one thing. But, if she means that god communicates with us in ways that are unknowable, I would beg to differ.

The fact that God has communicated to us via the written word means that he is understandable, and that it he is knowable through his word. To say that “we can’t possibly understand every way God is communicating with us” is to say that we really have no basis for understanding any way. If this is so, we in effect become agnostics.

I don’t think Sen. Clinton is intentionally courting the votes of the “agnostic left,” but they may have just found their candidate…

Struggling with Euphemisms: How Evangelicals Soften Sin and Sidestep Guilt

A few years ago, I wrote here about how our culture at large tends to marginalize the concept of sin by softening the terminology used to describe it. Sins become “mistakes” or “errors in judgment,” leaving the perpetrator a little less guilty in his or her own eyes.

Sadly, this societal trend has crept into the church as well. If you’re an evangelical Christian, you’ve no doubt heard a phrase like this, “I’m struggling with ____.” Within that blank is any number and manner of sins. These days, it seems, a person doesn’t sin anymore so much as they struggle with sin.

A person who lusts becomes a person who is “struggling with lust.” Someone who is proud becomes someone who is “struggling with pride.” A person who views sexually explicit material becomes one who is “struggling with pornography,” and so on and so forth.

Look closely at what has happened here: uncomfortable with facing head-on the ramifications of saying “I sinned,” the sinner chooses a different route. The guilt of having committed the sin is seemingly alleviated by couching it in the language of struggle.

There are two severe problems with this practice. The first is that Christians should be struggling with sin. It should characterize every Christian that they struggle with pornography, greed, or pride. Since few others seem to fight against these vices, Christians should be on the front lines. Struggling with sin should not be seen as something to get away from.

The second problem is that the soft edge seemingly given by these euphemisms is a lie. Restating the problem of sin doesn’t make it go away. The cross of Christ is the only remedy for sin, and to ease our guilt by wordplay is a fruitless self deception.

“If we confess our sins,” the Scriptures tell us, Christ “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We should do just that — confess it for what it is and accept his forgiveness. The sin should end and the struggle should go on.

Don’t apply the Bible to your life

For evangelical Christians, the Bible is authoritative. We use tradition and the church to wisely guide our appropriation of the Scriptures, but the authority of the written word of God is supreme. The doctrine of sola scriptura is based upon biblical principles and precedent. For this reason, evangelicals rightly pay close attention to the Bible.

One of the more common ways in which Christians approach the Bible is to “apply it to their lives.” It’s difficult to visit an evangelical church these days where one wouldn’t hear such a phrase in some form or fashion. Take, for example, a recent Google experiment I completed. A search for the terms “apply it to your life” revealed that 30 of the first 100 search results were related in some way to Christianity and the Bible.

What we evangelicals generally mean when we say that we want to “apply the Bible to our lives” is that we should take the principles found in Scripture, and put them into practice. Simple and orthodox enough, right?

Well, maybe not. The words we use to describe the practice of a Christian life convey much more than we intend to say. When we “apply the Bible to our lives,” we explicitly make our lives — as they are now — the standard. Our lives become like a house that needs a fresh coat of paint applied to its aging walls. Wherever there’s a dull, damaged, or decaying spot, we apply the paint that is the Scriptures.

Such an analogy might make for a good church newsletter story, but it’s a dangerously false way for a Christian to live. What my Google search experiment also found was that 34 of the 100 results used the “apply it to your life” expression in the context of a new age, psychotherapy, or self-help scheme (the top result was for Oprah’s favorite new book, The Secret). Unlike the new age view, the Bible tells us that our lives are not merely in need of a few touch-ups — they need a complete overhaul. We don’t need to apply the Scriptures to the peeling exterior, we need them flowing through our veins. As Jesus once warned:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28]

Christians should not apply the Bible to our lives so much as we should apply our lives to the Bible. We are not the center of the universe, but followers of that Word whom to us was revealed. We should stop using the Bible as the touch-up paint of our lives, and paint ourselves to the truth of the Scriptures.

On the passing and rising of Jesus

Earlier this week, as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave his “gift” of returning captured British hostages to their homeland, he cited his reason for his generous gesture:

“On the occasion of the birthday of the great Prophet (Muhammad) … and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15.

“This pardon is a gift to the British people.”

Indeed, Christians do celebrate the passing of Christ. Good Friday finds Christians focusing on the crucifixion Jesus, where the wrath of God against sin (which we deserved) was poured out upon the innocent Son of Man. Ahmadinejad, of course, leaves out the crucial rest of the story — the fact of the resurrection.

While a Christian’s justification depends upon God’s gift of the cross, the hope of a follower of Christ lies in a truth that seems odd to verbalize in today’s modern world. This truth is none other than the fact that the fully human Jesus of Nazareth — likewise fully dead — got up and walked out of his tomb. And (as dead men are never good candidates for walking around) we conclude, along with the biblical writers, that Jesus is no longer dead.

A real dead person really came back to life, and continues to live today. As Christ said as he began his ministry, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Be fruitful and subtract: Should Christians depopulate the earth?

Those who built fallout shelters in the 1960s can attest to the fact that in that decade there was no shortage of opportunity for alarmism. One such alarmist was Paul R. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb predicted that the long-overpopulated planet Earth was in danger from its ever-increasing inhabitants. Ehrlich’s book contained such soothsayings as this:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Well, we’re still here. The catastrophic predictions made by Ehrlich only earned him a spot on ISI’s 50 Worst Books of the 20th Century list — not the mantle of a prophet. While the overpopulation hype of the ’60s and ’70s died with its failed realization, the movement’s offspring persist in the present day, and one of the more surprising habitats for such thoughts is among Christians.

J. Matthew Sleeth has penned a book review/essay for the latest issue of Books & Culture in which he makes a “Christian case for small families.” Sleeth, who thinks the earth is undergoing an overpopulation crisis, argues that it is proper Christian stewardship not to have too many babies:

…it all comes down to Christian virtue. Should I choose to have a large family and add even more people to a crowded planet? The Population Resource Board estimates that more that 106 billion human beings have been born since God issued the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” I think that we can safely count “be fruitful and multiply” among the few divine commands that we have fulfilled. But we must not forget that this commandment applies to every one of God’s creatures, not humans to the exclusion of all else. We are to be good stewards, not exterminators.

God has also given us another commandment—we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I agree […] that large families are preferable for a number of moral and economic, not to mention personal, reasons, but I believe that the Golden Rule trumps all other considerations. The suffering and the terrible quality of life that result from unchecked global population growth is more important than my desire for a large family, or my country’s continued economic growth.

Sleeth’s argument places him in a bit of a biblical conundrum. First, he claims that the command to be fruitful and multiply is “among the few divine commands that we have fulfilled.” This is absurd. I haven’t committed adultery or murdered anyone — does this mean the Ten Commandments are now null and void? Shall we throw out the Great Commission while we’re at it? The command is a pattern for general activity given to us by God which will be fulfilled only in the New Earth.

Next, he implies that the injunction to be fruitful and multiply is somehow undermining the Golden Rule. His reasoning? There are plenty of people to go around:

…There are a number of countries in the world—including virtually all of Europe, as well as Russia and Japan—that do not have a fertility rate necessary to sustain their current populations. And it is true that this may cause some short-term economic instability. But on a global scale, the problem isn’t underpopulation, it’s overpopulation. As noted earlier, any of the countries that have a static or shrinking population need only open their borders to immigration if they want to grow their population. There is no global shortage of people.

There is, however, a global shortage of the things necessary for each and every person on the planet to live a good life. When I say “good life,” I don’t mean a life lived according to the current North American standard; I mean a life that is good in the way that God intended it to be. Many of us go about our daily lives without once seeing God’s creation unmarred by human hands. A growing global population will mean more human destruction of creation.

In a nutshell, Sleeth seems to grant a greater value to scenic views than he does to full quivers. Using Sleeth’s “Golden Rule” rationale, having a large family would be doing harm unto my neighbor. Is this really so? While I’m sure my own neighbors are often irritated after hearing one of my two year-old’s tantrums, I’ve yet to meet one who wishes he hadn’t been born. Sleeth doesn’t say that, but the effect of his thinking means that he wishes X number of potential future children will not be born.

Sleeth’s argument also falters due to his failure to put teeth to the issue. His ideal of Christian family minimization could only make an impact if it could be accomplished. For that to happen, a number must be given. How many kids should a Christian family have (or not have) in order to be the “good stewards” that Sleeth envsions? Are 2 kids too many? 3? 5? 7? Where do we draw the line?

Sleeth doesn’t draw that line, perhaps because Christians have no guide for doing so — other than the beleaguered secular policies of the population control movement. It would behoove the proponents of such policies (and their future grandchildren) to take a lesson from their own ideas and stop reproducing them. After all, there is no global shortage of ill-informed ideas.

James Cameron is the King of the World!

That’s it. I guess that after 24 years, it’s time for me to give up Christianity. After all, James Cameron, the director who put Leonardo DiCaprio at the bow of the Titanic, will announce to the world next week in a Discovery Channel special that he has found the body of Jesus. Not only that — he has DNA evidence to boot!

Perhaps (this is just speculation) Cameron has even cloned Jesus, in order to be sure that the DNA is really his. Actually, we’ve all seen CSI and know how the DNA thing works. All he had to do was get a swab from Jesus’ cheek and match it up, right?

In all seriousness, it looks like James Cameron is trying to sink another ship. The sensational foolishness that surrounds this stunt is evident in the “theological considerations” given on the show’s website (emphasis theirs):

It is also a matter of Christian faith that after his resurrection, Jesus ascended to heaven. Some Christians believe that this was a spiritual ascension, i.e., his mortal remains were left behind. Other Christians believe that he ascended with his body to heaven. If Jesus’ mortal remains have been found, this would contradict the idea of a physical ascension but not the idea of a spiritual ascension. The latter is consistent with Christian theology.

No orthodox Christian holds or has ever held the belief that Jesus’ ascension was merely spiritual. There have been groups such as the Gnostics who have held such views, but they have been universally found heretical by orthodox branches of the faith. Simply put, if Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead, Christianity is a sham.

In fact, one needn’t even look to church history. The Bible is painstakingly clear that Jesus’ physical body was resurrected. See John 20:26-28 and 1 John 1:1-4 for just two examples.

How ironic is it that James Cameron thinks he must stage a stunt, complete with press conference and media blitz, to find Jesus? When Christ found me, there were no reporters — yet the impact upon my life was titanic. The good news is that although the tomb was empty, Jesus can still be found.

If the apostle Paul were a preacher today, he’d probably end up robbing Peter

One of the most famous passages in The Brothers Karamazov, has to do with the existentialist Ivan Karamazov telling his brother a parable called “The Grand Inquisitor.” The parable examines what would happen if Christ returned to the contemporary world of Christendom. The result, Ivan tells us, would be no different from his first experience — he would be charged and sentenced to execution.

In his 1993 expose of evangelicalism’s theological demise, No Place for Truth, David Wells gives a similar scenario for the apostle Paul. Wells doesn’t think Paul would fare too well in today’s church climate (pp. 290-291):

We can only guess how well the apostle Paul might have fared had he sought pastoral employment among evangelicals today, but we would not be risking much to suppose that he would start out with a few strikes against him. Happily, there would be a constituency deeply appreciative of his teaching and service. But he would not be without his critics. Indeed, they might very well be numerous. Some churches would doubtless be delighted that he was willing to support himself and leave more of the church budget for other matters, but more professionalized congregations would probably be embarrassed by this. Who, they might ask, really wants a cut-rate pastor?

Wells continues:

Few would warm to his personality, and that would be no small matter. Today, most pastors stand or fall today by their personalities rather than their character. Many would be agitated about his insistence on discipline in the church. Many would be offended by his refusal to grant the legitimacy of each person’s private views so long as they were held sincerely. His insistence that truth is given objectively in Christ, not subjectively through private intuition as the pagans thought, would make him strangely out of touch.

It’s been over a decade since No Place for Truth was published, yet personality seems to remain a driving criterium for what one considers in a pastor. Strangely, the death knell these days for a pastor is to be boring. Preachers today can get by for a while with theological inaccuracy, but heaven forbid a pastor ever be boring. Again, Wells:

Indeed, his preaching, judged by contemporary standards, would be considered by many a failure because the brief summaries that we have of what he did show no penchant for telling stories at all. Besides, Paul was apparently in the habit of extending his discourses long beyond the twenty minutes to which many churches would limit him. He would probably end up provoking a churchly insurrection — for all the wrong reasons. Few would be able to make much sense of his concern with the connections between New Testament faith and Old Testament promises, because the Old Testament is terra incognita in the Church today.

Wells neglects to mention Paul’s bald head and bow-leggedness. With a history of putting people to sleep with his sermons, Paul’s resume would look pretty bleak.

His passionately theological mind would get him into trouble on two counts: his preaching would be judged hopelessly irrelevant because its theological focus would put it out of step with modern habits, and his passion would simply prove embarrassing. His vision of God’s purposes in the world, one supposes, would probably seem interesting but, in the small world of church life, not really compelling. And so the difficulties would mount. Paul would probably be condemned to flit from place to place, not out of choice but necessity, never finding secure lodging anywhere, his resume fatally scarred by his many pastoral failures until, abandoned and worn out, he would be left to pass his closing days in a home for the aged.

It’s pretty safe to conclude from Wells’ thesis that Paul would have little work in today’s church marketplace. The fact that church is even treated as a marketplace doesn’t help the matter. Since the Chinese have pretty much cornered the market on tentmaking, Paul’s only chance for income might be robbing his old friend Peter.