Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at chicogracebrethren.com.

Give Me Tough Questions for 2009

by Matthew Raley "The Ideologists," by Max Beckmann, 1919, Museum of Modern Art

I am gathering topics for Tough Questions 2009, the annual sermon series in which the community tells me what to preach. This year, the term "community" embraces the blogosphere.

In the comments to this post, leave any question about morality, politics, spirituality, or culture related to Christianity, and I will choose six to answer. The best questions are precisely worded, and come in complete English sentences. (Yes, that has been a problem.) For a collection of last year's topics, click here.

The series will begin August 9. If you're not anywhere close to the Evangelical Free Church of Orland, CA, or in any case have no inclination to go there, the audio will be available here at Tritone Life.

Harry Potter and the Diversity Culture

by Matthew Raley One of the most common searches that brings readers to Tritone Life is some version of, "Should Christians read Harry Potter?" Readers land on a post from my Tough Questions series last summer.

Evangelicals' visceral reaction to the Potter books continues to amaze me. The young wizard seems to symbolize their problem of how to guide children through the American diversity culture, the openness to anything and everything, without losing faith in Christ.

At Writing for the Soul, the annual conference of the Christian Writers Guild in Colorado Springs last weekend, this problem was a focus of attention, with Harry still being the reference point.

One catalyst for discussion was a keynote speech by Dr. Dennis Hensley, whose address on postmodernism was a tour de force of analysis and passion. He said that the negative view most pastors have of postmodernism needs to be revised. Postmodernism is indeed a tapestry of dangerous threads. But the increased diversity in American culture, the openness to other points of view, the humbling of Enlightenment arrogance are interwoven with threads of opportunity.

Dr. Hensley showed that our biggest opportunity as Christian writers is to create heroes who do not win their battles, but who successfully live in the moral universe God has created. Such heroes would be biblical: they would model submission to God's law in self-sacrifice, as Jesus did. They would also speak to postmodern imperatives, showing success through personal authenticity without empty triumphalism.

After such a rich address, the new cultural realities echoed in many conversations.

I talked with a Christian educator, asking whether he had tracked the spiritual journeys of his high school graduates. He had: "The majority are really struggling with their faith." They enter a culture teeming with sensual temptations, and saturated with moral and spiritual questions, and they flounder. My observations tallied with his: a deep crisis of faith incited by culture shock is now the norm.

Many believers, like my friend, assess the trials of young Christians honestly. Believers can see their kids struggling to keep and express faith in Christ without the cultural support past generations enjoyed. The response of compassion and grace is godly.

Still, many other believers are shocked by the diversity culture and its heroes. These believers will not countenance Harry, as if by pouring scorn on his popularity they can protect their kids from godlessness.

At lunch during the conference, someone asked me what books I've read to my boys. I said (trouble-making instinct freely acknowledged), "I read the first Harry Potter book with my 8-year-old. He loved it." Around the table there was silence, with one or two dangling jaws. My interlocutor said, "A pastor reading Harry Potter to his son?" Two other brave souls volunteered that they'd read the entire series.

That evening at dinner, Harry Potter came up again, and again I got surprised looks from around the table for saying that my son and I had read it. But we  discussed why Harry was so popular. A couple of writers said he was a well-drawn, living character. Rather than trying to make a "Christian" copy of him, they said, we should create vibrant characters of our own.

Artistic power won't save souls. But it might at least express Christ's truth.

In some ways, Harry speaks to postmodern children because he fits Dr. Hensley's description of a postmodern mythic hero. Harry succeeds according to a higher law, but doesn't always win. In other more important ways, Harry will continue to be a beloved character simply because J. K. Rowling has written classic stories.

For me, as a Christian parent, the issue is not so much the meaning of diversity culture heroes like Harry Potter. The issue is initiation.

Who will initiate my 8-year-old into the culture in which he must live?

If a postmodern true-believer initiates him, then my son will learn how to interpret this era, its stories, and its heroes from a point of view that may as well come from the Anti-Christ. Such is the power of the initiator.

But if I initiate my son into the culture in which he must live . . .

Tough Questions 2008: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately?

Sermon audio: Do Evangelicals Portray Jesus Accurately? This question from the community invites me to do what some believe I do best: criticize my own subculture. Of course, I will answer, "Evangelicals often do not portray Jesus accurately." And, of course, I will try to specify which evangelical qualities are misleading. By merely asking this question, someone has presumed a negative answer.

There is a larger issue. What attitude should we have toward the deepening problems of evangelical churches?

The criticisms from emergents that American evangelicals are Christianized consumers, that they lack authentic community, that their worship is stilted, and that they are not on the side of the poor all have merit. The doctrinal criticisms from the reformed movement (MacArthur, Piper, et al.) rightly indict the lack of biblical integrity among many evangelicals. Even the criticisms that the church growth movement has made over the past thirty years -- that churches are not reaching non-Christians -- are accurate. (The criticisms just happen to be accurate of the church growth movement itself, as well.)

Put all of these criticisms together, and the picture is dire. A movement that is not growing, not intellectually coherent, and not engaged with other cultures is a movement near death.

James Stockdale, one of the most famous American POWs in North Vietnam, has been used as an example of how to survive dire situations by business author Jim Collins. (The book is Good To Great.) What kind of man did not survive the POW experience? Stockdale said the optimist, the man who was sure he'd be home by Christmas, but whose steadily retreating target dates for release were never kept. The positive thinkers died.

The survivors, said Stockdale, had two things. They had faith that they would survive, and discipline to confront the brutal facts of their environment. Collins tagged this the "Stockdale paradox," the irony that unstinting honesty about dire situations can actually bolster the faith one needs to survive.

I want to see evangelicals eschew optimism about their predicament.

Let's take, as an example, their recent explosion of support for Gov. Sarah Palin. Personally, I like her. She gives a great speech. I admire her decision not to abort her baby boy, and I respect the way she and her husband have handled the appalling media abuse of their 17-year-old daughter. I think the clash of the classes her nomination has provoked is good old-fashioned political fun.

But the adulation of her by evangelicals is in one important respect delusional. She will not change Washington from the vice president's mansion -- populists to the contrary. She will not change American culture. She will not even change the culture of evangelical churches -- though she reflects and represents them well. Her presence on the national stage simply does not address the spiritual issues we face.

We won't be freed from the dire evangelical crisis by Christmas.

A brutal honesty about our future says:

  1. Our compromise with America's consumer society has been a disaster. Consumerism will have to be rooted out of our churches soul by soul.
  2. Our transformation of churches into entertainment platforms has been a disaster. Devout worship of the living God will have to be rediscovered soul by soul.
  3. Our financial selfishness will have to be corrected by the good hand of God soul by soul, until we are once again the people who stand with the poor.
  4. Our doctrinal ignorance and folly has turned our brains to mud. Knowledge of the truth will have to be taught soul by soul.
  5. Our fear of the cultures around us, and our refusal to interact meaningfully with them -- that is, interact beyond marketing ploys -- has left us unable to articulate the gospel in our own time. Soul by soul, we will have to rebuild a vigorous way of life and witness in hostile territory.

I believe that, once we are honest about these things, we will have ground for a strong faith that Christianity will survive and prosper in the future. The moment we look at these five realities, harsh though they are, we realize that the tool for teaching soul by soul is everywhere in this country: the local church. The body of Christ in its many meetings has been doing this job for centuries. We just need to start doing the job again.

Our ultimate ground for faith is our Lord and his plan. As we follow him afresh, Jesus is well able to portray himself accurately in his churches.

Tough Questions 2008: Can We Live Like the Devil and Go To Heaven?

Sermon audio: Can We Live Like the Devil and Go To Heaven? I left the wording of this question exactly the way it came to me. I like the flamboyance. But I do wonder how anyone came to ask it at all. I think one factor is the evangelical reliance on the sinner's prayer.

Here's the gist: "Jesus, please forgive my sins because of your death on the cross. I ask to you live in my heart, and to give me eternal life." People are exhorted to pray this way to become Christians, and many have been encouraged to see their prayer as the guarantee of their new life in Christ. After praying this, we've been told, you cannot lose your salvation.

Our questioner is asking how strong that guarantee is.

My own relationship with the sinner's prayer has been troubled.

In a sense, my Christian life did begin by "praying the prayer." One evening when I was five, my dad was giving me a piano lesson. At one point, he stopped talking about music and asked if I'd ever invited Jesus into my heart. I said no. So we prayed together and that same night my parents took me to both sets of grandparents to tell what I had done. Which was better than finishing my scales.

Dad told me recently that he saw a marked change in me after that prayer.

In another sense, however, the prayer was not the beginning of my Christian life. It only summed up what the Lord had already been doing in my heart-and-mind, and gave expression to a faith I already had. Crucial aspects of walking with the Lord came later in my experience, and these were more deliberate moments of commitment.

In my teenage years, I wondered what the sinner's prayer really accomplishes.

Some of the things I saw growing up in church had made me skeptical. One Sunday morning a man gave his testimony, telling a great story of how he came to pray the prayer. A couple weeks later, I overheard a conversation that my mom had on the phone, in which she learned that this man had left his wife for another woman.

I saw kids in youth group go forward during the altar calls at big conferences. We would throw a party over the sinner's repentance, only to see him continue his immoral lifestyle. In fact, few of the converts from youth group remained Christians past college.

The more questions I asked about salvation, the more I heard answers that didn't work.

One idea was that those who abandoned the Christian life after praying the prayer were still eternally saved. I thought it was simply unbelievable, flying in the face of both direct experience and scriptural teaching. Another idea was that lapsed converts didn't believe "enough," which wasn't any clearer to me. By and by, I learned that there was a theological category for "carnal Christians," who live like the devil but make it to heaven anyway. Another flop, as we'll study on Sunday morning.

I concluded that the Christian life was founded on something larger than one prayer. (More thoughts here.)

But after years of wrestling, I'm returning to the sinner's prayer because it does accomplish a few basic things.

It gives a person words.

Someone who senses the reality of Christ needs a way to express his faith, even if he has a church background and biblical knowledge. When a person recognizes his sense of Christ in the words of the sinner's prayer, and adopts those words as his own, his understanding grows.

The prayer also articulates a beginning.

Repentance has to start somewhere, and the prayer offers an excellent place. Viewed as the start of an earthly life of hope in Jesus Christ -- as opposed to the final purchase of a ticket to heaven -- the prayer can frame a person's future decisions about right and wrong, personal crises, and relationships.

The sinner's prayer can even set that hope into a pattern.

If someone confesses sin specifically, seeks forgiveness explicitly, and asks for the work of the Spirit, then she has a model for a spiritual discipline she can use every day. When salvation is taught as the work of God rather than the result of a prayer formula, there is less danger of her thinking that she's "lost her salvation" when she sins, and more encouragement to return to her salvation's source.

The biggest virtue of the sinner's prayer is that it can put the individual face-to-face with Christ. The person summons the courage to address God -- no small thing. He asks for something according to God's promise. And he starts acting on the belief that Jesus is not dead but alive.

In other words, the work of God in a person's soul is what guarantees salvation, not a prayer -- however significant that prayer may be. The Christian life is founded on God himself.

Tough Questions 2008: Should Faith Influence Politics?

Sermon audio: Should Faith Influence Politics? I once tried to be a speechwriter for a gubernatorial candidate in Oregon.

The former five-term congressman was fighting to win the Republican nomination, and his staff thought he needed help in the English language department. He began speeches by saying, "You all know I'm a straight shooter. So what you hear tonight is coming straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart." His researcher winced every time she heard it.

Since I was a recent graduate of the congressman's alma mater, someone recommended me to the campaign manager as a speechwriter. So, by and by, I showed up at the headquarters wearing chalk stripes and carrying a portfolio of political stuff I'd written, and I got the volunteer position.

At one point during the interview, the manager left me sitting alone in her cubicle. I happened to look up, and was startled to see the congressman, his hand in the trouser pocket of his Brooks Brothers suit, chewing gum and staring at me without any intention of saying hello.

He didn't want a speechwriter.

The first meeting I attended was with the congressman, the manager, and the researcher. The goal was to produce an op-ed about the release of a murderer because, that year, the crime issue was a good bet for mobilizing voters. But we got stuck on the first line. "The first line," said the congressman, "has to be, 'You've got to be kidding!'"

Silence. The researcher offered, "We could start by stating what we're objecting to." The manager nodded.

"No. Just, 'You've got to be kidding!'"

The meeting lasted all of ten minutes. He didn't want to be told what to say.

There were road trips. Several of us would pile into a Lincoln and roar down the I-5 at 90 mph, the radar detector blinking on the dashboard. One would think it was an ideal time to get to know the man whose voice I was supposed to capture in writing. But the candidate took numerous calls, chatted with the driver, and read position papers. I had very pleasant conversations with his wife -- number three, very smart.

I watched and listened to the congressman for a day, and returned a week later with a draft. I handed the speech to him, the manager smiling, and without so much as a glance, he handed it to the driver. "I won't be using it today." And we were off again.

But a few miles up the freeway, the phone rang. It was the manager. She asked the congressman if he was on the speaker phone, which he was. So he switched to the hand-held. "Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh. Yeah." Click. He reached into the pile of papers his driver had put in the car and read through my speech.

"It's good. Yeah. I like it. Some good lines in there."

But he went back to "straight from the shoulder and straight from the heart."

Evangelicals have savored their few moments of influencing politics. But they haven't achieved the cultural change they were hoping for. The country hasn't turned to Christ. Families are not measurably stronger because of any legislation passed. The main evangelical successes have been in opposition to gay marriage and abortion, not in advancing a vision for the country.

The lack of progress boils down to resources.

In politics, you have to influence a five-term congressman. You have to be big enough, mobilizing a large enough constituency or having the money to lobby him. Or, you have to have access to the person who influences how much funding goes to his district. Or, you have to have helped elect him in the first place.

Fundamentally, he must want to listen to you. And even that is not enough. He can think of many reasons to listen to a lot of other people too.

Evangelicals have committed vast resources -- not just financially, but in terms of grass roots organization, media time, and depth of experience -- to influencing five-term congressmen. They have been successful at becoming big. But now they are experiencing again how hard it is to move a nation from the top.

What would have happened if, for the last twenty years, they had committed the same resources to making disciples for Christ? Imagine the impact on American culture if local churches had been successful at saving marriages, nurturing new generations of Christians, deepening people's knowledge of the Bible, and developing their capacity to pray. Imagine the impact if local churches had been as passionate about God's priorities as they've been about ballot initiatives.

When confronted with what it really costs to make disciples, most evangelicals for the past twenty years have said the same thing. "We don't have the resources. We don't have the time, the money, or the patience. We can barely make disciples of our own kids."

The sad reality of these two decades is that political parties have been able to attract evangelical resources, but the cause of making disciples has not. We will talk about the political implications of this reality on Sunday morning.

My candidate for governor got the nomination, but went down in flames that November. My effort to influence him didn't even survive the primaries. He fired the campaign manager.

There is one thing that will make a five-term congressman want to listen. A cultural transformation in his district. The question is, how much do evangelicals really want to influence politics? Are they willing to move a nation from the bottom?

Tough Questions 2008: Should a Christian Question Authority?

Sermon audio: Should a Christian Question Authority? I'll tell you about the time I got sent away for counseling.

When I matriculated at Willamette University in 1989, freshlings were herded through a course on world views. That year, the powers assigned readings from Victorian England -- Mill, Dickens, Marx, et al. -- and we were supposed to discuss them seminar-style. This was intended as a perspective-softener. We would get points of view from other times, other social strata, and other students, and we would come to the breezy but Correct conclusion that the world is not as we assumed.

But what the powers intended as a means of softening my perspective, I took as a means of expressing it. Well, I thought, they said we should discuss. So I did discuss. I discussed what I thought of Darwin's theory, Mill's utilitarianism, and the university's relativistic world view -- all of which I'd had the distinct impression was relevant. But I discussed my perspective without the least intention of softening it, which meant I wasn't really obeying the powers.

My professor took me aside after about two weeks and said, "I want you to go talk to Charlie." She meant Charles Wallace, the university chaplain. She was nice about it, but she'd clearly had enough. You're a Christian, she seemed to say. Maybe Charlie the Christian will know what to do with you.

2008 is the third year I've collected questions from the community about spiritual and moral issues for a sermon series. (The link to the two previous years is on my blogroll.) The first question that jumped out at me from this year's batch was, "Should Christians question authority?"

I have to admit my bias.

I have a contentious personality. For me, arguing is fun, and arguing with authority figures is even better. Winning those arguments is so much fun that it's probably immoral.

So I chose to address the question about authority because it appealed to my baser instincts.

In addition, trouble-making is part of my heritage. My grandfather, my great aunts and uncles, my dad and his sister, have all been contrarian and stubborn. On vacation, I took my family to visit Aunt Jan, who has used her genetic sonar for absurdity well and often. Over breakfast (french toast battered with eggs and whiskey), we sounded off against Mel Gibson's Passion, the evangelical mania over it, and its theology. We also shared precious moments of confrontation with the film's devotees.

In the end, however, we had to agree that the underlying reason we hated it was that everybody loved it. Tell me the last time everybody was right.

But personal and familial biases aside, I also chose to address the question about authority because of the questioner's sensitivity. The woman asked specifically about the virtue of meekness. Can a Christian habitually criticize those in authority without becoming arrogant? Don't we owe submission to those over us?

I have learned valuable truths by over-exercising my critical faculties. I've learned, for example, that the vast majority of people hate arguing. Contention fills them with dread, and they will not voice their opinion if they fear that someone will debate them. This has led me to nurture discussion by shutting my mouth. I've also seen that the process of learning must go deeper than mere questioning. If I am really going to learn a subject or a skill, I have do things contrary to my experience and instinct. That means, again, shutting my mouth so that I can submit to my teacher.

These are good arguments for meekness.

But I have learned something else. While critical questioning is a terrible way to discover whether an authority is speaking the truth, it is a great way to discover whether the authority is interested in nourishing, imparting, engaging, and being understood, or whether he is merely interested in conformity. The authority figures I've known who nurture life in their students have all embraced criticism as a sign of a living mind.

What we face today is not the authority of a few. We face the authority of the masses, the despotism of the People. We face the unrelenting tyranny of everybody's opinion. We used to wear what displayed our place in our culture. Now we wear the latest fad. The legacy of ethics used to teach us how to make decisions. Now, our decisions are dictated by fashion, and our ethics are retrofitted rationalizations.

I think that churches, in this environment, need to focus less on controlling people's behavior than on educating their consciences. This means using the authority of parents and elders to earn submission and to empower people to question. I believe that the church where this is achieved will continue to make new Christians, generation after generation. That is the theme I will preach on Sunday morning.

At Willamette, I went to the appointment my professor had already scheduled with Charlie. I don't remember much about our session, except that we ended up trading favorite scenes from Monty Python, and that I continued in class as usual. Charlie the Christian did indeed know what to do with me.

But I wouldn't have known what to do at Willamette if I hadn't been given a trained conscience.