“Away with the Atheists?”

Last week like many of you, I read about the results of a new survey that claimed less than half of Americans are now linked to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Guess what; it didn’t take long for the pundits to pile in with warnings, prognostications, and blame. “It’s all the fault of the religious right and their love of Trump.” “No, it’s those on the religious left who have succumbed to ‘woke’ culture.” The blame goes on and on.

Once we get past the blame game, others then tell us that this portends disaster for American Christianity, even America itself. Their implication is that this is bad for both. But what if it is not? Perhaps, we’re so ready to wring our hands in despair that we miss what this means. And what this means, at least in part, is that we now find ourselves in a religious context more like the first century AD than at any other time in history.

The first century and our century

Think about that for just a moment. The Christian faith was born into a world where multiple religions and multiple spiritualities flourished. Judaism in the first century experienced a massive transformation from Temple-based to synagogue worship. (The destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 forced this dramatic change, a change that has framed Judaism for the past 2,000 years.) A quasi-philosophical religion that we call Gnosticism flourished throughout the Roman empire in the three-hundred years after Christ walked the earth. Emperor worship became the Roman state religion and practicing this religion was a defining mark of patriotism. Religions like these and others were everywhere and people often practiced more than one.

What made Christianity different was its insistence on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession was three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Hence, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. Now, Rome did not mind you practicing another religion as long as you acknowledged Caesar as supreme. Caesar had room for other gods, as long as Caesar remained supreme. But Christians could not confess the lordship of Caesar. And (get this), they were labeled “atheists” because they did not recognize Caesar’s lordship; and that meant they were off-and-on subject to harm and persecution.

The persecution was not constant. Instead it broke out at different times and in different places. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the post-Apostolic letter of Clement to the church in Rome were written at approximately the same time (AD90-95). Yet they describe very different contexts. The Roman church that Clement addressed seemed able to live their lives peacefully (though with memory of the brutal Neronian persecutions of AD64-68); while the churches that John wrote to in Asia minor (modern-day Turkey) were challenged by him to live faithfully in the face of oppression. John spends most of his narrative describing Rome as a “beast” that will unleash massive evil on the world before the return of Christ.

The best illustration of what many Christians experienced came from the second-century pen of a writer who described the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp. Polycarp was probably mentored by the Apostle John himself; and when he was arrested and brought to the Roman governor, he was 86 years old. The governor asked Polycarp to recant his Christian faith, and the writer described the scene like this, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say “Away with the atheists!” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd…who were in the stadium and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10.2-3).

Our chief enemy: Distraction

I’m deeply moved every time I read that account. What Polycarp’s martyrdom helps me grasp is the challenge Christians like you and me face every day: to live our lives with no other ultimate allegiance than Jesus Christ. It sounds simple on the surface, but it is not; especially in a world that offers so many competing loyalties and bombards us with hundreds of daily messages clamoring for our attention. Distraction is the order of the day.

And distraction is the enemy’s tool to draw us away from Christ. When we care more about religious things, about political things, about personal desires, they, and not our Lord, become our focus in life. Since the 1950s, American Christianity in its more liberal and conservative forms has become far more partisan in political terms. One of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, described how dangerous this is; “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then, let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “Cause” (The Screwtape Letters, 39).

No earthly nation-state can be called “Christian”

How that describes American Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity in our day and time. The root of this lies in the misguided idea that somehow the United States is a nation especially ordained by God for some special purpose. This idea has both Christian and secular versions, though in the past century it has been interpreted in different ways by liberal and conservative Christians.

The United States is not nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other nations the U.S. has origins rooted in different versions of Christianity as well as in non-religious ways of thinking. Lewis is right. When people and churches make it their mission to elect the “right” politicians or get a particular political party in power, Jesus Christ is moved from the center to the periphery. The nation-state becomes more important and we become beholden to whatever political party we claim membership. Jacques Ellul had a name for this–the “political illusion” and far too many American evangelical Christians have embraced it.

Does that mean American Christians should simply withdraw from society? No, it does not. Our Lord teaches us to live our daily lives in whatever society he places us. He wants us to care for others, especially those who are poor and who have been harmed. He desires justice tinged with mercy. Jesus wants to use us to draw others to him and he wants to use us to make the United States (and the entire world) a better place for humans to live and work.

I’ve always viewed myself as a somewhat independent thinker. I think abortion needs to be curbed because it involves the taking of innocent human life. I think we brutalized African Americans and Native Americans for nearly 300 years and too many white Americans pretend that people of color should simply be able to get over it in one or two generations. I think that money, sex, and power are the American drugs of choice for many (and that is not to take away from the seriousness of opioid and other physical addictions). I think climate change is very real and that to pretend that it isn’t is to ignore massive scientific and anecdotal evidence. I think that Donald Trump won a free and fair election in 2016, and I think Joseph Biden won a free and fair election in 2020. I think our two major political parties are now a great threat to our Republic and our way of life.

I can hear some of you reading this. He’s a “communist.” He’s a fascist.” He’s a “Republican.” “Horrors, he’s a Democrat.” That demonstrates my point. We have traded Christ for our favorite political and social ideology, and our ideology no matter what it is determines how we perceive things, not actual evidence. So, I’m not asking that we agree. I’m asking how we as followers of Christ can resist the drive of political ideology and display the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about over and over in the four gospels, values that apply to both individuals and communities. What if Christians like you and me become political independents for the sake of the Gospel. Even more, what if we treat folks who disagree with us for whatever reason not as somehow evil people who should be “cancelled” but individuals created originally in God’s image who need to hear the gospel? (Yes, “cancel culture” exists on both political extremes and sadly, even in American evangelical Christianity.)

This is part of the ongoing struggle that you and I have in following Jesus. Yes, I struggle with it. I have for a long time (and my opinionated nature makes it an ongoing struggle). But let’s not despair. Amidst all of the distractions we face, we can find ways to center our lives on Jesus himself and and create outposts for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God. Above all, let’s learn to give each other grace, especially when we disagree. And don’t worry about this latest Gallup poll. After all, it makes our Kingdom mission even more clear.

Covid-19 Vaccine: A Gift from God

Last June, I signed up to be part of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trial. I signed up not only because of my interest in the project, but because I wanted to do at least a small thing that might help others and help stop this dangerous disease. By that time, Covid-19 had ravaged much of the United States especially the New York City area, the death toll was approaching 100,000 people, and most of us had been in lockdown for three months. The scenes from ICUs were heartbreaking, especially the grief that so many people were experiencing in being unable to be with their loved ones when they died. When I received news that my medical group, Tryon Medical Partners, would host the Moderna trials, I knew I wanted to participate despite the risk.

I was one of about 700 people in Charlotte (part of over 30,000 nationwide) who participated in that trial. Half of the participants were given the trial vaccine and the other half were given a placebo; and we had to get two shots spaced a month apart.

I asked a lot of questions on my first visit. I wound up being there most of the afternoon as they had to give me a physical, do the necessary blood work, and give me a Covid-19 test. It is hard to describe the discomfort of that, but my eyes watered for about ten minutes afterward. If you have been tested, you know what I’m talking about.

I had a lengthy conversation with the doctors and nurses about the vaccine, how it was developed, and about what the doctors and immunologists were discovering about the disease and how it spread. The doctor who treated me had been on the front lines in New York City treating patients and watching many succumb to the disease despite her best efforts to treat them. I learned a lot from her and the others managing the trial; about Covid-19 and about what we knew and what we still did not know. I also talked twice with my primary care physician who is also very knowledgeable about diseases and treatments.

Good news, bad news

I learned some good news and some bad news. The good news was that we had learned more about the virus faster than with any other disease like this in history. The bad news was that there was much we still did not know and that it would take months, even years to learn more. Covid-19 affects everyone differently, no matter their age. While those my age (60 and older) were more likely to suffer hospitalization and death, even younger people were not immune from those outcomes. By June, we learned that the disease was primarily airborne and it passed between individuals through close contact, especially in large groups. Social distancing and masks became the order of the day, especially when scientific research demonstrated that if two people are wearing masks the transmission rate is greatly reduced.

That was the first of five trips to Tryon Medical Partners. They managed the Covid-19 trials for Moderna in Charlotte, and I got my first two “shots” in September four weeks apart. Then I had to keep an online diary and log describing my daily activities and any medical reactions that I had; while keeping my normal activities as best as possible given the pandemic and restrictions in place in Charlotte. There were also weekly phone calls from the study. I was careful and Renee and I both stayed Covid free until after the vaccines were approved for use in December.

In January, the staff at Moderna called me back in, indicated that I had received the placebo, and said that I would get my first vaccine shot that day. A month later, I got my second shot. I had no problems with the first shot, and had a few side effects about 24 hours after the second shot (achiness and fatigue). Those passed quickly. Renee then got her first and second shots, and both of us have had no problems. We’re very grateful for the vaccines as we are now getting out more and are able to go to church in person. Our church is very careful about safety and the Lord has blessed us with no Covid cases caused by gathering for worship. We are both grateful for our elders and pastoral staff who understand the seriousness of the disease especially for our older congregants.

God’s mercies

In December, Leighton Ford invited me to participate in a videoconference for a group of Charlotte pastors and business leaders with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ (and Dr. Fauci’s boss at the NIH). Dr. Collins began by sharing his testimony of coming to Christ when he was a medical resident at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1970s, and then discussed with us of the process by which the Covid vaccines were made. He answered the questions the business leaders and pastors had, and I left that meeting thinking about how good God is to place one of his followers at the head of these efforts. I left that conversation knowing that the vaccine was both safe and effective, and that in many ways it is a wonderful gift from God designed to alleviate suffering and even death from a horrible disease.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus? Let me suggest several things. First, we can encourage others that the vaccines are both safe and effective. Should everybody get one? If you have some kind of pre-existing condition, you should talk with your doctor and get professional advice. But I think for most of us, the answer is “yes.” Covid-19 is a dangerous airborne disease that can spread easily between people, especially with the new B.117 strain from the United Kingdom spreading throughout North America. And more dangerous variants are ravaging Latin American countries like Brazil, where the death toll has crossed 300,000. Getting a Covid-19 shot is a safe, effective way to protect yourself and others you associate with.

Second, is the Covid-19 vaccine perfect? No, it is not. Nothing is perfect and that is to be expected because we live in a world damaged by sin and the fall of humanity. Will some who are vaccinated get Covid-19? Yes. But the vaccine will reduce the seriousness of the disease and has been demonstrated to keep people out of the hospital, so far. As more people are vaccinated and we get to herd immunity, then the pandemic will end and we can enjoy things like eating indoors at restaurants and going to movies, concerts, and sporting events (and I can’t wait).

Third, we can respond effectively to the propaganda that has swirled around the internet and television for the past year. You know the lies. Covid-19 will simply disappear if we ignore it. Masks are a government plot to control the population and take away your freedom. And my favorite: the vaccine has a nanochip secretly loaded into it that will allow the government to track your every movement. (Someone has spent way too much time reading bad science fiction.) We Christians are people of the truth and people of kindness and mercy, and the vaccines offer a wonderful opportunity for us to encourage others.

So I share my experience with you in hope that you will both consider getting the vaccine when you are able to do so. May Christ have mercy–on you and me and on our congregations and our entire country as we navigate this hard and difficult season.

Read the Bible (Really!)

This May 1, I will mark 56 years as a follower of Jesus. I still think about that day in Santa Cruz, CA when the evangelist offered the invitation to come forward and accept Christ as my Savior and Lord. Well, I didn’t go forward (I was pretty shy at that time) but I prayed the prayer the evangelist asked us to pray right there in my seat. And I knew that something happened. At the time, little did I realize that I was beginning a journey that would last a lifetime and take me to Seminary, to doctoral work in Christian history, and even for more training as a theological librarian. Now, I’m ready to retire at the end of June.

It’s easy to think that retirement marks the end of the story. But following Jesus does not stop when we transition to another season of life, and I’m looking forward to more good years for research, writing, and teaching. Even more, I know the journey will not end when my earthly life is complete, but will continue at the end of this age when the Triune God will renew the entire creation and followers of Jesus will be raised to life in a new heaven and new earth.

I’m old enough to look back, and a big part of my journey of faith involves reading Holy Scripture. I never tire of reading the Bible. I think I still have the first New Testament that someone gave me back in 1966, Good News for Modern Man, one of the first modern translations designed for folks like me who struggled with Elizabethan English. I devoured that New Testament and it was my companion throughout Junior High and High School. Soon, I was reading the New American Standard Bible in college, and the Revised Standard and the New International versions when I was a young adult. Today, I like to read both a translation and a paraphrase at the same time. My preferred translation is the NIV, and I supplement that with The Message, the paraphrase translated by Eugene Peterson between 1990 and 2011 that I very much like for reading large portions of Scripture.

I also love reading books about the Bible. John Stott’s commentary on Romans is one of my prized possessions. N.T. Wright and Michael Bird’s The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (2019) is a stunning introduction to the New Testament. These are only two of many excellent resources for understanding the Bible in which I’ve been privileged to sink my teeth.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the shock that Renee and I experienced when we saw a sign with three Bible verses outside of the U.S. Capitol during thee 1/6 insurrection. We copied them down to read and discovered that they were ripped out of their original context and made to say things that the biblical writers had no intention of saying. My love for reading the Bible means a concern for good reading of the Bible, as opposed to bad reading of the Sacred Book. Hence, this post. What can we do to make sure that we are reading the Bible well? Let me suggest four ideas that help me and that will help you.

Read the Bible in Context

This is foundational to good Bible reading. Context. Context. Context. Yet, how many times do we hear people rip a Bible verse out of context and use it to say something they want to say. It happens over and over in Bible studies, small groups, youth groups, Sunday school classes, parachurch ministries, and sadly even from many pulpits.

The idea of context simply means that before we can understand what the Bible may be saying to us, we must understand what it said to the people who first heard or read it. What did Paul, John, Matthew, Peter and the other New Testament writers want to say to first-century Christians who made up the early congregations scattered throughout the ancient world? Only when we grasp that, can we fully grasp what it might say to us.

Context involves seeing the verse or passage of Scripture you are reading in light of what comes before and what comes after. Context also means that we read a verse or passage as part of an entire biblical book. In addition, we must understand some things about the history and culture of the time. For example, look at 3 John 2, “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually” (NIV). I’ve read and heard health-and-wealth preachers use this as justification that God’s will for you is to be healthy and rich, and that if you are not, then something is wrong with you.

But that is not what John is saying. With a little reading in a good study Bible (I like the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible) you discover that John used the format for a standard Roman letter, and in those letters it was the custom to offer a greeting that includes hope for the reader’s good health. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of these Roman letters and they follow a standard format, one that John uses here. So we dare not rip this little verse out of context and make it say something that it should not. You will find things like this when you are reading, and if you don’t understand what Paul, John, or others are trying to say, jot down your question and do a little background reading. I’ve been reading the Bible regularly for over 50 years and I don’t have it figured out by a long shot. I have some questions jotted down and when there is opportunity, I’ll do some research.

Read the Old Testament in Light of the New

The New Testament writers were adamant that the teaching of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians do not neglect the Old Testament. We value it because it tells us the story of God’s rescue plan to save humanity including you and me. That rescue plan centers on Jesus Christ.

Books of the Old Testament can pose a reading challenge. We’re confronted with all kinds of ceremonial and moral laws, especially in the first five books of the Old Testament. We find hymns, poetry, and wisdom sayings in books like Psalms and Proverbs. We read prophets pronouncing judgment on Israel and speaking of destruction of the Jewish temple. For Christians, all of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the story of Jesus did not end with his ascension into heaven. It is an ongoing story that Scripture teaches will conclude only when our Lord returns again.

Scripture’s Fourfold Symphony

Jesus Christ is the focal point of what I like to describe as God’s symphony, a great narrative or story described in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New-creation. The first movement found in Genesis 1-2 tells us that everything in heaven and earth is created by God. John adds to that in the first chapter of his gospel by telling us that Jesus Christ was an active participant in that creation and that through Jesus all of creation holds together. When you read those passages, notice that the emphasis is not on the mechanics of how God did it. Instead, the Bible in these passages and others, tells us that everything in all of creation, including you and me, are the result of God’s creative activity. That is the first movement of this great symphony, and I can imagine all of the instruments in the grand orchestra being played with joyful care.

The second movement becomes a dirge, where humanity chooses to go its own way independently of God’s purposes and plans. Genesis 3 describes it in terms of the first humans disobedience of God that results in you and I being cut off from our creator. That is the essence of sin, the human choice to live apart from God and his good purposes and the consequences are stark: we are cut off from God, our interpersonal relationships become deeply distorted, the human institutions that govern how we live no longer support human flourishing, and even God’s creation, to us a term from the Apostle Paul, “groans” under the weight of sin.

If the symphony stopped there, all there would be to life is hopeless despair. But the third movement shows us just how just and merciful our Triune God is. From Genesis 4 on all the way through the New Testament, we read repeatedly of God’s rescue plan not only for us, but for humanity, and indeed all of creation. It begins with God setting apart a people whom he desires to be a light to all nations and people. That rescue plan culminates in Jesus Christ, the one who dies for us and whom God raises to life. Through Jesus, God’s new world begins to break into our world, a reality that is in many ways hidden (see the Kingdom parables in Matthew 13) but is slowly leading toward the finale.

That final movement has yet to be played, but the orchestra is building toward it. We know that it will be played at a future moment known only to God. As followers of Jesus, we long for that day when God will remake the world without sin and disobedience, when the beauty of God’s creation will be restored to God’s original intent. I cannot even imagine what that will look like–a world and its inhabitants without the distortion of sin. The older I get, the more I realize how little I grasp of that reality, and perhaps the vision of Narnia described by C.S. Lewis is the closest that I can get to it. I do know that the enemy of our faith wants us to concentrate on fighting about the details instead of imagining the amazing future God has for us.

When I read the Bible, I keep this fourfold symphony in mind. I’m always asking what God is doing in light of this. How does what I am reading fit into his unfolding purposes? Whether the passage is a narrative, a poem, a proverb, a word of prophecy, a letter, or writing that uses symbolic images as metaphors, all of it fits into the symphony of Scripture. In fact, that is how the second and third century Christians identified what books and letters make up the New Testament we read. (Obviously, they were led by the Holy Spirit and I think that this is integral to the process of God inspiring the writing and the collection of the Scriptures we have.) They knew that the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures deserved to be read as Scripture because together they describe God’s rescue plan that culminates in Jesus Christ.

This is why I love reading the Bible. It is the Word of God expressed in human language, in the everyday idioms used by writers who sought to follow God. Sometimes, Bible teachers and scholars make it overly complicated. At other times, many resort to citing verses out of context to make a text or passage say what they want it to say to support their religious, social, or political views. The best way to deal with both of those extremes is to read the Bible regularly. Read it in context. Ask how specific passages fit into this fourfold symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and new-creation. Like the early Christians who wrote the New Testament we grapple with Jesus Christ and his significance for our lives, our churches, and all of creation. Join me in the ongoing adventure of learning to read well.

So Long to Mr. Fix-it

Yesterday, I sat in a faculty meeting as part of an ongoing conversation our school is having regarding issues related to race and ethnicity. These are hard discussions because as a group, we’re struggling with coming to terms not only with American Christianity’s historical treatment of native Americans and African Americans, but with contemporary stories from our colleagues of color and the continual experiences of animosity directed toward them in small and large ways in the communities and the metropolitan areas where they live and work.

The writer David French described his experience with discovering just how many Americans of color experience this ongoing animosity. He and his wife, Nancy, adopted an Ethiopian young woman and she became one of their three children. As they engaged in the normal things that families do, they began to notice something striking. Whenever they would do activities or go places, their African daughter was treated very differently than their two white children. Hostile looks. Questions like, “What are you doing?” Statements like, “You can’t be here.” Until they discovered that she was part of a white family. The French family got a lesson in the experience of so many persons of color in America. Over the last few years, it has gotten worse. Ahmaud Arberry. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. White Supremacists marching through Charlottesville; and storming the Capitol. These are the contemporary faces of the injustice directed at Americans of color since the mid-17th century.

In the meeting yesterday, one of my colleagues said something that grabbed my attention. I’ll paraphrase his words. “Those of us who have not experienced animosity or hatred directed at us because of the color of our skin often find that our first impulse is to try to fix everyone and everything now. We come up with bold plans. We think we have all of the right answers. Why? Because we are uncomfortable with our discomfort at hearing these stories. Perhaps we need to sit in our own discomfort and let God teach us lessons we don’t want to hear.”

God directed that right to me. I’m an activist, fix-it person by nature. When I hear about a problem, my first response is usually to ask what needs to be done to fix this, or at least start to fix it. Perhaps I jump to fix-it mode because I don’t want to be uncomfortable for long. Why should I be uncomfortable? Perhaps I’m uncomfortable because I live in a world where I don’t have to think about race, where I don’t have to negotiate a society whose long-term hostility toward persons of color continues to be manifested not only in large ways, but in the small everyday interactions of life. My friends and colleagues who are African American tell me about having “the talk” with their kids, meaning that they have to tell their teenage sons and daughters how to act when they are stopped by the police for no apparent reason. It happens all of the time.

So, I need to sit with my discomfort, even welcome it and not pretend that I can “fix” these realities. I’m blessed that God has brought my way a number of non-white people who have become good friends and colleagues. I need to listen to their stories, and let the reality of their everyday lives sit with me and make me uncomfortable.

That does not mean that I resist constructive action to deal with issues related to race and ethnicity in America. But I’m learning that for all of us there is something even more important than action. The Apostle Paul gets at it in 1 Corinthians 13.”If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). This morning I’m seeing that passage in a different light and I might paraphrase it this way, “If I can think I can move the mountain of racial hatred, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I won’t stop looking for tangible ways to address matters of race and ethnicity, but even more important I’m going to listen to my friends and colleagues of color, and I’m going allow myself to live in the discomfort their stories and their experiences bring to me, and I’m going to let their stories reside in my human experience as a constant reminder of the depth of our human depravity, and how desperately all of us need to follow Christ every day that God allows us to live here.

The Reckoning is Now

The Insurrection of January 6 brought shock to our country like we have not seen since 9/11 when planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many of us watched in horror as armed militias stormed our American Capitol building shouting death threats at Vice-president Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I’m convinced that with another few minutes, they would have carried out their ugly intentions and the destruction to our Republic would have been beyond what we could ever imagine. As it is, the death and destruction was brutal and intentional.

What came to mind earlier today was a reflection on a time 1,600 years ago–a pivotal moment in Christian and world history. In 410AD, Rome was sacked and nearly destroyed. The seat of world power for over 800 years had been breached by a people nominally under Roman governance, much like what happened when the seat of American and even world power was breeched by a group of citizens so alienated from the rest of us that they are willing to believe conspiracy fantasies about our recent election despite no concrete evidence that would stand in a court of law.

Augustine was not in Rome at the time, though he certainly spent a lot of time in his early life in that great city. When he heard the reports brought to him in North Africa where he was serving as a Christian Bishop and overseeing congregations under his pastoral care, I can only imagine what he felt. The world as he had known it for all of his life was coming undone. I wonder if Augustine could even imagine a world without Rome at its center, just like I cannot imagine a world without our American Republic. Fortunately, Augustine went on to do some of his best theological work after those events, as seen in his magnum opus, The City of God. I wonder where are the Augustine’s that will guide us in the coming years?

Even more, I wonder about American Christianity, especially its evangelical variety. What is emerging from the Capitol Insurrection of January 6 is an ugly picture of many who claim to be Christians like you and me participating in the storming of our Capitol, and even some pastors and leaders who claim evangelical Christianity on hand for the events. Christian music blared from the speakers. Bible verses written on large picket signs. Christian flags and large crosses throughout the crowd. A few weeks earlier there had been a so-called “Jericho March” in the capital with Christian Nationalist rhetoric so bizarre that some evangelicals warned of “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.”

The writer and lawyer David French put it bluntly. “I would bet that most of my readers would instantly label the exact same event Islamic terrorism if Islamic symbols filled the crowd, if Islamic music played in the loudspeakers, and if members of the crowd shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they charged the Capitol.

“If that happened conservative Christians would erupt in volcanic anger. We’d turn to the Muslim community and cry out, “Do something about this!” How do I know we’d respond in that manner? Because that’s what we’ve done, year after year, before and after 9/11.”

Friends, American Christianity, specifically American evangelical Christianity faces a reckoning! We have replaced our Lord Jesus Christ with political idolatry. And if we want to follow Christ and communicate a gospel message of grace to our fellow citizens, we had better come to terms with the hatred, with the fantasy thinking we have allowed to harm so many, with the “what-about-ism” that allows us to excuse our own idolatry.

I think this massive evangelical participation in conspiracy theories and now even violence against the rule of law in our country stems from a lack of biblical, expositional preaching in our pulpits, and in our inability to read Holy Scripture apart from our cultural location. Hence the Bible becomes a mere tool in our right-wing (or left-wing) politics as evidenced by one of the signs I saw carried into the Capitol by the violent protesters. Renee and I copied down the three verses on that sign and looked them up. Each one was ripped out of their context and used almost like a magic saying to justify a bizarre highly-charged political interpretation of our country as well as hatred for those who might disagree. Such a use of Scripture is idolatrous!

I have always contended that when theological liberals use the Bible, they say far too little. But when evangelicals use the Bible, they say far too much. Both point to the crisis of the Word of God we face in the church. Because of this crisis, we have become way too susceptible to crackpot conspiracy theories that are nothing more than extremist manipulations. Donald Trump is the most post-modern president ever. And what is shocking is that he uses the tools of Nietzsche and Foucault to deconstruct reality in a way that has duped many, many evangelicals and religious conservatives.

The most appropriate act of worship followers of Jesus can perform at this time is lament. This is not a good season for us and for our congregations. Nearly 400,000 of our fellow citizens are dead because of a horrific disease that spreads through the air and is especially harmful to our elderly and to those among us who are infirm. We have witnessed a brutal attack on our government and the rule of law. We have allowed partisan politics to fester among us. We’re worse than the theological and political liberals we claim to abhor.

Lament followed by repentance for the idolatry that we have allowed to fester among us is the order of the day. If we refuse to turn to the Triune God, don’t be surprised when God turns away from American evangelical Christianity.

____________________

David French’s words are excerpted from Only the Church Can Truly Defeat a Christian Insurrection published online in The French Press, January 10, 2021. https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/only-the-church-can-truly defeat?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo1NDI2NTk2LCJwb3N0X2lkIjozMTE4OTU3MiwiXyI6Ikt3S01GIiwiaWF0IjoxNjEwOTc1OTQwLCJleHAiOjE2MTA5Nzk1NDAsImlzcyI6InB1Yi0yMTc2NSIsInN1YiI6InBvc3QtcmVhY3Rpb24ifQ.4xQkoVazp8LjkOyU-omJJzup05JzTeLl5sLmeMWxA1s

An American Myth

As I write, Election Day is in full swing and we’re hours away from the first results being tabulated. We’re living through the most divisive election since 1968 and probably the most divisive season in American life since the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s.

What I’m struck with is how divisive this election season has been among American evangelical Christians. Inter-evangelical conflicts have been front-and-center ever since Donald Trump came down that New York City stairway five years ago, and the online sniping, dueling blogs, and downright boorish behavior by people who should know better has not enhanced our reputation. It’s even made me wonder whether American evangelicalism can survive as a renewal movement within American Christianity.

The political and theological battles among folks who claim to follow Christ have been percolating for at least two generations, ever since the so-called Moral Majority was established by Jerry Falwell in 1979. Those evangelicals who opposed Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other minions that made up the “religious-right” coalesced around the Post American magazine (later Sojourners) and the 1973 Chicago Statement of Social Concern. While their numbers were much smaller than those of the religious-right, they made up for that with influence in many of the Christian liberal arts colleges that are part of American evangelicalism. From the 1980s on, there has been a low-level cold war between the two with the typical political insults hurled back and forth every so often. With the retirement and eventual death of Billy Graham, the forces that restrained this cold war were removed and we’re at the point where for many, evangelicalism is defined more by political ideology than theological conviction.

I don’t think there is a quick way to put this genie back in the bottle. There are no trite little religious sayings or slogans that can address all of the complexity at the heart of this. So what do we do? In this writer’s view we need to grasp both Christian purpose and American purpose. Let me start with the latter.

Perhaps the greatest driver of American Christianity’s understanding of political life has been its embrace of the myth that the United States is somehow God’s chosen nation to carry out his purposes in the world. In other words, the United States has become a “new Israel” commissioned by God. God has made America and its citizens “exceptional” in the world. We’re different than Canada, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, and so on because to use the words of those great theologians Jake and Elwood Blues, “we’re on a mission from God!”

More Religious, More Secular

The roots of this are both religious and secular. When the Puritan communities settled Plymouth and later Boston they envisioned themselves commissioned by God to establish a Christian society based on John Calvin’s Geneva (in Switzerland), that would provide the half-hearted monarchs in England, France, Spain and the Roman papacy with an example of true Christianity applied to political and social life.

This Puritan dream collapsed in the early 18th century and was replaced in the American Revolution by a secularized version. The new American elites viewed the new country they had created as an example to the European monarchs of what a virtuous political community should look like. While for the Puritans, their settlements were a “city on a hill” (to use a term from Matthew’s gospel), the deistic, more secular revolutionaries of the 1770s viewed their revolution as creating a more secular “city on a hill” based on political and economic freedom.

Their vision was noble, but misguided. The reality is that the American founders envisioned a nation-state based on republican principles that came from enlightenment rationalism. The American founders were scared to death of the religious violence that decimated Europe in the 17th century, violence created by different forms of Christianity vying for superiority in the European monarchies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin and others desired a government that would eliminate religious competition for government status and the violence that often went along with it.

American evangelical Christians in the late 18th century were more than happy to go along with this arrangement. They were willing to give up formal endorsement from the government in exchange for religious freedom–the liberty of individual Christians to choose their church according to their conscience and the freedom of churches and religious groups to conduct their work free from government intrusion. At once, the United States became more religious and more secular. Government could not interfere in religious life (as was the case in England) nor could churches demand some kind of religious test to hold political office (as was the case in most European monarchies at the time).

Resisting the Political Illusion

What does this mean? Three things. First, while Christian and Enlightenment ideas strongly influenced American society, the United States was (and is) not a “Christian nation” in the sense that many use this term today. We are a nation-state like all of the others which exist in our world. We are no different or no better than Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, or the other nation states that make up our world. Second, no matter what country in which they live Christians have a responsibility to make better their communities and their countries. Our focus is the Kingdom message of the Christian gospel. Christians believe that God is doing something radically new through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We offer the gospel, the news that the crucified Christ has been raised from death to life and that he offers life to all who will come to him in faith. We speak the words of life, but we also act in ways that allow human beings to flourish in our congregations, in our communities, in our cities and states. We speak and act on behalf of the poor. We desire that human dignity apply to all in the human family no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or geography. We’re even foolish enough to care for others with whom we disagree.

Finally, we resist what Jacques Ellul described as “the political illusion” the idea that everything can be reduced to politics. The political illusion is rampant throughout American Christianity to the point that what I think of Joe Biden or Donald Trump is almost determinative of our faith. How we need a return to the Gospel. How we need to speak the words of life. How we need to act in ways that address the physical, social, and spiritual needs of our communities. How we need to foster human flourishing for all in our churches and in our communities.

Let’s make our churches far less political. Let’s drop the partisan politics. Let’s make sure that our churches are welcoming to people who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or whatever political group they identify with. No political endorsements from our pulpits. No letting politicians address our worship services. Instead let’s be gospel Christians, ones who tell others about our Lord Jesus Christ, who call them to repentance and faith, and desire to see everyone in our communities flourish where God has placed them.

Daydreams on a Monday Afternoon

Working from home.

My computer, my books, my kitchen window.

Sunny day.

Roses in the garden.

Squirrels climb the mighty oaks.

Birds feast at the feeder.

Silence.

Stillness.

Months of distance…even isolation.

The future unseen.

Hope deferred, but not gone.

Living now in Carolina.

Longing for new Jerusalem.

May Christ have mercy.

Bob Mayer, October 5, 2020.

The Gospel of King Jesus

Early in his ministry, Mark records Jesus coming to the region of Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God.” Some translations use the phrase “proclaiming the gospel of God.” The gospel. The good news of the Christian faith. Exactly what is that good news. Jesus tells us: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). Good news? About a time? About a Kingdom? I thought the good news was about my personal salvation. What is all of this about a time and a kingdom? And what is all of this about repentance?

Let’s unpack this a bit. When Mark uses the word “time,” the word is kairos which means the significance of a specific moment or event. What is that specific event? It is the coming of God’s Kingdom, the time when God will reign over all the earth. The rule of Israel’s God will come over all of the earth. There is an echo of a passage from Isaiah:

“How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of those who bring good news,

who proclaim peace,

who bring good tidings,

who proclaim salvation,

who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7).

The kingdom of God is nothing less than the reign and rule of God. It has come to earth through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. It is what the late George Ladd called The Presence of the Future. We see signs of the Kingdom all around us now. We will see it in its fullness when our Lord returns to set all of creation right. This is the real good news of the Gospel.

How do we prepare to receive this good news? Jesus tells us that we must repent and believe. Repent from what? Our sinful self-centeredness which shapes how we live in the world. Believe what? That Jesus is the one who will bring God’s rule to bear in our world. If we put it into colloquial terms, we might say something like, “Listen up. It’s about time. God is going to take over. And you need to get yourselves right with him!” It’s a message not only for individuals but a challenge to God’s people to collectively get ourselves right with God.

This is much more than simply acknowledging that God exists or affirming some statements or teachings about God. It is not a mere transaction where we say what we think God wants to hear and then go on our merry ways. To “repent and believe” involves relationship. The key word is not “decision” as in making a “decision for Christ. It is not “acceptance” as in “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” The key word is “allegiance!” To be converted in the biblical sense is to declare our allegiance to Jesus Christ, and become his follower.

So what?

“So what? you might ask. “All that matters is that there is a place for me in heaven and I will be comfortable after I die.” But the point is this. While God’s purposes include individual believers, that is not the entire story. What is God up to in all of this? It’s pretty clear in the New Testament, especially in Romans 8 and in the final chapters of the book of Revelation. God’s project is to redeem and renew the entire created order, including us! Our individual salvation, while important, is only a small portion of a much larger story.

In reading the entirety of Holy Scripture, we can see God’s activity as a four-fold symphony that unfolds on its pages. The first movement is that of Creation. In other words, the heavens and earth and all they contain exist because of the creative activity of God. Genesis 1-2 do not describe the mechanics of creation and I am one who thinks that science and faith are not enemies, but complement each other. Hence, I see no need to worry about long it took God to do all of this because that is not the point of this passage.

The second symphonic movement is the tragic song of our rebellion against God, a rebellion that echoes what happened in the very dimensions where God lives. We call that “the fall of humanity” and we use terms like rebellion, depravity and (the one we are most familiar with) sin. I’ve seen a thousand definitions of sin but its essence is that humanity as a whole as well as each human individual have decided that we can live our lives independently of our Creator. To live as God designed us to involves living in dependence on him, on keeping his statues, and living out the agenda he gives us.

But after the tragedy of the second movement comes the hope of the great third movement in the symphony of Scripture–the movement of redemption and rescue. God could have simply walked away and left us to our own designs. Fortunately, he did not. God instead established a rescue plan for his creation, a rescue plan that includes us. The score of the symphony describes the plan and its culmination in Jesus Christ. Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God. But many of his hearers misunderstand him and think he has come as a political messiah–one who would reverse the humiliation of Rome and move the capital of civilization from Rome back to Jerusalem where they think it should be.

That is not what Jesus does. Instead, he comes as a suffering messiah and one who dies for the sins of his people, and indeed the entire world. As he describes in Matthew 13 through the stories he tells, that Kingdom has come but is now small as a tiny seed. But a time will come when all will see that Kingdom has become a giant tree that lives life to all. Jesus comes to die, but God raises him back to life as a picture of what all of God’s people and indeed all of creation will experience.

That’s the fourth movement, the movement that comes at a future point known only to God. Our risen Christ will return to earth and his entire creation, all of heaven and earth, will be restored to its original intent and design. And, if we are “in Christ” we will be part of a new creation rescued and redeemed, and like Jesus after his death we will be raised with him as this giant reclamation project reaches its crescendo.

Citizens of the Future

We who are followers of Jesus are citizens of the future. Paul makes that clear at the end of the first chapter of his letter to the Philiippian congregation. The Philippians, like all followers of Jesus, now have a citizenship far greater than any national allegiance. So, Paul wants them to live as citizens of a Kingdom that transcends all of time and space, a Kingdom that will come in God’s time and in God’s way. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27ff).

How do we do that? Let me tell you first how we do not do that. Karen Swallow Prior, one of the finest evangelical scholars of our day, puts it so well:

“There is a deep, tragic irony in the fact that one of the traditional hallmarks of both [political] conservatism and [American] evangelicalism is the distrust of centralized power. Yet here conservative evangelicalism stands. And falls.

“In the name of conservatism, we conserve the wrong things.

“In the same of evangelism, we evangelize for the wrong gods.

“In the name of religion, we harm those entrusted to our care.

“Jesus had severe words for such actions: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.”

Perhaps, we followers of Jesus need to start by stop doing the things that Karen describes. From there, we can start the Kingdom work that God gives us:

In the name of Christ, we learn to conserve the right things. Things like the fruit of the Spirit, the classical Christian virtues that order lives that are healthy and whole, and integrity of human relationships.

In the name of evangelism, we evangelize for the right things, namely God’s rescue project for all of creation and for human individuals found in Jesus Christ.

In 2020, God is speaking to his people, especially those of us in North America. It is clear what events God is using–Covid-19, the conflict over continuing racism, the fragmentation of our politics, our deepening environmental crisis, indeed our growing inability to speak with others with whom we disagree. We need a huge course correction.

Karen Swallow Prior’s Let Liberty University Be a Lesson in Unchecked Power, which I have cited above can be found at https://religionunplugged.com/news/2020/8/27/let-liberty-university-be-a-lesson-in-unchecked-power.

Let Liberty University be a Lesson in Unchecked Power

A guest post from Karen Swallow Prior

This week, I wanted to write a reflection on the disastrous events at Liberty University, events that have played out in front of all of us on the national media and have created anger among evangelicals like myself who are engaged in Christian higher education, and ridicule from those outside of the Christian faith. Then I read Karen Swallow Prior’s blog post and decided that she said what I wanted to say far better than I could. Hence I share Karen’s post with you.

Karen is a scholar of Literature who taught English literature for over 20 years at Liberty University. Hence, she writes as one who has been affected by the seven-year struggle at LU that finally led this week to the ouster of Jerry Falwell, Jr. She writes not only about LU, but about its larger impact on American evangelicalism. I know you will appreciate her work.

I especially appreciated these words:

“As a conservative evangelical (and one who recently left Liberty University after 21 years of teaching there), I understand the conflicted, ambivalent relationship evangelicalism has and has had for 300 years with institutional authority. Evangelicals establish institutions with as much experience and finesse as a seventh-grade boy at a school dance.

“But this is not a drill. Churches, schools, universities, all Christian ministries steward in the name of Christ the most precious things in all of creation: human bodies and souls.

“That’s a lot of power. It’s even more responsibility. When power goes unchecked, all hell breaks loose.”

Here is the link to her excellent post where you can read the whole thing.

https://religionunplugged.com/news/2020/8/27/let-liberty-university-be-a-lesson-in-unchecked-power?fbclid=IwAR1juE-IYml7Hdpv0wMOVc-FPEtsZ2kID2RxdY_bCY_QjAYbz7RIsuGkSLE