Book Review: Carson's Call for Spiritual Reformation

by Matthew Raley D. A. Carson. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his PrayersGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

D. A. Carson’s enriching book is more than a manifesto for revival. It is a searching meditation on the imperative, the power, and the generative attitudes of prayer. First published in 1992, the book may be an even more sobering read today, more than twenty years later. The decline of the American church has continued without interruption, and the contributing factors and cultural symptoms of our decline are now worse. Carson’s exegetical depth, however, gives me fresh hope.

Carson opens with an analysis of the American church’s prayerlessness (Introduction), the conclusion of which is that we do not know God well enough. He opens the nature and focus of prayer in a series of chapters drawing on the example of other Christians (Chapter 1), the model of 2 Thessalonians 1 (Chapters 2 and 3), the overall burden for people in Paul’s prayers (Chapters 4-5), and the model of Colossians 1 (Chapter 6). Carson pauses to examine various excuses for prayerlessness and to expound the motivations for overcoming them (Chapters 7-8). He then develops much-needed theological rationales for prayer, dealing with the nature of God (Chapters 9-10), the nature of spiritual power (Chapter 11), and vision for ministry (Chapter 12).

In order to find fault with any of Carson’s exegesis, one would have to marshal detailed technical objections. Even where that might be possible, his devotion to expounding the Scriptures accurately is displayed on every page. Carson’s examination of 2 Thessalonians 1 is rich with applications derived meticulously from context (Chapter 3). On page after page, Carson gives appropriate details about Paul’s inferential and referential particles to clarify why Paul prays and what he prays for. In fact, one of the most edifying features of Carson’s book is his frequent reproduction of lengthy passages that the reader can mull over without any commentary.

Many books are filled with solid exegetical details that nevertheless clutter big themes. Carson’s book is not one of them. He shows the Bible’s big picture of prayer.

In particular, the book corrects the overly individualistic concept of prayer many evangelicals have. Carson doesn’t belabor the inadequacy of a prayer life that is exclusively private, or attack individualism outright. Instead, he shows the communal prayer life of Paul in high definition. And that is rebuke enough. In chapter 4, Carson reproduces prayers from all of Paul’s letters to show how immersed he was in the lives of his fellow believers. Chapter 5 is devoted to an even more detailed treatment of this theme, unpacking 2 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Also, Carson demonstrates that this relational aspect of prayer, taught so exhaustively in the New Testament, was a feature of God’s people more recently. He tells many stories of how the people in his life influenced his praying in chapter 1, and he consistently draws on the history of revivals throughout the book.

This emphasis on human relationships in prayer continues to be neglected, and Carson’s faithfulness to the biblical model remains urgently needed.

There are issues about which I would like to learn more from Carson. For example, he addresses spiritual warfare briefly in chapter 12, which focuses on Romans 15. Prayer in this connection is almost exclusively the preserve of charismatic believers, as it was when Carson first wrote the book. The role of angels and demons in the life of Christ and the growth of the church is a prominent theme of the New Testament. I would like to have seen more about such issues in relation to prayer, especially in light of the mainstreaming of New Age spirituality that has occurred in the last twenty years.

Still, Carson’s book is a powerful antidote to the prayerlessness that has poisoned our spirits.

Rob Bell On Justice

by Matthew Raley Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn't finish it. Bell's inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)

Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren't able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.

That's what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs." A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.

Bell is aggressive in making this case.

So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word "sin," my first response is to ask, "Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?" (p 72)

I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life's clean-up crew -- law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.

But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin's cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn't it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), "Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?"

Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.

Really? Our sins are finite? They are? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?

I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.

1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?

2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let's say? It's true that I can lose sight of a sin's impact, but that doesn't mean I really know where the impact stops.

3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That's a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?

Bell doesn't follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.

Bell's Redeeming Deity

by Matthew Raley I am surveying features of Rob Bell's book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell's description of the nature of God.

According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people's opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is "violent" and "destructive." If this account of God were true, he says,

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)

He goes on, calling this God "devastating," "psychologically crushing," "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."

Bell counters that God is love, and that God's invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God's love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.

Yet Bell's story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.

For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them "the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok," recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. "But this isn't the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, "What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny ... wasn't? What appeared to be over, isn't. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration." (p 83, emphasis original)

So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a "movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life." (p 85)

Using Bell's standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God's redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.

The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.

So let's imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: "This fire isn't forever. Your father loves you! He's inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you'll have another opportunity to love God!"

Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?

Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.

Bell's proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God's nature coherent.

Celebrity status will not exempt Bell's arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell's distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.

Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice -- standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about "a loving God" or "a just God" fall apart once we delve into specific cases. "Loving" toward whom? "Just" in whose cause?

I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God's punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his "better story" about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

Book Review: Colors of God

by Matthew Raley Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.

The list of problems in churches is familiar.

For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that's when the preaching is comprehensible at all.

Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people's lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can't deal honestly with our failings and that church isn't safe.

Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to "values" without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises -- joy and thankfulness.

Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today's evangelicals.

The book's strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God's grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals' guilty consciences.

But I found the book unreadable.

I think the authors' decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.

And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what's wrong with "preaching." The fact that most preachers couldn't give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.

If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.

Diversity Culture Conference Tomorrow

by Matthew Raley I'll be speaking about my book, The Diversity Culture, tomorrow, September 11th in Cottonwood. The conference takes place from 9 AM to 1 PM at 1st Baptist Church, 3320 Brush Street. You can reach the church for more information at (530) 347-3691. Here is a map to the church.

I am very grateful to Pastor John Roland for organizing this conference. I look forward to seeing you there!

Books: "Through the River" by Jon and Mindy Hirst

Through The River: Understanding Your Assumptions About Truth

Jon and Mindy Hirst, with Dr. Paul Hiebert

Colorado Springs: Authentic Books, 2009, 201 pp.

by Matthew Raley

This short book on epistemology will be useful to its intended audience, and, as with any book, potentially frustrating to others.

I take the intended audience to be evangelicals who hold a high view of the Bible, and who wrestle with how to engage the many perspectives in contemporary society. This audience wonders whether one can engage them at all with a high view of Scripture, or whether to believe the Bible is to opt out of today's culture. Put another way, the question is whether one can engage without compromising truth.

The Hirsts, in their popularization of the late Dr. Paul Hiebert's work, argue that truth remains an objective category. Truth really exists outside our own heads. They write (p 22), "Simply put, we know that God is truth. He is the Creator of all that is sure, all that is known, and all that is to be." They add, "Our pursuit of truth may begin in ourselves, as we struggle with our finite humanity, but it ends in Christ."

Knowledge of the truth, however, comes through a process. That process is not best conducted in debate, with systems built and defended, and competing systems attacked -- one of the "truth lenses" the Hirsts describe. Nor is the truth found by isolating ourselves inside our own passions and priorities -- a second lens. The process of knowing the truth is a collaborative one, in which we discover truth relationally through dialogue -- a third lens, which Hiebert called "critical realism."

In other words, evangelicals shouldn't have a dilemma between engagement with diverse perspectives and truth. Rather, truth is learned through engagement.

The Hirsts expound this thesis using two stories, one about a river, another about a boat. Some readers will respond very well to this approach, though for me the narratives required too much explanation to be enlightening. But that is an issue of preference.

Many evangelicals need to encounter these ideas, and Through the River is a tool I will use. But those who think evangelicals should have ditched the Bible long ago, and who can't understand why anyone should trouble herself over objective truth, will have little use for this book.

Books: A Lover's Quarrel With the Evangelical Church

scan0001A Lover's Quarrel With the Evangelical ChurchWarren Cole Smith (Colorado Springs: Authentic Publishing, 2009) 265 pp.

by Matthew Raley

Warren Cole Smith has written an indispensable book. I believe he diagnoses the sicknesses of evangelicalism correctly, and he does so in detail, sparing the reader none of the gravity or complexity. A Lover’s Quarrel has rare strengths.

First, Smith has been around. He’s seen most of the subcultures within evangelicalism, and his personal experience of wandering in this wilderness goes back almost four decades. Not to put too fine a point on it, he’s an elder – the kind of man we badly need right now.

Second, Smith is a seasoned reporter. One reason he has seen so much territory is that he has reported for the Evangelical Press News Service for years. Most Christian books on the subject of why we’re so bad off make no pretense of documenting a story, naming names, and holding to standards of journalism. Smith has pounded the pavement to get this story, and his disciplined reporting puts him in a different category from mere opinion-mongers. His reporting on Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, to tug just one thread, is illuminating and adds depth to his larger argument.

Third, Smith brings intellectual weight to his diagnoses. He draws upon the critiques of modern life and media by Richard Weaver and Neil Postman, among others.

Most writing about evangelicalism treats “the culture” as a post-war artifact, telling us yet again that the World War II generation was more institutionally oriented than Generation Next, or whatever – stuff that basically comes from marketing literature. Even a well-documented book like UnChristian is essentially a public relations consult. These books can sometimes tell us what is happening, but rarely why.

Smith understands that evangelicals have embraced the vast scale of modern life without asking whether that life is a fantasy. Huge churches with impersonal systems, vast parachurch enterprises with assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, mass media strategies that address no one in particular – we have invested in these structures without considering what harm they do to our face-to-face relationships. There are reasons why we committed this folly, and history can tell us what they were.

A Lover’s Quarrel describes the “new provincialism” of evangelicals, the blithe dismissal of the importance of history and ideas in practical ministry. The book also dissects the sentimentality of evangelicals, their refusal to face reality. Smith’s portrayal of “the Christian-Industrial Complex” shows that the media world perverts the message of the Gospel not just because of the love of money, but because of things like Christian radio’s devotion to its fantasy-Mom, “Becky.”

These narratives are informed by long-standing critics of media and society, like Weaver and Postman, who were sounding alarms while evangelicals were lost in a dream world. The historical and intellectual sense of proportion Smith brings to this subject are badly needed.

Fourth, Smith offers a path out of the evangelical mess, one that restores life to a relational scale, both with human beings and with God. The path is that of vocation, the ancient and biblical notion of calling.

But I’d hate to spoil the end of a great read.

Books: Christ In Y'all, by Neil Carter

scan0002 Christ In Y'all: Following Jesus into Community

Neil Carter (Ekklesia Press, 2008, 196 pp)

by Matthew Raley

In our crisis of identity as American evangelicals, we are several decades into a period of radical (root-seeking) experiments with local church life. Fellow believers are heading in many directions seeking community.

The church growth movement has fostered enterprises that are intimately in step with suburban consumerism. The Reformed movement is trying to revitalize body life through sharper doctrine. Many emergents have moved on from café churches to think in terms of missional communities.

Believers are amassing a lot of wisdom from these experiments. This period, though it is often painful and bewildering to me, will leave followers of Christ far healthier and with more varied skills for advancing Christ's kingdom. I think the home church movement will prove to be a big contributor to all this wisdom.

That is why I was eager to read Neil Carter's book, Christ in Y'all: Following Jesus into Community, and why I'm glad I did. I found much wisdom to keep working through our identity crisis.

Carter is focused on needs that, for believers, are primal. He asks, for example (p 30), "[H]ow many things do you do, either on your own or within your church, that honestly could not be done without God's indwelling presence?" Concerning prayer, he observes (p 41), "Somewhere along the line we got a picture of God as a task-oriented Being who gave us prayer primarily as a way to make us as task-oriented as he is. But what would we be left with if we removed from our prayer lives all prayers that ask God to do something? We'd be left with simple communion."

He also writes (p 45), "Spiritual formation is a collective endeavor [original emphasis]. It's not about you, the individual, becoming more like Jesus. It's about him coming to reside among the saints in their relationships with each other."

The theology behind these statements is life-giving and biblical. Carter loves the Bible, and he communicates from the deep intentions of texts, not from idiosyncratic passions.

In addition, Carter makes penetrating observations about American life (p 39). "While declaring our independence from each other, we simultaneously mimic each other in everything from our clothing and our possessions to our language, our political views, and even our personalities. American culture may very well be the most advanced manifestation of this malady to date."

This book is informed by experience. Carter and the brethren have taken these ideas and applied them seriously in a home church. He discusses how many of them intentionally live near each other, so that (p 158) they "often bump into each other and spend time together on the spur of the moment."

At the heart of the book, and the experiences it reflects, is the reality that suffering with other believers, and being hurt by them, is essential to the Christian life. Chapters 5-6, in this respect, are worth the whole book, and give a call to sobriety that believers deeply need.

The only weakness of this book is common to literature from radical experimenters. In a word, judgmentalism.

Those who seek the root of matters and do things differently get stared at by the community's worst face -- the snide, dismissive, over-confident face. This experience stings, and it's difficult to keep one's writing and teaching from stinging back.

The edge of judgment on others' efforts comes through in several of Carter's paragraphs about stereotypical traditional church activities, staffs, buildings, etc. The verdict on p 168 is one of a few unsustainable pronouncements: "It took me a while to admit that 'body life' cannot survive long within the traditional church setting because these two things are antagonistic to each other."

This doesn't match my experiences. But such sparks keep the experimentation lively. I'll put up with them to get Neil Carter's wisdom.

Excerpt From My New Book, The Diversity Culture

by Matthew Raley 9780825435799On March 20th in Dallas, TX, I will give a workshop on my new book, The Diversity Culture: Creating Conversations of Faith with Buddhist Baristas, Agnostic Students, Aging Hippies, Political Activitsts, and Everyone In Between.

This book is about the new openness to anything and everything in America, and about how you can be like Jesus in the midst of it. Here is an excerpt.

My workshop will be part of the Christian Book Expo, for which you can register at the top of my sidebar. If any of my Texas readers can be there, I'd love to meet you.

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 . . .

Books: Douthat and Salam on Republicans

scan0002Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 233 pp. by Matthew Raley

I have followed the incisive writing of these men in National Review for several years, and have regretted taking so long to get to their book. Their version of recent political history, their analysis of the working class and the new stratification of American society, and their road map to Republican success are compelling.

But my interest in their book is focused less on their political acumen than on their revealing picture of evangelicals.

Religious, socially conservative voters have been a base of the Republican party for several decades. These voters come from all classes, but they are disproportionately working class and southern. They have pushed the party to adopt pro-family, pro-life, and anti-gay marriage positions, and to side with them against the sexual mores of Hollywood.

When Douthat and Salam show these voters' problems as part of the larger working class in America, a disturbing portrait emerges.

The authors assert (p 133), "The most important thing to understand about today's stratification -- economic, social, and cultural -- is that it starts at home, where working-class Americans are far less likely than their better-educated peers to enjoy the benefits of stable families."

Come again?

Better-educated Americans are liberals. They're the ones who don't have stable families, who don't even believe stable families are important. So what's this about the working class not enjoying stable families?

Douthat and Salam explain (p 133), "The divorce rate exploded across all classes in the late 1960s, but among the college educated it leveled off quickly and then began to drop." Here are the numbers (pp 133-134):

In the period from 1970 to '74, 24 percent of all first marriages among Americans with college degrees ended in divorce within ten years; two decades later, that figure had fallen to just 17 percent. During the same period, by contrast, the divorced-within-ten-years rate crept up among Americans without a college degree, from 34 to 36 percent. As late as 1980, the divorce rate for women without a four-year college degree was just three percentage points higher than the divorce rate for women with a four-year degree; by 2000, this "divorce divide" stood at nine percentage points.

Or take illegitimacy (p 134):

In the early 1960s, the rate of out-of-wedlock births was 5 percent among the best-educated third of the population and just 7 percent among the least-educated third. Over the next forty years, the illegitimacy rate would triple for the least-educated third, while barely budging among the best-educated segment of the population.

For Douthat and Salam, the social conservatism of so-called Red states is directly related to the working class's economic interests.

They quote Garance Franke-Ruta of the American Prospect (p 140): "People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities."

The authors' point that social conservatism is not, as many liberals argue, a distraction from the real problems of the working class, is needed.

But the disconnect between the voting passions of evangelicals and the way their families live has bothered me since the late nineties, when it became increasingly obvious that the loud, beefy Rush fans were just as, if not more, immoral than their NPR nemeses, and that Red-state church attendance was not having much impact on this hypocrisy.

I read Douthat and Salam's policy recommendations with enthusiasm. I hope a talented politician is studying this book.

But when I finished it, my thoughts went back to evangelicals. Their sexual morality is more an aspiration than a fact, which puts them in a poor position to lecture the rest of the country about righteousness. The out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the Palin family is all too typical of evangelical households right now, and protests that we believe a gospel of grace are not going to gain us sympathy.

Evangelicals need to recall that the kindness of God should lead us to repentance.

At the Christian Writers Guild Conference

I arrived here in Colorado Springs yesterday for the conference at the Broadmoor, brought by a smooth flight and greeted by serene weather. One of the things I like about coming here is the profusion of accents from around the nation and the globe. Behind me at breakfast, a New Zealand baritone talked over business with a guy from the American suburbs. To my left, a grand Latina lady taught her little granddaughter some Spanish. A girl pouring coffee was from the English midlands, a bellman named Moses had Jamaican music in his voice, and the maid who just knocked on my door came straight from Vienna.

But the craziest moment was yesterday. I get on the shuttle from the airport to the hotel, and all around me are middle-aged women shouting at each other in the brutal tones of Manhattan friendship. They're the real deal -- gestures, laughter, the works. And what are they doing at the Broadmoor?

They're attending a Tupperware convention.

Cathedrals and Their Messages

"A Sea of Steps," Wells Cathedral, 1903, by Frederick H. Evans, Museum of Modern Art My son Dylan and I are reading through David Macaulay's fantastic series of books about buildings. We've read about the construction of castles, pyramids, and cities, and right now we're reading Cathedral.

The timing is interesting, given that our church is in the middle of fund-raising for a new facility. The morality of such construction projects is increasingly questioned by those who cite the poverty of the developing world, and the massive needs around us here at home. I find myself reading Macaulay's book and looking at his drawings through the lens of my own struggles with our project.

Why do some buildings strike me as self-indulgent and offensive, while others impress me with a message?

In the case of the medieval cathedrals, I can't help reacting to the abuses that financed them, like the display of relics and the sale of indulgences. I also react to the throne-and-altar alliances that the cathedrals incarnated: the church sanctified the kings of this world and their wars. History rightly pours scorn on these aspects of cathedrals, and highlights the fact that on Sundays most of them are now empty.

As I've watched contemporary building programs both at a distance and up close, I notice that a project's legacy is often soured by manipulative funding campaigns, or by designs that are patently self-serving. Such buildings become symbols of corruption rather than places for fostering godliness.

I recall a visit to the Crystal Cathedral in southern California years ago. Parts of the campus were beautiful. But the famous building itself was bizarre. Wherever I went around the exterior, I saw myself in a massive mirror. When I went inside, I found that all the seats faced straight ahead, not toward the pulpit, so that it was far more pleasing to watch the massive TV screens than to look at the actual preacher.

In fact, I was in a space built for cameras, for viewership rather than worship. In such places, I don't begrudge the cost so much as the message.

Consider some ways in which the medieval cathedrals transcended their often vainglorious origins:

1. The cathedrals were direct expressions of the faith of common people.

Bishops didn't build cathedrals; craftsmen did. Whole lifetimes would be spent cutting stones, carving ornaments, blowing glass, climbing scaffolding. The craftsmen remain anonymous, individual contributors to a vast conception meant to evoke the created order. That kind of devotion is worth something. It is not to be sneered at. The level of skill these laborers had is stunning even in the pages of a book for children.

2. The cathedrals united generations.

The people who dug the foundations were dead long before the cathedral was consecrated. In these projects there was a sense of continuity, of one generation receiving a charge from another, carrying on the work, and passing the charge on to their children.

This aspect of cathedral-building in a community's life is no longer seen as valuable or even desirable, a fact that speaks of a deeper corruption in us than mere materialism. In a word, it indicates decadence.

3. The cathedrals have a present-day impact on a person's soul.

They say something. They speak to even the most unlearned child. When you walk around the outside of a cathedral, it doesn't flash back your own image, but a vision of another world. When you go inside, it doesn't say, "Look at the jumbo-tron." It says, "Look up!"

The aspersions cast on buildings can also be cast on all the arts. If it is a selfish luxury to make buildings with a message, then it is also selfish to make songs, paintings, photographs, poems, and novels. All of the arts require time, devotion, and money. But we miss the balm of God-given creativity when we lower all of life to the utilitarian bottom-line.

Our building in Orland will not rise above commercial-grade design and construction, which saddens me. But I also know that our design is flexible. We can humanize it by the arts we can afford, and we will. Above all, we will have worship space that encourages participation, not viewership. We'll have large spaces for many purposes, but also very small spaces set aside for one-on-one counseling and prayer.

The cathedrals were only possible because a strong culture knew what it wanted to say and how to say it. While our building will never be an artistic marvel, it will be a clear message.

Books: Obama and Richard Reeves' Kennedy

scan00021President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves, Simon & Schuster, 1993. by Matthew Raley

Recently, anticipating an Obama administration, I reread Richard Reeves' narrative of John Kennedy's presidency, and was engrossed.

Barack Obama's ascent provided the excuse I'd been wanting to return to this book because Kennedy is the nearest analogy to the man who will be the 44th president. Just for starters, Kennedy was a barrier-breaker, as the first Catholic to occupy the White House, and he was young.

But there are more significant parallels. JFK had no executive experience, and was the last sitting U.S. senator to win the presidency. He also represented generational change, and a break with ideological passions in favor of a sophisticated pragmatism. Indeed, JFK was the last president to have the sheen of academic and writerly intellectual seriousness.

Does the Kennedy administration, I wonder, suggest anything to watch as Obama takes over?

First, a few outstanding features of Reeves' book, Obama aside.

Reeves is the master of the taut, high-impact vignette. Kennedy was pondering what to do about renewed Soviet atmospheric nuclear testing. Should the U.S. resume atmospheric testing too? He asked his science adviser, Jerome Wiesner, how radioactive fallout gets to the earth (p 227).

"The clouds are washed out by rain," answered Wiesner.

Kennedy looked out through the French doors into the garden. It was a rainy day and he asked: "You mean it's in the rain out there?"

"Yes," Wiesner said. He stood, awkwardly, waiting. Kennedy did not speak for a long time.

Reeves also conveys the private impact on national leaders of events like the Cuban missile crisis. His understated portrayal gains power from the right details at the right moments. Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader, left the White House after learning that millions could be dead within hours in a nuclear exchange (p 393). The senator

called his wife, asking her to meet him at National Airport. Mansfield wanted to go home to Montana, and he told his wife there was something he wanted to tell her involving Kennedy. When the Mansfields landed at Billings later that day, there were soldiers patrolling the runways and the terminal -- as there were at other airports all across the country.

The Kennedy assassination (which I hope never becomes a parallel between the 35th and 44th presidents) gains drama and tension as Reeves' narrative rolls on. The dates at the beginning of each chapter prompt the reader to ask, "What if JFK knew he only had this much time?"

And there are chilling moments close to the end.

On November 2, 1963, JFK sat down to a meeting to manage the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese president. An aide walked into the meeting with a cable reporting that Diem had been killed in the coup (p 649). "[The aide] handed it to the President, who looked at it, stood up, and rushed from the room without a word, looking pale and shaken."

In Fort Worth on November 22nd, surveying the setting of a political rally he would attend before flying to Dallas, Kennedy said to an aide (p 661), "Look at that platform. With all these buildings around it, the Secret Service couldn't stop someone who really wanted to get you."

My reading raised one issue that I will be watching closely in the Obama administration.

JFK's view of military power and foreign policy was primarily political. How would the United States be perceived around the world, and how would JFK be perceived at home?

During the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy refused to send American air support to save the ex-patriot invasion force. He wanted to preserve plausible deniability of American involvement.

Reeves writes (p 157) that Kennedy, meeting Nikita Khruschev in Vienna in 1961, wanted to "talk to him politician-to-politician about the dangers of military miscalculation in a nuclear world. The political systems that produced the two leaders were different, but they were in the same business and Kennedy had no doubt they would understand each other."

But Kennedy was unprepared for the ideological strength of the Soviet leader. When asked by James Reston how the summit had gone, Kennedy replied (p 172), "Worst thing in my life. He savaged me."

The pattern Reeves shows in Kennedy's decision-making is one of trying to preserve his room for maneuver and his deniability until the last possible moment. This was his downfall in the Bay of Pigs, it persisted during the Cuban missile crisis, and remain characteristic during the coup against Diem in the last month of Kennedy's life.

Of the impending coup, JFK cabled Henry Cabot Lodge, the ambassador to South Vietnam, "We are particularly concerned about hazard that an unsuccessful coup, however carefully we avoid direct entanglement, will be laid at our door by public opinion almost everywhere."

Barack Obama is not an ideological, but a political creature. He balances, he soothes, he preserves options.

This is good in the sense that Obama will probably not turn out to be the radical leftist some fear. But in foreign policy, where uses of military power have to be concerned less with appearances than with targets and results, and where power needs to be used without a guilty conscience, Obama's penchant for equivocation could be his undoing.

After the Bay of Pigs humiliation, Dwight Eisenhower visited Kennedy at Camp David, and gave him the dressing-down of his life (pp 102-103). "How could you possibly have kept from the world any knowledge that the United States had been involved?" Ike said. "I believe there is only one thing to do when you go into this kind of thing, it must be a success."

But we don't have the equivalent of a former president Eisenhower anymore.