Titles, “Christians,” and Shots in the Dark

One morning a coworker of mine, Kenneth, was expressing his vehement distaste for Christians when he suddenly turned to me and said, “Oxenham, you’re a Christian, right?” I replied, “I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘Christian,’ but I do love Jesus immensely.” Kenneth nodded his head in agreement, noting, “Mhmm you’re not like any of the Christians I’ve met. You don’t judge me, you’re kind to me, and more than that, you’re a good friend.” With that, the conversation moved to a new topic. Continue reading Titles, “Christians,” and Shots in the Dark

The Death And Life Of Great Britain

Only one televised event in history was worse than the London Olympics opening ceremony:  The London Olympics closing ceremony.  While the opening ceremony had some genuinely fun and entertaining moments, the closing ceremony reminded anyone familiar with British history and culture that the end has come.  The ceremony was billed as “a celebration of British music.”  Apparently the British did not produce music prior to 1960.  The high point of the evening was Russell Brand singing a song from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  That says something.

There was one other fun moment, however, especially for a Monty Python fan like myself.  Eric Idle appeared on stage, as a kind of elder statesman of the proceedings, to sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from the Pythons’ 1979 film Life of Brian (as millions sang along).  For those not nerdy cool enough to be in the know, Life of Brian is about a young Jewish man named Brian who is born on the same day, and right nextdoor to, Jesus, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah.  As you can imagine, the film is entirely blasphemous and those of us who still harbor a secret admiration of the Monty Python films probably have loads of unconfessed sin.  At the climax of the film, as Brian hangs upon a cross, those being crucified around him break into the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

In 1979 this film was incredibly controversial.  The film was boycotted by religious groups and banned in certain locations in the UK, as well as countries like Ireland and Norway.  It was the ultimate expression of anti-Christian, underground counter-culture.  In 2012, it is celebrated on an international stage as one of the best representations of authentically British culture.

Those of us who love Britain weep bitter tears.

What is more interesting, and especially relevant to evangelicals seeking to spread the gospel today, is that as the counter-culture has become the mainstream, it seems to have stagnated.  The critique of Christianity (and religion in general) presented by the Pythons is the same basic critique that one sees in most of Hollywood today.  Religion is silly and should be mocked until the religious people quit being so public about it all and become like the rest of us (it would also be ideal of they went ahead and replaced the bread and wine with marijuana and…actually, the wine can stay).  In 2012, we have not moved passed this stage of counter-Christendom into anything more extreme, at least not in any noticeable sense.

While Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens might have mused in their writings that religious parents engage in a subtle kind of child abuse, and that it would be best for society if we just removed all children to secular government schools, they never went so far as to seriously and publicly call for this to happen.  Comedians like Bill Maher might up the rhetoric and say that Christians who oppose gay marriage are evil, but he has not yet called for preaching against homosexuality inside of a church to be a criminal offense, and in any case he remains confined to the small, liberal bubble that is HBO subscription.  Can you imagine a film that depicts this kind of extreme anti-religious bigotry (comically or otherwise) becoming one of the top grossing films of the year?

It is unlikely that this cultural stagnation will continue indefinately, and I believe the current situation can only go one of two ways.  Either the culture of counter-Christendom will finally be given some impetus to move forward, and outright religious persecution will begin in the West, or else there will be a renaissance of religious (specifically Christian) thought in Western academia and the media.  There is evidence for both.  On the one hand, the increasingly heated rhetoric of the gay marriage debate (along with a growing number of incidents like the recent Chick-Fil-A debacle) suggests that the impetus for genuine persecution is right around the corner.  Pastors in Canada and Europe have already been fined or jailed under “hate speech” laws, and similar laws are being proposed in the US.  However, there has been a resurgence in the last decade of “high brow” Christian thought  in the universities (both public and private).  Christian apologetics is becoming increasingly sophisticated, and more programs spring up all the time.  Even more important for cultural renewal, there are serious pushes for Christians to become more involved in the arts, especially film, and to place the Church back into the historic position of “patron of the arts” and creator, rather than consumer, of culture.  We are also, as far as I can tell, winning the abortion debate.

If Christianity could be effectively wiped out as a significant cultural force in Britain within one decade (which it was), then it is possible for a reverse shift to happen in the same space of time.  True, things could simply get worse, and this is what most evangelicals tend to assume will happen.  Between our fascination with eschatology and the latest social issue that has the country “more divided than ever”, we see doom on every new horizon.  With a little hard work and a lot of prayer, though, things could also get better.  When the atheist can no longer thump the Bible-thumper in a debate because he knows more philosophy and history, or when “love” is defined not by the libertine romantic comedies of today but by the sort of Christian ethics that produced Jane Austen, the church wins.

I hold out hope that I will find my tears for beloved Britain have been premature, that rumors of her death have been greatly exaggerated.

Predictability and Familiarity

The entertainment industry, at least insofar as it is involved in telling stories, seeks to give us stories with twists. People jump through hoops to avoid spoiling stories; yes, sometimes people intentionally spoil stories, but those people are mean. We care about the sudden narrative shift, and we expect predictable films to make up for their ‘shallow’ story-line with explosions, action, romance, or some other addition. Continue reading Predictability and Familiarity

Making Christianity Delicious

Recently, our pastor spent a few minutes talking about Colossians 4:6, specifically the lines, “Let your speech be always gracious, seasoned with salt.” He brought in a box of waffle fries from Chick-Fil-A, telling us that he had ordered them without salt, just to see what they would taste like.

They were terrible. Continue reading Making Christianity Delicious

Answering in the Negative: What Suffering Isn’t?

Over at CNN’s religion blog, Timothy Keller wrote a bit about the age-old problem of pain and suffering: what do we conclude about God when we observe suffering for some people and not for others? He suggests and dismisses a number of responses, including “There is no God,” which he says doesn’t really help solve the problem; “God is not in control,” which stands at odds with our normal conception of God, and thus is unhelpful in this case; “God rewards good people, and punishes bad people,” which Job easily refutes; and, finally, “God knows better, so be quiet,” which Mr. Keller finds ‘cold.’ While I tend to latch onto the last answer, at least in my personal life, I suspect he’s on to something when he dismisses it for these reasons. It takes a certain personality type to run with that answer. Continue reading Answering in the Negative: What Suffering Isn’t?

How I Was Objectified and Loved It

I did something bad yesterday. If you saw that girl cracking open John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead at Barnes and Noble, careful not to open it too wide (breaking the spine would have meant buying it) that was me. A friend recommended “Upon this Rock,” the first essay in the collection, and I had neither the patience to wait for its library return nor the funds to buy it. So, I eased it open in the store, stuffed the words into my brain, placed the physical book back on the shelf (unharmed) and left, carrying the ideas with me.  Continue reading How I Was Objectified and Loved It

Stranger in a Strange Land in Church: Expatriate Christianity

I am an English teacher in South Korea. One of the primary reasons that I go to church here is to save myself from completely flipping my lid because I do not have anyone else to talk to in English. The other reason is, of course, to get spiritually fed in the language I think and feel in. Although I can see at least one or two red neon crosses in the sky almost anywhere I am, I do not speak Korean. Thank God for expatriate churches in Korea. Continue reading Stranger in a Strange Land in Church: Expatriate Christianity

Against Christianity by Peter Leithart

“Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church.”  So opens Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity. Dr. Leithart, a conservative Presbyterian minister and Senior Fellow of Literature and Theology at New St. Andrew’s college,  seems an unlikely candidate to levy the charges made in this book.  His project, to convince the Church to reject Christianity in favor of Christendom, is challenging not only because Christianity has an international establishment and following, but also because Dr. Leithart rebukes popular thinking by both modern, mainstream evangelicals as well as post-modern emergents.

The book is comprised of five chapters titled: Against Christianity, Against Theology, Against Sacraments, Against Ethics, and For Constantine.  The last chapter might seem surprising given that Constantine plays the part of the villain in the narrative told by foes of doctrine loving, corporate church, purpose driven Christianity.  More surprising than Leithart’s admiration of Constantine  is the form of prose Leithart uses to undermine the entire Christian project: each chapter is comprised of dozens of brief meditations.  As a result, he often does not give the reader an adequate understanding of the roots or trajectory of his ideas.  Nonetheless, he succeeds in provoking thought.

Christianity, Leithart argues, is a religion formed around a haphazard arrangement of modern values and practices.  It understands Christian community to be a religious layer on social life; it emasculates biblical religion through intellectualization and privatization.  Instead of confronting the language of existing culture with a robust language of its own, it offers theology, a sterile environment in which one speaks of God using clean terms, removing Him and His work from time in order to dissect timeless truths.  Theology merely adds religious words and phrases to the stock of existing language.

Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity, embraces modernity’s disdain for ritual, opposing and giving supremacy to the Word over the sacraments.  It accepts the postmodern civic myth by creating “temporary emotional communities,” post-modern tribes, instead of growing genuine, settle community life.  When it bothers to concern itself with tradition and the sacraments, it pursues false questions about symbols versus realities.  Finally, Christianity embraces segregation between Christianity and its work by speaking in terms of its “implications” for social or political life rather than speaking in terms of transformation.  It reduces the gospel to a philosophical viewpoint in order to engage in conversation about ethics, a project of godless men to justify a godless morality.

Leithart concludes his book by sharing his view of the mission of the Church.  The Church is called to be both countercultural, a separate city within the world’s cities, and also an actor subverting culture, converting whatever culture she finds herself in.  To this end, Leithart holds up Constantine as an example.  Constantine subverted the Roman Empire to the Church, making it the official religion of the empire, thereby establishing Christendom.   Upon the establishment of Christendom under Constantine, the empire underwent a kind of urban renewal.  Leithart quotes Rodney Stark arguing that cities once filled with strife, chaos, and crime were revitalized by the Church such that new norms and new kinds of social relationships were able to cope with urban problems such as homelessness and poverty.  It brought a new and expanded view of the family to the empire, and offered a new basis for social solidarity so that cities could face epidemics, fires, earthquakes, and other tragedies.  Earthly power became attentive to the Church and the Church governed the city.  Argues Leithart, “The mere presence of the Church means the end to ‘business as usual’ in the earthly city.  Always and forever, an end to business as usual.”  However, Christianity has abandoned this project, choosing instead to subvert itself and coexist unnaturally with earthly powers.  As a result, Leithart asks his readers to consider whether the Spirit has abandoned the Church.

Against Christianity has something to say to both sides of the theological debates between moderns and post-moderns.  Leithart’s emphasis on story versus doctrine, his emphasis on the need of the Church to be authentic, and his concerns that the Church has become too subservient to modernity’s arrangement of the secular versus the sacred seem to challenge the assumptions of mainstream, evangelical moderns.  However, Leithart’s belief that we ought to establish Christendom and his view that the Church has a language all its own that transcends all cultures and is accessible by all people should challenge some key assumptions of the post-modern emergents.  The book occupies a middle-ground all its own between the warring philosophies and offers readers a captivating alternative vision for  the future of the Church. ‘

What’s So Great About Christianity?

Atheists have it far too easy.  While Christians usually know what they believe, they don’t always know why they believe it.  This leaves the market wide open for the success of provocative books like The God Delusion and The End of Faith. Books like these sell well when no one challenges them, and then sell ever better when Christians challenge them poorly.

In What’s so Great about Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza tries to answer these and other popular secular works with an accurate and objective description of Christianity, its history, its role in Western culture, and its relevance to modern readers.  His book isn’t perfect – one simply cannot do all this well in only three hundred pages – but it is nonetheless a useful tool for both Christians and secularists.

D’Souza, a former White House domestic policy analyst and author of five New York Times bestsellers, presents a detailed and easy-to-read description of the ways in which Christianity has been and will continue to be integral to the development of the West.  He aims to describe Christianity in a way that is accessible to even the most secular audience, and he largely succeeds.  His descriptions of Christian traditions and beliefs are easily accessible and mostly accurate.  He doesn’t take Christianity for granted, but tries to examine its claims objectively.  If atheists don’t feel like they’ve been treated fairly when they read this book, they can’t blame D’Souza.

D’Souza’s work is useful not only for curious atheists but also for Christians who want to brush up on their apologetics skills.  Of particularly interest are the sections in which he debunks popular historical myths that cast Christianity in a negative light.

D’Souza offers a very hopeful view of the future of Christianity, arguing that secularism is quickly waning, and that Christianity will eventually enjoy a wide-spread societal triumph. The United States, he argues, is at the forefront of modernity, and should thus be the most secular nation in the Western world.  Instead, he says, it is the most religious Western nation, and traditional churches are growing as liberal denominations shrink.  Since Europe generally mimics the US over time, even the most secular European nations will eventually follow our lead.  While not everyone will agree with the details of his optimistic analysis, he is right to assert that the Church will never die out.

The book, as I said, is not perfect.  It is only a little over three hundred pages long, so it is understandably simplistic in parts and all-to-brief in others.  This is inevitable; however, it is regrettable that the author did not take more time to explain certain points of view that differ from his own.  This is particularly true in the science sections of the book, where his own pro-evolution views dominate the discussion more than in any other place in the text.  The Church is a big place, and Christians are a varied lot.  We disagree with each other on many issues, and science is no exception.  D’Souza is entitled to his own views, but in this book there is some danger that readers will mistakenly think his views represent those of the Church at large.

While no one book (besides the Bible!) can adequately bridge the gap between Christians and atheists, D’Souza’s book is a useful starting place for productive dialogue – the sort of dialogue in which neither side has it too easy. ‘

In the End, Christianity Wins

A few weeks ago, Chris Munekawa encouraged Christians to be innovators, not imitators. His essay prompted a comment from one of our regulars – the gist of the comment was that Christians ought to be concerned with their own demise since, increasingly, people seem to be leaving the church. Recently I have heard several similar remarks from the main stream media and I simply don’t buy what the MSM is selling. I understand the data sets that they are looking at, but I also have an insiders view of the situation that presents a more full picture than a set of numbers on a page. I wrote my own response to the nay sayers shortly after Chris’ post, but today John Mark Reynolds has also penned a fantastic response worth a read – especially if you are a Christian wringing your hands over Christianity’s supposedly dwindling numbers.

Every few years somebody announces that Christianity in America is doomed. This time the excuse is a survey that does show a small decline in Christian self-identification, but that this decline has pretty much stopped. A one percent decline in just under a decade in Christian self-identification in a survey with a margin of error of half a percent is hailed as the latest piece of evidence.
When extremist secularists are not paranoid of an imminent American theocracy, whether because someone is singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic or saying the Pledge, they veer into triumphalism, because “all” the smart people or young people (take your pick) are going their way. Of course, religious gloom mongers benefit by overplaying the fears of traditional Christians and joining extreme secularists in seeing the end of the religious world as we have known it.
Pardon me, but Christians should feel fine. This is not the end of American Christian dominance, though it may mark the end of the religious left… continue at the Scriptorium Daily