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Missing the Mark

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The two images above are billboards recently released by American Atheists.  Should these billboards be considered persecution?  I believe that they should.  Denigrating one’s beliefs – especially in the callow, sensationalistic, straw-man manner shown on these billboards – counts as persecution, in my book.  Granted, these billboards are not the equivalent of beating somebody and sending them prison, but are they not just a lower rung on the same ladder?  It is promoting an environment where Mormons and Christians are ridiculed for their “unreasonable” beliefs.  What would happen if these billboards really caught on, and the majority of society started treating Mormons and Christians with the same petulant contempt?

Hence a series of ironies:  American Atheists are against people being persecuted for their beliefs (e.g., “Action Alert” at the bottom of their home page), yet they persecute people for their beliefs.  The billboards decry Christianity for promoting hate, yet they promote hate.  The billboards violate American Atheists own aims and principles.

It seems that even atheists have their share of people who break with their own by-laws.  Christians have their share of people who advocate hatred, despite the fact that the book they purport to follow supports no such agenda.  One of American Atheists self-stated aims is to “collect and disseminate information, data, and literature on all religions and promote a more thorough understanding of them,” a task at which these billboards miserably fail.

I believe (hope?) that these billboards do not represent the majority of atheists in America.  I’m hoping this type of rhetoric will be increasingly marginalized.  From the responses I’ve read thus far on these billboards, it seems that most people are dismissing them, as they should.  Conversely, I hope that atheists understand that churches like Westboro Baptist Church do not represent Christianity.

Once again, it’s not organized religion that is the enemy, nor is it organized non-religion, nor theism, nor atheism.  It’s people.  We’re all hypocrites.  We’re all inconsistent.  We’re all hateful at some level.  We are the great problem with the world, and we need a great savior.  I maintain that reason is not this great savior, and I believe that history abundantly supports my claim.  We cannot save ourselves.  Only God can save us from ourselves, each other, and the mess we’ve made of this world.  Through Christ and His Spirit, that’s exactly what He has done, is doing, and will do.

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I have two young boys, and every year my wife and I face the question, “What do we do with Santa Claus?”  Harmful?  Innocuous?  Demonic?  Idolatrous?  Innocent fun?  I would gather that most readers of this blog have had enough contact with contemporary Christian culture to know the threads of debate that surround the rotund gift-giver in red.  The Santa question really stems from a larger, more general question:  What do we do with American holidays?  Dare I mention the Easter Bunny, or even (gasp) Halloween?

The holiday issue is ultimately a “Christ and culture” issue.  How are we “in” but not “of” the world?  Consistent with my desire to run against Danny’s grain, I submit a holiday edition of 4 orderly nonentities (contra “5.5 random things”).  With a little more time, I could extend this list ad nauseum, but they are among those on the front-burner of my mind this season (and I needed an even integer to counter Danny’s odd decimal):

1. To level the field, let’s remember that a good amount of American Christian culture has non-Christian roots.  We cannot deny that the West has put a stamp on how we express Christianity.  From art (e.g., halos on saints) to (most) worship services being held on Sunday to the very dates we observe Christian holidays, none enjoy Biblical support, and most have legendary or pagan origins and influences.  We also tend to celebrate, in varying degrees, plenty of secular days without compunction: birthdays, the 4th of July, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother’s Day, etc.

2. I would wager that few of us are consistent with how we celebrate the holidays, with our personal preferences weighing more heavily than our theology.  Perhaps you will play along with Santa Claus, but the Easter Bunny really chafes you.  You won’t buy gifts during Christmas, but you will buy gifts for birthdays.

3. Abuse does not preclude proper use.  Perhaps Christmas has become a hopelessly corrupt orgy of consumerism, insincere well-wishing, and other vices that de-Christ Christmas.  That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the Lord’s birth in a God-honoring way.

4. We must be mindful of Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 8, and consider how our actions affect those around us.  Perhaps for you Halloween has always been a harvest-themed celebration involving costumes and candy; that’s all you practice, and it is little more.  For others, Halloween may be the very picture of overt occultism.  By extension, consider your witness outside the Church.  What distinguishes you from the rest during Christmas time?

When all the chips are on the table, I am always suspicious of pat answers to “Christ and culture” questions, especially those of the knee-jerk variety.  There are numerous factors, some of which are quite subtle, worth bringing to bear on decisions about how to be “in” but not “of.”  In large measure, I believe that the process is more important than the result.  What’s driving our decision one way or another?  What is our ultimate goal or focus?  Are our decisions Biblically informed, prayerfully considered, and gospel-centered?  Are they rooted in self-righteousness, self-justification or pride?  Are we seeking God’s glory above all else, or are we after comfort, fitting in, or some other lesser – however noble – good?  Do we consider alternate viewpoints with charity or swift condemnation?  To paraphrase a recent quote from the beloved D.A. Carson, “Are you contending for the gospel, or are you contentious about the gospel?”

I’d be interested if any readers would like to comment on how they handle the holidays, secular or religious.  Even better if you have a few principles that you use as guides to decision-making.  You may consider Christmas only if you need a narrower scope. Gifts?  Santa?  Tree?  Stockings?  Fancy dinner?  Midnight vigils?  Tell all.

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A Man of No Reputation

I returned yesterday from almost 3 weeks of being out of the country, which explains my silence during that time period (sorry for those who left comments on the last 2 posts, I’l try to catch up soon).  While I was gone, I had trouble keeping up with the latest news and blog posts.  I finally got a chance to check my Google Reader toward the end of my trip, only to have 450+ items to read.  So, if you posted something worthwhile that I should read, let me know.

One item I did see was a link to Jon Shields’ article in the Wall Street Journal on Manute Bol, entitled “Manute Bol’s Radical Christianity.”  Bol, a retired professional basketball player, passed away on June 19.  His claim to fame was being the tallest player in the NBA during his career, measuring 7’6.  He was, in many ways, an oddity.  Being as tall as he was made him stand out even in a league of incredibly tall people. 

In his post-NBA career he became most well-known for random appearances in celebrity gimmicks.  He had stints as a horse jockey, a hockey goalie and boxed Refridgerator Perry.  And let’s be honest, the sight of a skinny (he and I weighed about the same, and I’m 6’1) 7’6 guy in a boxing match is intended to bring laughter. 

I knew that Bol was a Christian, but I didn’t realize the extent to which he lived out his faith.  I knew he raised money to help those in need in his native Sudan, but I had no idea how much he actually did.  This is why I found the above article so convicting on a personal level. 

I remember thinking, when he was making these gimmick appearances, “these people (you know, because all celebrities are the same) will stop at nothing to make a few extra bucks.”  I laughed at him.  I wondered if he realized how promoters were taking advantage of him to cash in.  Why would he allow himself to be humiliated this way?

Little did I know he did need the money, but not for the reasons one might think.  As the article states,  “Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals.”  In his efforts to help those in need, Bol had spent the fortune he made playing professional basketball.  He could have retired and lived a relatively comfortable life in the States.  Again, I’ll quote the article:

When his fortune dried up, Bol raised more money for charity by doing what most athletes would find humiliating: He turned himself into a humorous spectacle.  …Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

And the whole time I laughed at him.  I assumed he was simply trying to make a buck.  So many athletes, after they retire, miss the limelight and will do anything to be on television again.  They need the money because they wasted all they earned.  They make fools of themselves just to be seen.  Bol, on the other hand, did it for someone else. 

I assumed he lost his dignity.  I assumed he sacrificed his reputation for fame.  I assumed he was like every other celebrity who fell so in love with fame that they lost all sense of shame.

The truth is that Manute Bol demonstrated his dignity by sacrificing it on behalf of others.  He lived out the gospel in a way that I, and many others, overlooked and mocked.  He allowed himself to be ridiculed in order to help those who could not help themselves.  In other words, he acted like Jesus.

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I first heard of David Bentley Hart’s new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, on volume 98 of the Mars Hill Audio Journal.  Thanks to some leftover birthday money, it was soon at my doorstep.  I will give the book an “official” review at a later date.  In this post, I wanted to look at a larger issue catalyzed by the first paragraph in Atheist Delusions, which I will quote at length.  Hart opens by setting the context for his book, which seeks to uncover the folly of today’s popular atheists (pp.3-4):

Conditions in the world of print have never before been so propitious for sanctimonious tirades against religion, or (more narrowly) monotheism, or (more specifically) Christianity, or (more precisely) Roman Catholicism…The God Delusion, an energetic attack on all religious belief, has just been released by Richard Dawkins, the zoologist and tireless tractarian, who – despite his embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning – never fails to entrance his eager readers with his rhetorical recklessness.  The journalist Christopher Hitchens, whose talent for intellectual caricature somewhat exceeds his mastery of consecutive logic, has just issued God Is Not Great, a book that raises the wild non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method…Sam Harris’s extravagantly callow attack on all religious belief, The End of Faith, has enjoyed robust sales…Philip Pullman’s evangelically atheist (and rather overrated) fantasy trilogy for children, His Dark Materials, has been lavishly praised by numerous critics…its third volume…has even won the (formerly) respectable Whitbread Prize.  And one hardly need mention the extraordinary sales achieved by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code [sic]…surely the most lucrative novel ever written by a borderline illiterate.  I could go on.

My initial reaction to Hart’s asperity (his word), was gleeful laughter.  The quote above is more or less indicative of the tone throughout the book:  Hart plays the role of the mature, erudite professor scolding a bunch of juvenile high school students (Dawkins, et al) for their facile, jejune publications.  I’ve found similar joy in reading other authors who embarrass their opponents with such delightful eloquence.

I question, however, whether or not I am right to “delight” in such things.  Though I can’t say for sure, I’ll wager my delight in Hart’s deconstruction of Hitchens is mirrored by atheists who delight in Hitchens’ anti-Christian vitriol.  Everybody loves to root for their own side, and when your team scores a touchdown (real or perceived), it’s hard not to cheer.

But therein lies the rub.  These people (outspoken atheists in this case) are not my enemies.  Nor do I think the “us versus them” mentality is an especially Christ-like posture, let alone one conducive to helpful, civil dialogue.  “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” after all (Eph.6:12), and where is it written that we are to rejoice when another human being receives their comeuppance?  Does God take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked (see Ezk. 18:32, Mt. 23:37, among others)?  Should we?

For example, in the many harsh expositions of the New Testament (such as Mt. 23, 2 Tim. 3:1-9, Jude 8-16) I don’t find any indication that fist-pumping glee is the proper reaction.  Why, then, is it often my own?  When Dan Brown’s historiography is exposed for what it is (i.e., excrement), why do I get a warm feeling inside my chest?  To wit: my last sentence brought about a wry smile to my face.

Simply put, I am offended by attacks against my God, and I long to see His Truth vindicated.  When another person wages warfare against the beliefs – indeed, the Person! – I hold in highest esteem, it is injurious in two ways.  First, I feel it as a personal attack, not unlike somebody decrying my own father or wife.  Second, I understand the attack as a lie, and wish the truth to be known over and against it.  I don’t find anything sinful in these reactions, per se.  They are often cast under the umbrella or “righteous indignation” or “righteous anger,” against which I have no beef.  It is rather the attitude behind my reaction that I believe to be sinful:  I am hurt, so I wish to hurt back, even if vicariously through another author.  Speaking, writing or appreciating a harsh rebuke is no sin, but the attitude behind it can be.

I believe the key to reacting well is to maintain the distinction between the attacker and the attack.  The attack (the anti-Christian proposition), is of the devil.  It is a lie to be hated and defeated.  We love the Truth, and rejoice when the Truth is shown to triumph over the lie.  The attacker (the person), is loved by God, and therefore loved by us.  Our attitude towards him or her is primarily loving.  To see one loved by God so viciously attack Him is ultimately a sorrowful affair.  If fatherhood has taught me anything, it is that it is possible to be angry with somebody while simultaneously loving them and laboring for their best.  I’ve never once rejoiced at my thorough, truthful rebuke of my own son.  Rather, my heart is always heavy.  We must walk carefully, however, lest our attitude becomes, “Poor things, they’re so deceived.”  We could just as well commit the error of the Pharisee in Lk. 18:11 and thank God we’re not one of those people.

It is often the case that the attack and attacker become blurred in my mind.  I confuse the person with the proposition, and make the mistake of thinking that a given philosophical stance exhaustively defines who somebody is.  The sayings are perhaps trite, but loving the sinner and hating the sin goes a long way to reacting well, so also does speaking the truth in love.  Honestly, I think I fail at this more often than I succeed, as perhaps my writings on this blog (this post, even) will testify.  Would that the scales tip in the opposite direction for me and all of God’s children soon.

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There’s a new surge to put “Christ back in Christmas” going around these days, headed up by James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  You can check them out at Stand for Christmas.  On this website you’ll see reviews and ratings of various retailers to help determine whether they are “Christmas Friendly,” “Christmas Negligent” or “Christmas Offensive.”  Have you ever walked into a store and hear “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and bristled with righteous indignation?  Now’s your chance to let them hear it… by posting a comment on a website no one outside of a relatively small number of evangelical/fundamentalists will take seriously.  Yeah, that’ll show ’em.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one.  Maybe the site’s subtitle: “Now Customers Have a Voice.”  Hmm, I thought customer’s always had a voice: their wallet.  You know, if you don’t want to shop at a store, you don’t have to.  Wow, that capitalism sure is crazy.

Or maybe we should talk about how this group has fallen into, what I deem to be, a problem of our culture at large.  That is, everyone is just so easily offended.  Really, you are offended because the 18-year-old working at American Eagle for the discount said “Happy Holidays” to you as you checked out?  Yeah, I really hate that jerk, too.

Being offended is a proud heritage in our culture.  In fact, it’s even #101 on the list of Stuff White People Like.  Maybe my skin is too thick, but I just can’t get offended that easily.  Christians, though, and evangelicals in particular, have a bit of a persecution complex.  In some cases, it’s legit.  But I’m not sure how someone not using the term “Christmas” is truly an offensive thing to me.  I’d be much more offended if the kid at American Eagle said, “hey, you might want to but those pants one size bigger… I mean, you’re not getting any younger and studies show that you’re much more likely to expand than shrink at your age, especially with the holiday (oops, I mean “Christmas”) season coming up.”

After all, why should I expect a non-Christian business (we’ll set aside the issue, for the moment, of whether or not a business can be “Christian” anyway) to celebrate the birth of the Savior they don’t believe in?  Tell me, does it honor God for someone who doesn’t even acknowledge him in thought or deed to say the word “Christmas?”  We’re talking about the same God who rejected the sacrifices (which were commanded by him, unlike this holiday) of his people because they didn’t honor him with their lives.

Now, I think it’s ridiculous that retailers can be skittish about saying “Merry Christmas,” too, but for the same reason I think it’s ridiculous that the Stand for Christmas website even exists: it succumbs to the easily offended culture.  Retailers are afraid that someone will be offended if they say “Merry Christmas” when they actually celebrate Hanukkah.  In my experience, most people are not offended by such a thing.  Before I was married, I used to frequent Quiznos.  There was a girl working there who I talked to every now and then when I was eating there.  One winter I wished her a Merry Christmas, only to have her tell me she celebrated Hanukkah.  So, I wished her a Happy Hanukkah.  Simple as that.  No offense given, none taken.

Forgive me if I’m upset that there are a group of Christians out there who have decided to fight fire with fire, or “being offended” with “being offended.”  If the non-Christian world thinks they can be offended, well we can be too!  I can’t believe this masquerades as a strategy to battle “censorship.”

There has to be a better way to stand for Christmas.  How about this: when you walk into a retailer, strike up a conversation with the workers there.  Ask them about their holiday plans.  See what holiday they celebrate and ask them why.  Tell them why Christmas is special to you.  Tell them about how God became man in order that we might know God.  Tell them about why the manger scene is so important- that God wasn’t born in a beautiful palace to a king with a royal court celebrating, but in a manger with farm animals present.  Talk to them about the angels’ appearance to the shepherds.  Tell them about those who waited in eager expectation for the Messiah to be born.   It seems to be that this is a much better way to put Christ back in Christmas.

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A series of ads funded by eight atheist groups are being posted in the New York subway system.  The ads will show a blue sky with the words, “A million New Yorkers are good without God.  Are you?”  It seems that this sort of thing makes news (or at least, this blog) every year.  This time, the ad appears to be less an attack on theism so much as an attempt to reach out to other non-theists.  Michael De Dora, one of the directors for an atheist group sponsoring the ad, expresses the intent to create awareness of the city’s secular community, and foster “talking and thinking about religion and morality.”

I personally don’t find the ad to be particularly offensive.  That is, it is no more offensive than other advertisements that litter our view.  Other advertisements promise that a new car will bring satisfaction, that a better paying job will bring about personal fulfillment, or that we deserve a luxury cruise.  A harsher critic might call these claims lies, and he’d be right.   So, is this ad also a lie?  Yes and no.

I could argue from my worldview, and claim that this ad is a lie because the million New Yorkers are not good.  They are actually sinners who bear real moral guilt for their thoughts and deeds, just like everybody else in the world.  This lie is amplified by two more lies:  (1) the presupposition that goodness can be achieved without God, and (2) the claim that real “goodness” actually exists without God.

I could also take a cue from De Dora, and do some thinking about morality.  Such thinking could lead me to argue that this ad is true, but desperately in need of an asterisk next to the word “good.”   The asterisk could be explained in fine print on the bottom of the ad: *that is, good as they define it.  However, that would make the ad a boring non-statement, since one can easily be good without God, because “good” is a meaningless concept that can be defined by the individual.  Therefore the ad is true.

In the interest of honesty, the ad might want to incorporate an additional footnote that being good without God may require the consistent thinker to live the rest of their days in despair over the absurdity of life without God.  Without God, our meaningless, purposeless life in the cold, uncaring, and dying universe makes the chemical accident of our existence cruel (that is, if such a thing as cruelty existed), and all of our striving for good (whatever that is), quite pointless, save perhaps that it can distract us enough to live in delusional happiness on our fleet journey to non-existence.  This sounds harsh, but life without God is harsh.  I’ve yet to hear a cogent argument for how life without God (or even a god) has any meaning, value, or purpose.

In my worldview, I can say that much of what the ad is striving for is good:  I commend the notion of people getting together, even more so when thoughtful dialogue is the goal, and even more when morality is the topic du jour.  I, too, do not want individuals to feel isolated, lonely, or persecuted because of their beliefs.  However, I cannot argue that the ad is good from the atheist worldview, because my thoughts are all predicated on the notion that there is such a thing as objective “good.”  The ad is therefore self-defeating, since by its own worldview, it cannot make any claims to objective good.  It could try, perhaps by an appeal to a collective, but the claims would ultimately fail because (1) living out such claims would require inconsistencies, as noted on this blog, and (2) the collective would change over time, making “good” today something different from “good” tomorrow.  If “today” were ancient Greece, for instance, the collective might condone the exposure of female infants.

Thankfully, we do not have to live in despair, because there is a God, and He is good.  The existence of a good God is also grounds for despair, since we are guilty of moral wrong before Him.  Thankfully, there is more good news, because Jesus Christ died and rose again to free us from our bondage to decay, and forgive us for our sins, such that those in Christ no longer stand condemned before God.  While this ad has the best of intentions (like many atheists in my experience), it cannot deliver on its promises, for there is no good without God, no hope without Jesus, and no turning to the good without the Holy Spirit.

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Not Knowing God

Every few months I receive a newsletter from my brothers and sisters at the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, MA.  In addition to current events and lecture schedules,  director Dick Keyes always begins with a brief essay.  For this autumn’s newsletter, Keyes, taking a cue from Paul’s encounter with the “unknown god” of Acts 17, reflects on three patterns which he believes are common ways people do not know God.  Since Danny and I will be blogging through Packer’s Knowing God for the next few weeks (months?), I thought Keyes’ observations were apropos.  You can read his short but insightful essay here.

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“It’s the economy, stupid.”

Whether or not you remember this popular campaign slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid,  17 years later, it would seem that the US economy still ranks in the top 3 stars that share the media limelight (global security and Michelle Obama’s wardrobe appear to be the other two).  Much of the economic news today seems to fall somewhere between “disheartening” and “terrifying.”  Indeed, the words “economic” and “crisis,” once mere friends, are now considering marriage, much to the chagrin of their disapproving parents.

I’m not made of wood, so from time to time I struggle to divorce myself from the sense of impending doom that hangs heavy in the air.  Praise be, God alone is our provider, and my ultimate hope rests in Him.  We’ve heard these sermons, and they make the excellent point that we needn’t worry ourselves to death about money, or even worse, let it take the place of God (e.g., Mt.6:19-34).

Balancing this is the call to be wise stewards with what God has given us, and the very practical matter of deciding how to spend, give and save our money.  God is my provider.  Amen.  Now, what should I do with my paycheck?  The parable of the ten talents surely isn’t talking about money alone, but it’s not not talking about money either.

The problem I’ve encountered as I’ve looked into financial matters is that nobody seems to agree about much of anything, save the fact that the world economy is in big trouble.  (Read a few articles and financial blogs for a week and you’ll see what I mean.)  The whole endeavor seems steeped in opinion and speculation.  One expert will tout their prescience of the economic collapse while failing to mention that they’ve also lost their shirt in the downturn.

The same phenomenon seems evident in the world of dieting.  Atkins diet?  South Beach?  Eat your blood type?  Mediterranean Diet?  Weight Watchers?  Shall I even broach the topic of parenting?  Attachment parenting?  “Ferber-izing?”  Co-sleeping?  Cry it out?  To spank or not to spank?  Experts wage war along these and numerous other lines, and lay people such as myself are left confused, wondering how to sift through the claims and find out what’s actually true or false.  Unless you make a career out of investigating every truth claim, it seems impossible to sort it out.

Enter relativism.  Enter agnosticism.  So many truth claims, such passion behind the arguments, so many “studies” that “show” said argument to be correct, so many testimonials, so little time, know-how, and expertise to sort it out.  What we are able to sort out are some superficial generalizations upon which everybody agrees:  “Don’t spend what you don’t have,” “Exercise and avoid fast food,” “Love your kids and be a vital part of their lives,” etc.  At the limit, we find an expert or two with whom we agree, providing us with a permission slip for our actions:  Spanking is wrong; Dr. Spock says so.

Is religion any different?  “Just believe in something,”  “Don’t kill anybody,” “Be tolerant of other beliefs.”  There can’t be just one way to Heaven; Oprah says so.  Where does that leave us?  I sympathize with the honest agnostic relativist, but are there some differences?  If agnosticism and/or relativism “works” in other areas of life, is it fair to say it “works” for religion?

I would suggest several differences that set the religios project apart from those mentioned above.  First, there is a matter of degree.  Religious claims (at least, those of major world religions) are umbrellas under which all other truth claims fall, and a lens through which they are viewed.   They are meta-claims, as it were.  “Follow this person and lose weight” is a vastly different claim from “Follow this person and inherit eternal life.”  When we weigh a truth claim, the scope and import of that claim ought to factor into our consideration.  For example, if I claim that crushed ice will chill water much faster than cubed ice, I doubt any reader will struggle for long weighing my claim.  The scope is limited to cold beverages, and the importance is minor at best.  If I claim that all perceived reality is an illusion, as the Bhuddist does, the scope and consequences are enormous, and merit more thoughtful, probing consideration.

Second, we must note the predictive nature of so much information.  Study A shows that gold is the safest investment over time.  Study B shows that people who cut their carbohydrate intake by 50% lose an average of 10 pounds a month.  Study C shows that spaking children increases their propensity for violent behavior.  (N.b., all said studies above were pulled out of thin air for illustrative purposes only.)  In every case, we have an (sometimes subjective) analysis and interpretation of data with a tremendous reliance on statistics.  Worse yet, all such studies attempt to predict the future in some way.  Furthermore, all the studies above interact with a wide variety of variables that can drastically affect the predicted outcome.  The differences in analysis, and the affect of unknown or misunderstood variables lead to the sea of differing opinions that litter our bookshelves.  Finally, the truth claims of investment, diet, and child rearing are, to a great extent, empirically verifiable.  Did you get a good return on your investment?  Did you lose weight?  Is your child in prison for aggravated assault?

Religious claims, on the other hand, lack many of the characteristics above.  At their core, religious claims do not predict the future so much as they explain and assign meaning to reality.  “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet of Allah,” is not a prediction of the future.  It’s an existential claim.  How would one confirm that Mohammed is God’s prophet?  That all of life is illusory?    That there is a Heaven and Hell?  These claims are arrived at through different means, and must therefore be treated differently.

While there may be empirical evidence to support religious claims (e.g., the observation of a changed life upon accepting Christ), none of us can verify them in the same way we would verify the efficacy of a diet.  Of course there are predictive claims in religion (e.g., if you reject Christ you will suffer eternal torment), but again, these are not empirically verifiable (at least, until it is too late to do anything about it).

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a difference between the statement “I don’t know,” and “I can’t know.”  The former is simple ignorance, the latter is agnosticism, and there is an enormous, unsubstantiated leap of faith between the two.  Every student of apologetics has heard the rebuttal to the agnostic:  “How do you know that you can’t know?”  Indeed economists have a difficult time predicting market behavior, but does that mean that market behavior is unknowable?  Even if we grant that market behavior is unknowable on the grounds that it is attempting to predict the future, why should we conclude that other knowledge (i.e., religious knowledge) is unattainable?

In the end, the agnostic must ask him or herself whence their agnosticism.  Is it apathy?  Why wouldn’t we investigate the outrageous claim of the Christian faith that our eternal destiny hinges upon how we respond to Jesus?  Is it simply because we prefer to spend our time in other pursuits that we (erroneously) find more satisfying?  Is it confusion?  Are we trying to fit the round peg of religous claims into the square holes of scientific ones?  Is it laziness?  Weeding through the average religious section in a book store is daunting, after all.  Is it wishful thinking?  If we cover our eyes and ears, we may not have to deal with whatever unpleasantries lurk in religion’s murky waters; pleading ignorance is a “safe,” easy way out.

Despite my strong words above, I do hold a great deal of compassion for those who would claim to be agnostic.  In the information age, we are assaulted on all fronts, and at all times, with truth claims ranging from trivial to terrifying, and monumental to minute.  There is no escaping it, save the fleeting release proffered by so many other vices that vie for our time and money, or the simple bliss of shutting it all out.  I do not minimize for a moment the depth and breadth of the human struggle for truth and meaning in our world.  I pray regularly that God would break my heart for those who are captive to that struggle, and do not yet know the freedom available to them in Christ.  Still, we must note that the rejection of Christianity in favor of agnosticism (or any other world view), is not a matter of knowledge alone.  In actuality, it is resisting the work of the Holy Spirit (c.f., Jn. 15:26; 16:8-11), for which we will have no good excuse.

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It seems that I and my e-friend Steve both dislike the phrase “doing chuch,” so I will coin an alternative for this post: “churching.”  For my money, churching is an unbelievably difficult topic to tackle, though I wonder how much of the difficulty is self-inflicted.  Must it be so complicated, so nuanced, so controversial?  I would answer a non-committal “yes” and “no.”  It seems rather easy to paint broad strokes about what church should look like.  People are coming together to care for one another, share life, worship, serve, be edified, etc.  Simple enough.  The complexity, or difficulty comes in when one actually has to do something, rather than talk about it.  Sooner or later, the rubber must meet the road, and we need to get practical.

This tension has been one of my frustrations with discussions about churching.  There is no shortage of writing out there criticizing the way church is done today.  Much of this criticism is excellent, and I find myself saying “Amen,” multiple times.  Writers like David Wells and Marva Dawn make insightful observations about the church.  I’ve found comparatively few such books or articles, however, that get practical.

For example, at Steve’s recommendation, I recently read an article by David Fitch that is quite good.  Fitch makes a statement towards the end of his article that I believe is typical of the churching dialogue:

If then we would see people formed into the Missio Dei we must order our worship so as to be encountered by the living God.

Yea, and amen…but how?   Fitch offers some vague ideas towards the end of his post, but they don’t get much more specific than “simplifiy the service.”  So what does this ordering of worship actually look like?  Do I sing hymns?  With guitar?  Organ?  Contemporary?  Lyrics on the screen?  Hymnals?  How many songs?  Where?  What day?  How long?

I don’t wish to criticize Fitch here (indeed, we shall vindicate him!), but rather make the point that much of what I read about churching is ivory tower-esque; that is to say, true but ethereal.  (Much of my own writing is no exception, either).  The answers given to the practical questions, such as mine above are often “it depends…” or “ask God,” (ahem), or “pray about it,” or “with wisdom.”

I believe there is something important that we can learn about these nebulous recommendations.  Perhaps we shouldn’t get too specific.  Given the variety of circumstances, cultures and persons in and to which a church will minister, offering specifics could be either impossible, or at least, unwise.

I think the key to churching is not found in the specifics but the efficacy.  Are lives changed?  Are people growing in love and knowledge of God?  Is the community served?  Are people coming to saving faith in Christ?  In short, is the Kingdom advancing?  All of these questions transcend how slick the service is, how big the building, how entertaining the pastor, how numerous the programs, or how large the numbers.

I believe that it is possible to have a Kingdom-advancing, God-centered church all over the practical spectrum: from 10 believers meeting weekly by a tree in a field to something like Willow Creek (n.b., not an endorsement of Willow Creek).  To adapt part of Obama’s inaugural speech, it doesn’t matter if it’s big church or small church, but church that works.  Examples of church working are found in the pages of Scripture (as are examples of church not working!)

Back to Fitch’s (justifiably) vague advice, how do we order worship so that people encounter God?  Well, we pray about it.  We think about it.  We examine the assumptions about our methods as best we can, and make our choices intentional and theologically informed. 

Following the cultural norm of American churches isn’t ipso facto wrong, or automatically doomed to inefficacy.  What’s wrong is blind, thoughtless conformance to it.  What’s wrong is making the claim that certain forms of churching are normative for all Christendom.  What’s wrong is measuring the success of churching with a yard stick borrowed from corporate America, tempting though it is (after all, it’s easy to know if your weekly attendance has increased year-over-year; compare that with measuring the wax or wane of a congregation’s love and knowledge of God!)

My personal opinion is that a great deal of life could be breathed into the local church if people simply asked “why?” more often, and didn’t settle for half-baked answers.  Why do a drama?  Why choose this type of music?  Why get a building?  Serious interaction with these questions can go a long way.

In the end, I’m quite confident that God is supremely capable of working with and through any number of methods or forms of churching.  Go figure, but in terms of advancing the Kingdom, it’s always God that does the heavy lifting.  The trick to churching is to make sure it’s as useful as it can be for His purposes.  The church must be properly aligned and submitted to Him, no matter what it actually looks like.  Some churches might be a saw, others a hammer.  So long as they are effective at their job, I believe God will use them.  (Ah, the sweet, ethereal smell of vagary, I shall never tire of your ivory-tower baked goodness!)

Coming in Part II, I want to consider “cultural infections” in the church.  Whence do they infect?  How do we diagnose and treat them?  Better yet, how do we predict and prevent them?

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As promised in Part I, I hope to take a closer look at the theology of William P. Young’s The Shack.  As an opening remark, I do not believe Young set out to write a systematic theology, and he should not be chided for failing to do so.  Young is bringing to bear characteristics of God as they are experienced by one who is in need of emotional healing and a restored relationship to God.  As such, the focal points of God’s character are His love and His desire for relationship with us.  An emphasis on these traits is no real problem; indeed, emphases are all over the Bible.  We hardly decry the fact that there are four gospels, after all.  Each contributes in its own way to fill in the picture of Christ’s life.

 

This is one intrinsic problem with The Shack:  It has no companion(s) to balance it, and give us a more rounded picture.  As such, we must remember that overemphasis on The Shack (or any other book) to the peril of regular and thoughtful Bible study, is dangerously unwise, since we’re not getting the whole story.  (This applies to you, too, Narnians.)  If the highest heavens cannot contain God (2 Chr.2:6), we certainly should not expect The Shack to do so either. 

 

I write the above in Young’s defense.  We should expect, by the inherent nature of his project, that Young’s depiction of God will fall miles and miles short of that found in Scripture.  If that were the end of it, I could stop the review here.  Unfortunately, Young takes a project already predisposed to imbalance and heaps more stones on the heavy side of the scale.  These errors we cannot pardon as “the nature of the beast,”  especially when they go against the authorative grain of Scripture.  Let us then focus on the primary question of Part I:  Is Young’s god really God?

 

As for the Trinity, the god of The Shack is indeed triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  These are presented to the main character (Mack) as “Papa,” Jesus, and “Saroyu” respectively.  Upon meeting the three in the shack, Mack asks which of them is God.  They reply in unison, “I am” (p. 87).

 

Young’s treatment of the Trinity, however, strays from the Biblical path.  His denouncement of a Trinitarian hierarchy is one example.  While Young is right to assert that each person of the Trinity is equal with the other, he makes a great fuss about there being no hierarchy among them (p. 122), and that they all submit to one another (p. 145).  This is not taught in the Bible.  Rather, there is clear functional submission within the Trinity.  The Son submits to the Father in Gethsemane (Lk. 22:42), the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son (Jn. 14:6-7; 16:7).  The Son can do only what He sees The Father do (Jn. 5:19).  Never do we see The Father submitting to the Son, nor the Son to the Spirit, nor the Spirit sending the Father.

 

Young seems to base much of his anti-hierarchy polemic on the unsubstantiated claim that hierarchy is antithetical to true love and relationship, because it demands rules (pp.122-3).  If Young is right, then my relationship with my son Henry is doomed, and I can also write off my relationship with my earthly father as less than authentic.  Obedience to commands is no detriment to love, either.  As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (Jn. 14:15).  Neither is the giving of commands less than loving.  When I got my driver’s license, my father was plenty loving and relational by frequently issuing the command, “Drive safely.”

 

Young twists submission even further by suggesting that God submits to Mack per the requirements of a genuine “circle of relationship” (p. 145).  Again, this enjoys no Biblical basis.  It could be argued that Jesus submitted to the ruling authorities in His day (e.g., by paying taxes as in Mt. 17:27), but we never see God the Father or Holy Spirit in submission to any human.

 

Young blurs the distinctiveness of the Trinity by also stating that all persons suffered when Christ was killed on the cross.  Indeed, even Papa has scars on his wrists (pp. 99, 164).  The lines continue to blur as Young describes the Incarnation: “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human.  We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed.” (p. 98 ).

 

In Young’s god, then, we have an anti-hierarchical portrayal of the Trinity, with each person in a circle of submission to the other, and all of them being “one,” all of them experiencing what the other experiences; indeed, all of them became human in Christ.  This is actually an ancient heresy known as Sabellianism (or modalism, or patripassionism; a flavor of monarchianism, for those who want the words I had to lookup in my church history notes).  The error of this heresy is that it loses the distinction of the persons in the Trinity.  Only Jesus suffered and died on the cross.  Only Jesus became man, not the Father.  Jesus is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Father or Holy Spirit.  Only the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles in Acts 2.  The Holy Spirit is indeed fully God, but He is not God the Son or Father.

 

Of course, it is fair to ask if this really matters.  After all, who among us thought (or will think) “Sabellianism!” when reading The Shack?  It took me a second reading; I even had to look up the terms.  So why make a fuss about a theological nuance?  Is Young’s error tantamount to saying that Jesus is a now-deceased moral teacher?  Of course not.  However, making a claim about God that contradicts Scripture is no small matter, and I hesitate to draw some arbitrary line of severity to determine what constitutes a “big” problem and a “small” problem.  For now, I posit that no error should remain unchecked, no matter the “size.”  Any misconception about a matter of infinite import (i.e., God) has the potential to grow, especially when combined with other misconceptions, into something far more troubling, often with unanticipated consequences.  I will for now defer a deeper discussion to another post.

 

The Shack also has some awkward Trinitarian moments, like Jesus giving Papa a foot massage, Saroyu collecting Mack’s tears, and a spilled bowl in the kitchen caused by Jesus’ slippery fingers.  Corny?  Cheesy?  Syrupy?  The proper food-based adjective eludes me.  These episodes are more awkward than anything else, and we can give Young some grace here, as I believe he’s just trying to show the intimacy and loving relationship among the persons of the Trinity.  We could just as well forgive me for my cynical reaction to his efforts.

 

Papa’s portrayal as a large African-American woman will no doubt ruffle feathers.  Aside from eye-rolling (okay, we get it, you’re trying to break paradigms), I found Young’s choice more ironic than anything else, since he’s just swapping stereotypes: the stereotypical sassy African-American woman is chosen over the stereotypical “Gandalf” depiction of God.  So in an effort to avoid pig’s meat, Young chooses bacon instead of ham.   In so doing, we could even argue that Young breaks the second commandment, and creates an idol.

 

Papa explains his (her?) appearance to Mack saying, “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature.  If I choose to appear to you as a man or woman, it’s because I love you” (p. 93).  The ostensible reason for Papa’s choosing a woman is because Mack still has issues with his earthly father.

 

Young’s assertion that “both genders are derived from [God’s] nature” is valid, since man and woman are both created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27).  I am skeptical of the premise of an embodied Father, however.  God the Father never appears vis-à-vis with anyone in Scripture, although Moses comes close (e.g., Ex. 33).  The reason is because “No one can see [God’s] face and live” (Ex. 33:20).  Furthermore, Jesus reminds us that “no one has seen the Father,” (Jn. 6:46).  Indeed, every appearance of the Father (fancy word: theophany) is marked by stormy language, and terrifying fear on the part of the observer (e.g., Sinai, Mt. 17:5-6).

 

Really what we have in Young’s trinity is just three copies of Jesus: three versions of God incarnate.  We could play the “God can do anything” card in Young’s defense, and claim that it is within God’s power to appear however He wants to whomever He wants.  Indeed, God can do anything, but only that which is consistent with His nature and character.  (So to answer the childhood riddle, no, God cannot create a rock that he cannot lift anymore than a circle can be a square).  Given the testimony of Scripture, it does not appear to be in God’s nature or character to reveal Himself as three incarnate persons, let alone two women (Papa and Sarayu) and one man (Jesus).

 

The Shack also tends to diminish God’s justice, especially in the area of punishment for sins.  Papa states that he does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, which is fair enough, but Young goes on to say that God does not punish sin, since sin is punishment enough (p. 120).  For sure, sin is punishment in itself; it is not the best for us, nor were we created for sin.  But the Bible clearly teaches that God punishes sinners for their sin.  From the third chapter of Genesis onward, we read of a God who, while he may not delight in punishment, punishes sinners none the less. 

 

Young shows great concern for preserving human free will, (indeed, it is the crux of his theodicy). Young’s god “submits” to human choices, even when they are harmful, so as not to violate our will (pp. 145-6). Also, Young’s god uses our choices to work into his purposes (p. 192). In isolation, statements like these don’t give me great alarm, but they contribute to an overall flavor of Young’s god that tends to soften God’s activity in history. God is portrayed more as a healer, one who fixes the messes, rather than one who is proactive in bringing about his will.  The Bible testifies that God comes on the scene, often without our permission or consent, and makes things happen.

 

So, is Young’s god really God?  There is much we can take away from Young’s god, and much I appreciate about the way Young creatively explores his character.  He is indeed more loving than we can imagine, and wishes to be in loving relationship with us so much that He sent His Son to die to bring about our reconciliation.  I doubt we’ll ever comprehend “how deep and how wide” runs the river of God’s love.

 

On the other hand, Young’s god is not God as He is revealed in the Bible.  What I struggle to record here, is an overarching feeling throughout The Shack of a watered-down god.  All that I mention above combines with an unrelenting emphasis on love and relationship.  This is all couched in a narrative where the main character chums around with the God of the universe.  Scripture might allow chumming around with Jesus, but not the Father or Holy Spirit.  The net result is a god much diminished from that of Scripture.  Yes, “God is love,” (1 Jn. 4:8,16; c.f., p. 101), but God is also a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24).  As He is loving, He is also holy, just, righteous, fearful, awesome, compassionate, mighty, majestic and merciful.  He is personal, but that doesn’t mean we would ever be able to curse in his presence (p. 224), or snap at him in anger (p. 96).  Just ask Job.

 

I have just been able to scratch the surface in this theological review.  There are other issues in The Shack.  Time and space limit me to highlighting a few problems that are exemplar of the kinds of subtle distortions Young makes, however well-intentioned.  Similar warnings could be made about Young’s take on salvation, the Church, Scripture, sin, and evil.  As such, below are some other reviews of The Shack that might fill in some of the gaps I’ve missed, and provide some more food for thought.

 

Ben Witherington’s review:

http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/07/shacking-up-with-godwilliam-p-youngs.html

 

Tim Challies’ review:

http://www.challies.com/media/The_Shack.pdf

 

James B. DeYoung shines a harsh light on The Shack (long):

http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf

 

A shorter version of DeYoung’s review:

http://theshackreview.com/content/TheShackReview2Page.pdf

 

A collection of links to several different reviews; scroll down to catch them all:

http://www.andyrowell.net/andy_rowell/2008/05/four-church-lea.html

   

Wayne Elliot’s review:

http://hereiblog.com/2008/08/08/the-shack-review/

 

Wayne Jacobsen (the publisher of The Shack) responds to various criticisms:

http://www.windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

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