Category Archives: Religion

Stanley: Make the Church Irresistible Again

Andy Stanley wants to make the church Irresistible again (maybe he should get ball caps printed). He explains the problems he sees in the American church in his new book, released last month, and according to Marvin Olasky, gets several things right.

Stanley notes rightly that “skinny jeans and moving lights” won’t keep many young people from abandoning Christianity. But he argues that the way to hold them, and win others who say they’re “spiritual,” is to abandon the hard things in the Bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus. C.S. Lewis brought us Mere Christianity. Pastor Stanley brings us Mere Sponge Cake.

Stanley says he knows “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but seriously people, “the Ten Commandments have no authority over you.” I don’t think Jesus would sign off on that. The new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant. The law given to us by Moses still reveals the state of our sin and our need for salvation. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he essentially told us if we thought we knew what the law required, we didn’t know the half of it.

I don’t doubt Stanley has a pretty good point somewhere at the beginning of his line of thought, but where he runs with that line is straight heresy. I love what Steven Graydanus said about Stanley’s solution, published in an interview this summer.  Stanley said, “Without the OT, we can make a better case for Jesus,” to which Graydanus replies, “As *what*? Go into the Sistine Chapel and paint over everything except the figures of Yahweh on the central ceiling panel and Jesus on the west wall. At that point, what on earth are you looking *at*?”

Love Yourself Above All Else

Aimee Byrd based her book No Little Women on the charge that Christian women were being led astray by shallow or false teachers who wrote books and studies for a churched female audience. Prime examples of this threat come in the form of charming, intelligent authors who use Christianized batons to beat the drums of self love.

Writer Alisa Childers reviews a new book by one such author, Rachel Harris, entitled, Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be. Naturally, it’s a New York Times bestseller (hopefully by honest sales) and currently #3 in three Amazon.com categories. Childers notes how much she likes Harris’s style and some of her stories, but despite the Christian words here and there, the themes do not point to Jesus. She preaches loving yourself above all else.

“You are meant to be the hero of your own story.”
“You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”
“You should be the very first of your priorities.”

The answer is always something like picking yourself up by your bootstraps and striving and trying . . . Anything but surrendering your life to Jesus and placing your trust in him alone.

Self love is big message for Christian women today. You can see it everywhere, and of course it has its place. But Jesus never talked like this. He urged us to seek His Kingdom before ourselves and to remember we are blessed when we have nothing but our Lord to rely on. If we could tune those drums up a bit, we might be able to hear a message of loving yourself enough to love Jesus most.

‘Superheroes Can’t Save You’ by Todd Miles

There is no hint that Batman is anything other than an incredible human being (with seemingly unlimited amounts of cash). Though such qualities and skills are never found in any one real human being (that is what makes him Batman, after all), they are just human qualities and skills. He may be the most remarkable human being in comic lore, but in the final analysis he is just a human being.

And some people feel the same about Jesus.

Todd Miles, professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore., spent most of his allowance on comic books for many years back around the time each book cost a quarter. He would browse the drug store rack weekly, reading most issues while in search of the few he would redeem with his not-so-hard-earned dollar. Many years later (after the experiments of a mad scientist would ruin his ambition to become the first man to circumnavigate Mars in a weather balloon), he connected his theological training to his comic lore fascination to make this conclusion: “Every bad idea about Jesus can be illustrated by a superhero,” at least the biggest bad ideas can. He ran with that idea in a Sunday School class, later a youth retreat, and with much encouragement wrote a book on it.

Superheroes Can’t Save You covers seven of the most popular heresies about the person of Christ Jesus, tying each of them to memorable superheroes. The chapter on the Trinity ties to Ant-Man, arguing against the idea that God manifests himself in one of three modes: the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit. The chapter on Jesus’s full humanity connects to Superman, explaining how Jesus, as God, did not merely pose as a man (as Kal El did in taking the alias Clark Kent) but became a man completely.

While each chapter is not evenly paced, they do follow a pattern. Miles begins with the comic lore, segues into the heresy, takes a moment to explain who commits the heresy today, describes the biblical truth, and then offers reasons for the importance of these truths. I think in every case, the key problem with the heresy is the undermining of our salvation. The Bible offers a clear logic for salvation, why we need it and how it is accomplished. With humor and careful writing, Miles tells his readers these alternate concepts of Christ don’t work in that logic. Thor can’t save us. Neither can a savior like the Hulk with all of his incredibleness. Only the living Jesus can save us.

I said each chapter is not quite even, because some of them dive into the comic storyline more than others and some swim through history more than others. Miles’s explanation of each heresy in a modern context brings the history forward, so it doesn’t remain as weird ideas from the past. Casual readers can discover liberals commit the Batman heresy and ways we teach about the Trinity easily lead people into the Ant-Man heresy (Oneness Pentecostals teach that heresy explicitly).

In the chapter on the Green Lantern heresy, Miles’s dive into Christ’s humility as Paul puts it in Philippians 2:5-8 had me in tears. Christ Jesus is awesome. He is the only one who can save us. But from who? Luthor? Bane? Magneto or Doctor Doom? No, the real life treat we face is ourselves. We have forged our own destinies, followed our own dreams, and would pour dust upon dust forever if the Lord God, our Creator, refused to intervene.

Does ‘Loving Your Neighbor’ Mean ‘Just Preach the Gospel’?

Jesus told a story about a successful man and social outcast who rescued the victim of highwaymen on a Jericho road in response to a lawyer’s self-justifying question. “Yes, yes,” the lawyer said, “I know loving God with all of my heart, mind, and strength means I must love my neighbor, but surely some people are not my neighbors. Some people are actually beneath me, aren’t they?”

And we continue to seek self-justification today.

Jared Wilson offers five reasons for applying the gospel to societal ills as a rebuke to those who suggest orthodoxy means orthopraxy and to spend much time on the latter will undermine the former. (Of course, those who teach this don’t believe that because they only bring it up in select context.)

Jesus did not come simply preaching the gospel as idea but the gospel as kingdom. One need only consider Paul’s words in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 to see how expansive the finished work of Christ really is, just how much it is supposed to impact. For several years now, we’ve had certain corners of the church warning us about neglect of holiness and the law, scolding what they see as “cheap grace” and bloodless belief. Now many in these same corners are insisting that just the gospel message will do the trick against ethnic divisions or other sins. You rarely hear this imperative in response to the challenges of illegal immigration or the systemic injustice of abortion. Perhaps it’s because those issues do not effect us — or indict us — as directly.

Dr. Norvald Yri, 1944-2018

Norvald Yri

I learned today of the death (on Sunday) of a man I’d worked with and respected greatly. Dr. Norvald Yri was a Norwegian missionary and Bible scholar. Born in 1944, he served on the mission field for many years, both in Ethiopia and in Tanzania, and served as secretary for an international mission organization. He took his doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1975, and was the author of several books. One of them, Guds Ja, was a commentary on Romans 1 through 8. I translated it for him, but we never found an English publisher.

In recent years he had been a teacher at the Fjellhaug Bible School near Oslo. He also participated in a Bible translation project. He and several others were unhappy with the Norwegian Bible Society’s most recent translation, so they produced an alternative one, based on the King James version.

I corresponded with him by e-mail for many years, but only knew him personally for a short time when he was a visiting instructor at the seminary where I work. He and his wife were/are splendid people, and I think he will be hard to replace.

Hvil i fred (Rest in peace), Dr. Yri.

Slay the Clichés of a Shallow Mind

Matt Smethurst cuts up five Christian clichés that we ought to find gracious ways to contradict, such as “let go and let God.” I last saw this on Facebook in response to a friend going through an intense struggle and I came this close to telling that person to shut up. That wouldn’t have been gracious.

Smethurst writes, “At its best, this phrase highlights the value of surrender. God is God and you are not, so lay down your résumé, your excuses, your fears. All too often, though, the phrase is wielded as if the symbol of Christianity is not a cross but a couch. It’s subtly used to put the brakes on striving, on working, on effort.

“As J. I. Packer once put it, ‘The Christian’s motto should not be “Let go and let God” but “Trust God and get going.”‘”

Let go and let God

In a related vein, Jared Wilson dislikes the Little Red Hen. It’s good for teaching the nature of work, not so much to nature of grace. “When was the last time you were scandalized by grace? When was the last time you pondered how personally discombobulating and religiously revolutionary the gospel is? Grace covers us screw-ups and the things we screw up. ”

If the Little Red Hen had offered the bread to all the lazy animals who didn’t help her make it, perhaps she could have also noted how much the farmer provides for them (but that would break the story, so we don’t need to go down that road, to use the cliché.)

Embracing Homosexuality While Observing Christianity?

If there’s one topic I am most hesitant to say something about online, even the lightest comment, it’s homosexuality. Nowhere seems safe. But the topic is beginning to encroach on me in the form of a conference at the end of this month at a church within my denomination. Many words have already been spilled about this. There have been many posts and essays from the principals of the conference (and movement behind it) and their critics, and since the essence of the argument is on how to love our neighbors and fellow believers within a difficult context, background reading could take a long time, especially when the people behind the conference say they are being misrepresented and misunderstood.

The conference hopes to inspire Christian communities to embrace and empower “gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” That means the two conference principals and some supporters claim homosexuality as an identity description, albeit a disordered one, and that biblical morality does not allow its expression.  Any act is a sin, the orientation is a disorder, but they nonetheless hope to embrace same-sex attraction in the form of Christian friendship.

Here’s how one writer puts it.  Continue reading Embracing Homosexuality While Observing Christianity?

Hearing from Grandma

Grandma's hands
Photo credit: Cristian Newman

I had a moment of grace yesterday. No great miracle as miracles go, but it kind of moved me.

I’ve been using my grandmother’s old devotional book for my daily devotions this year. It’s an old book, in pretty bad shape, but I’ve found the meditations insightful. And anything connected with my grandma, who was perhaps the best person I ever knew, carries a measure of comfort. The book is Thy Kingdom Come, by Ludvig Hope. Hope was a leader of the lay evangelical movement in Norway, and along with several other church leaders (both conservative and liberal) he spent time in a concentration camp during World War II.

The book includes space for writing in important anniversaries at the bottom of each page. Grandma noted birthdays and weddings, and sometimes baptisms. Yesterday I noticed an unfamiliar name on an upcoming page. Most of the names in the book are familiar to me – family members and people from our church. But this name was unfamiliar. It was a woman’s name, and she would be a few years younger than me. I grew curious.

I went to Facebook and searched to see if she was listed under (assuming she was married) her maiden name. She was. I discovered that she is part of my own church body (which is not the one I grew up in), and her daughter is married to the son of one of the administrators at the Bible School where I work.

I contacted her, and found out she’s the granddaughter of Grandma’s sister. So I found a new cousin.

It was gratifying to find a lost relative. It was deeply satisfying to find one who believes as I do.

Grandma, I think, would be pleased.

Ascension Day

Ascension Bamberg Apocalypse
The Ascension of Christ” from the Bamberg Apocalypse, 11th Century

Today is Ascension Day in the Christian calendar. I won’t tell you what it’s called in Norwegian, because you’ll laugh.

All right, I’ll tell you if you insist. But don’t laugh.

Kristi Himmelfartsdagen.

Ascension Day is one of those sadly neglected church festivals that’s actually pretty meaningful. Ascension Day ties up the bow of the Resurrection, you might say. It finishes the operation, resolves the chord.

It has a number of implications. I saw a list today, and there were more than I’d ever thought about.

But I’ll mention the one that I remember, one Francis Schaeffer mentioned in one of his books.

Ascension Day verifies the physicality of Christian faith.

If you believe (and if you don’t, you’re not really a Christian) that Jesus rose from the dead with a body – a functioning body that could be touched and that ate food – then where is that body now?

The Ascension tells us that it’s with God in Heaven. Not some “metaphysical other.” Not the land of spirits and ghosts and legends. Some physical place. You can’t hide a body in a myth.

A place, as He promised, where we will be also someday.

Happy Ascension Day!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image

This is a moving article on how Christians, particular Reformed believers and Presbyterians, have sat beside the biblical lawyer in justifying themselves by asking who is actually our neighbors, by which we meant who did we not have to love in accord with the second commandment.

tl;dr – Mainstream conservative Calvinism neither caused American chattel slavery, nor cured it, but it capitulated to it, was complicit in it, and cooperated with it. Nineteenth century confessional Calvinism, especially in the South, codified, confirmed, corroborated and was coopted by American pro-slavery ideology, and then perpetuated that ideology in segregation after slavery was gone. While all along, the theological cure for slavery (and its underlying racism) sat quietly ignored in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: the imago Dei, neighbor love (along with, esp., the WLC expositions of the 6th and 10th commandments), the communion of the saints, and especially justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see Galatians 2, as deployed by John Newton and William Wilberforce in their arguments against the slave trade and slavery)!

Defending the Faith; Denying the Image – 19th Century American Confessional Calvinism in Faithfulness and Failure

 

Translators throw down

Through a discussion in comments over at Threedonia, a blog I frequent, an article from Christianity Today on a dispute between N.T. Wright and David Bentley Hart over how the New Testament ought to be translated:

Wright’s primary concern seems to be Hart’s understanding and use of language—both Greek and English. Hart claims his translation will in many parts be “an almost pitilessly literal translation,” intending to “make the original text visible through as thin a layer of translation as I can contrive to superimpose upon it.”

While Wright seems to respect what Hart is trying to accomplish, he nevertheless argues that instead of making the original text visible, Hart may actually be obscuring it by trying to render Greek syntax and idioms in English. “Greek and English, as Hart knows well, do not work the same way,” Wright argues. “… The strange English here has nothing to do with a cultural clash between the first Christians and ourselves.”

For the record, as a minor translator myself in a different language field, I’m pretty much on Wright’s side. As I told some seminarians recently, “The translator has two targets to shoot at — accuracy and faithfulness. They are not the same targets. In general, I opt for faithfulness.”

David, We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Cake

Today, April 20, is the 300th birthday of David Brainerd, a missionary to Native Americans who left a mark on the people of my town and stirred many souls who have read his diary, which was edited by Jonathan Edwards. In honor of the day, Thomas Kidd shares his review of The Lives of David Brainerd: The Making of an American Evangelical Icon.

In this important book that should be read by scholars of American and British evangelicalism, John Grigg provides a compelling biographical portrait of Brainerd, one of Christian history’s most influential missionaries. It offers new information on episodes such as Brainerd’s famous expulsion from Yale, which may have been precipitated by more persistent, abrasive radicalism than Brainerd simply declaring that tutor Chauncey Whittelsey had no more grace than a chair.

Just say what you mean!

I’ve taken to meeting with a small group of Bible school students for lunch once a week. We talk about writing, and stories, and the Inklings, etc.

Two weeks ago I talked about the difficulty we all have in writing plainly.

I’m inclined to think that it’s evidence of original sin that writing plainly is so hard.

Objectively, what should be easier than writing down exactly what you mean? It’s your own meaning. Just put it in words.

But it turns out to be one of the hardest things in the world.

We write a sentence, or a story, or a book, and then we look at it. We say, “No, that wasn’t what I really meant. It’s not quite right.” So we change some words.

But that wasn’t quite what we really meant either.

And so we go through revision after revision, deleting and adding words, replacing words, altering sentence length, breaking up and combining paragraphs. Until we finally hammer out something that seems to say (kind of) what we want.

But even when it’s done – even after it’s published (if we’re so lucky) there’s a lingering doubt. “Was that really what I meant to say? Could I have said it better? How would Phil Wade have put it?”

I think the reason is original sin. We’re so perverted in our nature, so blind to our own hearts, that saying what we mean is nearly the hardest thing we can do. (C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces has this idea as a central theme.)

Ecclesiastes 7:29 says, “Lo, this only I have found, that God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.”

I’m going to post this now, though I probably could have put it better.

Evil Is Bound by the Shore

There’s a marvelous biblical metaphor I’ve only known about for a few years, that the sea is a picture of evil and chaos. When Jesus preformed any miracle, he did so with Messianic implications, never as a mere demonstration of his power. So when he walked on the water, he did so as a metaphor of his authority over all the earth, including this ancient picture of evil. (If you need more to support this idea, note that the beasts of Daniel and John’s prophecies rise from the sea and that in the new heaven and earth “the sea [is] no more” (Rev. 21:1).)

I wrote earlier this week about the uneasy idea presented in the book of Job about evil having a place in the created order, and when God answers Job at the end of the book, that’s largely what he talks about.

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? (Job 38:8–11)

The Lord’s first speech can read like a list of creation areas. Look at the sea. Look at the sky. How about the depths of the earth? Do you have any control over these things? But this is a grand and majestic poem from thousands of years ago. It has many beautiful lines and pictures to provoke our attention. Here the Lord says he has “shut in the sea” and bound it, even like an infant, and he’s talking about evil. The Lord is describing all of the wickedness and natural horror in the world in terms of that dark, mysterious, alien world off the coast. It may eat away at our shores and flood our river valleys, but the Lord has said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther.”

That’s not to say evil is actually good; it’s only to say God sees a place for it that we will not understand.

Why won’t the Lord drain the sea complete? Why must we live in a world where monsters swim the deeps and storms born over the ocean crash into our cities? That question isn’t answered, but if we worry over God’s ability or intent to control the seas in our lives, he asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16). In short, do you have a handle on creation’s extremities? Could you unlock the gates of death? Of course not; only the Almighty has. His knowledge extends to every corner of existence. That’s not academic knowledge; that’s intimate control. By the wise Lord’s all-powerful hand, evil keeps to its place. Though it may overflow it’s banks from time to time, that’s not because it has gotten away from God’s control. The Lord can stop the springs of the deep whenever he wants. Wickedness will not flood us because the Lord holds it back. Anything that afflicts us has been given limited permission to do so.

So what do we do when, like Job, our suffering overwhelms us?

Read and pray the Psalms. Cry out to the Almighty God in faith, remembering his character, wisdom, and faithfulness. In all things, seek to love him with all of our heart and love our neighbors in response to that love. And recognize we do not need to defend God from every charge, because God’s own defense does not explain the place of evil.

“God thunders wondrously with his voice;
he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5).