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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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Facebook Dynamics

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Facebook on this blog, but I’ve recently reactivated my account, evincing a softening on my earlier position.  What brought me back?  I read an article by Mark Driscoll about Santa Claus some time ago that suggested three options for Christian parents who wrestle with the Santa Claus question:  (1) Reject it, (2) receive it, or (3) redeem it.  With Facebook, I’ve opted for (3).

While Facebook can degenerate into mere relational candy, it can also be used to stay legitimately in touch with friends and family.  Furthermore, like Santa Claus, it isn’t going away any time soon.  It’s already firmly embedded into the culture I inhabit, so I might as well deal with it rather than avoid it.  As I’ve made a start at this, I’ve done some housekeeping, which brought up some interesting dynamics:

(1)  In the “religious views” category of my profile, I selected “Christian,” as one might guess.  But Facebook also offers some for a description below the simple declaration.  I found filling in this area to be very difficult, because I wanted to fill in all sorts of things that Christianity doesn’t mean to me (e.g., I’m not a member of the Tea Party movement).  It’s so discouraging to think of all the baggage that is attached to the word, and I found it impossible to write anything simpler than just referencing Acts 11:26, which is the first mention of the word “Christian” in the Bible.  This was in part inspired by something I read in An Evangelical Manifesto some years ago: “In the first instance, Christians ought to define themselves, and be defined, by what they are for, rather than what they are against.”  Ironically, I don’t entirely agree with that statement, but I do agree with the larger point that it’s not very helpful merely to define what something isn’t.

(2)  It’s hard to un-friend somebody.  I went through my friend list and found people who I did not remember or recognize, no matter how hard I tried.   I also removed some friends whose names that I remembered, even though I couldn’t think of one shared moment or interaction from our past, other than, perhaps, that we were in the same gym together when we graduated high school.  Why is it hard to un-friend somebody with whom you’ve spent very little (if any) time?  When said time is most likely decades in the past?  My guess is that it’s bound up in the implied language of taking somebody off your list of friends, viz., “You are not my friend.”  It feels like I’m rejecting somebody, and that never feels easy to me, whether it’s a mouse-click or an actual conversation.

(3)  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a temptation to “collect,” friends, whatever that achieves.  “Two more friends and I’ll have 100!”  What’s the itch being scratched here?  Probably the basic human need for relationship, love, acceptance, and all the rest.  Cue sermon.

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My wife, daughter and I just returned from a little vacation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we visited some family and had a wonderful time.  I had a little extra excitement leading up to this trip beyond seeing family and spending a few days in a lakeside cottage.  In a nutshell, discounted books.

I’ve heard that many publishers have bookstores where they sell “damaged” books at massive discounts.  These damaged books generally have something like a ding in the binding, nothing destructive.  Anyway, both Baker and Eerdmans have such stores, and I was happy to use my $50 VISA gift card I received for Christmas.  So, in a completely selfish and unedifying post, here’s the rundown of what I picked up.

1.  On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by Kenneth Kitchen.  This is one of those books that’s been on my “to buy” list for some time, but other books would creep ahead of it for one reason or another.  Kitchen is a master of the Ancient Near East and ancient Egypt and brings a wealth of knowledge to the study of the Old Testament.  I’m trying to increase my understanding of the world of the Old Testament, and can’t think of a more exhaustive resource than this one.

2.  The Presence of the Future, by George Eldon Ladd.  Ladd is one of the most influential scholars in the study of eschatology, if not the most influential.  I’ve made eschatology a pet topic of mine, largely because it is either ignored or taught poorly in churches.  I’ve received the benefits of Ladd’s works second hand through the writings of others, I’m looking forward to learning straight from the man himself.

3.  Jesus and the God of Israel, by Richard Bauckham.  I’ll admit, this book was a completely selfish purchase.  Sure, I’ll find a way to make it useful in my teaching, but it won’t have as much direct influence as the other books.  Bottom line: Bauckham is an outstanding scholar and his books are always worth reading.  This particular book focuses on monotheism and New Testament Christology.  This book expands on his earlier God Crucified, which is a favorite of mine.

4.  The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll.  This is one of those books that I’ve seen quoted and referenced time and time again, but haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy.  Basically, Noll laments the lack of an evangelical intellect.  Or, to put it his way, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”  I’m looking forward to reading this book by one of the top evangelical thinkers and historians around.

5.  Showing the Spirit, by D A Carson.  Carson has released a few “expositions” of select passages in the New Testament.  This particular book is on 1 Corinthians 12-14, or the “spiritual gifts” chapters.  As one who fits broadly into the charismatic world, yet is concerned with exegetical precision, I’m always looking to refine my understanding of these important chapters.  I’ve referred to this book in small chunks in the past; I’m looking forward to learning from Carson.

So there you go.  In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even spend my entire $50.  You just can’t beat that.

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A friend of mine at work sent me a link to a review of Guitar Praise.  The subject of the review is a new video game based on the immensely popular “Guitar Hero.”  The reviewer dubs it, “Guitar Hero minus the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.”  In effect, the game will be strikingly similar to the multi-million dollar Guitar Hero series of games, save that the music will be of the “Christian” variety.  Dust off your yellow and black striped leather pants; Stryper is back.

Any thoughtful observer, Christian or not, will note that Guitar Praise is one of a plethora of “Christian-ized” products that are on the market today.  For a few decades now, Christian versions of otherwise secular wares have flooded the marketplace.  The formula for the creation of said wares is apparent in reviewer’s title above:  Take a product (Guitar Hero), clean it up (in our case, subtract the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll), and ship it.

The discussion of Christians borrowing from popular culture is probably as old as Christianity itself.  When our theological pens have spilled their ink, we are still faced with the very practical issue of living within a culture.  Such issues are not uncommon in the NT (e.g., food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8).  Part of the project of how Christians ought to “be in but not of” the world is concerned with adopting (or not adopting) the cultural forms that surround us.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time thinking about such issues is hardly want for literature about the subject.  BBG, still wet behind the ears, already has an article about it; I daresay it will have many more.  As such, I cannot help but rehash much of what is already written on the topic, but I think the occasion of Praise Hero warrants the beating of what some might consider a dead horse:

First, having a Christian flavor of something, be it music or merchandise, does little to differentiate Christians and Christianity from the rest of the world.  There are two sides to this coin:

  1. On the first side, in our choice-saturated consumer culture, Christianity can appear as just another lifestyle choice among many; one more product on the shelf, similarly packaged and priced along side others.
  2. On the second side, Christianity is finding a touch-point with the world around it.  “Hey, you like video games?  We do too!”  Herein is an expression (though perhaps unintended) of the sentiment that Christians are really “normal” people, who enjoy and interact with many of the same things found in the secular world.  I’ve had much success building relationships through interests I’ve shared along these lines.

Second, we also have to remember that there are few, if any, “neutral” carriers out there (I’m a broken record,sorry).  Whatever we adopt carries with it certain assumptions or other baggage with it.  As one example, for Guitar Praise, consider the enjoyment one achieves through escaping into a fantasy world where one is “playing” the guitar with great proficiency.  In reality, of course, learning to play the guitar well would require hours of diligent practice; something that is not always fun.  With Guitar Praise, we get the superficial “glory” that would otherwise only be acheived through hours of hard work.  Note also that true musical success comes to most as a mixed bag, full of other unpleansatries which I’m sure the game ignores.  I’m reminded here of EPCOT’s “World Showcase”:  You get the glory of (superficially) traveling around the world with none of the headache (and I’m not just talking about jet lag).

Third, we have to ask, ought Praise Hero (and its ilk) occupy the time and effort of Christians?  There is a slippery slope here.  On one end of the spectrum is the idea that any recreation, or time spent away from healing the sick and reading the Bible is intrinsically “lesser” than any obviously “Christian” activity.   Are not video games an tremendous waste of time?  Moreover, if our raison d’etre is to glorify God, how exactly does this game do that?  Is it not another distraction from our calling?  On the other end of the spectrum is the thought that it’s not intrinsically bad to rest (nay, it’s good; c.f., the Sabbath), and we need to punch out every now and then and relax.  I would only bring to bear two considerations:

  1. What are our time ratios?  What is the “time spent playing video games” to “time spent reading the Bible” ratio?  Does God favor a high one, or a low one?  Additionally, does one get attention to the peril of the other?  What gets a higher priority in our lives?
  2. There are other ways to “punch out and relax.”

Finally, I’m reminded of a quote from Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind that Danny shared with me: “Orthodox Christianity has always had better things to do than simply echo the gifts that the despairing world wants to give to the church, or to borrow hungrily from the world’s constantly changing aspirations.”  Amen, anyone?

I am acutely aware of the fact that this post comes across as largely pejorative.  I am equally aware of the fact that there aren’t easy answers here, and I can understand why some might think Guitar Praise is a great idea (apart from the revenue it will generate).  As is my custom, I would simply urge my Christian readers to think Guitar Praise through, before it is condemned or…well…praised.  We must never forget that when Rome was Christianized in the 4th century, Christianity was also Romanized, and the results weren’t all positive.  So also, when we Christianize a product, idea or medium, we must remember that we too are subject to changes which are all too often ignored.

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