Christianity

Image via Pew Research Center / RNS

Fewer men than women show up in U.S. churches, and women are markedly more likely to pray and to hold up religion as important. But in Muslim nations, it’s the women who are missing in action at the mosque — and yet they’re on par with men in upholding almost all the Muslim pillars of faith.

Stephen Mattson 2-17-2016

1. In the midst of a historically horrible refugee crisis, why didn’t you actively pursue helping the poor, the destitute, and those in desperate need?

Are followers of Jesus supposed to forsake compassion, sacrifice hospitality, and abandon love in favor of a political policy, national security, financial stability, and personal comfort? God is perfectly clear what the mandate is for helping those in need, and yet Christians continue to remain apathetic, passive, and even aggressively hostile toward the notion of aiding such victims.

Wesley Walker 1-19-2016
Donald Trump

Donald Trump at the Republican debate Dec. 14. in Las Vegas, Nev.  Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”-Martin Luther King Jr.

This week at Liberty University, Donald Trump was given a platform to address evangelicals. Much has been written on why Donald Trump is patently unqualified to be speaking on a day where we celebrate the lasting impact of Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against oppression. His racist and xenophobic policy proposals include mass deportations, barring Muslims from travelling to the United States, and creating a registry to monitor Muslims in America. Lending legitimacy to him is entirely contradictory to the life and mission of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. Jacques Mourad. Image via RNS

A Syrian priest held hostage for months by the ISIS terrorist group is certain his life was saved due to his interfaith work, despite being threatened with beheading by jihadists if he did not renounce Christianity.

The Rev. Jacques Mourad, a Syriac Catholic priest, was taken hostage in May from the Mar Moussa monastery, situated between the capital Damascus and the city of Homs. He and a volunteer from the monastery were forced into a car and driven for four days, during which time Mourad said he thought he would be killed.

“We could only perceive the sense of the desert. In that moment … I thought it was over,” he told members of Rome’s Foreign Press Association on Dec. 10, the first time he has spoken in detail about his odyssey since he escaped.

Caroline Barnett 11-24-2015

As October quickly turned to November, jack-o-lanterns and costumes were replaced by Christmas carols and Internet outrage over holiday cups. Every year we go from Halloween to Christmas with little space carved out for Thanksgiving.

There is no question that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Many times I have remarked that Thanksgiving is one of the greatest days of the year, that I cannot wait to go home, that Christmas needs to wait until December. Come every November, I begin my internal countdown, growing more excited each day closer to this holy holiday.

We often reserve the word “holy” for holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but for a multi-faith family such as my own, a holiday grounded in something more substantial than – let’s say trees for Arbor Day – while still allowing everyone to come with their own religious identity is not only a privilege, but a gift.

Caroline Barnett 10-18-2015

Image via /Shutterstock

“Greater contraceptive access should not be a matter of debate,” says Dr. Jeffery Peipert. But try telling that to those making the decisions for our government and churches.

Stephen Mattson 8-11-2015

Christians do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’s ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes. We like to generalize the words of Jesus and transform his life into a one-size-fits-all model that can apply to all of humanity.

Throughout the New Testament Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for.

He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately addressed very specific causes. He radically addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of the time and shattered the status quo.

Jesus wasn’t just preaching a universal salvation message for the world, but he was also addressing specific political, social, and racial issues. He was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed.

Stephen Mattson 7-16-2015

Ultimately, Christianity is about Jesus — not Christians. Although we try our best to emulate Jesus, we constantly fail, but please judge our faith based upon Jesus and not our Christian culture — because they aren’t the same thing.

Inevitably, we’ll continue to be polarizing in numerous ways across political, social, and religious platforms, and we’ll still commit bad mistakes, make hurtful remarks, and end up being wrong about many things. But for most Christians, our ultimate desire is introduce people to Jesus, who inspires us to make the world a better place by loving everyone around us to the best of our ability. God help us.

Stephen Mattson 6-11-2015
Rawpixel / Shutterstock.com

Rawpixel / Shutterstock.com

As a child growing up in the church, if there was one message I heard over and over again, it was that God was in control, and most importantly, God loved us — and we actually had fun.

This was a comforting message and environment. Furthermore, the themes of joy and God’s defeat of evil became even more prominent during my teen years.

But then youth group ended, and I entered the realm of adult Christendom: political causes, doctrinal debates, worship wars, traditional vs. modern bickering, congregational infighting, gossip, church splits, corporate boycotts, moral rage, judgment, and fear.

Adam Ericksen 6-02-2015
Image via VeNa/shutterstock.com

Image via VeNa/shutterstock.com

The early Christians had to deal with the loss of their most important mandala — the one they called their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t Christianity weird? I mean, Christians revere Jesus the Messiah, the King. That’s weird because the one Christians revere as the incarnate word of God was killed. He became a victim of human violence. 

How do you atone for that? How do you reconcile with the fact that the one whom Christians worship became a victim of human violence? 

Photo via Karen Pulfer Focht / RNS

Phyllis Tickle looks out the window in her home in Lucy, Tenn., just outside Memphis. Photo via Karen Pulfer Focht / RNS

Her once boundless energy starts to fail by midday. She started radiation treatment on May 21, mainly in an effort to forestall the possible collapse of her spine, which would leave her helpless and in intractable pain.

“That sounds a little formidable to me,” she says.

“I was never much for suffering.”

She goes on, her words carefully chosen. “Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it. And that’s very difficult for people to understand.”

Jim Wallis 5-15-2015
pio3 / Shutterstock.com

pio3 / Shutterstock.com

The center of Christianity has dramatically shifted, and that means the agenda was very different from the northern and western agendas of the older white evangelicals in America and the issues they think most important. Korea could play a particular and convening role as a bridge between the churches of the global north and south.

In sharp and grateful contrast to the old ideologies of global North evangelicals, these global South evangelicals spent their time together wrestling with issues of global economic inequality, the realities of climate change, the imperatives of racial justice, and the need for Christians to wage peace instead of war. Since these are the issues that global evangelical and Pentecostal constituencies are facing in their own lives — and of course, the Bible addresses all of them as the central issues Christians need to confront today — the narrow, white American evangelical agenda had no interest in this global evangelical and Pentecostal forum. The fact is that they represent a different evangelical world.

Image via Dan Holm/shutterstock.com

Image via Dan Holm/shutterstock.com

What’s it like to share your stories of loss to a room of hundreds? Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack), Reba Riley (Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome), and Christian Piatt (PostChristian) are about to find out — and help others do the same. The three bestselling authors are launching a two-stop tour — "Where's God When..." — in Seattle and Portland on May 16 & 17, to help others hear, and share, their own stories of grief, heartbreak, and healing.

Sojourners sat down with the authors last week to talk loss, return to faith, and what it’s like to coordinate a tour focused on hard questions about God. Interview edited for length and clarity.  

Cindy Brandt 4-28-2015
PathDoc / Shutterstock.com

PathDoc / Shutterstock.com

The definitive characteristic of Christian faith is that it is rooted in a historic event. We are the Resurrection People because the core of our belief, faith, ethics, and future hope lies in the 33 precious years of our God incarnated, culminating in him, the Suffering Servant, being nailed to that old rugged cross, and his subsequent rising from the dead.

The Christian faith has always been about God coming to save us in human form.

Everything we know about what it means to be a Christian is clothed with humanity. Jesus followers learn of what it means to be Christian by way of human relationships. We recite and affirm historical creeds passed down to us through the cloud of witnesses, the generations of believers before us. We are instructed in the moral values that align with Christian teaching by our mothers and fathers, whether biological or spiritual. Our local church community is our ethics classroom, a place where we practice, learn, and grow, working out our salvation and mobilizing the revolution of God in our particular corner of the world.

Christian Piatt 4-16-2015
Image via Atosan/shutterstock.com

Image via Atosan/shutterstock.com

Could Christianity's future lie in Buddhism's past? This is a possibility that's been haunting me lately, but in a good way, I think.

One big critique, understandably, of postmodern views on Christian spirituality is that there's too much time and energy spent deconstructing old systems and ways of thinking that need to be torn down or reimagined, while lacking the same effort to build up something more helpful — more Christ-like — in its place.

This is true, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone. In my current spiritual practices as part of the current year I'm calling “My Jesus Project,” I'm trying to more fully understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus. So it might seems strange to some that I would look to Buddhism for help in rebuilding my daily walk along the path of Christ.

Author and monastic Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book years ago called Living Buddha, Living Christ, that had a profound impact on me. At the time, I was “A-B-C,” or “anything but Christian.” I had been thrown out of my church of origin for asking too many questions, and up to that point, I assumed there was no way I could ever associate myself with Jesus or the Gospel again. Thankfully — if surprisingly — it was a Buddhist monk who reintroduced me to Jesus.  

In his book, he draws many parallels between the life, teaching, and practices of Jesus and those of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as The Buddha after achieving enlightenment. For Jesus, I imagine a similar experience of enlightenment coming to him during his monastic retreat into the desert. And as I seek my own moments of illumination during My Jesus Project, it occurs to me that Buddhism has much to teach us about where we might take Christianity in the 21st century.

No Ego

One of the greatest weaknesses of modern Christianity has been the focus on the individual. This comes more from our individualistic culture than from Christianity itself. Though we focus on personal (often translated as sexual) sin, the idea of sin within the Hebrew Bible was more corporate. There was more of an interdependent, tribal culture, and as such, so were the shortcomings. We've also focused too much on personal salvation or a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” which has also led to such bastardized interpretations as the false gospel of personal prosperity.

In Buddhist practices, one must learn to let the self die, in a manner of speaking, in order to create a deeper, more meaningful relationship and interdependence with others and the rest of creation. This is actually more consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian thought than our modern, egocentric version of Christianity.

Stephen Mattson 3-31-2015
Warning: changes ahead. Image via CGinspiration/shutterstock.com

Warning: changes ahead. Image via CGinspiration/shutterstock.com

How can some Christians exude such cruelty and ignorance while simultaneously claiming to follow Jesus — a humble man who was radically loving and ultimately died for sake of humanity?

There are many reasons, but here are some of the main factors, characteristics, and influences that cause some faith-based individuals, communities, and organizations to become aggressively bigoted instead of generously benevolent.

1. They fear change.

Some people hate change and see it as an attack on their beliefs. Since their Bible is inerrant and their God is unchanging, new ideas are dangerous and subversive to their flawless theology. Perfection cannot be improved upon, so any variation or contradiction is perceived as absurd. Discovery, learning, and creativity are often prohibited, and new ideas are viewed as a dangerous threat to their way of life.

Historically, this is why many Christians were shamefully ignorant and embarrassingly wrong when it came to addressing issues such as slavery, civil rights, the Holocaust, recognizing genocide, and combating AIDS (just to name a few). Unfortunately, many Christians continue to be closed-minded and refuse to see beyond themselves.

2. They’re privileged.

Change is hard to accept when things are working in your favor. As the common expression goes: “Why is change a good thing?”

Any theology, idea, or sermon that challenges people to sacrifice or reach beyond their comfort zone isn’t easily accepted.

Many Christians defend their position so passionately because the greatest beneficiaries of their worldview are themselves. New paradigms are stubbornly rejected by those benefitting from being the privileged majority. Anything “different” is seen as an illogical attack against their entitled position, and feelings of discomfort cause them to become even more insular. 

But if these same Christians sense that they’re the ones being persecuted, abandoned, ignored, or losing power, they become more accepting of different opinions, contrasting ideas, and new ways of thinking.

Anything profitable and favorable is preferred over anything requiring sacrifice. Thus, the Gospel of Christ is continually counter-cultural to the practices and lifestyles of many Christians who refuse to acknowledge, admit, or forsake their privilege.

Stephen Mattson 3-16-2015
iamfree007 /Shutterstock.com

iamfree007 /Shutterstock.com

Instead of promoting Christ, Christians often promote …
their theology
their culture
their values
their creeds
their traditions
their spiritual practices
their specific type of baptism
their required form of communion
their style of sermon
their church
their denomination
their definition of salvation
their philosophy of evangelism
their form of ministry
their brand of worship
their interpretation of Revelation
their interpretation of the Bible
their favorite leadership model
their social customs
their laws, rules, and regulations
their political beliefs
their moral values

Imagine if Christians introduced people to their God instead of their religion.

Courtesy of Fady Habib

Courtesy of Fady Habib

The notion of America as a mostly white, mostly Christian country is rapidly becoming a fact for the history books.

“The U.S. religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation that is fundamentally reshaping American politics and culture,” said Dan Cox, research director for Public Religion Research Institute.

Last week, PRRI released the American Values Atlas, an interactive online tool that compiles data about Americans’ opinions, identities, and values. One of the biggest takeaways of this years’ study was that, for the first time ever, America is not a majority Protestant nation.

Micah Bales 3-04-2015

A couple of folks I really respect – Kate Gould of Friends Committee on National Legislation (aka, the Quaker Lobby), and Jim Wallis of Sojourners – were recently on the O’Reilly Factor. For those of you who don’t watch cable news, this is a television program where Bill O’Reilly basically screams at people and incites hatred of anything non-white, non-rich, and non-Republican. I normally don’t watch the show. But when I heard that Kate and Jim were going to be talking, I tuned in.

I knew almost immediately this wasn’t going to be good. It’s Bill’s program, so he gets to frame the question. Here’s what he asks: Do Christian pacifists have a solution for stopping ISIS?

It’s the wrong question.

IN OCTOBER 1968, the renowned Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton set out for Asia on what would be his final pilgrimage, desiring “to drink from [the] ancient sources of monastic vision and experience.” From his monastery in Kentucky, he had long dreamed of meeting with Buddhist teachers face to face, close to the sources of Eastern mysticism, and fulfilling what he believed to be the vocation of every Christian: to be an instrument of unity.

Three times during his journey Merton met with the young Dalai Lama, who would later say, “This was the first time that I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality in anyone who professed Christianity. ... It was Merton who introduced me to the real meaning of the word ‘Christian.’”

After Merton’s sudden death in Bangkok on Dec. 10, 1968—the result of an accidental electrocution—his body was returned to the U.S. in a military transport plane that carried the bodies of soldiers killed in Vietnam, a war he had condemned forcefully. His body was laid in the earth on a hillside behind the monastery, overlooking the Kentucky woods where he lived as a hermit the last years of his life. Pilgrims from all over the world continue to visit the Abbey of Gethsemani and pray before the simple white cross that marks Merton’s grave. Why? One hundred years after his birth, the question is well worth asking. What particular magic draws seekers of every generation and of such remarkably diverse backgrounds to Thomas Merton?

SON OF A CENTURY

Merton’s appeal to postmodern sensibilities may be explained in part by his own renaissance background. Born in France in 1915 to an American mother and a New Zealand father, itinerant artists who had met in Paris, Merton spent much of his youth traveling between Europe and America. By the time he was 16, both of his parents were dead. He enrolled at Cambridge, but his raucous behavior there quickly prompted his godfather to send Merton back to the U.S., where he enrolled at Columbia University and soon thrived among an avant-garde group of friends.

More and more he found himself drawn to Catholic authors, devouring works by William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, and Jacques Maritain. As he later described this period, something deep “began to stir within me ... began to push me, to prompt me ... like a voice.” To the shock of his friends, Merton announced his desire to become a Roman Catholic and was baptized on Nov. 16, 1938, in New York. Two years later Merton began teaching English at St. Bonaventure. After spending Holy Week of 1941 on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills of rural western Kentucky, Merton decided to become a Trappist monk, part of a Catholic religious order of cloistered contemplatives who follow the 1,500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict.

It was the publication in 1948 of his autobiography,The Seven Storey Mountain, set against the shadow of World War II, that established Merton as a “famous” monk and a wholly unexpected literary phenomenon. In addition to publishing spiritual meditations, journals, and poetry, during the 1960s he published penetrating essays in both religious and secular venues on the most explosive social issues of the day, the religions of the East, monastic and church reform, and questions of belief and atheism.

As a model for Christian holiness, Merton was far from perfect. In fact he took pains to distance himself from his early, more pious writings, and insisted on his right not to be turned into a myth for Catholic school children. He was a restless monk, and often chafed against his vows of stability and obedience. In 1966, during a hospital stay in Louisville, Ky., he fell in love with a young student nurse, and for some six months they had a kind of clandestine affair. 

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