Monthly Archives: July 2011

6 Things Bringing Christians Together

Though Christianity looks at times to be more fractured than ever these days, with all sorts of big and small things causing great discord in the church (see my list of the 6 biggest things dividing Christians), this is only half the story. There are also a good number of things bringing Christians together in the positive direction of unity. Below are 6 things that I see as potential unifiers in the current trajectory of the church.

1) Secularism. This is bringing Christians together in the “common enemy” sense. As the western world becomes increasingly post-Christian/secular, denominational squabbles and petty infighting will seem more and more secondary to the primary challenge at hand: a populace increasingly averse to believing in any sort of supernatural creator. People of faith are going to find that faith itself is under attack, and those who believe will have to band together—ecumenically, transdenominationally—if they want a culture of belief to survive at all for the next generation.

2) Service. Here’s something that almost all Christians can agree on: We are called to service. We are called to serve our neighbors and respond to need. The term “social justice” might divide some, but the core impulse to respond with compassion to local and global humanitarian needs is a tie that binds Christians of almost every stripe. You see it in the way Christians mobilize in response to tragedy; you see it in the huge amounts of aid that Christian nonprofits regularly distribute and in the impressive (though still not impressive enough) percentages of people of faith who give to charity. We may still differ on the means and the politics of it, but the core principles of Christ-like service bring the Bonos and the Billy Grahams of the world together.

3) Creation Care. This might be a stretch, but I really do think creation care—a heightened sense of the importance of environmental stewardship—is one area where we can find a growing consensus among Christians. Long the terrain of liberal “progressivism,” creation care is now a term you can hear championed from conservative Baptist pulpits in Middle America. Whether man-made or natural, global warming and deteriorating environmental conditions are causing all sorts of Christians to consider the morality of sitting idly by while the future flourishing of creation is thrown into doubt.

4) Technology. I sort of hesitate to include this, because clearly some aspects of technology have and will continue to cause havoc and fragmentation in the church. But no optimistic forecast of Christianity’s ideally unified future would be complete without a nod to the promise of technology, which includes things like Internet evangelism (reaching previously unreached geographic locations via technology), networked blogs, online communities, and the ease of information-seeking (theological resources, Bible studies, preaching tips, etc). The Internet has made it easier than ever to connect with others who share a belief, and while this can indeed be a two-edged sword, it can also be a great boon to a global church of isolated pockets of believers longing to connect, share resources, and charge forward with wiki-fortitude in an increasingly hostile world.

5) People like Tim Keller. I don’t want to throw the whole heavy burden of unity on one man’s shoulders, but I do think that Keller—author, church planter, public intellectual and NYC pastor—is a model for the sort of Christian leader who will build consensus and spark enthusiasm among a diversity of Christians in the years to come. Why? Because Keller manages to combine a commitment to sound doctrine and orthodoxy with a creative and daring spirit. Because he is a true intellectual, clearly loves academic pursuits and reading books, and is able (and willing) to quote Sarte and Susan Sontag in the same sermon as a reference to So You Think You Can Dance. It is figures like this—who can ably combat secularism by gracefully embodying a robust intellectual and culturally astute faith—who will inspire weary believers and win over new ones in the years to come.

6) Resurrection Hope. Though eschatological systems and interpretations of Revelation will doubtless continue to divide Christians until the end of time, one thing does and will continue to be agreed upon by all Christians: there is reason for hope. However it all shakes out in the end, a few things are agreed on by pretty much every Christian. 1) Christ will return and reign, 2) Evil will be defeated once and for all, 3) Justice and peace will abide, 4) The dead in Christ will rise, and 5) A new creation will ensue. In a world of seemingly increasing anxiety, terror, sickness, tragedy and meaninglessness, the sort of resilient hope that defines Christianity will be a true mark of distinction and unity for believers of all sorts.

What else do you think will bring unity to Christianity?

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6 Big Things That Divide Christians

Today I post about the things that divide Christians. On Monday I’ll post about the things that are bringing us together.

One of the dominant attributes of Christianity today is that its adherents can’t seem to agree on much; or at least, we fight about things more loudly and publicly than we agree about things. This is sad, but probably inevitable. Since Christ’s time on this planet, his followers have been arguing about almost everything. It’s nothing new, though certain technologies (the blogosphere, Twitterverse, etc) seem to amplify it today. We argue about all sorts of things—small, large, petty, important. We argue about “essentials” and “nonessentials,” and even about who decides which is which. The following is my solemn reflection on the things that divide us the most these days. What can we do to have better dialogue about these things?

1) Homosexuality. This is an explosive issue and is only going to get more explosive within the Christian church in the years to come. It’s the single biggest challenge facing the church. What to do about gay marriage? Gay ordination? Homosexuality in church congregations? Legal issues related to non-profit status? There are Christians on all sides of the issue, and it’s not an easy one to have civil, loving discussions about. It’s an issue that has already divided countless denominations, led to splits/schism, and created a sort of line-in-the-sand litmus test between conservatives and liberals.

2) Universalism. The recent blow-up over Rob Bell’s Love Wins is just the tip of the iceberg on this one. Shortly after Justin Taylor’s first “shot heard round the world” post about “Universalist?” Rob Bell, theologian Scot McKnight wrote on his blog that “Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today.” It’s an issue that gets right to the heart of the question of orthodoxy. Are Christians who believe God will eventually save all humans (Muslims, Atheists, etc) indeed heretics? Lines have been, and will be drawn in the sand on this issue.

3) Politics. The hyper-partisan atmosphere (fueled by a media that feeds on divisiveness) of contemporary politics has already wreaked havoc within Christianity, where Christian leaders and many churches seem to be more vocal about aligning with one or the other side of the political spectrum. As the evangelical left continues to grow, and more and more Sarah Palin-type Republican “Christian” politicians scare younger evangelicals away from the GOP, the tension will only become more apparent. Generational and regional divisions will only be amplified, as will the rural/urban disconnect.

4) Evolution. This has been a divisive issue for a long time, and continues to be. If the recent Christianity Today cover story on the historical Adam is any indicator, there are going to be some serious showdowns in coming years between the theistic evolution / BioLogos camp and the more conservative anti-Darwinist camps among evangelicals. As science continues to raise questions about biblical claims (about creation accounts, floods, etc.), the classic tension between science-faith is only going to become more exacerbated.

5) Women in Ministry. Evangelical writers and students like to talk about this issue in terms of “egalitarian” vs. “complimentarian,” but essentially it’s a debate about the role of women in church. Can they be leaders? Pastors? What kind of pastors? Are there distinct roles for men and women, both in the married relationship and in the church? This issue always gets Christians riled up, and denominations have formed (more or less) around their position on this issue. The recent pseudo-debate among Christian women discussing “Christian feminism” (see posts by Rachel Held Evans and Caryn Rivadeneira) is but one recent example of how explosive questions of women’s roles in the church and society can be for Christians.

6) The Internet. This may seem like a strange thing to blame for divisiveness, but I’m more and more convinced that the Internet and its accompanying glut of niche communities, insular blog networks and an almost requisite mode of mud-slinging discourse has caused all sorts of fragmentation and dissension in the church. The Internet has made neo-Calvinism a “thing,” given rise to theological flame wars, and contributed to the rendering-obsolete of the local church. In our RSS, follow-who-you-want world, we consume media and discourse that more often than not simply affirms our established positions, and it’s easier than ever to identify ourselves in terms of the particular beliefs that set us apart, rather than those that bind us together with the larger Christian world.

What other things would you include on this list?

Social Media Slips

Say what you will about the positives of social media (and certainly there are quite a few positives), but near the top of the negative column has got to be social media’s propensity for gaffes, slips, and careless no-filter missteps.

Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc) operates under the real-time logic of “share what’s on your mind NOW” bite-sized communication. It favors non-reflective pronouncements and emotional rants, and abhors the slow-down-let’s-think-about-this mindset which might cause someone to (heaven forbid) think twice about posting an update. As a result, people are frequently tweeting before they think about the ramifications. High-profile politicians are not immune (think Anthony Weiner), nor are celebrities (Chris Brown, Glenn Beck, etc).

Even prominent evangelicals like pastor John Piper have unleashed questionable tweets, such as the infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” missive, or his more recent “five-year-olds who find sex boring” tweet.

Then there was Mark Driscoll’s recent Facebook post about effeminate worship leaders, which set off a firestorm after Rachel Held Evan’s took him to task in a well-circulated blog post.

What’s going on here?

It seems clear that social media is particularly gaffe-prone. And it also seems clear that anyone on social media needs to try harder to slow down and think through what they will communicate on these platforms.

Though social media certainly lends itself to a sort of on-the-fly pontificating, it’s a much more effective tool when exercised with restraint and bolstered by some semblance of strategy and big-picture thinking. In the same way that you would read and re-read an important email to one person, is it too much to ask to read and re-read a tweet or Facebook status update that goes out to hundreds or thousands?

Poorly thought-out messages on social media can do severe damage, both to the sender and to the many receivers who happen to be scrolling through their feeds at any given moment. The impersonal, easy-as-1-2-3 nature of this sort of communication makes it easy to say wildly emotional, exaggerated, inflammatory things without feeling the sort of reticence one might feel in a more personal or face-to-face setting. And the required brevity of posts (140 characters or less on Twitter) makes it hard to communicate context or nuance.

This is not to say that one should refuse to use Twitter and other social media platforms to sound off on hot topics or to speak strongly about something. It can be done well. I just think we’d all be a bit better off if we had a more careful, deliberate approach… opting to not necessarily tweet every thought we have about any given thing, but to consider that sometimes saying nothing is better than squeezing an essay-length diatribe into a woefully truncated package and letting it loose on the world.

Lights Out

Tonight, Friday Night Lights airs its series finale on NBC. After five years and five stellar seasons, the under-rated show ended its run, and in characteristically poetic, elegiac fashion.

I remember back in the summer of 2006 when I first saw the pilot for Friday Night Lights. I was writing a Fall TV preview for Relevant and so the networks sent me all the DVD pilots of their new shows that season (including 30 Rock, Heroes & Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip… remember that one?). I had been a fan of the Peter Berg-directed film version of Lights, but I was admittedly skeptical about NBC’s serialized version. The pilot floored me. The characters were instantly real, recognizable, sympathetic. The solemnly nostalgic tone and uplifting ethos were evident from the get go. Coach Taylor and his motivational speeches. “We all fall.”

From there I was hooked. I told everyone I could to watch the show, the first season of which was among the most perfect single seasons of TV I’ve ever seen. By the end of the season, the show had won universal critical acclaim and a Peabody award, but its future was in jeopardy because, from day one and throughout its run, the show had inexplicably low ratings.

Lights premiered on NBC on October 3, 2006 (Tuesday night at 8pm) with decidedly disappointing numbers: 7.18 million viewers, 5.3/8 share, and 2.3/8 in the 18-49 demo. It was in third place in the time slot, and its numbers would only slide further with the second episode, which dropped to 6.28 million viewers (fourth place). By episode five, NBC moved the struggling series to a new time slot: Monday at 10pm, the normal spot for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (itself a major ratings disappointment). Here Lights benefited from a lead in from Heroes, but still underperformed (8.26 million viewers, 5.3/9), representing a 41 percent audience erosion out of Heroes.

Still, the critical buzz for Lights was through the roof.  Tom Shales of The Washington Post labeled Lights ”great, heavy-duty, high-impact TV” while The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan repeatedly proclaimed it “the best show on network television.” Perhaps the most common sentiment of the show’s surprising critical appeal was expressed in Tim Goodman’s review of the pilot in The San Francisco Chronicle: “Friday Night Lights is not good. It’s great… If viewers get over their preconceived notions about what they think this series is about and actually give it a shot, they’ll be as stunned as everyone else.”

Buoyed by glowing critical praise and a developing core fanbase, NBC ordered a full-season pickup for the show in mid-November, even as the ratings plateaued at seemingly cancel-able levels (around 6 million average viewers, with an average 7 share). After the holiday break NBC tried the show on Wednesday nights (8pm), with little evidence of ratings change.  The show chugged along for its full 22 episodes with little improvement, with cancellation looming (and expected) as the season finale approached on April 1. Miraculously the network took a risk and–banking on the critical acclaim and “prestige” of the show (Emmy bait?)–renewed it for a 2nd season.

Perhaps because the show’s creatives felt pressure from the network to make the nuanced, understated show more edgy, youthful and soap opera-esque (as a strategy for winning over new fans), the 2nd season was tonally different than the first. There was an ill-advised murder plot. Diehard fans like myself felt let down, but we didn’t give up on the show. Thankfully the season was cut short due to the writer’s strike, forcing an abrupt but satisfying end to the show’s one off season.

The 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons of Lights were as nearly flawless as the first, and the show gradually engendered itself to new fans. When people discovered it, they got hooked, pouring through the early seasons on DVD in a weekend.

For me, my life from 2006-2010 can in part be marked by the various people I shared Friday Night Lights with–watching it together on holiday weekends, having season premiere parties, loaning out the DVDs to countless friends and family. It was a special show because it was so real to so many of us. We saw ourselves in these people, or saw models of people (Coach and Mrs. Taylor) we wanted to be.

I’m so thankful for Friday Night Lights–for so many reasons. It was a rare show that took beauty, truth and goodness seriously, and which favored earnestness and simplicity in a medium that increasingly seems to prefer gimmicky, trite, cynical and overblown. I appreciated Lights because of how complicated it was, how hard it was to classify. I appreciated it because it featured the best portrait of a marriage I’ve ever seen on television.

Lights was a show that made me buy DirecTV so I could watch it a few months before it aired on NBC. It’s a show that made me laugh and cry on numerous occasions. It’s a show that I will remember and appreciate for the rest of my life, and one which television history will record as one of the best, most singular achievements of the form.

For more of my thoughts on Friday Night Lights, check out this piece–“Saying Farewell to the Best Show on Television”–which I wrote for Relevant Magazine.

Here’s Hoping

This post is going to be about the Casey Anthony trial only insofar as it got me thinking about justice; or rather, the sometimes frustratingly futile pursuit of justice. (For a thorough and nuanced take on Casey Anthony, I heartily recommend Caryn Rivadeneira’s wonderful piece for Relevant). When Casey’s “not guilty” verdict was read, many of us felt that deep, familiar pang of unfinished justice that so marks any human’s existence in this world. It’s moments like these which remind us just how much “not yet” there is in the whole “already / not yet” scheme of the kingdom of God. Complete justice and the fullness of truth are indeed far off. And we feel it keenly, every day.

But what does this mean for us, on a day-to-day basis? Should our acknowledgment that full justice is never completely attainable deter us from seeking after it? Should the chronic incompleteness and stubborn imperfections of life cause us to accept incompleteness and imperfection as givens, things to simply accept and live with? I don’t think so.

I often despair at the amount of cynicism, skepticism, doubt, and distrust I see around me–even among those in my community who mark their lives by belief in a gospel that is supposedly about hope. Sometimes it seems like we’ve given up on the “causes” that used to motivate us, or resigned ourselves to the onslaught of history and its accompanying peril and disintegration. Where hope remains, it’s usually in momentary pleasures (baseball games, reality T.V., whiskey) or some abstract eschatological expectation that all will be made right in the end.

Certainly there’s ample reason for such pervasive cynicism. We were born into a world of lies, war, modernism, postmodernism, technocracy, Watergate, divorce, televangelism, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, O.J., JonBenet, Timothy McVeigh, Marilyn Manson, Rod Blagojevich, live-tweeted-trials, Tea Partiers, cameras-in-the-courtroom, sexting scandals, and Rupert Murdoch. So of course the existence of hope, or the belief in truth progress, is a bit naive and silly… Right?

Yes, probably. But for Christians, I believe we have to get past the silliness of it and embrace hope in spite of the evidence of its folly. But not only hope in the sense of trusting that God will fix things in the end–but hope in the sense that, as resident aliens of that justice-filled future, we are to embody an active hope in the here and now. In the New Testament Paul sometimes described Christians as colonists–citizens of heaven who were nevertheless occupying foreign lands, for a reason. The job of a colonist settler is to bring the life and culture of the homeland to the foreign land in which they live, and likewise as Christians we are to bring the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth. We can’t throw in the towel and sit idly by as the world does its own chaotic, self-destructive thing. Christianity is to be a force of action–an attempt to order things, suppress evil, meet destruction with construction and disharmony with reconciliation.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says this:

“…left to ourselves we lapse into a kind of collusion with entrophy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.”

Rather than being mired in despair and characterized by everyday cynicism, Christians of all people must live as if the World That Ought to Be isn’t just some fanciful hope of a far-off-future, but rather an ideal that informs the work we do here and now, a “Reality behind the reality we know,” as Makoto Fujimura recently put it in his commencement address at Belhaven University:

“The World That Ought to Be is that which is already imbedded in our senses. God’s hand touches us, even through the cold earth of death and despair, even though we are being washed away in the sea of Liquid Modernity. The gospel is an aroma, the aroma of the New. And the aroma will reach us, even in the darkest despair.”

And so I guess I just want to challenge myself, and my fellow Christians struggling with cynicism, to take in that aroma and let it fill the homes in which the we live, the workplaces in which we work, and the endeavors we pursue. Let it cause us to be galvanized and inspired to act, to work, to not give up or despair, even when the world seems so foreign, distant, and hellbent on chaos.

Hope is not a future-minded reverie or escapist dream, but rather a call to action to order the disordered, right the wrongs, and fix what we can in the here-and-now, even if it’s always just scratching the surface. As Jurgen Moltmann says in Theology of Hope,

“Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the good of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope.”