Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

When I was at Biola University, a conservative evangelical Bible college including the Talbot School of Theology, one of my anthropology professors talked about how Talbot professors served to screen every incoming professor in every discipline so that there was not accidentally an anarchist-feminist-atheist-environmentalist professor subverting students’ faith. There has even been trouble about having Eastern Orthodox professors at the university, given its evangelical Protestant leanings. Not only do you have to be a Christian to teach at Biola, you have to be the right kind of Christian! In my experience, Talbot oversight of the Biola faculty has been decently open-minded about acceptance of faculty with alternative views on some subjects, and theologians are not authorities beyond what they have studied. In any case, there is an important question to ask: When do I need a theologian, and when do I need a philosopher? Continue reading Do I Want a Theologian or Philosopher?

Empty Churches Full Of People

The American Church has swallowed a deadly pill.  It is dying inside, but cheerfully going along, unaware.

So says Matt Marino, an Episcopal Priest in Arizona.  He points to the now well-documented fact that young people are leaving churches in droves after they graduate high school.  On the outside, things still look good.  Many youth ministries are large and “vibrant.”  But they are, on the whole, whitewashed sepulchers.

In short, we have churches full of empty people, on the road to becoming empty churches.

Marino lists eight major problems with youth ministry.  The first is segregation.  We effectively cut off young people from the rest of the body of Christ (as Marino puts it, we “ghettoized” them).  In our consumer culture, obsessed with specialized marketing techniques that divide by demographic, this point is not addressed nearly enough. 

Marion’s other reasons are all good ones, and you should read his entire post here (the story he tells at the beginning is heart-wrenching).

As is typical of doom-prophesying articles like this, it’s heavy on the problem and light on the solution.  In fact, the solution is a single  paragraph, and it’s not very specific.  But it is very good, and very true.

Once upon a time our faith thrived in a non-Christian empire. It took less than 300 years for 11 scared dudes to take over the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. How did they do it? Where we have opted for a relevant, homogenously grouped, segregated, attractional professionalized model; the early church did it with a  multi-ethnic, multi-social class, seeker INsensitive church. Worship was filled with sacrament and symbol. It engaged the believing community in the Christian narrative. This worship was so God-directed and insider-shaping that in the early church non-Christians were asked to leave the building before communion! With what effect? From that fellowship of the transformed, the church went out to the highways and byways loving and serving the least, last and lost. In that body of Christ, Christians shared their faith with Romans 1:16 boldness, served the poor with abandon, fed widows and took orphans into their homes. The world noticed. We went to them in love rather than invited them to our event.

I want to unpack this, and offer a few quick suggestions of my own.  First, church is for believers, not the lost.  This is hard for our evangelical culture to swallow, but the whole point of Marion’s post has been to highlight this fact, that the last few generations of “Finneyism” are creating big churches full of empty people.  During the Reformation, the Lord’s Supper meant so much to the believing community that the table was “fenced off.”  Preaching was expositional and intensely Gospel-focused.  It’s impossible to unlock the deepest treasures of Scripture and feed people meat when the weekly worship service itself is designed to dispense milk to the visitors.

Second, the youth service has to go.  Period.  If that sounds ludicrous to you, I would merely point out that I have grown up in churches without one, and they actually retain a much higher percentage of their kids after college than the national average (this is anecdotal, but the churches are small so it’s easier to count heads).  Ages 3-5 are excused (because kindergarteners are unruly little heathens at the best of times), but once you’re in the first grade you will sit with your parents and have the Gospel preached to you every week for (Lord willing) the rest of your life, as a full member of the one, united body of Christ.

Third, parents need to step up and the church needs to help them.  I’ve taught 9th grade catechism for the past three years, and the difference between a student with actively involved parents and a student without parental aid was enormous.  And I only had them for 45 minutes per week, for 30 weeks.  That is simply not enough time to engage in real, life-changing discipleship.  These kids need a mature, Godly influence 24-7, and only parents can do that.

Fourth, we need to get over our assumption that a small church means a lack of Spiritual vitality.  Believe it or not, I know of more than one denomination that actively keeps their churches from reaching “mega” status, and they are still growing throughout the US.  When a church reaches a size that no longer allows the Pastor and Elders to be active disciple-makers, they plant a new church and shuffle members around a bit.  The result is several hundred-member congregations rather than one, thousand-member monster.  Let me hasten to add that there is nothing inherently wrong with a large church and nothing inherently good about a small one.  Many big churches are implementing small groups that are designed to keep all members active and accountable, and to encourage real discipleship (but then, there’s effectly many small churches in one building).  We simply need to rid ourselves of the notion that big = good such that it encourages us to actively try to make our churches as large as possible. Instead, we need to be theologically serious, radically God-centered, counter-cultural, and not afraid to lose some people along the way.

Finally, we need to be salt and light to a dark world.  This is by far the hardest part.  We must be the people on the streets every night looking to help the homeless.  We need to open so many soup kitchens that there are no more hungry people.  We need to be the people who give so generously of our time and money that the average person is amazed that we care so much for others and so little for ourselves.  When the church becomes the one place that unbelievers know will care for the widows and orphans, we can stop trying to be relevant to the “me generation.”  They will come to us.  When they see that we do all this not as an attempt to impress the World, but rather because we are not the World, we will have churches overflowing with souls longing to be liberated from themselves.

Above all, pray.  Pray ceaselessly.  Pray for the Holy Spirit, for without Him all our efforts will be for nothing.

Scholarship, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Use of Doubt

Before beginning, yes, that is an Oxford comma in the title. While some have done away with it, I find it still has merit. So sue me.

Today, a friend of mine brought this article to my attention. The title told me that I would likely disagree with the article. While I land decidedly not Roman Catholic (*cough Evangelical Outpost cough*), I instantly had a predisposition against what I was about to read. For starters, I am relatively certain that Roman Catholic scholarship is something that I am glad exists, even if I ultimately do not agree with a large portion of it. But aside from that, the definition of scholarship that the author takes strikes me as empty. For his definition, I find it best to quote rather than attempt to paraphrase: Continue reading Scholarship, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and the Use of Doubt

Evangelicals: For Once, Not Lost in Translation

If you haven’t already read Molly Worthen’s illuminating piece on Evangelical ambivalence to the Arab Spring, you’re missing out. Evangelicals, it turns out, are a lot more like other people than the world tends to expect–and Worthen seeks to explain Evangelical motivations in a way that makes sense to everyone else.

For example, contrary to common stereotypes, (some of them perhaps deserved!) Evangelicals are usually more interested in living in the here and now than in  hastening a coming apocalypse. Worthen rightly points out that, for one thing, Evangelicals’ interest in the Middle East is not always well understood:

Given many evangelicals’ commitment to baptizing the Founding Fathers and praising the cross as a “statue of liberty,” it may seem strange that they have greeted the pro-democracy movements agitating the Middle East and North Africa with distinct ambivalence. But if it’s surprising, that’s only because so many observers of American politics are out of touch with the evangelical worldview, particularly evangelicals’ understanding of themselves as embattled outsiders who have much to lose when democracy doesn’t go their way.

Evangelical interest in world events tends to revolve around concerns about ongoing persecution:

Whenever evangelicals show heightened interest in the Middle East, pundits tend to suspect two motives: evangelicals’ supposedly blind loyalty to Israel, and their view of the region’s population as pawns in God’s great apocalyptic endgame. But grasping for reasons that free elections might delay Armageddon brings us no closer to understanding evangelicals’ true concerns. Their uncertainty over whose side to take in the Arab Spring has little to do with whether Hosni Mubarak should count as one of the heads of the scarlet beast in the Book of Revelation, and a lot to do with the hardships facing their fellow Christians — as well as that malleable ideal and political tool, religious freedom.

Evangelicals spend far more time worrying over the persecution of Christians here and now than they do parsing the Bible’s predictions about the end of the world. And it’s no secret that the Arab Spring revolutions have not done any favors for the roughly 25 million embattled Christians in the region (a precise head count is hard to come by). In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, hard-line Islamists in Egypt rioted against Christians and vandalized churches. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hardly been a poster child for religious freedom, but approximately 2.3 million Christians there view him as a protector whose wobbling regime is the only thing standing between them and hordes of Salafists who aren’t so interested in keeping up the appearance of a modern, secular state. And a half-million of those Christians are Iraqi refugees who fled the bloody fight between contending Muslim factions in their homeland and have no desire to relive that experience. “Pray for the believers in Syria …[who] are there trying to bring Jesus into this very dangerous and chaotic place,” one missionarytold Mission Network News, an evangelical missionary news service.

Worthen also takes on some of Evangelicalism’s weaknesses and explains them to the uninitiated in a way that both secular and (most) Christian readers will understand:

…American evangelicals have taken spiritual and ideological empathy with the persecuted to new heights. Despite centuries in the American mainstream — and the fact that there are about 100 million of them today — many conservative evangelicals in the United States think of themselves as a persecuted minority. They are the few faithful who refuse to bow down before Obamicus Maximus (or Sultan Barack the Magnificent, as a disturbing number of crazies believe). The war on Christmas is old news; now half of Americans also believe that Christians are “being persecuted” at the hands of advocates of same-sex marriage. It’s little wonder they are reaching out to Christians thousands of miles away (the ones who are actually being tortured — in places where torture means more than being forced to watch a gay pride parade).

This is not to say that American evangelicals publicize the persecution of Christians abroad and work to advance their rights only to bolster their own self-image. Evangelical concern for persecution overseas is completely genuine — though too often lumped together with more dubious causes. “Religious freedom” has become a kind of shorthand in American political rhetoric, useful for prescribing some domestic policies (prayer meetings in public schools, intelligent design in the curriculum), decrying others (same-sex marriage, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and contributing to an ambivalent view of democracy — whether in the United States, or in the Muslim world — if the principle of “one voice, one vote” happens to threaten evangelical priorities. Every time evangelicals indulge in hysterics about the persecution of American evangelicals and “how liberals are waging war against Christians,” they weaken their own case against the tyranny of the majority in the Middle East and insult those congregations huddling behind drawn curtains in Egypt and Libya.

Read the rest of Molly Worthen’s piece here, and tell us what you think.

God’s Grandeur and Evangelical Nonchalance

Grand language is a rarity these days, not only among bloggers, but also among the politicians and pastors from whom we used to expect it. Culturally, soaring rhetoric is endangered if not extinct.

John McWhorter, for one, has noted this cultural trend. In an interview with Mars Hill Audio in 2003, he locates the loss of formal public language in the U.S in a post-1960s suspicion that lofty rhetoric is detached and untrustworthy. This is problematic for evangelicals, who must attend to the grandeur of God, but are tempted to distance themselves from the speech appropriate to it.

Talking like your culture is hardly blameworthy in itself.  Evangelicals are committed to the accessibility and availability of the gospel: we know that Jesus is for everyone, no matter how rudimentary their vocabulary. We glory in the perspicuity of the things necessary for our salvation. Furthermore, directness of speech may be seen as an admission of God’s transcendence: if all of our language is unworthy, why not speak as simply as possible? Plain and humble words are certainly better than the distractions of convoluted talk; the Lord’s Prayer is a paragon of plainspokenness before God. The Reformers sought to drive home that, thanks to the mediation of Christ, God could be accessed anywhere by any one, not only by those with the “right” language. If there is indeed a priesthood of all believers, then the acceptability of our worship cannot depend on having the right words.

Even so, there are more ‘right words’ available to us than we care to use. We are provided with grand language concerning God in Scripture; such formality sits strangely in the evangelical ethos, however, even when Biblical. I have real suspicions of paraphrase of the Bible into the vernacular when the passage warrants, or even demands, a grand style with which we find ourselves uncomfortable. Some things just don’t paraphrase well. When a pastor tries to evoke the more nuanced or exalted aspects of God, I see the poverty of the commonly-used casual, conversational style. It is somewhat surprising that Evangelicals, with our stout commitment to the value of Scripture as the living word of God, seem unconcerned with whether we acknowledge the full range of language the Scripture writers employ.

It really is a different thing to say “God cares!” than to say “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  With the soaring adulation of the Davidic Psalms, the theological nuance and resounding rhetorical height of the Pauline Epistles (the beginning of Ephesians 1 and Philippians 2 are striking examples), in Mary’s Magnificat and God’s transcendent promises to Abraham, the language of the Bible evokes true things about our relationship with God – truths about his overawing excellence, because of which our brothers have taken off their shoes, fallen on their faces, bemoaned their uncleanliness, been consumed by fire, or glowed for days after.

Even in translation, the word of God is often a word of grandeur or magnificence – something foreign to an Evangelical vocabulary. We lose much of what is being said or taking place in Scripture when we unyeildingly collapsed it into conversational prose. I worry that our confident casualness of speech prevents our recognizing the grandness of God by practicing grandness in the language about Him – a grandness modeled for us in Scripture. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” describes divine glory as “flam[ing] forth like shining from shook foil” in all the world.  It may be that we – with our language as relaxed as our Hawaiian shirts – dim our understanding of God’s grandeur by avoiding grand language about him. ‘

Evangelicals Curbbed the Housing Bubble

Sorry Chris Hitchens, but God is pretty great for the economy. At least, that’s what the New York Times is saying.
According to New York Times reporter Zubin Jelveh, there is good reason to think Evangelicals curbed the housing bubble. The article credits Evangelical optimism for the second coming of Christ as a possible reason why Evangelicals did not participate in the house buying frenzy during boom times and are now taking advantage of cheap housing during bust times. I credit the Evangelical idea of stewardship and a Bible based disinterest in “keeping up with the Jones’.” Regardless, belief in God and an understanding of life that is bigger than a merely reductionist, materialist view of the world is to be credited for sparing Americans an even greater burden of debt than what currently exists. ‘

Village Green: A Proper Understanding of Mere Christian Evangelicialism (Guest Post)

In a 2001 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review Dr. Michael Horton asks the question, “Is Evangelicalism Reformed or Wesleyan?” This question may seem strange to some, especially those who would not think to identify Evangelicalism solely with either tradition. This is exactly the point. In pitting these two positions against each other, as well as considering other theories about the theological roots of Evangelicalism, Dr. Horton shows that there is no single theological tradition that can claim to be the “rightful heir” of modern Evangelicalism. The implication of this is that modern Evangelicalism can have no definable “core”, no set of beliefs that easily labels some “in” and others “out.” In light of this, Dr. Horton offers two potential paradigms through which we can view the current state (and the future) of Evangelicalism.

Continue reading Village Green: A Proper Understanding of Mere Christian Evangelicialism (Guest Post)

The Collapse of Evangelicalism and its Renaissance

Recently I have been thinking much about Evangelicalism. I call myself an evangelical. I was born into an evangelical family, raised at an evangelical church and attended a (mostly) evangelical school. I’ve been to the camps, read a lot of the literature, and since a young age have been passionate to defend my evangelical beliefs. Yet, despite being steeped in evangelicalism for 21 years, it was not until I came to Torrey Honors at Biola University and exposed to the rich, intellectual tradition of Christianity and the “big ideas” that shaped Western and Christian thought that I actually came alive to the goodness, wonder, and profundity of Evangelical Christianity.

So I had to ask myself, what was it that I was steeped in for so many years? What is Evangelicalism? What are evangelicals teaching their kids? Does Evangelicalism have a future?

It turns out, I am not the only one asking these questions.

Continue reading The Collapse of Evangelicalism and its Renaissance