A report by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research raises questions about what megachurches are teaching their members regarding Christian commitment. It was not that long ago that megachurch pastor Bill Hybels announced that, after 22 years of megachurching, the staff and leaders at Willow Creek hadn't managed to produce many disciples. The Hartford report appears to confirm Mr. Hybels' observation. Of 25,000 people surveyed in 12 megachurches, 98% of them - pause on that: 98% - "described themselves as a 'committed follower of Jesus Christ.'" 62% of those same people indicated "they had experienced much spiritual growth in the past year." Well, that should encourage us, no? Except for this: "45% of megachurch attenders never volunteer at church and 32% give little or no money to the congregation." Goodness. What would these people be like if they were apathetic rather than committed? And who's telling them they're committed? Or who's confirming to them that this is an acceptable definition of Christian commitment? When megachurch members are challenged to do more by their pastors and told they can't just ride out their faith in the pews, "a lot of people said 'I'm perfectly happy coming here and doing that.'" Which, in the nature of the case, is doing nothing. "Perfectly happy": Ah, there's the operative phrase. May I humbly suggest that the three terms that best define the life of a committed Christian are tribulation, martyrdom, and holiness? Not happiness. Whoever is telling these people that what they are practicing in the name of the Lord Jesus and personal happiness is committed Christianity is simply lying. Who will ever stand up from the pews on Sunday morning, in the midst of some feel-good-let's-all-be-happy-and-prosperous sermon and cry out, "Pastor, dammit! I want to be a martyr for Christ! Won't you show me how?"? Churches today are filled with "committed" Christians, safely ensconced on the margins of society and culture - which, in case you haven't notice, runs right along the ledge.
A new study Bible has come out which is touted as "The Green Bible" because its focus is on the environment. In fact, any Scripture that includes a reference to the creation is printed in green, whether or not it has anything to do with environmental issues. Do we really need a Green Bible? In one sense, I suppose so, because Christians in general have not been very enthusiastic about environmental issues, not out of any particular Biblical conviction, but mainly because most evangelicals line up with Republicans who routinely oppose environmental legislation as no friend to business. So if people read this Bible and begin to wonder whether or not the Bible has something helpful to say about the environment, well, that's not a bad thing. On the other hand, I can't help but feel about this new "custom Bible" like I feel about all the other custom Bibles you can find in any Christian bookstore - couples' study Bibles, youth study Bibles, men's and women's study Bibles, Reformation study Bibles. There are doubtless more, I'm sure, but it's been years since I was in a Christian bookstore, so I'm just recalling what I saw way back whenever. All this custom Bibling has the smell of bottom line publishing to me. "Here's a way we can package our translation to appeal to another niche in the market." Publishers do the same thing with different styles of cover. Don't like leather? Here's one in denim. Or with a Celtic cross (that one got me, but then...). I'm all for circulating the Bible as far and wide as possible. I'm just a little queasy about all the marketing and commercializing of the Word of God. Are we encouraging folks to buy a Bible because of what's in it or because of how they'll look carrying it? In a sense, I suppose you could say that all these custom Bibles with their special issues, hip covers, and whatnot are green Bibles, because the primary reason they're being published is to bolster the revenue stream to publishers. Is that OK? I mean, after all, if the publisher can't keep his business afloat he won't be able to publish any Bibles, and, of course, that would be not cool. I guess I'd just like to see about a 10-year moratorium on custom or chic Bibles - just put 'em out there with a plain black cover - to see if the sales hold up, or if people are really only buying all these cool Scriptures for the cover rather than the content.
This reminder from early twentieth-century American naturalist writer Henry Beston: "Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science." He's preaching to the choir 'round these parts, but I thought I'd run a little test and see if I could
Judge Sonia Sotomayor would seem to be the perfect pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. That, at least, is the opinion of Jeffrey Rosen. Writing in The New Republic (July1, 2009), Mr. Rosen touts Judge Sotomayor as a nominee who is growing in her understanding of the Constitution, the role of the courts, and the nature of law. He reports that she "still hasn't settled into a consistent judicial philosophy, which can either be viewed as a lack of constitutional vision or a sign of pragmatism." He continues, "It certainly can make her majority opinions hard to predict." Mr. Rosen reports that, during her years on the bench, Judge Sotomayor has demonstrated but little interest in legal history or precedent. She has moved back and forth across the spectrum of jurisprudential perspectives - sometimes a legal activist, sometimes a textual judge. She even joined in one opinion overturning a decision she had previously made. Her approach to judging reveals "a methodological eclecticism" which "can lead to ideological unpredictability." Overall she appears to be "empirically grounded in pragmatism that challenges the majority's premises on its own terms." Like I said: perfect. We don't quite know where she stands on the Constitution, but sometimes she can be as conservative as Justice Scalia. She testifies to being a liberal and indicates that circumstances play a considerable role in how she should decide cases. She's unpredictable, has no settled judicial philosophy, and may be inclined to second guessing her own opinions. If we expect to get "justice, and only justice" (Dt. 16.20) from Justice Sotomayor, well, we may or we may not. We'll just have to wait and see. So what does Mr. Rosen indicate is her great asset as a nominee? "And the politics of her appointment are so overwhelming that they're difficult to resist." Politics should not factor at all in the appointment of a justice to the Supreme Court of the United States. But it seems that, where Americans might hope to receive "justice, and only justice," what we're getting instead is politics, and only politics.
Christianity in America is in the midst of one of those weird cycles where the "good guys" are downplaying the teaching of sound doctrine and all its terms so offensive to sensitive unbelieving ears for the sake of emphasizing Christianity as an experience and a way of life. We're being told that teaching doctrine is the wrong focus; what we need to do is focus on Jesus, experience Jesus in the lives of His loving people; meld into the family of God through the welcome process of gradual assimilation. Doctrine - all that stuff about sin and redemption and justification and sanctification and all those other harsh words - isn't the issue; feeling Jesus' love is what matters, and you can get that apart from doctrine. Besides, who can know what's really true anyway? Only those who have experienced Jesus' love and can share it with others through their welcoming, open lives have any real claim to be followers of Jesus. I came across a quote from an esteemed writer which I think speaks directly to this situation: "But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine." The writer then goes on to argue that contemporary approaches to "Christianity" that downplay doctrine and emphasize following Jesus as a lifestyle may be very interesting and even appealing, but they aren't true Christianity, not in any Biblical or historical sense. You cannot separate the Messiah from the message, and the message is, at heart, doctrine - doctrine which, whole-heartedly believed, leads to life full, abundant, fruitful, engaging, and transforming. Oh yes, the writer of that quote was J. Gresham Machen, reflecting - nearly 100 years ago - on the folly and feebleness of liberal Christianity. His view has been proved by time, as his view of the faith once for all delivered by the saints always
The material economy outlined for ancient Israel in the Law of God would be highly impractical in the modern world. It did promote two compelling ideas, however, which, in principle, are in danger of being lost by our materialistic age. The first is the idea of debt control. In ancient Israel borrowing was strictly limited to what people could expect to repay within a seven-year period. At the Sabbath year debts were cancelled and everyone started over from square one. This was an obvious way of discouraging people from borrowing more than they could hope to repay or loaning more than they were willing to lose. This provision taught people to live within their means and not to take advantage of one another. Being cut off from their local community for egregious violations of the laws of borrowing and lending would have had a powerful effect on the way people managed debt. The second idea was the reminder that the land was not ultimately the private possession of any individual, community, or tribe. The earth was the Lord's, and in order to keep people mindful of that, laws were provided to promote conservation and fruitfulness, to give the land rest from excessive farming and deforestation, and to return lands sold between Sabbath years to their original owners. There is not much evidence to suggest that the Israelites ever paid attention to these laws, but their incorporation in the Law of God at least teaches us how God expects us to think about economics: keep down the debt, be good stewards of the land, keep greed and speculation in check. According to The Economist (June 13, 2009), these economic principles may well be past recovering. Articles on the growing debt of rich nations and the ravaging of the Amazon forests warn that unrestrained land use, borrowing, and short-sighted development could injure not just future generations, but the planet itself. It may be too much to expect secular economists to mull over the wisdom of the divine economy, but is it too much for the followers of Christ? After all, Amazonia belongs the Lord, too.
I'm sad to report that I'm not making any headway with publishers on my proposed title to mark, in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The working title I've chosen is What's Not to Celebrate, and the book is intended to keep starry-eyed Protestant feet on the ground during what promises to be a long season of back-slapping and theological high-fives toasting the memory of Luther, Calvin, et al and extolling all the good they've brought to the Christian world. Which, doubtless, is not insignificant. The Reformation was a needed corrective in Church history, but, as with many correctives, it went overboard in certain ways, permanently damaging the Christian movement, most particularly, by establishing schism, fragmentation, and denominational triumphalism as somehow of the esse
Last night, just as The O'Reilly Factor was winding down, Fox News broke in suddenly with one of its "Fox Alert" banners to announce breaking news. North Korea is threatening nuclear war if anyone tries to prevent them from doing whatever they want; and an American destroyer was shadowing a suspicious North Korean vessel, looking as if it might try to interdict. Iran is in complete upheaval and the the supreme Ayatollah has threatened violence if the demonstrations don't stop. The Uighurs were talking about opening a restaurrant in their new home in Bermuda (your tax dollars at work). Plus our daughter is just about to have her first child and our eleventh grandchild. So I lean forward on the couch and get ready. It's the President, and he's apparently rising to give a speech at a convention. The convention is the Radio and TV Correspondents' Association Dinner, an annual event. The President tells some snappy jokes then lavishes praise on the press for how important they are at critical times like this. Thank you. God bless America. Good night. Back to the studio and Fox's Chief Correspondent Brett Baier is seated with Steve Hays of The Weekly Standard. For what, I'm wondering? For about ten minutes of commenting on the President's jokes. For this we need a "Fox Alert"? The whole episode struck me as extremely self-serving, and not a little sophomoric on the part of Fox News. The purpose of the evening was for the big names of the media to come together and to have the President affirm what they already believe about themselves, that the nation can't do without them and the President loves them. Well, most of them. I don't know if the other cable or broadcast networks had "Alerts" to report on the President's nicely-read lines, but Fox did. Because Fox wants to be commended and liked by the President, too. Because as critical as Fox is of President Obama - more than any other network, and, I think, rightly so -
Art today has ceased to be about beauty. Some time ago I ran a little experiment. I read all the articles in, oh, a half dozen magazines on the arts, looking only for appearances of the word, "beauty." In something like 30 articles the word appeared only once, and in that instance, as I recall, it was an artist relativizing beauty by saying that pornography could be as beautiful in its own way as any of the old masters. So if contemporary art isn't about beauty, what is it about? Gauging from a recent art fair in Switzerland, art seems to be about status, mainly. The Economist (June 20, 2009) reports that some 61,000 collectors and 2,500 artists participated in the Art Basel exhibition this month. The current recession created a great opportunity for collectors to be getting some real "buys" on their favorite artists. For example, one piece, called "Wallet (Lost)", sold for around $76,000. It is described as "a ready-made scultpure that consists of the artist's wallet containing credit cards, identity documents and a few Swiss francs." The writer hastens to add that the price included "the screw and washer" which held the wallet to the floor in the exhibition hall (Oh, well, now that makes sense). An Andy Warhol painting of a soup can - of which their must be about a gazillion in circulation, not to count the knock-offs - fetched a little over $3 million. Why do people pay so much for wallets and soup cans? Not because you can't get these anywhere else, that's for sure. It's status, pure and simple - the privilege of being associated with a particular artist who, for one reason or anther, is highly regarded as representing this, that, or the other idea or trend. People are willing to exchange a good deal of money to look hip or chic in the eyes of their contemporaries. Of course, this doesn't answer the question of how these artists managed to become such status symbols, but that's beside the point. Everybody who's anybody in the art world knows who's "in" and who's "out." And they will pay a good deal of money to be identified with the "in-crowd" in the arts, even though possessing a Warhol soup can can't possibly affect what's going on in the heart of a man. But that's not important. People look on the outside, as we know. They want to know who looks good, has the right stuff, and is properly accessorized - including, at the high end of the social scale, having all the right art. It doesn't occur to such people that, while others are admiring them for their outward appearance, God may be preparing to condemn them for the condition of their souls. That shortsightedness, however, is not a malady restricted to those who pay $70K for some artist's wallet.
The scientific community would like to buy the world a Coke. Well, not exactly; they'd just like to bring us all together as one large and getting-along family of mankind. The way to do this, according to Matthew Stremlau, is through unbridled, unlimited gene research. Writing from the State Department (that's scary), Mr. Stremlau reassures us that individual genes cannot account for every human trait or characteristic. The reality is much more complex, and involves the interaction and intermingling of many genes. But if we ever want to be able to figure out how our genetic structures function to make us the people we are (and why would we want to do that, I wonder?), we'll need more research. And no ethical restraints on that research, either. Let it all hang out. Let's get all the scientists in the world together, pass out some Cokes, sing a bar or two of "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony", and have at those genes. Mr. Stremlau suggests, when it comes to the best way to promote more gene research, "perhaps the best solution is not more oversight by ethics boards but, rather, investment in training scientists from around the world - particularly the developing world" (The Wilson Quarterly, Summer, 2009). He adds, "Only when people from around the world participate in genomics will we get a complete picture of human variation and its role in determining our complex traits." He hopes that "one day, all humans will again be a single race - as they existed many thousands of years ago, before they left Africa." True eunity, as it were - as in "eugenics"?
I had a "Usual Suspects" moment last night, watching the evening news. I've thought a good deal about how Barack Obama managed to become President of the United States. Race was a factor, but not the deciding one, as were his good looks and charm, easy eloquence, and sudden folksiness. Experience and grasp of the issues were not factors at all, but then they seldom are. But still, his personal attributes are not enough to explain his election and soaring popularity, or the recklessness with which he is running up the national debt. But I think I've figured it out. As I was watching the news - bits and bytes about health care, the stimulus, $24 trillion to bail out the banks, $1.9 trillion national debt, $3 trillion budget - it suddenly came to me, after the fourth of four different commercials for four different companies promising to help those burdened by thousands of dollars of credit card debt to an easy landing. Suddenly, like Agent Kujan, after Verbal has finished his tall tale about Keyser Soze and left the office, who finally sees all the pieces of the fabricated story in the familiar objects of his own office, and realizes Verbal is Keyser - suddenly I got it. Barack Obama is one of us. We're all up to our eyeballs in debt, and he is the biggest deficit spender in American history. We like him because he affirms us. We like him because his super-duper deficits dwarf ours, making them look like chump change. We like him because, just as we believe some credit card debt wizard will bail us out in the end, the U. S. won't have to pay for its debts, either. We'll just get another card and start the process all over again. It all came to me in a flash. Meanwhile, let's just keep shopping. The President understands our debt, affirms our debt, challenges our debt, and reassures us that, if things get really bad, he'll have a way to pay it all off. Except that I doubt China will be as forgiving as Visa. The Law of God structured an economy which, while the specifics of it aren't workable for our day, the basic principles are, chief among these being: don't try to build an economy on debt. It'll kill you. Our very verbal President is conning himself and us if he thinks all this debt will just go away or be easily absorbed; and we're conning ourselves if we keep listening, enthralled, to his story.
For most of the spring and early summer, the Obama Administration fretted over the situation with North Korea, a "rogue nation" with a megalomaniacal dictator, and, oh yeah, nuclear weapons (almost). Pyongyang fired off rockets, tested a nuclear device (maybe), threatened South Korea, sentenced two American journalists to prison terms, warned the world away from its waters, and talked like it was going to rain down whatever on Hawaii. We sent ships to track their ships and special radar to protect the people of Hawaii from imminent whatever, all the while denouncing North Korea's actions and hoping the Dear One will bite the dust soon. Yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that a new package of incentives is being prepared to back the North down from its nuclear aspirations. Did I hear that right? When your kids were little and pulled the heads off their sister's dolls and dunked the cat in the toilet and refused to eat their dinner, did you take them over to the cupboard and ask them whether they wanted a Twinkie or a Ho-Ho? I don't think so. But then, your kids probably didn't have nuclear weapons (almost). Or a really big, big, brother in the back yard who holds the biggest part of your mortgage. Who's calling the shots on policy toward North Korea? Does the Administration have one eye on the big brother in the back yard as it pampers the Dear One and offers him a Ho-Ho? George Washington - who warned us against foreign entanglements, echoing the Law of God (by the way) - would not be happy about this situation.