Christianity

Gregory Damhorst 7-24-2013
Pedestrians passing by homeless person, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

Pedestrians passing by homeless person on the street, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

I used to be a Bible study leader.

And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campus, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy that gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

Stephen Mattson 7-23-2013
Scapegoat illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

Scapegoat illustration, durantelallera / Shutterstock.com

Within Christianity it’s easy to criticize. Here are some of the most common scapegoats:

1)  Conservative Fundamentalists

Christianity’s negative public image is — sometimes rightfully — blamed on these people. Perceived as being exclusive, resistant to change, addicted to power, and very aggressive, they’re characterized as anti-women, anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, and anti-evolution.

Ten years ago the top scapegoat would’ve belonged to ‘Progressive Liberals,’ but what a difference a few years make. Despite the dramatic change, we can often be guilty of blaming fundamentalists just as easily and unfairly as they used to blame others.

A Convenient target, we often use them as a punching bag. Many theologians, bloggers, pastors, and leaders have become obsessed with fighting and arguing against fundamentalists, and it ultimately becomes a distraction. It’s so easy to focus on those we disagree with that our entire faith becomes a set of reactions to our opponents instead of a life lived promoting the Gospel of Christ.

Photo courtesy Marcell Mizik/Shutterstock.com.

Man praying over a white plate while awaiting to be fed. Photo courtesy Marcell Mizik/Shutterstock.com.

Human beings seem to come with certain built-in spiritual inclinations, and gratitude is chief among them.

Parents and teachers think we have to be taught to say thank you, but maybe it just comes naturally. Gratitude is both accessible and enlivening.

Accessible because it’s as easy as paying attention to that which we might otherwise take for granted.

With gratitude, when our lover holds our hand for the umpteenth time it feels like it’s the first time and we’re grateful for them all over again. Or when we sit down to a plate of something humble and home-cooked it suddenly transports us to all those other meals in all those other places where we felt loved, accepted, and welcomed.

Photo courtesy RNS.

Rev. Patrick McCollum attends a spiritual gathering in the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Photo courtesy RNS.

Is calling someone a “pagan” a bad thing or a badge of honor? Do we even know what the term means?

Those questions were prompted by a recent speech by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in which he lamented the decline of faith and morals in the modern world. “Even many self-described Christians,” he declared, “are in fact pagan.”

And it doesn’t sound like he meant that as a compliment.

Jeffrey Weiss 7-09-2013
Photo courtesy RNS/disney.com.

Lone Ranger movie. Photo courtesy RNS/disney.com.

Producers of the latest reboot of the Superman franchise famously marketed the movie to Christian audiences. Makers of the new Lone Ranger movie, not so much.

There’s a reason for that. If Man of Steel panders to Christians, in The Lone Ranger, Christians are portrayed as unattractive, ineffectual, hateful or flat-out hypocritically evil.

Like so much in this mess of a movie, it’s an ingredient that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Mark Sandlin 7-03-2013
Paul Matthew Photography / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Paul Matthew Photography / Shutterstock.com

The Christian church is full of Christians, right?

Sadly, the answer you'll get to that question is heavily dependent on whom you are asking. Certainly, the church should be seeking to follow Christ, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. However, increasingly, there are those who claim the church is full of hypocrites. They are not saying the church only has hypocrites. That's clearly not true. They are simply pointing out there are surprisingly high numbers of people going to church, calling themselves Christians but whose actions run counter to what Jesus taught. I believe we can do better.

Stephen Mattson 7-02-2013
American flag and the Bible, SUE ASHE / Shutterstock.com

American flag and the Bible, SUE ASHE / Shutterstock.com

1) You Love To Argue, Fight, And Attack

There’s nothing quite like flooding people’s Facebook feeds with posts about the sins of gay marriage, abortion, and the Democratic Party or the volleyed claims of bigotry, hypocrisy, and self-interest.

American Christians seemingly love to argue with people and engage themselves in various culture wars. Whether it’s about the existence of global warming, prayer in schools, evolution, gun control, or homosexuality, you love to let people know that you’re RIGHT and they’re WRONG. Oh yeah, and if you don’t agree with me —You’re going to hell! Literally.

Your main forms of communication include boycotting, accusing, yelling, screaming, pointing, spewing, slandering, shaming, shaking your fists, and waving protest signs. In fact, you’ll probably write a venomous response to this piece in the comments section below.

As demographics shift and migration brings global Christianity to the church down the street, how will U.S. congregations respond?

Benjamin Corey 7-01-2013
2010 protest in Los Angeles, Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

2010 protest in Los Angeles, Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: In April, Associated Press representatives said they would no longer recommend the term "illegal immigrant" in the influential AP Style Guide used by many in print media. However, the term is still used by many media outlets and in common parlance. Our hope is that more will follow the AP's lead and rethink its usage.

As the Senate recently passed long awaited immigration overhaul and the bill now heads to the House, the long-standing national discourse on the issue of immigration will likely heat up again. As we participate in these discussions, my hope is that we, especially as Christians tasked with peacemaking and reconciling, will find ways to build bridges instead of erecting walls. As a first step in this bridge building, I pray that once and for all, we will stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”

Here's why:

1. The term “illegal immigrant” is a misleading and dishonest term, which violates the 9th commandment.

The term “illegal immigrant” lends one to believe that an individual is currently doing something illegal, or that their presence in our country is an ongoing, illegal act. In regards to undocumented workers, this is simply not the case. The crime that undocumented workers commit is a violation of “8 U.S.C. § 1325: Entry of Alien at improper time or place,” a federal misdemeanor. Their crime is crossing the border at the improper time and place; however, they are not currently doing anything that is illegal.

Therefore, using this term that has a less-than-honest connotation, is a violation of the commandment to not “bear false witness against our neighbors.”

Photo courtesy RNS/ Warner Bros. Pictures.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Warner Bros Pictures “Man of Steel." Photo courtesy RNS/Warner Bros. Pictures.

Superman has always had a bit of a messiah complex, born as a modern-day Moses in the imagination of two Jewish guys during the Depression and over the years developing and amplifying his Christlike characteristics.

So it made sense that Warner Bros. Pictures spared no effort in using the Jesus connection to attract the increasingly important Christian audience to see the latest film in the Superman franchise, Man of Steel.

The studio hired a leading faith-based marketing agency, Grace Hill Media, to hold special screenings for pastors, and it developed an extensive website of Christian-themed resources — including specially-edited trailers for use in churches and Man of Steel sermon notes.

Christian Piatt 6-26-2013
"Belief," Leszek Glasner / Shutterstock.com

"Belief," Leszek Glasner / Shutterstock.com

There are lots of biases and assumptions about Christians out there, many of which are founded in real-life experience. And yes, we Christians have done our share of damage when it comes to tarnishing our so-called “brand.” But there also seems to be this tendency to understand Christianity and its adherents as one generally monolithic group that can be described in simple (often negative) terms that they would never be acceptable to apply to any other group.

Part of this is because of the historic dominance of the Christian culture in the modern Western world. It’s the same reason that stereotypes of men on network sitcoms are pervasively unflattering, while the same stereotypes would cause a firestorm of negative publicity if applied to the female counterparts. Some of this is entirely warranted and necessary in tearing down false or damaging constructs of power. But sometimes, if we’re being honest, they’re just wrong. And stupid.

Stephen Mattson 6-25-2013
Photo of a woman with question mark sign, Aaron Amat / Shutterstock.com

Photo of a woman with question mark sign, Aaron Amat / Shutterstock.com

During the Christian spiritual journey, followers of Christ are forced to eventually face some basic faith-related questions. Here are a few of the most common ones:

1) What is salvation? 

What does salvation really mean? When does it happen and is it permanent? Do you choose your own salvation or is it predestined? Is everyone saved or just a select few? 

The idea of salvation is extremely complex, and our concept of it directly influences how we live, evangelize, and interact with the people around us. 

Mark Sandlin 6-10-2013
Footsteps in the sand, hpbdesign / Shutterstock.com

Footsteps in the sand, hpbdesign / Shutterstock.com

Lots of people claim to be “following Jesus” and then they do stuff like this. Sure, people who follow Jesus do these things all the time, but you can't say you are doing them because you are trying to follow Jesus' example.

(Clearly, this is not a complete list but it's a good place to start).

10) Exclude people because they practice another religion.

Jesus was constantly including people, and he did it with a radical disregard for their religion. We do not have a single recorded incident of Jesus asking for a person's religious affiliation before being willing to speak with them or break bread with them. We do have several records of Jesus seeking out those who happen to practice faith differently from him. There was even this one time when he used a hated Samaritan as an example of how we are supposed to take care of each other.

Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO

A scene with Catelyn Stark (l) played by Michelle Fairley from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy HBO

Is there anything morally redeeming about Game of Thrones? Does the hit HBO series even have a moral vision?

The show is certainly entertaining, almost addictively so, and as Game of Thrones wraps up its third season on Sunday, the ratings reflect that popularity: a record of more than 5.5 million viewers have followed the ruthless struggles for power among the teeming clans of Westeros, the medieval-looking world created by fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin.

That success has also guaranteed that the show will be back for a fourth year of mayhem and passion, swords and sorcery, despite this season’s many violent endings. Or, as one tweet put it after the bloody penultimate episode: “Why doesn’t George R.R. Martin use twitter? Because he killed all 140 characters.”

But therein lies the moral problem for some: The appeal of the series seems bound up in the senseless violence and amoral machinations – not to mention the free-wheeling sex – that the writers use to dramatize this brutish world of shifting alliances and dalliances.

That, in turn, has prompted intense debates about whether Christians should watch Games of Thrones at all, or whether the show’s only possible virtue is depicting how the world would look if Christ had never been born – or what it could look like if Christianity disappeared tomorrow.

Stephen Mattson 6-04-2013
Christianity and money illustration,  design36 and vso / Shutterstock.com

Christianity and money illustration, design36 and vso / Shutterstock.com

Christianity can quickly devolve into caste systems, where faith communities are divided by the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. Instead of unifying ourselves in Christ, we are dividing ourselves by how much money we can afford to spend.

How much money is required to be a Christian? Imagine how much money we’ve spent throughout our lifetime on “Christian” activities and products (not including tithing or mission-related donations) — now imagine if we gave this money to people who really needed it.

“Consumer Christianity” has turned our faith into a set of costs, and it’s becoming increasingly costly to maintain the Christian status quo. In John 2, the Bible tells the riveting story of Jesus entering the Temple and becoming furious at what He sees: vendors who have turned something holy into a commercial marketplace. Jesus is irate, and he basically tears the place apart because of their sin. But how different are our churches today?

Tom Ehrich 5-21-2013
Sweet Lana / Shutterstock

Revolution vector. Sweet Lana / Shutterstock

Religious historians say that every 500 years, Christianity goes through a “massive transition,” as noted religion writer Phyllis Tickle puts it.

Around 500 A.D., “barbarians” sought to subjugate Rome by wiping out its underlying religion. Christianity went underground. In abbeys like Iona, monks painstakingly copied Scripture and civilization’s great writings, in effect saving Western civilization itself.

Around 1000 A.D. came the “Great Schism,” when the Western church based in Rome and the Eastern church based in Constantinople fought over creeds and doctrine, political power and cultural hegemony. That split endures to this day between Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism.

Around 1500 A.D. came the Protestant Reformation, when nationalism born of exploration in the New World and new commercial wealth demanded an end to Rome’s domination of European life. That split, too, endures.

Now comes a new millennium, and Christianity wears so many different faces that it’s difficult to speak of a single “Christian movement.”

Alfonso Wieland 5-14-2013
Photo from humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr.com.

Photo from humanrightsfilmfestival / Flickr.com.

Sunday afternoon, March 28, 1982. If you were an evangelical Christian living in Guatemala, watching TV, your heart would have been beating faster and tears of joy may have flowed down your cheeks.

A man was speaking so thoughtfully, with the Bible in hand. He was teaching the audience, “If there is no peace within the family, there would be no peace in the world. If we want peace, we need at first to be at peace in our hearts.” He went on, “Guatemala is the chosen people of the New Testament.”

That 55-year-old man was Guatemalan General Efrain Rios Montt, pastor of the Iglesia  Verbo (Church of the Word), who had recently become president of Guatemala through a military coup.

On May 10, 2013, a Guatemalan court sentenced Rios Montt to 80 years in prison after finding him responsible for deliberate killings by the armed forces of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil population during his 1982-83 rule.

Morf Morford 5-08-2013
Under construction sign, L.Watcharapol / Shutterstock.com

Under construction sign, L.Watcharapol / Shutterstock.com

Seen on a rural hillside: “Under Construction.”

Someone had added, in letters almost as large, “No equipment, no budget, no crew and no work, but we have the sign.”

For the vast majority of Christians, this sign sums up their philosophy of discipleship.

In their determination to not be ‘saved by works’ they have cultivated a historically isolated, theologically sterile, spiritually impotent ‘faith’ that I can only describe as ‘Christian inertia.'

In this cultivated obliviousness they have forgotten, perhaps deliberately, that we are “created to do good works in Christ” (Ephesians 2:10).

They have somehow come to believe that ‘being a Christian’ is all about having the sign; being transformed (Romans 12:2) by the living word of God, far from being a thriving daily reality, has become an abstraction reduced to a bumper sticker or slogan.

Brandon Hook 4-24-2013
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Marini

Nataly Dawn, a singer-songwriter, wrestles with faith and judgment in some of her work. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Marini

A while back I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with up-and-coming singer-songwriter Nataly Dawn about faith and songwriting. Dawn grew up in France, went to Stanford for undergrad, and made it big on YouTube with a duo called Pomplamoose before signing with Nonesuch records and starting her solo work.

This interview was edited for length and content.

Nataly: I have to warn you, I’m in a little bit of a food coma; I just made a really big brunch. I had probably five pancakes.

Brandon: Wow. Impressive. That’s awesome.

Lisa Schencker 4-08-2013

Just because the nation may change its laws to “tolerate legalized acts of immorality” does not make those acts any less spiritually damaging, senior Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer said on Saturday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 183rd Annual General Conference.

“The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality,” Packer said, “does not reduce the serious spiritual consequences that result from the violation of God’s law of chastity.”

Packer, president of the Mormons’ Quorum of Twelve Apostles and next in line to take over the church’s reins, didn’t specifically mention gay marriage, but his comments came amid controversy on the issue nationwide and a significant swing in public and political opinion toward favoring such same-sex unions.

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