Tag Archives: Jesus

Fighting the Wrong War?

In case you missed it, we Christians are involved in the Culture Wars.  If you haven’t yet, you’ll probably get your draft notice soon.  You’re not allowed to remain neutral.

So what the heck are these Culture Wars?

The enemy is anyone who stands against biblical values.  The heated battle of the moment – thanks in part to the “news” of Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s views on the subject – is the issue of same-sex marriage.   The weapons of our warfare are outraged words, political wrangling, boycotts, legislative maneuvering.  What’s at stake – as the name suggests – is American culture.

In this war over the culture, biblical values appear to be steadily losing ground.  Is it because we’re not wielding our weapons well?  Is our strategy at fault?  As I mulled this over, at first I thought that perhaps we’re using the wrong weapons.  That’s part of it, but the full truth is much worse.

We are using the wrong weapons against the wrong enemy in the wrong war. The right weapon is the Gospel.  The real enemy is Satan.  We fight for the souls of men and women who are oppressed.

The Wrong War

Why shouldn’t we fight for the culture?  Well, what is culture?  One definition on Merriam-Webster.com is “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”  The culture is not some concrete object or place that we can fight over.  It is a set of ideas and values that finds its origin in the people.  In order for the culture to change, the people must change.

That’s how we got here, remember?  Americans used to hold different values.  Now they hold these values.  Therefore, the culture is what it is.

And the people.  All of us – every man, woman, and child on Earth – are oppressed, enslaved by sin.  (Romans 6:20)

Let’s fight the right war – to free the slaves from sin.

The Wrong Weapons

Our only hope of salvation is the Risen Savior who died to free us from the very thing that enslaves us. (John 14:6)  Therefore, our words hold no sway over the souls of men and women.  Only the Gospel does.  In fact, our words just get in the way. (1 Corinthians 1:17)  We cannot change the values of the people by fighting over them, shouting, making laws, or buying a chicken sandwich.

The Wrong Enemy

Imagine the United States Army during World War II.  The soldiers enter France to liberate the land.  They begin gunning down terrified men, women, and children in the streets.  Meanwhile, Hitler’s forces march ever forward, conquering all the peoples of Europe.  In every moment of the Culture Wars this is what we do.

We are using the wrong weapons to fight against people who are oppressed, and it is their oppression that that has led the culture to dismiss biblical values.  Our true enemy is their oppressor – Satan.  (1 Peter 5:8)

The people are so deceived by his lies that they believe God’s hatred of sin to be bigotry.  They are intolerant of the truth, but it’s because they are enslaved.  We can’t expect them to know and love the ways of God until their chains are broken and He remakes them into His likeness.

Let’s stop all the shouting and political maneuvering.  Instead, let’s pick up the Gospel and fight Satan for all we’re worth to free these slaves.

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Review | Earthen Vessels by Matthew Lee Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Vessels is a hard book to pin down. The author’s voice is at once conversational and classical. (With titles like, “Preface: In Which I Clear My Throat,” I was often reminded, stylistically, of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton.) And while he is not afraid of big words, he is somehow deceptively simple in his delivery. Imagine you have an old high school friend who grew up to be a philosopher and you guys get together for a cup of coffee – that’s Anderson’s style.

His tone belies the depth of his subject – “why our bodies matter to our faith” – but this is not a weakness. On the contrary, Earthen Vessels could have read like a text book, but it doesn’t. It’s a much, much easier read than it has any right to be.

Anderson presents as the basis for his book the idea that our physical bodies are “the place of our personal presence in the world.” (pg. 233) As such, we cannot separate our bodies from ourselves as easily as we sometimes try to (philosophically, at least). And in fact, Christ took on a human body, and He “died to save and renew human bodies.” (pg. 16) Therefore, we are inseparable from our bodies. There’s a lot of very interesting philosophical delving here to elaborate and drive the point home.

Once that premise is established, Anderson takes us on a wide-ranging journey into topics as varied as pleasure, tattoos, homosexuality, and death and the implications they hold for our bodies and our faith.

Earthen Vessels covers a great deal of ground in its 230 or so pages. The book may leave you with more questions than it answers, but Anderson’s purpose in these pages is to start a conversation rather than end it.

It takes a while to wrestle with all these topics, and it is not for the casual reader. As I’ve said, the book was easy enough to read, but understanding what you’ve read takes some serious thought. Unless you’re some kind of genius, it may take a second or even a third read. However, it’s worth the time. There’s a lot of meat to chew on here, and that’s something that is sorely missing in most Christian literature. I definitely recommend Earthen Vessels.

I received this book for free from Bethany House Publishers for this review as part of their blogger review program.

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Review | The Historical Jesus: Five Views

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just a heads up: This one is pretty academic and may not be for everyone. I actually wrote it for a seminary class but thought I’d share it with all of you.

Bethel University professors James K. Bielby and Paul Rhodes Eddy have put together a volume in The Historical Jesus: Five Views that provides a glimpse into the broad range of perspectives found among those who quest for the historical Jesus. Robert M. Price, a professor at Johnny Coleman Theological Seminary, begins the book with the most radical of views, followed by DePaul University emeritus professor of religious studies John Dominic Crossan. The works gradually move through the center toward the conservative end of the spectrum with essays by Emory University professor Luke Timothy Johnson and Durham University professor James D. G. Dunn. Finally, the book draws to a conservative close with an essay by Darrell L. Bock, research professor of New Testament studies, Dallas Theological Seminary.

The Historical Jesus begins with a survey of the quest for the historical Jesus, covering its beginnings in the late eighteenth century to today. Bielby and Rhodes provide the reader with a quick glimpse of each separate quest – or stage of the overall quest – as well as the views that drove it or, at times, brought it to a halt. The editors do not bring their own views to bear. They leave that to the contributors.

Their introduction is followed by each contributor’s essay, in which he puts forth his view. Each essay is then followed by responses from each of the other four authors.

Price’s essay, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point,” is easily the most liberal and radical. He has no qualms about sharing his view with the reader. “I will argue that it is quite likely there never was any historical Jesus” (55). He then proceeds to completely deconstruct the Gospels. He does this by relying on the criterion of dissimilarity and the idea that each of the Gospel stories is simply a retelling of an Old Testament story.

John Dominic Crossan’s work “Jesus and the Challenge of Collaborative Eschatology” reduces Jesus to a simple nonviolent revolutionary whose battle was against the Roman Empire. Though not the Messiah, he says, some Jews saw Jesus as “a nonviolent Davidic Messiah” (120). He attributes those of Jesus’ actions in the Gospels that he deems historically accurate to a political motivation, and the crufixion he attributes to Rome’s standard policy in dealing with nonviolent rebels.

Next comes “Learning the Human Jesus” by Luke Timothy Johnson. His conclusions are moderate when compared to those of his fellow contributors. Leaning more toward acceptance of the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus, he writes that, when taken strictly as narrative, the Gospels provide a valid perspective on the character of Jesus. The question of character “is a question that narrative is distinctly capable of addressing” (173). Johnson still doubts the historical validity of the Gospels.

James D. G. Dunn writes the essay “Remembering Jesus,” in which he accepts a faith-based viewing of the Gospels as a valid historical perspective. He states, “…it is the ear of faith which is likely to hear the Gospels most effectively” (225). Dunn seeks to convince the reader that the right course in the quest is to look for those characteristics of Jesus that can be seen across the Gospels (220). Dunn does not accept all the Gospel material as true, though he is more conservative than prior contributors.

Darrell L. Bock shows himself to hold the truly conservative view in this work. The entirety of his essay, “The Historical Jesus,” gives the reader a view of Jesus as He appears in the Gospels, spelling out His character and motivations as exhibited by His actions. Bock declares that the Gospels’ picture of a “messianic Jesus who saw himself standing at the hub of God’s program and completely vindicated as Son of Man at God’s side” (281) is the most accurate view to take.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Price’s view is the least well-researched. It appears to be based entirely on his own biases and reading of other liberal theologians, rather than on arguments from factual data. The essay’s greatest weakness is his stretching of the criterion of dissimilarity to contend that the Gospel stories are simple reworkings of Old Testament stories. While this reviewer doubts that the criterion in question has any value whatsoever, even the other authors in The Historical Jesus take issue with Price’s use of it. Dunn writes, “Such an extension of the criterion of dissimilarity simply undermines what value it has” (95).

Crossan’s view, while perhaps more informed, is no less biased. He draws upon a great deal of extrabiblical historical knowledge – some of which is dubious at best – but he discounts nearly as much of the Gospel material as does Price. He believes Jesus existed, but his picture of Jesus is shaped by his own values and knowledge of the fishing industry in ancient Palestine (116). Even Price states that Crossan reduces “Jesus to a function of the categories and methods through which he has decided to study him.” (133). Crossan infers in his essay, and outright insists in his response to Dunn, that the Jesus of the Gospels who taught love and pacifism cannot be the same as the Jesus of revelation who will return in violence (234). For Crossan, nonviolence is the one defining characteristic of Jesus, whose life and death hinge on “the crucial difference… between the eschatological kingdom of God and the imperial kingdom of Rome,” which is “Jesus’ nonviolence and Pilate’s violence” (132).

Johnson and Dunn, while espousing slightly different views, straddle the center. Johnson leans more heavily toward the liberal side, and Dunn leans toward the conservative side. However, they both – like the more liberal contributors to this book – rely on sources like Q that may or may not exist to determine which parts of the Gospel are true. For a conservative reviewer, Dunn’s view is easier to swallow, since he accepts faith as a valid historical perspective. Johnson, however, seems inexplicably to accept faith as faith and historical knowledge as something else altogether.

Bock is the one among these contributors who takes the Gospel texts seriously. He writes that the Gospels provide “a multiperspectival impression” that “can be as historical as the autobiographical words of the individual” (251). From there he provides a historical view of Jesus that is drawn entirely from Scripture and, therefore, reads more like a sermon – with generally solid exegesis – than the apparently scholarly views of the other contributors. The only real weakness this reviewer found in Bock’s contribution was that it might have fit better in a different book, but that appears to have been the point of The Historical Jesus: Five Views.

The Historical Jesusis a worthy read, providing opposing perspectives against which to hone one’s views. It strengthened this reader’s trust in the Gospels as the only reliable picture of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith, who are one and the same.

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Woe to you…

Matthew 23:13-30 – “Eight Woes”

I find the Pharisees to be – perhaps strangely – a strong example of how easily human nature comes between us and the truth of the Gospel. The roots of Pharisaism were in a movement meant to return Jews to right belief and right practice at a time when pagan culture (namely Greek) was overtaking their own culture and religious practices (the period between the Old and New Testaments). Instead, as evidenced in Jesus’ words here, they created a set of rules that actually drew them away from what God really wanted.

So, what does this have to do with human nature? Humans like rules. I know, most people would disagree. We don’t want to be told what to do, but think about it. We’d rather have rules that clearly define how we get to Heaven (Be good! Don’t hurt people!) than deal with this ethereal “relationship with God” thing. It’s easier!

Scripture points us to right behavior, but it is also clear that right behavior is meaningless without the right heart. Otherwise, why would Jesus come down on the Pharisees here?

It’s also easier when the rules serve to make me look good without my having to worry about other people.

You see, the Pharisees missed the point – the Law never saved anyone, not even a Jew. The Law existed for the people to maintain relationships with God and one another. Hence, the two greatest commandments:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 22:36b-40

If that wasn’t happening, the Law wasn’t serving its purpose.

Sadly, many Christians – those of us who live under the New Covenant in which Christ has fulfilled the Law – still want it this way. We want the rules.  Even though they don’t teach this way with words, many churches teach this way by example.  It’s not about going to Bible study or Sunday morning worship or putting in time in the food pantry.  Those things are all good things, but they must all grow out of love.

This is not to say there is no place in the Christian life for duty.  Let’s face it.  Sometimes, we don’t feel like doing the things that we know we ought to do.  We should do them anyway because they are our duty as followers of Jesus.

It’s a line that is easy to cross, as the Pharisees show us. We must do our duty, but we don’t just do it for the sake of duty.  We do our duty because we love the God who first loved us and the people whom He loves.

Five Books Every Christian Should Read

With my review of Eileen Button’s The Waiting Place earlier this week, this blog is embarking on a new phase that will see a lot more activity and a greater concentration on book reviews.

With that in mind, I’m going to share with you five books I’ve read that I think every Christian should read. (If you’re interested, here’s my list on Amazon.)

  1. The Bible – I know this one probably seems like a cop-out, but too few of us really read the Bible. I struggle with it just like everyone else, but I can say that I read it more consistently now than I ever have before. A few years ago, I prayed that God would give me a greater love for His Word, and He did. (You can read about it here.)It’s the Word of God. It is more important than any other book we’ll ever read, and as it shapes us, it shapes the lens through which we read everything else. We should read it in big chunks and study it down to the briefest statement.I like the NASB because it is a word-for-word translation. The NIV – because it translates ideas more than individual words – is generally easier to read in large sections.
  2. unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons – The information in this book may not be news to some people, but for those of us who have grown up in the traditional church culture, it can be world-altering. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group provides in-depth research into the attitudes and reactions of teens and young adults toward the church.
  3. Crazy Love by Francis ChanunChristian was the beginning of a journey for me and several other folks in my life. God had begun to alter my perceptions of faith and the church not long before reading it, and those changed perceptions were solidified upon reading it. But Crazy Love took it one step further, showing me what I ought to be doing with those new perceptions. It was no longer enough to follow the rules and be part of the institution of the Church. I had to love God with everything, and that love wouldn’t make sense to most people. Read my review here.
  4. Forgotten God by Francis Chan – Yes, it’s another Francis Chan book. Yes, I’m a big fan. But this one was the next step on my journey. The Holy Spirit empowers us to live the life God has called us to live. The Holy Spirit does things beyond imagining. We’ve put Him in a box and written off the miraculous, or – worse – we’ve forgotten about Him altogether. We neglect Him to our detriment and that of the Church as a whole. Read the review.
  5. Radical by David Platt – Pastor of a megachurch in Alabama, Platt challenges us to turn our backs on the American dream and embrace the call of God to go against the culture around us, focusing first on the Kingdom. Though the book has its flaws – it loses some steam in the middle – its premise is powerful, and for me, was the culmination of many things God had been teaching on this literary journey.

Take the time to read these – especially the first! – and you will be challenged. Your perceptions will be altered. And maybe – hopefully – you’ll begin to think a little more like Christ.

Worship Music Industry | Right or Wrong?

Being a worship leader is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I love every moment of it. It’s a blast, it’s a challenge, and it’s meaningful. It’s right up there with being a husband and father.

Like any position of leadership, it’s also fraught with pitfalls, the most obvious of which is the lure of fame. Even in a small church like the one of which my family and I are members, it’s easy to feel like you’re on a pedestal – even if no one else thinks you are. (That being said, it’s also easy for others to put you on a pedestal.) You step onto the stage every Sunday morning with the spotlight shining on you. People complement you, tell you how talented you are, want your attention. It’s the great temptation of pride.

It concerns me to see the direction of worship ministry in the church these days. There seems to be such a push to record and distribute nationally or globally the music you’re doing at the local church level. It’s as though your ministry is not relevant or fruitful unless people on the other side of the country are playing your music on Sunday.

I tried to be a musician for a living. I had a band, which many of you know. We made a go of it for a while and did pretty well for an indie outfit just starting out. Things stalled out after a couple of years, and I believe there were two reasons for this. First, it wasn’t what God wanted for me (or the rest of the band – at least not at that point in time). Second, I was completely burned out.

After a very short time, it stopped being about Jesus or about the music. It was about booking the next gig. This is the difficulty of music as business – at some point the art is probably going to give way to the need to put food on the table. I was spending all my time trying to book gigs when I wanted to be writing music and touring. And even the little bit of touring we did wore on me because – even then – I felt that my primary goal was selling my product. I don’t have the personality of a salesman.

I believe it’s even more dangerous to mix business and worship. At that juncture, you’re mixing business with something much more pure and noble than art. How can we possibly combine a pursuit of money with our pursuit of the Living God? How can we respond to Him properly when it’s all wrapped up in money?

Think about the state of the music industry now? The economy, digital downloads, piracy have all contributed to the atrophying of CD sale, and the labels are trying every bad idea they can think of to get people to start buying again. Apple finally convinced them to let go of DRM protection. They still want to limit the number of devices you can play your songs on. And those things pale in comparison to what they’re actually doing to the music!

Pop music has always been formulaic, but periodically, you would see it changed by the random renegade who gets a record deal. The last time that really happened, though, was in the 90s. Suddenly, the face of pop music changed. Much like the music of the 60s, the grunge bands brought us incomprehensible lyrics (a big no-no in the pop formula) and musical experimentation. Then the post-grunge bands rode that momentum and created pop-rock songs with intelligent lyrics that people could relate to.

These days, bands are slavishly shackled to the formula – lowest common denominator lyrics, overly simplified music. The labels are afraid that’s the only way they can sell music!

That industry is the industry that is now shaping our worship music. That formula – a formula invented by people whose goal is to make money – is being applied to the way we worship God.

Worship leaders started gaining a national stage via the music industry years ago. Now, we’re seeking it. We’ve created a worship music industry. I have a hard time making that fit with what I know of God and Scripture, primarily because of the way the music industry in general works. Being successful in the music industry requires selling yourself – telling everyone how great you are – and that is entirely antithetical to the teachings of Christ. (Yes, I believe there is a difference between you telling everyone how great you are and your agent or manager telling everyone how great you are. However, I also believe that’s a gray area that requires further thought.)

Since when is it right for a worship leader to tell everyone how great his music is? How does a church justify marketing its worship ministry?

And honestly, this isn’t limited to music. We see it with pastors. We see it in the focus of the mainstream church on so called “evangelism” that exists only to make our institutions larger. We are attempting to define the success of ourselves, our ministries, our churches by worldly measures.

I’m not saying that it cannot ever be right for a worship leader or a church’s worship band to record an album or sign a record deal. But I’m not entirely uncomfortable with saying it’s wrong. I believe it’s tricky terrain to navigate, and we must be much more careful than we have been up to now.

We Have Forgotten God

I recently read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It honestly wasn’t an enjoyable read (then again, I don’t think it was supposed to be), but Solzhenitsyn is considered such a great thinker, I had to give it a shot.

He paints a pretty convincing portrait of the bleak life of a prisoner in a 1950s-era Siberian work camp in the Soviet Union. It’s freezing cold. The food they’re offered is unappetizing, to say the least. The most striking aspect of the novel, though, is Ivan’s attitude. More than once, he says something like, “This is the good life!” when he gets an extra hunk of bread or bowl of mush. And he takes pride in his work, even though he will get absolutely no benefit from it – just more mistreatment from the guards.

But the thing that hit home with me the most was a passage near the end of the book in which Ivan is speaking with a character called Alyoshka the Baptist. Here’s an excerpt:

“The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.”

“You mustn’t pray for that.” Alyoshka was horrorstruck. “What d’you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: ‘What mean you to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Ivan is without hope. He’s in prison for no good reason, and he doesn’t understand Alyoshka’s perspective. Ivan’s world was full of cruelty, self-preservation, and grief.

The cruelty of that society was summed up by Solzhenitsyn himself in a speech when he said, “We have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” The Soviet government had forgotten God. Therefore its only purpose was to create an order that served the nation’s power-mongering leaders. Since they only cared about themselves, their government could be as cruel, suspicious, and tyrannical as they wanted it to be.

Subsequently, the people of the Soviet Union forgot God and lost hope. That’s what we see here in the passage. Alyoshka hoped in the Lord. He knew there must be a purpose to his imprisonment even if he didn’t know what it was. He knew that Christ holds everything together, that all things work for good for those who love Him. If God wanted him to be imprisoned or even die, he was joyfully ready (hence his quotation of Acts 21:13). Ivan didn’t have this hope.

While we don’t see this level of cruelty and paranoia in the US, we can still see the effects of the same attitude. In its subtlest form it has invaded the church. The very thought of going to prison for the cause of Christ is foreign to us. True, that doesn’t happen in America, but think about this. If we attempt to do something for God and it ends badly, most commonly, we think, “It’s hard. God must not want me to do it.” So many of us believe God’s greatest goal for us is financial security. We avoid suffering at all costs. We don’t go to places like Haiti because the political environment is too volatile. It would be dangerous for us. And when someone decides to go to a dangerous place for the cause of Christ, we often criticize them.

We have no hope, no reason to risk, no thought that suffering could be the right thing to do. Why?

America has not become like the USSR, but it’s coming. Attitudes in this country have already shifted against Christ. And while we fight to change those attitudes (and I believe we should), our church is slipping further away from His teaching, and our nation is becoming less and less tolerant of us. (I believe those two are interconnected, by the way. See “Hated and Highly Regarded.”)

But maybe that’s what God wants. Look at places in our world where the church is persecuted. It is growing. The people are serious about Christ – in many instances serious to the point of their own death. This attitude is alien to American Christians. We are like Ivan – looking for an extra bowl of mush when the glory of God’s kingdom is waiting for us if we’ll only hope in Him and take a chance. So what if they put us in prison? So what if they kill us? They cannot kill the soul.

But instead, in this nation where we are more or less accepted, we have become content, complacent even. Possibly complicit in our own downfall.

Why are we this way? Because we have no hope. Because we have forgotten God.