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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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6 Times Worshipping Jesus Was Deadly (A Rejoinder to Rohr)

 

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In one of his popular meditations, Fr. Richard Rohr observes, “Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.” We’ve noted some of Rohr’s problematic false dichotomies before.  This one is also worth a bit of reflection because it turns out, whether one is in the 1st century or the 21st century, worship of Jesus might get you killed.

Here are six times (in no particular order) that worshipping Jesus cost Christians their lives:

1) Polycarp murdered while praying (155)

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was a 2nd century martyr and the subject of one of the most memorable martyrologies ever written.  As described by Catholic Online:

When he was tied up to be burned, Polycarp prayed, “Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, God of angels and powers, of the whole creation and of the whole race of the righteous who live in your sight, I bless you, for having made me worthy of this day and hour, I bless you, because I may have a part, along with the martyrs, in the chalice of your Christ, to resurrection in eternal life, resurrection both of soul and body in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received today, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, among those who are in you presence, as you have prepared and foretold and fulfilled, God who is faithful and true. For this and for all benefits I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be to you with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen.”

The fire was lit as Polycarp said Amen and then the eyewitnesses who reported said they saw a miracle. The fire burst up in an arch around Polycarp, the flames surrounding him like sails, and instead of being burned he seemed to glow like bread baking, or gold being melted in a furnace. When the captors saw he wasn’t being burned, they stabbed him. The blood that flowed put the fire out.

2) 19 Nigerian worshippers shot dead by Boko Haram (2012)

Christians in Nigeria have been brutally attacked for years.  This report came from the Christian News Wire on August 7, 2012:

Gunmen armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles surrounded a church in central Nigeria and opened fire during a Monday night worship service. According to the Associated Press report, the attackers killed 19 of the worshippers at Deeper Life Bible Church in the town of Otite in Kogi state, located 155 miles southwest of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

3) Iraqi Catholic church attack  (2010)

The Iraqi Christian population has been decimated in recent years.  Just one example of the violence Christian worshippers face came on October 31, 2010.  Terrorists entered a church during mass and eventually murdered dozens of Christians and others.  As described at Wikipedia,

Six suicide jihadis of a group formerly called Islamic State of Iraq attacked a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad during Sunday evening Mass, on 31 October 2010, and started killing the worshipers, saying they were sending the Christians to hell and themselves to heaven.

Hours later Iraqi commandos stormed the church, inducing the suicide jihadis to detonate their suicide vests. 58 worshipers, priests, policemen and bystanders were killed and 78 were wounded or maimed. World leaders and some Iraqi Sunni and Shi’ite imams condemned the massacre.

4) 21st Coptic martyr beheaded (2015)

In 2015, ISIL publicly martyred 20 Coptic Christians in Libya.  A twenty-first martyr was made on the spot coptic-martyrswhen, moved by the faith of the 20, he declared Jesus to be his God:

After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. It was later learned that the 21st martyr was named Mathew Ayairga and that he was from Chad. He was originally a non-Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be killed.

5) Becket slain while kneeling inside Canterbury (1170)

In one of the most significant events in the history of church-state relationships, the Archbishop of Canterbury was murdered while praying at the altar.  You can still visit this site today in the famous cathedral.  Accounts vary, but what follows is a basic account of what transpired:

The king’s exact words have been lost to history but his outrage inspired four knights to sail to England to rid the realm of this annoying prelate. They arrived at Canterbury during the afternoon of December 29 and immediately searched for the Archbishop. Becket fled to the Cathedral where a service was in progress. The knights found him at the altar, drew their swords and began hacking at their victim finally splitting his skull.

6) Romero shot at the altar (1980)

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Romero, courtesy J. Puig Reixach via Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop Oscar Romero spoke out against state violence in San Salvador and paid the ultimate price for it.  He was martyred at the altar preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, as described by Wikipedia:

Romero spent the day of 24 March 1980, the last day of his life, in a recollection organized by Opus Dei, a monthly gathering of priest friends led by Msgr. Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. On that day they reflected on the priesthood. That evening, Romero was fatally shot while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called “La Divina Providencia”, one day after a sermon in which he had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. As soon as he finished his sermon, Romero proceeded to the middle of the altar and was shot there.

Conclusion

These six examples are just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  Tertullian famously noted, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  Rohr is in many ways a gifted spiritual guide, but that does not make him infallible.  Claiming that worshipping Jesus is “harmless” might have a rhetorical punch, but it does not hold up to scrutiny and, even worse, dishonors the memory of scores of Christians who died simply because they were worshipping their Lord.

There has never been anything safe about worshipping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Until the Christ’s Kingdom is fully “on earth as it is in heaven,” we should not expect this situation to change. We’ll let Hebrews 11:32-38 (NRSV) have the last word:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

P.S. Should a rejoinder to Rohr be known as a Rohrjoinder? Let me know what you think.

What are other times people died for worshipping Jesus? Which martyrs especially speak to your journey with Christ? Leave a comment below!

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Christian Living & Christian Believing

sayersDisciples of Jesus are not allowed to choose between living the Christian life and believing Christian teaching.  This is, and always has been, a both/and, and not an either/or. To divorce Christian morality from Christian doctrine is to separate stem from root, or creek from ocean.  Decades ago, Dorothy Sayer made this observation:

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not now matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” (28)

To name just a few examples of how Christian morality and Christian dogma are intertwined:

  • Opposition to slavery is based on theological anthropology which views each person as a precious creature made in God’s image.
  • A belief in human freedom and autonomy is grounded in a God who is free, and a God who grants human beings free will.
  • Opposition to abortion and the death penalty are based in a vision of life as a sacred gift from God, who alone determines life and death.
  • A disdain for adultery and appreciation for marriage is finds its origin in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel and the Church, who alone is always faithful.

As Wheaton’s Beth Felker Jones recently put it, both “deeds and creeds” matter.  To choose between them is to miss the mark completely.  One way of viewing the 21st century West, in fact, is to see it as the attempt to prop up human rights and other ethical precepts derived from historic Christian commitments without any undergirding dogmatic claims.  The other temptation, to emphasize creeds and not care about deeds, is also not without its concerns.  This, per Professor Jones, is deeply flawed:

To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.

This false divide wreaks of what Kenda Creasy Dean and others have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief system unconciously followed by many Western young people in which a basic belief in decency and is combined with a vague sense of a distant God who simply wants us to be happy (in a happiness grounded in our own sense of flourishing, at that).  As Sayers later puts it, “you cannot have Christian principles without Christ.” (31)

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From the 1914 minutes of the NC Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. Personal Photo.

Earlier generations of Christians knew this to be the case.  Note the above picture from a 1914 journal of the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.  An elder is approved and ordained “so long as his life and doctrines” remain sound and in accord with the Bible.

Hear that? Life AND doctrine.  We are not permitted to choose. Deeds and creeds matter – because they are ultimately inseparable.

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Jesus, Hitler, & the Willfulness of Evil People

people-of-the-lieWhat do Jesus & Hitler have in common?

Contemporary Christians too often lack the resources to resist or even name evil.  I have learned from scripture, the desert fathers, and even the Harry Potter novels that evil must not be taken lightly.  A classic resource that many people, myself included, have found helpful is M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.

In an especially helpful section of chapter 3, Peck differentiates between the normal, even healthy, narcissism of functional adults and the “malignant narcissism” of the evil.  For the author the difference between these two kinds of narcissism is that the evil have “an unsubmitted will.”

He goes on to elaborate:

The reader will be struck by the extraordinary willfulness of evil people. They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way.  There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others […] Indeed, it is almost tempting to think that the problem of evil lies in the will itself. Perhaps the evil are born so inherently strong-willed that it is impossible for them ever to submit their will. Yet I think it is characteristic of all “great” people that they are extremely strong-willed – whether their greatness be for good or for evil. The strong will – the power and authority – of Jesus radiates from the Gospels, just as Hitler’s did from Mein Kampf. But Jesus’ will was that of his Father, and Hitler’s was that of his own. The crucial distinction is between “willingness and willfulness.” (78-79)

Jesus and Hitler: both people of conviction, of strong will. But ultimately Hitler’s will served nothing but his own maniacal ego, and Jesus’ will was forfeit to the Father. “Not my will, but yours be done,” as he prayed in Luke 22:42.

In mixed martial arts parlance  – and much to the chagrin of many Macho Jesus types – Jesus “tapped.” That is, he surrendered his own will out of obedience to the Father.  Though surely plagued by the desire to preserve himself from torment, as the heavily fictionalized Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ so aptly demonstrated, the Son of God ultimately submitted.

The malignant narcissist’s “unsubmitted” will, however, is precisely the opposite.  He or she desires the world to bend to their will.  All who refuse to submit must be destroyed, one way or the other.  This is evil unalloyed.

Submission is a nearly extinct virtue, not merely in today’s culture but even in the church who worships Christ as King and Lord.  Thomas a’ Kempis, the devout monk who left us one of the great devotional classics of all time in The Imitation of Christ, devotes a whole chapter (9) to obedience and submission.  Here we find this refreshingly counter-cultural wisdom:

There is greater security in living a life of submission than there is in exercising authority. Many live under obedience, more out of necessity than out of love of God, and they murmur and complain in their discontent. These will never achieve spiritual freedom until, for the love of God, they submit themselves with all their heart.

I can already hear the familiar litany of late-modern warnings against such archaic virtues. (Feel free to leave them in the comments section anyway.)

However unpopular in our day and untested in our experience, submission to God is the way of Christ, the narrow way that leads to life.  All else is the way to death, even if it be a wide and easy path that passes through Vanity Fair on the way.  In the end, there is only “Thy will be done” or “my will be done.”  And while a baptized willfullness is a recipe for sainthood, Peck’s “unsubmitted will” is little more than embryonic evil.

A prayer from the heart of the Wesleyan tradition brings this home beautifully. I’ll close with this prayer, used in Covenant Renewal and Watch Night services for centuries, in hopes that the embers of long-dormant virtues might be kindled in me and in my fellow disciples today.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

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Even Superman Has Limits: On Being Servants, Not Saviors

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Are pastors servants or saviors? Lately the quote on the left has been floating around, and it has irked me to no end.

Of course the sentiment is sweet, and God knows (literally) how much pastors and other caregivers need prayer, support, and a kind word on occasion.  The intent is beautiful.  But something about this particular quote has stuck in my craw ever since I first saw it posted.

I couldn’t name it until Batman v. Superman came out.

As you might have heard, BvS received mixed reviews. Fans sort of liked it, critics largely did not.  In its third week at the box office, it was beaten by a Melissa McCarthy movie that had little hype behind it and received even worse reviews!

[Warning: big spoilers follow!]

In lieu of this, BvS director Zack Snyder has already started to talk up the R-rated Director’s Cut that will be released, arguing that scenes cut for time and content will flesh out the characters and fill in some of the narrative gaps, both of which were complaints by many critics and fans alike.  In response to a specific question, about why Superman doesn’t save Martha himself at the end, he details one of those deleted scenes:

We had a scene that we cut from the movie where he tries to look for her when he finds out that Lex has got her…It was a slightly dark scene that we cut out because it sort of represented this dark side. Because when he was looking for his mom he heard all the cries of all the potential crimes going on in the city, you know when you look.

I kind of like the idea that he’s taught himself not to look because if he looks it’s just neverending, right? You have to know when, as Superman, when to intervene and when not to. Or not when not to, you can’t be everywhere at once, literally you can’t be everywhere at once, so he has to be really selective in a weird way about where he chooses to interfere.

Even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. Even Superman can’t be on duty all the time.  Even Superman needs a nap every now and then.

This pervasive mythology about pastors and other caring professions – that we are “on” all the time, that wenot how any of this works never get to take time off, that we are “never off duty” – is not only wrong, it is sinful.

Sabbath is not a command for all of those who are not professional religious types.

We do not cease to be creatures dependent on the Creator because part our vocation includes caring for others.

This lie has much to do with issues see related to clergy (and let’s also add counselors, nurses, and other caregivers).  It is a recipe for burnout and frustration.  Moreover, it is functionally agnostic, because it tells us we don’t really need time with God if we are doing stuff for God.

“Never” get to be off duty? “Never” get to have a normal schedule or punch out at 5?

This is evil.  And it is evil for us to live into these inhumane expectations and not challenge them among those we serve.  We are not Superman. Even Superman has a Fortress of Solitude where he is “off duty” and takes time away.

We are servants, not saviors.  Or, as a prayer attributed to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero says, we are ministers and not messiahs:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

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The Only Free Person: Jesus

Only truly free person who has have lived is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God.water and spirit

In the 21st century West, we tend to think of freedom negatively as freedom from: from constraint, morality, obligation, limitation.  Our icons are lone rangers like Rambo and the Marlboro Man.  One person against the world, without care, without accountability to anything outside (much less above) the self.  This is freedom as it is commonly spoken of today.  If you don’t believe it, ask 6 out of 10 millennials what their relationship status is or what they think about having children.

Jesus offers a different model of freedom altogether.

Jesus was free because he was obedient.  His liberty was based not in freedom from all outside constraint, but because his life was forfeit to the Father.  His was freedom for: for the Father, for his mission to Israel and the Gentiles, for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

Alexander Schmemann, reflecting on baptism in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, argues that the one who bows is the only one who is free:

And how truly noble, truly human and genuinely free are those who still know what it means to bow before the High and the Holy, the True and the Beautiful, who know what reverence and respect are; who know that bowing down before God is the true condition of freedom and dignity. Indeed Christ is the one truly free man, because He was obedient to His Father to the end and did nothing but the Father’s will. To join the Church alway has meant to enter into Christ’s obedience and to find it the truly divine freedom of man. (Of Water and the Spirit, 34)

To be a Christian, a member of the body of Christ, is to participate in “Christ’s obedience” and discover that true freedom is to incandescent with God’s grace. “He must increase, and I must decrease” is not a figure of speech, it is the via salutis (way of salvation). (John 3:30)

The radical call of the gospel is that any other freedom is merely shadow and illusion.  In bowing before our Creator, we discover the only freedom that is not self-negating, because we are imitating the one truly free person.

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No One is Scared of Nonviolence

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Why are we so quick to ascribe fear to our opponents in an argument?

Disagreeing with something, finding its logic faulty, asking questions, or generally thinking something may be unwise is not tantamount to fear.  This is a silly rhetorical device designed to empower whomever is deploying it, indicative of a kind of childish fantasy: if “they” are afraid of something of which I am in favor, or of me, or something I represent, I cause fear. Ergo, I have power over them.

But of course, disagreement is not of necessity based on fear.

I have in view a recent piece by Michael Hidalgo over at Relevant titillatingly titled, “Why Are So Many Christians Scared of Nonviolence?”

The author offers this overwrought opening salvo:

“There is something that terrifies and angers many Christians even more than the threat of violence: nonviolence.”

Christians of intelligence, good will, and deep faith actually do disagree on this.

Christians of intelligence, good will, and sincere faith actually do disagree on these matters.

The author prooftexts some of the early fathers to good effect, rehashing the usual arguments from Christian pacifists.  It’s not so much an original offering as a summation.  For what it’s worth, I should note that I respect the position and appreciate much of the literature it has produced.  I went to seminary at Duke Divinity School, and many of my teachers and fellow students were (and remain) ardent advocates of nonviolence.  I took Stanley Hauerwas my first semester and wrestled with these questions for the duration of my time in seminary, and in subsequent study.  I was never convinced, though I appreciate the positions of folks like John Howard Yoder and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who advocated Christian nonviolence for quite different reasons).

What the author of this piece fails to realize is that, potentially, what angers some interlocutors who disagree with pacifism is not the position itself but the manner in which it is espoused.  I am not “afraid” of pacifism.  This notion, if I may channel the eminent philosopher Ronald Ulysses Swanson, makes as much sense as being afraid of vegans.  But I do find the way in which pacifism is sometimes defended to be arrogant, simplistic, and dismissive towards all who disagree – much like the tone of the piece to which I am responding.

Let me describe it another way, via analogy.  A much-respected retired UMC pastor once told me that his worst experience in ministry was serving a charismatic church; many of the people in the congregation spoke in tongues and manifested other pneumatological gifts.  He said it was his worst experience in over four decades of ministry because he could not lead, or even provide spiritual care to, a congregation who viewed him as a second class Christian because he did not share their experiences of the Spirit.

In a variety of conversations and interactions, I have observed that Christian pacifists – at least those of the neo-Anabaptist variety to whom I’ve been most exposed – can often treat Christians who do not share their convictions in a similarly non-charitable manner.

(See what I did there? I critiqued people without ascribing self-aggrandizing motives.)

Seminary was a funny place. Guys would walk around in Che Guevara t-shirts or sport a good old Soviet hammer and sickle logo on their earth-friendly coffee thermos, and no one would give them a second look.  But question Yoder’s pacifism, or suggest that a military response to 9/11 was appropriate and perhaps even just? Such an egregious breach of groupthink would bring your discipleship into question.

(Note Hidalgo’s call to “look at our hearts and ask where our deepest commitment and allegiance resides.”)ad hom ref

So maybe – just maybe – some of us have a strong reaction to certain presentations of Christian nonviolence because it presents opponents as sub-Christian troglodytes. Perhaps some anger is understandable when pacifists assume themselves to be the sole occupants of the moral high ground, the true biblical witness, and the narrow way of Jesus.  Maybe we should not expect for our arguments to receive the hearing we feel they deserve if they are dripping with snark, ad hominem, and straw men.

Note the amateurish psychology of the following analysis:

“Maybe that’s why nonviolence is so threatening. It asks us to be willing to give up everything—all our wealth, power, possessions and influence that lend us a sense of self-worth and security and certainty. Maybe that’s why we get so angry at the suggestion of nonviolence; we are terrified of losing what we have worked so hard to get.”

Methinks Pastor Michael is confusing nonviolence with monastic vows.

Though he presents nonviolence as a radical way of self-denial, a costly form of discipleship, in reality there are few places in the 21st century West where this is even a possibility. As Karl Barth and others have noted, nonviolence is a commitment which lacks virtue in the absence of a military draft, or the possibility of facing actual violence; this is particularly so if one’s nonviolence is chiefly lived out among such existential threats as MacBooks and lattes.  But I digress.

Just to reiterate: I do not fear pacifists.  No one does.

But I am afraid.

I am afraid that the state of moral argument among Christians is so egregiously dire.

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C.S. Lewis Was Right: Bulverisms are Everywhere

cslewisC.S. Lewis stands up to the decades after his death with astounding endurance.

Consider a few instances where, like Chesterton before him, the British literati’s pen continues to prove startlingly contemporary well past his own lifetime:

  • Lewis asked big questions about the nature of the afterlife before Rob Bell made Calvinists’ hearts a-flutter over them.
  • The Oxford don made Christian fiction an art form, and took it to heights hitherto unmet (and CGI is just now making it possible to visualize the products of Lewis’ stunning imagination).
  • Before Rabbi Kushner popularized the theodicy question, Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, both of which hold up better.

And that only scratches the surface of how insightful Clive Staples Lewis continues to be for our own age.

I suppose it is no surprise that he observed a phenomenon of public discourse in 1941 that has reached vicious heights in 2015.  He even invented a name for it in an essay by the same name collected in God in the Dock: “Bulverism.”  For Lewis, a Bulverism occurs when someone mistakes or substitutes a counter-argument for a psycho-social observation:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.”

Lewis goes on to claim that he sees this error everywhere:

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Note that the author goes out of his way to insist this isn’t a strategy of this or that “side” or party.  Bulverisms are found everywhere.  And aren’t they still, today? Such poor rhetoric has become the air we breathe.

An example just came across my news feed today.   A group of African bishops in the UMC released a statement that dealt with issues of global terrorism, human sexuality, and the unity of the church.  Bishop Warner Brown Jr. committed a clear Bulverism in his statement to United Methodist News Service:

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner Brown Jr., the president of the Council of Bishops, said his African colleagues were speaking out of their context.

The tempting reply – if I weren’t hoping to avoid that which I am observing – would of course be: so is Bishop Warner Brown, Jr. of the San Francisco area.  Because after all, who the hell doesn’t speak out of their context?  It’s a facile kind of observation, a victory purchased cheaply, but one that is used ad nauseum:

  • She went to an all-girls college, so you know she’s a man-hater.
  • He comes from money, so he can’t help but act like a spoiled brat.
  • She’s from the Northeast, so naturally she’s going to support Bernie Sanders.
  • He’s from the Bible Belt, ergo he’s a right-wing nut job.

As Lewis saw so well 70 years ago, Bulverisms are not only a poor excuse for an argument, but they threaten the very possibility of virtuous discourse.  The ubiquity of this error is all the more troubling because Christians are ostensibly committed to charity, patience, and honesty – any of which alone should make Bulverisms rare if not extinct among the baptized.  Should is, of course, the operative word here.

I’ll give Lewis the last say, a word of warning that is also a sad description of public conversation today:

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.

Was Lewis right about Bulverisms? Where do you see them? How do we avoid them today? Leave a comment below!

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Managing Sin or Following Jesus?

managing sin is not God's intention for us

Willard warned us about the dangers of just managing sin almost two decades ago.

Are we following Jesus, or merely managing sin? Nearly two decades ago, Dallas Willard observed:

“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how we deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” (The Divine Conspiracy, 41)

He famously blamed this marginalization of the gospel’s impact on our actual lives on the ascendency of  “gospels of sin management.”

Gospels of sin management focus on sin rather than Jesus; they start with where we have gone wrong, rather than what God has done in Christ out of love and grace.  The result is tragic: rather than living God’s kingdom in its fullness, we manage sin and never really enjoy the kind of life God intends.

The net effect is that we make the gospel about mitigating sin and not about a salvific, lived relationship with God.

If that sounds too much like sophistry, let me go at it another way.  Eric Metaxas summed up the life and teaching of the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer thus: “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”

As Willard goes on to point out, when and where God’s will is done, the Kingdom is present. We pray every Sunday for the Kingdom and often don’t think about it: “Thy Kingdom come ON EARTH as it is in heaven.” In the Lord’s Prayer, forgiveness is there, but the Kingdom – God’s will actively being carried out – is central.

Gospels of sin management come to us in two forms, and distort our visions of the Kingdom accordingly. There is a gospel of sin management on the right, and a gospel of sin management on the left. The conservative version of sin management focuses on personal sin: on moral effort towards (for instance) lying less, having fewer lustful thoughts, or being less prideful. On the right, managing sin is about Jesus atoning for my personal faults so that I can go to heaven.

There is a gospel of sin management on the left as well. Instead of focusing on personal sin, it focuses on social and corporate sin, on structural evil. In this progressive variant on managing sin, Jesus came to overturn injustice, he came as an advocate for the marginalized, and is concerned not so much with my stealing or cheating, but about poverty and homelessness and injustice. Jesus came to help us manage society’s sins and if we get right with Jesus there just might be a little less injustice.

Both of these pervert the Kingdom of God based on their particular visions of the gospel. Like the best lies, they rely on a kernel of truth and wrap it up in great falsehood. Now, lest anyone accuse me of antinomianism (being against moral law), hear me out: personal sin is awful, and against God’s will; structural sin is awful, and against God’s will. But if we only aim at managing sin, we miss the One who is our true life.

Personal sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward on the other side of life, removed from real life except for the knowledge of forgiveness. Social sin management turns the Kingdom into a reward in this life for human effort; instead of the fullness of God’s reign, we celebrate a little less evil in society as if it is the ultimate goal of God.

Both of them fail as gospels in the sense that you can buy into them fully and never have an active, living relationship with Jesus Christ.

When I observe Protestant Christianity in North America, I see us managing sin – left and right – all over the place.  I see a lot of Christians fighting over how to alleviate sin, and barely any energy put towards actively following Jesus.

Willard has hit a chord, in my estimation. He was right almost twenty years ago, but we are still getting it wrong.  What say you?

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Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?

Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?
"Jesus Laughing," by Ralph Kozak.

Would you be comfortable with a celebrating savior?

The Jesus Christians often portray is not someone who would be considered enjoyable to be around.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights. For the “Jesus Laughing” image feat. above, see here.

We portray Jesus in many ways: the wise teacher, the comforting healer, the zealous prophet, the suffering servant.

But do we preach, pray, and share Jesus as someone we would actually enjoy being around?

Dallas Willard notes,

“…the currently accepted image of Jesus all but makes it impossible to find him interesting and attractive, lovable. The responses of common people to him throughout the pages of the gospel show how false that image is. He was such an attractive person and such a powerful speaker that, from the human point of view, the leaders of the day killed him out of envy of his popularity (Matt. 27:18). He was a master of humor and often used it to drive home the truths he imparted, as any good speaker does. But few today would put him on their guest list for a party – if it were really going to be a party.  Just as we don’t think of Jesus as intelligent, so we don’t think of him as pleasant company, someone to enjoy being around. Is it any wonder that someone would rather not be his student?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 239)

This doesn’t mean going the Cal Naughton, Jr. route and picturing Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt (“I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party!“- see below).  But, following Dallas Willard’s observation, it suggests we should take seriously just how Jesus attracted so many followers (and detractors).

Jesus ate and drank with sinners; he comforted those in distress, he fit in with outcasts, and was a physician for the sick of body and spirit.  In fact, the only folks that weren’t that comfortable around Jesus – the only people who wouldn’t invite Jesus to party – were the religious.

Can you worship a Jesus who would go to a party?

What would you say to Jesus at a party?  Are our churches full of people who would talk to Jesus at a party, or would they condemn him for being under the same roof as a keg? Leave a comment below!

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