Christianity

Tom Ehrich 11-12-2013

Riverside Church in New York City. RNS file photo

On a Greenwich Village street where male prostitutes seeking customers shout out their dimensions, I walked past an open but empty church on my way to the subway.

In times past, flocking to church on Sunday morning was a beloved family routine, even here in bad old Gotham. Now they’re trying nontraditional worship on Sunday evenings.

It’s a struggle, both here and elsewhere in the 21st-century Christian world. Buildings with “beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God,” as Luke described the temple in ancient Jerusalem, are falling into disuse and disrepair — not because Caesar attacked and took revenge on an alien religion, but because the world changed and gathering weekly in “Gothic piles” no longer seems necessary for finding faith.

Brian McLaren 10-15-2013
'12 Years a Slave' still, Fox Searchlight

'12 Years a Slave' still, Fox Searchlight

I pre-screened 12 Years a Slave the same weekend I saw Gravity. The two films couldn’t be more different, although they do have some fascinating (if not immediately obvious) commonalities.

As for commonalities, they’re both powerful and both deserve to be seen. Both are about people trying to get home — one, in a harrowing adventure that takes several hours, the other in an agonizing 12-year struggle. The protagonists of both movies demonstrate heroic resilience and courage. One struggles with physical weightlessness, the other with a kind of social or political weightlessness. 

Although Gravity impressed and fascinated me, 12 Years a Slave affected me and shook me up. Now, several days later, scenes from the film keep sneaking up on me and replaying in my imagination — three in particular. 

Stephen Mattson 10-09-2013
Christian rock band performing in Ukraine, Nadiia Gerbish / Shutterstock.com

Christian rock band performing in Ukraine, Nadiia Gerbish / Shutterstock.com

Christian culture, along with the spiritual leaders, churches, institutions, communities, and other entities it consists of, are supposed to make our faith stronger. But in many cases the opposite happens, and it actually causes our faith to die. In religious environments often surrounded by cynicism, hypocrisy, hurtfulness, and disappointment, it’s easy to give up on Christianity. Here’s how to prevent spiritual burnout:

1)    Avoid Legalism

Historically, Christianity has always struggled with legalism, where churches often forced beliefs and practices on people with domineering power. Legalistic groups thrive on strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, and authoritarian judgment.

Various agendas — that are valued more than the loving gospel of Christ — are promoted and pushed onto people. And it wasn’t that long ago (in fact, it still exists) that American believers were expected to be anti-gay, conservative, pro-choice, anti-evolution fundamentalists.

If fear, condemnation, and shame are used as spiritual weapons to gain power, influence, and control — run!

Eboo Patel 10-02-2013

How did a skinny, shy, middle-class Indian come to lead one of history's great liberation struggles?

 Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Deposition from the cross. Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

They’re rarely at worship services and indifferent to doctrine. And they’re surprisingly fuzzy on Jesus.

These are the Jewish Americans sketched in a new Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of whom said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry and just 15 percent who said it’s about religious belief.

But it’s not just Jews. It’s a phenomenon among U.S. Christians, too.

Meet the “Nominals” — people who claim a religious identity but may live it in name only.

Photo courtesy DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons

Hobby Lobby store in Ohio. Photo courtesy DangApricot via Wikimedia Commons

Hanukkah comes early this year. But it apparently never comes to Hobby Lobby.

The national craft store owned by conservative billionaire Steve Green seemingly refuses to carry merchandise related to Hanukkah because of Green’s “Christian values,” and some Jews are taking offense.

“I will never set foot in a Hobby Lobby. Ever,” wrote Ken Berwitz, the New Jersey blogger who brought the Hobby Lobby Hanukkah flap to light in a Sept. 27 blog post.

Berwitz’s outrage has spread to other bloggers who are taking Hobby Lobby to task as a store that courts the general public, but refuses to stock anything related to Judaism — even in communities with significant Jewish populations.

Joe Kay 10-01-2013
Lord's Prayer, Lane V. Erickson / Shutterstock.com

Lord's Prayer, Lane V. Erickson / Shutterstock.com

After reciting what we call the Lord’s prayer one Sunday, I got to thinking about how many times I’d said those words. Thousands? But how many times have I actually thought about what the words mean?

If we pay attention, it’s a prayer that makes us very uncomfortable.* These words of a peasant Jewish rabbi from 2,000 years ago challenge so much about the way we live — all of us, regardless of what religion we follow. If we’re honest, most of us don’t like it and have no intention of living by what it says.

Which presents a question: Isn’t it a problem if we pray one way and live another? Shouldn’t our prayers reflect how we actually try to live?

Along those lines, perhaps we should rewrite the Lord’s prayer and make it conform to what we really believe. In that spirit, here’s a rough draft of what it might sound like if the Lord‘s prayer was actually our prayer.

Stephen Mattson 9-30-2013
Youth concept, Kjpargeter / Shutterstock.com

Youth concept, Kjpargeter / Shutterstock.com

Expressions like "the world is getting worse and worse" and "we are living during the end times" are commonly thrown around within evangelical circles, and it needs to stop.

Are things really getting worse? Sure, church attendance might be down, fewer people are identifying themselves as 'Christian' on surveys, and the percentage of atheists continues to rise, but that doesn't mean the apocalypse is right around the corner.

Yet, I continually hear pastors and Christian leaders lament these evil times and Depraved Generation. They emotionally and emphatically condemn this fallen world and seemingly fulfill their own false prophecies by promoting a pessimistic outlook of the future of Christianity — simultaneously validating their theories by judging our future of Christianity: the youth.

The common scapegoat for Christianity's current “demise” is often blamed on young people, who are stereotyped as being more liberal, progressive, post-modern, and susceptible to spiritual relativism than ever before. They're the ones who have bought into the lies of the Emergent church, the temptation of the Prosperity Gospel, the sinfulness of our media-saturated world, and have become addicted to entertainment and denied the inerrancy of Scripture.

Kathy Khang 9-25-2013
Screen shot of image on Rick Warren's Facebook page

Screen shot of image on Rick Warren's Facebook page

Author's Note: As of sometime Tuesday afternoon, the original Facebook post and tweet of this image has been removed. That is wonderful news. He has also issued an apology on Dr. Sam Tsang’s blog (linked later in this post) but not on his Facebook page or Twitter because it has all been removed. However, I am leaving up my original post because deleting something doesn’t actually address the issue, and the subsequent comments by supporters were never addressed. Those supporters may think the post was removed because he got tired of the angry Asians who don’t get it. Right now, it feels like I’ve been silenced. Pastor Warren actually did read many of the comments voicing concern about the post and responded with a rather ungracious response. My kids constantly hear me talk about the consequences of posting something up on social media and the permanence of that. 

You know it’s going to be an interesting day when you wake up to Facebook tags and messages about “something you would blog about.”

My dear readers, you know me too well.

This photo appeared yesterday on Rick Warren’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Apparently the image captures “the typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day.” Hmmm. I didn’t realize Saddleback was akin to the Red Army. Warren’s defense (and that of his supporters) is one that  I AM SO SICK AND TIRED OF HEARING!

Ron Sider 9-25-2013
Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World

Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World

We live in a church context where so many embrace unbiblical either/or understandings of Christianity: Either evangelism or social action, either inward journey or outward journey. And on and on.

It is the widespread onesidedness that makes Rich Nathan’s new book so exciting.

Christian Piatt 9-23-2013
Ball and chain holding person back, Air0ne / Shutterstock.com

Ball and chain holding person back, Air0ne / Shutterstock.com

I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.

1. Church Buildings — Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.

Stephen Mattson 9-09-2013
Right and Wrong image, marekuliasz /Shutterstock.com

Right and Wrong image, marekuliasz /Shutterstock.com

Turning our faith into a set of rights and wrongs is partially based upon our own insecurities, but our fears are often warranted by how others respond to us.

“You attend that church?! Oh, that’s your pastor?! You went to that seminary?! You’re reading that book?! You like that theologian?! You belief that?! You like that type of worship?!”

It’s happened to us all at least once — someone labels our faith as wrong.

Question after question, one after another, on a daily — almost hourly — basis. If we aren’t careful, our faith and spirituality can quickly devolve into a set of distinct questions and responses.

In a corporate culture driven by hard data, statistics, evidence, trends, sales, surveys, and measurable information, our beliefs can be treated like a quarterly business summary — dissected, analyzed, and studied.

Our relationship with God turns into a cold and calculated set of methodologies, hypotheses, and professional-driven structures — the intimacy, raw communication, and love slowly disappears.

The mystery of God becomes something meant to be overcome, explained and defeated. And our church institutions become modeled after Fortune 500 companies instead of reflecting the vibrant early church communities of the New Testament.

Benedict Varnum 8-29-2013
Girl blowing on dandelions, Volodymyr Goinyk / Shutterstock.com

Girl blowing on dandelions, Volodymyr Goinyk / Shutterstock.com

Recently I’ve been re-reading Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Extroverts will want to take it with a grain of salt (although some of the book’s speculations suggest that extroverts are fairly thick-skinned about being taken down off their pedestals), but the book is a fascinating exploration of what it’s like to be an introvert in the world, including some analysis about how one gets to be an introvert, anyway, including how much is genetic, and how much comes from early environment.

It was in reading one of these “nature or nurture?” passages that I first encountered the “orchid hypothesis.” Taking its name from David Dobbs’ 2009 article, “The Science of Success,” published in The Atlantic, the orchid hypothesis essentially argues, as Cain puts it, that:

“… many children are like dandelions, able to thrive in just about any environment. But others, including the high-reactive types that [developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan] studied, are more like orchids: they wilt easily, but under the right conditions can grow strong and magnificent.” (Quiet, 111)

This jumped off the page at me.

Faheem Younus 8-27-2013
Crosses on a monastary in Maalula, near Damascus. Photo courtesy Valery Shanin/s

Crosses on a monastary in Maalula, near Damascus. Photo courtesy Valery Shanin/shutterstock.com

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons at the outskirts of Damascus and President Obama mulls a U.S. military response, some theologians hope for an alarming endgame to the 30-month-long Syrian conflict.

For these Christians and Muslim, the civil war in Syria heralds nothing less than the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Before you label the premise as a conspiracy theory, consider that there are a number of Muslim videos and several Christian websites — not to mention conservative talk radio shows — all making promoting versions of this unfortunate connection. And that’s wrong.

 
Jordan Davis 8-27-2013
Hand-drawn sketch of the Bible, VladisChern / Shutterstock.com

Hand-drawn sketch of the Bible, VladisChern / Shutterstock.com

One Sunday morning, I was facilitating a discussion with the teenagers in my small group. The students were engaged. Most of them voiced their opinions. Some of them even backed their views up with Scripture. Others defended their stance based on personal experience. The discussion was going well, but we had veered so far off course that I wasn't sure how to make our way back to the original topic. Usually this didn't bother me, because those seemed to be the times their perspectives were broadened the most. But I could see things were beginning to get heated. The students were divided and beginning to make things personal.

I interrupted the students in hopes of bringing them back to the point at hand. It didn't help. The open dialogue on truth had taken a turn for the worse. It was now a full on assault in which denominational pride resorted to church bashing and religion hating. I knew that if I didn't intervene soon, all hell would break loose — the Crusades would be re-birthed and someone might get burned at the stake. After a while, my frustration got the best of me and I opened my mouth long enough to let a few unfiltered words fly. No, I didn't yell, swear at them, or lose my temper in any manner. Had that been the case, I'm sure the backlash would have been much quicker and less severe.

There, in the middle of what used to be the sanctuary, I told that small group of teenagers they could find truth in the Qur'an. 

Stephen Mattson 8-08-2013
Imposter illustration, Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt / Shutterstock.com

Imposter illustration, Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt / Shutterstock.com

The “secular world” has liars and thieves, adulterers, cheaters, and hypocrites. It’s a place full of child molesters, domestic abusers, and addicts. Where loneliness is rampant, mental illness is on the rise, and individuals routinely try to numb their pain via drugs, alcohol, and sex. Divorce is everywhere, pornography infects the minds of millions, and infidelity occurs on a regular basis.

The church often presents itself as an alternative to the “real world,” a place where these things don’t exist.

Many churches refuse to admit that these problems are affecting them. In reality, there is little statistical difference between Christians and non-Christians relating to these issues. Christians don’t receive a special pass that protects them from experiencing mental illness, suffering, struggling with addiction, abusing other people, being abused, or failing.

Our faith in Christ gives us hope and strength and courage, but it doesn’t erase reality, and it isn’t meant to create a flawless utopia where we can escape from the world’s problems. But many churches attempt to do just that — trying to create the perception of perfection.

In some church communities, there is the appearance that porn, sexual abuse, and rampant sin don’t exist. Even non-sinful things (mental illness, poverty, etc.) are treated as stigmas that are intentionally shunned. This is often misinterpreted as holiness — it’s not.

Stephen Mattson 8-06-2013
Broken faith concept,  jcjgphotography / Shutterstock.com

Broken faith concept, jcjgphotography / Shutterstock.com

The truth is that our faith and spirituality is often dependent on hundreds of different relationships, factors, institutions, and circumstances that we directly correlate with God.

When our Christian expectations are shattered, it’s easy to blame God. We mistakenly idolize the things that are associated with God, and assume that if one of these aspects failed then God failed.

“Christianity” will fail us. Our churches will attack, our pastors will lie, our mentors will manipulate, our friends will betray, and when this happens, our beliefs will be shaken to their core.

 

Evan Dolive 8-05-2013
Young girl with annoyed expression, Aaron Amat / Shutterstock.com

Young girl with annoyed expression, Aaron Amat / Shutterstock.com

I live in Texas. To many of its millions of residents, it is the greatest state in the union. We like things big and we like them to be bigger than every other state blessed to be in the Union. Texans are proud of their state; chalk it up to early indoctrination of Texas history throughout the life cycle of Texas Public Education.

But being in Texas, especially East Texas, means that we are sitting squarely and firmly in the buckle of the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt is a term used to describe the area where conservative Christianity is the prominent player in the state’s religiosity; generally this term refers to a high level of conservative, evangelical Christians. This does not mean that you can’t find conservative, evangelical Christians outside of this arbitrary boundary, but for some reason they seem to cluster in these areas in high concentrations.

I didn’t grow up in a church that beat people over the head in church or judged people for they way they acted. I felt loved and welcomed in a place where people were friendly and they loved serving God. I learned about Christ and God’s love for humanity. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to hear more Christians speak more and more on the necessity of evangelizing to people or even being “saved correctly.” I can remember on several occasions a certain church in the town I grew up in going door to door and asking people if they were to die tonight would they go to Heaven. I can remember thinking that it was an odd tactic to get people to come to church. It seemed so stand offish and so self-righteous that it left a bad taste in my mouth.

Bob Smietana 8-02-2013
Reza Aslan, Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai.

Reza Aslan, Photo courtesy Malin Fezahai.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For the third time, Jesus is about to change Reza Aslan’s life.

As a teenager, Aslan turned to Jesus in an evangelical youth group, where becoming a Christian made him feel like a real American.

He later studied Jesus of Nazareth in college, which led Aslan to a doctorate in the sociology of religion.

Now Aslan’s controversial new book about Jesus is about to make him a best-selling author. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has already reached No. 1 on Amazon.com. It’s expected to debut this weekend on The New York Times’ best-seller list, becoming the latest in a long line of controversial and profitable books about the so-called historical Jesus.

Aslan said he wants to show the power of Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being, rather than the savior of the world. That Jesus has gotten lost in 2,000 years of church history, he said.

Katie Anderson 7-31-2013
Photo courtesy A&E.

Duck Dynasty's season four promo picture. Photo courtesy A&E.

Hollywood producers often break every rule when it comes to publicizing faith and politics. But A&E’s smash hit reality show, Duck Dynasty, puts it front and center.

A believer in God, family, and the nature of the outdoors, the show’s Phil Robertson, 67, isn’t afraid to talk religion on one of television’s most popular programs.
In a July 20 appearance at Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., Phil and his son Alan, a Christian pastor of 20 years, stood before thousands of people to speak about the God that saved them from destruction.

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