noun \ˈgäd also ˈgȯd\
1 capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality: as
a : the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe
b Christian Science : the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit : infinite Mind
2: a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically : one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality
3: a person or thing of supreme value
4: a powerful ruler
Who are your gods? Can you name them?
In the Christian tradition, there is one true God whose name was revealed to Moses as YHWH and was personally revealed in the person and work of Jesus the Messiah. However, the religious marketplace of the Ancient Near East was vibrant, as Baal, Zeus, Aphrodite, and many others vied for attention. And the Bible captures this quite well, as the stories recount the clash of cults between YHWH and other gods (Elijah and the prophets of Baal is probably the most memorable).
If I can be so bold to say: in American society, work is a god. Busy-ness is a god. Beauty and prestige are gods.
Throughout the annals of history, the gods of this world competed for our attention with a refrain of constant noise. In the ancient world, Israel’s God—YHWH—claimed to be the only God among the other false gods. There simply was no other.
Today, there aren’t too many idols on desks at work. Instead, we have idols of a busy calendar, bigger paycheck, better looks, more sex, and a better society. Productivity, paychecks, taking care of ourselves, and building a more just society are all good things; however, they became nefarious when they become the only thing. When they become the highest thing and our lives gravitate around the position.
As I close out this musing for the day, I want to ask you to consider whether a god competes for your attention. What vies or your focus? Busy-ness? Fame? Wealth? You?
What god clamors for your worship?
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.
Over the Easter weekend, my wife and I were out of town up at her folks house. With our afternoon arrival, we decided to go to a Good Friday service later that evening. Noticing that there were no Anglican churches in this city, I recommended that we attend the Episcopal service at 7 in their hometown. I mean, why not? How could a church mess that up, right? Boy, was that an interesting experience, to say the least.
In case you didn’t know, the Episcopal church recently underwent a large event where churches split off from the main denominational body. From what I have been told (and this is an oversimplification, so please chime in the comments if you want to further unpack or clarify it), it was a long time coming. The more conservative bodies took the name Anglican and aligned themselves with other Anglican churches throughout the world, placing themselves under the care of established dioceses of African churches. With few exceptions, the Episcopal churches are currently more left-leaning in their approach to Scripture and those who broke away to become Anglicans are more traditional.
Which leads me back to the Episcopal service.
Politics at the pulpit
I have sat in on services at a few churches that were overly political on the conservative end of the spectrum. I recall to my horror when a pastor denounced a state assemblyman from the pulpit for voting with the Democrats. Pastors can have political views, which can be said privately in conversation, but when it comes to speaking about a budget vote in Sacramento from the pulpit, well, that is a little too far.
At this Episcopal service, it was on the other end of the political spectrum. The meditations on the crucifixion of Christ were accompanied with a call to action about gun violence.
Listen, I’m all for the call for Christians to be agents of peace in a culture of violence, I get that. But when the pastor is reading a congressional testimonies from people for awhile, then it is veering into uneasy territory for me.
A call to action could be needed in an American Church that might not want to challenge the culture on the consumption of violence. Indeed, the “already, but not yet” tension between the Kingdom of God transforming the world will have political consequences. Whether it is in the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movement, or a call to the sanctity of life in every stage (not just in the womb), our union with Christ ought to overflow into action. Yes, political action could be a means to the end, but it is not the only means. To borrow from Paul, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead needs to give life to our mortal bodies and give us strength to be a witness in our communities and act when needed.
Have you had any awkward church experiences?
The master of stopping the spin, Bill O’Reilly, made the statement on his show recently that Christianity was not a religion but was a philosophy. Previously I have corrected dear Evangelical friends who would state that Christianity was not a religion but was only a relationship. So for the purposes of this post, I think that O’Reilly misses the point tremendously and veers into the errors of the Deists and Thomas Jefferson. Let me unpack that.
It sounds like O’Reilly believes that Christianity is a philosophy*, a set of ideas you can live by and teachings you can enjoy apart from the Lordship of Christ in one’s life. I have caught his show in the past, and it would be fair to say that he follows a more deistic understanding of Christianity- Jesus is a good moral teacher. I know I wouldn’t be saying anything offensive if I suggest that you know of someone like this, someone who might favor a buffet approach to spirituality or a stylized Jesus idea. It’s like the guy in a buffet line of ideas, where he might be tempted to take a piece of “Golden Rule” chicken, a little bit of “turn the other cheek” casserole, and a slice of pie in the sky “heaven is for everybody” for dessert. He could leave the whole sin, judgment, atonement, and other not-so-sweet dishes for those blasted fundies behind him.
Christmas is a dangerous holiday because it is more than a nice idea, something to brighten your day. It is dangerous because the birth of Christ is the beginning of these Last Days. The birth of Jesus is dangerous because it marks the Kingdom of God, spreading into the Kingdom of Darkness. Or as Handel reminded us in his Messiah, “The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”
Christmas is also a comforting holiday because it recalls the arrival of God in the flesh, and he will one day come again in glory. That same infant in the cute nativity scenes, lived, died, rose again, and ascended to the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the world and to right the injustice that taints it.
As Michael Horton wrote in a recent post at the White Horse Inn concerning the O’Reilly comments, “Christmas is a wonderfully comforting holiday. In this era between his two advents, Christ is restraining Satan by his Word and Spirit, drawing sinners into the safety and joy of his banquet hall. Yet it is also a dangerous holiday, especially for those who defend it only by using it, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5-7). Are we really sure that we want to celebrate this birth? Are we glad when pass by the nativity scene on the city lawn, defended as an American ‘philosophy’?”
Advent and Christmas is a religious holy-day, not just a philosophy, and I hope many in the American Church will live in that reality.
*Christianity has had a positive impact socially, in terms of values transmitted to society. See my post on Kicking out Nativity Scenes for more.
Seminary is tough. I don’t mean just the assignments, tests, papers, and other work. I mean the work of actually digging into Scripture and the faith, taking an honest look into it, and wrestling with tough issues. Looking over the breadth of Biblical Studies and Church History as disciplines can cause discomfort. Big words like redaction criticism, source criticism and inerrancy/infallibility can be admittedly distressing. As mentioned previously in my other posts about seminary, it can even rattle or (God forbid!) destroy your faith. But you know what? Sometimes we need to be challenged in our faith and be prompted to dig deeper than before and develop a more complete understanding of the faith.
Sometime it is easier to stop thinking and turn on the cruise control button. Sometimes it is easier to just become a full-fledged fundamentalist and develop a bunker mentality.
Yes, it is easier to stop thinking. But it is just not worth it.
As I have said before, Christianity is an incredibly deep religion and the annals of its history provides comfort for those who are in despair. Other people have faced similar doubts and encountered troubling questions (including this writer!). If that is you, I beg you to not just stop at the questions you might have and never look for an answer. Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and Mother Theresa (among others) will help you through problems. I am so thankful for contemporary people like Rachel Held Evans who is incredibly honest about Christianity. She helps remind me frequently in her blog that it is OK to wrestle with the Bible and the passages that might disturb you.
I am so grateful for the giants of the faith who have helped me to overcome issues and wrestle with tough questions. I am also very grateful for the faithful servants who might never have their names in a Church History book or blog, but still impacted my life. While I am still haunted by many issues posed in the pages of Scripture, I know and trust that I will not fully grasp everything this side of the River Jordan. Nevertheless, I will still walk the path of being a disciple of Jesus, even when it gets a little uncomfortable.
Sometimes it pays to be uncomfortable.
I was talking with a friend this week about the dangers and benefits of apologetics (defense of Christianity). If you were raised in an Evangelical church or household, chances are you were given the answers to many questions that you might encounter when it came to talking about Christianity. While the answers might be helpful, I believe that there could be a negative side associated with the robust defense of the faith.
The positive aspect about “Defending your faith” is being able to answer legitimate questions that people might have for you. Removing that obstacle is important, but it is not the only thing! Christians must resist being pulled into a state of Mutually Assured Destruction where we try to win the conversation at the expense of losing the relationship. Regrettably, I have done that and used apologetics as a weapon instead of a scalpel, smashing the opponent instead of carefully removing objections to the faith. Instead of graciously discussing the matter, I have been quick to interject my own opinions into the matter. Instead of listening and being present in a conversation, I have listened for an entry point where I could hit back at the person. Indeed we should reply to charges or questions, even if it is a “I don’t have the answer, but I can go look for one.” Nevertheless, whatever we do, it should be done in a gentle manner.
Being gracious towards the other person should be something that we embody as Christians. Active, gracious listening should be a mark of a follower of Christ in our culture. At all times, giving a reason for the hope that lives within you and me should be done with humility, not a hammer.
(Side note: It is OK if you question Christianity. Historically, Christians have faced the questions posed in our world for centuries now. Our faith is a deeply rooted one, so I would encourage you to think through the problem. Let me know if I can help in any way!)
Do you see any other “Good, the Bad, and The Ugly” in Apologetics?
I stumbled upon this question on a website and was stunned by the findings:
Q. What is the ultimate origin of moral value?
200 user(s) polled.
1. God 17.5%
2. Nature 23%
3. Culture 38%
4. Other 21.5%
The reason that I found this astounding is because the implications of this are so profound. The ultimate origin of moral value was seen by 38% of those polled to be culture. All cultures, regardless of their values, are equal. The cultures promoting peace are the same as those promoting imperialism. Slavery and abolition are theoretically of the same basic essence, since after all, moral value (albeit separate moral values and separate ends) were derived from their culture. Who am I to say that one is right and one is wrong? Who am I to say that a totalitarian form of government is inferior to a republican form of government? Both derived their own moral value from their respective cultures.
Secondly, all moral value could come from nature. That means the natural order of things (read, Darwinian evolutionary theory) comes from “progress” and domination. I look around and nature says that the strongest survive. Social Darwinism and Eugenics surely follow closely behind on the heels of this theory.
Thirdly, other is the origin of all moral value. What could ‘other’ mean? Perhaps it means from extraterrestrials? It could mean it is derived from the automobile? Seriously though, what other possibilities could there be? Other is just an out for people who are too timid to say what’s on their mind.
Finally, the ultimate origin of moral value could come from God. One of the reasons from my Top 10 list “Why I believe in God” would have to be that if there is no God, then there are no rights. Where would our rights to liberty come from? If they came from culture, then culture can change those original assumptions. As a theist, I firmly fall in this camp. There are absolutes in this world (besides, to say that there is no absolute laws in the world is itself absolute…). There is Truth in this world. There is a reason for living in this world. This came in the form of the Word becoming incarnate. Quite honestly, I don’t know how else moral values can come into this world except through that pathway.
I am still in complete shock by the winner of the poll. We are talking about the ultimate origin of all moral value coming from cultures, regardless of their stance. Even though it is humanity that creates culture, so in all reality moral value is of our own creation.
Yet, why should this outcome surprise me? I would rather make up my own rules than play by someone else’s rules.
I recently finished a book for a class in seminary that is entitled “Fundamentalism and American Culture.” In it, scholar George Marsden paints the historic rise of fundamentalism in American society, tracing it back to the 19th Century and moving it up to nearly modern day. In his concluding thoughts of modern-day fundamentalism (read: Religious Right under Reagan through George W. Bush) Marsden points at the contradiction in their global understanding. Fundamentalists often viewed American society as a decaying carcass in the world, incapable of hope as “liberalism” continued to root out its Biblically-centered core. This view is also coupled with a rampant nationalism when it comes to foreign policy related ventures, especially military efforts. Marsden pointed out this and one can only think back a few years ago when anyone could venture into a Bible church parking lot and see the wide array of patriotic stickers on every bumper. Running into a Christian who opposed the war meant that they were not patriotic, forget about the historic pacifistic denominations!
Marsden wrote an insightful sentence clearing this up saying,
“And although in domestic affairs fundamentalistic American Protestants clearly distinguish between the far-too-secular nation and their churches, in foreign policy they often seem uncritical of American nationalism and treat the United States as though it were unquestionably on God’s side in warfare against the forces of evil.”
It is my hope that evangelicals, to distinguish from militant fundamentalists, will not follow along the same blind mistakes and be nationalistic in any area, especially foreign policy. America is a force for good in the world but it also has perpetrated some rather negative acts as well. “America right or wrong” is not a proper response for an individual who is ultimately loyal to the Kingdom of God.
America is a Hindu nation. That is what a Newsweek poll discovered last summer. Even Evangelicals believe certain tenets that run contrary to the very core of being Evangelical. I am not writing about disagreements between Calvinism and Arminian or Traditional music and contemporary music, I’m talking about a denial of key doctrines like the bodily resurrection and the necessity of the gospel. Yes, those same Bible-thumpers might place a high value on Scripture but interestingly enough a portion deny central mores to their faith. The Newsweek article writes,
Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, has long framed the American propensity for “the divine-deli-cafeteria religion” as “very much in the spirit of Hinduism. You’re not picking and choosing from different religions, because they’re all the same,” he says. “It isn’t about orthodoxy. It’s about whatever works. If going to yoga works, great—and if going to Catholic mass works, great. And if going to Catholic mass plus the yoga plus the Buddhist retreat works, that’s great, too.”
It comes down to the point that Bible-believing Christians as a large portion do not necessarily follow the key tenets of their faith. In regards to the trend within contemporary American Christianity, theologian Michael Horton would write,
On one hand, there is the tendency to say, as Luther characterized the problem, “I go to church, hear what my priest says, and him I believe.” Calvin complained to Cardinal Sadoleto that the sermons before the Reformation were part trivial pursuit, part story-telling. Today, this same process of “dumbing down” has meant that we are, in George Gallup’s words, “a nation of biblical illiterates.” Perhaps we have a high view of the Bible’s inspiration: 80% of adult Americans believe that the Bible is the literal or inspired Word of God. But 30% of the teenagers who attend church regularly do not even know why Easter is celebrated. “The decline in Bible reading,” says Gallup, “is due in part to the widely held conviction that the Bible is inaccessible, and to less emphasis on religious training in the churches.”
The American church, in many ways, has returned to a state of illiteracy. Emphasis is placed on nationalism, political action and culture wars instead of the power of the gospel. It is not just seminary students that reject historic tenets of their faith, but a large portion of laypersons (35% according to Barna). Hopefully evangelicals as a whole will begin to focus on the gospel instead of alien philosophy and rhetoric from the Religious Right and Left. There needs to be a reformation within the Church.
I hope I am around to see it.