Posts Tagged ‘Christianity Today’

“Gnostic distaste for embodiment”

June 27, 2013

So… Anything interesting in the news this week?

Christianity Today posted a must-read article from Andy Crouch yesterday whose main point I’ve argued for a while (though not nearly as well): that embodied sexual differentiation matters to God.

What unites the LGBTQIA coalition is a conviction that human beings are not created male and female in any essential or important way. What matters is not one’s body but one’s heart—the seat of human will and desire, which only its owner can know.

Christians will have to choose between two consistent positions. One, which we believe Christians who affirm gay and lesbian unions will ultimately have to embrace, is to say that embodied sexual differentiation is irrelevant—completely, thoroughly, totally irrelevant—to covenant faithfulness.

The proof text for this view will be that in Christ, there is neither male nor female. And as with all readings based on proof texts, upholding it will require openly discarding a vast expanse of other biblical material, the many biblical voices (including Jesus’) that affirm and elucidate the significance of male-and-female creation…

It is no accident that as normative sexuality has been redefined, from an essentially exterior reality uniting male and female bodies to an essentially interior reality expressing one’s heart, the charges of bigotry have been heard more fiercely against those who hold the traditional Christian view. How dare we Christians speak against any person’s heart?

As Crouch argues, one thing at stake in the question of gay marriage, theologically, is that matter matters:

For behind the dismissal of bodies is ultimately a gnostic distaste for embodiment in general. To uphold a biblical ethic on marriage is to affirm the sweeping scriptural witness—hardly a matter of a few isolated “thou shalt not” verses—that male and female together image God, that the creation of humanity as male and female is “very good,” and that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18, NRSV).

Sexual differentiation (along with its crucial outcome of children, who have a biological connection to two parents but are not mirror images of either one) is not an accident of evolution or a barrier to fulfillment. It is in fact the way God is imaged, and the way fruitfulness, diversity, and abundance are sustained in the world.

Crouch reminds us, however, that we Christians who affirm the traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality stand in solidarity with our LGBTQ neighbors in one important way:

All of us know, in the depths of our heart, that we are queer. Our yearnings, especially those bound up with our sexuality, are hardly ever fully satisfied by the biblical model of one man and one woman yoked together for life. Every one of us is a member of the coalition of human beings who feel out of place in our bodies east of Eden. And every one of us has fallen far short of honoring God and other human beings with our bodies.

It’s enough to preach Christ crucified

January 22, 2013

Unlike with several other episodes this season, the writers of last Saturday’s Saturday Night Live episode didn’t appear to have taken the week off. It was unusually funny, with the delightful Jennifer Lawrence as host. And the musical guest, the Lumineers, killed. The TV was still on as I was getting ready for bed—and there on my TV was none other than Andy Stanley.

I forget that he has a show on after SNL. Of course he does! How cool is that? How hip! What better way to reach the unchurched, his passion in life, than by catching them right after Saturday Night Live?

I’m trying not to be jealous.

I’ve said so many nice things about him recently—in the wake of my recent sermon inspired by his book Deep & Wide—that I forget that I’m not supposed to like him. As a United Methodist pastor, I’m supposed to complain that he “waters the gospel down,” that he compromises the message, that instead of offering the Good News, he offers the “news that you can use.” He hears this stuff from preachers like me all the time.

So there he is on TV, in front of a relatively large, young, post-SNL audience, talking about personal finance, credit cards, consumer debt… And I’m sure he’s giving good, practical advice—like he’s a regular Dave Ramsey.

Andy, you’re killing me!

First, he’s 50-something, and he looks like he’s 27. How is that possible? Second, while I fight the temptation to imagine that I have to compete with him on Sunday mornings, he constantly reminds me of how overmatched I’d be if I tried.

I don’t know jack about personal finance. Not only did I not take that class in seminary, seminary itself messed up my personal finances for years! So I would never feel qualified to preach about it.

I’m sure that Andy relates personal finance to the gospel in that clever, creative, and relevant way of his. Trust me: I’m only being a little snarky here. Andy’s approach works beautifully for him. My point is, I’m not him. I can’t be him.

I mostly only feel qualified to stick with the gospel—and the Cross. Even in the midst of last Sunday’s sermon, in which I related the prodigal son to Lance Armstrong, I had this to say about God’s grace:

Do you know why God has an infinite supply of grace? Because God—by coming into the world through Jesus Christ—has paid an infinite price for it: he’s paid for it with the gift of his own precious life! He didn’t have to, but he chose to out of love.

I’m always coming back around to the Cross. As Paul says, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19). To me, it’s the best news of all.

So preachers like me can take heart in this new article from Mark Galli in Christianity Today. He writes in response to the dust-up between Louie Giglio (an Andy Stanley friend and associate) and the political opponents who pressured him to step down from offering the benediction at yesterday’s Presidential inauguration.

Giglio got the gig in the first place because he’s mobilized so many young Americans against sex trafficking—a cause everyone can get behind. (And from the White House’s perspective, being associated with a popular, “friendly” evangelical leader is never a bad thing.) The gospel will rarely be so congruent with our culture as it is in the case of sex trafficking—which is also why Giglio ended up losing the gig: out of faithfulness to that same gospel, he preached a sermon many years ago against homosexual behavior.

David Kinnaman’s UnChristian signaled that many Christians have concluded the big problem is that the evangelical church has aligned itself on the wrong side of some social issues, or with social issues that have little or no cultural cachet—and thus they move to champion more popular social causes to win a hearing for the gospel. It would uncharitable and unfair to suggest that Giglio and his church have done this, but if other evangelicals are like me, it remains a temptation for any who have a heart to introduce Jesus to others. Sometimes it works, as Giglio’s invitation to pray suggests. But as a strategy, it will invariably backfire, no matter how much we try to hide our work on unpopular causes, as the fury against Giglio’s 20-year-old sermon illustrates. The degree to which we employ this approach merely as a tactic to gain a hearing is the degree to which we will eventually be spurned by the very people we hope to attract.

Galli says that we don’t need to gain a hearing with our culture by any means other than the Cross.

Need-driven preaching… communicates that Jesus is just another way to solve our problems. It is no wonder that the culture looks at us, pats us on the head, and says, “But we’ve found other, equally valid ways to solve our problems, thank you.” We tend to think that postmoderns have brought relativism down upon us, but it seems, we Christians have been the culprits the more we make our message about meeting people’s needs.

The most needful and difficult task of the church today is to again preach the message of the Cross, and to do so in a way that alarms, surprises, scandalizes, challenges, invigorates, and inspires a 21st century world. What that would look like exactly is hard to say; our theologians and pastors need to help us here. In the most general terms, it has to be about Christ first and last. It has to be about the Christ who came into the world not to improve generally good people, but to resurrect the dead, not to bolster our self-esteem but to forgive us, not to make people successful but to make them loving, not to win the culture but to establish a kingdom without end. Even more scandalously, the message of the Cross is about a universe saturated with grace, where nothing we have done or can do earns us the right to participate in this stunning new reality; all has been done for us. The best we can do is acknowledge the reality (faith) and begin to live as if it is reality (repent).

The current state of our preaching is driven by an admirable desire to show our age the relevance of the gospel. But our recent attempts have inadvertently turned that gospel into mere good advice—about sex, about social ethics, about how to live successfully. This either offends or bores our culture. A renewed focus on the Cross, articulated in a culturally intelligent way, is the only way forward. Some will be scandalized by it, others will call it foolishness, and yet some will cling to it as salvation. But at least everyone will be talking about that which is truly First and Last.

So my challenge as a preacher is not to look at some other preacher and wonder, “How can I do that?” Rather, I need to look at what I’m doing and wonder, “How can I do that better?”

Methodists believe in the doctrine of election, too

January 9, 2013

I recently referred to Francis Chan’s “nearly Pelagian”—what I could rightly call semi-Pelagian—”disregard of the role of God’s grace in sanctification.” As if on cue, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger Olson has an evenhanded article about different evangelical perspectives on election (full article behind subscription firewall) in the most recent Christianity Today, which includes a discussion of semi-Pelagianism.

He helpfully describes it with an illustration:

Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that human beings take the initiative in their salvation and service to God. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God’s service completely by ourselves, without prevenient (or necessary) grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines, and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible or irresistible, but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) Some years ago, a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to “reach up to God as far as you can, and then he’ll reach down and take you the rest of the way.” I call that “Touched by an Angel theology.” By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism.

Moreover, he calls semi-Pelagianism “arguably the default view of both salvation and service among American Christians, especially younger Christians. But all branches of Christianity have condemned it as heresy, because it completely contradicts Scripture.”

Did you read that? All branches of Christianity condemn semi-Pelagianism, including us Methodists. I emphasize this because, as Arminians, Methodists are sometimes accused of being semi-Pelagian by our Reformed brothers and sisters because we affirm a limited but (we believe) necessary role for free will in the process of salvation. As Olson writes,

According to Wesley’s essay “On Predestination,” faithfully following Arminius, election (predestination) means that “God foreknew those in every nation, who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.” He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by grace, because otherwise, “[I]f man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions.”

Free will, enabled by grace. Olson goes on to emphasize a point that can hardly be made loudly enough: “[W]hatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God’s work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.”

Christianity Today’s take on near-death experiences

December 6, 2012

ct_decemberIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I’ve softened my stance on near-death experiences. Like the most hardened philosophical materialist, I used to think that NDEs were merely ephemeral impulses of an oxygen-starved neocortex. I now believe that they are, in many cases, gifts from God that have some value for those of us who are interested in Christian apologetics.

Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, whose book-length response to Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins I recommended last year, shares my point of view. In this cover story, “Incredible Journeys,” he addresses the biggest obstacle that Christians face in accepting the validity of NDEs: What if the God revealed in these experiences isn’t quite like the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Because of these discrepancies, he writes,

many Christians dismiss them as mere hallucination or a deceptive work of the Devil. I, for one, find the latter unconvincing. In most cases, people who have had near-heaven experiences return to earth and give themselves in love and service of others. If the Devil is inspiring such godly work, he’s confused about his job description.

As for the cultural and theological anomalies: First, it is hardly surprising that people interpret their experience through a particular cultural or religious lens. What other way do they have to process what is happening to them? Besides, all who’ve had this experience acknowledge Neal’s point: Words are inadequate to describe what they saw and heard. They really have no choice but to try to describe what happened in the language of their time and culture, and it is no wonder that so many of the descriptions seem to be at odds.

As for the confused theology, we have to remember that those who experience these things are not theologians. We are not required to accept every one of their insights as dogmatic statements of received doctrine. What they experienced is, at best, the anteroom to heaven. We have no idea what happens after the initial 90 minutes or so, what their experience of God will be like, what will be revealed to them if they remain.

And we must guard ourselves against the Prodigal Son’s elder brother syndrome. Too many of us are troubled when non-Christians enjoy an overwhelming experience of unconditional love in NDES. I would hope that we would all hope that the God we preach is in fact the God of prodigals, and that he reveals himself to us while we are yet sinners, sometimes on earth, sometimes during NDES.

Galli, careful theologian that he is, deals with the chief theological problem I had with Todd Burpo’s Heaven is For Real: What about future bodily resurrection? Our ultimate Christian hope isn’t heaven when we die, but fully embodied life in a renewed world on the other side of resurrection.

Galli couldn’t agree more, but he identifies the pastoral challenge we face when talking about resurrection versus an immediate, intermediate state that begins when we die.

In general, when life-after-the-afterlife folks talk about this future state, the language gets global and the vision abstract. There is a lot of talk about how “justice will reign,” and “evil will be defeated.” There are sweeping statements about “the culmination of history” and “the coming reign of God” and “the renewal of the whole earth.” This is heady stuff, and, as stated above, true as true can be.

But it doesn’t always connect with the widow whose husband was struck by a fatal heart attack. It doesn’t always speak to the 10-year-old whose mother just died of cancer. It doesn’t necessarily help those who wrestle with a question that troubles millions: “What happens when I die?” Some of us (usually the highly educated among us) may be most interested in life after the afterlife, but most people in the pews are deeply concerned simply with the afterlife—the one that comes right after this one. Their highest existential priority is not that justice will reign in all the earth, but to hear some good news about “what will happen to me next.”

Truer words… Even N.T. Wright, who’s done more than anyone to bring the Church back to a fully orthodox and full-bodied understanding of resurrection, tends to get fuzzy on resurrection. If our biggest fear is death, which I believe it is, then it’s enough for most of us to know that there’s an afterlife, never mind life after that afterlife. The distinction between the intermediate state and resurrection just isn’t important to most people.

When it comes to NDEs, Galli gets to the heart of the matter with this conclusion:

Despite their varied accounts and sometimes confused theology, there are moments when it is apparent that many of these people have had a remarkable encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end, these are not so much near-death or near-heaven experiences, but, as a friend noted, near-God experiences. And when we see that people, even those who do not share our biblical assumptions, experience the God revealed in Jesus Christ—that is, the God of unconditional love—we cannot help but be thrilled and gratified. And to see it as an opportunity to talk about the full counsel of God.

Do I believe in evolution? It depends

November 20, 2012

Like Carolyn Arends, who wrote this thoughtful column on the subject in November’s Christianity Today, my view of the inspiration of scripture (shared by the United Methodist Church) does not require a literal six-day Creation. I don’t believe that scientific explanations for the origin of the universe and our place within it are at odds with a Christian understanding of Creation.

I also agree with Arends that arguing over the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 can become a rather depressing exercise in missing the point. The point is not to say how God created, but that he created and what it means. The genre of biblical literature matters:

[T]he Bible is not a book; it’s a library containing books of many different dates and genres. That’s why it’s not inconsistent to read Genesis 1 and 2 as an (inspired) ancient Near Eastern cosmology that poetically declares Yahweh to be the Creator, while reading the Gospels as (inspired) first-century, biographical-historical eyewitness accounts of events.

In other words, there’s no necessary relationship between rejecting a literal six-day Creation and denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As Arends points out, Genesis 1 and 2 are true and inspired, but not in the same way that New Testament accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are true. The difference is genre. Genesis 1 and 2 are true in the way that great poetry is true (but even more so because of the work of the Holy Spirit). As most of us know, poetry often speaks the truth more loudly and clearly than a dry recitation of historical (or scientific) facts.

Still, Arends rightly points out that “allowing the possibility of evolutionary creation is fraught with difficulty.” And she puts her finger on the biggest potential problem: that we have to distinguish “between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is).” In my view, it’s easy to underestimate the enormity of this problem—because science has a way of overstepping its authority without anyone noticing.

When someone asks me, for example, “Do you believe in evolution?” I have to ask them, “What do you mean by ‘believe in‘?” Do I believe in evolution in the sense that if evolution happened, then God didn’t also create the world and everything in it? Then, no, I don’t believe in it.

Often, the premise of the question is flawed: It says if evolution, then not God—as if God weren’t really transcendent, as if God were simply a bigger, stronger version of ourselves—one actor among others on this plane of cause-and-effect—as if God were in competition with his Creation.

If that’s what “believing in evolution” means, count me out. I reject the philosophical materialism that lies beneath the question. All Christians should, even those of us who have no theological objection to evolution per se.

First-world problems are still problems

November 9, 2012

In light of Paul’s words in Philippians 4:6 (“Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.”), I said yesterday that when it comes to prayer, we shouldn’t worry that our prayer requests and petitions are too trivial, too small, or too self-centered for God.

If our problems are big enough to make us worry, they’re big enough for God. We have a hard time believing this, however, and our prayer life suffers.

As if on cue, Christianity Today‘s Caryn Rivadeneira wrote a blog post illustrating the problem nicely. Last summer, after her power went out for several days, she voiced her frustration on Twitter. She said she was looking for “tea and sympathy.” Instead, her comment got slapped with a popular Twitter hashtag: #firstworldproblem. Here’s one of my favorite examples of a “#firstworldproblem”:

I can totally relate! For a few years, we had this same problem at my in-laws’ house. And we complained frequently!

The idea behind #firstworldproblem is probably a good one: We wealthy Westerners are spoiled. We have much to be thankful for. Often, we have the luxury of being bothered by things that the poor and oppressed of our world would love to be bothered by.

Indeed, #firstworldproblem has done much good in the way of helping us remember that no matter what challenges and heartaches we face, most of them seem quite small compared with the global problems that starve people of the most basic necessities of life. It’s a fun way to acknowledge our spoiled Western natures and catch ourselves mid-tantrum. #firstworldproblem is a lovely reminder that instead of mumbling and grumbling, we ought to be doing a bit more thanking.

But there’s a downside: If we look at every problem we face in light of the world’s Big Problems—like famine, disease, genocide, political oppression—then what right do any of us have to complain about anything? All our problems by comparison become small, petty, and selfish. In fact, they aren’t problems at all. And they’re hardly worthy subjects of prayer.

Suddenly, we’re back to kind of prayer perfectionism I complained about yesterday. And that can’t be right!

Read the whole article. She says makes the point better than me. But I especially like this part:

Sometimes our first-world problems are still problems enough to derail us—and not just when hurricanes hit. Sometimes even distress at not having chai or being sick of Chips A’hoy signals a deeper hunger that’s worthy of lament. Being too quick with the #firstworldproblem can communicate that nothing that happens in the first world is actually a problem. And that’s a problem, because it’s not true.

Jesus tells us that in this world, we will have troubles. Not just the poor among us, not just those in certain parts of the world. These words are not just the disenfranchised and the oppressed. They are words for us all.

“Calling all sin sinful”

July 19, 2012

There is an interesting debate happening at Christianity Today over some recent public remarks made by the president of Exodus International, an organization that supports gay Christians who seek to be faithful in their sex lives. In this thoughtful interview with The Atlantic, the president, Alan Chambers, said that Exodus is not about “curing” homosexuals of their sexual orientation—what the organization’s many secular critics often call “praying away the gay.” He said that “99.9” percent of the time, gay Christians will continue to struggle with same-sex attraction. He said,

We’re here to support people who are in conflict at the place where their attractions meet their faith… Our goal isn’t to snap our fingers and pretend those struggles don’t exist. But we have a conviction that same-sex sexual expression is incompatible with a healthy Christian sexual ethic. It’s not that we don’t have attractions. It’s just that we have a priority higher than our sexual orientation.

I don’t find these words controversial or surprising, especially given what I read and reflected on after reading Wesley Hill’s beautiful memoir about living as a celibate gay Christian. What landed Chambers in hot water, however, was his response when asked by the interviewer if he believes that a gay person “won’t go to hell, as long as he or she accepts Jesus Christ as personal savior?” He responded [emphasis mine]:

My personal belief is that everyone has the opportunity to know Christ, and that while behavior matters, those things don’t interrupt someone’s relationship with Christ. But that’s a touchy issue in the conservative group I run with. And there are definitely differing opinions on it. I don’t think you could even look at any one denomination and find that everyone believes exactly the same thing.

On the other hand, I do believe there is a right and wrong. I believe there is clarity on the issue of all sexuality in the Bible — on every aspect of it.

Let me say first of all that, if I were him, I wouldn’t have said it like that. (On the other hand, he was speaking extemporaneously to an interviewer who was likely unsympathetic with his views. Cut him some slack!) Of course any sinful behavior potentially “interrupts” our relationship with God. Forgiveness is available, but we need to repent and resolve to change by the Spirit’s power. The consequences of persistently failing to do so are spiritually dangerous. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben Witherington, a fellow Wesleyan and scholar who said this, in response to Chambers:

One cannot save one’s self by certain patterns of behavior but one can certainly impede or even destroy one’s relationship with God through sin whether moral or intellectual sin. God’s saving grace and forgiveness is not cheap grace, and it does not rule out such a possibility.

As Witherington rightly says, our salvation isn’t complete when we first receive justifying grace and new birth. It’s complete only on the other side of resurrection. Backsliding and falling away from saving faith, as Wesley warned, is a frightening possibility. To say the least, it isn’t pastorally helpful that increasingly loud voices within the church say, contrary to scripture, tradition, and reason, that homosexual behavior isn’t sinful. (I’ve obviously written and said a few things about that over the past several years.)

At the same time, however, I’m sympathetic with Chambers. He was asked, in so many words, if gay Christians who, unlike him, live in a same-sex, monogamous relationship are, as a result, going to hell. And he said, in so many words, no.

How is that not the correct answer? For one thing, we don’t get to say who does or doesn’t go to hell. God makes those decisions—which is fortunate for us. As even the curmudgeon Jonah well knew, God is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).

Also, Chambers is correct to discern, in this followup essay he wrote for CT, that many evangelical critics are singling out homosexual sin.

For anyone to point at one group of people with a certain set of proclivities and condemn them for those things while exonerating (or ignoring) another group with over proclivities is hypocritical and inconsistent. Can a believer persist in willful pride and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful alcoholism and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful gluttony and still inherit the kingdom of God? Can a believer persist in willful heterosexual pornography and still inherit the kingdom of God? If you aren’t consistently and regularly calling all sin sinful, and calling all people (including yourself) to holy living, then how can you do so for those living homosexually? And, if you are unwilling to pronounce the same eternal sanctions on all willful sinning believers as you do on the gay and lesbian willful sinner, how can you justify that?

His insight about “willful sinning believers” is, I think, on point. None of us Christians, I hope, wants to commit sin. But the fact is that we do sin, willfully or not, consciously or not. And we often excuse our own little sins—even sins like pride, which the Church has always identified as the chief sin. Sin is pervasive and it has great power to deceive us regarding the ways in which we commit it. The fact is that all of us will likely die with unconfessed sin for which we haven’t repented. To believe otherwise is to underestimate sin’s power.

Yet we Christians hope and believe that, in spite of our sin, we have a Savior whose suffering, death, and resurrection provide a way for all of us who call upon him to be saved.

Why don’t they wonder?

April 23, 2012

According to this recent survey, fewer Americans these days wonder about their answer to the famous evangelistic question, “If I were to die tonight, do I know for sure that I would go to heaven?” This brief article implies that Americans are less interested in eternal things than they used to be.

That could be true for all I know. Maybe it’s a natural consequence of living in an increasingly secular culture.

But not so fast. I do a lot of funerals in my job—most of them, in fact, for unchurched families who need a clergy person to solemnize their loved one’s funeral service. (I’m on a funeral director’s speed-dial.) I’m happy to do it. It’s easy work (which helps pay seminary student debt!) but also a good ministry opportunity that I take seriously.

I don’t know whether members of these grieving families ever wonder whether they’ll go to heaven when they die. But I don’t think I’ve met a person yet who has any doubts about their departed loved ones! See what I mean? Regardless whether the recently deceased person had ever professed the Christian faith, darkened the door of a church, or prayed, the bereaved seem extremely confident that their loved one is in heaven.

As a matter of professional pride, their confidence bothers me a little. It’s my job, after all, to know about eternal questions. We can only know for sure that we have eternal life through faith in Christ and his atoning work on the cross. If someone didn’t possess this faith in life, how can we know that they’re safely with God in death?

The implication of the article might be wrong: Maybe an increasing number of Americans presume upon the grace of a God who couldn’t possibly send anyone to hell. In which case, the church needs to work harder to shake their confidence.