Jesus Projection

by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.

Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."

We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.

Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.

For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.

In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"

This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.

The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.

The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.

Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."

But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.

Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)

So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."

Family Radio Trying To Move On

by Matthew Raley While Harold Camping's teaching increasingly resembles Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch, Family Radio (FR), the ministry that Camping leads, is averting its eyes.

According to the Christian Post, longtime FR employee Matt Tuter is saying that the ministry has more to offer than its #1 show. "Family Radio is a fine ministry. Other than Harold Camping's program, the other programs are normal."

Tuter is clearly frustrated, declaring that he is not a Camping follower, and that neither are most other employees. He portrays the board of FR as responsible for Camping's hermeneutical enormities, and the article reports that board members have not shown up at the offices since last Thursday.

FR's website has purged any mention of Camping's judgment day claims, undergoing a redesign complete with a button saying, "What's new?" The board is AWOL. Employees are pointing fingers.

This ministry is in profound denial.

The most illuminating comment Tuter makes is that Camping has predicted The End 10 times, only a couple of which have been announced publicly. "I was here for nine out of the 10," Tuter says.

Why? What possible motivation could have induced Tuter and all the other sceptics at FR to stay beyond Fail #2?

People make silent agreements to ignore lunatic vanity in the service of some "higher cause." I doubt the cause was high enough in this case. I doubt it ever is.

Harold Camping Actually Makes Another Prediction

by Matthew Raley According to the Christian Post, Harold Camping made a statement this evening that the end of the world will come in five months. He admitted being wrong about the rapture, but insisted that "judgment day" did indeed come on May 21st, as he had predicted. Apparently the judgment was a "spiritual" event.

Camping went on to insist that his other predictions have come true as well. The Post reports, "May 21, 1988, judgment came upon the churches; Sept. 27, 1994 , judgment continued on the churches but was also placed on parts of the world; then on May 21, 2011, judgment was placed on the entire world."

This story defies any attempt at analysis, generalization, or satire.

Blood-Thirsty Thoughts On Bin Laden and Justice

by Matthew Raley The killing of Osama bin Laden is being hailed as a thrilling feat of heroism. We are witnessing a rare outburst of vindictive jubilation that has swept young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat -- that, indeed, has revived talk of national unity. Justice, we feel, has concretely been done.

This is a good moment to consider the pressure of God's justice.

To see why so many are jubilant, it might be helpful to peruse this piece from New York Magazine, "September 11 by Numbers." It makes jarring reading even 10 years after bin Laden's crime.

The total number of people killed in the twin towers was 2,819. I vividly remember an admonition from Walter Cronkite the next day, that journalists should cite the exact number and not use round figures. "Those are people."

The estimated number of children who lost a parent in the attack was 3,051. Fully one-fifth of all Americans knew someone hurt or killed.

This magnitude of loss on a single morning, graphically recorded second by second, painstakingly studied by government commissions, and endured day after day ever since by the bereaved, cries out for recompense. No one should expect detached objectivity about justice from one of those 3,051 people who spent the last decade grieving a parent. We shouldn't expect them to feel mercy toward bin Laden because the expectation is, among other things, inhumane.

Payback is their due.

But the fury of 3,051 children cannot actually be appeased by bin Laden's death, much less the fury of an entire nation.

The man who took  2,819 lives at the World Trade Center only had one life to yield up in payment. And he took many more lives besides, including that of the wife he used as a shield in his last moments. His instant experience in death cannot balance the experiences in grief over lifetimes. Most tragically, his death does not restore life to those he killed.

So the imbalance remains. Even after all bin Laden had is taken from him, the losses his caused are still on the books.

Let's add another complication.

Is there any basis upon which bin Laden could have repented? What could he have done to gain enough mercy to keep his life?

Perhaps a public apology, combined with a life of social work. Maybe a religious conversion. Or he might have liquidated his wealth to fund the education of all 3,051 children through graduate school.

Nauseated yet?

Assuming you could get 1,512 of those children the sign off on bin Laden's repentance, you still wouldn't be able to look the other 1,539 in the eyes.

The simple reason is that repentance without payment is worthless. That's clear enough when the enormity of the crime is too ugly to whitewash.

Bottom line: one man's payment is never enough to compensate for his sins, and no repentance will restore him if he cannot pay.

The pressure of divine justice is that the tabulation our sins is ongoing at God's throne. If we admit today that justice demanded satisfaction in bin Laden's case, will we also admit that it demands satisfaction in our own?

Such are the problems that lead to the cross.

The Pantheon's Embrace

by Matthew Raley The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.

As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.

Time, the American century's literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell's teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.

I'll write another post about Bell's book, Love Wins. I don't want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won't draw any conclusions about Bell's teachings based on Meacham's piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.

My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.

How does Time present Bell?

He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as "a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following." The message in this package seems to be, "Don't mess with Bell. He's way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him."

How does Meacham frame the theological issues?

Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell's ideas. Of Bell's suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, "If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?" Meacham accurately says that Bell is "more at home" within the "expansive liberal tradition" of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

R. Albert Mohler notes, "This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake."

So, hat-tip to Meacham.

What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?

The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, "All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest."

The invitation is pointed. Meacham's theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father's Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell's Christianity is "less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions." Adopting Bell's attitude will get evangelicals the "seat at the table" they have coveted.

Further, the invitation is backed by power -- the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, "Is Bell's Christianity ... on an inexorable rise?" Then he quotes Bell himself: "I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air." Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.

The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time's invitation to evangelicals. You know you can't hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.

The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome's culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon's blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor's permission to rule.

This is Bell's moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus' followers do not deny the other gods their place.

What is Rob Bell's creed?

The Cosmic Vending Machine

by Matthew Raley Americans, pragmatic as they are about everything, tend to evaluate God the same way they evaluate their congressman: What have you done for me lately?

There shouldn't be any question on God's part about whether to keep our blessings coming: the financial windfall, the narrow escape from an accident, robust health, and above all, fun. He knows we're not perfect. He knows we try -- at least when we feel like it. And he ought to know that, despite our limitations, we're doing a pretty darn good job with life.

So, when we put a prayer in the heavenly slot, we have a right to hear some clicking, a whir, and a final clop as the item we requested appears. Fair is fair.

The biblical word holy intrudes on this fantasy.

When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple (Isaiah 6), some of the more threatening aspects of the vision are the seraphim. These creatures have six wings apiece: two pairs to pay deference to the Lord by covering face and feet, and one pair to fly. The verb stem of fly is intensive, meaning not merely that they hover, but that they dart around the high throne.

All the while, they call warnings to each other: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" These calls are loud and deep enough to shake the foundations of the temple.

The root idea of holy is separate, or unmixed. To say that God is holy is to call him Other.

But that is not all the seraphim are saying. The Hebrew language is built on repetition; to repeat a word is to compound its force. "Holy, holy" would be the maximum imaginable Otherness. The seraphim are calling, "Holy, holy, holy": the Otherness beyond your ability to imagine.

No wonder Isaiah says, "I'm dead!" He and his people are unclean -- that is, mixed and corrupt, unable to survive the presence of utter holiness.

America pragmatism doesn't work well. We resent that the cosmic vending machine won't deliver on demand, and that heaven is silent when we pound it. If Isaiah's vision is true, then we are operating on a theory of God that is disastrously wrong.

Pragmatists have no category for holiness. This omission means that we not only can't understand God's judgment but, even worse, we can't understand his grace. The Lord says the same thing to us that he said to Isaiah: "I will make you clean."

God's holiness means that every single blessing we receive has crossed the infinite chasm between us and the purity of his being. It means that his extension of cleansing to us is life itself.

The Debt I Owe When I Cannot Repay

by Matthew Raley We tend to associate gratitude with being polite -- or worse, being respectable. And I suspect our view of Christmas is tainted as a result.

In our point of view, I show gratitude to avoid giving offense. After all, if someone helps me out, I don't want to take the help for granted, as if I were entitled to it. That would foreclose the possibility of being helped again. So I show gratitude for the same reason Americans are polite generally: pragmatic vigilance.

The lower form of this pragmatism is to tend appearances. I don't want someone to think I'm ungrateful, so I express gratitude to maintain respectability.

This kind of gratitude is alien to the Bible.

Here's one of the Bible's most important, and most neglected, verses (Romans 1.21). "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened."

To explain the depth of human perversity, Paul says that we did not "honor God as God." God is the creator of all things (vv 19-20, 25). He has a rank that is infinitely above ours: creator to creature. Honor in this case is not a matter of politeness, but of profound, inflexible, eternal indebtedness.

Giving thanks is the payment. The gratitude is not about being appreciative, as if we were supposed to say, "Wow, it was so nice of you to make me and all my stuff!" The gratitude is what we owe God when we cannot repay the debt. "You gave me life. I can never repay what I owe you. But I can live for your glory in humble gratitude."

I understand this best as a parent. When my sons spontaneously say, "Thanks, Dad!" for something I do, I am repaid in the coin of honor. More than the thing I provide, they value me.

How does this concept of gratitude relate to Christmas?

Christ Jesus came to this world to give his life for our redemption. He did so when we were still ungodly -- still expressing ingratitude for created life, giving no honor to him as God (Romans 5.8). So what we celebrate in this season is the double-gift of life that is doubly beyond our ability to repay.

We are celebrating our debt of gratitude.

This ALWAYS Happens To Me!

by Matthew Raley Bitterness is a conviction that your life is filled with unfairness. It is one of the most common spiritual conditions I come across, and it is debilitating. Here are some characteristics of bitterness that I've noticed in myself and others.

1. Bitterness is a story.

When someone expresses his bitterness, it has characters and plot. "First they took my lunch money. Then they stole my invention -- which would've made me rich. Then they cut off my unemployment. And now you want a tip! This always happens to me!"

Here is Jacob's response when his oldest son Reuben needs to take the youngest son to Egypt to buy food during a famine (Genesis 42.36): "You [Reuben] have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me." Jacob has been telling himself a story about Reuben.

A good start at dispelling bitterness is to notice the stories you tell yourself.

2. The bitter story is deceitful.

The story usually lumps disparate people into one category. They stole my lunch money, my invention,  and my unemployment benefits. You want a tip. Ergo, you belong with them. Time to challenge the composition of they.

Also, the story interprets actions as if they are about "me." Life is unfair because people are always against me, stealing from me, dissing me. But, reality is, no one thinks about me as much as I do.

Jacob's story leads him to blame Reuben for events that were not Reuben's fault. But it makes total sense to Jacob because deception wears a cloak of plausibility.

Another way to dispel bitterness is to challenge your own assumptions.

3. Bitterness ignores God's story.

Because I am the center of the bitter story, and my point of view dominates, I can edit the parts that confuse the plot. The part where, for instance, someone gave me a sandwich after my lunch money went missing. The part where my invention that was going to make me billions didn't actually work. Or the part where I started a new job after my unemployment ran out. These scenes mess up the story, so out they go.

In Genesis 42, Jacob doesn't know yet that Joseph is alive, that it was Joseph who arrested Simeon in Egypt, and that it is Joseph who will save the family from starvation and bring reconciliation. And Jacob has conveniently forgotten how God protected and provided for him before.

God is busy working his agenda for our lives, and he is not going to adjust it to our preferences. Nor should he: his agenda is good. So, in addition to forgiveness, the most helpful single way to dispel bitterness is hour-to-hour gratitude, which prevents the bitter story in the first place.

The Fearsome Nature of Forgiveness

by Matthew Raley The word forgive has fallen into disuse, and we've substituted the phrase move on. But the two actions we describe are different.

The object of my "moving on" or "forgiving" is a wrong someone has committed against me.

To move on is to leave that wrong behind on life's road. I strive to put my relationship with the wrong-doer on a new course. I also strive to prevent my emotions returning to the wrong, so that I stop feeling angry, resentful, or grieved. And I strive to think of myself as no longer defined by the wrong: I am not a victim.

The wrong is still there. I am choosing to ignore it.

To forgive is more radical. The New Testament word aphiemi does have the idea of "letting go," but with a greater specificity. It came to be used as a legal term for debt cancellation and divorce. A creditor's claim no longer adhered to the debtor; a husband's claim no longer adhered to the wife. In forgiveness, what is owed is zero.

This is the word Jesus uses when a paralytic is brought to him (Mark 2.1-12). He says to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." He is not saying, "God has moved on from all of the wrongs you have committed." He is saying, "The claims against you are canceled."

The enormity of Jesus' statement is obvious to the religious leaders listening. "He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" To zero-out the moral debts we owe is an action only God can take. Jesus heals the paralytic to verify that he does indeed have the authority to forgive. And in doing so he is claiming to be God.

The basis of Jesus' authority is that he "gives his life as a ransom for many," a payment to redeem sinners from their debts (Mark 10.45).

Our "move on" method of repairing personal harm doesn't work.

For starters, it doesn't deal with the nature of wrong-doing. Harm leaves a debt. Unpaid debt is loss. Every time I hear someone say he has "moved on," the very next words out of his mouth reassert the loss he bears. At one moment he  pretends the loss is negligible, and at the next he proves how heavy the loss remains.

Deeper, "moving on" never discharges the wrong-doer. His wrong is still back there on the road. Let two people's road cover ten years, and let the road be covered with harm's wreckage, and then see how free and honest the two are after all their moving on.

We've probably stopped forgiving not because we don't know what it means, but because we do know. We have no real basis for canceling debts, and we refuse to lie. We move on instead.

What would happen in our relationships if our own debts were canceled, and if we canceled each other's debts on the basis of Christ's payment? Christianity would happen.

Anniversary of Hard Blessings

by Matthew Raley Five years ago this morning I awoke to a new reality. I had slept at my parents' home, with my then 5-year-old son Dylan in a trundle bed below, and my infant son Malcolm across the hall. My 35-year-old wife Bridget was in ICU unable to see, walk, or even sit up. She was on morphine to control pain that had left her hyperventilating the night before.

I learned that afternoon what we had suspected the previous day: Bridget had had a stroke. It had occurred in her brain-stem, which technicians had not bothered to scan at first. I was told that someone who has a stroke there usually isn't alive to need a scan.

So, five years ago today, I was wondering what sort of a life God had blessed us with. Maybe the dreams Bridget and I had treasured for life and ministry would not be realized. Maybe the scale of life would shrink radically.

My immediate concern was for Dylan. He had seen his mom collapse while getting him ready for school, and had watched her crawl to the telephone. I couldn't give him any assurance that she would get better.

Lacking any other approach, I simply told Dylan what her condition was and asked him what specific thing we should ask the Lord to do first. Dylan asked for her sight. The next morning, Bridget could see. Then Dylan asked for her relief from pain. The next day, she was given relief and the morphine dosage was lowered, soon to be eliminated entirely. Then Dylan prayed that she could walk.

The next day, she got up with the aid of walker and took new steps. I was there. It was one of the toughest moments for me, because it was clear progress in a brutal reality. So much had to improve for her to take those steps at all. But Bridget's command of her legs had been broken. She was holding herself with her arms to walk like a ninety-year-old.

I can't say whether any of these answers to prayer were miracles, or just God's normal providence through bodies he designed to heal, and the skill with which he has endowed human beings. I can say that all of these blessings were hard.

Over the next weeks, we were confronted with enormous bills that inadequate insurance had dropped in our laps, all of which were paid by the Enloe Foundation. During Bridget's hospitalization and physical therapy, many people came forward to help care for Malcolm while I was at work. We received meals, help cleaning the house, and ongoing aid while Bridget regained her balance and strength at home.

All of this blessing came little by little, one day after another. Now, after years of difficulty, Bridget is free from medications, though not totally free from stroke-related pain. She has all of her abilities, but not all of her old energy. Dylan has a tremendous faith, which he is building on from these experiences. Both boys have their mother.

I call these things to mind today because the difficulties of ministry are crushing. Though we are crushed, we are not destroyed. Though the blessings are hard, our hope is greater. And this hope in Jesus Christ does not leave me disappointed.

Christians In Kuala Lumpur

by Matthew Raley On Sunday I spoke at The Latter Rain Church, which meets in a live arts theater in suburban Kuala Lumpur.

It was a thrill to see this great city, and meet a few of its people. We had conversations with several taxi drivers, each lengthened by the terrible traffic. They told us stories of whole towns, with infrastructure and high rise condominiums, replacing the jungle in the space of ten years. All over the metroplex, buildings are torn down and replaced at an amazing pace. Many-storied cranes are everywhere.

My wife Bridget and I attended an Independence Day event hosted by the American embassy at a glittering hotel in the city center. We met the ambassadors from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Croatia, and from the last of these I learned much about the recovery of his nation from the wars of the 1990s. I met a Malaysian barrister as well, whose firm specializes in insurance law. No clients insuring Gulf Coast oil rigs. Yet.

We also talked with various American expats, like the manager of a Texas Instruments factory and the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia.

There being no chairs -- none, anywhere, not even in the ballroom lobby -- we were given to understand that this party was not to go on all night. So we went out to get a taxi home and were forcefully reminded that we were in neighborhood of the Petronas Towers.

But it was the Christians in KL whom we had come to meet.

Andrew and Yuki were our hosts. Their condominium north of the city center housed 16 people the night we were there, and the couple were gracious and unflappable. Andrew is a sound engineer, Yuki a travel agent. They are very active with Latter Rain. Andrew engineered the theater in which the church meets, and his company runs sound for the theater and leads worship on Sundays. His work places him at the heart of the active arts community in Malaysia.

The dominance of Islam is much more obvious in KL than in Penang. Only blocks from Andrew's and Yuki's place is a huge, new mosque, the prayers from which awakened me from a dead sleep at 6 a.m. -- in spite of my ear plugs.

We had lunch with a corporate accountant, Greg, and his wife Nancy, parishioners at a Presbyterian international church in KL. They were full of strategic ideas for the opening of a Christian international school here in partnership with Dalat, the Penang-based school where our guide Russell Wiesner works. Originally from Oklahoma, Greg has 17 years of business experience here with various companies, and the numerous contacts that go with it. Greg and Nancy are key supporters of the school effort.

Then there was the pastor of Latter Rain, Elijah, and his wife Sarah.

Educated at the University of Wisconsin, with a business career that has taken him to Singapore, Germany, the UK, and Chicago, Elijah is pursuing the goal of poverty eradication through market-driven means. Like others, he is down on the famous micro-lending schemes, which he says loads people who have few business skills with debt. The efforts of the United Nations at promoting education and infrastructure have made matters worse. Without investment and jobs, there is nothing for the newly educated population to do.

His answer: a new secondary equities market that would match investors with entrepreneurs from the developing world. Stay tuned.

A picture of Christianity in KL: energy, expertise, and a sense of mission that embraces Asia and even the globe.

A Stunning Campus

by Matthew Raley The school where I'm teaching in Penang is on a ridge overlooking the ocean, with the mountains of peninsular Malaysia in the distance.

When I say it's on a ridge, I don't mean on top. I should say it's built into the ridge. The campus is almost vertical. The dean gave me a tour last week, which involved endless stairs from terrace to terrace -- all of which had to be blasted out of the rock.

The students park at the bottom and hike up to the classrooms, a climb that keeps them hearty. Driving up puts a strain on all the engines. One of my students, Chloe, picks me up in the mornings, the outside of her car windows dripping condensation because of the air-conditioning, and flies along the coast road. When she reaches the campus driveway, her fellow student Heng switches the air-conditioner off, and Chloe guns it to reach the top without have to stop.

Another of my students, Teri, took me home yesterday. To reach her car, I followed her down a seemingly ancient trail of steps, worn and fantastically steep.

But the nice part is, when I step out of my classroom, I see this:

Solzhenitsyn on Our Consumer Society

Sermon audio (10-12-08): Your Experience Matches Jesus I believe there are two problems in American spirituality today.

First, each person now has permission to be selfish. Our society encourages people to think, "Nothing is significant unless it matters to me." This selfishness has shrunk relationships, ethics, and even the worship of God to matters of convenience and preference, rather than leaving them as matters of right and wrong.

Second, our culture of conformity has suffocated individuality. A person seems to have no place in our society unless he lines himself up with a demographic profile. We are forced as never before to think in terms of self-presentation, whether on our Facebook page, in our professional attire, or in our speech patterns. How I appear is who I am -- no eccentricity allowed. This has meant the decline of personal uniqueness, a measure of how much we value the image of God.

The two problems are paradoxical. How can we see the growth of selfishness and the death of individuality at the same time?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer, was the greatest spokesman for individualism in the 20th century. He survived a term in the Soviet Gulag, writing the experiences of his fellow inmates on scraps of paper that he buried in bottles for later retrieval. In 1974, he was exiled from the Soviet Union and he moved to America. He gave a speech at Harvard on June 8, 1978 in which he described Western culture in America from an outsider's point of view.

He sketched the selfishness of the consumer society. "The majority of people have been granted well-being to an extent their fathers and grandfathers could not even dream about. It has become possible to raise young people according to these ideals, leaving them to physical splendor, happiness, possession of material goods, money, and leisure, to an almost unlimited freedom of enjoyment."

Yet Solzhenitsyn found the happiness of the selfish consumer shallow and even degrading. He spoke of the cold war against communism: "The forces of Evil have begun their offensive; you can feel their pressure, and yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?"

American society, though it was wealthy, was not the model Solzhenitsyn prescribed for his own people. "After the suffering of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today's mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music."

There was a difference between the experiences of East and West. In contrast to the conformity produced by Western ease, the East, under the continual burden of oppression and death, produced deep individuality. "Life's complexity and mortal weight," he said, "have produced stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally [produced] by standardized Western well-being."

He saw conformity in all areas of American life, even in the most prestigious places in academia, like Harvard. "Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life."

So how did Solzhenitsyn account for this paradox, the simultaneous growth of selfishness and death of individuality?

He said that the "prevailing Western view of the world" is "humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists."

The reason human beings become selfish and conformist is because they refuse to serve God.

Individuality in Christ, such as we are studying in John 9 with the example of the man born blind, allows a person's uniqueness to flower without allowing his selfishness to inflate. As we saw on Sunday (audio at the top), the man's sufferings after his healing began to match the sufferings of his Healer. In that fellowship of "life's complexity and mortal weight" with Jesus, the beggar showed a deep dissent from the authority of the world, and a deep submission to the authority of Jesus at the same time.

If we want to solve today's two spiritual problems, we have to strike at their common root, as Solzhenitsyn did thirty years ago in his speech that defied the groupthink at Harvard. We have to subvert the perspective that refuses to rise above the human.

New Doctrinal Statement Shows Integrity

The headline in the New York Times on Sunday read, "Anglican Conservatives, Rebelling on Gays, Will Form New Power Bloc." Conservatives from Africa, South America, India, Australia, and the United States met in Jerusalem to "create a new ecclesiastical province in the United States and Canada to absorb the parishes that have been outraged by the American church’s consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and the Canadian church’s blessing of same-sex unions." The story put my week at the conference of the Evangelical Free Church of America in perspective. As we debated a thorough revision of our statement of faith in St. Louis, there were none of the Anglican agonies.

My Episcopalian brothers and sisters have endured a crisis of doctrine, conscience, and fellowship for years, a crisis induced by an American leadership determined to remake Christianity in their own image. Only now do conservatives have a chance to emerge from the crisis with a communion they can embrace. My friends with Episcopalian parishes would affirm the work God has done among their people, but the strain in their voices when they describe meeting with machine-driven bishops tells some of the cost of that work.

I continue to be inspired by their example while thanking God that I don't have to carry their burden. I am blessed by the godly leaders of the EFCA.

When I first heard about the proposal to revise the EFCA statement of faith, I was suspicious. I have little confidence in organizations. One of my largest challenges as a leader is my own cynicism about institutional goals: I can't bring myself to use the lingo of teams, which I associate with conformism. So when the word unity shows up on banners, I'm chiefly interested in discovering the agenda behind it.

But now I can honestly say --

I interrupt this repentance just to emphasize that my suspicion of many leadership practices in institutions is unchanged. I don't like grand visions, glossy marketing, rah-rah speeches, videos, ads disguised as magazine articles, groupthink disguised as fellowship, the exaltation of the team player as the ultimate example of godliness, or the permanent smile of the mass communicator. Just so that's clear.

I like networks of people in relationship with each other. I like to see those people, as unique individuals interacting with other unique individuals, make corporate decisions on the basis of biblical principles and their shared history. I like leaders who understand that this kind of process can't be reconciled with marketing, but only thrives on good old deliberation.

The reason I was won over to the revised statement of faith is that the EFCA's leaders -- President Bill Hamel, the board of directors, credentialing director Greg Strand, and the Spiritual Heritage committee -- showed that unity was not their slogan but their goal. They showed their integrity with patient engagement and transparency.

To strengthen our unity, we need a statement of faith that stirs us with its truth and timeliness, and the proposed revision certainly delivers. Its statement on the doctrine of God slams the door on open theism, letting the Lord's full glory out:

"We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having limitless knowledge and sovereign power, God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself and to make all things new for His own glory."

The new statement on the Bible is specific and sweeping:

"We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises."

Paragraph #4 on Jesus Christ is filled with terms evoking the biblical narrative of redemption, and paragraph #8 on Christian living is a needed affirmation of God's purposes for salvation. As a confession of the biblical heritage of Evangelical Free churches, this statement will deepen our unity for decades to come.

But more important than producing a strong document was how the leaders produced it. A key issue for many pastors and lay leaders around the country was whether an affirmation of the premillennial return of Christ (#10) should be included in the new statement. At first, the spiritual heritage committee recommended that the term premillennial be dropped. They had good reasons, and at first I agreed with them. It is not an essential doctrine for a person's salvation, and it does pose difficulties for our cooperation with outside ministries.

But as I listened to older pastors in the movement, the significance of my own commitment to premillennialism deepened. This particular teaching was a passionate focus of the fathers of our movement more than a century ago. It has relevance today as evangelicals decide whether their engagement in politics is a matter of Christianizing the State or evangelizing souls. The EFCA is not among those calling for Christian laws in order to hasten the return of Christ. Christ will set up his own law, in his Father's time.

The EFCA leaders said they would listen to input from the churches. When that input showed a strong desire to retain premillennialism in the revision, the leaders did listen. They put the term premillennial back in the statement. Then they won over most of those who had originally supported dropping it. They impressed me with their reverence for history and fellowship.

The 2008 conference adopted the revision by an 86% vote. I am proud to have been a part of it. I'm grateful for the consistent orthodoxy of our movement. And I'm encouraged to have witnessed the deliberation of a network of people, not the operations of a machine.

Answering Questions About My Novel

Last week, someone showed me a review of my novel Fallen on Amazon. The reviewer, Keith Hammond, made my day with some very generous praise, and then raised an issue that I've encountered often:

My only complaint is that the story seemed too personal and allegorical to be completely fictional. I would have preferred the book to have an addendum where the author directly talks about the issues or situations that caused him to write such a compelling book.

The first person to make this kind of comment to me was one my editors at Kregel, who, during our line-by-line slog through the manuscript, said that the dialog was "a little too good." He wondered what experiences I had plundered. After the novel was released, my secretary gave it to a relative, who finished it and made the hair-raising assertion, "Obviously, Raley's had an affair." Then there are the youth at my church, who have dissected the story with frightening precision, tracing eccentricities and obsessions from my habits into my narrative.

If only they were so devoted to their schoolwork.

So I guess I'd better tell all.

From start to finish, Fallen is invented. I didn't model any character on a person I've known, nor have I ever had to endure what Jim, the narrator, goes through. I've found that fictionalizing real-life scenarios and personalities almost always yields a flat story because there is too much authorial judgment on the characters and too little sympathy. A novelist needs to keep his cool.

Yet, for me, Fallen is a personal book. Mr. Hammond and others are right. The book is personal in this sense: almost every vile act I portrayed in the story was invented from what I have seen in my own soul.

When I drew characters for the story, for example, I tried to load them with contradictions. Jim loves his wife and daughter, but also treats them with selfish disregard. He wants to be gracious, but gives favor with calculation. Pastor Dave is an emotionally driven man, yet he disguises his motives by intellectualizing. Also, Dave wants to see himself as compassionate towards others, yet his core motivation is self-pity.

Each of these contradictions -- and many others in my characters, male and female -- has its origin in some struggle of my own for integrity. I simply implanted my hypocrisies within the quite different personalities of my characters. I hate confessing this procedure, because it makes the story feel like public nudity. But that's what I did.

The same is true of the relational struggles that the book portrays. I put my follies into all of the marriages and working partnerships. I invented the male characters' misconceptions of women, from their flippant infatuations to their ordeals in marriage, out of similar misconceptions of my own. While the power struggles among church leaders in the book grew out of the invented scenarios, my own anger in sympathy with each character showed me how the struggles would deepen.

The crimes in Fallen, then, were not written as veiled reports but as shame-faced extrapolations.

There are two important differences between my approach and the method of fictionalizing personal experiences.

First, as a matter of technique, memoirs-as-novels start with scenarios and create characters to fit, which yields a false story. A human being is not a robot. Fictional human beings cannot be robots and be true. So I started with characters and then shaped the scenarios. Every day I wrote, the characters surprised me.

Second, I would only write a memoir-as-novel to vent bitterness. I may be unusual in this tendency, and other authors might have other motivations. But, as a matter of repentance, I don't write to vent. I used to. Creating a little world in which all of my judgments are validated can be satisfying. But writing such things does not edify anyone. I found the method of spreading my darkness among many characters to be sanctifying. Instead of judging the sins of others, I was able to examine my own.

This is a method that I feel bound to follow. The subject matter of Fallen does not need more angry scribblers. But, I hope, a repentant one might do some good.

Church Doesn't Work

Sometimes I find a post that hits me in the gut. On Tuesday I saw "Confused Christian" on the new and anonymous My Bloggerings, and read expressions of what many evangelicals feel these days. It made me ask whether God's eye has left his people. MB, the blog's creator, wrote that she grew up charismatic but turned away from the sign gifts movement after she got married. "I just didn’t think that is what the Bible was all about." But now she feels that she can't replace it with anything.

At her current church, she says, "I am so unsatisfied with watered down preaching and 'anything goes' philosophy because God after all will still love you.  I want more than this." She sees professing Christians living as immorally as non-Christians, being focused on their careers rather than their children. "My church has lost the art of mentoring younger people and feeding them spiritually.  Instead, the goal is to make friends who drink and have poker games at their house and hit on girls at the Champs restaurant in our city."

MB says she wants a deeper community where life with Christ is more vibrant. "But I’m afraid that this is only a dream.  For I have visited so many churches only to be let down by them all.  Am I just expecting too much?"

Her experience is depressingly common. I often look at the demands of ministry and echo her question, adding another of my own. Is there any tool for nurturing spiritual life that works?

Morality doesn't work. Parents and church leaders who focus on raising standards of behavior only have scare tactics to motivate people. There's a wealth of material to use -- a culture that is spiraling into anarchy, case after case of self-destruction, evidence from medicine and social science about the effects of vice. But the reality is that people are not primarily motivated by fear. If future danger and immediate pleasure compete for people's attention, who wins?

Community doesn't work. The old line that embers burn when they're close together is true as far as it goes. But a pile of sticks won't make its own spark. Strong community without vibrant spirituality just strengthens people's selfishness under the cover of love and loyalty.

Family doesn't work. The fumes of human sin are most toxic when inhaled up close. The flame of the tongue, the heat of anger, the slow burn of bitterness have a way of suffocating all godly aspirations. Far too many families, if we're honest, have a well-preserved skin of faith, but their vital organs have been pickled.

Doctrine and preaching don't work. Neither do programs, buildings, or media. Truth be told, I can't think of a single spiritual tool that makes any impression on a heart that refuses to seek God. The tools only make that heart worse. Which means that, when people will not listen to the claims of God on their lives, the tool that is so useful at so many other times, the church, doesn't work.

There is only one thing that affects hearts like we have among evangelicals today. It is a single moment, the moment when the presence of Jesus Christ becomes frighteningly real, when a professing believer raises his face and discovers that God's eye, far from leaving him, has been locked on him all along, and has seen everything.

For that, MB and the rest of us have to pray.

John Hagee and God's Plan

Every Sunday, flights of lunacy from pulpits make sober Christians cringe. I guess, sooner or later, a maniacal statement was bound to go viral. For one thing, lunacy in preachers is so common. For another, the presidential campaign this year demanded a Republican sacrifice to balance Jeremiah Wright. And for another, the reliable men who provided self-satire in the past have either retired or gone to their reward. So, in the providence of God, John Hagee became the guy who took evangelical lunacy to the next level.

Major news organizations had been eying him suspiciously ever since he endorsed John McCain for president, principally because Hagee has described Roman Catholicism in the pungent terms of whoredom. But his elaborate support of Israel had been in his favor, at least freeing him from the taint of anti-Semitism. Alas, there was a sleeper.

Hagee had preached that the holocaust was part of God's plan to get the Jews back to the land. As reported in the New York Times, he said,

How is God going to bring them back to the land? The answer is fishers and hunters. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and forces you. Hitler was a hunter. . . . That will be offensive to some people. Well, dear heart, be offended: I didn’t write it. Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, "My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel."

Late last week, McCain dumped him.

By Monday evening, Joe Liebermanwas pushed to answer whether he would speak to Hagee's group supporting Israel, becoming the latest politician to wish he hadn't consorted with preachers. (Lieberman said he will speak to the group.)

Hagee's comments about Hitler provoked debate that almost reached theology. There was, for instance, a post by Claire Hoffman on Sunday about the many "plans" God seems to have for the world.

The offense Hagee gave was in making God the author of Hitler's genocide. His statement as reported is exegetically indefensible. Jeremiah (the prophet from Jerusalem, not Chicago) never wrote that the murder of six million Jews would bring the Israelites back to the land. That idea is pure Hagee.

Doctrinally, Hagee's statement is loose -- at best. While he did say that God allowed, rather than caused, the holocaust, Hagee still explained the holocaust as God's calculation that Israel's return to the land was more important than six million lives. That explanation is, as theologian John McCain might say, "crazy and unacceptable." (Necessary qualifier: it is possible that Hagee makes other statements elsewhere in the sermon, or in other sermons, that clarify his understanding of God's wisdom and justice.)

But a neglected aspect of Hagee's offense is pastoral. His statement minimizes the unspeakable human cost of Hitler's genocide, a cost that is still within living memory. It's a clichéd spiritualizing of loss to say to the grieving that God had better things in mind for them than living with the ones they love. God does not call his pastors to glorify him by trivializing human suffering.

Inhumanity is entirely human. God has no complicity in it. The only reason there are not holocausts in every nation, every day, is that the good hand of God restrains human malice.

It is tempting to pronounce woes against the gotcha culture that has claimed Hagee. But I think the current animosity against preachers could be part of God's plan. Preachers must now remember that we can be YouTubed, and that our fulminations can reach those who won't interpret us charitably. We may learn how significant our words really are. We may discover a godly caution that is appropriate to teachers (James 3), and may find boldness in truths instead of self-indulgent abstractions.

But that, of course, will require us to study.

Sondheim As a Preacher

I've spent many hours this week in an orchestra pit rehearsing for Chico State's production of A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. Between keeping track of key changes, being anxious for the physical safety of our percussionist as scenery collapses above him, and enjoying the great voices of the cast, I have been evaluating Sondheim's success as a preacher. A preacher has to do more than convey information about "how one ought to live." In my view, he has to show listeners how their lives are inextricably bound to God, and how that bond impacts their decisions. That mission calls him to engage listeners with drama, emotion, narrative, and especially characters. His preaching has to display individuals who struggle with God, both rightly and wrongly.

To fulfill this mission, the preacher has several tools: the Bible (source for the dramatic material), doctrine (derived from the Bible, and delivered as principles), life experience (his own, his listeners'), etc. In a sermon, he uses these tools to redirect the motivations of his audience Godward.

I've written about the inability of the evangelical populist to go deeper than sentimentality. So much of the spiritual deadness of evangelicalism, the dearth of transforming love, goes back to the shallow emotional range of its preachers. Most, it seems, can't convey anything higher than healthful living habits.

Sondheim, though he presents what I find to be a spirituality of hopelessness, is skilled at preaching the worldly word. He has his source of dramatic material, a combination of what I'll loosely call European tradition and American showmanship. His symbols, dramatic and musical, all derive from such sources, of which he has intuitive knowledge. Sondheim also shows keen insight into life experience. He flirts with audience expectations by using stock characters whom he later rounds out with humane understanding.

Which leaves doctrine.

There is a principle that animates the story of Night Music. The characters are all troubled, some driven to morose contemplation, others to flippancy, still others to cynicism. They struggle to find what a main character calls "a coherent existence," and the field of their struggle is sex. Their escapades are often funny, usually humiliating, and occasionally moving. But each learns the doctrine by the end, learns it in his or her own way.

Night Music's doctrine? You recover a coherent existence when you find the object of your true desire. And to recognize that object, you must know yourself. The god this musical preaches so effectively is inside the human personality.

A few qualifications. Audiences don't go to musicals for spiritual training. Tony awards like those lavished on this show are not given to productions that "make a point," and this show is not "preachy" in that way. Sondheim's goal was to give people something to enjoy, not to teach them. He may or may not believe the principle this story shows.

But Sondheim is a skillful preacher.

He shows how people's lives are inextricably bound to the god of their desires, and how that bond impacts their decisions. His characters speak to people's struggles.

My wayward imagination wonders how an evangelical, with his grab-bag of practical tips, would preach the Night Music doctrine. "Five Steps to Open Communication With Your Mistress." "What Would Ibsen Do?" "Your Best Adultery Now!" If evangelicals preached sin the way they preach Christ, sin might go into as deep a decline as Christianity.

A preacher's job is not to entertain, as Sondheim's is. But evangelical preachers would teach and exhort with more potency if their Bible, their doctrine, and their life experience spoke to people's struggles. The God of the Bible is not the God of easy answers. Jesus Christ struggles with us just as we struggle with him, if the Gospel of John is any guide. He is no stranger to relational agony. And he does not use gimmicks.

I notice that when I preach this God, using the Bible's drama as powerfully and truthfully as I can, listeners take heart. They renew their struggles with greater insight, and they see God's blessings. Their certitudes gained in struggle are earned, not purchased in bulk.

So I learn something about preaching from Sondheim. But I leave the orchestra pit relieved that the living God is larger than the gods of Broadway.

Integrity or Control? Choose.

Lots of us have had to endure the control-freak pastor, the paranoid maniac who has to know WHO said his sermon went too long, and WHY that individual didn't OBEY MATTHEW 18 and come to him directly, and WHO ELSE that individual contaminated with his SLANDER. HOW LARGE is the FACTION of CRITICAL SPIRITS this week? And lots of us have had to endure the Meeting during which our motivations are impugned, our divisiveness is rebuked, and we are disinvited from leadership/attendance/Christianity.

So when I wrote last week that the first step away from populism is for evangelical leaders to rediscover the foundation of their authority, many readers probably said, "O callow youth, we think not. We've had enough of pastoral authority for one lifetime."

Hang in there with me.

Authority, to my way of thinking, is not control over people. (The leader gives orders and uses levers of power to make sure he is obeyed.) Rather, authority is an indirect result -- even a byproduct -- of something no one ever sees: the workings of the leader's own conscience.

My job as a pastor is not to compel others to do good, or even to entice them into doing good, but rather to subject my own will to the Bible's commands. As others interact with me, they are confronted with spiritual choices in the natural course of relationship.

For instance, when I preach, the ultimate issue on my conscience is whether my words serve the text of the Bible -- serve it both in expounding and in applying it to the people before me. If my conscience affirms that I enlightened my own ignorance, ducked no hard issue, and used excellent craft to teach a passage, then I have done my job as a pastor. The personal decisions people make come not so much from what I said, as from the time they spent interacting with my submission to scripture.

When I counsel, to take another example, I have to give biblical and Spirit-directed applications without shortcuts, gimmicks, or generalities. I also have to draw straight confession of sin out of people who would rather avoid it. Above all, I have to affirm what an individual has right, and withhold affirmation from what he has wrong. These are all issues on my own conscience, not anyone else's, and the only way I can act rightly is by obeying biblical principles. The counselee's decision to do good -- which I cannot control -- comes not so much from my direction, as from the time he spends interacting with my submission to scripture.

My conscience is the issue in every matter of daily life: prioritizing my weekly schedule, reacting to criticism, coaching others to resolve conflict, discipling my boys, loving my wife. My job as a pastor is to exhibit a submissive conscience. As people interact with me, they find themselves dealing with a way of life founded on different assumptions from theirs. The differences are what confront their souls with spiritual choices.

I am convinced that a leader earns a right to be heeded by orienting his or her conscience toward God's word. If he or she is submissive to the Bible, he or she will acquire authority, and the authority will not be hierarchical, but relational.

I have found that when I try to use the levers of power to control people's behavior, I splinter the integration of my conscience with the Bible. I have also found that the status-oriented fixations of populism involve leaders in catastrophic compromises of conscience, because populism boils down to what the Bible calls the fear of man.

I want to be able to say with Paul (2 Corinthians 1.12) that "our boast is this: the testimony of our conscience that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you."

How Populism Corrupts Evangelical Leaders

This post may become a rant. We'll just see. A big part of my beef with populism is that it corrupts evangelical leaders, and I choose the verb corrupt for its precision. Populism rots a leader's soul.

1. Populism substitutes the lowest common denominator for unity.

I've said that evangelical populists whip up people's negative emotions, like resentment and suspicion, using carefully chosen enemies. The problems with "our society" are the fault of "the Hollywood elites" or some other class. I've also said that the populist can only evoke people's positive emotions through sentimentality, using symbols that have nostalgic, tear-jerking potential.

This simplistic emotionalism enables large groups of people to feel united by cheering or booing. It's easy to feel bonded while we cheer the armed forces or boo the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A leader just has to speak to his audience's gut, and common cause has been achieved.

But evangelicals in America both need and desire a deep identification with Jesus Christ. They need the unity of the Holy Spirit, which is only attained through doctrinal purity and relational grace, through truth and love -- the very highest things anyone can imagine. What sort of leadership tries to achieve any other kind of oneness?

2. Populism substitutes clichés for truth.

The much-touted evangelical passion for the Bible is now largely spent, not because average evangelicals don't care what the Bible says but because their leaders won't teach it to them. The vast majority of sermons preached in American churches quote biblical snatches, as if Scripture were a sacred Bartlett's. Structurally, however, these quotations are not the focus of teaching, but are called upon to support the preacher's points. They are little better than slogans.

This preaching strategy is unavoidable for a populist, who conceives of his audience as virtuously stupid. He can't presume to teach The People, who already know everything they need through their vast common sense, and who are sick and tired of the university elites telling them what to think. The only thing he can do is remind them. After all, they don't need to know the conjugation of Greek verbs, and their attention span is . . .

The average evangelical in America both needs and desires God's word. In fourteen years of preaching, I have yet to encounter a single stupid person. I have heard a lot of stupid preachers, who use their audience's education level as an excuse never to master the arts of communication. What sort of leadership ducks the responsibility to teach?

3. Populism substitutes manipulation for leadership.

Manipulation is control. Manipulation is arousing people's emotions without paying deference to their intelligence. Manipulation is blame-shifting, making other classes responsible for cultural evils. Manipulation is flattering people's self-regard. Manipulation is the attempt to modify people's behavior without edifying their souls.

American evangelicals need spiritual leadership -- and I am convinced that they'll respond to the genuine article. What sort of leadership uses the tools of control?

The reason populism corrupts evangelical leaders is this: Populism is a lie. It tells The People that they are virtuous simply because they are The People. It tells them they are one when they are merely conformist. It tells them they have knowledge when they've only inherited a collection of Bible verses misapplied. And the worst populist lie of all is that The People are a herd instead of a body.

Can any leader believe such things without his soul rotting in cynicism?