Art is gratuitous. Art is extravagant. But so is our God. God does not need us; yet he created us out of his gratuitous love. Jesus astonished the disciples by giving Mary the highest commendation anyone receives in the pages of the Gospels:

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6 -9)

I pray that in the days to come, this aroma will fill the air whenever the words of Gospel are spoken, that outsiders to faith will sense this extravagant air and feel it, particularly for them. I pray that when our children speak of faith, this gratuitous, intuitive aroma of the love of Christ will be made manifest in their lives.

Makoto Fujimura, “Toward Culture Care,” November 27, 2014.

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

Hope in the Pharisee's Spiral

by Matthew Raley In 2012, I got a lengthy email from a well-known pastor endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination. Gingrich was peaking at that moment and the pastor argued that evangelicals should consolidate behind him. This was the man to deliver victories in the culture wars.

The email was lengthy because the pastor had to navigate rocky moral straights. He said he had wrestled with Gingrich’s adultery and third marriage. How could he endorse a man who had done such things? Several paragraphs of reasoning boiled down to two points. Jesus forgives us all. And Gingrich held the right positions on abortion and gay marriage.

I tapped the little trashcan icon.

That email illustrates an evangelical sexual crisis. We have proclaimed Judeo-Christian morality as the standard for our society, but we are not holding to that standard ourselves. In this crisis, many believers have lost hope for cleansing from their sexual sins. We are caught in what I call the Pharisee’s spiral.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time reduced spirituality to rules. Keeping the rules made them good. If they broke a rule, there were additional ones that would save them from guilt. For instance, a Pharisee might break an oath that he swore on the temple. But he was still good: since he didn’t swear on the gold of the temple, he was not bound by his oath (Matthew 23:16-17).

The Pharisee’s spiral is the swing between guilt and rationalization. I broke one rule, but I’m safe because I kept another rule. A Pharisee always reads the fine print. That’s where he finds the good news.

The pastor exhibited this spiral when he endorsed Gingrich. Why was Gingrich acceptable now when his moral twin, Bill Clinton, was anathema in the 1990s? They were both adulterers. When Clinton was running for president, evangelicals said that his adulteries were disqualifying. Gingrich lost the House speakership because his own sin was revealed.

Spend time in the Pharisee’s spiral and there’s a neat solution. Both men broke the rule. Both can be forgiven by Jesus. But one has the wrong stance in the culture war, and the other has the right stance. Gingrich is saved by the fine print.

If Gingrich were the only case in which Christian leaders public looped their way through this sort of explanation, the spiritual impact on the average evangelical might not be so devastating. But there have been many leaders like Gingrich. What I hear from believers struggling with their sexual sins is exactly the sort of hurt one expects from people repeatedly cycled through the spiral.

They tell how they got pregnant before they were married. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they got married and stayed married? (Fine print.) They tell of homosexual experiences. (Broken rule.) Are they safe because they still feel guilty? (Fine print.) They have used pornography. (Broken rule.) Can they be intimate with their spouses without that sin hanging over them? Is there any fine print for that, or are they permanently broken?

Churches are packed with people who need sexual healing, many of whom think sexual purity is a matter of fine print. What they need is genuine good news. Jesus Christ paid not only for forgiveness, but also for a process of cleansing. He paid with his life. And the cleansing he purchased reaches our sexuality, restoring God’s design for human flourishing.

As our society turns the body into a commodity through human trafficking, objectifies women through pornography, eroticizes childhood, and imposes the cost of our sexual decisions on our offspring, we evangelicals cannot satisfy ourselves with declaring absolute standards. We have to declare an absolute Savior. And we can’t declare Him unless we’ve experienced his power.

At Chico Grace Brethren, we’re going to start breaking the Pharisee’s spiral in our own hearts. On March 9th we’ll begin a study of how to stop being “puffed up” in the midst of sexual sin. Our text will be 1 Corinthians 5-6. I will be talking to Christians about the process of cleansing Christ purchased for us. But I invite anyone to listen in on this conversation. More information at

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."

The Empty Tomb and the Empty Easter

by Matthew Raley For American evangelicals, the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have become a tall tale. We retell the story with gusto, but by Easter afternoon the resurrection fades to legend.

Evangelicals historically saw Christ's rising from the dead as the volcanic core of the Christian life. He conquered death not just by rising, but also by pouring his life into his followers. To a person was hostile to God, the essence of spiritual death, Christ restored love. He replaced rebellion with willing obedience. Christ's presence was the hot energy that transformed a believer's motivations.

In other words, evangelicals used to emphasize Jesus's teaching in the Bible about the new birth, that human beings must have a resurrection of God-loving energy and that nothing else can save us.

In the late 20th century, however, evangelicals' concept of the new birth degenerated. The phrase "born again" came to describe a ticket to heaven, eternal life guaranteed by a single prayer. We focused on getting people to pray that prayer, and with some success. Many got their ticket.

But we had trouble motivating ourselves to spiritual vitality. Those who prayed that prayer -- who in fact prayed it repeatedly, grasping for security with God -- were rarely taught that the new birth radically changed their identities. We generalized about "a relationship with Jesus" as if it were a life-upgrade, a fix for whatever made us unhappy, rather than life itself.

So Christ's resurrection became a mere story.

I meet countless believers who know that Christ's power is not extinct, but who only see glimpses of it. The trivial new birth taught by churches has drained their vitality.

I hear three such trivialized versions of the Christian life.

Many believers describe being born again as a cathartic emotional high, a personal, authentic experience that gives meaning to life. Following Christ to them means striving to recapture the high -- and failing. Their church has taught them existentialism with the name of Jesus attached on a post-it note. No one should be expected to build his life on such sand.

Others see the Christian life as maintaining a good family: striving to be a good wife or husband, striving to keep bad influences out of the home, striving to raise good children -- and failing. These believers have been taught moralism. Week after week in church, they have heard five steps to good communication, seven steps to good time management, and a wearying list of other "practical" suggestions for getting their act together. Christ's role in their spiritual life is to forgive their accumulating sins. And that's his only role.

Still others describe the Christian life as activism. Many older evangelicals strive to recapture America's political system and restore the culture they once knew. Younger evangelicals, reacting against their elders, often strive for progressive causes. But political striving fails too. These believers have been taught different forms of ye olde throne-and-altar religion, that Christ builds his kingdom through governments. Christ role for them is to get the right people in office.

These forms of striving -- existential, moral, and political -- have three things in common. Each replaces Christ with an idol, a totem of sanctified obsessions. Each fails to supply Christ's power, leaving the soul dessicated. And each consigns Christ's resurrection to legend: an inspirational diversion from the cares of life, but not ultimately relevant to our pressing work.

For evangelicals now, the most important thing about Christianity seems to be our responsibility to solve our own problems. Some dress that message up in therapeutic lingo. Others now supplement it with a grab-bag of medieval mystic practices. But it's the same old bad news: "God helps those who help themselves."

Churches must restore the emphasis on genuine power. Christ is risen. In him we also have been made alive.

I notice that discouraged believers still distinguish between the follies of churches and the power of God. In discouragement, they persistently hope in Christ, knowing that his subterranean heat remains fierce even if the ground looks cold.

They should take comfort. Easter is not empty.

Sermon for My Grandpa's Memorial

by Matthew Raley As I remembered Grandpa in the hours after he died, I thought of 1 John 3.1-3.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

I struggled with my memories of Grandpa that night. Each memory was good without giving me comfort. In fact, some of my most important memories of him were like a slap in the face. Grandpa is gone. I won’t see him again in this life. There were some gifts that only he could give because he was Grandpa, and no one can replace him. Though I can remember what he gave, he won’t give anything more.

The words from John helped me understand something about Grandpa’s life and death. Meditate on them with me.

John’s point is that the Father has given us a unique relationship. Look, John says, at “what kind of love” the Father has given. John doesn’t marvel that there is so much of God’s love, or that God’s love toward us is so deep, but that God’s love is a specific kind. His love is the kind that calls us his children.

John explains what he means elsewhere in this letter. Human beings are sinners, and have no fellowship with God (1.6, 8). So we do not become his children because we love him, but because he loves us first. And the Father loved us by giving his Son Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins (4.10). When we believe in Christ, John says that we are “born of God,” that God “abides in us” (4.13-16; 5.1).

The love that calls us children of God is the kind that bought us a second birth in Christ.

Grandpa believed these things. He and Grandma realized who Jesus is and began to follow him at a Billy Graham crusade. Grandpa knew that God’s love is not a generic benevolence, but a sacrificing love.

The next statement John makes is stark. He describes the alienation between the world and the Father. “The reason why the world did not know us,” John says of himself and the other apostles, “is that it did not know him.” John also explains and repeats this statement throughout his letter. There is no darkness is God, and darkness does not have any fellowship with him (1.5-6). “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John writes (2.15). “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

This kind of alienation from the world was something Grandpa knew too. He told me that, before he started following Christ, he had been made Sunday school director at his church. Grandpa realized that he had been in charge of teaching children about Christ, but hadn’t been following Christ. So he went to the pastor and resigned.  The pastor didn’t see that Grandpa’s lack of personal experience with Christ made any difference, and declined his resignation. Grandpa was astonished. “You mean, it doesn’t matter to you whether your Sunday school director is a Christian?” A major reason why he and Grandma moved here in 1955 was the realization that their church didn’t think being “born of God” was important.

In fact, the new birth is constantly being downgraded from essential to optional. Those of us who claim to follow Christ tend to rejoice in our sins being paid without looking too carefully over the itemized bill. The logic of John—the logic of the Bible as a whole—is relentless on this point: sins by nature are destructive and incur a cost. Grandpa’s sins were costly. His redemption came at a price. The logic drives on: if that cost is paid for me, then I do not belong to myself anymore. Grandpa struggled to reach that conclusion. And so we all do. We sometimes wish that we could take some of the world’s plastic into the streets of gold.

John’s next sentence is the reason I thought of these verses the night Grandpa died. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” There are two points in those words. He says we have this amazing identity right now: we are God’s children. All the acceptance, security, and love of God’s household belong to us. The story has passed the turning-point. But then John says that we can’t picture what we will be. The Last Day hasn’t come. Our final image hasn’t downloaded yet. The story isn’t over.

So when Grandpa was with us, he belonged in the Father’s household. He was a child of God. But there is more to Grandpa that remains hidden.

These words from John helped me because I realized that the best gifts I received from Grandpa were from Christ. In this life, Grandpa was born of God, and the many good things Grandpa gave were the overflow of that new birth.

Some of those things were simple.

He knew how to delight and amaze his grandkids. He could twist an apple in half with his bare hands. He made all sorts of toys: trucks, puzzles, guns. He taught me the first lessons I can remember in creativity. When I was 8 or 9, I asked if he would make me a rifle. All I had in mind was the shape of a rifle cut out of wood. Grandpa went to his shop, drew a rifle onto a scrap of plywood, and proceeded to cut it out. But I could see that the barrel was way too short. I was worried. Didn’t Grandpa know about rifles? Didn’t he know that the whole point of a rifle was the long barrel? I gently pointed this out to him, but he didn’t seem concerned at all. So I figured it could still pass for a sawed-off shotgun. But Grandpa had other ideas. What I thought was the barrel was actually just the stock. For the barrel he used a couple feet of half-inch PVC pipe. When the bad guys saw me coming with that rifle, they all ran.

The first lesson in creativity was, “Don’t rush the genius.” The second was, “A creation is the best gift.”

Grandpa could be extremely funny. He was the master of deadpan storytelling. I can’t tell his masterpiece the way he told it, but I can give you the gist.

Across the road from the family home was a field that Grandpa was clearing, and in the field was a stump. He decided that, instead of cutting the stump out, it’d be faster to blast it. So he went to town to buy dynamite from the only place you could get it, and that was the Baptist pastor’s wife. She sold him the dynamite, but she gave him some advice. “Don’t pack too much under the stump. Only use a little.”

He nodded but thought, “What does she know?”

When he was finished packing all the explosives he had under the stump, he lit the fuse and took off running. The blast shot the stump into the air, past Grandpa, across the road, over the family home, and into the back yard.

Moral: listen to the pastor’s wife.

The simple gifts are worth a lot, whether a toy or a tall tale. But some of the things Grandpa gave me were deeper.

I worked with him on his rentals for two summers as a teenager. I learned from working alongside him, and I learned from watching how he related to people—open, polite, understated. I saw these things and more because he gave me time.

He also gave me understanding.

One summer I preached a sermon at a Free Church youth conference in Denver in front of a panel of three judges. I was seventeen. My model for public speaking was William F. Buckley, Jr. When I finished and sat down with my youth pastor, Dan Tedder, and the judges, one of them held up my notes and said, “What is this? What are you trying to do?”

Grandpa was on the church board at the time, and he heard from Dan about how the judges reacted. A couple weeks later Grandpa and I were reroofing one of the 7th Street houses, and somehow we started talking about Denver. He stopped, set his hammer down, and said, “I heard what that judge said about your sermon. That wasn’t right. You just keep following the path you’re on, and the Lord will use you.”

I was blessed in my teens to have people in my life who understood me, my parents and Dan Tedder included. Grandpa’s gift of understanding at that moment was powerful.

John’s words helped me understand that Grandpa’s gifts to me really came from Christ’s work in Grandpa. God used Grandpa’s gifts to stir and strengthen my spiritual life, and I continue to grow because of them.

John’s next words helped me understand Grandpa’s death. “But we know that when [Christ] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” John picks up the idea that we don’t know yet what we will be in eternity. The end of the story is when Christ returns. We will finally have an unobstructed view of him. No more speculation about what he is really like, no more wondering what he would do or say. We will see Christ as he is, and John says we will then become like him—just the way children learn.

What is Christ like? Glorious, gentle, meek, true, life-giving, gracious, loving.

Grandpa had some of those qualities some of the time, and because he was a child of God those good things built us up. Now Grandpa sees Christ as he is. Grandpa is like Christ. He has all of Christ’s qualities eternally. His story is finished.

John’s last words in these verses give us a glimpse of Christian integrity. “And everyone who thus hopes in [Christ] purifies himself as he is pure.” We don’t purify ourselves by willing away our sins, nor by rationalizing them. We purify ourselves by setting our hope as God’s children on the Last Day, the hope that we will see Jesus Christ in his perfection, and that we’ll become complete in him. This hope arouses us to reject the plastic gloss of this world and strive for the prize of the upward call.

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.

Forgiveness and Repentance

by Matthew Raley I got a question over Twitter following my recent post on forgiveness. How do you forgive someone who won't acknowledge doing wrong, or who never repents?

Three issues here.

1. We have a duty to forgive even those who will not acknowledge doing wrong. Jesus forgave those who crucified him while they were in the act of doing so (Luke 23.34). His death for sinners occurred when we were ungodly, not in response to our repentance (Romans 5.6-11). Jesus commands us to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6.14-15), extending the same release to others that we've gained ourselves.

2. Forgiveness is not a free pass for a sin without payment. Remember the transaction of release: upon payment, the debt no longer adheres to the debtor. The Scriptures tell us to release people from their sins on the strongest possible basis, Christ's payment for sin. Because of his death on the cross, Jesus Christ is now the judge (John 5.22-29).

So when I forgive someone who has wronged me, I am saying that Christ bought me out of my debts. Therefore I have no right to hold debts over another person (Matthew 18.23-35).

In this sense, my release of someone who has wronged me is a change of custody. "Whatever claim I have against this person I surrender to Christ. He is judge; I am not. He may do as He will."

3. Forgiveness is different from trust. Jesus forgives Peter for his betrayals, along with the other disciples (John 20.19-23). But he still goes through a process with Peter to reestablish the relationship (John 21.1-19).

There are times when we are called to forgive without the possibility of restoration. Those who will not turn from the sins that have harmed us may never be restored to the relationships we once had. In particular, this is true of those who have died without acknowledging their wrongs. In such cases, the matter is a transaction between my soul and Christ. "Lord, it is your right to deal with this person. For my part, I renounce whatever rights I may have because of your mercy to me."

Jesus As Boyfriend

by Matthew Raley I'm going to say some things about evangelical worship music that cannot be said without seeming unkind.

I have no desire to be unkind -- and that's a change for me. When I was in high school and college, I got angry at church services frequently, both because of their musical quality and content. But most of that reaction was selfishness and pride, wanting everything to match my tastes. In the last fifteen years, I have become open to many styles of worship.

Still, not in anger but sorrow, I think evangelical music has failed. It has not united believers in local churches in common declarations of God's glory, and the reasons for this failure have to do with truths about music that evangelicals have chosen to ignore.

Music is communal.

The act of making music is for bonding with others, not merely for pleasing oneself. A musician wants his expressions to be joined by those around him -- joined through listening, certainly, but also through singing and moving. From the earliest times and in all cultures, music is for connecting.

Specifically, music is where a community's rituals and moral vision fuse.

A ritual is a community's repeated act that has acquired implicit meanings. Weddings and funerals are only the most obvious rituals. Sports, shopping, official decisions, and of course worship all have rituals as well. More often than not, music has a defining role.

A moral vision, the way I'm using the phrase, is a community's view of what makes a good life. Music is one way communities express this vision. There's a reason why spirituals sung by slaves are different from raps, a reason that goes beyond technology and even history. Among other things, the two musical genres express divergent moral visions of suffering.

So, with a bit a music, you encounter one culture's view of good in life. And you react to it, positively or negatively. If you were to hear "The Sidewalks of New York" in its original 1890's style, you would instantly react to the rituals and vision of good that it embodies.

Pop music is now too commercialized to unite diverse people.

This is just a fact of business: the target audience rules. Pop music is designed right down to the production values for that audience, to please that audience, especially by affirming its rituals and moral vision. Pop is designed to sell, not unite.

Those who market music are particularly concerned to avoid a negative reaction from the target audience. Radio people will tell you surprising things about where the dividing lines fall. For instance, people who love opera are not automatically the same as those who love "classical."

Evangelicals have embraced pop music as a marketing vehicle for their message without stopping to ask what happens when people are connected not by participation but by consumption, or what happens when churches target certain people -- that is, when they divide groups.

(By the way, consumers all around the world are rebelling against the music industry, because they are onto the calculation involved in the music itself. They are demanding authenticity, and they have the means to get it.)

Warning: this is the unkind part.

I think evangelical worship music most often mimics a girl's vision of the good life, as packaged by pop music.

The calculation for megachurches has been like this: if pop music is the Way, the Truth, and the Growth, then the musical stream in which the church swims has to be non-threatening to most people. Anything from edgier pop music, or worse, old music, will send people running away with their hands over their ears.

That's the reason for the Jesus As Boyfriend song. It's non-threatening.

The typical contemporary worship tune is straight out of boyfriend ballads. It just is. And it has to be sung like a boyfriend ballad in order to be remotely convincing -- with a certain breathy desperation.

The lyrics are also boyfriend ballad stuff. I need you. You are all I need. I'm desperate for you. Enough said.

The performers -- and I'm pushing the edge of the unkindness envelope, and I'm sorry about it, I truly am -- either act like girls seeking boyfriends, or like the boyfriends being sought, which is to say, cute.

(No offense to girls. Nothing wrong with girls. Nothing wrong with girls seeking boyfriends. Not trying to hurt girls' feelings ...)

The reason why worship music has failed to unite believers in a declaration of God's glory is that, for the most part, it does not bother to try. It does not even attempt to cross generational or demographic lines. It either helps a church target a certain narrow group, or it helps a church be unobjectionable.

There. I said it. And I'm not done.

The Diversity Culture Then and Now

by Matthew Raley To my frustration, the default mode of pastors when teaching the New Testament is, "We have to cross a huge gap of time and culture to understand the 1st century."

The Bible is indeed a foreign book, and studying it does require effort. Its foreign nature derives from a national Jewish narrative stretching back to Abraham, which imposes Hebrew patterns of thought on us even in translation. So, fine: there's a gap.

But to imagine that the cultural environment in which Christ walked, at the end of that narrative, is on the far side of a chasm, that the New Testament world is culturally alien to our own, is to misunderstand both then and now. It is to remain in a Victorian point of view.

Consider this characterization of Roman religious life from Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume I, Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co., n.d., p 74):

The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancor; not was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth.

Pick apart those ideas, and you find a description of spirituality today. Spirituality is story not doctrine. I shun speculative systems as so many "chains" that bind people in "rancor." There are many gods, and the ones I follow may not belong to you. But there is a reality to them all.

Or this (p 75): "Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship." There was, Gibbon says, a tolerance of all traditions. That is certainly the ethic today.

To be sure, Gibbon was grinding an ax with regard to Christianity, and his care to present the Roman world as civilized and ironic -- rather like himself -- was motivated by that agenda. In my 19th century edition of the Decline and Fall, the editor scores Gibbon for exaggerating polytheistic tolerance in a lengthy footnote in minuscule print (pp 509-510).

Still, Gibbon's description of 1st century society as spiritually open agrees with the book of Acts. Luke famously says that the Athenians "would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new." So they heard from Paul and, after due amusement at the idea of resurrection, said they would hear him again (17.16-34).

Here is the town clerk calming an anti-Christian riot in Ephesus (19.35-37):

Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious not blasphemers of our goddess.

It worked.

My new book, The Diversity Culture, is based on the fact that our American culture is very like the 1st century. In particular it is like the Samaritan culture with which Jesus interacted in John 4.

Sychar was at the junction of trade routes, and had been for centuries. By the time Jesus sat at its well, the ethnicity of its inhabitants was profoundly mixed, even untraceable. The Samaritans had gone back and forth between polytheism and Judaism several times. And the woman Jesus met at that well was evidence that the family as an institution had broken down.

The similarities between Samaria and America are important.

I do not believe that American evangelicals have seen the height of Christianity's glory. The Victorian culture that did not survive the industrial age was historically Christianity's dusk. The story of the 19th century was one of Christendom sinking into unbelief while retaining the cultural habits of faith. That was truly a time far removed from the 1st century.

We are now entering an age of renewed opportunity.

Our contemporary culture of openness and the ancient culture in which Christ's message first thrived are strikingly similar. We are in a time of absolute spiritual darkness. The claim that there is one God will be as countercultural now as it was to ancient polytheism.

But if we can recover the ways Christ spoke his exclusive claims into cultural diversity, we will see him speak afresh. And we can recover them, because we are closer to the New Testament environment than we've been for centuries.

The Inscription In a Used Tocqueville

A couple of years ago, browsing through a used bookstore in St. Helena, CA, I discovered a paperback edition of Alexis de Tocqueville's classic, Democracy In America. The volume was flawless, the spine and the covers uncreased, the pages without a mark or fold. I bought it, only to discover that the book had a story to tell beyond Tocqueville's. St. Helena is a fascinating artifact in itself, one that dramatizes the problem I write about in my forthcoming book, The Diversity Culture.

The town's Main Street might have been the set for Bedford Falls, and you half expect to bump into George Bailey outside the Building and Loan. It was an all-American, white, Christian town, its economy agricultural and its ways rural and bourgeois.

St. Helena is anything but that now.

While its economy remains heavily agricultural, one has to specify that the crop is grapes and the product wine. The storefronts that once held dry goods, hardware, and clothing at middle-class prices now display oils and soaps, Cartier fountain pens, designer jeans, and prints of John Lennon drawings. The old movie theater that once would have shown It's a Wonderful Life now shows indie flicks.

Ethnically, there are Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Latinos, Blacks, and a healthy number of people whose background can't be determined at a glance. Sexually, there are gay and lesbian couples, and the number of married tourists spending the weekend is declining.

The spirituality of the town is Eastern. There are evidences of Buddhism and Hinduism, often in the forms of those systems' gods themselves. And the politics of St. Helena . . . well, the town's in the orbit of San Francisco.

Such was the context in which I opened my new literary treasure to find something I'd overlooked -- an inscription inside the front cover.

scan00011Uncle Jack has given this copy of Tocqueville to Kyle (my guess at the handwriting), addressing him pointedly as "Sir" and referring to his new "career defending America." The choice of Tocqueville tells us a great deal about Uncle Jack, as does his ebullient patriotism: democracy is "in Americans' souls," and it "empowers all great Americans onward to greatness."

Uncle Jack is a red-blooded, conservative, Fox News guy, busting his buttons about his nephew's joining up.

July 19, 2003 is well into the period when post-invasion Iraq was looking muddled, with WMD nowhere to be found and security almost as rare. But the invasion was still seen as a military success, and the 9-11 mindset remained strong.

So who sold Uncle Jack's gift, unread, the cover not even bent back, to that bookstore? Was it a disillusioned Kyle, rejecting the cause he had joined? Or was it a bereaved parent or spouse, embittered by too steep a sacrifice?

Either way, the gift given with pride seems to have been rejected viscerally. Uncle Jack would've felt right at home in old St. Helena. But the rejection of Democracy in America belongs to the new.

With America polarized about politics, sexual morality, war, and religion, any discussion about Jesus Christ is threatened by hot emotions. Evangelicals now are wondering how to navigate the hostility between left and right, the points of view of interest groups, and the intersections of church and state.

If Uncle Jack is an evangelical, he is probably trying to "reach" his St. Helena relatives, fumbling for some way to get his spiritual views across, and finding it hard even to get a response. If any dialogues about Christ do take place they do not go well, ending somewhere in "Bush lied, people died" territory.

The Diversity Culture is about a recovery of confidence that the Gospel can be heard powerfully in this atmosphere. It gives a tour of the barriers between evangelicals and other Americans. It develops a theology for reaching diverse groups. And it gives practical help for dialogue.

I wrote this book because I've lived at the intersections between evangelicals and the diversity culture my whole life. I graduated from public schools and a secular university. As readers of this blog know, I am committed to the arts. I am, in some ways, more at home in the diversity culture than among evangelicals. But I have also learned how needful the gospel is on the diversity culture's own terms. And I've learned how potent the message of Jesus Christ is when I give it as he did.

Main Street in St. Helena, changed though it certainly is, offers more opportunities for the gospel than ever.

An Imam and His Abstract Comparisons

by Matthew Raley The generalization that all religions teach the same basic truths retains a powerful hold on the liberal imagination. It feeds the hope that the world can find peace through understanding, that if religions could realize how much ground they share, then people from different cultures could come together.

But this hope for a corporate final salvation leaves the individual human heart in despair.

Last Friday, On Faith in the Washington Post published comments by Feisal Abdul Rauf about President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Turkey. He provides a specimen of how a hope for common ground devolves into an impersonal set of ethics.

Imam Rauf's examples of common ground between Islam and America are pretty abstract. Both cultures, it seems believe in law.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Creator endowed man with these unalienable rights. The framers of the Constitution wrote that they were establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty.

In the same way, Islamic law believes that God has ordained political justice, economic justice, help for the weak and impoverished. These are very Islamic concepts. Many Muslims believe that what Americans receive from their government is in fact the very substance of what an Islamic state should provide. American beliefs in individual liberty and the dignity of the individual are Islamic principles as well.

These comparisons are shockingly facile. Concepts of justice do not become anything more than slogans until they are instantiated by real cultural transactions. It is precisely the cultural specifics that drive the Muslim and American worlds apart.

The Imam becomes more specific when citing President Obama.

Obama sent a shockwave through the Muslim World when at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5 he quoted a hadith -- "None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." The president equated that tenet of Islam with Jesus' "Love thy neighbor as thyself," and the Jewish Torah commandment, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow."

There is indeed a broad and sometimes precise agreement about ethics among the world's religions and cultures. There is also agreement that the dynamics of right and wrong are built into the universe just as securely as its physical dynamics. C. S. Lewis, to name only the most prominent thinker, documented this agreement in his series of lectures, The Abolition of Man, in which he argued for the existence of a Tao, a moral law that is universal.

Imam Rauf and President Obama are correct when they find the golden rule articulated across cultural boundaries.

But their purpose goes beyond the diplomatic to embrace the liberal's final hope.

Christian liberals have long sought to reenergize ethics in the here-and-now, and deemphasize the "last things" of human history and eternal salvation. Or more precisely, they have adopted a new doctrine of the last things.

Here is the ultimate End, articulated by the Imam. President Obama

can emphasize the commonality of Western and Islamic values. He can say that if the United States lives up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and if Muslims can live up to the principles of Islamic law, then we will find we have fewer points of conflict and more common ground.

Once this commonality can be established, Muslims no longer will fear Western domination and the West no longer will fear Islamic expansion. Then, the phony "Clash of Civilizations" can be put to rest.

The liberal imagination, whether Christian or Muslim, sees world peace as the End of History, the ultimate goal of religion. Their path is to spotlight common ground and ease sharp differences into the shadows.

Where does this leave biblical Christianity?

The Jesus of the Gospel of John speaks to individual despair, the death and darkness of sin in each human soul. His cure for this despair is not an abstract system of ethics, which serves only to mark sin and not to redeem the sinner. His cure for darkness and death is his own historical death and resurrection.

The world will be reunified in Christ's household of the redeemed.

This is the preeminent difference Christianity has with other religions. To follow the vision of liberalism, we must silence Jesus' claims about individual redemption while keeping his ethics. The Imam can easily live with that. President Obama can easily live with it.

But the human soul, taunted by an abstract law it has never kept nor can keep, will remain dead.

Evidence From Christ's Own Voice

by Matthew Raley Let's step out of the mode of persuading skeptics for now, and think more specifically about the experience of conversion. We'll get back to the issues of persuasion next week. They're important. But I'm convinced we can't construct a sound apologetic for our Christian faith without understanding of what has happened to us.

Jesus is specific in John 10 about what moves people to follow him: recognition.

"The sheep hear [the Shepherd's] voice." (10.3) "[T]he sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow ... for they do not know the voice of strangers." (10.4-5) "I know my own and my own know me." (10.14) "And I have other sheep that are not of this fold ... and they will listen to my voice." (10.16) "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (10.27)

Jesus is describing at least two things.

There is a quality in his voice that turns his sheep. The quality is personal, unique to Jesus, and it is communicable from him to his sheep. In other words, there are subjective characteristics inside Jesus (pardon the redundancy, but I'm emphatic about this point) that are expressed in his voice. His interior qualities constitute the object of the sheep's recognition.

I know him.

Further, there is something in his sheep that instinctively responds to his voice. Subjectively, each sheep recognizes the qualities of the Shepherd through the medium of his voice. This experience is, by definition, not something one person can share with another, but only describe.

So Jesus teaches that the decisive factor in conversion is an interaction. While the experience is subjective, Jesus clearly expects people to reflect on it. He describes, in other words, a reasoning process that accepts subjectivity as part of decision-making.

Last Sunday evening, as part of our church's discussion of the morning's sermon, I asked participants to tell me how they knew God was speaking to them. They described several characteristics, of which I give two:

1. Automatic change.

One woman said that after her conversion to Christ some of behaviors simply reversed. She no longer did the things she had desired in the past. It was a change she couldn't help noticing, but had never initiated.

2. A source of thoughts and motives other than self.

Several people described the experience of thinking, saying, or doing things that they could not attribute to themselves. The source, they said, had been Other. This is a different experience from an intuition or sub-rational process issuing in an action. A person can say, "I don't know why I did that," while still recognizing that the action came from him- or herself. But the participants described actions that they could not recognize as coming from themselves.

There were other characteristics, but these two illustrate that the people could describe a specific kind of experience.

Remember, we're out of the mode of persuading skeptics. We'll get back to it later.

Suppose we accepted this subjectivity as a legitimate part of spiritual decision-making. Is there a basis for reasoning about it? True, information from the two kinds of experiences above is fragile, and will only bear so much weight. The information is falsifiable, and is not open to objective proof. Even so, can we reason about this kind of subjectivity?

Consider two analogies.

The many indicators of falling in love are also fragile, also open to falsification, and all too frequently misunderstood. But romantic love is nevertheless a real experience.

A more fruitful comparison might be made with pain. Medicine does not have truly objective measures of pain, but tries to plumb the experience in search of diagnosis. The question What do you feel? is primary. Such information as location, kind, and scale of pain is limited by the patient's ability to communicate, verbally and physically. The information is indirect, fragile, and open to falsification.

But pain is real. Reflection and conversation about it can yield legitimate conclusions.

I believe our understanding of evangelism and apologetics should be revolutionized.

No one's decision-making process is purely objective. Decisions that mix objective and subjective priorities are the only decisions human beings are capable of making. So in evangelism, we shouldn't merely give evidence that points to Christ, urging people to make an inference that Christ's claims are true. Nor should we merely give evidence that proves competing claims false, hoping that people will convert to Christ by an analytical process of elimination.

Rather, the evangelist's goal should be to nurture an awareness of Christ's voice, the recognition of which is all the evidence people will need to follow him.

My Reluctance To Teach Apologetics

In my junior high years, I spent hours each week boning up on evidence that the Bible is historically accurate. I wore out Walter Martin tapes, marked up creationist books, and tried to turn conversations toward my findings. The most frequent response I got from non-Christians was no response. I was not saying anything that seriously challenged anyone's worldview. I was not provocative, as I had hoped to be. Nor was I even interesting.

My series on Jesus' truth claims in John 10 is a rare exercise for me in apologetics, the defense of Christian doctrine. We are contrasting Jesus' teachings with those of other religions, showing that the belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation is reasonable. Tagging along with this series, I'll devote a weekly post to some of the more technical issues.

As an opening question, why are my forays into apologetics so rare?

As a matter of theological principle, to begin with, I'm convinced that God's view of human life should not be defended, but asserted. The general tone of the Bible, whether history, epistle, or poetry, is declarative. The Lord spoke. The Lord acted. Heaven and earth obeyed. At some points in the Bible, human beings try to debate God (Job 38:1-42:6; Romans 9:14-21), but they are met with rebuke, not argumentation.

I favor this aggressive stance because God is the ultimate persuader of the human heart (1 Corinthians 2). My job as a preacher is assert his point of view and let his Spirit drive home the contrasts.

My reluctance to defend the Bible is founded on more than theological precept. I also have strategic doubts about the power of evidence-based arguments.

The accumulation of evidence to defend, say, the historicity of Noah's ark responds to modernist attacks according to modernist terms: the hard sciences define truth. In other fields of persuasion, like politics or law, each contender knows that he or she must set the terms of the debate in order to win. For Christians to have allowed modernists to frame spiritual questions in terms of human rationality has been to concede from the beginning that the Bible does not stand on its own. We have followed a losing strategy.

Human beings have to defend themselves according to God's terms, not the other way around. What possible confidence could I have in human justice?

Even further, I find logical problems with the evidence-based approach to apologetics, at least when its aims are confused.

The enterprise has been to confirm biblical veracity with independent data, say, from an archaeological dig. The prophet said this city would be swept into the sea, and lo, here are fibers from the very broom. But a conclusion heavier than the evidence will bear often gets dropped on the listener. Because we have the broom fibers, you should believe that the Bible is the true word of God.

In the first place, one would have to confirm every other detail in the Bible to reach that conclusion legitimately.

Additionally, and more importantly, the central assertion of Scripture is not that everything God says is true. The central assertion of Scripture is that "God spoke all these words." The reason to believe in the veracity of the Scriptures is that they were given by God. Even if one were able to find independent confirmation of every datum in the Bible, he still would not have proved that God is the Bible's source.

I rarely teach apologetics because the arguments are defensive. They can be legitimate, but are always limited. They can wear down an attacker and parry a blow, but they cannot convert the human soul.

Only a bold assertion of God's rights, without apology, can do that.

Prop 8 and Evangelical Goals

Sermon audio (11-9-08): The Blind Man Finally Sees The ongoing furor over Proposition 8 -- the successful California initiative banning same-sex marriage -- heats up the question of how churches should relate to society in general and governments in particular. The intensified hostility against evangelicals, pointedly expressed on picket lines and in court rooms, is focusing believers' minds up and down the state.

In our church, we have just finished studying the man born blind in John 9, the beggar who stood alone against the rulers. What are the potential applications of his example in today's California? Will Christians face persecution because of their stand on marriage? More broadly, how does the New Testament portray the relationship between 1st century Christians and the societies in which they lived?

Some not entirely random observations, starting with the broadest issue:

1. The culture portrayed in the New Testament was diverse, and idolatry and sexual immorality were mainstream, institutionalized fixtures.

Roman society had many gods, with cultic practices that varied from city to city. The idolatry permeated civic and social interactions, and no Christian could escape direct contact with it (1 Corinthians 8-10). Places such as Corinth and Ephesus were notorious, but not unusual, for their public sexuality. In 1 Corinthians, Paul dealt with the impact of this immorality on the church, issues like which sexual relationships were legal and illegal, and the common use of temple prostitutes (1 Corinthians 5:1-2; 6:12-20).

The New Testament commands Christians to look after their own purity in sex and worship. It nowhere commands them to legislate Jesus Christ as the official God of their cities, or to pass laws that reflect biblical standards. Cultural and economic upheaval is anticipated as more people follow Christ, but only as a secondary consequence of Christ's power, not as a result of direct agitation by Christians (Acts 19:21-41).

2. Christianity in the New Testament was an urban phenomenon. The apostles went from city to city, and the gospel thrived in the hustle of commerce and the competition among new ideas. Indeed, the fact that ethnic and religious identities were softened by so much cultural interaction was a major opening for the news that a Jew had died for the whole world.

3. We are living in the decaying civilization called Christendom, an accumulation of habits, institutions, and modes of thought rooted in Athens and Jerusalem. This era of decay is a monumental time in Western civilization, at the end of which a new collection of cultures will emerge with ethics, religions, and polities that are not entirely foreseeable now. In the sweep of human history, this process is normal. The Bible records many such shifts.

California is not at the leading edge of this transition. Europe is.

4. The end of Christendom is not something to celebrate.

The decay of old habits and institutions is destabilizing and even corrupting. The cynicism and decadence that we find everywhere now are signs of selfish and purposeless living, not signs of intellectual vitality. When a simple virtue like gratitude for our cultural inheritance is held up to scorn, we can be assured that other personal disciplines like courage, integrity, and fidelity have long since passed.

Declining to throw a party over the end of Christendom is not a sign of cultural arrogance. It is simple realism. All cultural decay, at all times, and in all places leads to moral confusion.

5. The fight to preserve Christendom is misguided.

Same-sex marriage is not the tipping point in the demise of Christendom. That point was passed long, long ago. (World War I might be a good candidate.) As much as we may mourn at the grave of our heritage, it is not a sign of health to try and dig up the corpse.

Again, Christians who mourn the loss of what was good in our inheritance are not wrong. But, as they mourn, they need to do the day's work. The end of governments founded on broadly Christian notions is an opportunity to change what Christendom built in error -- specifically, we can now detach the spiritual from the political.

6. Christianity can thrive in California.

Our context is more like the first century than the nineteenth, more like the societies in which Christian faith exploded than those in which it was dying. The predictions of the death of the faith in California are foolish. There is nothing happening now that hasn't constituted an opportunity for believers in the past. The faith may indeed die out here, but if it does, it will not be the result of unstoppable external forces. It will die because Christians stop believing.

7. Christians can now thrive if they will think of themselves more like the beggar in John 9 than the rulers.

Evangelicals project a sense of ownership in American society, ownership that is at best debatable and probably specious. Their populist calls to arms are all based on the planted axiom that the rightful authorities have been usurped. This is the wrong posture. We face a confident and established culture of secular priorities. The unbelievers rule. Let's be the beggars.

The beggar's individual integrity is more powerful than collective activism. His first-hand testimony about Jesus Christ is more potent than arguments about the shape of social institutions. And the beggar's suffering is for one cause and one only: the name of Jesus Christ.

I'll put it differently. When each Christian in California has the simplicity and tenacity for Christ that the man born blind had, we won't worry any longer about the death of our traditions. We will be at the beginning of a Christian counterculture.

Obama Culture and Bob the Logger

Sermon audio (11-2-08): Simple and Stubborn On Sunday evenings at our church, I lead a Q & A session about the morning's sermon. Last Sunday, with Barack Obama haunting the auditorium, we discussed the man born blind in John 9, and the challenge of bearing witness to Christ now. A key point in the sermon (audio above) had been that the beggar was a great model: when under pressure, just repeat what you have directly seen Christ do in your life.

One question responded to that point, and got close to the heart of why I did this series on individuality in Christ.

Bob the logger noted his charismatic upbringing, from which he learned not to take people's testimonies about Jesus seriously. He said that, because of the sensationalism he saw among pentecostals, he has not talked much about his personal relationship with Christ, using objective arguments that apply beyond subjective experiences instead.

Was I saying that he should reverse course? Should he talk about his personal experiences without worrying about universals, logic, or principles? Isn't that a surrender to postmodern thinking? (Our loggers are well-read, in case you're wondering.)

Three observations:

1. The death of reason has been greatly exaggerated. Reasoning has merely changed focus.

Many fear that the postmodern person uses experience as a substitute for logic, that the only thing she respects is emotion. I haven't found this to be the case. Rather, I find that the postmodern person is rightly suspicious of extravagant claims, having once believed too many scientific studies that were biased, too many news reports that served an agenda, and too many experts who were paid to bluff the uninitiated.

Postmodern people will listen carefully to any argument that splices together from many points of view a picture in 3-D. They know that reality is complex, and that we are too easily faked out by our narrow perceptions. And they are right to raise the bar on claims to objectivity.

2. Younger Christians' apologetical shift from propositional arguments to personal experience reflects postmodern suspicion. But their reflection is inarticulate and potentially dangerous.

It's one thing to accept the postmodern challenge to show the truth of Christ from many points of view. This acceptance deals with our culture as it actually is, without compromising the Bible's radical claims. But it's quite another thing to abandon the truth of Christ, saying instead that all points of view are equally valid. While this approach certainly deals with our culture as it is, the approach does so only through capitulation.

I believe Christians can shift the focus of their reasoning without compromise, but only with careful thought about what they are doing and why. To wit . . .

3. In John's Gospel, the argument for the truth of Christ is not being made by believers but by the Lord.

The logic of the Gospel of John is founded on the testimony of individual witnesses, and the book is written with the density of a legal narrative. Each witness gives distinct and specific testimony, establishing distinct and specific facts. No single witness proves the entire case, but all of them taken together do prove it. The person who deploys all the witnesses to make his argument is Christ himself.

For example, John the Baptist comes as a witness to the light (1.6-8). His testimony is that he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism, just as God had told him (1.31-34). "And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." Jesus later cites John the Baptist's testimony (5.31-35). "You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth." John the Baptist was part of Jesus' larger argument. John delivered one authentic point of view.

The beggar in chapter 9 is another example. Jesus says (9.3) that the man was born blind "that the works of God might be displayed in him." The healing of the man's sight was only the warm-up for that display; the main event consisted of the beggar telling the same story about Jesus repeatedly, and insisting (9.25), "One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." From his unique point of view, the beggar was able to conclude, "If this man [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing."

With the ascendancy of Obama and the diverse, postmodern culture he represents, many Christians will look more frantically for killer arguments. They will want to prove the morality of the Bible and the claims of Christ within the terms of philosophy, science, and especially social science. But they will fail to find these arguments -- fail in the sense that they will not persuade the unbeliever, no matter how incisive their arguments may be.

What you can do now is just what Bob the logger suggested with his question. Reverse course. Instead of using a lingo of proof that rightly arouses people's suspicions, you can speak from within your own point of view, describing what Christ has done for you. You can put your testimony in the context of what God says in the Bible. And you can do this without fear of compromising the truth.

God will make his own case, deploying your testimony just as he deployed the beggar's. We are God's witnesses, giving testimony under pressure, as the Holy Spirit persuades the world of the Gospel (15.26-16.11).

In other words, in the culture we now face, it has never been more important for you to reflect the light of Jesus Christ as an individual.

Being Christians in the Age of Obama

Sermon audio (10-19-08): Opposition to Christ in You Yeah, I know: it ain't over til the fat lady sings. Obama isn't elected yet. McCain could still pull an upset.

But nothing changes the fact that our country is headed for an acrimonious reckoning. The name Obama itself reflects the depth of the nation's divisions. About half the country is convinced he'll redeem America, and about half thinks he'll turn us into France. Americans are in the habit of getting pretty worked up over presidential candidates, but this year is special.

Consider a few flash-points.

Many Republicans are angry over the media's investigations of Joe the plumber. At National Review Online on Monday, Byron York reported from a McCain rally where the spectators were holding up signs like "Phil the Bricklayer" and "Rose the Teacher." The encounters between such people and reporters quickly escalated. One man said to reporters, "I support McCain, but I’ve come to face you guys because I’m disgusted with you guys." Many see themselves as persecuted.

On his Monday radio show, Sean Hannity interviewed a girl who was called a racist for wearing a McCain T-shirt to school. Her parents complained that the teachers and administrators had done nothing. More persecution.

Sarah Palin continues to divide not only the country in general but conservatives in particular. George Will, David Brooks, and Peggy Noonan have earned the ire of the grassroots right for their rejection of her populism. The ire is expressed along class lines, that these are fake conservatives because they are intellectuals, members of the media elite who look down their noses at common folk. Persecution from turncoats.

In California, the portents of an Obama victory combined with a victory for gay marriage against Proposition 8 are giving many evangelicals nightmares about totalitarian judges taking away their religious freedom. Persecution from government bureaucrats.

This election is defined less along the lines of economics, philosophy, or even race than those of class and culture. From the grassroots conservative point of view, it's Walmart against Wall Street, blue collar against white, Western Pennsylvania against San Francisco. It's Obama against Palin.

Evangelicals have spent decades confusing political causes with the cause of Christ. I have written at length about their populism and resentment, characteristics that mix a particular American identity -- predominantly rural and suburban, middle class, and conservative -- with godliness and truth. This year, many evangelicals fervently hope that populist anger will carry McCain to victory.

I think evangelicals are at a watershed.

If they invest their passion into being Sam's Club Republicans, into retaining the consumer culture that "made America great," and if they continue to link their faith in Christ and their political views, then they will be deluded about this year's reckoning.

They will interpret a McCain victory as some divine approval of their way of life, and will ignore the role their own immorality has played in the nation's decline. Conversely, they will interpret an Obama victory as the beginning of the persecution of the common American, stoking the fires of their resentment even hotter.

Neither response will advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, but merely intensify the acrimony.

But if evangelicals invest their passion into being Jesus' followers, into showing his grace and truth in their relationships, then they will see this year's election for what it is -- an opportunity. This is our chance to demonstrate that we care more about displaying Christ's glory than about displaying America's.

Many of the evangelicals I know are determined to make Christ the issue in their lives. They are taking steps to glorify him in their marriages, in the nurturing of their children, in their personal devotion to the scriptures and prayer, and in simple integrity. These believers understand how the sins of God's people are more significant causes of America's spiritual death than the sins of non-Christians. They also understand that their process of repentance will be full of suffering.

But they voice their sense of peace that Christ will turn them into unique expressions of his love, and that their individuality in him will become a clear, strong message of the gospel. They know that any opposition they get for displaying Christ is not opposition to their social status, or their political views, or their economic aspirations, but is the same opposition that Christ himself got when he was on earth. And they know that Christ can overcome that opposition.

To advance Christ's Kingdom, evangelicals must take one course or the other, the political or the spiritual. And the political course has demonstrably failed.

I am convinced that devotion to Jesus will help us avoid putting hope in a McCain administration, and that such devotion is the only way to face our more likely future, the age of Obama, without acrimony.

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.

What's Missing From the Needy Self

Sermon audio (October 5, 2008): Jesus Invades Your Experience The other day, I was riding with our old Dutch dairyman Pete in his massive red truck. Over the grinding of the diesel engine, we talked about today's young men, and Pete observed that they seem to take years to figure out who they are, and what they should be doing with their lives. "I see it over and over, even in good families. There's something missing in these guys."

His comment made me think of my three-year-old son Malcolm, a tough, thick-set package of nuclear energy. He knows what he wants and he lunges for it. He had wanted, for instance, a ride in Pete's red truck, thinking it was a fire engine, and he cried angry tears on my porch when we left. I wondered why our society dissipates boys' drive and potency, and what I need to do to ensure that Malcolm keeps a healthy sense of self and grows up strong.

The woes of boys are getting increasing comment these days, but the problem of the formless, unmotivated, needy self is everywhere. Many people seem to lack solid identities, to be unable to form healthy relationships, seem to drift from one thing to the next like so much channel-surfing through life.

In this context, a pastor's temptation is moralism. Every month or so, after surveying someone's personal wreckage, I think, "I really need to do a series on time management," or, "I've got to preach on financial priorities." I wonder whether I give enough "practical application," telling people what's what.

If moralism is a temptation as a pastor, it is doubly so as a father. It is enticing to think that I can build up my son's identity through his submission to my authority.

Moralistic preaching and parenting tries to rebuild crumbling boundaries using precepts. Thou shalt and Thou shalt not. If you allow entertainment to suck your time, then of course there won't be enough hours in the day for your responsibilities. Thou shalt turn off the T.V. If you blow your money on toys, restaurant food, and mortgage-backed securities, then of course you won't have a financial chair when the music stops. Thou shalt not go into debt.

But moralism has been the downfall of contemporary Christianity. The precepts of godly wisdom nurture life in those who already have life; but among the legions who do not, the Get a clue! method of preaching doesn't edify. The "practical applications" of moralism merely compound people's guilt.

Moralism has been the downfall of Christianity because it is not the gospel.

For the needy contemporary self, the only hope is God-focused individuality, the unique expression of God's glory in a reborn personality. As we are seeing in our series on the man born blind in John 9, Jesus himself has to invade a person's life, not merely to reset what a person does, but who a person is.

Consider an observation: Human beings cannot define themselves, but are only defined in relationship.

There are two common myths about the self. One is that you can be true to some wisdom or potential inside your personality, wisdom defined by you alone -- the Oprah storyline. The other is that you can improve yourself, work hard, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps -- the moralistic storyline. The two myths are equivalent in the sense that they both portray individuals having potential on their own.

Malcolm is growing up in a society that preaches these myths, and that requires him to invent himself according to one or the other, and sometimes both.

The reality is, Malcolm doesn't have any sense of self autonomously. His definition of who he is comes from his relationships -- and it always will. He learns about himself through the process of relating to me, to his mom, to his grandparents, to other adults in the community like Pete. His self-awareness as an adult will grow in the context of interaction. He defines himself in relationship.

If I surrender to the temptation of moralism, then I will raise Malcolm using precepts. I will portray Jesus as the person with high standards, who is forgiving of Malcolm's faults, but who is all too frequently "disappointed." Malcolm's relationship to this Jesus will teach him a sense of self that is sickened by failure.

This is not the Jesus of John 9, who heals the blind.

Jesus is Malcolm's creator, and designed Malcolm to display the works of God. All of Malcolm's traits have the potential to make God's glory visible. Because Malcolm has this potential, Jesus is invading his experiences. Jesus is not waiting for an invitation. Having paid for sin, and bringing new life with him, Jesus is able to slather Malcolm's eyes with mud and give him spiritual sight. As Malcolm is defined more and more by his interactions with Jesus, even Malcolm's limitations and faults will become visible marks of divine love.

The gospel calls for a new individuality in Christ, a uniqueness forged by loving relationship. The gospel resets who people are. I don't know if the passive, disappointed Jesus who is just waiting for people to be interested in him is the sole cause of today's unformed, unmotivated, needy self. There may be more causes than Christian moralism.

But I do know that what's missing from people today is Jesus himself.