We Are Stones

We Are Stones

I love the New Testament passages that describe the church in terms of stones. Peter says Christians are “like living stones” who are “being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5), with Christ as the cornerstone (2:6-7). Paul says similar things in Ephesians 2:19-22

Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals

Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals

At this week’s “Future of the Church” discussion at Biola University (well worth watching online in its entirety here), the brilliant Fred Sanders ended his prepared remarks by suggesting that it may be up to the “children of evangelicalism” to make progress in the dialogue of unity/ecumenism. Such a project is perennially attempted but always met with the same pesky roadblocks (the “essentials versus non-essentials” conversation being unavoidably amorphous, given the decentralized DNA of Protestantism).

Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline

Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline

Christians have had a decidedly love/hate relationship with alcohol. The infamous “drink” has been regarded by Christians at various times with awe, horror, religious devotion, fear, obsession, prohibition, addiction, and temperance. It has been one of the most divisive issues within modern American evangelicalism, creating rifts within churches, within families, within Christian institutions.

November Prayer

We ask that you would grant our nation peace, hope, direction, recovery. That you would heal the anger, bitterness, animosity and hate that characterizes so many on all sides. That you would help all of us to move on together, charitably disagreeing but bound by a commitment to a more civil discourse—perhaps even those in Washington D.C.

Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl

I was somewhat skeptical going in to Tilt-a-Whirl; mostly because "Christian films" of any sort are almost always a let down. But this was a pleasant surprise—a genuinely compelling, well-made film that never feels false or inauthentic and actually leaves us with insights to ponder and stirs our hearts and minds toward God.

Higher Ground

Higher Ground is a great companion piece to the searing must-see Korean drama, Secret Sunshine, which released this week on Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray. Both films center on a woman's journey of evangelical Christian faith through ups, downs, doubts, renewal and tragedy. Both films are made by outsiders to evangelical Christianity but with a sympathetic eye toward truly understanding the complexity of the life of faith. Subsequently, both are brutally honest, messy, sometimes difficult portrayals that get one thing very right about the journey of religious faith: It's not always easy.

Marketing a Noncommercial Message

What does it mean to package Christianity in a methodical manner so as to make it salient to as wide an audience as possible? What does Christianity lose when it becomes just one piece of a consumer transaction? These are questions that the brand managers of “cool Christianity” would do well to consider. 

Lord Save Us. From Your Followers

Last night I attended a screening of Dan Merchant’s new Michael Moore-esque documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers.  It's a film about how Christians have a huge PR problem and how “the culture wars” are exactly the opposite of what Christians should be battling in this world. The real war concerns things like poverty, injustice, and loving the unlovable, suggests Merchant. If Christians just loved better, befriended drag queens, and washed homeless people’s feet, our image crisis would go away.

The Worst “Christians” in the World

Christians today need to have confidence not in their own cultural dogmas or prophetic/martyrdom complexes (as in the Phelps’ insistence that God only smiles upon them and hates everyone else)—but rather confidence in Christ and his transforming, world-altering gospel.

Christian Cussing

Not using profanity in today’s world is noticeable. It is the sort of abstaining activity that people will take note of. What an opportunity for Christians to truly show restraint and demonstrate the different-ness of the Christ-like life! I’m not saying we should chastise non-Christians for using bad language or avoid movies or music with salty language; I’m just saying that we, as Christians, should set an example by being different.

Sex From the Pulpit: Part Three

Sex scandals and evangelicalism go together like Christian Bale and rage. And it’s all very unfortunate. From Jim Bakker to Paul Crouch to Ted Haggard, we Christians are all too familiar with our leaders being caught in sex, scandal, and hypocrisy. Mostly we just like to forget that these things happen, hiding them or writing them out of the history books to whatever extent we can.

Is Christianity Cool?

This is the title of chapter one of the book I am writing, and it’s the underlying question of the whole thing. I don’t expect to answer it definitively in the book, but it’s a question that begs to be explored, because it’s a question that is at least latently present in all the major movements and expressions of contemporary Christianity.

Religulous: Outrageously Innocuous

Bill Maher’s new “I hate religion” agit-prop indulgence, Religulous, is appreciatively passionate and occasionally funny, but all things considered, it’s a rather trifling little film.

There are numerous things to be said about it (both praises and criticisms), and you can find some of them in my 2 star review of the film for Christianity Today.

My reaction was not exactly what I—or Bill Maher—expected. I assumed that I would leave the film totally offended and perhaps a bit distraught. Maher no doubt was banking on me (i.e. the average person of committed religious faith) having a reaction like that.

But after seeing Religulous, I didn’t have much of a strong reaction at all. Maybe it’s because I’d seen all of this stuff before. Maher’s film merely pulls up all the worst, most unrepresentative spokespersons of these faiths. And that is nothing new. Jesus Camp did this in 2006; the “what is Pat Robertson saying this time” media does it on a daily basis.

Religulous is offensive, yes, but not in the sense that Maher hopes it will be. It insults the audience’s intelligence not only because it tells them they are dumb to believe in a deity, but because it assumes—counter to all statistics—that large portions of the potential viewing audience agree. Maher’s film presents an achingly narrow view—the view that religions are all dumb and religious people all stupid—and it doesn’t seem to recognize just how marginal such a position really is.

Bill Maher lives in a bubble if he thinks that there are many people in the world who share his opinion that “religion is the most dangerous threat facing humanity.” He seems ignorant (perhaps willfully) of the fact that most of the smartest people in history have been religious, and that most reform movements and humanitarian aid has had religious origins.

Ultimately, this is why Religulous is so disappointing. It is too wrapped up in itself, too out-of-touch, to have anything to say to anybody. It can be cute, and funny (and frequently is), but it’s not important. It’s intellectually boring. And for a movie so devotedly about a “call to arms” against religion, intellectually boring is the last thing you want to be.

Lest you think I’m uniquely harsh on the film, here is what some other critics are saying:

Kenneth Turan, L.A. Times: “Because [Maher] wants to be amusing above all else, he takes his questions not to sober religious thinkers but to the assorted fruits and nuts that populate the fringes of religion just as they do the fringes of atheism. The humor he creates at their expense proves nothing except that dealing from a stacked deck benefits no one but the dealer.”

Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “It's a nasty, condescending, small-minded film, self-amused and ultimately self-defeating. Its only accomplishment is to make atheists look bad.”

Kirk Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter: “The problem, if you're going to take Maher's inquiry seriously, is whom he chooses to question and where he chooses to go. For the most part, he verbally jousts with evangelical charlatans and redneck whack jobs… Maher doesn't risk questioning a learned theologian.”

Did God Use Constantine?

It has become fashionable of late for progressive-minded Christians to distance themselves from Constantine. Constantine, if you recall, was the Roman Emperor who in the fourth century first adopted Christianity (which had been criminalized under his predecessor, Diocletian) and made it the empire’s official religion. In a short time, Christianity was transformed from a marginal “rebel” religion that was constantly persecuted to a state-sanctioned, protected entity that became fused with the governing authorities. It was at this moment that the church-state relationship was born. It was the first time when Christians wielded power in the culture, and they would never again relinquish it.

Today, however, many Christians are seeking to shed the Constantinian cloak of power once and for all. After the Crusades, slavery, imperialism, and other such bad side effects of institutionalized, power-wielding Christianity, many Christians are hoping to return to a place of humility rather than power, quiet love rather than public force.

The recent Evangelical Manifesto, for example, has an entire section called “The way of Jesus, not Constantine,” in which the writers firmly situate their hope for evangelicalism outside the state-sanctioned, power-wielding tradition of Rome:

“We utterly deplore the dangerous alliance between church and state, and the oppression that was its dark fruit. We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve.”

The thought here is that Christianity was never meant to be a powerful political force, and certainly not a violent one. It is often pointed out that Christianity thrives the most when it is underground and persecuted by culture, not when it runs the culture. Look at the world today: Christianity is on fire in places like China (where it is outlawed), while it is dying out in places like the U.S. and especially Europe, where it institutionalized and entrenched and, well, easy.

Is Christianity better as an underdog? Kierkegaard certainly thought so. In his Training in Christianity writings, the fiery Danish philosopher (a radical Protestant) argues that Christianity has been “done away with” by Christendom—“for it has become an easy thing, a superficial something that neither wounds nor heals profoundly enough.” He writes that Christendom has popularized Christianity and garnered many followers (because “people are only too eager to take part when there is nothing whatever to do but to triumph and join the parade”), but has lost the essential qualities of what he called “contemporaneousness with Christ.” For Kierkegaard, true Christianity requires a suffering and experience of offense that clearly separates followers of Christ (the Suffering Servant) from worldly pursuits. In established Christendom, he writes, “one becomes a Christian in the merriest possible way, without in the least becoming aware of the possibility of the offense.”

Clearly there is precedent for faulting Constantine (and the development of Christendom) for the failures of the church today. And I admit to sympathizing with these thoughts quite a bit. I do think that Christianity is better fit as an underdog movement rather than top dog institution, but part of me wonders: was Constantine really that bad for Christianity? Might he have been used by God—purposefully—to further His church on earth?

If we believe that God orchestrates history and has everything under control (and I, for one, believe this), don’t we have to see Constantine and his impact on Christianity as being God-ordained? Let’s think about the good things Constantine and the birth of Christendom did for Christianity. First of all, Constantine was the one who convened the pivotal Council of Nicea in 325, the first attempt at theological consensus and the birth of, among other things, the doctrine of the trinity, the holiday of Easter, and a concise articulation of Christian beliefs in the Nicene Creed. Without the precedent set by Nicea (which would likely not have happened without Constantine), Christian unity would have been long-delayed or otherwise impossible. And unity is crucial to Christian history.

Furthermore, perhaps we can look at the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire as the event God used to really get His church disseminated throughout the world. Would Christianity have spread as fast and as far had it stayed underground? We’ll never know. But once Constantine sanctioned and protected it, Christianity was allowed to thrive and grow like never before. It also added a legitimacy to Christianity: the Roman Emperor breaking with tradition to adopt this upstart religion? People undoubtedly considered Christianity in a new light after this.

But I don’t want to offer an apologetic for Constantine, or Constantine-esque Christianity. I only want to suggest that before we go rushing to cut ourselves off from what we (and most secular people) perceive as a pretty suspicious institutional past, we should consider that 1) despite everything, the church is still thriving on earth; and 2) If you were Constantine and you discovered this amazing new way of thinking, wouldn’t you also want to us all your power to strengthen and spread it?

It’s easy for us in the comfy Christianized 21st century to scoff at Constantine, but I wonder: would we prefer that he had been as tenuous and apathetic about spreading Christianity then as we are now?

Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

Christianity: More Harm Than Good?

One of the things that really bothers me about Christians these days is that we are so ill-equipped to answer the increasingly well-articulated arguments from atheists and otherwise anti-religious persons who point out the horrible track record of Christianity and the irrevocable damage that has been done across the world in the name of Christ. Christians today are liable to just sort of shrug and say “that’s not what I’m like,” or find some other way to distance themselves from Christian history (such as calling themselves “followers of Jesus” rather than Christians or a “gathering” instead of “church”).