The Dead and the Dying

I’ve been putting a lot of research lately into the life cycle of local churches. In America, the average church is seventy-eight years old, and more churches close than open every year. But why? As our population continues to grow, we should be adding churches, yes, but we shouldn’t need to shutter existing ones. Add people, add congregations — not add people, subtract congregations and then add fewer than you closed. So why is this the trend?

Two reasons seem to dominate the discussion. First, fewer Americans attend services regularly, as the number of people claiming a Christian affiliation is at an all-time low, percentage-wise. They call this “the rise of the nones” — those individuals who, when presented with a list of possible religions, check the box marked “none.” These are people who do not claim to be Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, or anything else. It could be they’ve always been atheistic, agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or something else entirely. It could even be they grew up in a religious household and just lost their faith at some point in life. Regardless, the nones are one of the (if not the) fastest growing “religious” groups in America. As more and more people choose to opt out of a religious affiliation, fewer and fewer walk through the doors of the local church. Without people to donate to keep those doors open, they close forever.

The second major reason we close more churches than we open is that people choose to let their churches die. I’m not suggesting a group of malcontent Machiavellis get together in the church basement and strategically plot the demise of the congregation. I’m saying the members and leaders of the congregation are unwilling to either see the need for change or to enact the changes which are necessary for the survival of the church. These churches will only allow things to be done according to the preferences of existing members, saying in effect they’d rather die than allow x to happen — and so they do. After years of denials and refusals to adapt to the communities around them, they close their doors forever. And the saddest part? They have only themselves to blame.

Churches like that rarely come out and admit that’s what’s happening, though. Most instead will loudly aver time and time again just how open they are to change — yet they never allow change to happen. They will vow to do whatever it takes, anything at all, to keep the doors open — then politely refuse to lift a finger because, well, change means change, and change requires action.

With those attitudes — with the “us first” mentality — these churches quickly slide downhill. Members become older, and as they (inevitably) die, no younger people rise to replace them. Youth groups dwindle and perish as teens age out of the group or as youth volunteers simply quit. (Most of those newly-minted young adults, I’d wager, will leave the church, either their home congregation or the capital-C Church Universal.) Without new members coming in or the natural advancement of younger members, the congregation literally dies. Without enough donors to provide support, the church first loses staff and then closes the doors completely and permanently. Life support measures fail, and the patient dies.

All because members want it their way. They don’t want to give up what they have in order to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead, they carefully remodel their church buildings into stained-glass tombs, mausoleums of The Good Ol’ Days.

Aside from the selfishness and arrogance it takes to do that, it’s just plain sad.

Church consultants say only two things can happen to a church on life support, one just doing what it’s always done and refusing to change. On the one hand, it can simply die over time, with the remaining members joining other congregations. Alternatively, it can preemptively sell (or give) its properties and other assets to a new church or ministry. The members will still go their separate ways, but the edifice will live on to provide a home for a new, vibrant body of believers. Sadly, those two options are generally agreed upon as the only ways forward for those on life support. Once a church hits a life expectancy of 5-10 years remaining, the experts say it’s nigh impossible to save.

There are exceptions, of course. The people may finally commit to change and turn things around. Those changes will have to be sweeping and dramatic, and they will probably cost many members who leave as the church they know dies to become something else. They may prove financially expensive as well. For those reasons, exceptions to the 5-10 rule seem few and far between.

Before we lay all blame for dying churches at the feet of culture, then, let’s look at ourselves. Are we truly committed to doing whatever it takes to reach lost souls (short of sacrificing the integrity of the gospel)? Do we truly believe the desires of others come before our own preferences? Has your church placed itself on life support?

Only you can answer those questions.

Answer them honestly.

Burn the Witch

I currently live in a little community called Salem. For better or for worse, I’ve yet to see any witches skulking about, even on Halloween (when you’d expect at least a small one asking for candy). Maybe the infamous events of 1692 in another Salem are still fresh on everyone’s collective mind, or maybe the opposite is true: we think so little of magic and witchcraft in our age of reason and science it’s too silly even to pretend to be a sorcerer.

Interestingly, and perhaps dangerously, magic has been discarded by the average person as something incredulous at best or non-existent at worst, banished to the realm of myth — yet the Bible very much treats it at reality. From Genesis 41:8 (Pharaoh’s court magicians) to Acts 19:19 (sorcery in Ephesus), witchcraft is presented not only as real, but also as decently prevalent. The world of the ancients is steeped in magic. Witches practiced a number of forms of magic, including divination, necromancy, conjuration, astrology, and others. And all of it was soundly condemned by the word of God. Exodus 22:19 is arguably the most famous of such passages: “Suffer not a witch to live.” Similar condemnations and prohibitions are found throughout the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:26-28,31; Deuteronomy 18:9-14; 1 Samuel 28:9; 2 Kings 9:22; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 8:19-20; Micah 5:12; Nahum 3:4; and Malachi 3:5 to name a few (and to provide a taste for the scope of its treatment in the OT). The New Testament retains the classification of magic as something evil and ungodly in places like Acts 8:9-25,19:19; and Galatians 5:19-21. Sometimes the Bible associates it with the worship of false gods, as in the Torah, and sometimes it’s a simple “don’t you dare,” but the message is clear: witchcraft is real, and it is evil.

Some of the more “enlightened” folks of the twenty-first century will take issue with this. Surely we can’t base reality on a several-thousand-years-old book. We can’t know what that magic looked like, so we must bear in mind the words of author Arthur C. Clarke in Clarke’s Third Law: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Even if the witches weren’t simply advanced beyond their contemporaries, we are, and so surely our increased knowledge of science will tell us how they did what they did without resorting to some sort of supernatural explanation. After all, says this worldview, even miracles are only things science has yet to explain.

Not so, says the biblical paradigm — thus launching a thousand witch hunts.

The Inquisition burned many at the stake, and two of the most common charges were heresy and witchcraft. Two hundred years before the Salem Witch Trials, two German inquisitors composed the Malleus Maleficarum — the Hammer of Witches, a book attributing everything from a lack of faith in women to a healthy female libido to magical origins. I doubt many real witches were ever successfully prosecuted through the ages, but it didn’t stop men and women alike from being (perhaps mostly falsely) accused of sorcery.

In one regard, identifying a witch may be easier in our own day and time — most will admit it up front. Magic seems to have captured the imaginations of many, and for some, just dreaming about it isn’t enough. Those few flock to religions proud of a magical heritage and active witchcraft, such as the various strains of Wicca, shamanism, paganism, and druidism. Most practitioners are proud of their magic and, while they may not be listed under “Wizard” in the Chicago phone book, they don’t hide what they do, either. Just as in ancient times, magic has become part of household religion, with deities worshiped ranging from Hecate to Odin to the Triple Goddess and back again. Entire families of witches exist, parents raising their children in Gardnerian Wicca the way others raise them in Christianity.

It is, in a word, not good. (OK, that was two words.)

The Church can ill-afford to embark on more disastrous witch hunts, and we are far removed from burning anyone alive. Our job is to share the love of Jesus with all those who need it, witches included. We need to show the dangers of magic and offer a better way (not “more weight”). Everyone needs the salvation offered by Christ. We all need to lay aside everything and anything which interferes with our relationship to God.

Some place certain magic-related books, movies, and games in this category. The only reason I ever read the first Harry Potter book, in fact, was because my father wanted to know how truly evil the books were, so he bought a copy, tossed it to me, and said, “Here. You read faster than I do. Tell me what you think.” Most things like that, I feel, present no threat to anyone. Fantasy is precisely that: fantasy, not reality, and it’s not difficult to distinguish between the two. Additionally, any fan of fantasy can tell you about good Christian fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?). As long as a person remains oriented to reality, no harm will be done by reading books about wizards. (Even if such things do inspire on kid in a million to pursue real magic, they will quickly learn the true thing is nothing like the storybook version.) The risk is truly minimal, and the rewards of sharing fairy tales with your children are priceless.

Even so, remember: there is no distinction between white magic and black magic in the eyes of God. All magic is sinful; all seeks power from sources outside of the Almighty. May we keep from sinning while showing love and mercy to those who, like us, fall short of perfection.

So don’t gather the firewood for the witch hunt.

Myths of Intimacy

I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.

There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships?  Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.

One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.

Wheels within wheels . . .

At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.

Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.

To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.

I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.

Oh, the Humanities!

Most of you know I did my undergraduate work in English. It caused a slight row with my father, since it’s an infinitely impractical field, but the longer he’s taught science, the more he’s realized the value of my degree. My crowning achievement as an English major was writing close to twenty pages of feminist criticism on a book with no women in it. I won awards for other papers, but I consider that one the pinnacle of my literary career.

It was easier than you’d think, honestly. Ursula K. Le Guin is known foremost for her Earthsea novels, but she remains a celebrated author of fantasy and science fiction. The book of hers I read for my essay, The Left Hand of Darkness, is sci-fi — but complex sci-fi, something you can sink your critical teeth into. It explores many widely-differing themes, from the nature of war to linguistics and back again. The book is responsible for teaching me how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question, a lesson which has shaped me more than I would have thought possible. First and foremost, however, it is a book about gender-y things: sex, gender, engendered behaviors, masculinity, femininity, the hegemonic constructs of each, gender roles, you name it. Not bad for a book with only one man, no women, and a planet full of people who could be either one at any time. (Read it; you’ll understand.)

The discussion of dualism in gender comes from Le Guin’s Taoist beliefs. In her novel as in Taoism, light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness is the right hand of light. They are complementary, two halves forming an organic whole. She juxtaposes this on gender, just as in yin and yang, and concludes all are both. A truly human, human being is both masculine and feminine and exhibits qualities of both, with different genders (not sexes, genders) being dominant as the situation merits. It’s a fascinating, intriguing, holistic view of human identity which finds the other in the self and the self in the other without overt reduction to sexuality. It’s a Taoist harmonization that reinforces the Christian imago Dei, for both male and female were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

Of course, such things as literature and gender studies teach us about humanity (in the senses of both the species and the quality of human-ness), but they don’t pay the bills so much. They’ll never provide the cure for cancer or the next source of renewable energy. Unfortunately, they only teach us who we are, what it means to exist in the human condition (hence we call them the “humanities”). Our society runs on the practical, so we promote STEM fields exclusively and trod the rest underfoot.

This is a tragedy. And like a great Shakespearean tragedy writ large, it will end in the deaths of an entire species, for we can cease being human long before we die.

We’re not overly concerned with that, however. Here in the West, we’re far more preoccupied with how to make money. If a thing will make us rich, we’ll do it, and there’s little money to be had in jotting down verse or debating the Napoleonic Wars. In America, we’re particularly beholden to our specific brand of free-market capitalism, and, right now, the market is hot for the inhuman. We buy and sell phones, computers, and social media websites, all in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, placing a higher premium on things which substitute for people than on people themselves. We make money hand over fist by removing the human element at every turn: Facebook friends fill in for bosom buddies; robots replace line workers; pornography stands in for actual sexuality and making love to another human. And we let it happen in part because we got rich doing it, because it had a market and we supplied to meet the demand.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” — 1 Timothy 6:10a.

Even if we don’t necessarily view it all in such capitalistic or economic terms, we will attribute the advent of this brave new world to simple practicality. It’s efficient; it serves a purpose; it’s convenient.

The practical is the enemy of the beautiful.

Beauty comes in many forms, both in the arts and humanities and in ordinary life. Few things, to me, can be as beautiful as a Beethoven violin concerto, a poem by Shelley, a painting by Monet or Waterhouse, moonlight on snow, a sunset on the plains, or the colors of the leaves of autumn in the mountains. None of those things have practical worth. Such sentiment has no cash value. And yet the smile of a child, the sleek elegance of a shark, the deep brown of the eyes of a lover, the dizzying depths of the Grand Canyon, and the serenity of the calm Pacific all mean something to us. They are all beautiful, all precious treasures.

I think it’s because beauty points us to God. It’s a reminder of the divine, proof a Divinity shaped the cosmos and rendered it beautiful. The quality of beauty has no evolutionary value (or at least none which has been convincingly proposed). It doesn’t help me survive or find a mate by sighing appreciatively at the sunrise or having a sonata reverberate in my head. There’s no advantage there. But they do remind me I am loved by God, that He values me enough to place me in a world of unsurpassed beauty for my enjoyment and gave me the gift of the ability to create more beautiful things. Beauty teaches me I am human, but Something Else exists which is not, which is transcendent, and which invites me to glimpse Him and know Him and love Him.

As our world turns from divinity, turns from God, it turns from the beautiful and the whimsical to the practical and the marketable. It is one of the greatest tricks Satan has ever played on us: convincing us to ignore beauty in pursuit of utility. He has torn our gaze from what points us to God and gotten us to look instead at that which keeps our hearts from Him. He has caused us to abandon our humanity, to ignore that blessed gift from a loving God, and made acting as random automatons — and treating others as the same — something to be desired.

Brothers and sisters, rebel against the prevailing paradigm. Refuse the worldview and opt out of the market. Rejoice in beauty. Read poetry. Listen to Bach. Paint landscapes. Be fully alive. Act as a human being. And love the God who saw fit to make you a human being alive in such a beautiful world.

Cruciformity

My favorite verse in the Bible is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” As much as I love that message of incarnation, I can’t say it’s my life verse. The one I stumbled into for that job, the verse I remind myself of daily and use to make decisions, is far less pleasant (but no less true): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

What can I say? I like the cheery things in life.

Part of my attraction to Luke 9:23 is the role it played in my call to ministry. In a last-ditch effort to avoid it, I decided to do the wrong thing and use my Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. “God,” I prayed, “there are so many different directions I can go in life. Why should I sacrifice those lives for this?” Close eyes; open Bible at random; immediately read Luke 9:23-26. It was a bad method for discernment, I know, or maybe it was my own Augustine “tolle lege” moment. Regardless, it did the trick, and here I am. And every time I think of that verse, it reminds me of the cost of discipleship, that Christ bids a man come and die, that it’s “Not my will but Thine,” and that no matter how rough the road, it will always be worth it.

But crucifixion and cross-carrying, however, metaphorical they may be, are never pleasant tasks.

When we consider how a Christian lives in this world, how one engages one’s culture, we have to keep in mind the painful truths of Luke 9:23. Our lives are to be cruciform, and that has many dimensions. The first is the most obvious: the denial of self, the killing of ego and death of the old creature to become a new creation. I think we often view this as the “negative” side of cruciformity, the “thou shalt nots” of a cross-shaped life. To be fair, there are plenty of those. To be holy is to be other — other than normal, other than sinful. The Bible points to many things absent from a life of holiness: murder, lust, sexual immorality in all its iterations, drunkenness, deceit, etc. We as Christians cannot simultaneously carry a cross and indulge in such things.

Beyond biblical proscriptions lie a host of other choices to be made vis-a-vis the “nots.” A cruciform life takes into account a holistic portrait of living; after all, you can’t crucify only your hand or your foot. So we need to evaluate our other lifestyle choices: books we read, television shows we watch, movies we see, music we listen to, clothes we wear, places we go, company we keep. Careers, hobbies, everything is subject to scrutiny through a cross-shaped lens. And maybe the biggest cross you’ll carry is abstaining from an addiction, turning off the television, or letting go of an old friend. Choices shouldn’t be made lightly, and the underlying question is this: does the practice/show/etc. bring you closer to God, or is it hurting your relationship with Him? If it’s a case of the latter, it definitely needs to go. It just got added to your self-denial, a little extra weight on the cross you carry.

On the flip side, dying to ourselves daily means a series of “thou shalts,” too, and some of those are equally difficult. To deny myself means at times a specific denial of my right to justice, fairness, or vengeance, and instead calls for the love of the one who wronged me. We call this forgiveness. And forgiving someone, as we all know, is incredibly hard at times. It requires us to set aside pride and ego in favor of humility and love — not love of the wrongful act, but of the flawed human being who wronged us, the sort of love that prays for their good. Love itself can seem a burden, for love requires an endless number of self-sacrifices. In short, it requires us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily so we can put the good of others ahead of the good of self. And that’s hard. It hurts.

And it’s worth it. Every step of the way. Because they will know us by our love.

Living a cruciform life, letting every action reflect the cross of Christ and be framed as cross-carrying discipleship is the way a Christian is called to experience this mortal coil. It is how we lose this life to gain a place in the next. It is how we follow our Lord and live for his sake. For his life, too, centered around a cross.

The B-I-B-L-E

It’s that time again, dear readers. I know I’ve written this message quite a bit, and I know you’re tired of hearing me rant and rave about it, but it’s necessary to address said topic once more. You see, I just got my hands on this year’s State of the Bible report, and it’s . . . well, it’s terrifying.

By now you’re already saying, “This again? This guy worships the Bible.” As a friend once said, the Baptist Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible, but here in the Christian Church, I’ll have you know we have Father, Son, and Holy Potluck (we seem slightly scared of the Holy Spirit, too, to be honest). In all seriousness, I don’t worship the Bible (or the potluck). I don’t think the word of God is God; I know, however, the Word of God is. I will not worship a book, but I will praise the One who is revealed to us in its pages. With that said, it’s easy to recognize the significance of the Bible: it is God’s primary way of revealing Himself to humanity, our best source to learn about Him and His will for us. Nothing which does that can be taken lightly.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to accept it at all.

According to the data gathered by the Barna Group, the number of people who fall on that side of the spectrum is growing. Of the 2,030 adults in the U.S. included in the survey results, 32% never read the Bible at all and only 16% read it daily. More alarmingly to me as a minister, only 93% of practicing Protestants and 88% of practicing Catholics hear the Bible read in church at least weekly. What do they do the other 7%/12% of the time? If we aren’t using Scripture every time we worship, what are we using? What forms the basis for our preaching, the latest issue of Time? If we don’t always read the Bible in our worship services, how can we possibly expect people to always read their Bibles at home? Well, the data are in: we don’t and they don’t, either. In fact, even the desire to read isn’t always there. A full 9% of practicing Protestants and 22% of practicing Catholics say they have no wish to read the Bible more often than they do. Outside the church, among those Barna classifies as “antagonistic” (those who see the Bible as a fully human book designed to control others), that number skyrockets to 91%.

Also frightening to me are the responses to what is being read. I can’t really argue with the 52% (of 668) who feel peaceful or the 49% who are more hopeful after reading Scripture. What bothers me is the mere 1% who feel convicted. That’s right: of the 874 people who responded to the question in 2016, almost nine of them felt convicted or guilty in some fashion. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting the primary function of the Bible is to inspire guilt, but the word of God should encourage us to be better, to sin less, to change our lives, and I can’t imagine that process beginning without a catalyst, a felt need — a sense that something in rotten in Denmark, a prodding of the Holy Spirit’s convicting grace. But I guess that goes hand in hand with the fact a full 7% of 341 respondents read the Bible and give no thought whatsoever to how it might apply to their lives.

There’s no reason to apply it, though, when something else can do the job. Of practicing Protestants, those who consider their faith very important and who worship at least monthly, 98% believe the Bible is a holy book — and 8% believe the same of the Quran, and 1% say no text is sacred. Ten percent believe all so-called holy books are simply different takes on the same faith and teach the same truths, and 13% maintain the U.S. Constitution is more important to teach and maintain morality (not law, morality) in our country than the Bible is. Then again, 6% believe it’s worse to be labeled intolerant than immoral, and 19% see no problem with being called either one, so why bother with a biblical morality at all? Again, these figures are for practicing Protestants. American adults on the whole paint a far more dismal picture.

What is considered unimportant remains unknown; the acquisition of knowledge requires a certain investment of caring about the subject matter. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover 7% of adults surveyed believe Paul was the disciple who betrayed Jesus and 5% think he was the first to see the resurrected Christ (only 56% and 57%, respectively, selected the correct answer from the available options). Moreover 3% believe Scripture says nothing whatsoever about serving the poor, another 3% say the Bible strongly encourages prostitution, and 53% thinks the word of God strongly discourages pornography (with 31% responding it’s totally silent on the subject).

It gets worse. Of a sample of 1,025 adults, few of them let the Bible inform their views on social matters. The following said the Bible has zero influence on their views of these issues: abortion, 47%; LGBT concerns, 53%; refugees, 45%; money, 50%; immigration, 57%; and war, 54%. The numbers for practicing Protestants: 11%, 20%, 12%, 6%, 24%, and 25%, respectively. Not even all Protestant Christians let the Bible speak to how they view the world, and the figures for Catholic Christians are no better. Small wonder, then, no one else consults the word of God on these matters.

Worse than apathy is antipathy. Again speaking of the general populace, 53% believe the Bible is oppressive towards the LGBT community, 37% towards women, and 26% towards various races. Almost one in five (18%) won’t read the Bible at all simply because of their views on homosexuality. But we’re also upset with the moral state of America. A full 81% say morality is declining in the United States, with 39% attributing it primarily to corporate corruption and greed, 33% to the negative influence of the various media, and 27% saying it’s because people don’t read their Bibles enough (the choice of only 55% of practicing Protestants). I can’t deny the influence of Hollywood and Wall Street, but they seem to me to be symptoms rather than root causes. If more people read the Bible and had a personal relationship with the God who inspired it, the symptoms just might get better.

I realize I’ve just thrown a lot of discouraging statistics at you. We can all see the Bible wields increasingly little influence in our society, not least because no one read it and believes it. The obvious solution is to teach it and preach it, to develop new paths of discipleship so as to increase one’s points of contact with Scripture. But that won’t be enough. We must do more to preach Christ and him crucified, to point to the God of the Bible, both in word and in deed. As people come to love God, they will love His Book. As they learn more about the Book, they learn more about God. As they learn more about God, they love Him more, and the cycle repeats. So while we must get more Bible into the hands of more people, we must start with loving them in the name of Jesus. Both components are crucial in making disciples who will make disciples.

That requires us to commit ourselves to the Bible. We, as individuals, need to read it and apply it to our lives. We must adopt a biblical worldview in all areas of life, fix before our eyes a cruciform lens sculpted by the Word of God through the word of God. Only then will we see the lives of others change as they, too, pick up the Holy Bible.

Tolle lege.

Twenty-First Century Luddism

In an ironic twist in my life, I’ve become rather a Luddite. The original Luddites were English workers who rebelled and destroyed a good bit of machinery during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. They believed the machines would eventually replace them as laborers (as indeed they did) and so decided to “kill” the usurpers, as it were. Mechanization and automation continue steadily, however, and even today people lose their jobs to the latest computer programs, robots, and other bits of machine wizardry. As in the factory, so in the home, and technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. For this reason, the term “Luddite” has come to denote anyone who opposes the inexorable onslaught of technological progress.

So when I say I’m a bit of a Luddite, that’s what I mean. Somewhere over the last ten-ish years I’ve given up on gadgetry. I’ve had a smartphone for about two years now, and my friends still tell me how weird it is to see me use one. To be fair, I probably only utilize a small fraction of its capabilities, and I slightly resent even that. But in a technology-driven society, I didn’t have much of a choice. I still tell people I’d rather have a typewriter than a computer, that I’d delete my social media profiles if I could quickly communicate with people without them, and that I very much enjoy my old-fashioned analog watch, thank you very much. Of course, I say that as I blog, so I’m not without a contradiction or two in my attitudes.

And remember: I called this Luddite attitude an ironic twist. Why? Because of all the people I knew growing up, I was the most tech-savvy. I’ve built computers, designed websites, programmed graphing calculators (oh, high school), and a half-dozen other things. I worked as an IT professional for two years, managing server farms, VoIP boxes, VPNs, and workstations. I’ve ran cables, punched jacks, and repeatedly said, “have you tried turning it off and back on again.” At one point, I wanted to be a biomedical engineer so I could design the next generation of cybernetics. I even had my favorite prosthetics picked out in case I lost a limb. I didn’t just love technology; I wanted to be it.

Obviously, hating owning a smartphone and planning a transformation into the Six Million Dollar Man are fairly opposed to one another.

For me, I think the change happened as I placed a higher premium on people. Sure, I embraced a larger love of books and history and such as well, but it seems mostly driven by people. Technology claims to bring us closer to together, but only parts of it do — and the rest does the opposite. When I lived halfway across the continent, for example, I was grateful to Skype for letting me see my family on occasion. But consider Facebook. Yes, we now know everything about the lives of everyone; all the current goings-on are online for the world to see (or just your friends, depending on your privacy settings). Or are they? People control what goes on their sites, after all, and it’s generally either a highlight reel or a litany of the worst of the worst. Few and far between are the posts saying, “I had tea. It was an average day.” That’s problematic.

Human beings are creatures of comparison and competition. We pit our lives against the lives of everyone else we know and try to prove ourselves to be the best, brightest, happiest, and most blessed. But if it’s my life versus someone else’s social media page, it’s not a case of me vs. them; it’s me at my most average vs. their highlight reel. It’s an unfair comparison by any metric. I fully believe it’s one contributing factor to the correlation between social media consumption and depression. The more we see others’ bests, the worse our worst (or average) looks, and we become depressed. Then we can factor in the number of posts which are deliberately incendiary and those which otherwise make us angry, sad, or another negative emotion.

That’s why most of my Facebook feed is books and bad Christian jokes.

Technology can also be rather obviously detrimental. Our culture’s widespread acceptance of pornography in its various guises has combined with the power of the Internet to give more access to smut than ever before in human history (and porn itself seems to drive the development of certain media technologies). As a result, we have a toxically pornified society where sex is almost a god in and of itself, an ultimate good to be gotten and revered at all costs. Anything standing in the way of sexual gratification — things like conventional morality — are quickly discarded. But the sex on the screen isn’t real sex; like our social media personas, sex acts in pornography are carefully crafted to produce a desired effect. There’s nothing real about it. Nevertheless, sex and porn have become genuine addictions for many, many people, and the content of porn has done everything from warp users’ sexuality to render men impotent in the presence of a physical flesh-and-blood woman.

One a more insidious level, technology has set us in a downward spiral into workaholism and burnout. When office e-mail and work contacts are accessible in a device you carry around 24/7, it’s incredibly hard to resist the temptation to check your messages or answer the phone as soon as it makes a sound. As a result, more and more people live in a reality of being on-call indefinitely, and leaving work at the office is an impossibility; after all, I can work out of my pocket. The constant connection to labor sans even a single day of genuine rest and distance takes a heavy toll, spiritually, psychologically, and physically. I admit I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if productivity levels have actually decreased in the smartphone era. What I do know is that happiness is down, job satisfaction is down, anxiety is up, and a host of other horrible things as well. We can’t lay the full blame on technology, but neither can we naively dismiss it as a non-factor.

Then there’s the absent morality of Hollywood, television, music . . . and please don’t get me started on healthy people who skip church to stream worship and participate in “virtual Communion,” as if such a thing were possible.

Not all technology is bad, of course. Medical advances are good things, safer vehicles are good things, and I’m very much a fan of alternative energy and new ways to care for our environment. But technology is not the Savior. No, technology can be good, but even the good bits can have bad effects, and the good effects can’t save souls. There is no digital atonement. Samsung didn’t die for your sins. Zuckerberg will never be your friend in real life and offer authentic human connection.

Let us be wary of technology. Don’t adopt new gadgets uncritically. Don’t love things and use people instead of loving people and using things. Regard the tools as tools, not saviors. And give your life to Jesus who died for you.

Forgotten Catechesis

I attended a debate on Sunday evening with our church’s college kids. The two philosophers in the debate threw out jargon incomprehensible to most of the people in the audience, which is why I will forever remember the excursion as “that time I taught modal ontology in Olive Garden.” The debate itself was whether one should believe in God. The champion of theism was a bit lacking, and he spent too long making the wrong sorts of arguments (never bring a rationalist to an empiricist fight), but he did a decent job of explaining the classical proofs for the existence of God. But the whole thing has me thinking. Neither presenter could accurately represent biblical scholarship in terms of doctrine or textual criticism. The audience couldn’t follow what was going on, on stage without a few philosophy classes under their collective belt. It seemed to me everyone involved needed more education.

I might be biased, but that’s my approach to life. The realm of education is my natural habitat; being back on a college campus was, for me, like tossing a beached whale back into the ocean. My view of my ministry is framed in terms of catechesis: my job is to teach the people in the pews everything I know about Jesus because that knowledge creates and strengthens relationship. I’m very passionate about learning and about teaching the faith, and I think this sort of discipleship/catechesis is something lacking in many of our churches today. We’re pretty good at evangelism and worshipping together on Sunday morning, but we’ve largely failed to teach people much beyond the basics. The high (and rising) rate of biblical illiteracy is a sad testament to that fact.

Beyond church things (Bible, theology, and church history), however, we also fail to teach people a great many other things. Philosophy is one of those omissions. Instead of teaching people how to think, we prefer to teach them what to think. Unfortunately, most of the “what” comes with an agenda contingent on its setting. Christian schools, for example, have vastly different curriculum than public schools for things like biology, human origins, and sex education. Colleges can be even worse depending on the instructor. But very, very few schools of any educational level require courses in critical thinking, logic, or epistemology. In a post-industrial information age where the sum of human knowledge is accessible through a device most of us carry around in our pockets, we have become obsessed with facts, not methodologies, with memory, not intelligence. Thus our educational standards reflect our cultural priorities.

Let’s go one step further to look at the facts we seem to value. I have nothing against the STEM fields (I’m the lone humanist in a family of scientists and engineers), but they can’t be the only things on the table. Even if you mistakenly believe there is no intrinsic value to literature or that no truth about humanity is to be gained from poetry, we can all agree grammar and rhetoric are necessary skills not covered by a STEM-only education. This is to say nothing of the fundamental worth and benefits of music, history, etc. A thing need not fit some rubric of practicality to have educational merit.

If we must have only the practical and practicable taught, however, let’s cover our bases. There is a great need for trade and vocational schools. Not everyone needs to go to university — nor should they. Many other employable skills are out there, skills we need someone to have — and those skills must be acquired, and therefore they must be taught. And not just taught as an alternative to college, but promoted as proper and worthy fields in their own right. Part of that statement is tied to our need and the practical nature of those trades, yes. But another part is tied to the sense of self-worth of those in those fields. A welder, small engine mechanic, or plumber is not a second-class citizen simply because they lack advanced degrees. They are still human beings equal to any other.

In short, there are many, many things we need to be teaching, both within the walls of the church and without. We cannot propagate a false equivalency between memory and intelligence, between knowing what to think and knowing how to think. And we certainly can’t afford, as a society, to prioritize the “what” above the “how.” That road ends in auditoriums filled, not with rational human beings waiting to learn, but with automatons waiting to be programmed.

F.A.Q.: A Smattering of Intelligence

My birthday is the feast day of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, and I find it fitting. Anselm is one of my personal heroes in the faith, and I have two of his maxims written in Latin on the markerboard in my kitchen: Credo ut intelligam (“I believe so that I may understand”) and fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). I feel like Anselm and I would have been friends, for his mottoes sum up my own faith journey fairly well. I tend to blunder my way into theological problems and have to research my way out (hence my current work on the biblical theology of death and its relationship to the natural sciences). Anselm’s words keep me going, and I was therefore highly upset when he lost to Florence Nightingale in this year’s Lent Madness. (Oh sure, she saved countless lives and all that, but Anselm gave us the ontological argument! Priorities, people!)

I think many of us live in the tension of faith and reason. To be sure, a run-in with a harsh fact or a hard-to-swallow premise has given rise to many a crisis of faith. Many people are devout atheists because they cannot view theism in general and Christianity in particular as intellectually credible. For that reason alone, sundry proofs for the existence of God have arisen over the years, all seeking to demonstrate theism is logically coherent. Now we fire off proofs left and right, and the field of apologetics has experienced a renaissance of sorts as more and more flock to it seeking ways to demonstrate the reasonability of Christianity to hordes of rampaging rationalists.

Some stalwart Christians oppose the renewed interest in intellectual defenses of Christianity, espousing a sort of warped, internal variant of the principle of non-overlapping magisteria. “Faith is faith,” they say, “and faith isn’t subject to reason.” A friend recently lamented one of her pastors early in life once delivered a sermon commanding one to sacrifice intelligence on the altar of faith, and, as an intelligent human being, she always found that hard to swallow. And personally, I agree such a thing is a bridge too far. If we believe intelligence is a gift from God, and if we believe being a rational, thinking creature is part of the imago Dei, it seems rather ungrateful and hypocritical to say, “God gave this to me, and it’s part of how I’m like Him, but I absolutely can’t use this in conversations about my relationship with Him.” It honestly strikes me as a bit rude. And also frankly unbiblical.

For starters, Jesus says the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, emphasis added). The word used here for mind is dianoia, and it refers to our ability to comprehend and think rationally — our intelligence. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems impossible to love God with your intelligence if you switch off your brain at the church door (or wherever you happen to go). Lest we ignore the words of Jesus Christ and break the most important commandment according to God Himself, let’s use our minds in our pursuit of God.

Secondly, Paul gives us the perfect biblical example of using intelligence in the defense of God and in evangelism. Aside from the masterful rhetoric and theology throughout his writings, an incident in Acts 17 demonstrates this for us. As Paul preaches in Athens, he engages polytheists by quoting from their own philosophers (Epimenides and Aratus in v. 28). His sermon in the agora rationally linked Christianity to truths from another discipline to show the veracity of his faith. When we fail to engage biology, geology, psychology, or other subjects and connect their truths to the God of truth, when we instead ignore their challenges and stick our heads in the sand of “it’s all about faith, not reason,” we fail to follow Paul’s example, the example of Scripture. (This is one reason I’m an advocate for public theology: Scripture teaches us to engage culture on Christian terms.)

That’s why I don’t believe God wants us to suddenly become sycophantic morons where faith is concerned, never thinking about anything but believing everything told to us. Are there things beyond the realm of human comprehension? Absolutely; the Trinity immediately comes to mind. We will never be able to fully grasp an infinite God with a finite mind. But we can and we should use our God-given intellects to pursue their divine source. We need to love God with our minds, chase the deep things of the Bible with reason and rationality.

Why? Because faith seeks understanding. Because, as Anselm said, I believe so that I may understand.

One of the Worst -Isms

One of my favorite Christmas movies is the original Miracle on 34th Street. Alfred, our favorite janitor/Santa Claus impersonator, while lamenting the consumeristic bent of Christmas in a department store, quips, “There’s a lot of bad -isms floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck.” And that was in 1947. Just look at how far we’ve come since then in the pursuit of wealth.

It’d be easy to decry all of our societal structures and institutions for giving in to commercialism, for so very many have. The American healthcare system (inasmuch as it can be called a “system” which “cares” for health) readily springs to mind. Costs are too high for most people to afford any real care they need, and it’d be unthinkable to have something as simple as a routine appendectomy or a tooth pulled without insurance — which is itself prohibitively expensive. Many families must choose between food and medication. Other countries have shown us that healthcare costs needn’t be so exorbitant, yet they still are. Why? In part because of the greed of commercialism. People aren’t embodied soul requiring loving care; they are broken fleshy machines people will pay anything to repair. And so they do; simple supply and demand.

If it’s terrible such commercialism has infiltrated the care of bodies, it’s positively abhorrent it has become part and parcel of the care of souls.

Here again it’d be all-too-easy to list those televangelists and fake faith healers who will swindle the widow out of her mite. I could go into detail about false prophets bilking the innocent out of their money to pay for their private jets, limousines, and sprawling estates. And while that kind of behavior is sinful in many, many ways, and while they will stand in judgment for what they’ve done to their victims, there’s another dimension of commercialism that has taken root in the church. It’s far more sinister — and far more accepted. It’s the rise of the consumer church.

If you want to know what I mean by “consumer church,” take a look at most megachurches. Really, just pick one that seems to suit your fancy. These have, by and large (with the occasional exception), ignored the traditions of the faith to provide something more aligned with the current whims of culture. There’s nothing wrong with using a different worship style, but there is great danger in altering worship content. A consumer church will typically change both. The more negative realities of Christianity (hell, sin, etc.) get dropped in favor of fluff which omits the need for salvation. Ministers no longer “preach,” since people don’t liked being “preached at”; instead, they “speak” or “talk with you.” The term “sermon” is replaced by “teaching time,” and songs are sanitized as all references to “wretch,” “worm,” and other non-ego-stroking terms for the sinful self are removed. And yes, names matter.

The worship service itself mutates from a corporate act into lots of individual acts carried out in close proximity to one another. Rites and rituals are either omitted entirely or left unexplained, bewildering newcomers and those young in the faith. Catechesis disappears as classes and groups wane due to a lack of emphasis.

In short, our ecclesiology has died. Our liturgics have been entirely forgotten. We no longer live and teach our theology in a corporate setting. The fundamentally Christocentric nature of worship is supplanted by an anthropocentric — or even egocentric — “worship experience.” And why? Why jettison such things? To appeal to consumers who view church as something to be taken in like entertainment instead of a dynamic connection to a living God. Because people don’t put money in the offering plate to hear you tell them to repent. And the more money, the bigger the church; the bigger the church, the more famous the pastor; the more famous the pastor, the more money people give . . .

Did I mention we preachers sometimes have ego problems, too?

Not all megachurch pastors suffer from such thinking. Some truly possess a servant’s heart, and that gives me great hope. But it remains a common pitfall, giving in to a consumer-driven, commercialistic mindset. So we have to remember: fads change. People will want a totally different church twenty years from now because what’s “cool” will be totally different by then. But God never changes. The gospel never changes.

The grass withers, and the parachute pants fade, but the word of the LORD endures forever.