Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)
Answer – An atheist
I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.
Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)
I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.
I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.
Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.
Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.
We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)
It is spring break week here in the fog so I have been doing some catch-up reading. I am reading two books in particular, one that is stimulating and enjoyable and the other that is, well, just painful. What I find particularly disturbing is that the book I am being challenged by and the one that I am enjoying is written by someone with whom I have much to disagree. The book that I am reading just because I feel like I have to (for reasons that will go undisclosed) is written by someone who is a member of the Church of Christ. In fact, in certain parts of the country he would be idolized, yea worshipped, if he were to step up to a pulpit and start preaching. He is certainly no “average” member of the Church of Christ. He is about as far to the right as you can get within the fellowship of the churches of Christ without being anti-institutional, non-Sunday school or one-cup-only for the fruit of the vine during communion.
The one with whom I have doctrinal issues writes in a manner as to promote his beliefs without putting down any others, and with the intention of building up the body of Christ. The other uses derogatory terms to describe his “enemies,” makes no effort to mask his ridicule of their positions, and offers no apologies to “calling them out by name.” The first authors uses hermeneutical processes that are agreed upon by most scholars today; the other uses a hermeneutical principle that only he and a few others find convincing. The first author is willing to consider options other than his own conclusions; the second summarily dismisses any challenges to his conclusions as coming from someone who do not love God nor do they respect the Bible. Even when the second author makes a conclusion that I agree with I am frequently appalled at his logic and his condescending tone.
Have you ever agreed with someone you disagree with more than you agree with someone you agree with?
I have often said, and firmly believe, that I learn more from someone I disagree with, if they present their positions fairly and openly, than I do from someone that, for every other reason, I should agree with. Maybe I am weird that way. I would just much rather discuss religion with someone who knows and understands what he/she believes than with someone of my own faith group who simply parrots what some teacher/preacher/parent/friend once said. And that goes for those on both ends of the “conservative/liberal” spectrum. Wild-eyed liberals turn me off just as fast, if not faster, than closed-fisted reactionaries.
At the end of one of my undergraduate semesters a question was posed to our professor as to how we should respond when someone says/teaches something in error concerning the topic we had just completed studying (I am not sure whether it was Greek, Romans or Revelation – I can remember the professor and the statement, but not the subject). The professor paused for a moment as if to collect his thoughts. Very slowly he said, “Gentlemen, you must be very careful in those situations. Challenging someone’s long held beliefs is perilous work. But bad theology must be named as bad theology.”
In my 30-plus years serving the church in a number of capacities I have learned the truth of that statement over and over again, and have marveled at the wisdom of the professor who uttered it. Bad theology kills, no matter how loved or worshipped the speaker/writer/teacher is. Bad theology must be named as bad theology.
And doggone bad theology is the worst.
Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)
I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardless of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.
Boy, am I glad I did.
My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.
Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)
I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.
Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.
Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.
Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
It is time for my annual (or almost annual) post suggesting a daily Bible reading schedule. This coming year (2015) I am going to return to an older schedule I have used, and after explaining that schedule I will explain why I believe it to be a valuable exercise.
First, a bit of an explanation – it sounds confusing, but it really is not. I just explain in confusing terms.
The basic schedule calls for a reader to read 5 chapters of the Old Testament every day, Monday through Saturday. Also, one Psalm is read daily, Monday through Saturday. On Mondays and Saturdays the reader reads one chapter of the New Testament, and on Tuesdays through Fridays the reader reads 2 chapters of the New Testament. Thus, on Mondays and Saturdays the schedule calls for 7 chapters a day, and on Tuesday through Friday it calls for 8 chapters a day. This schedule allows a person to read through the entire Bible twice in a year. I choose one translation for January – June, and another for July – December. This allows me to “hear” the text in two different translations within one year.
Now, a couple of changes need to be made throughout the year. For one, February only has 28 days, so there has to be some changes in the Old Testament readings. I combine some of the smaller prophetic writings, or I will add a chapter here or there depending on context. Also, Ps. 119 is 176 verses long, so I break the Psalm into 24 verse sections for a daily reading.
To work the whole schedule out, I take a calendar and, starting with Jan. 1, will write down the OT, Psalm, and NT reading for each day on that calendar. Planning ahead is part of the discipline of reading. Of course, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of pre-printed schedules out there – but what fun is that? Part of the joy of this plan is you actually have to spend time working it out. The return you get for your time is quite gratifying.
You may ask, “What about Sunday?” Well, that is when I turn to the Moravian reading schedule, which follows the common lectionary reading for Sunday. So, every Sunday there is an Old Testament reading, a reading from a Psalm, a reading from a gospel, and a reading from another New Testament book. The lectionary follows the common Christian calendar.
This past year I followed the Moravian reading schedule completely, but I learned a couple of things. The Moravian schedule is much more expanded – you read through the Bible once every two years, meaning the readings are much smaller. But I learned that the manner in which the Moravian schedule breaks the Old Testament readings is not necessarily along contextual lines. Many stories are interrupted, and others are broken in seemingly incongruous ways. Also, many of the Psalms are divided, when they should have been read in their entirety. Now, a reader can always read the entire Psalm every day, and I often did, but it just did not make sense to me to break so many of the Psalms into smaller sections. The New Testament readings make much more sense, at least this past year, as the readings all came from the gospels which are easier to break into contextual sections.
An objection to my longer reading schedule is often “I don’t have time to read that Bible that long every day.” Let me say first that there are some people for whom that is true. I think especially of mothers of young children. Babies and toddlers just do not allow for lengthy periods of quiet time. However, for the overwhelming majority of us, that excuse is just a dodge. How much time do you spend with your eyes glued to a screen – either your computer, phone, or tablet? Uh huh, thought so. Now, how much time do you spend reading your Bible? Yeah, right. See – our priorities are revealed by the amount of time we devote to certain tasks. I seriously doubt that many of us cannot devote 30 – 45 minutes a day to reading the Bible, even if it has to be broken into sections (Old Testament in the morning, Psalms and New Testament at night). It is not so much a matter of opportunity, but will power and dedication.
Another objection I hear is “I just want to read a verse or two and meditate on those.” Wonderful! I think that is a great idea. But with that idea comes the related problem of atomizing the Scriptures. The Old Testament in particular was written as a narrative, a story. By just pulling one verse out of thin air a reader misses the “story” that makes the verse important. So, by reading larger sections (and 5 chapters a day is NOT that long of a reading), a reader can follow along with the narrative of the text. Then, if a particular verse, or section of verses, strikes you as especially meaningful, then by all means take the time to meditate on those verses.
The point of any daily Bible reading schedule is that it is pointless if we do not spend time in the text. I fully admit that this “long” reading schedule is not for everyone. But, for some, it may be the schedule that opens entire new doors into the Scripture.
Whatever your plan, choose one that works for you and stick with it. Let us all become readers of God’s word in 2015!
Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.
Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.
Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?
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As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.
Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!
You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?
I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.
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My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.
And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.
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I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.
So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”
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The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.
Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.
I was reading in the book of Exodus this morning in my daily Bible reading. The passage I was reading (more on that later) reminded me of the amazing instructors I had in college. Drs. John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Eugene Clevenger, Lemoine Lewis – an amazing cast of instructors at one given point in history. It is really quite spooky how a few verses from the Bible can bring so many faces and tones of voice and little personal mannerisms and other memories flooding back to you.
Anyway – and on to the point of this blog, the passage I was reading included the last few verses of Exodus 2 all the way through chapter 3:
God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8a, NRSV)
It was Dr. John Willis who taught me the ancient language of Hebrew (and a ton of other information about the Old Testament). One of the things that he stressed in dealing with any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament) is to focus on the verbs. The verbs carry all the freight of the sentence, and theologically speaking, all the spiritual freight as well.
Notice the verbs in those few verses. God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God took notice, God had observed, God had heard, God knew, God has come down, and God will bring them up.
And that, my friends and neighbors, will keep you busy studying and meditating and praying upon for as long as you would like. Those are some of the most powerful, most pregnant, and most eloquent expressions to be found in Holy Scripture.
Agnostics and atheists like to think they can place Christians in a difficult spot by speaking of God’s absence, of God’s forsaking the earth. They might have a point if the Bible spoke of Deism. But the God of the Bible is no deist. The God of the Bible is a living, active participant in this world. Our God did not wind the universe up only to watch it run down to some cataclysmic end. Our God hears, remembers, looks upon, takes notice, observes, comes down in order to lift up.
I am afraid that too many Christians have been deluded by Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” as the picture of God. In this they have fallen right into the trap that agnostics and atheists have laid. Aristotle does not even come close to the picture of God painted in the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the New Testament. I am so glad! Aristotle’s god may be worthy of fear and loathing, but never love, adoration and worship.
When you are flying by yourself in fog so thick you cannot even see your wingtips it is nice to know there is someone out there who can see everything that is going on. In the case of a pilot that is the air traffic controller who guides and sequences all the planes flying around in the muck so they can land safely.
We, as children of God, have so much more than an air traffic controller. We have a God who sees all, knows all, and, most important, loves and cares for all. He created all and died for all. He it is who is worthy of our love and adoration.
It is not difficult to discover who this God is and what He does for His children – the proof is in the verbs!
My thoughts turn today to a conversation between Peter and Jesus. It is a loaded conversation, and deserves far more than this little space can give it. Maybe I will return to this conversation another time.
The conversation is found in Luke 22. I quote it here from the Revised Standard Version (If the RSV was good enough for St. Neil Lightfoot of Abilene, then it is certainly good enough for me.)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. Luke 22:31-32
Have you ever read that passage carefully? Meditatively? Have you ever stopped to consider the time references that Jesus incorporates into that one little sentence? And, of the profound theological implications of what Jesus told Peter?
First, Jesus was telling Peter that there was a great cosmic fight over Peter! Satan and Jesus, fighting it out over some run-of-the-mill fisherman from Galilee. Of what possible use could some salty sea-dog be to Satan? Who knows, but we all know (because we know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say) how important Peter was to Jesus.
I do not want to make a “one-to-one” comparison here. Not all of us can be a Peter – or a Mary sister of Martha for that matter. That is an hermeneutical shipwreck that destroys a lot of really important passages. We are not all Jeremiah’s in the sense that God does not call each and every one of us from our mother’s womb. We are not all Job’s in the sense that God and Satan duke it out when we have a severe medical crisis. Putting ourselves in the sandals of our biblical heroes is theologically suspect, and psychologically destructive as well. Let us focus on who we are and learn from these characters without trying to duplicate them.
That having been said, I do believe that we can learn something from this passage about our worth, both to God and Jesus and to the great deceiver. Is it possible that Satan wants you, not because that you would be of any particular value to him, but because you could be of so much greater value to Jesus? Just as not everyone has it in themselves to be another Peter of Galilee, very, very few of us have it within us to be another Adolf Hitler. But, Satan does not need us to be another Adolf Hitler. All he needs us to do is to minimize Jesus and his church in our life. His perverted will is thereby accomplished, and to the world around us we can still be “good, moral” people.
Second, Jesus prayed for Peter, but he knew that Peter was going to fail Him, and thus in one sense his prayer was NOT going to be answered. Peter’s faith did fail, at least momentarily, and in a profound way. Not, mind you, to the degree that Judas’ faith failed him. But Peter had three chances to confess Jesus, and despite being specifically warned what was going to happen, Peter denied Jesus anyway.
Now, you may argue that Jesus, knowing Peter would deny him, just prayed that Peter would eventually return. But that is not the way I read that text. Jesus’ prayer was that Peter’s faith would not fail. Pete’s denial could hardly be described as a stellar display of faithfulness. That is why I said, “in one sense” Jesus prayer was not answered. Certainly Peter ultimately returned to Jesus, and so that aspect of Jesus’ prayer was answered. But let us not gloss over the significance of the totality of what Jesus is saying.
Many people have the concept that, “if I pray for it, in full faith, God has to give me what I want.” Did not Jesus tell us the same? Yet, why were some of Jesus’ most fervent prayers not answered? Why did Peter deny him in the courtyard? Why did Pilate not release him? Why did Judas betray him? Why did he have to drink that “bitter cup?” I wish I had the answers to all those questions. But, I would rather live in the reality of the mystery of God than try to create and live in the falseness of a human idol. The fact is that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and they let him down repeatedly. We pray for our children, and they fail us. We pray for our sick parents, and they die. Not every prayer is automatically granted. If we could control God with a few selfish whims He certainly would not be a God worthy of worship.
But, third, Jesus told Peter, “when you have turned again.” Jesus did know the “rest of the story.” More than that, he was instilling within Peter the belief that Peter was ultimately a worthy disciple. I just wonder how much those words would meant to Peter in the first few days following the crucifixion, and in those first few days following Pentecost. They had to be amazing words for Peter to remember and to take comfort in.
I don’t remember much about my football career. Mostly because it was over my freshman year in high school (the Minnesota Vikings never knew what they missed!) But I remember one practice with such crystal clarity that it might as well have happened yesterday.
We were working on a drill we affectionately called “hamburger.” Two players faced each other, then lay down on the ground with about a yard separating their two helmets. On the coach’s whistle the players were to jump to their feet and try to get past the other player in any way they could. Four posts marked a very small “battle zone” so there was no running around a bigger opponent (my preferred method of “winning.”) Well, one day it turned out that I stood against Bubba Baker, who was to be my opponent. Now, Bubba was our first string full-back. The coach placed me as the fourth string full-back simply because we only had four full-backs and he had no other place to put me. So, I mostly stood on the sideline, safe in the knowledge that it was a statistical impossibility for the three guys in front of me to all get hurt in the same game.
So, anyway, back to my story – here we were, our very big and very hard hitting first string full-back was staring at me and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – I really don’t want to hurt the little guy.” I was staring at Bubba and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – listen to Bubba!!” The coach, having that sixth sense that most coaches have, looked at both of us and said, “what are you two guys waiting for – get down!” And then he uttered the only four words that I can remember from that entire season – “Smith can do it.”
I honestly remember very little of what happened next. I remember the whistle, and I kind of remember jumping to my feet, and then I remember hearing the loudest bang and feeling the most incredible pain I have ever experienced shooting down my neck through my shoulder and all the way down to my finger-tips. I never lost consciousness, but I sure felt weird the rest of the day. I can pretty confidently say that I did not win that battle, but those four words were absolutely etched into my psyche. If coach White said that “Smith can do it” I would have run into a brick wall thinking that I could knock it down. To his great credit, Bubba apologized for knocking me into the middle of the next week, but he was doing his job the best he knew how.
So, in a very small way, I kind of know what Peter must have felt when Jesus spoke to him by the sea when he asked him three times, “do you love me?” And then Peter could remember those five words Jesus spoke to him, “when you have turned again…” Then Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, and eventually, Peter the martyr.
What an amazing couple of verses. What an amazing story. What an amazing Lord and Savior we have.
Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) 271 pages of text, with 4 appendices and 29 pages of endnotes.
In terms of statistical studies, this book is beginning to show its age (published in 2005, with research being completed some time earlier), but the information it provides is still valuable, at least as far as I am concerned. This was the second book I read to inform myself of the current state of young people in the teenage-college age bracket (the first was Chap Clark’s Hurt 2.0). This book is far more conventional in the sense that the authors performed a standard survey information gathering process and followed that up with a detailed interview process with a selected number of those who had completed the earlier phone interview.
Without going into serious information overload, here are some basic numbers: the initial phone interview involved 3,290 teenagers and their parents from all 50 states between 2002 and 2003. From that number, 267 teens were selected for an additional in-person interview to follow up on the information that had been gathered from the phone calls. One interesting side note, the teens and parents were both paid for their time for the phone call interview, and the teens were paid for their time in the face-to-face interview. The next time some political party calls me to ask me who I am going to vote for, I am going to ask them to show me the money.
Anyway, back to the book. The results reveal the standard “good news/bad news” that research tends to provide. On the good news side, the research showed that teens are far more religious than some doomsayers are trumpeting. The teens largely follow the faith of their parents (or leading adults in their family). There is very little of the “spiritual but not religious” trend among teenagers that some people are so fond of reporting. And, with one very important caveat, religion is having an impact on the lives of teenagers.
Now for the distressing news: even though teens are religious, they are almost totally incapable of articulating what that means. For example, they may know that premarital sex is not appropriate, but they cannot articulate why. The best reason they might come up with is the dangers of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. This reveals that, in a broad general sense, religious groups are doing an abysmal job in presenting what they believe to teenagers. Another issue that I saw in the reporting was that, even among the most religious teens, life decisions were very often made in violation of those religious beliefs. So, there appears to be a large degree of compartmentalization among teens. Religion and spirituality is for church, but dating is for sex (not necessarily intercourse) and cheating on tests is almost required to get ahead. What this tells me is that churches may be doing an okay job at aiming for the head, but we are missing the hearts of teenagers by a mile.
This is an involved read. It is a long book, and the reporting of numbers and statistics is complicated. However, each section of analysis is accompanied by a graphic chart, so the material is there in both narrative and chart format. Those who are familiar with statistics and research will undoubtedly have an easier time reading the book than I did (I have absolutely no clue what a “multivariate regression analysis” is!) However, if you are a youth minister, a minister, a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or simply a person who is deeply concerned about today’s teenager, you will want to buy, read, and even study this book.
I have to add a couple of (even more) personal comments. One reason I bought the book was because of a referral by way of the phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (chapter 4 of the book) Basically, MTD is the term that the authors used to describe the primary religion of American teens. It is moralistic – teens do have morals, but the morals are tied to what works – therefore the “therapeutic.” And it is connected to a form of Deism – the idea that there is a supreme being, but that being only really exists to help in bad times or to make people feel good about themselves. And the authors point out that there are several different forms of MTD – conservative MTD, liberal MTD, – whatever “brand” of religion the teen leans toward has its form of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This chapter is worth the price of the book in and of itself, but you really need the rest of the book to fully understand what the authors intend by placing the chapter as the fourth in the sequence.
Many of the results of the surveys and interviews confirms what is common knowledge or common sense: girls are more religious than boys. Teens in the south are more religious than teens in the northeast or northwest. Younger teens are more spiritual than older teens (although, not as significantly as may be expected). Teens with both parents at home are more religious, and parents who are more religious raise more religious teens. Conservative parents and groups produce more religious teens, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics do not score as highly. And, not surprisingly, Mormon families score the highest in producing religious teens, as well as producing teens who are the most articulate in expressing their faith.
The authors use 7 categories to describe religious teens – Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and non-religious. Appendix “D” gives the denominational breakdown of how the authors categorized each group, and the results are, shall we say, interesting.
I learned a lot from this book. I was encouraged as well as discouraged. I was challenged and I saw a lot of my own faults in the book. The authors certainly stepped on my toes. It is important to know, for example, that teens are looking for something greater than themselves. They desperately want their parents in their lives (even if every word or action seems to say otherwise). They need limits. And they are willing to respond appropriately when given the information they need. If anything, this book puts the responsibility of raising spiritual teens right where it belongs – on the adults who should be providing that guidance in the first place.
In case you have not noticed, I am a religious exclusivist. Beyond that, I am a biblical exclusivist. Furthermore, I am a Christian exclusivist. I understand everything through the lens of what it means to follow Christ. These aspects of my life are as solid to me as the ground upon which I walk.
Because the entire thrust of our “postmodern” culture is to denigrate and exclude exclusivists (I love the irony of that concept), I wanted to post a defense of exclusivism, especially my view of Christian exclusivism.
I believe in biblical, Christian exclusivism because I believe the Bible communicates that particular viewpoint from Genesis to Revelation. In the Bible we see a clear distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, obedience and disobedience, faith and fear. In the opening scenes of paradise, there were two trees in the center of the garden – one of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life (and therefore, its opposite would be death). Our first ancestors chose disobedience over obedience, fear over faith, and so the choice of everlasting life was removed and they were given death.
Throughout God’s most explicit law there were constant reminders to separate the clean from the unclean. The Aaronic priesthood, in particular, was to constantly teach the people of the difference between the holy and the secular, the pure from the profane, the good from the evil (Lev. 10:10). The prophet Ezekiel soundly criticized the leaders of Israel for that very failure – they ceased to separate the holy from the profane, and so even God’s holy Name was profaned (Ezekiel 26:23-31). The great prophet Isaiah preached a message condemning the people for reversing God’s order, and for calling “good, evil; and evil, good” (Isaiah 5:20). Getting even more specific, in the New Testament we read that Jesus himself told his followers, “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6). The early disciples obviously learned this lesson well, as Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, told the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) If I am wrong in teaching that there is a clear divide between the Holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean, the sacred and the secular, then I believe I am in good company. It is the responsibility of those who believe otherwise to convince me of their belief. Likewise, if there is another path to God other than that of Jesus, it is the responsibility of those who believe that to convince me of their belief. But, to be honest, they have a tall order to overcome the plain teaching of the biblical text.
I offer these defenses of my position of biblical, Christian exclusivism:
1. Our actions betray our underlying beliefs. If I refuse to sail on the ocean because I believe that my ship will fall off into the abyss once I get to the edge of the horizon I am betraying that I believe in bad science. If I believe that “all roads lead to heaven” and that there is no ultimate distinction between the holy and the profane, the sacred and the secular, then I am betraying a flat moralistic view of humanity. In that regard there is no difference between Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler. Each served his or her nature as he or she saw fit. I utterly reject that concept. There is a vast difference between that which is holy (marriage for example) and that which is profane (pornography, marriage’s ultimate opposite). Those who argue “there is no sacred/secular divide” reveal their humanistic epistemology. They decide truth based on their humanity, not upon God’s divinity.
2. Two people cannot hold epistemologically opposite beliefs (that is, two different truth claims) and be in “fellowship.” I cannot be in fellowship with a follower of Joseph Smith because I simply cannot accept the myth that he spoke to some angel named “Moroni.” I cannot be in fellowship with one who holds unswervingly to the teachings of John Calvin because I cannot accept the basis upon which he interpreted large sections of Scripture. I can agree with him or her that the Scriptures are the ultimate authority, but Calvin was working from a theory of human depravity that I simply reject. If I reject his view of human depravity, then I cannot follow Calvin’s concept of the redemption of that depravity.
This has very specific applications when it comes to relating to various religious, and I might even add, “Christian” groups. For a couple of critical examples, either baptism is or is not the defining moment of salvation (1 Peter 3:21). Note: it is not an experience of magic, but it is a critical event. Therefore, when someone tells me that baptism is optional, that salvation can be obtained through the incantation of a special “prayer” or “opening up one’s heart to Jesus” I have to object. That is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to be true to the teachings of the New Testament I have to reject these other human substitutions. Second, either the Lord’s Supper is or is not a central part of our worship experience. Here again, many would argue that it is optional, and that it can be observed on a haphazard schedule, or no schedule at all. Once again, that is not what the New Testament teaches, and if I am to follow what the New Testament teaches, I must take the Lord’s Supper far more seriously than that.
3. This leads me to my third point: even if someone tells me that they have a very high view of Scripture, if they take certain central teachings of the Bible and modify them to meet their cultural or historical practices, then I simply cannot trust that they do, in fact, have that high view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture means that we modify our beliefs and practices to match God’s word, not the other way around. I do not in any way question a Roman Catholic who believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but I do have to question their application of that belief when they teach that Mary was conceived miraculously (devoid of any human lust) and that she has special mediator powers with Jesus and God. Likewise, I have to question the doctrine that a person can be saved “by grace alone through faith alone” when the apostle Paul never said anything remotely close to that. Paul did say we are saved by grace through faith, but he clearly taught a saving faith is expressed through baptism and, following that, a life of continual sanctification.
4. This leads me then to suggest that such a person cannot truly trust me when I hold epistemological beliefs in direct contrast with theirs. I often wonder how someone can consider me to be in perfect fellowship with them when I disagree with that person on virtually every doctrine they hold. “Oh,” they say, “we only differ on matters of opinion, but we are unified by our faith in Jesus.” Maybe we are. Maybe I am wrong. But when we disagree about what it takes to enter the body and blood of Jesus, when we disagree about the central commemorative event around which our worship is built, and when we disagree about the very process of that worship, then I have to ask, just how unified are we?
5. Which then leads me to my last point: Am I condemning the person with whom I disagree in the sense that I am speaking for God? NO! Absolutely not. Remember my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. Such a person may be wholly obedient to God and God may in His wisdom and grace accept those with whom I disagree, just as I hope He forgives me of my theological errors and accepts my human failings. But, in my limited human understanding, I cannot be in fellowship with someone whose foundational beliefs differ from my epistemological beliefs so radically. I cannot say, “I believe ‘X’ is true, but if you believe ‘Y’ is true then that makes ‘Y’ true.” In matters where God has spoken, either ‘X’ is true or ‘Y’ is true, but they cannot both be true.
The advantage to being an exclusivist is that, if I am proven wrong, I can change my mind and hold to a greater understanding of truth. If I have said something here that is clearly false, I ask you to correct me. I can only learn from someone who disagrees with me, or who knows more about a subject than I do. A moral or theological relativist has nothing to offer me. (This is why, with some notable exceptions, I find very few theologians born in the late 20th century that are worth reading. No one believes anything anymore. No one holds any convictions. The theological landscape is just so pathetically vanilla now.)
Evil is not good. Wrong is not right. Dark is not light. Secular is not sacred. Profane is not holy. Truth is not what we decide it to be. Jesus did not die to free us to follow our own hearts. “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God” is not a morally, nor is it a religiously, relativistic statement.
Some beliefs just naturally exclude others, and that is where I am right now. As Martin Luther is so famously quoted as saying, “I can do no other.”