Archives For May 2013

RedLetterChristians LogoThis is the conclusion of a post over at RedLetter Christians by Stephen Mattson  that I want to feature. (Click here to see the original post in it entirety).  As I said before it puts the major problems with our current version of American Christianity into an almost perfect shell. Today we will look at the last four things and next time I will give some personal thoughts about all six observations in this list.

3) Speed and Shallowness — Our fast-paced culture of celebrity, noise and entertainment has trumped our ability to patiently meditate, pray and reflect. 

The most popular theologians and pastors now have their own web platforms, and we expect them to engage in every newsworthy event—no matter how significant (or insignificant) it may be. A Christian author may spend years of exhaustive work and research in order to write a book, but we’ll manage to ruthlessly and publicly tear it apart within minutes of publication.

Mistakes are made, statements are shouted, relationships are ended, and it’s often too late to retrace our steps and retract our sins. We sacrifice contentment, care and thoughtfulness in order to quench our insatiable desire for social interaction and cheap entertainment.

4) We’re Privileged — Change is hard to accept when things are working in your favor. As the common expression goes: “Why is change a good thing?” Any theology, idea or sermon that challenges people to sacrifice or reach beyond their comfort zones isn’t easily accepted.

Many American Christians defend their position so passionately because the greatest beneficiaries of their worldview are themselves. But when people are persecuted, abandoned, ignored or powerless, their perspective changes and they become open to different paradigms. These new paradigms are invisible and seem illogical to those that live comfortably.

5) Consumerism — We have 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?

The message of Christ should be available for free, to everyone. The best worship, pastors, teachers, ideas, inspiration and resources should not be reserved for only those who can afford to pay for the latest albums and books, buy tickets to conferences, pay tuition for Seminary, or submit a fee for retreats—you get the picture. As Christians, we need to be intentional about fighting our cultural habit of commercializing everything, and be willing to generously offer our gifts and resources freely to everyone—with no strings (or charges) attached.

6) Obsessed with Power — Power-hungry Christians view their faith as a battle, a series of wins and losses. Control and influence is valued above all else, and Christianity’s success is measured by research, statistics, attendance and the success of church-supported laws at the state and federal level. Success is hardly gauged by the fruits of the Spirit or by how well we’re following Christ’s example.

A thirst for power results in Christians who prefer political might over spiritual strength, legal enforcement over personal choice, conscription over evangelism, punishment over grace, fear over hope, and control over love. In extreme cases, even violence and aggression is viewed as a necessary means of gaining power.

But “Christianity” in America is no longer an institutionalized tradition that people automatically do on Sunday mornings— this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It forces us to care less about power and more about the gospel of Christ. Jesus routinely sacrificed worldly power for humble service and love. Is selfless love something that American Christians are ready for? We’ll soon find out. 

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RedLetterChristians LogoMy friends over at RedLetter Christians have done it again. They have put the major problems with our current version of American Christianity into an almost perfect shell. The words below were some of the thoughts penned by Stephen Mattson. See all the complete text by clicking here. I see no reason to add any additional words. I will be using the next two posts to bring their message forward and then a third one to talk about them from a personal veiwpoint. In order to keep the posts around my self-imposed 500 word or so limit I have done some slight editing.

America is wonderful! We have religious freedom to express our beliefs and worship according to our preferences, but there are also very distinct problems associated with American Christianity. Here are some of the main ones:

1) Infighting — Instead of unifying believers, Christ has become a symbol of discontentment and divisiveness. Theologians publicly humiliate each other, pastors hatefully condemn those they disagree with, denominations split over minor differences, Facebook is used as a platform to spread hurtful comments and derogatory memes, Twitter accounts are used as vicious tools of attacks, and people spew degrading opinions and gossip—often without provocation. Disdain reaches hyperbolic proportions, and accusations of being a “heretic” and “false prophet” are freely given to various individuals who simply have new, bold or different ideas.

American Christians have forgotten how to dialogue and respectfully disagree. We’ve abandoned concepts like grace, humility and love and have devolved into critics instead of encouragers, instigators instead of peacemakers, debaters instead of friends, and reactionists instead of innovators.

We crave independence and avoid teamwork, and prefer communities who share similar theological, political and social beliefs. Exclusiveness is preferred over acceptance, and we religiously bolster our personal ideologies instead of readily listen to others. Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches as we destroy ourselves and the gospel we represent.

2) Unfair and Inaccurate Associations — American Christianity is obsessed with labels. We ascribe names, descriptors and titles for various theologies, denominations, movements, political ideas and social ideologies.

We judge individuals based on the flimsiest of associations in order to fulfill our superficial stereotypes. Therefore, someone who likes Rob Bell must be a “Liberal Universalist,” while someone who admires John Piper must be a “Calvinist.” Mystery and ambiguity is mistakenly perceived as ignorance, and so we categorize everyone—including ourselves.

We live in an age where the term “Christian” means a million different things to a million different people. To make matters worse, non-Christians have their own associations—often warranted. Therefore, an individual claiming to be Christian can be misinterpreted as being Homophobic, Conservative, Anti-Science and Sexist, even though those descriptions may be completely inaccurate.

Christian groups and organizations reinforce negative perceptions through campaigns, lobbying efforts, institutionalized doctrines, public comments and actions, making it harder to break down preconceived stereotypes that our popular culture and media continue to associate with Jesus.

For believers, the term “Christian” is just the beginning label, a generic description meant to be broken down and dissected. What type of Christian are they? A moderate? Liberal? Egalitarian? Lutheran? Charismatic? What style of worship do they prefer? What translation of the Bible do they use? The classifications could go on forever.

American Christianity is a complex and diverse array of beliefs and ideologies, and every individual is unique, but we prefer to reduce everything through labels, forfeiting truth for the sake of compartmentalization and simplification.

Next time I will present the final four…

Bass Book

Abelard rejected the idea that Christ died as a result of God’s vengeance for human disobedience. Abelard was horrified by the novel teaching of his fellow theologian, Anselm (1033–1109), who proposed that Jesus died to satisfy the divine justice of his Father, as a payment of a legal debt required as recompense for sin and to restore God’s honor. Abelard exclaimed: Indeed, how cruel and perverse it seems that [God] should require the blood of the innocent as the price of anything, or that it should in any way please Him that an innocent person should be slain—still less that God should hold the death of His Son in such acceptance that by it He should be reconciled with the whole world.  Who, Abelard demanded, would forgive such a God for killing his own son?

Later theologians refer to Abelard’s idea as the moral influence theory of the cross, and it would eventually, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, shape liberal Christianity. The theory, however, was rejected by many of Abelard’s contemporaries. Anselm’s idea of blood sacrifice eventually won the day. Although some in the church attempted to have Abelard tried for heresy, the charges never stuck, and Abelard died in communion with the medieval church.

A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Bass, Diana Butler)

This is a continuation of my off and on again review of the book above. As I have mentioned before it was not until the 10th century that our current idea of atonement was solidified. The above quote gives some details about that. Anselm was one of the first theologians to suggest that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s wrath and distain for humanity. Abelard was one of the few who dared to question the concept. He was quite startled by this claim but since he was eventually on the losing side of this doctrine little is mentioned about him or this conflict in today’s churches.

The idea of sacrificial atonement as cited above has always troubled me but since it is so deeply embedded in much of current Christian theology I dared not think too hard about it or question it too vocally.  To do so might have threatened my membership in the Lutheran denomination that I currently belonged. Now that I have declared my independence from that body I can ask questions like Abelard did centuries before me without a sense of retribution.

My major take from Jesus’ teaching is about a God of love, not one of vengeance. Jesus told us that the most important thing to take from his teachings was to love God as he loves us and to love each other.  To me I see little space for a vengeful god in those words. Blood atonement simply makes no sense to me.

Abelard was more fortunate than many in the church who disagreed with beliefs that won out. Many were murdered as heretics and all their works burned. For that reason we will really never know the actual extent of disagreement in much of church history.  As Mrs. Bass goes on to mention beginning with the twentieth century these questions have again risen with some seriousness. Thanks heavens for that.

This “new” Christianity is sick of culture wars, political agendas, hypocrisy and legalistic doctrines. They prefer inclusion over restriction, dialogue over debate, practice over preaching, and love over judgment. Authentic communities are preferred over institutionalized organizations, and grassroots groups gain wisdom and knowledge from relational interaction, social media, the web, and an array of other sources—there is no monopoly controlling leadership or sources of information…

And while many traditional Evangelicals decry this movement as being shallow, theologically weak and even heretical, many see it as a step in the right direction—a revolution similar to that of the early church: authentically living out Christ’s model of service, sacrifice and holistic love….

When it comes to following Christ, it’s easy to get distracted by things that don’t matter, and Satan is always trying to divide and destroy. This is how something as simple as following Christ’s example becomes a complicated mess filled with thousands of theologies, practices and conflicting beliefs.

Source: When Revolutions Become Religions – Stephen Mattson – Red Letter Christians.

The above words come from a blog that I am a regular visitor. It very much aligns with my views of religion and it also aligns with the title of this blog.  The story above is a discussion of the “emergent church” that is happening in much of the world today.

I find it totally disheartening that our most powerful Christian denominations in the U.S. today are so intertwined with the extreme radical right edge of our our political processes. The political agendas that are prevalent in that group run very counter to the teachings of Jesus, at least to me. Much of the evangelical community today seems to be more interested in rules and restrictions to keep their followers in line than they are about actually living as Christ taught us.

Something is drastically wrong when we find it necessary to divide into 39,000+ different versions of Jesus. This fact is not going unnoticed by the current younger generations. It is unlikely that they, like their mothers and fathers will return to established churches that cling to outdated agendas.

Many evangelicals have nothing but disdain for the emergents in their midst and yes there are many in their midsts, whether they recognize it or not. Many of the current religious leaders somehow believe that this new movement to get back to the roots of Christianity is a passing fancy. I see it as anything but that.  The movement is about living Jesus’ teaching instead of just listening and agreeing to what their leaders say about Jesus.  They are just too attuned to things that just don’t matter to many of us in the 21st century.

I am totally convinced that the emergent movement will eventually take back the church to its early roots. But to do that means tearing down some of the man-made rules and traditions that currently stifle that idea.  Yes, the times they are a-changin.

While Tertullian emphasized the negative aspects of the military to Christian discipleship, Origen pointed out the positive vision of a life of Christian peacemaking. He criticized the army as a society of “professional violence,” pointing out that Jesus forbids any kind of violence or vengeance against another. “We will not raise arms against any other nation, we will not practice the art of war,” he wrote, “because through Jesus Christ we have become the children of peace.” To him the spiritual life means rejecting all forms of violence, and “absolute pacifism.”

A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Bass, Diana Butler)

I know I have mentioned this fact several times on this blog but it is worth talking about yet again. Most of the early Christians believed that being a soldier was just not compatible with being a Christian.  When Jesus told us that the two most important things in a Christian’s life is to love God and to love all your fellow-man that precluded an occupation directed toward killing others.  It was not until four hundred years later when Augustine penned his treatise on “just wars” did this even begin to be reversed.

Here are a couple of other quotes from this book related to Augustine:

Augustine (354–430), an adult convert to Christianity and the reluctant bishop of the North African city of Hippo, emerged as the dominant theologian of Constantinian Christianity. His questions shaped Western Christianity for more than a millennium. Perhaps no one struggled more than he to understand doctrine, practice, and the institution of the church in the new cultural context, as shown by his thousands of pages of theological speculation on politics, the church, the nature of God, and Christian living….

 Although he had written reams about original sin, predestination, the creeds, just war, and heresy, the mature Augustine returned to the central point of early Christianity: “This love embraces both the love of God and the love of our neighbor, and ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” 

Augustine, like Paul before him, was a prolific writer/thinker of his time. He, like me sometimes ;), had an opinion on just about everything. It was interesting to see that later in his life he basically came back to the original premise of Christianity.  I wonder what he would say if he were alive today about how so much of his words shaped Jesus’ religion. I wonder if he wished he could have taken back some of those initial thoughts?

I am somewhat of a believer in the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson that Augustine, along with St. Paul, took a very simple message of Jesus and made it complicated.

How did we get to the point today where so many Christians seem to  celebrate military conflict. They proudly encourage their children to become warriors  in our military. Many have almost made being a soldier a requirement for being a “real” Christian.

Before I start on my study of the history of the church I want to do an “aside” post here on another topic.

I just read a very thoughtful post over at Rachel Held Evan’s blog about mysticism and evangelicalism. In it she was commenting on a book by Tim Challis about how mysticism, which he defined at any experiences with God outside of the Bible, as not being valid. I am not going to get into his arguments to back up this belief nor Rachel’s counter to it. Click on the link above to see all that.  Instead I am going to talk about how Mr. Challis and many evangelicals I have encountered to have thoroughly dismiss the pope as a mediator between man and God but then turn around and put the Bible in that position.

I personally have been on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide so I think I have an understanding of some of the differences. I spent the first 20 years in the Catholic church in one degree or another. I went to the first seven years of schooling being taught by nuns and priests. During that time I learned that man can’t interact directly with God as he is just too holy for our sinfulness.  Instead we had to count on the parish priest for our daily interactions with God and for the Pope for the really deep understandings.

Even during those years I felt uncomfortable with this idea. We received communion  on a regular basis but at that moment when the bread wafer turned into Jesus it was over the hunched shoulders of the priest ruling over the mass.  We just weren’t allow to be part of that transformation.  When I was an altar boy I occasionally tried to sneak a look at just what was going on but never saw anything I thought was miraculous about it. I just couldn’t understand why I needed someone else to talk to God for me.

As was typical I turned away from all things religious during my college years. I occasionally dabbled in the RCC but only very tepidly. When I was about to get married I had my first encounters with those people outside the “real” church. THose who call themselves Protestants in one form or another. The flavor I was involved with were Lutherans. I must admit that many of the things with Lutherans and Catholics are very similar. They have basically the same liturgy and beliefs with most things but definitely not when it come to the Pope. I can’t number how many times I heard very harsh words about the pope in my Lutheran circles. I was embarrassed by this almost hatred because I couldn’t understand it coming from  Christians.

In reality I have come to realize that Lutherans and I expect many other Protestants have simply moved from one mediator to another. They take all authority away from the pope and put it on the document created under the tutelage of King Constantine in the fourth century. Of course that document is the Bible. While the Bible contains very inspiring writings passed down from generation to generation before being penned it is not the sole presence of God in the world today. To say that God quit instructing us how to live and love more than 1600 years ago is to take power away from him.  And I am just not one to do that…..

Bass BookI have been studying the history of the church to try an understand how we got to where we are today. An important book in that investigation is entitled “A People’s History of Christianity, The Other Side of the Story” by Diana Butler Bass. This is not the first book I have read by this author and it certainly won’t be the last. With this post I am starting another book review series around this book. Here is a little about what Wikipedia says about her:

Diana Butler Bass is a historian focusing on the history of Christianity and the author of six books on American religion, three of which have won research or writing awards. She earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University in 1991, with an emphasis on American church history where she studied under George Marsden. From 1995–2000, she wrote a weekly column on religion and culture for the New York Times Syndicate that appeared in more than seventy newspapers nationwide. Currently, she is a blogger for the God’s Politics blog with Jim Wallis at Beliefnet [1] and is a Red-Letter Christian.

Being a U.S. history buff, when I see a title that starts with “A People’s History” I assume that it is more about what happened to the common people rather than the dominant leaders of those time. Many times the two are very different. A history of the depression as seen from the eyes of Roosevelt or any of the Washingtonians is very different from the history as seen by a dust bowl farmer or someone out of work for a long time. That is what I expected when I started this book and I was not disappointed with what I found.

The history of the church most often is around the predominant saints and theologians of the times. Or maybe it is about some of the shakers such as Luther, or a pope. What happens in the rank-and-file of the people often is unreported. There is an old saying that “history belongs to the victors” and the church is certainly not immune from that concept. Very little seems to still exist about those who had different views than the ones who won the individual battles.

Mrs. Bass spent I think three years researching this book. I personally have tried to study some of the early church writings but quite frankly they are difficult to understand given the different use of language of the periods. This book is well written and to the point.  Most of the posts in this series wills start out with a given idea and a quote, or quotes, from the book. I will then add my personal observations and thoughts.

The posts will not be in a chronological order, nor will they be complete. I would highly encourage anyone looking for that depth to get a copy of the book and read it in its entirety. Since this review is being written as it is posted I don’t know exactly how many posts will be involved but I imagine it will be more than ten but less than twenty.  For those who really want to understand how we got to where we are it is important to realize that there has never been a totally homogeneous period in the church where differing opinions were lacking.

When I was a kid in the Catholic church I remember that the priests and nuns took a vow of poverty. That is they put their obedience to God above monetary gain. That seemed like a noble thing to me. Of course I have come to realize that this vow of poverty did not mean that the Catholic clergy lived a lifestyle of the poor around them. They were provided a handsome house with a housekeeper/ cook to provide for them and when they retired there was a rather comfortable living arrangement for them to live out their lives.

A vow of poverty was just not the same as living in poverty. Even that being the case they are giving up much of the luxuries that are common in this world. I do admire them for that. I’m not sure if this vow is exclusively Catholic or if other denominations follow suit. I do know that the clergyman of the Lutheran church which I used to belong to was very well compensated for his efforts. His salary and benefits exceeded most in the congregation he served.

Maybe that is one of the problems that churches have when it comes to ministering to the poor. Many just have no idea what being poor is really about. A vow of poverty kind of makes sense for those who are teaching us that we are only visitors in the world and that our true home is in the next.

Let’s continue on with our brief study of the Gospel of Mark. This time it will be about people’s faith and the Bread. I know that seems like two different things but let me try to tie them together.

During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said,  “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.  If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”...

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They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them:“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?  Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?“”Twelve,” they replied.

It is hard for me to imagine the frailty of their faith that the apostles continuously had in the messages and abilities of Jesus. Any of the miracles that he performed would have made me a firm and total believer. But, of course that is total speculation on my part. As an aside Thomas Jefferson believed that all the miracles  attached to Jesus were add by those wanting to enhance is divinity after he ascended into heaven. If that is the case then things change.

I kind of like the story about feeding the five thousand. I can’t imagine that many people sitting at the feet of Jesus for three days and without much food at that.  The apostles seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the people were probably hungry but Jesus having God’s agape love for everyone was very aware of their hunger both spiritually and physically.

The second part of the quote above is believed to be shortly after the first one and bread is again the subject matter.  Jesus seems very disappointed that his twelve did not seem to learn anything from the previous encounter with bread. I can imagine that he was continuously disappointed in the apostles’ action much like he is about almost all of our actions in today’s world.

The apostles just didn’t seem to “get it” and neither do so many of us.  But, I would kind of like to give us an excuse. We only have passed down verbal accounts of many of Jesus’ dealing and the accounts that we have have been interpreted in so many different ways as to be confusing even to educated theologians. Almost every one of the red letters has many different beliefs about them. Sometimes I think that man has just taken the simple messages of Jesus and made them complicated by all our passed down traditions and dogma.

Let’s get back to the basics and that is Jesus told us to love God with all our hearts and souls and to love each other. It couldn’t be simpler than that. How have we lost that basic message in the church today?

Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked.“Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Luke 2:47-52

Unfortunately there is very little info in the four gospel in the Bible about Jesus outside of the three years of his ministry. I think there is more in the gnostic gospels but I have yet to really study them in that regard. This is one of the few stories about Jesus the child. He was reported to be eight years old on this account where he was preaching at a synagogue.

I’m sure if I were one of the witness from which this account was drawn I too would have been amazed at his understanding and his answers. I’m sure he was very different from any other eight year old of those or even these times.  The last sentence in this quote has invoked quite a bit of discussion within the church. If Jesus was God how could he grow in wisdom. Isn’t God all-wise? When he said he had to be in his father’s house did he make that statement figuratively as many did during those times or literally?

These questions are still being asked today. Some say Jesus was God from the very beginning. Some say he was not God until his baptism by John. Of course beyond pure speculation we will never really know the answer to that question. But I kind of like the answer that Jesus had pretty much a normal childhood and grew in his wisdom and his divinity as the years progressed. I really don’t know how to take the statement above about him growing in favor with God.  Does that imply that he was at least at some level out of favor with God? Isn’t he supposed to be God? How can he grow into favor with himself? Of course my opinion matters little except in my own mind but that doesn’t keep me from asking questions.