Mar 27 2012

Christians in China

Category: China,church,freedom,religionharmonicminer @ 7:26 am

Here is a very interesting article on the state of Christianity and Christians in China.

Feb 15 2012

American Catholicism’s pact with the Devil?

In this article at ToRenewAmerica, I wrote about the failure of the “Seamless Garment” perspective of Cardinal Bernadin to provide a proper moral compass for Catholics and other Christians by equating the moral necessity to resist abortion with the promotion of essentially socialist perspectives on society and government, making resistance to abortion the hostage of socialist policies.  Bernadin’s positions on this have provided cover for way too many Catholics to support leftist, pro-abortion politicians, in the name of vague sounding concern for the poor, politicians whose policies and enacted laws have had a distinctly non-vague, and very negative impact on life in these United States.

And now the comeuppance of these very confused Christians and Catholics has arrived, in the form of a President Obama whom they helped to elect, a president whose plan all along was to find a way to force all Americans to pay for abortifacient birth control, even if it is against their religious beliefs.

Now, Professor Paul Rahe has written on American Catholicism’s Pact With The Devil.

….the leaders of the American Catholic Church fell prey to a conceit that had long before ensnared a great many mainstream Protestants in the United States, the notion that public provision is somehow akin to charity, and so they fostered state paternalism and undermined what they professed to teach: that charity is an individual responsibility and that it is appropriate that the laity join together under the leadership of the Church to alleviate the suffering of the poor. In its place, they helped establish the Machiavellian principle that underpins modern liberalism, the notion that it is our Christian duty to confiscate other people’s money and redistribute it.At every turn in American politics since that time, you will find the hierarchy assisting the Democratic Party and promoting the growth of the administrative entitlements state. At no point have its members evidenced any concern for sustaining limited government and protecting the rights of individuals. It did not cross the minds of these prelates that the liberty of conscience which they had grown to cherish is part of a larger package, that the paternalistic state, which recognizes no legitimate limits on its power and scope, that they had embraced would someday turn on the Church and seek to dictate whom it chose to teach its doctrines and how, more generally, it would conduct its affairs.

I would submit that the bishops, nuns, and priests now screaming bloody murder have gotten what they asked for. The weapon that Barack Obama has directed at the Church was fashioned to a considerable degree by Catholic churchmen. They welcomed Obamacare. They encouraged Senators and Congressmen who professed to be Catholics to vote for it.

I do not mean to say that I would prefer that the bishops, nuns, and priests sit down and shut up. Barack Obama has once again done the friends of liberty a favor by forcing the friends of the administrative entitlements state to contemplate what they have wrought. Whether those brought up on the heresy that public provision is akin to charity will prove capable of thinking through what they have done remains unclear. But there is now a chance that this will take place, and there was a time, long ago, to be sure, but for an institution with the longevity possessed by the Catholic Church long ago was just yesterday, when the Church played an honorable role in hemming in the authority of magistrates and in promoting not only its own liberty as an institution but that of others similarly intent on managing their own affairs as individuals and as members of subpolitical communities.

In my lifetime, to my increasing regret, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has lost much of its moral authority. It has done so largely because it has subordinated its teaching of Catholic moral doctrine to its ambitions regarding an expansion of the administrative entitlements state. In 1973, when the Supreme Court made its decision in Roe v. Wade, had the bishops, priests, and nuns screamed bloody murder and declared war, as they have recently done, the decision would have been reversed. Instead, under the leadership of Joseph Bernardin, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Chicago, they asserted that the social teaching of the Church was a “seamless garment,” and they treated abortion as one concern among many. 


There is more at the link, all worth reading, and pretty forthright in its condemnation of the Catholic church leadership’s “deal with the devil,” that is, its deal with the powers of the state.  Basically, it failed to render unto God what is God’s, and gave way too much away to Caesar, and was aided in this by liberal Christians of all stripes.

Sep 06 2011

An Open Letter to a College Freshman (but it really works for any university or college student, at any kind of school)

Category: church,higher education,religion,societyharmonicminer @ 10:56 am

In Timothy Dalrymple’s An Open Letter to a College Freshman, he gives advice that is good for Christian students entering secular colleges and universities. Surprisingly, however, much of this advice is likely to apply to incoming students at Christian colleges and universities, too, where it isn’t always so clear who is and who is not teaching from a Christian world-view, nor who really believes and practices the faith that presumably underlies the institution’s mission.


At last your time has come.  Leaving behind the old world and the deep ruts you carved in the corner of that world that belonged to you, you’re off to explore undiscovered countries, to join a new and ever-replenishing society of fascinating people and learned scholars and impassioned artists and driven achievers, off to a place where the world is new and so are you.  Whether or not your college years will be “the best years of your life,” they will almost certainly be among the most transformative.

The question is whether that transformation will be for the better.  Unmoored from the people and places that once defined you, you’ll feel a fluidity in your identity that’s both thrilling and frightening.  You may feel as though you can be anyone and become anything.  I pray that you will become who you are — the individual you most truly and deeply are, the one God dreamt of when he made you — and not the person that you or your parents or your friends think you should be.  In service to that end, I thought I would offer seven pieces of advice.  Though it feels churlish to say so, I offer this advice on the basis of some personal experience — more than many and less than some, with four undergraduate years at Stanford, three at Princeton Seminary and seven at Harvard for my Ph.D.  I did a fair amount of teaching, came to know many professors well, and spent time too at universities overseas.  So, on the basis of those experiences, here are my thoughts:

1.  Seek wisdom, not merely intelligence. My father shared this advice with me before my departure for Stanford, and he was precisely right.  On a university campus, intelligence is common.  Wisdom is rare.  Intelligence is cheap, because it’s inherited freely; wisdom is of inestimable value because it’s gained through suffering and sacrifice and years of hard study and experience.  Every night at Stanford I watched the most intelligent people doing the most foolish of deeds, chasing after the most worthless of goals, and believing the most baseless of things.  Their intelligence did nothing to make them more loving or joyful or genuine.  In fact, in many cases it led them astray, as they came to worship their own intellectual powers along with the admiration and accolades and material consolations they could win.  They became immune to criticism, self-indulgent, and chasers of intellectual fashions.  When you love the reputation of intelligence, then you will do and believe those things that will sustain that reputation.  Intelligence does not make you more likely to do what is right or believe what is true.  This is why it’s important to…

2.  Seek mentors, not merely teachers. Intelligent people are dazzling and engaging — and a dime a dozen.  The fascination wears off.  Colleges and universities are replete with intelligent fools, because academia worships the intelligent.  You should know better.  Seek out people of wisdom.  The wise are harder to find because they are fewer and they do not advertise their wisdom (they may not recognize it as such).  Intelligence, like physical strength, is a morally neutral capacity that can be bent in any direction, and it’s most often bent in the direction of personal advancement.  Wisdom’s native movement is toward the true, the good and the beautiful.  So darken the doors of many professors, and return most often to those professors — whether or not they’re the most renowned or powerful — who have true wisdom to impart.  But bear in mind that those who teach you the most, your true mentors, may not be professors at all.  They may be staff, coaches, campus ministers, and especially your friends.  Invest in these relationships.  These are the people who will guide you through the many — and there will be many — difficult and consequential decisions you’ll face in these years.  For pragmatic, social and spiritual reasons, invest deeply in a handful of relationships that you will intentionally pursue for the rest of your life.  It’s better to come away from college with five true friends and mentors than with fifty playmates you’ll barely recognize at the tenth reunion.  In this way you will…

3.  Seek the truth, not merely prevailing opinion. All too often, universities, especially elite research institutions, reward intelligence more than wisdom and the fashionable argument over the solid one.  The reasons are simple — and important to understand.  Publication is the route to academic prestige.  Hiring and tenure decisions at research universities are overwhelmingly influenced by publications.  Yet publishers are not looking for what’s true; they’re looking for what sells.  If you want to publish in the most respected journals and presses, if you want to become a shining academic celebrity, then the question is not whether your contention is true — the truth is old, boring and probably oppressive — but whether your contention is new, provocative, and flattering to the vanities and affirming of the politics of the academic establishment.  The problem is, most true things have already been explained and defended well; but in order to make your name as a scholar, you have to publish and push the envelope, which means you have to explain and defend new theses.  So there’s an intrinsic bias within the academic system toward the novel and the sensational, toward that which challenges tradition.  While young scholars do have to marshal the evidence and argumentation, the truth is that the arguments that tear down the outmoded and ‘oppressive’ — the arguments that lead to the politically correct conclusions — are held to a far lesser standard.  Older, more established scholars scarcely have to advance an argument at all; they coast on the reputations they established in their youth and they’re rarely challenged as long as they fight on the side of the preferred causes.

Appreciate your professors and learn what you can from them, but do not venerate them and do not view them as the tribunes of the truth.  Sadly, the better I came to know my professors, the less their opinions swayed me.  For some I still have the utmost respect.  Yet it became clear that some were constructing elaborate defenses for the things they had long ago determined to believe and do.  More than a few had left their faith in their youth, and had devoted their scholarly careers to justifying that decision.  Many were world-renowned for their intelligence and learning; many were wonderful human beings; some were wise.  Yet academics, no less than other human beings, are swayed by their desires, their fears, their biases, and especially the latest trends sweeping through the halls of academe.  The best professors are no smarter than the best doctors, the best lawyers, the best business executives, and so on.  Many have led sheltered lives with limited forms of social interaction, and they can be, at times, astonishingly insecure and socially under-developed.  So as any true academic should tell you: listen to your professors’ views, take them seriously, but never take their word for gospel.  They, like the rest of us, are limited, biased, sometimes immature, often selfish, fallible creatures.

4.  Seek answers, not merely questions. You may hear the opposite in the freshman orientation process.  ”It’s not the answers but the questions that matter,” they might say, “not the verities but the inquiries, not the destination but the journey.”  Yes and no.  The faculty certainly want you to question the views with which you were raised, especially when they do not agree with those views.  When I was teaching, it was commonly said amongst my colleagues that the purpose of our instruction is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar.  Our aim, in other words, is to cause young people to see how dubious and arbitrary are the moral, political and religious beliefs with which they were raised, and how sensible and compelling the beliefs of others could be.  Of course, this was not applied evenly.  If you were a liberal pluralist, then you had no oppressive, exclusivist, intolerant and irrational beliefs from which you had to be disabused.  And if you were a conservative Muslim, then the religious studies faculty would stumble all over themselves to defend your perspective.  If you are a conservative (white) Christian, however, then your parents are a part of the problem, and, for your sake and the sake of the world around you, you have to be liberated from the bonds of prejudice and ignorance.  Thus we had professors who promised the students at the outset of a year-long course that any Christians in the lecture hall would lose their faith by the end of the year, or who scoffed that “God is dead beneath my feet,” or who verbally high-fived their fellow faculty when they provoked evangelicals into crises of faith.  This is important to remember: if you are a conservative Christian of one stripe or another, many professors will view your loss of faith as a good thing for you, and an accomplishment for them.

And there is value, to be sure, in critically examining the beliefs with which you were raised.  Your faith may never truly be your own otherwise.  However, you should resist the advice simply to “rest with the questions” and “grow comfortable with ambiguity.”  Grow comfortable with complexity, yes, and with a proper humility over the things we can know and the things we cannot.  But compelling, reasonable answers are out there.  When I began what became a decade-long study of atheism, my faith was cast into question.  I believed that I had been initiated into mysteries that other Christians had not, that I had come across criticisms of the Christian faith that few if any Christians had heard or addressed.  After all, no one at my home church had read Hume or Voltaire, Nietzsche or Russell.  Yet this, of course, was rubbish.  The more I investigated the matter, the more I discovered that, of course, countless thousands of exceptionally intelligent Christians have read Feuerbach and Freud and Russell and Rorty — and not only read them, but developed very satisfying responses to their critiques of Christianity.  The problem arises when you pit a university course criticizing Christian beliefs against an immature, unlearned, Sunday School faith.  Just as you educate yourself (if and when you do) on the criticisms of your beliefs, you should educate yourself on how your faith community has responded to those criticisms.  Men and women of profound Christian faith and extraordinary intelligence and wisdom have been responding to criticisms of Christian belief for as long as the Christian church has been in existence.  Today there is no field — from biology and physics to philosophy and biblical studies — where there are not committed believers who stand amongst the most accomplished in their fields and stand ready to explain how they see their faith in light of their expertise.

This deserves stress for students at Christian universities, as well, who are often being taught be faculty whose own experiences at secular institutions have damaged their faith.  There ARE excellent answers to the most penetrating criticisms of Christian faith, and it’s unfortunate that many Christian university faculty members do not know them.  So if you, as student at a Christian college or university, have the impression that some faculty are trying harder to move you out of your Sunday School ways of thinking than they are trying to point you to deep Christian thinkers who don’t need to take an intellectual backseat to anybody, you should do your own research into the subject.  Don’t assume that your professor (who may well have been taught a post-modern perspective on truth in a grad program somewhere) is the fount of all wisdom, just because his vocabulary may be larger than yours, or because he can quote obscure (to you) authors who challenge orthodox Christianity.  Be assured: there are plenty of brilliant people, widely and deeply read, careful and honest thinkers, who have answers to the toughest questions anyone can throw at them about the faith.  Seek those writers out.

5.  Seek betterment, not merely achievement. On the one hand, it’s never quite true that you can “reinvent yourself”; you do, after all, bring yourself with you wherever you go, along with your habits and predispositions, your wounds and weaknesses.  But the transition to college offers extraordinary opportunities to improve your character and enrich your personality.  Commit, for your first year, to try something new every week.  Go to a Taiko concert, write a piece for the school newspaper, watch an obscure foreign film, sign up for that sailing (or golf or Swahili or classical guitar) class, attend that public lecture (public lectures are among the most powerful and the most underutilized resources you can tap at college), go bungee jumping or apply for overseas study in Europe or a research trip to the Amazon.  Countless students can attest that the most important things they did in college took place outside the classroom.  If you’re faithful with your classes, you’ll receive your education and training.  But if you’re faithful with the other opportunities college affords you, your horizons, your sensibilities, your sense of yourself and your world will expand exponentially.

The important corollary here is that you should not do those things that diminish you or enslave you to addictions.  No decision is isolated.  The decisions you make in these years will form patterns and momentum for the decisions you’ll make for decades to come.  If you throw yourself into drinking or drugs or even the addictive pursuit of love and sex, you may awaken four years later and find that you’ve squandered your opportunities and wasted your potential.  Envision the person you want to be, the person you believe you are called to be, and start being that person.  And start now.  One of the biggest mistakes college students make is thinking that their college years are a pause from “real life” or a waiting room set apart from “the real world.”  Your older friends or siblings do you no favors when they act as though you do not inhabit the real world.  Yes, you inhabit a particular sphere with its own rules and protections, but you are called to be who you are today, to begin today the habits you want to keep tomorrow — for who you are in the next four years will have an immense impact on who you are for the next four decades.

6.  Seek fellowship, not merely friends. I’ll keep this short.  The best and most important part of my Stanford experience, by far, was the Christian fellowship to which I belonged.  It’s a great joy to be surrounded by people your age, people like yourself, who love God and seek to live their lives according to his Word.  The most significant training I’ve ever received for ministry or for Christian living came through that fellowship world.  The friendships I’ve maintained in the thirteen years since graduation are virtually all from that fellowship.  We played and worked, prayed and worshipped, served and ministered shoulder to shoulder — on campus, in the inner cities, around the country and around the world.  The fellowships also introduced me to remarkable Christian women.  One beautiful relationship ended with pain and regret.  Another led to a beautiful marriage.

7.  Finally, seek first the kingdom and righteousness of God. Plunge deeply into the life of the mind, and savor the beauty and the rhythms and richness of the scholarly life.  Immerse yourself in friendship and fellowship and commit to learn from one another.  Enjoy the sports contests and the public lectures and study abroad.  Explore all the idiosyncrasies of your school and community, the traditions and hidden treasures.  And learn how to love and be loved by a significant other.  You will change majors and change jobs and change careers many times before your professional life is through.  That’s fine.  And you will go through your romantic ups and downs.  That’s fine too.

Just make sure you major in the majors and minor in the minors.  Remember your first love, remember who is the Way and the Truth and the Life, seek him, and the rest will work itself out.  ”Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4).  ”In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).  Whether your college years bring you hardship and misfortune or flourishing and joy, or more likely both, seek God through it all.  Probably the most important thing I learned in my college years came when I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident, and I learned in truth that nothing could separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38).  God’s gracious communion is the one thing needful.  No matter what else might be taken from you, if you have that, then you have enough and more than enough.  The goods of the world will come and go.  Yet the peace and the joy of your fellowship with God through faith in Jesus Christ will endure forever.

Live for that fellowship, live in it, and live out of it.  In the end, the rest are details.


Your Friend


Sep 03 2011

“Studies show”… not much

Category: church,media,religion,societyharmonicminer @ 12:25 pm

I have attended too many workshops where hand-wringing fear mongers tell us, based on research by the Barna Group (their book is UnChristian) and some others, that young people aren’t staying in the faith they were taught as children, that young people don’t care much about the moral status of people living “the gay lifestyle,” that other social issues like abortion aren’t such a big deal to today’s youth, that what young people of today really care about is taking care of the poor and downtrodden, and that they are less concerned about future salvation than the coming of the earthly kingdom of heaven when the lion will lay down with the metaphorical lamb, we won’t teach war no more, and everyone will be equally rich (or poor).  Oh, they don’t always say it in quite that way….  but the clear message is this:  stop emphasizing the “social issues” (read, traditional morality) or you’ll lose the young people to the secular ethos of the day.  This line of thinking is especially popular with the “emerging church” or “emergent church” or “emerging conversation” people, those folks who don’t think words really mean all that much, but want us to be sure and use the right words to describe them.

Assuming the best of intentions on the part of these people, the net message seems to be that if we don’t follow their prescription (stop emphasizing traditional morality as a linchpin of Christian teaching) we’ll lose them to people who don’t believe in traditional morality anyway.

The data on which this is based is largely “social science survey” data….  which phrase should be enough to make anyone suspicious of too-sweeping conclusions.  We all know how this works:  the way you ask the questions, the people of whom you ask them, and the way you decide to draw lines in your demographic group in order to categorize people, are all pretty subjective.  I’m not saying that social science of this sort is impossible.  I’m saying that it’s really hard to do, and requires replication both by people using similar methods and ALSO by people using different methods aimed at digging out the same information, before it’s all that reliable.

Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson tell us in Religion and the Bad News Bearers that the reports of the demise of youthful interest in the faith of their fathers may be exaggerated.

The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation—even though it was a false alarm.

Surveys always find that younger people are less likely to attend church, yet this has never resulted in the decline of the churches. It merely reflects the fact that, having left home, many single young adults choose to sleep in on Sunday mornings.

Once they marry, though, and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover. Unfortunately, because the press tends not to publicize this correction, many church leaders continue unnecessarily fretting about regaining the lost young people.

In similar fashion, major media hailed another Barna report that young evangelicals are increasingly embracing liberal politics. But only religious periodicals carried the news that national surveys offer no support for this claim, and that younger evangelicals actually remain as conservative as their parents.

Given this track record, it was no surprise this month to see the prominent headlines announcing another finding from Barna that American women are rapidly falling away from religion. The basis for this was a comparison between a poll they conducted in 1991 and one they conducted in January of this year.

The reporters who ran with this story ought to have wondered why this change wasn’t picked up sooner if it was going on for 20 years. Many national surveys have been conducted during this period—in fact the Barna Group has been doing them all along. Did the organization check to see if its new results were consistent with its own previous data or with the many other national surveys widely available? There is no sign that it did. If it had, it would have found that its findings about women are as unfounded as previous claims about young people deserting the church and young evangelicals becoming liberals.

Barna reported in 2010 that about 40% of both men and women read the Bible during a typical week, as female weekly Bible-reading had fallen from 50% in 1991. By contrast, the 2007 Baylor national religion survey found that 29% of men and 40% of women read the Bible about weekly. The statistic for women is consistent with Barna’s reported findings, but the findings for men differ greatly.

The Baylor findings were in full agreement with the results of a 2000 Gallup Poll finding that 29% of men and 43% of women were weekly Bible-readers. This, in turn, was consistent with a 1988 study by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC), which found that 25% of men and 39% of women were weekly readers. If the Barna claim about a major decline in women’s Bible-reading is true, it must have happened in the past three years. This is quite unlikely, given the remarkable stability of the statistics over the past several decades.

As for the supposed decline in female church attendance, the best data come from the NORC, which has conducted annual surveys since 1972. Across 38 years, there have been only small variations in church attendance, and Barna’s reported 11 percentage-point decline in women’s church attendance (to 44% from 55%) simply didn’t happen. Nor has the gender gap narrowed. In 1991, according to NORC data, 38% of women and 28% of men said they attended weekly. In 2002, 36% of women and 24% of men attended weekly. In 2008, 36% of women and 25% of men attended weekly, and in 2010 it was 34% of women and 25% of men.

Finally, the Baylor data show that in 2007, 38% of women, compared with 26% of men, described themselves as “very religious.” So the gender gap—which holds for every religion in every nation around the globe—remains alive and well in America, just as it has for decades. As for media-hyped studies about religion, one should always beware of bad news bearers.

In a follow up post, I’ll have some more comments about this.

Jul 13 2011

The laity

Category: churchharmonicminer @ 7:00 pm

I participated in a weekend retreat recently that was run entirely by “the laity,” even though there were a couple of members of the clergy in attendance now and then.

As I considered it, I was reminded that it really is the laity, more than the clergy, that “keeps the church going.”

Yes, we need clergy, ministers, priests, pastors, whatever you call them at your church. But faithful, competent, committed, and unselfish lay leadership is harder to find than professional “people of the cloth,” or so it seems to me.

Consider the training required, just to begin. A typical minister, pastor, or priest may enter service at the age of 25 or so, after a mere few years of training. Yet, such a person, even with the same training but not in a professional role in a church he or she attends, can rarely be selected as a board member of a church, let alone for a major lay leadership role in that church, other than maybe high school Sunday school teacher. How many under-40 chairs of church boards do you know?

You don’t get to be a lay leader by getting formal education, although having some certainly doesn’t hurt. You become a lay leader by first serving in small roles, and gradually widening your scope of leadership, while building trust in your church. That takes time, often more time than it takes to get a ministerial degree. And, as already mentioned, churches seem far more willing to accept quite young ministers who have degrees but not much experience, than to accept board members of the same age, let alone chairs of church boards.

There is a sense in which lay leaders of the church function in a role similar to that of non-commissioned officers in the military. Sure, you can get to be a lieutenant in a mere four years or so, and at the tender of 22 find yourself in command of 30-something NCOs with vastly more experience and practical training than you got from the academy, Officers Candidate School or ROTC. But if you’re a half-smart young officer, you listen very closely to the advice your NCOs give you, and you understand that even though the final responsibility for your unit lies with you, those more experienced NCOs can save you with their insight and specific knowledge. Hopefully, those NCOs have the wit to respectfully communicate their wisdom to you while simultaneously building your confidence in both yourself and them.

Most military organizations could lose a majority of their commissioned officers and still function, until they were gradually replaced, even if such replacement involved simple promotion out of the ranks. On the other hand, if most of the experienced NCOs are lost from a military unit, commissioned officers usually can’t keep it together even with the best efforts from the ranks. They literally just don’t know enough, unless they came up through the ranks themselves, and even then, they can’t be everywhere at once, even if they can function effectively as substitute NCOs.

Thus it is in the church. The lay leaders are the glue that keeps it all together, and the sine qua non of a healthy church. Often, they are in the role they’re in partly out of successful service to a previous pastor, who selected them, so to speak. But lay leaders can seldom stay in the role without the support of the wider church body, and therein lies their value to clergy. Simply put, they know things, and they are influential. A pastor who can’t sell a big idea to the chair of the board needs to either reconsider the idea, or consider moving to a new church, but he can seldom hope to move the idea forward without lay support. And clergy who have tried to get chairs of boards replaced have many sad tales to tell.

This means, to me, that all of the responsibilities that the scripture lays on leadership of the church apply every bit as powerfully to lay leaders as to clergy. Faithfulness, transparency, humility, and willingness to defer are critical characteristics for lay leaders. Selfish motivations, personal animus of any kind, resentment of any kind, jealousy, and insistence on personal prerogative will be the death of effective leadership, even though the “leadership” may last a lot longer than its effectiveness.

Lay leaders don’t have to be perfect, thankfully. Who is? But they do need to be open to correction, both from church members and from the clergy, and they need to examine themselves for less than ideal motivations at all times. In some ways, they have more power than clergy, and with that power comes responsibility, along with the temptation to believe that they are the church in some special way, and perhaps that the church owes them something it doesn’t owe other members.

Thank God for people who are willing to serve, who seek His guidance and wisdom, and who aren’t in it for anything but the furtherance of the Kingdom.

Jul 10 2011

God, Christians and politics

Category: church,God,government,legislation,politics,society,theologyharmonicminer @ 8:39 pm

This is just a bit of an excellent article that I commend to you on Government and God’s People

I want to be careful not to make policy pronouncements on specific issues that the Bible does not address. I think sometimes Christians simply have to make decisions based on the results of one policy or another. People can evaluate the factual data in the world in different ways; evaluating the results of different tax policies and things like that. However, on unemployment, there are at least two principles that come into play. One is that we are to care for the poor and those in need, and the Bible frequently talks about the need to care for the poor. I think government has a legitimate role in providing a safety net for those who are in genuine need of food, clothing and shelter.

There is also a strong strand of biblical teaching that emphasizes the importance of work to earn a living. Paul commands people to work with their own hands and gain the respect of outsiders, be dependent on no one. He says if anyone will not work, he should not eat. In the book of Proverbs, it says a worker’s appetite works for him. The longer that unemployment benefits are continued, the more we contribute to the idea that some people should not have to work in order to earn a living, but we should just continue to have government support them. That creates a culture of dependency, which is unhealthy for the nation and unhealthy for the people who are dependent, year after year, on government handouts.

In the book The Battle, Arthur Brooks says that what people need is not money, but “earned success.” The example that comes to my mind is a student at the seminary here who told me that a number of years ago, he had been in jail. He was arrested for the sale of drugs and other crimes, and his life was just a mess. Later, he finally got a job at a fast food restaurant and one day his manager told him he was doing a good job of keeping the French fries hot. All of a sudden, this young man had a sense of “earned success.” That is, he was doing well at something and he felt great about it and it spurred him on to work harder, to seek to receive more managerial responsibility at the fast food restaurant, and now he is a straight-A student at the seminary and has had a number of years of successful Christian ministry already.

So we need to be asking the important questions about how we can we get the economy growing so that more jobs are available.

Mar 24 2011

ABC Pilot “Good Christian Bitches” Mocks Christians

Category: church,religionamuzikman @ 6:38 pm

I welcome back to the blog my daughter who has written this piece for her university newspaper.  I think her point is well taken.  Insert ANY other faith in the title and imagine the outrage…

Posted by Embowlee

Imagine this. You’re relaxing on your couch, channel surfing, and you come across a show titled “Good Christian Bitches.” Does this alarm you at all? Are you offended? I promise I’m not making this up. After running the pilot episode in March, ABC may air the controversial show sometime in its 2011 TV lineup.

While it may have the intention of poking fun at Christian circles, as Christians form the bulk of ABC’s viewers, in actuality it scornfully mocks Christians.

I’m not sure what I think is crazier—the fact that someone would title anything with both the word Christian and the word bitches in the same sentence, or the fact that ABC would even consider airing a show like this.

The very fact that a show like this exists makes me wonder if ABC is attempting to shed light on a perception or even a reality of Christians today. If that’s the case, this show could give Christians a valuable look into the way people view them. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that this is just an attempt for Christians to indulge in a little self-deprecation.

When I heard the title, I struggled with conjuring up any sustainable storyline that this show could possibly center around.

I can tell you that the show portrays its main character, Amanda Vaughn, as a woman recently divorced who travels back to her hometown looking for a fresh start. There she encounters her old friends—with whom she had burned some bridges—who they set out to destroy her reputation by any means necessary. Then, in the midst of all the maliciousness, Amanda turns to those who love her and sticks to her faith.

Sounds like an award-winning show to me!

Not only is the plot completely unoriginal and predictable, it seems to have a striking similarity to another show, also on ABC, called “Desperate Housewives,” in which the women are catty and wealthy. I’d say the only difference between the two is that “Good Christian Bitches” has women that are not only catty in their social lives, but also in the church setting.

Based off of the book “Good Christian Bitches,” author Kim Gatlin has a website advertising her book. On the web page, as plain as day, she says, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t let God get in the way of a good story!” As if that’s the major issue here—that God is getting in the way of a “good” story.

Now that we’re introduced to this controversial show, imagine this. Let’s replace the word Christian in the title with Muslim or even Jew. It’s still highly and unacceptably inappropriate, except the reality is, if Christian were replaced with any other religious faith, people everywhere would be furious about it, not just the religious group. It would literally become an international feud against the network. The fact of the matter is, though, ABC would never dream of airing a show like that!

So what is this supposed to insinuate about Christians? We face backlash on the daily, and are expected to continue to act as Christians. We’re taught to turn the other cheek, and to treat our neighbors as we would like to be treated, but this allows people to take full advantage of us. But again, this only makes me wonder about the perception of Christians that could lead ABC to want to create a show about it.

But is that to say that we just sit back and let the media portray us however they darn well please? For a very long time, the “b-word” has been used to degrade, humiliate and harass women. Put that together in the same literary line with the word Christian, and you have the world’s worst combination of words.

However, our culture seems to have normalized the word bitch, turning it into more of a slang word, which has caused many of us to become desensitized to it all together.

If this show does end up being aired, the odds of the title being changed is almost a sure thing, said Fox News writer Hollie McKay. However, that won’t change the fact that the show will be mocking people of faith.

Feb 08 2011

“Prosperity gospel” for Christian institutions? Part 2

The previous post in this series is here, and will help provide background for what follows.

There are many instances of people and groups who take risks for the gospel, do the unpopular thing, and God does bless them.But obvious worldly blessing is not a given.God has His own agenda and ways of doing things, and we cannot assume that our worldly success is due to God’s blessing, nor our difficulties evidence of our failure to seek God’s will and do it.Some missionaries are murdered, and martyrdom in Christ’s service did not end with the fall of the Roman Empire.Lesser difficulties also occur with some regularity, even in the modern world.

Yet how many boards and leaders of churches and para-church organizations proceed with the assumption that apparent worldly or financial success equals God’s blessing, with such a rigid conflation of the two that any policy which carries some attendant risk of worldly disapproval is assumed to be the wrong one? Consider the logic: if we are doing good, God will bless us in worldly ways. Therefore, we should not consider doing something that risks getting worldly disapproval, since if the world disapproves, by our benighted definition, God is not blessing us.

So how can we decide if we are making our decisions according to God’s plan, from a fully Christian worldview, or if we are simply doing what seems best to us, within our human expertise (and afflicted with human pride and desire for power), as we try to strengthen our organization or institution in a worldly sense?There is no way to know for sure, of course.

But one thing seems indicative.

If we find we are mostly making decisions from the point of view of what the world will think of us (not from the point of view of God’s will, God’s commands, God’s moral precepts, and Christ within and among us), even if we have great institutional and public success, even if we are doing some good, we are not doing what God desires of us. Christ’s way is one of sacrifice and risk-taking for the sake of the gospel, most particularly the risk of being misunderstood and vilified by those who do not know Him. This is true whether we are explaining His way to the world, or standing for the principles He taught.

I’ll be developing this idea further in subsequent posts.

The next post in this series is here.

Feb 07 2011

“Properity gospel” for Christian institutions?

Much is made of the centrality of sacrifice in the Christian life, and justifiably so. Christ’s own life on earth was one of individual sacrifice and service, and not only on the cross, though that is the preeminent example. Simply being incarnated was a sacrifice (Philippians 2:5-9), and his very manner of living was sacrificial, in that he never married and had a family but instead lived for others, took risks of many kinds at various times for the sake of doing his Father’s will and speaking the truth, and so on.

As individuals, we are all called to sacrifice in one way or another for the sake of Christ and the gospel, though it’s a mistake to assume that everyone should live sacrificially in the same ways. One may choose to live simply and have greater financial freedom to give more (though all should give some), another may choose to give greatly of time and service (though all should do this some), and another may choose a lifestyle of great self-denial of one kind or another (though all of us must deny ourselves in some ways), all for the sake of doing God’s will. Few are called to sacrifice all. What seems fairly clear is that a person who has sacrificed nothing, not time, not finances, not manner of living, is likely to be a person who is not listening to God’s whispers, and probably a person who has not closely read the scriptures.

Yet some churches and para-church organizations seem to operate as if it is God’s will for them never to suffer or risk suffering, and never to choose a path that is hard and uncertain, or one that is likely to earn some degree of disapproval from the world, especially the secular world. Some para-church organizations operate as if their leadership believes in a sort of “prosperity gospel” for their organization (even when they deny that as a proper perspective for individuals), assuming that their role is to manage their organization with the same professional risk management as they would apply for any secular organization. And this risk management is fine, up to a point.

The “prosperity gospel” approach to a church or para-church organization is that somehow it can just get bigger and bigger, more and more popular, and it will all be because of God’s blessing. This may work for a time. And God may indeed be blessing certain efforts of the institution, while at the same time some of the institution’s apparent success may be coming from “playing it safe,” maintaining “good public relations,” even innovative business practices and good luck with market demographics or placement. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for people in an organization, including its leadership, to really know what measure of an organization’s apparent success is due to God’s blessing of its efforts, and what proportion is due to good business practices, smooth marketing, or just plain good luck. The temptation, of course, is to ascribe all success to God’s blessing, especially in public pronouncements.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. The assumption that God will increase the institutional strength and vigor of any organization that is doing His will is itself evidence of “prosperity gospel” thinking, not scripturally sound thinking about the nature of sacrifice for Christians, and Christian organizations. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament and church history reveals many instances of people and groups (institutions) who appear to be following God’s commands, but who suffer in various ways, sometimes almost in a “no good deed goes unpunished” sort of way, which is of course, the intention of Satan. The point is that apparent prosperity in the world is not proof of God’s blessing. Indeed, it is a sort of heresy to assume so.

I will develop this line of thinking further in future posts.

The next post in this series is here.

Aug 01 2010

Emerging, or just merging?

Category: churchharmonicminer @ 1:46 pm

I have often thought that the “emergent church” or the “emerging conversation” reminds me an awfully lot of bull sessions in the dorm of my small Christian college in the late 1960s/early 1970s.  That is, provocative questions are asked in such a way as to imply that there are no good answers to them in the existing framework, and so something completely revolutionary is required, which should start with throwing out the bums who have been ruining everything.  In a post titled Emerging Church and Mainliners, Michael Kruse makes the point that to “mainline protestants”, whose groups are mostly shrinking in numbers, the emerging “post-orthodoxy” mixed with progressive perspectives is little different from the progressive and highly “non-judgmental” political/social orientations of the traditional mainstream left:

I’ve been saying for years that much of the emerging church in is simply Evangelicals embracing Mainline Protestant theology while experiencing reticence about Mainline institutions. While “emerging church” encompasses a broad range of expression, in the Mainline world it is almost monotone. Emerging Mainliners have little dispute with Mainline theology or the deep commitment to progressive/liberal politics. It is overwhelmingly about polity, structures, and frustration with lethargy. In this sense it is not truly post-evangelical and post-Mainline … that is … it is not truly emergent. The Mainline emerging church does not embrace the emerging church movement because it is something new but precisely because it dovetails so perfectly with their theological and political persuasions. And it really borders on comical to listen to some emerging church types describe the profound new reality that is emerging when in fact they are describing what Mainliners have been saying for decades. It is new and emerging to them only because their horizons have been so small.

At the PCUSA General Assembly this month, Landon Whitsitt, a pastor in my presbytery in the Kansas City metro (Heartland Presbytery) became vice-moderator for the denomination. On some issues I’m sure Landon and I are very different (for one thing, I don’t have a PCUSA tattoo on my forearm) but read what he said in a recent interview with columnist Bill Tammeus:

What can the Emergent Church Movement, which has come primarily out of the evangelical branch of the church, teach the Mainline churches? On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is that movement?

“I don’t know if ECM can ‘teach’ the Mainline anything, frankly. I have always kind of thought that the ECM is the vehicle that is dragging Evangelicalism into a form of faith similar to what the mainline churches experience.

“I’m sure they’d disagree, but, as an example, a lot of folks in the ECM are jazzed to the hilt about Walter Brueggemann right now. I’m so sick of Bureggemann after reading countless books during seminary. They love N.T. Wright. I’m not trying to be rude when I point out that those are Mainline folks.

“What the ECM challenges us on, however, is our creativity. We’ve gotten liturgically and politically lazy. No one wants to be a part of a bureaucratic institution anymore and no one wants to spend a hour on Sunday morning sitting through what is essentially a business meeting with some hymns. But ’emergence’ in general (a la Tickle): This is nothing short of our age’s Reformation. …

Landon is spot on. I’d also add that unlike some other segments of the ECM, within the Mainline, to be emerging is close to synonymous with being politically progressive in your cultural engagement. And in that sense, it feels to me very much like the emergence of a progressive tribalism that simply is a mirror of, say, Southern Baptist conservative tribalism. Whether all this is a good thing or bad thing is all dependent on your perspective I’m sure. But I don’t think it is emergent in the sense of coming a deep reassessment of what it means to be the church and of our engagement with the world. It is the extension of Mainline sensibilities with new modes of relating.

Here’s another way to put it. Much of the “emerging church” is essentially old-style liberal/leftism, dressed up with vaguely progressive sounding Bible verses.  Most of the emergent could listen to nearly any modern mainstream sermon or teaching, and agree, while being very comfortable with the progressive political inclinations of the mainstream churches.

Sadly, most of them don’t know this, because they’re too young to know better, and despite their pretended cosmopolitanism, many of them really don’t get out much, or read widely…  all while accusing traditional evangelical churches of “preaching to the choir.”

So, I have a simple recommendation:  instead of calling themselves the “emerging church”, they should just “merge” with the mainstream churches, their natural home.  They can do their post-modern thing without guilt, and in fact with great affirmation.  They can go to church with people who share their political/social orientations, aren’t bothered especially by legal abortion-on-demand or gay marriage, think the USA is the cause of evil in the world, and are skeptical of the evangelically understood plan for salvation (the one that mainline groups all used to believe, and strongly teach, i.e., the gospel).

The whole shebang should just become the “merging church.”  That might at least keep the dying mainliners alive for another couple of decades, as they celebrate their post-orthodoxy together.

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