The New York Times‘ contrarian wunderkind Ross Douthat wonders aloud: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?, against the backdrop of the collapse in the membership of the Episcopal Church.
The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2006 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
By the time I reached the age of 18 I had probably “asked Jesus into my heart” 5,000 times. I started somewhere around age 4 when I approached my parents one Saturday morning asking how someone could know that they were going to heaven. They carefully led me down the “Romans Road to Salvation,” and I gave Jesus his first invitation into my heart. . . .
[But h]ad I really been sorry for my sins? And could I really have known what I was doing at age 4?
So I asked Jesus to come into my heart again, this time with a resolve to be much more intentional about my faith. I requested re-baptism, and gave a very moving testimony in front of our congregation about getting serious with God.
Not long after that, however, I found myself asking again: Had I really been sorry enough for my sin this time around? I’d see some people weep rivers of tears when they got saved, but I hadn’t done that. Did that mean I was not really sorry? And there were a few sins I seemed to fall back into over and over again, no matter how many resolutions I made to do better. Was I really sorry for those sins? Was that prayer a moment of total surrender? Would I have died for Jesus at that moment if he’d asked?
So I prayed the sinner’s prayer again. And again. And again. Each time trying to get it right, each time really trying to mean it. I would have a moment when I felt like I got it right and experienced a temporary euphoria. But it would fade quickly and I’d question it all again. And so I’d pray again.
Although my experience was quite different from Greear’s, I did go through something of a crisis of assurance of salvation in high school. It was not a major crisis, but it was enough to cause me to wonder whether I had gone through the right procedures to “get saved.” At some point it finally dawned on me that I needed to trust the promises of God in Christ and not the efficacy of my own decision-making abilities. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I love so much the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own,
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven:
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.
This was published today in Comment, the daily publication of Cardus:
Just before the dawn of the recording industry, popular songs were sold to the North American public in a format requiring of customers more musical literacy. When Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Down by the Old Mill Stream were published in 1910, their popularity was judged by sales of sheet music, and not yet by the records that would come into their own during the interwar years. Yes, people would attend performances of these songs by local bands and choirs, but they were more likely to gather round the upright piano at home and sing them together. People had to make their own music rather than rely on others to make it for them. Obviously not everyone had professional-quality voices, but that didn’t matter. Young and old alike sang their hearts out.
Although I was born well into the recording age, I grew up in a family that sang with gusto at the slightest provocation. We had two pianos in our house, and everyone played at least one musical instrument. We were raised on the old movie musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and, of course, Meredith Wilson, whose score for The Music Man harked back to that earlier era just before the outbreak of the Great War. In fact, so many times did we play The Music Man soundtrack that scratches eventually caused the record to skip. (If you were raised on CDs, ask your parents or grandparents what that means.) The notion of Julie Andrews breaking into song in the course of her day did not strike us as the least bit unusual.
An article of mine was published last week in the Center for Public Justice’s Capital Commentary:
This year marks the 225th anniversary of the United States Constitution, by far the oldest functioning constitutional document still in effect. It has weathered the vicissitudes of history, including a devastating Civil War that threatened to fragment the nation and its people permanently. By contrast, the German Basic Law dates only from 1949, and the Constitution of the French Fifth Republic from 1958. What is the key to the U.S. Constitution’s remarkable longevity?
One well-known narrative has it that the Founding Fathers were skilled constitutional architects, fashioning a political system whose internal institutions are so perfectly balanced that no one of these could gain the upper hand and suppress the others. The Fathers read Baron Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, in which the author argued that liberty is most likely to thrive under a constitution providing that power check power. Where legislative, executive and judicial powers are not separated, there can be no liberty.
Yet Montesquieu never claimed to have invented this separation of powers. Read more here.
As promised, here is something I wrote about Chuck Colson for Christian Courier. It appeared in the 14 May issue:
As a young man, I cut my political teeth on the Watergate scandal, which brought down a sitting president and led to the conviction and incarceration of several members of his administration. One of these was Charles Wendell Colson, known to everyone as Chuck. As Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon, he gained a deserved reputation for ruthlessness in the conduct of his office. Thus the announcement in 1973 that he had become a Christian was greeted with a general sense of disbelief by many who knew him. Could someone so thoroughly imbued with the ethos of Machiavelli suddenly take on the mantle of evangelist?
Yet Colson’s conversion was the genuine article, and for the next nearly four decades he devoted his life to the cause of Christ in a very public way. After serving time in prison, he founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, an outreach programme to prisoners and their families aimed at turning around lives that might otherwise be wasted within the bowels of America’s criminal justice system. There were a number of elements in this ministry, including Angel Tree, which has enabled prisoners to give Christmas gifts and messages of love to their families on the outside. (more…)
It is the right thing to do. Listening to the questions and doubts of those who are struggling with belief in God, the nature of scripture, doctrine or how to think about the subject matter of the culture wars. No one truly begrudges the spiritual journey of another. But seriously, I think we’ve taken the principle of listening way to far. Have you ever heard a wife explain about relating to her husband that when she wants to share (that means ‘talk’ but it might mean ‘rant’), she just wants him to listen and not offer any solutions? I get it that everyone wants to be listened to because that’s a part of relating one to another, but this isn’t a biblical model of accountability. If the things we say or the questions we ponder aloud solicit a response, our responsibility–ironically–is to listen. Our questions and doubts should be with a goal in mind–the locating of truth and wisdom. But when we’re so focused on the journey itself, even to the point of making an idol out of our questions and doubts, then we’ve lost sight of Christ and made ourselves the focus of the journey.
Doubt seems to be the pervasive doctrine of the young “evangelicals,” many who self-identify as emergent. As appropriated by this group, doubt is probably better described as a virtue, because to have doubt means not having answers, and not having answers means not being right (or wrong). By not being right about anything means we can continue to converse about the questions and develop relationships around the common ally of curiosity. Doubt should be a welcome guest in the life of faith, but doubt should not be a permanent disposition. (more…)
Matthew Schmitz is dead on in alerting us to the negative impact of Fears of ‘Creeping Sharia’. Several US states, including Kansas, are taking legislative action to stop what they persist in believing to be a domestic threat from muslim sharia law. Such efforts are of dubious constitutionality and are in fact a threat, not only to everyone’s religious liberty, but to a robust conception of what I would call legal pluriformity.
Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld.
Rarely do laws enacted hurriedly in response to a perceived danger take sufficient care to uphold public justice for all. Indeed, state legislators who have too quickly jumped on this bandwagon should reconsider whether they might inadvertently be paving the way for a general levelling of legitimate legal pluriformity for everyone, muslim and nonmuslim alike.
Legal pluriformity means simply that the state is not the only source of law. Every community possesses a jural aspect and is characterized by an internal law to which members are subject. These include the household rules of a family set by the parents, the bylaws of a business corporation, the syllabus in the classroom, the faculty handbook in the university, and so forth. As Schmitz properly recognizes, legal pluriformity also encompasses canon law of the church and even sharia law in the mosque. The notion, popular in some quarters, that all these types of law owe their ultimate validity to the state is a totalitarian conception that should find no place in a constitutional democracy. Let us hope and pray that saner heads will prevail sooner rather than later.
“I met some kids in Thailand who worked on the street in a red-light district, and they sold flowers. They were going in and out of these brothels. That was the first place I felt like I came alive in the law and what I wanted to do.”
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter, and today I’m speaking with Jay Milbrandt, author of Go and Do: Daring to Change the World One Story at a Time. Jay is an attorney and serves as the director of the Global Justice Program and as associate director of the Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion and Ethics at Pepperdine University School of Law. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Jay.
Jay Milbrandt: Thanks, Gayle. It’s great to be with you.
GT: You write that “sometimes it is about you.” Isn’t this counter to most major religions’ teaching that it’s all about others?
JM: It is, it is. But I think that when we start with the premise that it’s all about others, we tend to get very discouraged when we look out on the world and at the issues that surround us. It’s overwhelming. We don’t really know how to start. I think that when we start with the premise that this is just something that is going to be good for me. It will be good for my faith or my education or I just want the experience going out into the world to be useful, I think we figure out along the way and in the end that it’s not about us. It’s about serving others and we get to the same conclusion but we get stopped, we get held up by this discouragement that we don’t know where to begin when we start with the other premise that it has to be about everyone else.
GT: What made your faith come alive for you? (more…)
I really wanted to be at the Christians in Political Science conference at Gordon College last week, but was unable to make it. Fortunately one of the highlights, Miroslav Volf’s lecture, was recorded and has been posted on youtube. One of the respondents, Dr. Paul Brink, is a former student of mine.
William T. Cavanaugh has written a very helpful article in the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, titled, Does Religion Cause Violence? Conventional wisdom in the west today takes it for granted that religion is intrinsically divisive and that an enlightened secularism keeping religion in its proper place better contributes to the public good. But what if that’s not the case after all? Cavanaugh draws attention to the reality that those most likely to charge religious believers with fomenting violence, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, detect no inconsistency in their own willingness to excuse a (violent!) pre-emptive strike against those they view as religious fanatics. Here’s Cavanaugh:
We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate “religious” ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer “secular” counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices—jihad, the “invisible hand” of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator—turn violent? The point is not simply that “secular” violence should be given equal attention to “religious” violence. The point is that the distinction between “secular” and “religious” violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.
Juvenilization happened when no one was looking. In the first stage, Christian youth leaders created youth-friendly versions of the faith in a desperate attempt to save the world. Some hoped to reform their churches by influencing the next generation. Others expected any questionable innovations to stay comfortably quarantined in youth rallies and church basements. Both groups were less concerned about long-term consequences than about immediate appeals to youth.
In the second stage, a new American adulthood emerged that looked a lot like the old adolescence. Fewer and fewer people outgrew the adolescent Christian spiritualities they had learned in youth groups; instead, churches began to cater to them.
This regression from adulthood to adolescence is a general phenomenon that others have remarked upon. Could the contemporary tendency to replace worship with litur-tainment be one symptom of this juvenilization of North American Christianity?
There are 500,000 Christians in black majority churches in Britain. Sixty years ago there were hardly any. At least 5,000 new churches have been started in Britain since 1980 – and this is an undercount. The true figure is probably higher. There are one million Christians in Britain from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. The adult membership of the Anglican Diocese of London has risen by over 70 per cent since 1990.
Nihilistic secularism is inherently unstable and cannot sustain a civilization over the long term. Perhaps Britons are finally discovering this for themselves.
Israeli archaeologists digging near the city of Jerusalem have discovered an ancient clay bulla, about 2,700 years old, bearing the name Bethlehem. The artifact is the only known ancient reference to the city of Jesus’ birth found outside the Bible, experts said. The find shows not only that the city existed, but that it probably also had a thriving commercial trade.
The Hakka people of Taiwan and China finally have the complete Bible in their own language. Last sunday Dr. Paul McLean spoke at our church about his efforts to produce this treasured edition of God’s word in the language of one of Taiwan’s minority communities. It’s an inspiring story.
McLean’s son Peter bicycled across Canada to raise money for this important project. May God use this new translation to further the advance of his kingdom amongst the Hakka people.
One of my guilty pleasures is The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about a group of socially inept science geniuses. Having walked the halls of academe for over two decades, I can associate friends with the primary characters. One scene caught my eye recently, where a main character plays a theremin, the quirky synthesizer that made the ethereal soundtrack for much early science fiction, including the theme song to the original Star Trek series.
I noted that the character was singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” trying to sound out the notes to the ancient spiritual and he sang, “nobody knows my sorrows,” rather than “nobody knows but Jesus.” From the bit of research I’ve done, it’s unclear which line is the original, but for Christians, the second version is much more consonant with the rest of the lyrics. Without “but Jesus,” the song ceases to be a spiritual and becomes a solipsistic yawp at the universe not unlike much of modernist and naturalist art that complains that we are alone in an uncaring universe. Stephen Crane, the novelist of “The Red Badge of Courage,” once wrote a brief poem that summarizes the thoughts that the pre-conversion T. S. Eliot expanded on in “The Wasteland”:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
A quotation that often is attributed to C. S. Lewis is “We read to know that we are not alone.” Lewis meant that art, particularly literature, connects us in ways that are an antidote to the loneliness of our times. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus once remarked, “Misery loves company,” which seemed to mean not only that misery is contagious but that miserable people tend to hang together and wallow in their troubles. The reality, though, is that misery tends to lead individuals to become detached and isolated. At some point, misery tends to eschew company, which leads to the most destructive form of egotism and self-isolation. Perhaps this is what we should expect, though, when we decide that no one knows the troubles we’ve seen and that Jesus is not an option. After all, if He is our friend, He might soon become our Lord, and then where will our misery be?
There is a danger that discussions about the authority of Scripture may turn into exercises in exegetical casuistry. We can use Scripture in the way that lawyers use case precedents either to vindicate or convict a defendant. The focus of concern can become: What can I get away with? What meaning will the text bear? Can it be read to further my cause? A “minimalist” interpretation of Scripture can be as guilty of this as is a Puritan tendency toward “maximalism.” There is a danger of focusing on the texts as documents, and forgetting that the Scriptures are not self-referential. They speak of a reality beyond themselves, namely, God’s creation and redemption of the world and humanity in Jesus Christ. The purpose of exegesis is not only to decipher the grammatical meaning of the text or to find precedents for permissible or impermissible behavior, but to allow oneself to be formed and transformed by the reality to which the Scriptures refer so that one can find oneself within the Bible’s story of creation and redemption. But in order to do this, one must be willing to hand oneself over to the world of the text, to allow oneself to be challenged and even changed by it [emphasis mine].
Very well said. Witt is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Readers can follow his writings and sermons at his website.
This little gem has obvious relevance to my last post and is worth reposting here. Jake Belder is a Canadian “millennial” living in Kingston upon Hull, England, where he serves as assistant minister at St John Newland Church.
Something of a ‘blog war’ over the ‘culture wars’ has unfolded recently, beginning when Rachel Held Evans presumed to speak on behalf of millennials by declaring, ‘My generation is tired of the culture wars.’ This post is not going to be a response to that post specifically, as guys like Jamie Smith and Brian Mattson have already done a fine job addressing the problems her post is laced with.
All this, however, does raise the important question of what faithfulness in the context of our culture looks like. What should we expect as the community of believers when we live under the rule of our King? Last week, I was sitting with four university students as we finished working through Albert Wolters’ book, Creation Regained, and we spent some time chewing over this bit in the postcript, which he co-authored with Mike Goheen (and which loudly echoes the renowned missiologist, Lesslie Newbigin):
Mission entails suffering; faithfulness to the gospel of the kingdom will mean a missionary encounter with the idolatrous powers of our own culture. Loyal allegiance to our kingdom mission will mean a clash of comprehensive stories. The gospel makes an absolute claim on the whole of our lives. The story that shapes our Western culture is likewise a comprehensive story which makes totalitarian claims. There is an incompatability between the gospel and the story of our culture. Every culturally embodied grand narrative will seek to become not only the dominant, but the exclusive story. If we as the church want to be faithful to the equally comprehensive biblical story we will find ourselves faced with a choice: either accommodate the Bible’s story to that of our culture, and live as a tolerated minority community, or remain faithful and experience some degree of conflict and suffering.
Ours is a mission under the cross. The good news may call forth opposition, conflict, and rejection (John 15:18-25).
Though it is hard to get accurate statistics on such things, some estimate that about 170,000 Christians die each year for their faith. All of us would agree, I’m sure, that this is a group of people that really gets what Jesus is saying in John 15. The disaffected millennials – indeed, all of us – should stop and think about this for a moment when we’re tempted to try and find ways around bits of Scripture we find uncomfortable or that require us to be in stark opposition with the culture around us. Hundreds of thousands of Christians are willing to die (and millions more willing to endure persecution) instead of capitulating to a culture that demands they live unfaithfully. And all the while we try to fit Jesus into a mould that will make him easier for us to get on side with.
I’ll be the first to agree that the ‘culture war’ mentality is problematic and unhelpful (I think James Davison Hunter makes an excellent critique of that paradigm in his book,To Change the World), but deciding that we should be the ones to set the terms for our faith is not the answer. This is simply idolatry, replacing the rule of Christ with our own authority.
Newbigin’s idea that we need to understand ourselves as missionaries in a culture whose story is entirely antithetical to the story of Scripture is so important to remember at this point. We bear witness to the rule of a King who makes a total claim on all of life, and at every point the gospel challenges a culture which rejects that rule. And so we should expect conflict.
Trying to live faithfully under the lordship of Jesus Christ isn’t about making Christianity palatable to the culture around us. As it is, sometimes the total allegiance that Jesus demands will make it feel like we’re sititng all alone in a crowded room. Sometimes it is even going to hurt. But for Christians, it is the only option.
There can be no doubt that many people read the Bible incorrectly and unwisely, missing such literary elements as figures of speech, including metaphors, similes, &c. Reading a metaphorical passage too literally is certainly one way of misreading scripture. Nevertheless, assuming the following account is accurate, there is something disquieting about the recent conference on Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity: Emergent Christians Warn against the Bible’s “Loaded Guns”:
Carl Stauffer, professor of Development and Justice Studies at Eastern Mennonite University, warned against the Bible’s “seemingly divinely ordained violence.” Emergent Church guru Brian McLaren similarly worried about how church-going parents can give their children “loaded guns” in the form of “texts of terror” condoning war and other violence. He wondered whether unfiltered Bible-reading could “leave them with the idea that God is violent.” And he warned: “Bible-preaching/teaching/reading people are the most dangerous in the world for Muslims.”
After McLaren advised emergent parents to seek out the “texts of healing” in the Bible, he talked about how the Bible’s economic teachings could help stave off violence in society. The Old and New Testament narratives “focus on desire—especially competitive desire—as the root of violence.” The best-selling author complained, “Our entire economic system is based on rivalrous desire.” Author, educator, and panelist Ivy Beckwith explained: “Desire is another word for self-interest.”
Is the word unfiltered McLaren’s, or that of Barton Gingerich, the article’s author? It matters because, if it’s McLaren’s, it seems to imply that the Bible needs to be censored by the more enlightened — presumably the conference speakers themselves — for the benefit of the rest of us.
I personally know people who came to the faith, not by going to church or through a Christian friend, but simply by reading the Bible, a book they had not been familiar with up to then. They read it through in its entirety, including such grisly stories as that related in Judges 19-21. Despite the messiness and violence of the scriptural narrative, the Holy Spirit somehow managed to work in their hearts so that they were grabbed by it, fell in love with it and found their own place within it. They did not come to the Bible with the expectation that someone should make it “safe” for them. They never deemed it necessary to accept only those parts of scripture that they did not find offensive or that refrained from challenging their existing presuppositions. Far from it. They were cut to the quick, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-40), asking, not “Who can make the Bible palatable to me?”, but rather “What must I do to be saved?”
Like a microscope into their own soul, reading the Bible prompted them to repent and turn to God for mercy. If some people profess to find the Bible dangerous, perhaps the world could use more such danger.
I’ve been hearing the charge recently that there are no non-religious reasons to oppose same-sex “marriage,” and therefore there are no constitutionally valid reasons to oppose it. I’m not about to enter into the constitutional question; it’s not my field. First Things readers need no one to tell you that there are indeed many non-religious reasons to oppose SSM and support true marriage. That’s been said often enough here.
But there is a question in here somewhere that calls for consideration: If secular reasons against SSM are any good at all, why is it that religious people so much more likely to oppose SSM than non-religious people? Could it be that our secular reasoning is a kind of game, a smokescreen behind which to hide the essential religiosity of our purpose?
If that were true, then it would be best that we admitted it and got out of the debate, or else shifted over to the constitutional side of it instead. But it’s not. For one thing, good secular reasoning against SSM is good secular reasoning, regardless of who puts it forth or why. For another thing, there are other explanations for the religious divide. On my Thinking Christian blog I’m offering two such explanations, the first of which is that religious people are far more likely than non-religious people to accept that there is something that marriage essentially is, and which is not up to us to decide. What follows is an adapted version.
First I want to clarify who I am talking about here and who I am not. On both sides of this issue there are some who have taken their stance only because “that’s what my kind of people think about this.” Make no mistake: support for gay “marriage” has a lot to do with aligning with one’s social group. So does opposition to it. I’m not talking about that kind of support or opposition, but about that which is well informed and thought through.
President Obama declared his affirmation of same-sex “marriage” last week. His opinion changes nothing except the legal and political environment. More specifically, it has no effect on what marriage actually is, because the meaning of marriage is not up to anyone to decide—not even the President. It’s above his pay grade. (more…)
The signs of this realignment are most visible in politics. A highly traditionalist Catholic, Rick Santorum, who belongs to a parish where the Latin Mass is still celebrated, became the preferred presidential candidate of conservative evangelicals. Over the course of the primary campaign, it became clear that he shares the common conservative evangelical view that mainline Protestants are largely apostates, barely deserving inclusion in Christianity.
Yet the single most notable trend in mainline American Protestantism in recent decades has been the adoption of liturgical practices associated with Catholicism, such as frequent communion and observance of liturgical seasons, particularly since Rome reformed its own liturgy during and after the Second Vatican Council Catholics and most mainline Protestants have long since adopted a common “lectionary” of scripture readings for use during worship services throughout the year. At the same time, the radical theological experiments that were once so fashionable in liberal Protestant circles have been subsiding; mainliners are far more likely to recite the historic Nicene or Apostle’s creeds during worship than are evangelicals. In other words, a growing number of mainline Protestants now worship much like Catholics. . . .
More often than not, the evangelicals who accuse denominational leaders of abandoning “orthodoxy” in moral teaching are most avid to promote innovation in styles of worship. As an Episcopal priest in Maryland ruefully told me of conservative dissidents in his parish during the 1990s: “These people come to church with a Christian Coalition tract in one hand and a ‘praise hymnal’ in the other.”
The tendency for North American evangelicals to defend the fundamentals of the faith while largely abandoning the older liturgical traditions is something that not enough observers have managed to find puzzling. On the other hand, it is also true that the major part of evangelicalism in this continent, though affirming a vague orthodoxy, lacks both a robust ecclesiology and a strong confessional identity, with only a veryfewexceptions. Perhaps then it is not surprising that distinctive traditions of worship should long ago have been set aside as well.
Indeed, rather than leading them towards Rome, along with their mainline brethren, or towards the Reformation traditions, as one might expect, many evangelicals have instead subordinated worship, in utilitarian fashion, to the felt imperatives of church growth and reaching the so-called nonreligious. The result is worship that is not only deracinated but amounts merely to “one damn thing after another,” as one of my favourite liturgical scholars once put it.
So why is it that mainline protestants, who are scarcely less deracinated than their evangelical brethren, are increasingly reciting the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed during worship?
I saw Chuck’s character close up. Chuck gave me my first job, as a research assistant working at Prison Fellowship. He also gave me a lifelong example of leadership. Following Chuck’s conversion, God took hold of a set of extraordinary skills. Christian belief did not make Chuck mild or retiring. He remained driven. He demanded much of those around him, but was quick to praise every success and achievement. He thought the standards and professionalism we bring to the Kingdom of God should be at least as high as those he brought to the Marines or the White House. Faith was never an excuse for mediocrity.
The Bible is a book filled with good things and lots of nonsense too. God — if there is one — is the creator of everything you see in the Hubble plus more. What some collection of Bronze Age mythology says and what is really out there (and in us) isn’t the same thing. Don’t blame the creator for religion or religious books.
I myself will have more to say about Colson’s legacy in the near future. Stay tuned.
One of the great puzzles about our future in heaven is, won’t we be bored? I know there will be lots of joy and love and worship. I’m not worried about heaven being bland and stale; surely God loves us more than to let that happen! It’s just that I can’t imagine how it will be. Specifically, if there’s no danger, no difficulty, and if we always know the outcome will be good, then where’s the interest or excitement? Where’s the challenge?
A couple nights ago I was listening to Saint-Säens’ Third Symphony, the Organ Symphony. As a trombonist I fell in love with this music in college: it’s loud and brassy in all the right places, but it also calls on the trombone for one of the sweetest soft melodies in all classical music. I’ve heard this symphony often. I know what’s coming next, all the way through it. There will be no surprises in it for me ever again, except (I hope) the kind of new discovery that comes from catching some inner part I’ve never noticed before.
What’s your favorite song or composition? I’m hoping you can think of something longer and stronger than the typical rock, pop, or country songs, because the longer and better the piece is, the more likely it will illustrate what I’m saying here. Pat Metheny’s First Circle is a great jazz example.
Whatever your favorites might be,
Have you ever noticed how time stops during great music—even as it flows onward?
Have you ever felt the conflict, dissonance, even discord in it?
Have you ever felt the anticipation of your favorite part coming up soon? There’s desire there, isn’t there? You feel a strong sort of wanting, yet you know it’s right that it take its time coming. Even the wanting is good.
Have you ever felt the satisfaction of the music reaching its goal in the end?
Such things are part of the universal experience of music—and they happen while everything is exactly the way it should be. Amazing, isn’t it: perfection can include discord, anticipation, conflict, and resolution! These are the very things that keep interest alive in the life that’s familiar to us.
Further, we might wonder whether there will be any challenge and any personal growth in heaven. I think there will be. The Bible says there will be no more sin there, and no more crying. It does not say there will be no more trying. I’m speculating of course, but I won’t be at all surprised if musicians make mistakes there. To have trouble with a difficult passage is not sin. Some of my favorite hours on earth have been spent struggling my way through a tough passage to play it better than before. These struggles have been good, not bad.
Not all of those struggles, by the way, have been about getting the notes right. I’ve tried many times to play Bach’s Cello Suite in D Minor. It lays fairly well on the trombone (not like it does on the cello, but close enough for a trombonist’s purposes). The notes are not the problem. I can get through them easily enough (or I could when I was practicing more often). But there’s music in there to which I’ve never attained. Bach’s genius is beyond me. It might just take forever to get to it. Nevertheless, trying to reach it has always been terribly satisfying. It’s always been a labor of love and delight, even as far as I have been from the goal. I think I could be that way for a long, long, long time.
What will heaven be like? I still don’t know. But the lesson of music assures me that perfection really can include conflict, anticipation, dissonance, resolution, challenge, even failure, and continuing growth. Knowing that such things are possible in the midst of perfection, I am pretty sure the way they will manifest in heaven will be deeper, richer, more involving and interesting than we can imagine. It won’t be boring there.
My son, Jonathan, and I bumped into him at his BreakPoint ministry office a few years ago. It was my first visit there, just dropping in on Travis McSherley, the editor who had published some of my work on BreakPoint’s website. I had no idea then how unusual it was to see Chuck there—he traveled widely and was rarely in the office. He spent several minutes with us, graciously including Jonathan in the conversation, not seeming to be in a hurry, and making for me a solid impression of being a gracious and caring person.
I did not know then that within a few years I would be sitting with him in his office, explaining why I wanted to spend a year or two helping him and his team build a network of worldview ministries and foster a movement of Kingdom discipleship through them. My favorable five-minute impression from a few years ago was more than confirmed then, and in the several subsequent meetings I was privileged to be in with him. One of my more unforgettable moments was at the 2010 National Conference on Christian Apologetics, where he greeted me with a hug.
Someone once asked me, “Don’t you know he’s a convicted felon?” The question made me laugh. Yes, I knew that. I was a senior in high school when Watergate happened. We watched the proceedings on TV in my Government class. I read his autobiography, Born Again, not long after it was released, and I heard him speak about it at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in Lansing, Michigan; I think it was in 1976.
Chuck Colson himself never lost sight of the fact that he was a convicted felon. He also never lost sight of God’s gracious forgiveness through Jesus Christ. He founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, and led it to become a powerful force for spiritual, educational, and social change in prisons throughout American and around the world. But that is not the ministry or the realm in which I came to know and appreciate him. Rather it was in his leadership in Christian worldview thinking. In his Lansdowne, Virginia office, carefully protected in a glass case, there is one of C.S. Lewis’s pipes. I believe history will recognize Chuck’s place in a very small group of men including Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and of course Lewis, as leaders most responsible for framing evangelical Christians’ thinking about our faith in relation to the world.
I don’t know of anyone in our generation who has so effectively coupled Christian compassion with Christian intellectual leadership.
Over the last couple years he was much concerned about the legacy he would leave. Some of us might think what he had done would have been plenty, and if it had been for the sake of his own name, he might have thought so, too. It wasn’t about his name, though. For him it was about taking the opportunity his unique public platform afforded him to bring Christian leaders together in unity. What he prayed and worked for most over the past few years was to see a movement of Christian churches, ministries, and individuals working together for the purposes of Christ’s kingdom, to bring about renewal, awakening, and transformation in our culture. He was at it until the end. He was speaking on “Breaking the Spiral of Silence” when he fell ill and was taken to the hospital a few weeks ago. I’m told that he was talking about it with BreakPoint leaders who visited him in the hospital late last week.
I think we’re on track toward seeing this movement develop; at least, I pray that we are. There is much to be done.
There is opposition. The spiritual and cultural transformation Colson sought, and which we continue to pursue in Christ’s name, is not welcomed by all. I have been grieved to see the rank cruelty some commenters have expressed in discussions attached to reports on his poor health recently. (I will delete any such comments left here. He was a friend to me and to many of us, and this is not the time and place for that unkindness.) Many of those who applaud immorality have also cheered for his desperate illness. The connection is sickening but unmistakable. It stands in stark contrast to his own reaction to opposition: grief, yes; intense concern, yes to that, too; but never hatred, always grace and hope for the opposing person instead.
Along the way to prison, Chuck Colson discovered how desperately he needed the grace and life of Jesus Christ. I’ve never been behind bars except to visit, but my need is no less. Neither is yours. Chuck’s purpose in all his ministry was to lift up the powerful and saving name and life and ethics and truths and glory of Jesus Christ. Now he is raised up with Christ.
I am crossposting this from my Genevan Psalter blog, because it addresses an issue that I’ve seen on the pages of the print issues of First Things in the past:
I have now posted my versification of Psalm 81, along with my arrangement of the Genevan tune. Verses 4 and 5 of this psalm, with their references to Jacob and Joseph, indicate that it originates in the northern kingdom of Israel. If so, that would place its time of origin in the two centuries between the division of Solomon’s kingdom and 721 BC, when it was conquered by the Assyrians. The psalm begins with a summons to the people to praise God in language reminiscent of the final three psalms, viz., 148-150. Instruments referenced are the tambourine, the lyre, the harp and the trumpet, to be employed at a seasonal festival prescribed by law.
At verse 6 God himself suddenly speaks to his people, reminding them of his faithfulness to them in the past in freeing them from slavery. He further reminds them of his promises of protection if only they would be faithful to him and his ways, avoiding the sin of idolatry and worshipping him alone. Here his tone is reminiscent of the final verses of Psalm 95. God laments that his people would not listen, and so he left them to their sinful ways. He reiterates his promise, which is still on offer to those who love him and obey his commands.
The last two verses see another shift of voice, as the psalmist echoes God’s threat of punishment and his promise of prosperity.
Some Christians are uncomfortable singing in God’s voice, that is, in taking on their own lips the words of God as if they themselves were God. I’ve heard this complaint made most often of contemporary Roman Catholic hymns, such as Be Not Afraid and I Will Be With You, but also of the rather quirky Lord of the Dance, which has incomprehensibly found its way into a number of denominational hymnals. Those who do not like to sing in God’s voice should remind themselves that those singing the psalms, which should be all of us, necessarily find themselves doing so on occasion. Psalm 81 is a good example of this. Nevertheless, there is a valid concern here, on which church composer Aristotle A. Esguerra offers some wisdom:
Singing in the “voice of God” becomes problematic when a lyricist puts words into God’s mouth — that is, either loosely paraphrases Scripture beyond recognition (similar to many based-on-a-true-story films), or worse, completely makes something up to place into God’s mouth (and subsequently our mouths when we sing it, and our ears when we hear it). At best, it is an imposition of private revelation on an act of public worship; at worst, it is a lie. Both are unacceptable, and neither are guaranteed to be God’s Word — for if “it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church”, who speaks when the holy scriptures are paraphrased or someone puts words into God’s mouth?
My recommendation? Sing in the voice of God without worry if it’s really and truly the Word of God you’re singing, for God is speaking to you even as you sing — voice of God or not.
I found the Genevan version of Psalm 81 not especially easy to work with, mostly because the stanzas are short, as are the phrases within each stanza. The metrical pattern is 56 55 56. My own text thus contains ten stanzas for what is otherwise a fairly short psalm. The tune is in the ionian mode, which is equivalent to our major scale.
Immediately below the Komlói Pedagógus Kamarakórus (Teachers’ Chamber Choir of Komló, Hungary) performs Psalm 81 followed by Psalm 119:
Please pray for Chuck Colson and for his family members, who have been called to his bedside in Fairfax, Virginia. Please pray also for the staff at Prison Fellowship and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, who call him founder, brother, and friend.
Part of the responsibility of ministry leaders is having an awareness of influences that have guided the minds of our culture and, therefore, the church. No church exists in a vacuum and to varying degrees, everyone has had ideas and beliefs shaped by the world around them. So it is with great interest I often find myself reading the theological feminist writings because doing so helps me to discover the source of trends and vain philosophies that have their grip on the hearts and minds of Christians. And it seems that in the last two years or so there has been a fervent effort under the big tent of evangelicalism to usher in postmodern theologies with a clearly liberal feminist slant, seeking to normalize positions that undermine the authority of scripture.
On my book shelves are collections of great writings from early and contemporary Reformed theologians, books on women’s ministry, great biblical expositions, bioethics texts….and then there are the feminist writers. These are books I studied while in seminary, primarily for the purpose of completing my master’s thesis, though eventually I chose a different topic related to bioethics and presuppositional apologetics. (I feel like I have to explain why I have them!) But last week I decided to see if I could learn something about come present conversations from the writings of some of these clearly liberal feminist thinkers. Enter Carter Heyward. (more…)
The German weekly Der Spiegel carries a fascinating article: Israel’s Other Temple: Research Reveals Ancient Struggle over Holy Land Supremacy, by Matthias Schulz. The charge that Jews revised the biblical narrative at the expense of the Samaritans is not new, but this article claims that archaeological evidence has now been uncovered to support the charge. For example: “Not a single shred of archaeological evidence has ever been found to confirm the existence of Solomon’s Temple.” How might Christians with a high view of biblical authority respond to this article?
Most New Testament scholars agree nowadays that Mark 16:9ff. is not the original ending of Mark. Either it ended with v.8, or there was an original ending that’s been lost (sometimes thought to be something like Matthew’s ending but with differences similar to how Mark normally is different from Matthew). A certain breed of skeptic often found on History Channel or Discovery Channel Easter specials will sometimes use this to claim that Mark doesn’t actually report the resurrection, with the insinuation that Mark is the earliest gospel and therefore the most reliable reporting of events. Therefore, we might be expected to include, Christians invented the resurrection after Mark’s gospel was fully composed.
Mark Heath nicely presents several reasons why such skeptics have to be ignoring what the Gospel of Mark really says and what else is in the New Testament. According to standard dating of Mark (by scholars across the theological spectrum), Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians church is earlier than Mark, and chapter 15 of that letter is the lengthiest discussion of the resurrection in the entire New Testament. Furthermore, the entire gospel of Mark forecasts the resurrection and leads to its expectation, even explaining elements of it long before it gets to the actual events. But most importantly, the resurrection is the very last event reported in the section of Mark 16 that most scholars consider authentic. The disciples are told that he has been raised and told that they will see him. There aren’t chronicles of what Jesus did after the resurrection, as there are in all three other gospels and in the book of Acts, but the resurrection is very clearly reported right there in the section that no one questions.
I’m less convinced on the fourth reason, so I’m not mentioning that here, but you can see Mark’s post for it and my comment for my response.
Somebody uploaded a video on YouTube to send a message that scientists ought not believe in God. The speaker is Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He is an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.
Some of the lecture was cut out, so I will not hold Tyson responsible for the error I’m about to describe. If I did, I would be guilty of the same error that I’m about to describe (drawing a conclusion on incomplete evidence). I will instead direct my comments toward the person who uploaded the video, who apparently intended us to conclude from it that religion hinders science. By extension, what I have to say here applies also to everyone else who has made the same mistake in any comparable way. And that includes a lot of people.
What I want to say is that this message about religion hindering science is completely unscientific; and the more it gets propagated, the more science is hindered.
Here’s why I say that. The error of which I speak is very painfully clear in this video, and it is quite specifically a scientific error. What the video does is to propose, on the basis of one snippet of history, that belief in God is harmful to the progress of science.
This is a statement that belongs in the field of social psychology and/or sociology. The claim goes like this: If a person (society) believes in God, the result in that person (society) will be deleterious to the progress of science.
I want to know where that has been scientifically measured and assessed.
The test could be run. The study could be done, though it would be difficult. It would require a good-sized representative sampling, measurement of their religiosity, and a correlative measurement of their attitudes toward, knowledge of, and contribution to science.
I want to know where that study has been conducted.