Thursday, October 08, 2015

On Guns

Social media is atwitter with the gun question again, thanks to another mass shooting by a deranged individual and kept alive by comments from amateur pundits and Presidential contenders alike. It is always a terribly difficult discussion to have because many people have firmly established notions one way or the other. So I thought I would add some fuel on the fire by throwing in my two (cyber) cents.

I am something of an oddity, a non-resistant Christian who abhors war and bloodshed but opposes gun control legislation. That may seem somewhat contradictory but allow me to explain.

I support the right of American citizens to keep arms not because I think we should all pack heat to defend ourselves against criminals but because as a realist I understand the very real deterrence an armed population has on a would-be tyrannical government. I don't advocate armed rebellion, even the rebellion that led to the formation of this country, but I do recognize that the state is properly understood in the size and scope of ours to be an enemy of liberty. The primary motivation of most institutions, including and especially our government, is to retain and expand its own power and thereby preserve itself and those who benefit from it. An armed populace stands as a counter to a state that seeks to reduce individual liberty and force conformist behavior on said populace. Even a casual glance at our government and the accompanying bureaucracy sees a state that is in multiple ways seeking to increase control over a largely flaccid and disinterested people who don't seem to mind losing freedom as long as they can watch The Bachelorette. As I wrote in my post Why worry about things that don't matter? I believe that even things that are not Kingdom issues still have meaning. It is better for people to be more free and to enjoy more liberty than it is for them to have less. If you don't think that many of the ideological drivers behind gun control are more concerned about law abiding citizens who are armed than they are about mass shootings, I have to assume you are naive.

Of course as I have pointed out before, making something illegal only impacts those who obey  the law, i.e. not criminals. By definition a criminal is someone who, typically, is aware of the law but has decided to break the law anyway. The gun control movement never seems to get this. Perhaps a better way of stating it is that the gun control movement doesn't trust people with guns, even when the evidence points to law abiding gun owners as being, again by definition, not criminal. Most gun control legislation, existing and proposed, treats every America citizen as a law breaker waiting to happen.

Some claim that it is inconsistent to be a pro-lifer who is anti-abortion but pro-Second Amendment. Abortions kills people. Guns kill people. Right? Wrong. The United States has some 300 million guns in the hands of private citizens if the stats are to be believed. Some insane percentage of those citizens with their hundreds of millions of guns, 99% perhaps, have never shot anyone, threatened to shoot anyone or even considered pulling a gun on someone. I own a number of firearms ranging from shotguns to rifles to hand guns. I have never and likely would never shoot anyone and the only exception would be a heat of the moment defense of my family and even that I don't consider to be proper for a Christian.

On the other hand, with a few rare exceptions where a child somehow survives the butcher's forceps and is born in spite of the best effort of a "doctor", abortions always end a human life. Not only that but they are intended to do just that no matter how much clinical and sterile language we try to hide it behind. It is the exact opposite of gun ownership. I would guess that 99.99% of abortions end as expected and desired with the death of a child. To recap, legal gun ownership almost never results in the death of someone else, much less an innocent except in the cases where a negligent parent fails to secure their gun and fails to educate their child.  Conversely abortion is intended to and almost always succeed in ending the life of another human being and by definition that child is innocent in a way that virtually no adult could be.

Get that? Owning a gun by a law abiding citizen is almost never going to lead to the death of an innocent and is generally not intended to. Having an abortion almost always leads to the death of an innocent and it is intended to do so. Comparing the two is asinine. Now one can make the argument, and I have, that being pro-life when it comes to abortion but at the same time being pro-war is inconsistent. War is intended to take life and innocents dying in those wars is an expected result.

So there it is in a nutshell. Feel free to tell me I am wrong but be prepared to use facts and reason rather  than simple emotionalism.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Do We Value What The Bible Cost?

479 years ago today is the traditional date assigned to the murder and martydom of William Tyndale. Tyndale is best known for producing the first comprehensive translation of the Scriptures into English using the printing press. As was typical of those days his murder was accomplished by a charming method, in his case being strangled to death and then having his corpse burned. He knew that the penalty for what he did would almost certainly be a gruesome death and yet he went ahead. In many ways I owe Tyndale for his courage to bring the Scriptures to a mass audience in English even at the cost of his own life.

Today I own literally dozens of Bibles in English, in traditional hard copy, on my computer, on my Kindle tablets, etc. It is so common place that I often treat it casually, failing to spend as much time searching the riches of God's revelation as I ought. I find myself rather ashamed of the cavalier way I all too often treat the Bible. Worse, there are many in religious circles around this land who go to great lengths to brag about how little value they find in the Bible, preferring instead their own experiences and preferences in an empty mockery of Christianity. Pretending to be wise they are actually mere fools.

How have we come to a place where what so many men in ages past were willing to lay down their lives to transmit and believers around the world risk freedom and life itself to possess is now something to be tossed in a corner and largely ignored? That question is perhaps the most pressing one today, greater than "gay marriage" or any of the other hot button issues, because every one of these questions that bedevil and split the church have at their core a low view of Scriptures. The Scriptures need no one to defend them but the church needs prophetic voices who will call the people back to the revealed Word of God as our authoritative source of knowledge about Jesus Christ.

A Christian man with an open Bible is something to make the religious authorities quake in their boots. A Christian man with nothing but his own experience and opinion is unarmed and prone to be tossed to and fro by the whims of the same. Men and women alike have risked life and liberty so that we can have our Bible. We owe it to them to treat the Bible with the same respect and even awe that they did.

What Sixty Grand A Year Buys You

You might not have heard of Swarthmore College. It is one of those little, very expensive East Coast colleges that probably wasn't on your radar if you went to college. There are tons of these, when I was looking at colleges I got brochures from dozens of them but I never gave them much thought. Anyway, Swarthmore is near Philadelphia and is not cheap. What do I mean by "not cheap"? Look at the picture below from the Swarthmore financial aid page.

So for sixty thousand per year you would expect a pretty good education. But then there is this, reported by National Review, a scathing indictment of the sexism inherent in teasing girls about their annual love affair with all things pumpkin spice:
According to a Swarthmore College student’s op-ed, the real reason that people make fun of pumpkin-spice lattes is that our society thinks everything girls like is stupid because “girls don’t get to have valid emotions.”
“It all comes back to sexism,” Min Cheng writes in a piece for The Phoenix, Swarthmore’s official student newspaper. “People love to hate on what girls like.”
"The PSL hate seems to me like a symptom of a larger problem: girls don’t get to have valid emotions,” she continues.

I think she is serious which is both hilarious and terrifying.

Now I don't think everyone on campus at Swarthmore takes this seriously but I bet a lot of people do. This is the sort of "academic" environment parents (and tax payers in the form of grants and student loans) are shelling out obscene sums of money to exposure their children to, namely a mindset where anything and everything is a symptom of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, specism and white privilege. This environment is not open-minded and diverse, it is the exact opposite.

This sort of nonsense would be easy to laugh off it it weren't poisoning the minds of young adults who get out in the real world and find that they haven't learned much of any use and then are stunned to find that employers are not begging them to take $50,000 a year jobs right off campus. Since they have been taught to blame everyone else for their misfortune and failure to prepare for adulthood it is little wonder we have a generation of bitter and entitled young adults sulking in mom's basement.

Before you send little Johnny or Susie off to some liberal arts school that will land them in debt for the majority of their adult lives, take a few minutes to ask what exactly they are being taught. You will find that at most schools they are being force fed a steady diet of propaganda, an indoctrination that you are paying for in the hopes of being a "good parent". If you want to really teach your kids to learn and to think for themselves it might just be that the university system is the worst possible place to send your kids and if you do, you owe it to yourself and to general decency to not send them somewhere that is as obscenely expensive as Swarthmore.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Serious Christians Pack Heat. Seriously?

In the category of facepalm worthy statements by politicians there is this statement from the Lt. Governor of Tennessee:
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey responded to the mass shooting at an Oregon community college in a Facebook post Friday saying that “fellow Christians” should consider getting a handgun carry permit to protect themselves.
In his Facebook posting, Ramsey, who is also speaker of the Tennessee senate, said the recent spate of mass shootings around the nation is “truly troubling.
The Blountville Republican said, "whether the perpetrators are motivated by aggressive secularism, jihadist extremism or racial supremacy, their targets remain the same: Christians and defenders of the West."
"I would encourage my fellow Christians who are serious about their faith to think about getting a handgun carry permit," Ramsey wrote. "I have always believed that it is better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it. Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise."


I say this with the respect due a magistrate who is the Lieutenant Governor of one of these United States of America: that is one of the most theologically ignorant statements I have ever heard issuing from the mouth of a fellow Christian. I consider myself serious about my faith and while I own a number of firearms and I absolutely affirm that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right of citizens of this country to own personal firearms, I categorically deny that carrying a gun to protect yourself from whichever bad guy you are afraid of is a sign of Christian maturity. I also deny that Christians should be lumped in with "defenders of the West" as if defending Western civilization, a civilization that has generally been anti-Christian (no more or less so than Eastern civilization) is somehow the duty of "serious" Christians.

The latest mass shooting which seems to, according to early reports, indicate that an unhinged individual specifically targeted Christians has galvanized believers and intertwined the gun control debate with the faith of the victims. While our President hardly waited for the bodies to get cold before callously trying to use a tragedy to further his own political aims, it would be be nice if Christians didn't get down in the political mud with him on this question. Those who were Christians and were murdered because of that join the ranks of martyrs who died for their faith. We should grieve with and pray for their families but we shouldn't abandon a key teaching of Jesus in order to make a political point. I have a strong opinion on the right of Americans to own firearms and I categorically deny that making something illegal makes it less likely that criminals will engage in a certain behavior. That has nothing to do with how followers of Christ should think about and act toward those who make themselves our enemies.

Lt. Governor Ramsey says that Christians should arm themselves in order to be prepared to kill their enemies if the need arises. Jesus said that we should love our enemies and leave vengeance to the Lord. It should be a no-brainer which we should listen to. Unfortunately in America it is not as obvious as it ought to be.

Can Anabaptism Thrive In A Climate Of Affluence And Religious Liberty?

Hundreds of years ago, Anabaptists from Europe began a mass migration to America, a migration that ended up with Anabaptism being little more than a historical footnote in European history while at the same time seeing an incredible flourishing here in America. The various Anabaptist groups have never been a numerically significant population but they have become in many ways a quintessentially American phenomenon. Certainly there are Anabaptists in places like South America but the vast majority have lived in America for centuries. While the persecution slowly was reduced and eventually ceased altogether during their stay in America, I wonder if this has really been healthy for the descendants of European Anabaptism.

Somewhere around the mid-20th century the Anabaptists stopped being outsiders and started becoming just another denomination with mission boards, bureaucracy, colleges, all of the trappings of American religious culture. Around the time of the death of Hutterite draftees who were tortured and martyred in American military prisons as conscientious objectors during World War I, things seemed to change. Many Anabaptists served in civilian roles during the second World War and some even served in combat roles. Anabaptists also seemed to lose their missionary zeal, a zeal that in Europe caused persecution but in the relatively secure land of America seemed less important. Groups like the Amish and the Hutterites split off from society at large and other Anabaptists. The Mennonites began a seemingly constant splintering and re-splintering in response to the pressures of modernization and encroaching liberalism. When you look at many contemporary Anabaptist groups, they are not only not persecuted but they seem to have greatly prospered in America and are often affluent and comfortable. Today I look as an outsider at Anabaptism at large and I wonder if there is any real manifestation left in America today.

I believe we have already seen what happens when the Anabaptist portion of the church becomes too suburban, too comfy with the world. Much of what passes for Anabaptism today has slid into the broader evangelical world, becoming just another vanilla church. There is a large evangelical church near us in the middle of a major building project that once was a Mennonite church but now is just a generic evangelical church. Others claim the mantle of Anabaptism while looking an awful lot like a somewhat liberal megachurch, raising the question of how a people who treasured discipleship can flourish in the anonymity of the megachurch setting. Other portions of Anabaptism have moved into a quasi-Fundamentalist model with the traditional distinctive of their manner of dress to separate them from other Fundamentalist groups. Their focus is on keeping themselves free from overt sin and nipping in the bud any sign of "liberalism". Still other Anabaptist groups have merged into the progressive religious sphere and are largely indistinguishable from other progressive/liberal groups, having abandoned the prayer veil, ordaining women as pastors, taking tentative steps toward the normalization of homosexuality, replacing non-resistance with an activist political stance and denial of crucial and foundational truths like the reality of judgment and hell. These groups are committing the same "suicide by accomadation" that has killed liberal Protestant groups to the point that many who call themselves "Anabaptists" these days look, act and sound no different from any of the "mainline" Protestant groups and are dying off just as quickly.

My great fear is that Anabaptists in America have forgotten what it means to be Anabaptist. They no longer know how to be strangers and sojourners in the land who are hated and reviled not for how much Biblical truth they have abandoned but for their unwavering and child-like confidence in the Scriptures, a confidence that leads to a zealous evangelism and the resulting persecution. America is a land blessed with religious freedom but has it really been a blessing? I am not sure it has been when we look at contemporary Anabaptist groups. In fact I am not sure that Anabaptism has survived intact after a century of ease and acceptance.

The necessity and inevitability of suffering as part of the life of a disciple of Christ is deeply entwined with the Anabaptist history and theology. When people became Anabaptist in Europe, they did so knowing that it would mean sacrifice up to and including laying down their life. What happens when that suffering stops and is indeed replaced by affluence and comfort and ease? This is not merely an academic question. With the looming threat of a major shift in the American cultural landscape, the Anabaptists ought to be leading the way and an example for others. Instead I am concerned that Anabaptists are nearly as unprepared as the rest of the church for a post-Christendom existence because they have forgotten their heritage.

I hope I am wrong about this but the evidence doesn't seem to indicate that I am. Now is the time for Anabaptists to recover their heritage and start to think seriously about how to live as their forefathers did in Europe. The tales of persecution are not just interesting historical tidbits or tales you tell children to make them more appreciative of what they have. They are signal flares that show the way forward. I have found that an awful lot of Anabaptists barely even know their own history and this should make the leaders of Anabaptism deeply concerned. More so than almost any other groups, Anabaptists are a historic people. Their existence is inseparable from their history. When you lose that history and you lose the mindset that comes along with it, you lose the essence of what it means to be Anabaptist, especially in a world where people see fit to reinterpret Anabaptism to meet their own preferences.

The loss of their history as Anabaptists ought to be a far greater concern to Anabaptist leaders than the length of sister's hair or the style of dress they wear. The Christians of the very near future in America desperately needs Anabaptism and that means that the Anabaptists themselves need to remember what that word means.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Boy That Escalated Quickly

So the bloom came off that rose awfully fast. After a week or so of absolute, Beatles-Mania level screaming praise from "progressives" who stumbled over each other to sing the praises of Jorge Bergoglio during his papal visit, declaring him a Christian and showing a remarkable lack of understanding of issues surrounding why there was a Reformation in the first place, it seems that the pontiff made the grievous error of meeting with Ms. Kim Davis, the culture war flavor of the day who refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexuals. The Left turned on Jorge pretty quickly. This morning featured not one but two pieces on NPR (which has become insufferable to listen to) on how this was "disappointing" and confusing to advocates of homosexual normalization, Pope's Meeting With Kim Davis Puts A New Twist On His Visit and Pope's Meeting With Kim Davis Disappoints LGBT Catholic. Perhaps they will need to recall the upcoming Progressive Tiger Beat cover story of adoration for the "pope".

I doubt Jorge even knows there was a kerfuffle and I likewise doubt that he cares but it is worth noting anyway because it demonstrates that the Left in America, especially the religious Left, is every bit as dug in and intractable as the Religious Right. What abortion is for the Religious Right, a non-negotiable hill on which to die, homosexual normalization is for the Religious Left (along with abortion on demand, women pastors, universalism, ignoring Paul, etc.). There is no room for "common ground" or "dialogue", it is an all or nothing proposition. Something important to consider when addressing these issues.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Repost: A Season of Consummation and Melancholy

Thanks to a dry late summer harvest is moving along already so I thought this was a good time to repost this essay, one of the more thoughtful and less angry in my stable.

As October swiftly winds down here in Indiana I am reminded anew of the uniqueness of autumn in the Midwest. There is just something special when you live here out in the country that isn't replicated in other places we have lived around the nation . Sure New England has the fall colors and "Up North" Michigan has hunting season in the brilliant fall hues of seemingly endless forests. More southerly states have delightful weather, the fall in Kentucky was a wonderful relief from the oppressive summer heat. I am sure other regions of our fair nation have their own charms in autumn but none match the Midwest for me. Perhaps it is just the natural affinity for the place one grew up. Whatever it is nowhere we have lived can match the fall in the Midwest. It is something that is a part of what makes us who we are.

While suburbs mark the changing of the season from summer to fall with going back to school, curbside piles of leaves to picked up and the beginning of the Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season (a shopping season that is starting to blur together into one massive frenzy of shopping and consumption), autumn in the Midwest means the harvest. Not the harvest in the sense of "Harvest festivals" and a few corn stalks in your yard. I mean real harvest. All around us for the past few weeks the quiet fields of corn and soybeans went from the passive state of green to a frenzy of activity. Combines mowed down acre after acre of crops while trucks and tractors hauled away what is estimated to be the largest corn harvest in American history. It is incredible to watch fields of beans and corn disappear into the maw of a combine and turn into rivers of golden corn and beige soybeans.

In a unique and jarring contrast we also have the local Amish harvesting their crops. In one field you have a state of the art John Deere combine, a machine that will set you back in excess of half a million dollars, with the ability to cut up to 18 rows of corn at a time sweeping through fields, casting the discarded husks and stalks behind before emptying into huge tractor trailer trucks, trucks often lined up three deep because a modern combine can fill a tractor trailer faster than they can get to the grain elevator to dump the crop before rushing back. The pinnacle of American agricultural progress and innovation on display. In the next field you might have a team of four Belgian draft horses plodding slowly but surely through a field of corn, pulling a corn picker that harvests two rows at a time. Instead of corn that has been plucked from the stalk, husk removed and shaken and sifted through screens leaving just the kernel behind, the Amish fill their wagons with corn still on the cob. Rather than ending up in giant concrete silos, their corn often ends up in corn cribs at their home. While they have some modern conveniences, they harvest their corps in much the same way that farmers did in those same fields 100 years ago. Reminiscent of an agricultural John Henry versus the steam powered hammer, the Amish thrive using methods that seem quaint to our eyes and yet they prosper, often beyond their "English" counterparts.

The harvest is a season of accomplishment and consummation but it is also a wistful and melancholy time. The promise of harvest, just a whisper and a hope in spring as bare fields sit seemingly dormant while the seeds beneath the soil stir and grow unseen, has come to fruition. In normal years all the worry and fretting of impotently watching the weather to catch a window between the time the crops are ready and the fall rains vanishes as the crops come off as they almost always do. Farming makes for a powerful dichotomy, on the one hand farmers today have unimaginable technology at their fingertips. Precision farming, super efficient machinery, hybrid crops that produce unnatural yields, chemicals of all sorts to increase productivity and eliminate weeds and pests, all work together to squeeze every possible bushel out of an acre of land. Yet in spite of all the technology the farmer still spends most of the year on the sidelines, completely helpless waiting on the weather. Is it warm enough to plant but dry enough to get in the field? Is it hot and sunny but not too dry in the summer? Are the crops mature and dry enough to harvest but has the rain held off so we can get those green, red and orange behemoth machines in the field to harvest? I can't think of another economic endeavor that is so critical to our national economic security, so ancient and yet driven by technology, that is still dependent on something as fickle and primal as the weather.

There is something sad about the vast fields bereft of crops. Where once there were acres of tall, green corn softly rustling in the win there is now only stubble. In one field near our home the corn is all gone except for the solitary stalk standing all alone, sole sole survivor of the combine. I know that empty fields mean successful harvests and that those fields are testament to overflowing grain silos holding the American treasure from the breadbasket of our nation. I know that many farm families are smiling as they get their checks, the reward for a year of hard work and worrying. Still they make me sad. Empty bean and corn fields mean that winter is coming, just around the corner. The days will grow shorter and the extra darkness each day that I dread is also on the horizon. The joy of spring with new life in budding plants, fields being planted, lambs and foals being born, it all seems so far away, a distant and unattainable dream. I know that the winter is but a brief interlude and soon enough the horse drawn planters will be working the fields alongside massive tractors but that certainty is not enough to offset the melancholy that invariably settles on me each year at this time.

It is all part of the love-hate relationship so many of us have with the Midwest. Ours is a region that is sneered at by other parts of the country, derided as "fly over" country, an obstacle to fly over going from one fabulous place to another. It is a vast, flat landscape that is so awful to drive through but for many of us it is home, something deeply connected with who we are. So many of us strive for relevance and hipness but choose to live in a decidedly un-hip and in the eyes of many irrelevant region. In spite of the melancholy I feel in fall, the humid summers, muddy springs and freezing winters there is nowhere else that we feel so at home. This is where we belong, amid the generally simple people who make their living building stuff, moving stuff and of course farming. It is not glamorous, just like our football teams in the Big Ten are not glamorous (and not very good right now) but it is home.

Autumn in the Midwest. There is nothing else quite like it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two Critical Points To Understand In Interpreting The New Testament: Paul Was An Apostle. You Are Not.

I have seen a spate of comments on social media that boil down to this: "I accept what Jesus taught but what Paul taught is subject to change". Not many come right out and say this, although some do, but it is clear that is what they mean. Paul is looked at with a very suspicious eye by many in the church due to constant clamoring about him being misogynistic or "homophobic".  It is pretty easy to airily claim that while the words of Jesus (at least the ones about love and caring for the poor) are to be taken literally, Paul must be examined in light of current opinion and where he clashes with that opinion, Paul must be set aside or explained away. In Paul's teaching on gender relations or on sexual immorality, a lot of people go through some serious exegetical gymnastics to explain whey he didn't really mean it or if he did it was because he was a meanie. It reminds me of the gymnastics some conservatives go through to explain why "just war" is OK and Jesus didn't really take that whole "love your enemies" thing all that seriously.

Paul certainly thought of himself as an apostle and he wrote authoritatively. His contemporaries did as well. So has the church since the letters were written up until relatively recently. Taken in context it is pretty clear that when he wrote...

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor 15:8)

...he was laying claim to having witnessed the Living Christ in person after some fashion. So it seems to me that we should default to listening to what Paul has to say rather than finding ways to ignore him.

In fact, as an ironic twist, everything that we know with any authority and confidence about Jesus comes from the pen of Paul or other men who considered Paul an apostle and authority in the church. What this means is that Paul knows more than me or you or your favorite author/blogger/conference speaker on topics such as:

  • The Kingdom
  • Marriage
  • Gender
  • Heaven
  • Hell
  • Justification
  • Sexuality
  • Sanctification
  • The Church
  • The person and work of Jesus
  • Church Discipline
  • Christian ethics and morality.
  • Pretty much any other related topic you can think of
Paul doesn't have to answer to us and he doesn't have to tolerate having us sit in judgment of him. Paul also didn't teach anything different from what Jesus taught because he was called by Christ and taught by Christ Himself and was acknowledged by the apostles as one of their own. What Paul transmitted to the church is what Paul received from Jesus Himself.

John Piper, speaking at Together for the Gospel in 2010, addressed the common misconception that Jesus preached one Gospel and Paul another in his talk: Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?. Seeing as how Paul got his Gospel from Jesus directly, it is kind of foolish to assume that he just arbitrarily changed it when Jesus already struck the dude blind once. Check the video below out when you have an hour to spare, it is worth your time.

Back to my point. If you hear someone denying what Paul taught or diminishing him as an apostle and authoritative source, you need to be very cautious about anything else they say because that attitude betrays a lot about their general approach to Scripture. Paul wrote so much and so powerfully and so vividly that he is, when read with the aid of the Holy Spirit, the very best source we have to interpret what Jesus taught apart from Jesus Himself. Indeed on many topics he takes what Christ taught pre-cross and make it make sense post-cross for the benefit of the church.

Paul is not a 1st century Archie Bunker, an anachronism that needs to be kept under glass in a museum. God specially and powerfully chose Paul to be the chief author of the Epsitles. If you think that God is so incompetent that He allowed Paul to preach and proclaim a different message from His Son and that those false teachings were preserved for time immemorial in the Bible, you have to wonder what sort of God you think He is. 

Read Paul as you read Jesus. Read him deeply and read him with confidence. Jesus knew what He was doing when He interrupted Saul on that dusty road to Damascus so it seems to me that we owe it to Jesus to take what His chosen vessel has to say with the greatest of seriousness and sobriety

Coming Soon To A Religious Building Near You

photo: Hans van Vrouwerf
Check out this photo essay from Atlas Obscura looking at the ruins of Christendom left over in Europe (ht: Tim Challies ). The photos are haunting and a little sad but not simply because these buildings are empty but more for what they represent, namely the hubris of man seeking to create our own little religious empires, empires that were fueled by the contributions of people who no longer find them useful. The photographer, Hansvan Vrouwerf, is quoted as saying, in response to the question of why he takes these photographs:
It’s not because I’m religious of any kind—far from it, actually. But what attracts me is the fact that faith and believing seems to be  [becoming a thing] of the past. The modern life and the fast pace we are moving in almost seems to rationalize people a lot more.  But a place of worship will remain even though nobody is interested anymore. That’s actually the most fascinating part to me: How could this happen?
Check out his webpage in the links for higher resolution photos plus some extras not in the article. 

Make no mistake, this is the path America is headed down and more quickly than many imagine. We live in a pretty religious area and we have empty churches in the vicinity so I can't imagine what it will be like in 10 or 20 years. The article quotes a staggering statistic:
It’s estimated that every year between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close down in the USA. In Europe, the statistics vary by country: approximately 20 Church of England churches are closed per year in the UK; in Holland, the statistics are much higher, at around two per week.
That is a huge number, even if it is only 50% correct that still amounts to dozens of churches a month. When you add in the churches that are holding on by their proverbial fingernails, populated mostly by gray haired old ladies, it looks even more grim. The pace is going to accelerate in the coming years

So what to do, assuming one sees local fellowships closing down as a bad thing?

First, we need to disentangle ourselves from Christendom lest it drag us down with it. This is not the time to double down on Christendom and invest even more in buildings which will possibly sit empty 20 years from now. The church needs to learn to thrive on less money and be content with less influence. The head in the sand approach advocated by many church "experts" is a recipe for disaster.

Second, we need to reaffirm and strengthen our commitment to sound teaching and sound practice. That is also contrary to conventional wisdom which tells us we need to jettison anything that is vaguely offensive. While that course might work in the short term to attract people who aren't really interested in Christianity, it is eventually going to fail as people get bored with it. Every religious denomination that has tried this has either functionally ceased to exist, gone into schism or is headed for one or both of those outcomes. So don't listen to those who would diminish the value of teaching and doctrine. Abandoning those is not going to save a religious group in decline and in most cases seems to accelerate it.

There is not much we can do to avoid seeing pictures like this in America but there is plenty we can do to prepare for that day. The real question is, will those who lead the church try to cling to the past or will they lead to the future?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Jorge versus Jesus

Speaking of black and white...

Today Jorge Bergoglio, aka "Pope Francis", addressed the combined membership of the United States Congress. According to Jorge, he is addressing not just Congress but "the entire people of the United States". As one of those people, allow me to respond specifically to one paragraph in his speech.

I will set aside for a moment the preceding paragraph where he seems to paint with the broadest of brushes and links fundamentalism with religious violence. I know a lot of people who would be considered Christian fundamentalists, including yours truly, and none of them are remotely violent. Labeling all fundamentalists at least as potentially violent people, especially given the bloody past of the religion he leads, seems designed to assuage the sensitivities of Muslims while casting people who follow Christ under the proverbial bus.

I wanted to look specifically at the next paragraph replicated from a transcript found at the website of the National Review (emphasis mine):
But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.
Well pardon me for being simplistic but after all I follow a simplistic Savior. Jesus said you must be born again (John 3:3-5) or you will not be able to see His Kingdom. Not "you might consider being born-again as one of dozens of possible acceptable options". No, He said You Must. He also said that those who are born-again and believe in Him are saved but those who aren't are still under condemnation (John 3:14-18). He further said that on the last day He would divide the sheep from the goats ( Matthew 25:31-46 ) and the wheat from the tares ( Matthew 13:24-30). The fate of the tares and the goats is fire and eternal punishment. Kinda a downer and awfully reductionist. You are in or you are out and you are only in based on being born-again in Christ. Otherwise you are out. The world consists of two kinds of people, unregenerate sinners and those made righteous in Christ (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus was many things and one of the most notable was that He didn't mince words, calling evil for what it is and directing the word "good" only to His Father. Noticeably absent from his speech was any reference to Jesus Christ by name, although he did make room for Dorothy Day. I do give him credit for his somewhat oblique reference to the rights of the unborn. 

I know it is considered impolite to question this visitor to our fair land but after all he did address me in an indirect way. I liked the prior "pope", at least Ratzinger was a little less nuanced and more direct. It turns out that I like my popes to be a little more Catholic.

Some Things Are Worth Fighting Over

From the opening of J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism:
The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility. Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight
J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism (Kindle Locations 50-60). Kindle Edition, emphasis mine.
What a terribly un-modern, even primitive, notion that is! As everyone knows the greatest problems we have in the church are attributed to those awful fundamentalists! 

Snarkiness aside, we have a major problem when it comes to picking and choosing what we will fight over or even if we will fight at all and yes some things are worth fighting for. In many cases it seems when we do bother fighting, we are fighting over the proverbial color of carpet and while at the same time assuming the critical points of the Gospel. I tend to fall heavily on the side of polemics here and while I occasionally go overboard I don't apologize for being willing to be crystal clear on a topic I feel strongly about. We never get to the truth by dancing around and nuance. The Kingdom is a very black and white thing, either in or out. The Gospel is very black and white, saved by the blood or still under condemnation. Jesus taught in a black and white manner, lots of "You have heard it said...but I say unto you" kind of teaching. Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, all we lacking in nuance but bold on the truth. 

The need of the day is for more men like Machen, men who will call progressive theology what it is, another Gospel unrelated to and opposed to Christianity. It is not unique in this as there are plenty of other false gospel systems out there but it is on the march today and is the urgent matter that demands our attention. The fawning reception of progressives over the visit of Jorge Bergoglio is proof enough that this is true. One would think that the Beatles had been reincarnated given the crowds of screaming fans in person and on social media. They are not cheering him because of his pro-life stance but rather for his embrace of the man-made climate change farce and apparent indifference to the sin of homosexuality. I am quite certain that there are many voices of progressive religion that are indeed saved and of course voices of orthodoxy that are not but that is in spite of, not because of, the skewed understanding of the Kingdom that they promote. In other words, some progressives are Christians but progressivism is not. 

Of course truth doesn't exist in a vacuum. For something to be true it demands that something else be false. Timothy George writes: 
Truth can only be arrived at by way of confrontation with a contrasting truth. For example, we could not understand gospel were it not for law that reveals our inability to live rightly and thus points us to Christ. George, Timothy (2013-09-01). Theology of the Reformers (Kindle Location 1286). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The old chestnut is true, the best way to learn to detect counterfeit money is to become immersed in real money. Confrontation without being confrontational is not un-Christian but being firm while contending unapologetically for the faith is the very essence of Christian discipleship, even as it often leads to the stake and the flame. There is no more certain sign of the Gospel absence of progressive thought than the acclaim that it draws from  the world. The world loves what Christ hates and the world hates what Christ loves. 

Those who would claim that fighting for the truth is un-Christian don't really know what Christianity is about. Being meek and non-resistant of the evil-doer doesn't entail silence, if it did we wouldn't have most of the New Testament. Fight the good fight without falling in love with fighting. Contend earnestly, especially when it is costly. Be willing to call a lie a lie and truth the truth. The shed blood of Jesus is too precious to be sacrificed to get along.