Religion

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.

Brandan Robertson 9-03-2013
Excess baggage illustration, bezikus / Shutterstock.com

Excess baggage illustration, bezikus / Shutterstock.com

I am an evangelical.

But what does that label even mean anymore?

A few days ago I was sitting around chatting with a few new friends at my Bible college. One of them was a young Canadian and another was a middle-aged former U.S. soldier. We ended up on the topic of politics and how many companies and businesses in the United States give millions to political and social causes and somehow we ended up talking about McDonalds.

My USAF friend made the statement: “McDonalds is terrible because it gives millions to causes and organizations that you [speaking of me] directly oppose: LGBTQ rights campaigns, Planned Parenthood, etc.” I was taken aback because my new friend simply assumed that because everyone in this conversation was an evangelical meant that we all held a certain set of political ideals and social standards. For him — for millions of others — evangelical meant something far more than a theological persuasion. In the midst of this awkward moment, I decided to reveal my identity as a politically progressive/liberal evangelical, which automatically caused an immense amount of tension to arise in our conversation. How could I, a Bible-believing evangelical, possibly support the LGBTQ community’s right to marry? How could I think that Planned Parenthood was doing any good and that President Obama’s plan to rapidly decrease the numbers of abortions in the United States was progress in any way? Let’s just say that the conversation ended on a pretty tense note.

This encounter really caused me to re-reflect on the magnitude that the term evangelical has been hijacked by political and social agendas over the past decade and how a new generation of evangelicals is emerging that does not at all identify with any of the social and political baggage that has come to represent evangelical Christianity. Which brings me back to my original question: What does the label evangelical even mean anymore?

I can tell you this — it doesn’t mean that I am a Republican. It doesn’t mean that I am a Democrat. It doesn’t mean that I am pro- or anti-anything.

Business Bible, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

Business Bible, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

Too much religion can harm a society’s economy by undermining the drive for financial success, according to a new study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study of almost 190,000 people from 11 religiously diverse cultures is raising eyebrows among some of England’s religious leaders for suggesting Judaism and Christianity have anti-wealth norms.

Tom Ehrich 8-28-2013
Clergy, Monika Wisniewska / Shutterstock.com

Clergy, Monika Wisniewska / Shutterstock.com

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s surprise decision to retire does more than throw the technology industry into a frenzy of speculation. It raises the problem of succession.

From major corporations to startups led by visionary leaders, from universities to churches, the departure of the top leader can stop momentum and usher in months, perhaps years, of uncertainty.

Even though dealing with succession is a primary task for a board of directors — some say it’s their preeminent task — relatively few boards take the assignment seriously. They focus instead on the easier work of jousting with the top leader and shilling for institutional investors.

What should be an orderly process of preparing for leadership transition instead becomes a lurching from one standalone regime to the next.

Many board members want the rush of being co-managers of the institution. This is especially true in churches, where boards enjoy making day-to-day decisions about operations. Since a strong central leader would get in their way, many church councils discourage strong clergy and reward compliant permission seekers.

Tom Ehrich 8-21-2013
Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com

Christian imprint illustration, SoulCurry / Shutterstock.com

Out of nowhere, I felt an urge to listen to Willie Nelson’s epic album Stardust, a collection of pop standards that went platinum when it was released in 1978.

As I listened to “Blue Skies” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” I remembered buying this album for my father. I thought he would enjoy a fresh take on these songs of his youth, his travails during the Great Depression, and the war that defined his generation.

I don’t think he ever listened to it a second time. He loved the songs, but he couldn’t bear the fresh take. He wanted Gertrude Lawrence, the original voices of Tin Pan Alley and Depression-era hopefulness, the crooners that carried his generation to war and back home again.

I understand. The music we hear at our first dreaming, first love, first dance becomes the soundtrack of our lives.

For many people, the same is true of faith. Our images of God, songs of worship and language of prayer tend to be those we acquired at first awareness. Many more images, songs and words will come later, but none might resonate so deeply as those that were imprinted on us early on.

Jeffrey Weiss 8-21-2013
Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So / Flickr.com

Steve Jobs The Economist cover, via Bill So / Flickr.com

The new movie about Steve Jobs is short on anything explicitly religious. Like its main character, however, it’s got a thread of transcendence running through it.

The truth about Jobs and religion may be that, in this arena as in others, he was ahead of the cutting edge.

The film isn’t making the purists happy, in part because it takes too many liberties with history. But it’s not a documentary. I’ll go against many of the reviews and say that Ashton Kutcher does a pretty good job at representing the personality found in Jobs’ speeches and in what has been written about Jobs — particularly in the massive authorized biography by Walter Isaacson.

One quote in that book, from one of Jobs’ old girlfriends, pretty much captures the character in the film: “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” she told Isaacson. “That’s a strange combination.”

Christian Piatt 8-19-2013
Photo by Nate Baker-Lutz, used by permission of InterVarsity Press

Photo via Wild Goose Festival Facebook page, Photo by Nate Baker-Lutz, used by permission of InterVarsity Press

I just got back a few days ago from a campsite outside of Asheville, N.C., the site of the third annual Wild Goose Festival. For those who are unfamiliar with the event, imagine and old-fashioned days-long outdoor revival, combined with Bonaroo and a traveling circus. For several days, authors, activists, artisans, musicians, and seekers converge to engage in spontaneous community, share ideas and to inspire one another.

It's not every day that you can walk by a makeshift tent and listen to Phyllis Tickle succinctly summarize the history of Christendom in 45 minutes, and then wander over and pick up a vegetarian pita sandwich while on your way to hear the Indigo Girls perform. Impassioned conversations emerge all on your walk about everything from child trafficking to the state of the institutional church in the 21st century. And you're only momentarily distracted by the guy on stilts, wearing a hat covered in goose feathers who wanders by for no apparent reason.

Welcome to Wild Goose.

Bob Smietana 8-13-2013
Screenshot from USA Today video report on the case.

Screenshot from USA Today video report on the case. Video courtesy USA Today

A Tennessee judge should not have barred a couple from naming their child “Messiah,” said the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

On Thursday, the parents of the child appeared in Cocke County Chancery Court in Tennessee because they could not agree on a last name.

Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the mother, Jaleesa Martin, to change her son’s name to “Martin DeShawn McCullough.” It includes both parents’ last names but leaves out “Messiah.”

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Ballew told the 7-month-old’s parents.

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.

Martin L. Smith 8-02-2013

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

Stacy Martin 8-02-2013

Regardless of where we end up on immigration reform, Matthew 22 reminds us that no law can make us love our neighbor.

Cathleen Falsani 8-02-2013
RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Plaintiffs speak to the media June 26 after the Supreme Court rejected Prop 8 on legal grounds. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Rather than a Third Great Awakening I believe we are standing in the threshold of a Great Grace Awakening. It’s a move of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from legalistic and fear-based beliefs to a place some of us would call grace.

On the surface, it may seem to fly in the face of some traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. But it is aligned with a broader, more universal ethic that seems to be developing around genuine Christian love and grace — the very essence of Jesus’ ministry and what makes it so revolutionary — as guiding principles.

Grace is the reason for the incarnation. God became human and walked in our sandals because God knows us and wants us to be known.

Grace says that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us less. And grace tells us that there’s nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more. You are loved simply because you are and for all of who you are. Full stop.

Suzanne Ross 7-31-2013
Reza Aslan on Fox News

Reza Aslan on Fox News

Are you feeling a bit smug about the way historian and author Reza Aslan out-debated Lauren Green on Fox News on Friday, July 26? The clip of the interview about his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, has become a YouTube sensation with almost 3 million views in four days and much of its popularity is due to liberals gloating over Lauren Green’s obvious embarrassment at being out maneuvered on her own show. From her opening question it was clear she was itching for a fight.

Punch

Here’s her opening salvo: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” This was less a question than an accusation. A Muslim, she seemed to be saying, who is writing about Christianity must have an agenda and we all know what that is – to destroy Christianity! She followed up for the first 5 minutes of the interview with questions that simply cited others making the same accusation, cynically pandering to her audience with what she hoped would be a knock-down, drag out boxing match in which she would put this arrogant Muslim masquerading as a “scholar” in his place. To her chagrin and the delight of liberals everywhere, Aslan came prepared for battle.

Counter-Punch

Aslan defended himself against her accusation of bias with a clever feint. He redirected her attack by agreeing that of course, he is a Muslim, but that is not the critical component of his biography. Here’s his answer to her opening question as I transcribed it: “To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees including one in the New Testament, fluency in biblical Greek who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades who also just happens to be a Muslim. It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” He mentions his credentials four more times during the interview. His point? How could you accuse me of having a hidden agenda when I am an academic scholar only interested in the facts? Historians, he wants Ms. Green and all of us to believe, are bias-free pursuers of the truth. The unspoken accusation is that Ms. Green is not interested in the truth and is in fact the one with the agenda, which is to destroy Islam and defend Christianity against any and all attacks.

Rachael McNeal 7-31-2013
The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

The ninth commandment illustration, Siarhei Tolak / Shutterstock.com

"And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:1, 16

Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young, 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Fla. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment, and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again, and began to set his life straight.

After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you?" 

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.
Derek Flood 7-30-2013
Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'

Jim Wallis appears on 'Real Time with Bill Maher'

Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's  "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange HERE.

Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed... I mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response, Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible while ignoring the bad parts. 

I'm a big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country. He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay focused on that.

At the same time, I think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too, because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.

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 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. 

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