“Red Letter Christianity” and the Bible

Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne recently published an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, “The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead.” They write that evangelicalism (or at least its reputation) is a “casualty” of the recent presidential election. They believe it is time to bury evangelicalism and replace it with a more authentic expression of Christian faith.

Campolo and Claiborne regard the fact that 80 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Mr. Trump as evidence that evangelicalism has been poisoned by self-interest. Its reputation “has been clouded over.” How, they wonder, could people who take Jesus seriously ever vote for a man whose campaign was marked by “racism, sexism, xenophobia,” and “hypocrisy”?

Campolo and Claiborne have been heroes to young evangelicals. They have consistently called Christians to live in obedience to Jesus’s words, stressing above all the care for the poor that Jesus advocated. In calling Christians to actually do what Jesus told them to do, they have done a service to the church generally and to its evangelical arm in particular.

But when they go on to call for a new movement to replace evangelicalism, a movement they refer to as “Red Letter Christianity,” I fear they are doing the church a disservice. If they ‘re calling people to listen to Jesus’s instructions and obey them, great. That is key to a flourishing life, and the heart of being Jesus’s disciple. But if they are suggesting that Jesus’s words “trump” the rest of the Bible or that they can be used to negate earlier and later revelation, they are propagating a dangerously misguided idea.

The people I’ve known who have identified as “Red Letter Christians” have done just that. They have attributed to Jesus’s words, as recorded in the gospels, greater authority than the words of Moses, the prophets and the apostles. This tends to play out in a particular way: what Jesus said is granted divine authority (as it should be) and what he didn’t say is regarded as a subject non grata. The absence of words from Jesus on a particular subject are taken as the last word on that subject.

The “Red Letter Christians” I have known have not taken Jesus’s words more seriously than other Christians. They have just taken other biblical words less seriously and, in some cases, refused to take them at all. I don’t think this is what Claiborne and Campolo are advocating, but others may.

Much of what Claiborne and Campolo say is thoroughly biblical and, what’s more, is biblical in a way that evangelicals in the age of Trump need to hear. But presenting it in a way that plays Jesus’s words against the rest of scripture is a theological error of the first order.

For one thing, Jesus’s words, spoken in Aramaic, were translated into Greek and later into Latin and the modern languages, which means that we have Jesus’s words only through the medium of others. The idea that Jesus’s words exist in some kind of vacuum is neither biblical nor logical.

For another, Jesus’s words were remembered and passed on by some of the very people who wrote other parts of the Bible, parts that some “Red Letter Christians” choose to ignore. We are dependent on others. Without the testimony of the apostles and the painstaking research of the evangelists, we would know nothing of Jesus’s life and teaching. If it wasn’t for the people who wrote the black letters, we wouldn’t have the red ones.

The idea that we understand Jesus better than his contemporaries and can interpret what he said through our cultural lens more accurately than the people he chose to be with him and carry on his work is a self-conceit.

It is a first principle of Christian theology that the entire canon of scripture is God-inspired and is of a piece. Yes, there is progress to the revelation, and one scripture can cast light on another, but one scripture cannot be used to contravene another. Not even if it is written in red letters.

Campolo and Claiborne are right about failures within the evangelical movement and may even be right about it being time to move away from it. But it is not time to move away from the Bible – red letters or black.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/10/2016

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An American Brand of DIY Spirituality

For decades pollsters consistently reported that 40 percent of Americans were in church on any given Sunday. But a long-term count of actual attendance in real churches suggests that good Christian people weren’t telling pollsters the truth, and actual church attendance was only half of what was being reported.

So are fewer people going to church today than in the past? No, there are about the same number of people attending church today as were attending in 1990. But the population in the U.S. has grown by more than 25 percent since then, which means there are not fewer people going to church but there are more people not going to church. The overall percentage of worshipers has dropped significantly.

And according to some experts, the people who do attend church regularly are attending less often than they did in the past. One church denominational executive told me that it is now necessary for a church to grow by ten percent a year in order to maintain last year’s average attendance.

People who once attended church weekly are now attending every other week. People who went twice a month are now attending once a month. This change in behavior indicates more than a lifestyle change. It reveals a theological shift. In the past these people saw church attendance as essential but they now see it as optional.

It needs to be said that this theological shift may not be all bad. If people thought of church attendance as a kind of extortion money paid to God to stay on his good side, losing that belief was a step in the right direction. Likewise if church attendance was merely a means to an end like social acceptance. Nevertheless, the idea that gathering with the church is merely one option among many is theologically unsupportable.

There are undoubtedly many factors driving this change in church attendance. One of those factors may be the rise of a new kind of spirituality in America, influenced by the spread of Eastern religions and New Age mysticism, and coupled with a robust American individualism. This rise in Eastern philosophies has coincided with a decrease in denominational identity and influence, and has manifested itself in a particularly American brand of do-it-yourself spirituality.

In do-it-yourself spirituality, church attendance is entirely optional. Such thinking betrays a serious theological confusion. Of course God’s acceptance is not conditioned upon whether a person sits in a pew every week, but then sitting in a pew was never about God’s acceptance in the first place. Christians don’t gather with the church to raise their credit rating with God.

Theologically speaking, church is not something people do once a week or once a month, depending on preference. Church is something people are, or at least something people are a part of. The idea that a Christian can have Christ without the church disregards the biblical witness. Christ and his church are a package deal.

That’s not to say that attendance is the sole mark of membership in the church. It is not. Some who are the church cannot attend its meetings. Some who attend its meetings are not the church. But when those who are the church do not want to gather with the church, something has gone seriously wrong.

The church – not the building or the organization, but the people united to Christ by faith and in consequence are united to each other – are being fashioned into the perfect instrument through which God can make himself known. This is what St. Paul was talking about when he wrote, “We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord … a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

This is not DIY spirituality. It’s a fallacy for people to think they can encounter God on their own terms. It’s more than a fallacy; it’s idolatry. If they want to meet God, they would be wise to go where he has chosen to meet them. True, that does not mean a church building or church service, but it does mean the community of children, women, and men who are united to Christ and to each other by God’s Spirit. It means the church.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/3/2016

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On the Anniversary of the Death of C. S. Lewis

A Google search for C. S. Lewis will produce nearly 58 million hits. If a person were to look at each site for 30 seconds, then go on to the next one, and do this without stopping to eat or sleep or take any kind of a break, it would take over 50 years. But by then there may be an additional 50 million hits, and so one would have to start over.

The celebrated Oxford don is more popular today, 53 years after his death, than ever before. Over a hundred million Lewis books have been sold. His Narnia fantasies have been made into major motion pictures, and Lewis’s story has been told on television and in theaters. Scholarly papers subject his work to academic scrutiny at colloquiums and conferences all over the world. C. S. Lewis has become an industry.

What would he think of all this? The answer, I think, is that he would try not to think of it. Once, when Walter Hooper asked Lewis if he ever gave thought to his bourgeoning reputation, Lewis answered in a “low, still voice, and with the deepest and most complete humility I’ve ever observed in anyone, ‘One cannot be too careful not to think of it.’”

I have been a student of C. S. Lewis for many years. I’ve read his fiction, his Christian non-fiction, his academic books on literary criticism, his essays and even his collected letters. Lewis has been one of the two or three most important teachers in my life. So when I recently was asked to be guest instructor for a home school co-op class on Great Christians, with the assignment of introducing students to C. S. Lewis, I jumped at the chance.

Students were impressed by the fact that the celebrated scholar suffered painful loss and ongoing trials, just like all the rest of us. The “joyful Christian,” as he has been called, endured great hardships, beginning with his childhood in Belfast, Ireland, and continuing until his premature death, one week before his 65th birthday.

Lewis’s mother died when he was nine. A short time later his attorney father sent him to a boarding school, the first of several disastrous school experiences to which he was subjected. The relationship with his father was always distant, and frequently trying.

Lewis succeeded in winning a scholarship to University College, Oxford, but within a few months of his arrival was inducted into the army and sent to fight in France in the First World War. The young Lewis, now an avowed atheist, was wounded at Somme. His friend, “Paddy” Moore, was killed. Lewis had promised Moore that he would take care of his mother, which he did until her death, but it was a complicated relationship that became very vexing.

Lewis was a man with many friends, but his “dearest and closest friend” was his brother Warren. Warren (or Warnie, as he was called) was a career military man, but when he was in England the brothers shared a house. Lewis was deeply devoted to his brother, but his brother’s ongoing battle with alcoholism was a painful trial that sometimes left him at a complete loss.

There were other losses and trials. Lewis grieved deeply the sudden and unexpected death of his “great friend, friend of friends…Charles Williams.”  At Oxford Lewis was continually passed over for a professorship because of his very public Christian faith. His friend J.R.R. Tolkien complained that “Oxford has not…treated [Lewis] very well.”

Lewis faced grief, relationship problems, and professional disappointments, but his greatest hardship was the death of his wife Joy. Lewis didn’t marry until the last decade of his life, but he developed a profound love for his wife. She was diagnosed with cancer, went briefly into remission (in what may have been the happiest time in Lewis’s life), and then suddenly died.

The brilliant thinker, remarkable scholar, engaging writer, and influential Christian was also a man who suffered trial and loss. Yet he remained joyfully hopeful. It was this Lewis who impressed my students, and who has impressed me. It is this Lewis I hold in highest esteem.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/26/2016

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Now That the Election Is Over, What Should We Do?

I refused to support Donald Trump in the primaries and in the general election. I was sure he was the wrong person for the job. (For clarification: I was equally certain that Hillary Clinton was the wrong person.) So what should I do now that Mr. Trump is President-elect Trump? I should support him.

Don’t get me wrong. The election did nothing to change my mind. I still think he is the wrong person to sit in the oval office. The support I am ready to offer is not contingent upon any change of mind Mr. Trump might make or change of policy he might institute. It is based on my responsibilities both as a citizen of this country and as a disciple of Jesus. Had Mrs. Clinton been elected instead of Mr. Trump, I would do the same thing.

The fact is, I did the same thing when Mr. Obama was elected in 2008. Though I was impressed with the man, I was not impressed with some of his policies, and voted for his opponent. But when he was elected, I gave him my support and publicly encouraged others to do the same.

It would be a mistake, however, to confuse giving support with giving approval. Over the last eight years, I have both supported the president and objected to his policies. Support does not imply turning a blind eye to wrongs and injustices. That is not support at all; it is partisanship.

I intend to show Mr. Trump the same support I’ve shown President Obama, and would have shown Secretary Clinton, had she been elected. Furthermore, I think it is incumbent upon every Christian to do the same. In fact, I think it is a rejection of biblical teaching to do otherwise.

St. Paul ministered and wrote during the reigns of at least two Roman emperors, Claudius and Nero. It was during the reign of the latter, who was infamous for his hostility to Christians, that the apostle wrote, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority,..” Paul urged Christians to pray for the very emperor who provoked anti-Christian sentiment, sanctioned persecution and eventually (either directly or indirectly) ordered the apostle’s execution.

Prayer is a big part of the support Christians are required to give their nation’s leaders, but it is not all. St. Peter, who may also have been martyred during Nero’s reign, told his fellow Christians to submit themselves “for the Lord’s sake … to the king, as the supreme authority.” Likewise, St. Paul wrote, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities…”

This submission is not docility or mindless obedience. It helps where it can, by prayer and by compliance and, sometimes, even by prophetic rebuke. It is possible to submit and speak one’s mind at the same time, for submission is not silence. There is a long history in the biblical faiths of speaking inconvenient truths to national leaders in the name of God and for the sake of people.

Biblical submission is thorough-going but it is not unconditional. It is conceivable that situations could arise in which Christians must respectfully refuse to comply with governmental rulings. When the authorities arrested the apostles Peter and John and placed them under a gag order, the apostles refused to obey. They said, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” When obedience to the civil authorities requires disobedience to God, civil disobedience is not only permitted, it is required.

Another way Christians provide support to the governing authorities is by treating them with respect. I have sometimes been horrified by the disrespect and contempt self-identified followers of Jesus have shown President Obama. St. Peter commands Christians to “honor the king.” We don’t have a king, but the principle applies. Disrespect and contempt are never appropriate from a Christian, not toward a Democrat or a Republican, a president or a child. It is simply not the way of Christ.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/19/2016

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Confessing Jesus Is a Revolutionary Thing to Do

A paradigm is a mental model about how things are or how they work. Until recently (in historical terms), almost all humans held a mental model in which the earth was the center of the cosmos and around it the sun and stars moved in their orbits. Copernicus suggested that this was a false paradigm, an inaccurate model of how things actually are.

People initially scoffed at the suggestion. They could not visualize a model in which a spinning earth moved around the sun. Theologians, long accustomed to a geocentric universe, even deemed the idea blasphemous and unbiblical. After all, hadn’t Joshua commanded the sun – and not the earth – to stand still?

When we humans see something a certain way for any period of time, our brains begin to filter out any information that does not correspond to our understanding. Even when we realize that some facts don’t fit, we take for granted that the problem lies with the facts and not with our understanding. This is true of all people, whether modern or primitive, religious or irreligious, highly intelligent or mentally challenged.

There is a paradigm, which persists even in the irreligious world, in which humans earn a reward by doing enough good deeds to outweigh their bad deeds. In western cultures the reward is usually eternal life in heaven. In eastern cultures the reward is sometimes an upwardly mobile reincarnation. In both cultures, the world in which these good and bad deeds are carried out is viewed as morally neutral.

When I first became a Christian, churches were still singing a children’s song that fit snugly into this false paradigm. It went like this: “Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, heavenly breezes blow. Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, faces all aglow. Turn, turn from sin and doubting, look to God on High. Climb, climb up sunshine mountain, you and I.”

In this paradigm people are faced with an arduous task (climbing higher) in what can be a difficult place (a mountain). But the sun is shining down on them and they just need to keep climbing – keep improving. The biblical paradigm is somewhat different. People may be on a mountain or they may be in a valley but in either case, the mountain and the valley are in enemy-held territory. The world is not neutral.

In the biblical paradigm, people may be born into pleasant circumstances or painful, wealth or poverty, polite society or brutish savagery, but whatever their immediate circumstances, they are born into a rogue spiritual state under illegitimate rule. This is why C. S. Lewis said that “fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” Conversion in the biblical paradigm is laying down arms, not turning over a new leaf. It involves believing in a new leader, changing sides, and giving loyalty to a different kingdom.

Conversion is analogous to a person who is born in a nation under an illegitimate government. All her life she’s been told and has believed that things are the way they should be—she just needs to be a better person. But she’s begun to realize this is not true. Then she hears there is an underground, an insurgency, and she’s been invited to join. Will she trust the rightful leader? Will she join him and his side?

Confessing Jesus as Lord is a revolutionary thing to do. It means joining the kingdom of God with its different values and rules and culture. It means trusting God’s acceptance, in spite of one’s offenses, because he offers pardon to rebels through Christ. Conversion doesn’t mean becoming a nicer person but becoming a new person, God’s person, under his rule.

In this paradigm, faith is not just an intellectual assent to a set of dogma, but a life-commitment to God based on confidence in Jesus Christ. That’s why “Genuine conversion is a wrenching experience,” as Dallas Willard once wrote. We who have experienced it are no longer the same, not because religion has improved us but because God has removed us, in St. Paul’s words, “from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear son.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/12/2016

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Election 2016: There Is Still a Ray of Hope

If the philosopher and diplomat Joseph de Maistre was right and every nation gets the government it deserves, one has to ask, in the light of the 2016 election, what America has done to deserve this.

Mrs. Clinton has been around long enough for Americans to know her. She is the wife of a two-term president, has served as senator from New York and has been America’s chief diplomat, the Secretary of State. Anyone who has been in the public eye that long can’t help but provide opponents with ammunition, but Mrs. Clinton has given them weapons of mass destruction.

The list of Mrs. Clinton’s questionable conduct goes back decades: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, and continues into the present with the Clinton Foundation’s pay for play controversy and the email server/email deletion debacle the FBI is currently investigating.

Then there’s the other candidate, Mr. Trump. If I had a daughter, I would not want her to be alone in the same room with him. His deplorable conduct toward women has been documented and broadcast in his own words. But that is only the start. He has repeatedly used lewd and offensive language to talk about women. In a televised presidential debate the man actually boasted about the size of his sexual organ.

Over the course of the campaign, Mr. Trump has questioned a judge’s integrity on the basis of his ethnic background; suggested that the Mexican government is dumping rapists on America in the form of illegal immigrants; mocked Senator John McCain’s experience as a POW in Vietnam; urged people to watch a sex tape featuring a woman who has accused him of harassment; mocked a reporter’s physical disability; and the list goes on and on.

Donald Trump has an overweening pride. He told the press that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and wouldn’t lose any voters. On Twitter he wrote, “Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.” At the Republican Convention he claimed that he, and only he, can fix the system.

It is hard to believe that Americans will place one of these two people in the Oval Office. Most people I know are justifying their choice as a vote against a candidate rather than for one. A friend said to me recently, “We aren’t presented with the lesser of two evils. We’re presented with the evil of two lessers.”

When I see Donald Trump in action, I know I can’t vote for this guy. If God opposes the proud, as Bible repeatedly states, where will that leave us if Donald Trump is our leader? It will leave us in a mess. We just can’t have Donald Trump as our next president.

And then I think of Hillary Clinton. If she does what she says she will do, religious freedom will be restricted in unprecedented ways, protections for the unborn will be rescinded, and Supreme Court justices will be appointed not to uphold the Constitution but to advocate liberal views on abortion and LGBT rights. We just can’t have Hillary Clinton as our next president.

But either Clinton or Trump will be our president, banning some inconceivable occurrence. What has America done to deserve a self-righteous, deceitful, greedy, arrogant, or sexually obsessed leader? I suspect that de Maistre would say that America will choose the leader who looks most like her. And that brings us to a painful realization: our candidates are projections of ourselves. In the final analysis, they are not the problem. We are. It’s our deceit and greed and arrogance and sexual obsession that has brought us to this place.

But that painful realization also provides a ray of hope. If the presidential candidates are not the problem, neither are they the solution. We are. If we will humble ourselves and admit this – even if only those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus will do this – we can begin to change the situation. Change doesn’t start in a voting booth. It starts in homes and schools and factories. It starts with us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/5/2016

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Religion Is Not an End in Itself

When Jesus, whom orthodox Christians believe to be the eternal God incarnated as a human being, was on earth, he faced ongoing hostility and opposition from two groups. One was comprised of the political power brokers of the day, whose senses were finely tuned to detect any threat to their authority. King Herod tried and failed to kill Jesus when he was only two years old. The imperial government tried again when Jesus was in his early thirties, and succeeded.

One might expect those in power to resent any threat to their supremacy and respond to it with violence. But one would hardly have expected resistance from the other main group that opposed the incarnate God: his so-called worshipers. Jesus faced greater hostility from religious people than from any other group, and the more religious they were, the fiercer their animosity.

If God really did become human in Jesus, it is surprising and unnerving that religious people hated him so. They argued with him, plotted against him, and crucified him when they got the opportunity. The people who piously praised God in the temple ruthlessly mocked him in the public square.

Again, if the Creator really did become human in Jesus, as Christians believe, how is this possible? How is it that the people who adored him when he was in heaven couldn’t stand him when he was on earth?

There are at least a couple of possibilities. The people who went to the temple to worship God may simply have been insincere. They may have only been going through the motions for the sake of social acceptance. A lie detector, had they existed then, would have revealed an utter disinterest in God.

Or perhaps their worship was sincere, but was the worship of a God they had made in their own image, not the God who made them in his. It is all too easy for us to mistake ourselves for God, and God for us. This is made clear in the Psalms when God acerbically says, “You thought I was altogether like you.” They were obviously wrong.

Voltaire mocked the human penchant for creating pet deities. With rich sarcasm he said, “If God created us in His image, we have returned him the favor.” That is something the psalmist would have understood and affirmed.

The religious people of Jesus’s day loved to talk about God and claimed to be eager for the time when he would draw near, which they referred to as “the day of the Lord.” But when God did draw near to them in the human person of Jesus, they found they didn’t care much for him.

We think of God in rather the same way we think of adventures: they are great in principle, but in practice they are challenging and uncomfortable—and when we’re in the middle of one of them we wish we weren’t. When God really comes among people, the overwhelming reality of his presence chases away the complacency of comfortable religion.

This was certainly true when Jesus was on earth. Not only did many religious people not accept him, he did not accept many religious people. He called them hypocrites. He said (quoting the Old Testament) that their worship was nothing more than “rules taught by men.” It was the religious that he accused of being greedy, self-righteous and proud. Charles Wesley famously referred to Jesus as “meek and mild,” but the opinion held by his religious contemporaries was probably closer to Mark Galli’s description of Jesus as “mean and wild.”

Many people think of religion as an end in itself and assume that being religious is the only thing God requires of them. The Bible doesn’t bear that out. God wants people to be real, to be good, and to become all he made them to be, which requires people to come to him in faith. When religion helps people toward God in obedient faith, it is a very good thing. When it hinders them from doing so, when it becomes a substitute for obedient faith, it is a very bad thing.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, Oct. 28, 2016

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