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    Entries in Christianity (147)


    Common Language, Common Faith

    This isn't a youth ministry blog, per se, but over the years I have had the bulk of my ministry experiences within the crucible of children and youth ministries, working diligently to teach, exhort, rebuke, correct, and train children in the way of Jesus as revealed in the Bible.  The work has always been tough, and also fun.  It has been fun to be around the young, listening to their questions, playing their games, reading together and striving to understand the Scripture and what God might be saying.  I've never felt called specifically to youth or children's ministry, but I have been incredibly blessed as I have pursued my calling among youth and children.  I don't think you have to be called to those areas to be engaged in ministry in those areas; oftentimes our dismissals of these opportunities to be around children and youth have much more to do with our insecurities and our preferences than they do our abilities and our proclivities for guiding others in the way of the Kingdom.  Many of my greatest insights have come in conversation with a teenager or a two year old.  I've received more grace from the young than from any other segment of the church.

    Over the years, I have noticed that one of the challenges currently facing children's and youth ministries is the lack of a common language for following Jesus, and thus the establishment of a commonly understood faith.  Oftentimes our youth ministries are driven by a hype and happenstance, marketing married to therapeutic or avoidance strategies for common teenage ills.  We speak to youth and children in terms of revolution, in order to stir zeal and build excitement about the faith.  We legitimize this by saying that if we do not do this, then other cultural forces will, and the assumption is that we will then lose.  We then speak to adults with well formulated principles that will help us live "good lives," which commonly reflects middle-class sensibilities, and the epitome of what might be called the American way of life.  In one sector, we want people who will turn the world upside down.  In another, we want people who will settle in as good Christians, be nice, etc.  No wonder the young, who hang with us, feel as though they are aliens when they reach maturity.  Classic bait and switch.

    How might this be overcome?  Is it possible to have a consistent, clear, and unified approach to being a disciple of Jesus that can transcend the categories of age?

    Some of you reading this will reply that the answer here is undeniably yes.  I'm working on a way to bring this to bear on our ministry.  I'm exploring a way to talk about Kingdom and Christ and the Bible and the whole lot in a way that children and parents can talk to and with one another about their journeys as Christians, finding continuity and dreaming together of what a common vision might be as they live their life together as a small outpost of Kingdom living.  Rather than fostering division and layering our discourse, I'm trying to imagine what it would be like for us to minister to parents and their children together, so that they might have common ground, while all the while recognizing developmental and life stage difficulties that will continue to keep them distinct.

    Do you know of anyone who is doing this well?


    Who Mythologizes The Mythmakers?

    Recently I finished reading Harvey Cox's 2009 survey of the state of religion in the world, The Future of Faith.  The book is incredibly engaging.  Cox writes in an accessible way, a rare gift for a scholar.  This book is clearly written for a popular audience, and is replete with personal anecdotes from Cox's encounters with religious leaders all over the world.  He is a professor at Harvard Divinity School, having served there for many years, and is well regarded as a scholar of religion.

    Cox's primary thesis within the book is that an "Age of Faith" has dawned, a period in history wherein certain leveling forces have emerged that will require religion (Christianity in particular) to revert to a sort of "pre-Constantinian" state.  No longer will the controls of institutionalized religion or the rules of Enlightenment rationalism apply to the world of religious practice.  Beliefs will be downplayed, and the content of the lives that are in fact lived will become the litmus test of any religion.  Christianity will become increasingly egalitarian, and hierarchies will dwindle to insignificance.  Of all the regions in the world that are most critical for these developments, Africa is tops.  Europe and the West are on the way out as a major player in world Christianity.  The future is indigenous, popular, grass roots movements of the Global South.

    In telling this story, Cox has a number of foes that he must dispose of, among them conservative Christians, the papacy, and his past.  He was involved in an InterVarsity fellowship at Penn, providing him with numerous experiences to relay in support of his argument against older forms of Christianity.  "Apostolic succession" and a "deposit of faith," critical for Catholics and Protestants both, must also be dispatched.  Cox must establish the reality of early "Christianities" to undercut any claim to a unified set of doctrines that from the very beginning composed "Christianity" in order to debunk claims to power based on history or the Bible, or both.

    I couldn't help but noticing, however, as the argument progress, that while debunking old myths Cox was creating a myth of his own, a construct within which he (and others who stand with him) can obtain power, a new controlling narrative that can reform the faith, one wherein creeds, "orthodox" teaching, or hierarchies can no longer hold sway.  Instead, there will be base communities, or localized expressions of Christian practice, that can work for justice, extoll the best of liberation theologies, provide forums for mutual care and support for one another, pray together, and wrestle with the biblical text in a more localized and contextualized way.  No magisterium.  No "one, true" church.  Only an amorphous "faith;" a defined way of life apart from "beliefs."

    But, as Russell T. McCutcheon has noted, we must "beware the mythmakers."  I find it fascinating that scholars such as Cox can dismiss old myths and construct news one, claiming historicity while failing to acknowledge that they, too, have an interest concerning how they present the story they tell.  Cox downplays beliefs, and plays up a kind of "way," the true way of being Spirit-led, faithful to Jesus, and in concord with the earliest diversity of Christ-followers.

    This leads me to ask, "Who watches the watchmen?"  Who keeps an eye on our scholars and academics, our leaders and historians?  Who ensures they are telling the story well?

    I'm doubtful that an "Age of Faith" has dawned, and while I do believe Christian expression is changing, I doubt the shift itself is any more cataclysmic than other shifts and changes that have taken place in bygone days.  There is movement, yes, and there are new developments, new expressions.  But a wholesale movement in the vein of Cox's description?  It's a myth, and I doubt it is true.


    Palm Sunday and Easter :: New Musings at FaithVillage

    The past two weeks I've written a couple more reflections for FaithVillage.  I'm a regular contributor; most of my work has appeared on Sundays.  Subscribe here.

    Thanks for reading!


    Monday Give Away :: Name it and Claim it.

    It's the Monday after Easter.  Here are three items I'm giving away this week.  First person to claim each item, accompanied by the correct answer to the corresponding trivia questions, scores it.

    1. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Second Edition.  What is the name of the first century BC Jewish mystic who, during a drought, drew a circle in the dust, planted his feet inside, and proclaimed to God that he would not move until God sent rain?
    2. Nun Bowling: It's Sinfully Fun! (Mega Mini Kits).  In the movie The Blues Brothers (1980), what was the name of the head nun Jake and Elwood visit after Jake's release from prison, and what was the name of the actress who portrayed her?
    3. Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe.  What heresy arose in the fourth century that, among other things, claimed that there was a time that the Son was not, therefore designating the Son as a created being?

    Keep in mind that the books are lightly used.  One entry per person, please.

    Comment away!


    Carrots and Sticks? Anything but.

    The Religion Newswriters brought to my attention a recent Time Magazine treatment of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell and his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  In the article, titled, "Rob Bell's Hell: A Threat to the Evangelical Business Plan," it is argued that the consternation concerning Bell's theology is not only rooted in a passion for orthodoxy, but fear and trembling over the prospects for fundraising in an evangelical world without hell.

    In my opinion, Time's coverage has it wrong.  The presentation of the Christian gospel, as it is preached by evangelicals, is a stereotype, a misrepresentation.  I could even call it bad reportage, and intentionally misleading.  It's common for people to dismiss Christianity in this country due to concerns that preachers are only out for your money, and will threaten and coerce you by holding damnation over your head in order to pry your earnings from your tightly closed fists and into the coffers of the church.  This myth continues to serve as a buffer between the public and the actual claims of Christianity, which is why some churches have even chosen to remove the offering from the liturgy during worship services.

    Bill Saporito, the reporter presenting the story, does well in outling Paschal's Wager, a very famous rational argument that posits believing in God is the most rational choice, even if no god exists.  In the event that one is correct, an eternal reward ensues.  If there is no god, one has lost nothing, and likely has gained from living a life of humility, charity, and goodwill.  He quotes two philosophers who are experts in "game theory," a subfield of rational choice theory.  But he fails to directly quote ONE evangelical leader saying anything, directly or indirectly, with regard to heaven and hell as the end game of the Christian religion.  The end of Christianity is neither heaven or hell, but God, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    I won't deny that there are preachers and ministers, and subsequently lay people, who present Christian faith in terms of carrots and sticks.  Hell is there to scare us into shape, and heaven is there to draw us toward choosing to live a good life.  But the Christian religion, whatever else might be said about it, is grounded in a different mechanism: grace.  On Good Friday, we would do well to remember that Christianity centers upon the cross and resurrection of Christ.  Heaven and hell are not earned, they are rather subsidiary doctrines standing beneath assertions pertaining to creation, fall, atonement, and eschatological hope.  Christ died for us, to reconcile a lost and fallen humanity unto God, so that the two might dwell together in peace, and, in doing so, extend that same peace to all of creation.

    It isn't surprising that the carrots and sticks treatment appears in Time.  As an aside, it was a prevalent framework for religion that I encountered while in the Religious Studies department at The University of Kansas.  I was often perplexed when this framework was applied to other religions, Buddhism in particular, where the ultimate goal of religious practice is not heaven and hell, or union with God, but rather enlightenment, entailing that we ultimately escape from the suffering of the illusion that is this life through ascent to a unified and all-encompassing state of consciousness.

    As a final word, it is not heaven and hell that motivate me in giving of my finances to the ministry of church, but rather looking upon the cross, seeing the immense cost that Jesus was willing to pay for me, for us, on Good Friday.  In contemplating that scene, how can I not give?  How can I not give of my own resources to help others in knowing God, having their physical needs met, justice being served, setting apart leaders to pray for us, etc.?  I don't buy my way to heaven, or out of hell.

    Jesus did that, after proclaiming, "It is finished." And he did by grace.