In last week’s address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis brought an eloquent and powerful sermon to the halls of power. Using four great leaders from American history, the pope reminded the leaders of this nation that we do have great ideals. As Francis sees it, Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton each embody certain aspects of the American character, and I enjoyed his unpacking of these four ideals.
In a not so subtle response to criticism over the canonization of Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, the pope stated in his address that we cannot judge the past by the standards of the present. I simply could not agree with him more and let me tell you why.
Every person is a mixed bag.
As a lay theologian, it is important to remember that every person is flawed. We are sinful, and the pope would be the first to assert this truth (I’ll be the second!). At the same time, we do have a measure of good in this fallen world, thanks to common grace (which is a Reformed theological concept). There is good that God blesses society with apart from the salvific work of Christ. Sin is not fully corrosive in the world, thanks to the restraining grace of God. However, when it comes to humanity, we are created good but existentially strained from the righteousness of God.
Serra is a mixed bag, like all people. He did good things and not so good things. However, how does he compare with the rest of his contemporaries? How does other historical figures we admire compare with others of the same time?
Don’t be a chronological snob.
C.S. Lewis has a great section in one of his works where he argues that people who stand in the current century and judge the past are guilty of chronological snobbery. We sit judging other people based on our own “self-evident” truths, when in reality we could very well be just as guilty (or more!!) if we were in their situation. As a friendly reminder: nobody is perfect (see above).
It takes a great person to walk away from power, as George Washington did after the American Revolution, and I might not have done the same thing as he did. Would you have given up all power when it was in your historical right to proclaim yourself as the conquering king? Yes, he did own slaves, but what about his contemporaries? Step away form your Twentieth Century world and into his.
Would you have placed your life on the line over the abolition of slavery? Would you have walked across the bridge at Selma and confront the ugliness of racism? Seriously though, think about it.
Of course I can see the flaws of Lincoln or Calvin or ______, but does that mean I would have done any better in their shoes? Would you?
Judge historical characters by their own present.
If you want to be a good historian, tell a story. Get inside of their world and see what the historical figure saw—tell their story first.
Of course it is impossible to be objective, our own beliefs will always impact our thought process; however, we might learn to see that historical characters have merits and flaws. Reflecting on the past character by their own present reality will show us something new, and it just might make us more empathetic when it comes to listening to others in our own present. Maybe through this exercise we can regain the lost art of listening well before offering our own opinion.
I must confess, the only things I knew about David Livingstone prior to this past month was his quest for the source of the Nile River and the famous line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” I thought Livingstone was a mere explorer and had no idea that his deep faith shaped him in tremendous ways.
Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone” painted a wonderful picture of this complex man who embodied the spheres of science, exploration, and missionary work so well. Livingstone was a driven, complex man who was painfully aware of his own deficiencies. Often times he would not yield to counsel, but instead would press on out of his driven (or perhaps, stubborn) nature. After initial triumphs, he experienced setback after setback, ultimately dying in the land he loved. His drive to expose and abolish the East African slave trade ultimately cost him his life and his family.
One of the major themes that struck me was how Livingstone did not live to see the fruit of his life’s ambition. He instead died nearly penniless and separated from his family. He never saw the abolition of the slave trade in East Africa, never discovered the source of the Nile, and had only one convert to his missionary goals. Like Moses, he never entered into the promised land he so desperately wanted to see.
Milbrandt’s work was well done and thoroughly researched. The book was riveting and full of lively descriptions of the expeditions. Upon closing the biography, I felt like I knew Livingstone better and understood in part the East African slave trade. I also appreciated how Milbrandt brought out the imperialistic vision of Livingstone and let him argue for this movement, allowing history to be its judge. Overall, Milbrandt is an excellent biographer.
If you are into biographies and want to learn about a relatively under-the-radar historical figure, I recommend Jay Milbrandt’s “The Daring Heart of David Livingstone: Exile, African Slavery, and the Publicity Stunt That Saved Millions.” His narrative style and honest portrayal of a flawed yet heroic man is certainly well worth the read.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <http://booklookbloggers.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
To end this series on the excellent book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas we will move into the church setting. A politician, an athlete, and a pope walked into a bar. Er, I mean, walked into the blog post…
While the first two men highlighted this month were giants of their respective arenas, this next man was a powerful man who was remarkably different from his peers.
Karol Wojtyla was 58 when he was selected as the next pope, which is a baby by papal standards. Pope John Paul II was quickly seen as different because he was Polish, an outdoorsman, wrote plays and poetry, and jogged. This jogging pontiff was also friendly, optimistic, and was devout without being a sour religious type. Quite frankly, he seemed to know God while also remaining full of life.
Born in 1920, Karol lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland. However, he managed to get through WWII while holding onto both his faith and life. Through much sorrow and suffering early in his life (his mother, father, and brother all died before he hit 20), the future pope began to see that God’s hand was at work in his life. He realized that there were no coincidences and that every event in his life helped him on the path God had in store for him.
Young Karol had a full life, he attended a secret seminary away from the prying eyes of the occupying forces, while also maintaining his involvement with theater and work at a chemical factory. He worked hard and eventually would become ordained in 1946.
Karol would rise in the Roman Catholic Church quickly, moving from a subordinate to the bishop of Krakow to archbishop to cardinal in a decade. A man who never aspired to a life of politics, Karol was well liked and he was placed in positions of great power out of this genuineness. When Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly (after a month in office), Karol was elected to the papacy. Here the incredibly down to earth man was cut off from his previous life with no possible exit to his former life. Still, Karl did not hesitate to accept the call, even if it meant his life would irrevocably change.
John Paul II addressed the crowds with such vulnerability and grace that people gravitated to him. He humbly communicated with clarity and he was charming without any sort of guile. His lifetime equipped him for this moment, his devotion, trust, humility, and service empowered him for this leadership.
What stuck out to me was his generous, broad minded nature while remaining seriously orthodox. Metaxas pointed out that the views of John Paul II flowed out of a place of love. His theological views were rooted in the belief that we are created in God’s image and that everything flows from this place. Our rights, freedoms, and responsibility flowed from this love. Even in the last stage of his life, he demonstrated that in suffering and weakness, God still provides strength. Once a strong man, Pope John Paul II would rely on Christ for strength. His grace, humility, life of prayer, and intellectual prowess help show that John Paul II was truly a man worth admiring.
To continue the story of William Wilberforce from the previous post, William felt that God called him to suppress the Slave Trade and to reform the country.
On the first point, William and other deeply committed Christians fought tirelessly to end the slave trade and to free the slaves within the British Empire. Against the tide of big businesses, status quo politicians, and the nominally Christian culture of Great Britain, William and his allies stood in the gap for the voiceless and prophetically called out against the outrageous evil of African slavery.
On the Second Objective, William believed all of Great Britain had broken down and needed reform. He found that there was a blatant disregard in British society about the intrinsic worth of a human being. He believed that all humans were created in God’s image, which therefore meant all are intrinsically worthy of dignity. This unbiblical view, in Williams’ mind, led to every kind of evil. While slavery was the most horrific, other evils ran rampant in society at that time. Poor children were forced into labor as early as 5 years old for 10-24 hour days! Alcoholism was rampant (MPs were frequently drunk in sessions) and sexual trafficking soared as a result of alcoholism (25% of single women in London were prostitutes, with the average age being 16). Extreme animal cruelty and public hangings were provided for the perpetually plastered crowd and prisons were in utterly nightmarish conditions.
Simply put, society used and abused others and this realization grieved William’s heart. However, once he realized God was love and that he loved everyone, then William saw the world differently. By his own strength, William knew he couldn’t reform Britain on his own, instead either God needed to transform society or it could not be done. William knew in his core that God called him to these tasks and subsequently relied on God to provide victory.
While the views of William and other evangelical Christians at the time were in stark contrast to others, William knew the culture wouldn’t change unless goodness was seen as fashionable. He dared to dream that those with power, money, and influence would use it to help others. Or as the saying goes, “blessed to be a blessing.”
William was the impetus for society to recover the profoundly biblical principle that the fortunate have some obligation to help those who are less fortunate. At that time, British society held a more Eastern Karmic idea that the poor were meant to remain poor while the top stayed at the top and never shall the two meet. The changed mindset stemming from William’s life spread throughout Western Europe and the US via the British Empire.
William was an impressive and driven man, but really you need to understand that he was not just “religious.” He had a deep personal relationship with God that was rooted him in his causes. He was motivated from a place of love (love of God, love of others) over and above a sense of justice or right and wrong. He knew that the God of the universe is loving and graciously intervened in his life, so out of gratitude to God, William was slow to condemn his political opponents and quick to humility. He worked with people who were different for a common cause and was gracious to those on the fence. He passionately fought but was charitable to others as William lead Great Britain to better days.
William sacrificed a comfortable life to lead significant changes in Britain and the world. The deep faith of this MP helped end slavery and reform a bankrupt society.
The first figure I wanted to highlight from Eric Metaxas book Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness is a great baseball player. Ask any baseball fan who is the greatest player of all time and you are likely to get a variety of opinions. Names like Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and Williams would come out from several different people. While there were great players with integrity and some with a mixed nature, one man stands out as a phenomenal player and a deep man of character. This man is none other than the great 42, Jackie Robinson.
Jackie was born in 1919 in Georgia to a large family. When his father left the family, his mother Mallie moved her five kids to Pasadena, CA where she sought to bring her children up to value “family, education, optimism, self-discipline, and above all God.” His childhood was rough, he worked to help support his single mom and siblings, and Jackie encountered racism in his neighborhood early on. However, his mother taught him a lesson that would help him years down the road. When Jackie retaliated against a white man’s racial slur by tarring his lawn, Mallie forced Jacked to repair the damages. Mallie believed that Christians are called to bless those who persecute you, and undoubtedly that would have been tough amid racial injustice.
Jackie was a gifted athlete and he was phenomenal in nearly every sport he played. Though he was remarkably talented, his skin color prohibited him from joining white teams. As could be imagined, racial injustice would bring Jackie’s fierce temper to the surface. His explosive anger landed him in jail and in conflicts throughout his early life. He was not a trouble maker though, he simply wouldn’t take the garbage people threw at him.
A life changing moment occurred when Jackie met a Methodist preacher named Karl Downs. Karl taught Jackie that explosive anger should not be a Christian’s answer to injustice. Instead, the answer was to demonstrate heroic type of love modelled after the life of Jesus. This conversation marked a big turning point, because injustice would be confronted on the playing field.
After a great career at UCLA and in the military, Jackie would see the racism he frequently encountered through the lens of his deep religious faith. This belief would help get through the tumult and prepare him for the worst when he entered professional baseball.
This is where the executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey comes into the picture. Rickey wanted to change the face of the MLB by integrating his team for his devout faith told him that injustice was meant to be fought, even in sports. His position on the team would provide him the chance to fight racism by recruiting an athlete to break the color barrier
While the story is too long to cover here in one post, Rickey found Jackie in the Negro Leagues and offered him the chance as a partner to change the moral fabric of America. Their common, robust faith rooted both men in this monumental undertaking.
As a result, Jackie was threatened, harassed, abused, and mocked at every turn, yet he turned the other cheek and quietly let his superior athletic ability do the talking. Both Rickey and Jackie knew that if God was calling them to this task, then God would strengthen Jackie in the endurance through this incredible opportunity.
In Jackie’s play, he demonstrated to the crowds that black men could indeed compete and excel alongside whites. Not only was he one of the greats, but his conduct under hostile racial persecution won people to his side. Jackie and Ricky demonstrated that devout Christian faith is not just reserved for the pews, but is lived out in real life. Robust faith confronts injustice and leads to reconciliation and peace.
All fundamentalists are typically evangelical but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Did you catch that? Not everyone who call themselves Evangelical or Born Again are angry fundies.
It is true that in American Church History there was often an unholy alliance between church and power. Those who might have rose to defend orthodox Christianity (those who affirm the Nicene Creed) became compromised in a lot of respects through the political process. Through implementing fear tactics, support of morally questionable actions in American foreign policy misadventures, and high profile leadership failings, the modern Evangelical believer is in a tight spot. Evangelical Christians in political life can be justly or unjustly framed as someone implementing theocracy. Even those who might claim to be theologically conservative are lumped together with the abusive powerholders of years past. Sadly, in many minds, to be Evangelical means to be a hateful, nationalistic hypocrite.
But there has to be a different way to follow Jesus. One that does not discount his claim of equality with God, and one that does not find itself in the camp of charlatans and snakes. There has to be something more, a prophetic witness that is not a Fundamentalist nuthouse.
Fortunately, self help books of Joel Osteen and sentimental “Christian crap” (it’s in the Greek) are not the only things available to Christ followers. While another time might have offered prolific authors and thinkers to help the discouraged, there are still a few strong public theologians that can help. Turning away from the self-help/do-it-yourself spirituality books, people like Tim Keller and NT Wright can help those who be struggling in the sea of doubt. But sadly, those are few and far between.
To wrap the series up, I want to share with you why I am not a fundamentalist (just in case you were concerned or wondering). Even in my pessimism, I know that God is still on the throne. He will preserve his people, even when bad teaching creeps into the Church. One day Christ will return in glory and things will be put to rights, and the garbage will be removed. I simply cannot wait for that day.
I am not a fundie because I believe God is gracious and loving. I am not a fundie because I am open to doubts and for a faith that seeks understanding, even when things get shaky. I am not a fundie because not everyone needs to be hit over the head with a Bible-hammer in Jesus’ name. I am not a fundie because I want to be joyful in my faith and welcome others into a new story, one that is culminating in the world being put to rights.
I hope you too would share in being Evangelical without becoming a cranky Fundamentalist.
Lord, come quickly.
The early 20th Century had a lot of controversy. The Evolutionary Theory seemed to knock people off guard and the reliability of Scripture was called into question. Controversies, however, are nothing new.
Christianity has always had to confront challenges. Whether it was from the early days of the Church, where Roman scholars vociferously argued against Christianity, or in the era of the Scope Monkey Trial, Biblical scholarship has had to answer big questions. In the case of this current post, emergence of conflicting gospel accounts seem to make the Four Gospels merely four opinions selected out of dozens of other narratives of Jesus. Isn’t it possible that Dan Brown is right and that Christianity squelched the truth of the gospels of Thomas or Judas?
In short, no.
The other gospels like Thomas and Judas were written much later than the Four Gospels found in the New Testament (and many of the key texts used to showcase the positive aspect of Judas were hastily made with bad translations). According to the earliest dated documents written concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul seemed to have a very high view of Jesus. The Four Gospels found in the New Testament were more than likely written in the First Century and captured the early Church’s perspective on Jesus.
Quite frankly, those who might hold up contradictory new gospels like Thomas or Judas do so because they don’t like what the New Testament figure has to say about a variety of things. A Jesus of nice moral platitudes that our Founding American Fathers liked so much is easier to follow than a messianic figure who equated himself with God. As the earliest NT writer would say two decades after the crucifixion, the gospel is for our justification and promises restoration of the world one day. Having a fortune cookie version of Jesus is much safer than the Jesus found in the New Testament.
There will be a time where a follower of Christ will be confronted with questions about the Bible. Defending the reliability of Scripture can be important in certain contexts. However, sometimes defending the faith can be used in an abusive manner (see The Good, Bad, And The Ugly Of Apologetics), which is not good (just in case you didn’t know). Apologetics should never be used as a hammer. But for those occasions when an individual has a legitimate question, we truly do need to be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. We need to be able to answer legitimate questions.
Where fundamentalism gets it wrong is that they defend the faith at all times without smiling. Have you ever noticed that? Those people on the street corners holding those big signs, the ones that stand there shouting at you entering into a baseball game or walking down the pier. I agree that this is serious stuff, but to stand there angry is not good. Defending the Bible as God’s Word is a good thing, but using it as a hammer at all times is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be a precise scalpel, a warm cloth, or a piercing sword.
Christianity is a religion that is filled with tension. Creation is essentially good (see Genesis 1 and 2), yet existentially strained (see Genesis 3). Jesus is fully God, yet fully man at the same time. The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet.
Ross Douthat brings out a lot of this tension in a brilliant paragraph in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics (see page 153). He then rightly conveyed that the most important thing is to rest in that tension. Douthat raised these questions concerning Jesus:
“Was he God or man? Is the kingdom something to be lived out here or something to be expected to arrive? Are we given a blueprint to moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Did he aim to fulfill Judaism among the Jews or convert the Gentile world? Was he the bloodied man of sorrows of Mel Gibson’s movie, the hippie/lilies-of-the-field Jesus of Godspell, or a wise moralist?”
Were you able to see which one was right or wrong? Well, it was a trick question, because Jesus is all of those things, and more!
Christian belief, as set forth in the councils and creeds of old (see my Beliefs page), sought to be faithful to the teachings of Christ and to the unpacking of those teachings in the rest of the New Testament. It tried to hold onto the tension and seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives, instead of harmonizing or glossing over them. There’s a suffering Jesus of Mark, and a superhero Jesus of John. Do these two portraits differ? At points. Does that mean they nullify the others? Not at all! At least four people have written biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Of those four books, are they all identical? No, they have different feels to them, perhaps one might emphasis Lincoln’s melancholy side, another might emphasis his political genius. Seeming contradictions aren’t really contradictions at all, they’re different perspectives on a remarkable life.
Same thing with the gospels. Jesus will never be fully understand, this side of the River Jordan. We won’t understand him completely, since he is (*spoiler alert*) God. And we need to be OK with this– we need to live with the tension. Where a lot of people get into trouble is when that tension is replaced with glossing over tough passages and forming Jesus in our own image. Joseph Smith did that, so did/does a lot of pseudo-Christian prosperity gospel preachers.
Fundamentalists might voraciously defend tensions by stamping out any potential controversy or refuse to answer any difficult question. Shut up and just believe it is not the best answer to an honest question. Sometimes, I think we need to live with the tension instead of trying to make sense of it all. Some things will just be too much for us to comprehend, and we need to be comfortable sitting with paradoxes*. Paradoxes are all around us, maybe we should start embracing tension in our faith as well.
*A common paradox in our lives deals with light. It is both a wave and a particle, how can this paradox be resolved?
When we last left our heroes, it seemed like the American Church was in complete disarray. Hopefully you weren’t give to despair though, for out of the chaos emerged tremendous figures and institutions that would play a big part in the postwar world.
While fundamentalism veered off the track and became increasingly hostile, anti-intellectual, and defensive, another group arose in America. This group was called the the neo-evangelicals. Those Evangelicals reemerged from the fundamentalist ghettos, choosing to become a part of society again. A broad group of people from different denominations unified to return to American culture. Institutions like Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary (woot!), Campus Crusade for Christ, and the National Association of Evangelicals all were founded to unify and reject anti-intellectualism. Carl F.W. Henry, Billy Graham, and many others carried Evangelical Christianity from the margins back into the mainstream. During the boom years of Post-WWII, Evangelical Christianity was respectable, devout, and also relevant (for better or worse).
These “good old days” would not last. Churches would enter into a period of decline, as older non-Evangelical churches and denominations began to wither. The conservative churches that grew were not like the neo-evangelicalism that arose with Graham or CS Lewis however. Instead this Evangelicalism would soon be filled with Left Behind novels and Joel Osteen theology. The post-Eisenhower years witnessed the shift of institutional Christianity rooted in robust orthodoxy towards a do-it-yourself, consumer driven spirituality.
Correction begat overcorrection, and this new American spirituality would soon transform into something other than historic orthodox Catholic/Protestant Christianity. Christianity has always had bright spots of robust faith giving way to less bright times. Whether it was in times of corruption, murderous violence, or snake-oil salesmen, Church History has had it’s up and down times.
In our contemporary time, there appears to be a shift away from historic Christian faith. Of course there is the prosperity gospel, that is not new. But there is a new set of beliefs that has emerged within the American Church called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Based upon the research of Christian Smith, MTD is defined as:
A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.
How we view God is going to impact our faith. As mentioned in the post “Gandalf in the Sky,” if we view God as an abusive father, a sugardaddy, or mystical wizard, those ideas will shape us. We need to be formed in our understanding of who God is through Scripture, since he has chosen to communicate us through his Word. Even more definitively, he has revealed himself to us through his Son who is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1).
I hope and pray that you would be formed in Christ and in his Word this day.
This month, Wisdom Wednesdays will veer into the rise of Fundamentalism. There will be some historical exploration in addition to a closing “so what” moment at the end tying things together. Stay with the series though for the epic conclusion: Why I’m Not A Fundamentalist.
The early parts of the Twentieth Century was very chaotic for religion in America. There was a rise in the hope of a scientific modern world, where the spiritual aspects of the Western world could be swept away in favor of a more logical, cerebral world. Reason was about to replace religion.
These deistic understandings brought about an enlightened world, and this enlightened world came into conflict with a traditional understanding of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus, atonement for sins, miracles, and a high view of Scripture were either dismissed outright or softened as feel good tales. Religion was sterilized in many lives and congregations. Good moral lessons were kept while the need for a crucified and risen Christ was discarded.
However, this sterile view of the world was soon shattered by two world wars, concentration camps, gulags, and communist horrors. Modernist ideas caused the death and suffering of hundred of millions. Such carnage was never seen prior to the Twentieth Century, large statist governments caused the deaths of hundreds of millions in the name of progress.
While America was thankfully spared a lot of the horrors of the modern age and the past century, America was a place of cultural conflict. A battle of ideas proved to be enormous for our culture. While there was scientific and historic criticism leveled at the Bible, a large bloc of the church in America defensively fortified themselves with a “radical literalism,” as Ross Douthat pointed out in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics. This is where many Christians adopted the “six 24-hour days” in Genesis 1 as scientific explanation. This uncertain world also produced a new trend within Protestant Christianity, where the best defense of the faith was fueled with either withdrawal or reaction. It is also in this era that many took up the banners of “dispensationalism,” a new trend in Christianity. These End Times schemes were popularized in the 1910s through the use of the Scofield Reference Bible and can still be seen in the Left Behind series. As you can see, there was a lot going on in this era!
These overcorrections are fascinating to me because they are pretty new. Certainly, there were views on premillennialism (not of the dispensationalist stripe, though), but this was not a litmus test for being a faithful follower of Christ. While some might have been in favor of a “6 Day creation” view, even on of the main sources of Protestant thought would caution against basing all astronomical and scientific thought on the book that was meant to reveal God, not the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (John Calvin wrote on Genesis 1 that “he who would learn astronomy, let him go elsewhere.”). Nevertheless, a defensive fundamentalism took hold in American consciousness and this group either went to the margins of mainline Protestant churches or jumped out of these denominations to form their own (see Bad Religion, p34).
Don’t despair, chaos will soon lead to some good. To be continued!
Have you ever noticed that it seems like sometimes Christians might have the tendency to be overly defensive? How do you respond to attacks, real or imagined?