Christian Cultural Identity, part one

Rachel Gardner is a literary agent whose blog I read regularly. This morning, she posted about an e-mail she recently received, where someone who had come across her blog asked why she self-identified as a “Christian” on her blog about being a literary agent. She responded, but also invited others to comment. I’d like to offer my thoughts here.

The question-- and the answer(s)-- are a symptom of a problem that the Kingdom of God has had for some time now: is it good and right to have a “Christian” writer, musician, literary agent, artist, etc.? Why not simply have a literary agent? A musician? An artist?

Over the last several hundred years, a cultural shift took place that cemented our current environment with the above problem as a definitive element. Christians, perhaps offended at the moral/ethical degradation of society as reflected in such cultural artifacts as music, literature, art, and so on, slowly concluded that the best solution would be to offer a niche in each of these arenas that was intentionally and overtly “Christian” in its content. Thus, the industries of Christian sub-culture were born, and now we have Christian publishing houses, Christian music labels, Christian television networks, Christian movie studios...

[An aside: what is ironic is that, in the last several decades, most of these companies have been purchased by larger companies that are
not distinctively identified with a particular faith or religious group, but are-- shhh-- “secular” companies! Oh no!]

Now, everyone who has ever set out to defend this sub-culture to me has appealed to one of several angles:
  • It offers a good opportunity for evangelism of the lost
  • It provides a “healthy” alternative to secular media for Christians
  • It fulfills biblical concepts of work, creativity, etc.

I would put it to you, however, that, if it does any of those, it does not necessarily do them well. Rather, it may be the case that this sub-culture often does NONE of those things!

Let me offer an example: when I was in college, a good friend of mine had come to faith recently enough that her tastes in music were still largely untouched by her perceptions of how to practice her faith. I recall overhearing a conversation that she had with an older student who, at the time, worked for a Christian bookstore. He was counseling her about what music to listen to, and encouraged her to “try this band, they sound like
X, and this band sounds like Y...

At one point I asked her: why don’t you keep listening to the bands you like? She said, “listening to them makes me angry.” So I suggested, could it be the form of their music-- the sound, style, pace, etc.-- that affects her mood, at least as much as the content (lyrics)? She confessed that she didn’t actually pay that much attention to the lyrics. Why, then, would she want to find a “Christian” version of the same anger?

The problem with my friend wasn’t that she was seeking change to better live out her faith. It was that the change she was seeking wasn’t
enough. She was interested in keeping just enough of the “old self” (Eph. 4:22-24) to be comfortable, but just enough of the “new self” to make appearances. She wanted change, but not too much change.

Is this sort of music a tool for evangelism? Perhaps in a weak, bait-and-switch way, since you’ll surreptitiously slip “good” content (in the lyrics) in using familiar styles of music-- assuming the two don’t contradict each other, or that the listener pays close enough attention to the lyrics (and that they are well-written enough!) to actually get the message. But I doubt it is “healthy” for a Christian, as I suggested above. (I’ll address the biblical concepts of creativity and work at a later point.)

[Another aside: I’m not at all endorsing a perspective that certain kinds of music are inherently bad or evil. If that is true, I don’t think we can consider ourselves to be fair and objective measures of it. Rather, let me highlight that music is a highly emotive art form, and it evokes real and distinct responses from people; if the music you listen to causes you to stumble into a sinful attitude toward others, simply changing the lyrics is unlikely to help-- unless, of course, you’re listening to hymns that are full of bad theology and sinning in that way...]

Of course, the alternative in the Christian sub-culture is no better. In contrast to the “sound-alike” artists and bands, a good bit of what is marketed as “CCM” (=Contemporary Christian Music) is musically and lyrically poor, something like a mix of Muzak with bubblegum pop and a dash of lounge act thrown in. This may actually be the preferred style/genre for some, but I haven’t met them. Rather, most people I have known who listen to this style of CCM do so out of a sense of obligation. Certainly, it fails in terms of any evangelistic effort-- non-believers won’t subject themselves to it! But it also fails in terms of offering a “healthy” alternative, as it is something like the spiritual equivalent to diet pills: they taste bad, and while you will lose weight, you’ll also mess up your system while denying yourself the right enjoyment of creative and well-prepared meals.

In other words, in the search for change through “Christian” music one typically either finds too much change (where the actual inherent quality of the music suffers as a result) or not enough change (where there is too much latent worldliness and unholiness to accomplish the goal of holiness and sanctification). You rarely find a winning combination there.

This is why Michael Horton once said, “When people become Christians, they throw out all of their secular music; when they become [theologically] Reformed, they throw out all of the Christian music!” He affirmed in that statement that the sub-culture approach to music offers little help to the thoughtful, intentional Christian.

But what of the many musicians who are Christians, writing excellent music and lyrics and recording good songs about real life-- but who don’t feel the need to distinguish themselves as overtly “Christian,” either in their identity as musicians or through their musical content? Not that they hide their faith, or put on pretense; rather, their perspective is that if their music is good, they are fulfilling their calling as musicians and as Christians. (Now we’re beginning to dip into the biblical mandate for work and creativity...)

In my next post on this subject, I’ll take that topic up.

Church marketing

(HT: Russell)


"In God We Trust"

A friend of mine recently posted a series of notes on his social network discussing his concern for the fact that our national motto, “In God We Trust,” is being moved from the face of coins (as is common today) to the sides, or edges, of coins in some proposed future designs.

My friend’s concern is that, once the motto is moved to the edges of coins, it won’t be long before it is removed entirely. This is a
Slippery Slope argument, but that’s not what I’m concerned about here. Instead, I’m bothered by my friend’s insistence that this bodes badly for the spiritual state of our nation.

He asserts that we see all references to God being systematically removed from the “arenas of our culture.” This, he says, is a problem because, as with the motto on coins, this removes from the consciousness of the culture the truth of the
Biblical God. I think he assumes too much in this.

We in the church are accustomed to seeing the word “God” and immediately associating it with Yahweh, the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the trinitarian God. But I think the idea of “god” has become so vague and passé outside of the church that there is little or no association with the Christian God in the word itself.

For that matter, in a culture like ours-- where almost everyone has had
some exposure to more than one religious belief system-- the notion of “God” may, as often as not, conjure up an association with Allah (the god of Islam), Gaia or some other pantheistic idea, Hinduism or some eastern religious concept, or even some personally-invented idolatry or paganism. It is clear from the studies that have been done that, while a very large majority of the population of the U.S. say they “believe in God,” the idea of god that those respondents hold is frequently anything other than an orthodox understanding of God.

In stark contrast, I get the sense from my friend’s posts that he considers the presence of our national motto as a great boon for the spread of the Gospel. While this might be an interesting conversation starter that could lead to an evangelistic opportunity, I’ve never heard of anyone who actively inquired about spiritual truth because of the U.S. motto on currency. I could be dead wrong on this one, but I rank the motto on a coin as several notches below bumper stickers, t-shirts, and coffee mugs as tools for outreach.

So here’s my point: should my friend be up in arms? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is time and energy that is misplaced, that could have been spent doing actual ministry of evangelism and outreach. (So, too, is this post-- consider me sufficiently convicted.)

Women and outreach

Does this idea about "women and word of mouth" suggest anything to the church about evangelism and outreach? Could this be part of the reason why there are more women attending church today than men? Does it imply that we ought to put more emphasis on women in our outreach efforts?

Tim Keller has it right

In this interesting article from Christianity Today, PCA Pastor Tim Keller claims that the Gospel is more than only justification. He's right-- for generations leading up to our individualistic age, Christians have understood this. It has only been in recent years (and coinciding with-- or due to?-- the individualism of our day) that the concept of salvation has been limited to a one-time experience, an almost gnostic approach to spiritual life.

Here's a key excerpt from the article:
Keller answered this year's question for the Christian Vision Project, "Is our gospel too small?" (The article is not yet available online.) In so doing he took a stab at defining the gospel. "Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from the judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever."
Is God's plan to renew creation part of the gospel message? If so, is it the center of the gospel or a peripheral component of the Good News? Again, how you answer these questions affects how you will live, and how you will expect fellow church members to act.
"When the third, 'eschatological' element is left out, Christians get the impression that nothing much about this world matters," Keller wrote. "Theoretically, grasping the full outline should make Christians interested in both evangelistic conversions as well as service to our neighbor and working for peace and justice in the world."
Your salvation is bigger than just your conversion or justification, and it's bigger than just something that happens to you in isolation from others.

Leveraging great ideas for missions

In the big scheme of things, I don't know much about missions. That's something that I'm working on-- but my lack of knowledge doesn't keep me from thinking about it, especially when I see opportunities.

One of the big areas that has emerged as a theme in my ever-vigilant watch of technology is the development of new concepts and technologies to supply water and other resources to third-world communities. Allow me to point you to a few examples:
  • Martin Fisher wins the Lemelson-MIT award for sustainability for the SuperMoneyMaker Pump. Fisher has devised a $100 water pump that can pull water from a 30-foot well to irrigate up to 2 acres of land. (He's also developed a $35 tool called the "Hip Pump" that uses a farmer's body weight to operate it.)
  • The PlayPump System is an utterly brilliant concept that links a well pump and cistern to a kids' merry-go-round toy, so that as they play on the merry-go-round they are actually supplying water for their community from the well (which is stored in the cistern). The whole system costs $14,000, and can supply 2,500 people with water for 10 years. (PlayPumps International gets extra props for setting up a system where you can donate as little as $6 toward the installation of these-- and that $6 will supply one child with clean water for 10 years.)
  • Dean Kamen has built the Vapor Compression Distiller, which is a chemical, membrane, and filter-free water purifier (meaning it doesn't require substantial maintenance and consumable goods to continue filtering). Kamen believes this could eradicate a huge amount of disease worldwide.
  • The Hippo Water Roller is designed to alleviate the difficulty and physical stress required for a human body to retrieve and transport water from long distances. It allows 200 pounds of water to be reduced to an effective weight of only 22 pounds for easier transportation, even over difficult terrain.
  • Daniel Sheridan has won three separate awards for developing a see-saw designed to provide enough electricity to power a classroom for several hours through 10 minutes of play.

All by themselves, each of these is a very good idea. It strikes me, though, that the missing piece for all of them is the infrastructure to distribute and install these.

Sure, the Peace Corps and similar secular groups are all over the place doing this kind of work. But why not missionaries? Why couldn't some of the many missions boards with teams of people in third-world countries send short-term teams that would bring and install these as a support and extension of the existing ministry?

One thing I DO know about missions is this: it is almost universally agreed that long-term sustainability of Gospel ministry depends on developing local, indigenous leaders to take over the ministry. That sort of sustainability, it seems to me, demands that stability of resources also be in place-- so water supply, irrigation, agriculture, medical care, and education must become immediate concerns for pastors and missionaries in a third-world context.

All of the above projects seem to offer affordable solutions for exactly that: stabilizing resources. It seems like a no-brainer to me. Am I missing something? What do you think?

What we should REALLY be concerned about...

You've probably gotten an e-mail forwarded to you about it. If not, then maybe you've read what the pundits are saying about it. Or maybe-- just maybe-- you've been unfortunate enough to have an irresponsible church throw it in your face.

What am I talking about? The suggestion-- or even the outright claim-- that Barack Obama is a Muslim, or a terrorist, or the Antichrist, just because of his name and his heritage.

In case you haven't heard, there's a man running for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States whose name is Barack Hussein Obama. Obama is considered an African-American, though he is actually of mixed racial heritage. He himself has acknowledged that his name alone is a disadvantage: on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, Leno asked him if he felt like the underdog; Obama responded, "when your name is Barack Obama, you're always the underdog." Apparently when he was in high school and college, he (wisely) chose to go by "Barry" to reduce the ruthless, thoughtless teasing that immature adolescents would surely have subjected him to.

My frustration has been growing about the way people have made enormous assumptions about the man simply because of what he was named. It seems that, having grown out of the stage of ruthless, thoughtless adolescents, Obama now faces the more formidable problem of ruthless, thoughtless adults. This morning the "last straw" came across my screen:
this article about a church that was short-sighted and foolish enough to put a political message on their sign. The message? Get ready... here it comes.

"Obama, Osama, hmm, are they brothers?"

Are you kidding? April Fool's Day was a few weeks ago, right?

I'll summarize the article for you. The pastor actually says the message wasn't meant to be racial or political. He just wanted to make people think. About what? About, "what could possibly happen if we were to get someone in there that does not believe in Jesus Christ," he said. He refuses to take the sign down, because he doesn't want it to appear that controversy made him do it.

Folks, let's get two things straight about this: first of all, it is unloving, presumptuous, and morally wrong to make broad-sweeping assumptions about someone simply because of their name or because of whom they are descended from.
When this is done to those of Jewish ancestry, it is called "Anti-Semitism"-- and who wants to be called an anti-semite? Yet we have folks running amok with the same thing surrounding Barrck Obama.

Second, Obama has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for 20 years. Why is everyone so concerned that he is a Muslim?

If you want to know what we should really be concerned about, here it is: how about the fact that the United Church of Christ has been creeping (and sometimes racing) toward a liberal theology for years, and they are by far the MOST theologically liberal denomination that is considered a "Christian" denomination. They are merely a few notches away from the Unitarian Universalists in terms of how far from orthodoxy they have wandered. If you want a concern about the candidate's religious beliefs, be concerned that he may be too soft and wishy-washy on matters of genuine orthodoxy.

But then ask yourself this: who would make a better president-- the one who is a firm, theologically-conservative Christian who is barely qualified for the office, or someone who is (take your pick: Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist?) of other religious beliefs but is immanently qualified for the job? Just as I would prefer an Atheist who was the best surgeon in the state over a mediocre surgeon who was a Christian, I would rather have a Muslim in office who is the BEST candidate than a Christian who was a poor candidate.

But that's a moot point, since Obama's not a Muslim. Neither is John McCain or Hilary Clinton. Since one of these will certainly be in the White House this time next year, I pray that the BEST candidate would be placed there-- and I trust that God is at work putting that in place.

Finally, a disclaimer: I realize there's a primary today, and this post is in NO WAY intended to be a statement intended to have an effect on that. (I don't even think any of my tens of readers are in Pennsylvania.) It was more a matter of timing: I read this story this morning and my "tipping point" was reached, I had to respond.

Why "Expelled"?

I didn't see An Inconvenient Truth. It's not that I don't care about the environment; I'm even impressed with Al Gore's passion and presentation skills (had he honed these a few years earlier, he may have won the electoral vote!). I just don't care too much about sitting through a movie-length propaganda film from a point of view that I don't completely agree with.

Likewise, I've never seen any of
Michael Moore's documentaries-- although I confess I've always wanted to see Roger and Me, his film about how General Motors abandoned their factory in Flint, Michigan. Moore's political worldview, so I understand, is so in-your-face that those who disagree can feel the blood pressure rising.

The bottom line is: why go see such films? While some are cleverly disguised as documentaries (which, by definition, has a somewhat raw and unedited approach to presenting reality-- thereby calling into question whether the films mentioned here are true documentaries), they are actually long propaganda pieces.

Here's my question: who goes to see these that don't already hold to the positions presented? Can Moore claim to have swayed thousands to his political perspective through
Fahrenheit 9/11? Has Al Gore really turned toward global warming the attention of those who were skeptical before?

I ask because I'm curious about the kerfuffle and spin surrounding the recently-released
Expelled. Apparently Ben Stein (you remember him: the monotone teacher constantly calling for Ferris Bueller) has positioned himself as the Al Gore of Intelligent Design, making an exposé-like film that reveals how scientists everywhere, who are sympathetic to an Intelligent Design (ID) position, are being fired or run out of their positions in academia and scientific research because of their belief in the possibility of ID.

From the trailers, Stein's movie looks snarky and humorous (at least to those of us who lean toward his view on the matter). Apparently Stein interviewed a few prominent Evolutionists for the film as well as ID proponents, and his use of their perspectives has cast question on the reliability of he presentation, for me at least. At least one of these prominent scientists (who viewed the film in a pre-screening) claims that the editing and cut-and-paste job done to his interview completely misrepresents his point of view. What is worse, apparently one of the dominant thrusts that Stein attempts to make in the film is that Darwinism was a prime motivating factor in Hitler's Nazi regime, and therefore Darwinism ought to be inherently suspect. (Good thing folks haven't drawn the same mistaken conclusion about Christianity because of the Crusades and the Inquisition... oh, wait-- they have.)

So I wonder: what is the goal here? Do we (Christians, sympathizers to ID, those concerned with the lack of "objectivity" that comes with worldview-- take your pick) honestly believe and hope that secular, atheist scientists who doubt ID or zealously affirm a Macro-Evolutionary position will come to this movie and have their worlds turned upside-down? Do we expect that thoughtful secularists who are NOT scientists will be persuaded by such a film?

And if so, do we expect that it will happen through sarcasm, misrepresentation, and a handful of arguments wrought with poor logic (hasty generalizations, slippery slopes, ad hominems, etc.)? And that actions like
kicking out those who disagree from early screenings will advance the cause? I don't really follow what the point is, unless it is some sort of retribution for Christians and other conservative thinkers being mischaracterized in the past. Otherwise everyone sees it for what it is: a propaganda piece (as my friend Jon said, "Obviously it is propaganda, but it is *my* kind of propaganda :)").

One more thing: I want to take this opportunity to call on
World magazine, and especially Marvin Olasky, to step up and do the right thing with regard to this movie. Over the last three weeks, I have been appalled by World's coverage of this film. The same magazine that called Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, "disgusting, pathetic propaganda without the slightest shred of integrity" (July 17, 2004 issue) and accused Gore's An Inconvenient Truth of employing "stage tricks, straw men, and well-rehearsed rhetoric" (June 17, 2006 issue) lauds Expelled as, "reasonable, radical, risible, and right" (April 5, 2008 issue). Ironically, Olasky himself (who reviewed Expelled) said that biblically-directed reviews should "emphasize specific detail, not abstract theorizing" and "should present a biblical perspective, not individual bias" (Olasky, Telling the Truth: How to Revitalize Christian Journalism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996, p. 173). Marvin, your team of reviewers has been waffling back and forth between "Inconsistent Christians" and "Traditionalists" instead of pursuing true biblical objectivity (see ch.1, esp. p.20, of Telling the Truth).

Finding fulfillment

UPDATE: I reposted this with the video embedded-- some of the feedback I got was that clicked through to another page was causing trouble. (Thanks to Eden Worship Center in Topeka, Indiana for the video montage you see.)

Tom Brady might be one of the greatest success stories of our day. (Okay, so he would be more of one if he had completed that perfect season a couple of weeks ago for his FOURTH Super Bowl victory...)

Yet, Tom Brady feels empty. In an interview just before the recent Super Bowl, Brady described his emptiness;
watch the video.

My response when watching this video was: you're absolutely right! There IS something more to life than reaching record-breaking heights in the first few years of your career; there is something more than being considered one of the best-looking athletes around; there is something more than dating an international supermodel; there is something more than having all the money and fame you could ever ask for.

Oh, and by the way Tom: you don't need any of those things to obtain that thing, that "something more."

I hope you can see this as easily as I can: the "something more" that Tom is seeking is only found in Christ.

Fred Harrell & Big Hair Preacher)

Is atonement even possible?

This clip from NBC's E.R. perfectly illustrates the emptiness of believing in nothing much at all. In the end, the "hope" that comes from the warm, sweet, sentimental stuff of "whatever works for you" and "we're all just trying our best" is empty, shallow, and pretty hopeless. "Sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than forgiven" sounds great when the realities of eternity are distant and objective; when eternity is near, however, I would respond just as this man did: "what does that even mean?"

The work of the cross, though-- while difficult to face in its true, unvarnished reality-- is a work that offers substance when real hope is needed. When you're facing the hard facts of death, judgment, and condemnation, you need "someone who will look [you] in the eye and tell [you] how to find forgiveness."

The only hope-- the only answer to the question, "is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?"-- is the hope of the cross.

Ed Stetzer)

Ministry, church, statistics, and the U.S. as a mission field

I overheard a young first-year seminary student talking with a couple of others in the bookstore a few years ago. He was talking about his sense of call to ministry, and they asked him if he wanted to be a Pastor when he finished. Yes, he did, but he quickly (and haughtily) clarified: "I'll go overseas to do missions, of course. The U.S. is way too full of churches and Pastors."

This video is a good presentation of a bunch of amazing statistics about the church in the U.S., and in a matter of minutes utterly refutes this young man's jaded viewpoint. (HWPC folks, may I ask that you be sure to take a few minutes to watch this?) What's clear from the data presented is that the local church has never held a more important place in the community, even if most of that community doesn't realize it.

While it is clear that the statistics are presented with an intent to promote church planting, they offer great insight into the mission and importance of established churches, as well. In my view, those figures regarding the established church's less effective outreach are simultaneously an indictment and a call to action.

What struck you as the more interesting aspects of that presentation?