More Links Do Not Make a Stronger Chain

A fellow-juror once told me, at the conclusion of a trial, that he really enjoyed jury duty. I could see how he might say he appreciated the American system of justice, or how he counted it an honor to serve, but how he could enjoy serving on a jury was beyond me.

I’ve served on two juries, the second time as a foreman, and in neither case did I enjoy myself. I and my fellow-jurors were tasked with making a decision that had the potential of changing the course of a human life. That was a heavy burden to bear.

I can remember the judge explaining to the jury the meaning of “reasonable doubt,” but the line between reasonable and unreasonable doubt is notoriously hard to fix. And it seems to be placed differently for different jurors.

This became clear to me when a defense attorney told the jury he was going to present us with twenty-six reasons to find his client “Not-Guilty.” He began with the letter “A” and worked his way through the alphabet. It was a dog and pony show. Many of his twenty-six reasons were ludicrous, and most had no bearing on his client’s innocence. After the prosecution presented its case, I had little doubt of the defendant’s guilt. By the time the defense attorney reached the letter E, I had no doubt at all.

In the afternoon, a witness inadvertently presented evidence that had been previously ruled inadmissible. The judge immediately halted the case, and sent us to the jury room. A few minutes later, a bailiff told us we could discuss the case. To my amazement, several of my fellow-jurors spoke about how convincing the defense attorney’s argument had been. “He had twenty-six reasons!” one of them said, obviously impressed.

The lawyer piled up twenty-six “reasons,” and committed about that many logical fallacies in the process. The number of reasons proves nothing: piling up fallacies remains fallacious, no matter how many there are.

This kind of argument is often used to prove a doctrinal point in Christian circles. A person will amass biblical verses in support of some ecclesiastical or social position, then triumphantly declare, “You can’t argue with Scripture,” or “This is God’s word, not human opinion!” But each proof must be considered on its own merits. Fifty unsuccessful proofs are less convincing than a single successful one.

Not long before the turn of the millennium, a friend brought me a video of a well-known Christian teacher, and asked for my opinion. The teacher claimed that Jesus would return in or around the year 2,000, and he had dozens of biblical proofs to support his claim. He committed one logical fallacy after another in the application of his “proofs.” I remember telling my friend, “Jesus may return in 2,000, but it sure won’t be because this guy said so!”

A hundred prooftexts do not a sound argument make. Each text must be examined for relevance and consistency. Some time ago, another friend asked me to watch a teaching video, which he enthusiastically endorsed as “biblical,” since the teacher’s material came exclusively from the Bible. Indeed, the teacher constantly quoted the Bible, but that did not make his instruction biblical. He wrenched one text after another out of its context, and entirely ignored verses that undermined his point. Yet he maintained that the number of texts he had amassed proved him right. His argument was as faulty as the alphabet lawyer’s, and for the same reasons.

I have noticed that people who argue this way usually place considerable stress on the idea that their idea is biblical – how can it not be with a hundred proof texts? – thereby implying that anyone who disagrees with them is, de facto, unbiblical. But this is to assume the very point that remains to be proven: the argument’s faithfulness to the biblical witness.

A chain, whether forged from steel or logic, is not stronger because it has more links. The links must really connect with each other and with a premise that is true. This is something to remember the next time someone claims biblical support for a position based on the quantity of texts presented.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/20/2018

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Is There Still a Place for “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in the Hymnal?

Thirty years ago, there was a ruckus in the United Methodist Church over its hymnody. The hymnal revision committee had recommended the removal of two well-known gospel songs with militaristic overtones: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Onward, Christians Soldiers.” Because of protests, the hymns were retained, but the issue has resurfaced periodically.

The hymnal committees’ sensitivity to the lyrics of these songs is understandable. The spread of Christianity has been regrettably associated with British and American imperialism. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was not only the cross of Christ that won the day but the capitalism of the West. Christian missionaries smuggled Western values into other cultures, sometimes unwittingly, under the guise of gospel truth.

So, for the hymnal committees of the Methodist denomination and others, the idea of singing militaristic songs in the name of the Prince of Peace was incongruous at best. At worst, it undermined biblical values and militated against (irony intended) the proper spiritual mindset of those who sang them. It conjured up images of the Crusades, and promoted an “if you can’t convert them, conquer them” mentality.

The desire to avoid songs with martial overtones is understandable, in the light of Western imperialism and our own shameful history of using empty promises and loaded guns to deprive Native Americans of their lands. If these hymns link Christians with ethnocentrism in the minds of others – or worse, in Christians’ own minds – they are doing considerable harm.

Nevertheless, I would argue that there is still a place in our hymnody for hymns and gospel songs that make use of military metaphors, like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” or “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.” The ample use of military metaphors by the inspired biblical writers supports the continued use of such language in our hymns.

Take, for example, the Apostle Paul. He repeatedly chose military metaphors to make important points regarding Christian living. He referred to his co-workers as fellow-soldiers, and in so doing evoked an image of the kind of all-for-one, one-for-all camaraderie that is characteristic on the battlefield, and ought to be in the churches.

He used military metaphors to make clear the need for Christians to be properly outfitted and supplied. He further used such images to remind Christians that they are in a battle – not to subdue members of another culture or religion, but to “vanquish evil with good.” His military metaphors point out the need for courage and endurance among Jesus-loyalists. He does not want his readers to mistake the life of faith for a walk in the park; he knows it is more like a march through a minefield.

The military metaphors in the New Testament call Christians to be alert, strong, prepared, smart, and loyal. They emphasize the need for discipline and self-restraint, virtues which have fallen out of favor in contemporary society. But it should be remembered that these military images are never used, in any context, to call Christians to perpetrate physical violence or to attempt the subjugation of people from other cultures or religions. The very idea contradicts the gospel and would have been condemned by Jesus, who told his people to be as “harmless as doves.” Obviously, military metaphors are not the only kind in the Bible.

The principal reason to continue using hymns with militaristic images and language, though, goes beyond biblical proof texts to take in the larger biblical narrative. Christians need to be reminded that they are part of something bigger, the advanced guard of a kingdom that is coming but has not yet been established. They are on duty. The Christian life is not a walk in the park with the savior but a mission for the king. It calls for alertness, determination, cooperation, endurance, and strength.

When Christians forget they are part of something bigger – a kingdom that is strongly resisted by the existing powers of the world – they begin to value comfort above usefulness and security above courage. The Christians who have made a difference in the world – who have cured diseases, cared for the poor, freed slaves, and ended wars – were not people who valued comfort above kingdom. Nor are they today.

That’s why those old hymns still have a place.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/13/2018

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Common Ways – and One Uncommon Way – to Handle Conflict

The beginning of a new year can serve as a catalyst for dealing with old problems, including long-standing relational conflicts. Every family – every person – experiences conflict. Two people are all that it takes to set the stage and for the drama to begin. When it was just Adam and Eve, with no ex-boyfriends, girlfriends, or mothers-in-law, they probably argued over whether to go with the trim-fit fig leaf or the loose-fit sycamore.

Everyone experiences conflict, and we all have our own ways of responding to it. One way is with anger. The psychologist Neil Warren, who founded eHarmony, identified four common ways people express anger in conflict. Some people blow up, and there are shrapnel wounds all around. One never has to guess what is wrong with this kind of person. When the top of his head comes off you can see what is on his mind. He erupts like a volcano, and you know what’s bothering him.

There are other people who don’t blow up; they burn up. They don’t explode, they smolder. If asked, they will probably say that nothing is wrong. They even tell themselves that nothing is wrong. As far as externals go, everything is cool. But there is internal combustion going on, and it is eating them up. If nothing changes, their insides will eventually turn to ash.

Then there are people who pout. Their weapon in conflict is not explosive anger, but corrosive guilt. They suffer terribly, and yet, oddly enough, it is everyone else who is miserable. A good example is the older brother in Jesus’s famous parable of the prodigal son. He is conspicuously missing from the family celebration, demanding attention by his absence, and yet spurning it when it is given. His father asks him to join the others, but he lays on the guilt: “You give him, the bad son, a party. You never gave me a stupid party. You always loved him best.”

The fourth way people deal angrily with conflict is with payback, frequently delivered on the deferred payment plan. They slowly torture their victims, using words to injure, but often under the guise of humor. They won’t admit they’re angry, but they won’t be satisfied until they see their victims squirm – again and again.

The way conflict is handled can intensify it rather than quell it. The initial disagreement, handled appropriately, might have been resolved with relative ease but, dealt with in the wrong way, ratchets up the anger. One sees this often in troubled, long-term relationships, both at home and at work. The principals in the conflict can provide a long and specific list of complaints, but can’t remember where the trouble started.

At this point, a good counselor can be helpful. He or she can clarify the steps needed to resolve the conflict. But knowing the steps will not help much if the desire for a better relationship is missing. I have asked people point-blank, “Do you want a better relationship?” only to hear the response, “Yes, but…” followed by a list of accusations. Until the emphasis is on the “yes” and not on the accusations, real progress will be rare.

In conflict, people become profoundly adversarial, even when they compromise, concede, or withdraw. It’s been my experience, both as an observer and a participant in conflict, that the most important and most difficult step in healing a relationship is to stop thinking of the other person as the enemy and instead think of the unresolved issue as the enemy.

If people can do this, the conflict will often be resolved very quickly. But who can do this – who can think of the person who has injured (or is injuring) them as anything but an adversary? It is not what normal people do.

Perhaps not, but it is what spiritual people do. When I have had the privilege of seeing it happen, there has always been a spiritual dynamic present. The people who love enemies and do good to them, as Jesus instructed his followers to do, are conscious of God’s presence and confident of his help. Because God is real to them, they can risk being vulnerable to others.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/6/2017

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Prequels and Sequels: Christmas in Retrospect

“You better watch out, you better not cry; Better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is comin’ to town. He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is comin’ to town  He sees you when you’re sleepin’. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”[1]

If that isn’t the most blatant example of propaganda ever, I don’t know what is. It is mind-control – plain and simple. St. Nicholas could sue for libel. St. Paul would decry it as a theology of works. Yet it plays on a thousand radio stations every December, and parents have it on their iTunes and Apple Music playlists. And when their kids start to act up, they just remind them that Santa is watching. Mind control. You ask me how I know this? I know this because that’s what my mother did. If my brother and I were getting a little rambunctious, it was: “Are you on the naughty or nice list right now?” When we were supposed to be sleeping but were instead goofing around, we were reminded that “Santa is watching.”

And my dad made things worse by putting candy canes on our window sills – it never occurred to us that they were the same candy canes he gave away in the barbershop at Christmastime – and made us think that Santa had been spying on us, peeking us through the windows. That’s creepy, isn’t it? A peeping Santa. I mean, how was a five-year-old supposed to think about that? I can remember going outside when I was little, and tracking Santa’s big boots – which were, suspiciously, size 10 and ½, just like my dad’s – with my pop gun at the ready. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I caught up with hi, but I was hot on his trail. And then I lost him when his boot prints looped back around the house and became confused in the myriad of other prints around our back porch. He was clever!

“He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Bad or good, that was the question at Christmas time. Get in a fight with your brother, even when you didn’t start it, and your mother was saying: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” It was paralyzing. For the month before Christmas, we couldn’t get away with a thing.

But listen: Bad or good is not the issue, and Christmas is not a tool to make children grow up into responsible citizens and reliable tax payers. Christmas is more than you or I realize.

I’m sure many of you have gone to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the past week or so. (And before you ask me what I thought of it, I haven’t seen it yet. You know, I’m more of a Star Trek guy, but that’s probably because the resident adviser in my dorm almost ordered me to go and see the first Star Wars movie. He kept telling me (and everybody else), “There is a guy in the movie that looks exactly like Looper. Exactly. You’ll know him when you see him. His name is Chewy.” (My hair and beard were a little longer back then.)

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know the story now in theaters is part of a much grander narrative. Even that first movie I went to see in the ’70s was part of a much bigger story, though most of us didn’t realize it at the time. It had a backstory – a prequel – and would have a fore-story – a sequel.

That’s the way it is with Christmas. It is a satisfying story in itself – this tale of an unwed mother and an ostracized family, of an angel messenger and noble shepherds. We can enjoy it without knowing the rest of the story – or even knowing there is a rest of the story. We can enjoy it, but we can’t really understand it, not until we know how Christmas fits into the larger narrative. Christmas has a prequel and a sequel, and we’ll only understand it within the context of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. What makes this story different from all others is that we are not merely viewers; we are participants. This story is interactive: we have a role.

What is the prequel to the Christmas story? It would take more time than we have available to give much detail – you can get a lot of it from the Old Testament – but I’ll summarize. The backstory is that a superior intelligence created carbon-based, physical-spiritual hybrid beings and placed them on a planet – as it turns out, our planet. The creator designed these beings to be a race of godlike and loving protectors and rulers of creation.

Unlike the other creatures he designed, the Creator engineered the humans with a high degree of autonomy: they can make choices, formulate plans, and carry them out, as they see fit. This autonomy was a key part of the design. Humans were the glory of the creation.

But as the story progresses, the nascent humans are co-opted by a dark power and drawn away from their creator and the result is disastrous. The spiritual part of humans, who were designed as physical-spiritual hybrids, underwent catastrophic failure. Without the spiritual component, humans became like other animals, only more intelligent. Chaos ensued: injustice, greed, hatred, and foolishness invaded human society.

The creator, though, does not give up on his human creatures. He rather communicates with the humans that are capable of interacting with him. There is no undoing the damage done by human rebellion, no going back, but the Creator plans to take humanity forward. He immediately sets in motion a plan to right what has gone wrong and restore humanity’s spiritual life. He begins shaping a millennia-long lineage chain among his human creatures. Within that lineage, he promotes a particular culture, and superintends a specific genetic line. He does this over a period of thousands of years. His plan is to enter humanity himself through the line he has prepared, in order to save humanity from the rebellion and restore its damaged spiritual function. That’s the metanarrative into which Christmas fits.

Once we are aware of the prequel, we realize that Christmas is not a stand-alone story about the birth of a beautiful child under trying circumstances. It is the story of a rescue, the story of an invasion. It is a bittersweet story, because when the creator entered his creation through the line he had spent thousands of years preparing, his creatures did not know him. So St. John writes, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). Not only did they not recognize him, they did not accept him: “He came to His own,” the line and the people he had been preparing for millennia, “and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).

Of course, in the tale we know as the Christmas story, there is all kinds of excitement: there is a tyrannical ruler who serves an Empire which is under the sway of the original dark power. As soon as the tyrant becomes aware that the Empire has been infiltrated, he makes an attempt on the creator’s life. There are bad guys aplenty in this story, but there are also friends and unexpected allies. There are covert messages. There is a dramatic escape.

But here is the thing we need to understand about Christmas: It is the middle of the story, not the beginning nor the end. And it is full of surprises. Instead of the creator going to war against the rebels, as we might expect, he goes to war for them. He could have impressed them with his vast power, or intimidated them with threats of punishment, or appealed to them on the basis of their greed or selfishness – the same old story of the ways of power in the world. But he did none of those things. His sights were set something more radical than conformity to a set of rules: He was out to change humanity from the inside; to change us from the inside.

To that end, the creator lived among humans as a human, modeling for them the life he makes possible and instructing them in how to live it. But they needed more than instruction. They needed the kind of life they had lost and didn’t even know was missing. To make that possible, the creator had to give his life on their behalf. He did this by dying and rising again. That is the climax of the story, and you can read about in the New Testament Gospels.

It is the climax of the story, but it is not the end of the story. The story continued on, as chronicled in the book known as The Acts of the Apostles. And the same story is going on still, and still being chronicled. (Remember what St. John wrote: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” And what’s recorded there will no doubt include the heroics and bravery and extraordinary faith of God’s people in this generation. We are a part of the story now, and have a role to play in it.

Think of it! We’re in the same story as Mary, only at a different point in the plot. What happened to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi – that’s the prequel to our part of the story. But while ours is a sequel, it is not the final installment. That is still to come, when the king who came comes again; this time, not a baby, but a hero; not in weakness, but in strength; not in poverty, but in glory.

And that final installment of that story is the beginning of the great story that goes on forever, in which each chapter is better than the last (Lewis). We join the heroes of the faith – Abraham and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, and many others we don’t yet know. And we join them because of God’s grace delivered through the baby, the man, the king.

Preached on Christmas Eve at Lockwood Church, Coldwater, MI

[1]  Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots

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Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?

People who make New Year’s resolutions overwhelmingly fail to keep them. Dan Diamond, writing in Forbes, reports that researchers at the University of Scranton found that only 8 percent of people actually keep their resolutions. A failure rate that exceeds 90 percent can only be considered catastrophic.

Presumably, people who make New Year’s resolutions really want to keep them. It’s not like anyone is holding a gun to their heads. So why do nine out of ten of us fail to do what we ourselves have chosen to do?

Experts have offered valuable suggestions. They explain that our expectations are too often unrealistic. We bite off more than we can chew. Additionally, they say our resolutions fail because we do not plan to succeed. We have a goal, but no strategy for achieving it. Or our New Year’s resolutions die from starvation: we neglect to feed them with the necessary time and money they need to survive, believing our good intentions are enough to carry them through.

The reasons for failure can be summarized under three headings: vision, intention, and means. These terms come from Dallas Willard’s insightful book, “The Renovation of the Heart,” which is a helpful resource on how people change, written from a Christian perspective. Failures in these areas will usually lead to fruitless – and soon-forgotten – resolutions.

Vision is foundational to success. A while back, a friend told me that he would like to learn a difficult (for Westerners) foreign language. I asked him how learning that language would improve his life and benefit him in the future. He gave a predictable reply – it would help him in his work – and we moved on to other things. When we met again a month later, I asked him what he had decided about learning the language. He wisely responded that he had given it up for now. I was glad: his vision at this point in his life was inadequate to sustain his desire.

We keep resolutions when we have envisioned the benefits that will accrue to us and desire them more than the life we are currently living. When we have seen our future in this light, keeping resolutions is not difficult because the resolutions keep us. If we constantly struggle to keep a grip on our resolutions, it could be that no compelling vision of the future has gripped us.

When failure is caused by lack of vision, it is necessary to spend time praying, researching, and thinking about what our future could be. Distraction is the danger here. It prevents people from envisioning the future God has for them, and resolving to attain it.

The second main reason people fail to keep resolutions falls under the heading “Intention.” They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but the road unpaved by intentions is even worse; it leads nowhere. At least the road to hell has interchanges that lead in the other direction.

When our failure to keep resolutions is caused by a lack of intention, it is important to state what we want to achieve in specific terms. We must decide to do it, and share that decision with others. Willard writes about people who “may have wished that what they supposedly intend would happen, and perhaps they even wanted to do it (or for it to be done); but they did not decide to do it, and their intention—which well may have begun to develop—aborted and never really formed.”

The third primary reason for failure falls under the heading of “Means.” When vision and intention are in place, the means will usually become apparent. Still, it can be helpful to identify the thoughts, feelings, habits and relationships that might prevent us from keeping our resolution. When this has been thoughtfully done, a strategy can be developed for dealing with obstacles. This will clarify the “means” for keeping our resolve.

One thing every resolution-maker should know is that will-power alone will not sustain a resolution. Will-power is more like an ignition switch than the engine it starts. Will-power can get us going, but the engine that will keep us going runs on vision, intention, and means.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/30/2017

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A Christmas Story for Grown-Ups

Most Christmas story books are for kids. They either tell a story that has almost nothing to do with the first Christmas – think, A Christmas Carol, for example, or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer – or they whitewash the first Christmas and give it a G-Rating. It’s not that there is anything wrong with that – I appreciate having a kid-friendly introduction to Christmas to read to our young grandchildren. But if that is all grown-ups know about Christmas, they’ve missed the point of the story.

In kid’s Christmas books and conventional artistic representations, the first Christmas features fluffy white sheep, clean, fat cows, and humble-looking shepherds, all sanitized. We can’t smell the cows or the sheep (or the shepherds, for that matter), but you can be sure that Joseph and Mary could.

Popular depictions of that night routinely feature a sweet-faced angel hovering in the sky above, proclaiming good news of great joy to the shepherds. And, indeed, that is what the angel proclaimed, but the shepherds had a very different take on his message than we do. We hear the angelic message as the good news that a lovely baby has been born or that good triumphs over evil or, perhaps, that our souls will be saved. These ideas are true, but they would not have occurred to the astonished shepherds.

They heard the angel’s message the way a French Resistance fighter would have heard the news of D-Day: the battle had been joined, and liberation was at hand. Had you tried to talk to them in the language of contemporary children’s Christmas books, about the animals and the stable and the sweet, quiet baby, they would have been confused, chagrined even. They would have asked, “What are you talking about?” For the most part, we don’t see what they saw.

It’s not because the battle motif is hidden in the Christmas story; it is not. For anyone with eyes to see it, it is unmistakable. We just don’t have eyes to see it. We have been taught to think that the Christmas story is either all about a baby, and his birth in the most trying of circumstances, or all about us, and getting our souls into heaven.

Where is the evidence of this battle motif? Start with the annunciation, in which the angel tells Mary that her son will take the throne – held at the time by a usurper in the employ of a foreign power – and reign as king. In the first century Roman province of Judea, talk like that could get a person killed. And when the usurper heard that talk, people were killed. He sent troops to assassinate the child-king and devastate the village where he lived. The same kind of tactic has been employed by tyrants in our own day.

Also in the Christmas narrative, the priest Zechariah applauds the arrival of the one who will bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…” Zechariah was expecting a war of liberation.

When the Evangelist Luke tells the story of Jesus’s birth, he sets it up by describing a census and tax initiative undertaken by Israel’s hated Roman oppressors. He writes of Caesar’s decree, and references the Syrian procurator who ruled Judea on behalf of the occupational government.

Luke doesn’t mention the angel’s sweet face. He rather writes about the terrified onlookers. As the angel announces the birth of the long-awaited Messiah King, he is flanked by “a great company of the heavenly host.” The word translated “host” is simply the Greek word for “army.” The shepherds would have assumed that the angelic army was an invasion force, and that military operations had begun.

Of course, they were mistaken. The angelic army, arrayed in glory, was not the invasion force. The little baby, wrapped in swaddling, was. Still, the war had begun, but it was not a conventional war. What was being contested was not land but people’s hearts. What was at stake was not the future of Palestine, but the future of the human race. And the secret weapon was love, “wrapped in swaddling and lying in a manger.”

Christmas is not only a reminder that God loves us, it is a reminder that we are at war: a war that will be won by love; a war in which we must take sides.

 

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e-Christianity and the e-Christians it Produces

Work schedule getting in the way of church? Don’t like the preacher? Out too late on Saturday night and unable to get up for Sunday service?

No worries. There’s always e-Church. You can do church online: stream services, listen to sermons, give your offering, even join a Bible study or discipleship group. And you can do it all in the comfort of your own home, while lounging around in your pajamas.

Long before there was e-Church on your phone, tablet or computer, there were preachers on the radio and television. Religious radio broadcasting began in the 1920s, and is today the second leading format in the U.S., second only to country music. Television evangelists gained immense popularity in the ’80 and ’90s. There are now approximately 1,500 religious television and radio stations in the U.S., broadcasting thousands of hours of programming each week.

With the advent of the internet, religious broadcast options, and the dissemination of religious teaching, skyrocketed. This is a positive development in many ways, but it is not without its dangers. There is trouble in e-Church.

One of the most disturbing things about e-Church is that it allows people to drop out of Christian community while believing they are doing everything they need to do to please God and grow spiritually. If they have a conflict with a fellow-church member, they can leave without resolving issues or reconciling, which is clearly contrary to biblical teaching. It’s not that the electronic church promotes such behavior, but it does enable it.

About 226 million people in the U.S. self-identify as Christians, yet 160 million of them will not be in church this Sunday. Or the following Sunday. Or the one after that. Tens of millions of Christians simply do not go to church. They consider it an option they can take or leave, and many have chosen the latter.

Where did they get this idea? Certainly not from the Bible. Nor does it come from the saints or well-known Christian teachers. John Wesley, the Anglican priest who founded Methodism, said point-blank: “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” He was right. In the third century, St. Cyprian put it this way: “Outside the church there is no salvation.”

This, of course, does not mean that church attendance is necessary to salvation, but neither does it permit us to think of the church as one option among many. God’s plan from the very beginning has been to build a church, not merely enlist individuals. This means that Christians must be in community, if they are to fulfill God’s plans for them.

One doesn’t need to look far to see the reasons for this. God wants flesh and blood Christians, not merely digital ones. The spiritual transformation he intends takes place on multiple dimensions, including: the will, the mind and emotions, and the body. It is in the context of committed relationships that the various facets of human personality are transformed; that is, in the church. That this can take place in the digital world is not at all clear.

A recent study at Harvard compared brain activity during digital and face to face encounters. Researchers learned that the part of the brain that is active when one sits with a distraught friend – the part linked to compassion – is not active when one receives a Facebook message from a distraught friend. The digital encounter, while very valuable, simply does not do the same thing in us or for us.

The many commands and principles expressed in the Bible are fleshed out in community. For example: St. Paul famously urged Christians to present their bodies to God as living sacrifices and to be transformed by the renewal of their minds. This does not simply happen as we think. People are not just brains in jars of flesh. Nor does it happen because we add an emoticon to our Facebook message.

Spiritual growth and transformation happen, as the apostle himself makes perfectly clear, in the context of community, in the gritty give-and-take of love in an imperfect church. The body is offered, and the mind renewed, through service to God and his church. The e-church is a useful tool in such service, but a poor substitute

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/16/2017.

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