Archive for May 28, 2011

Is Christianity Dying?

Fifty years ago religious pundits said Christianity was dying. Harvey Cox wrote in “The Secular City” that we had entered a new era, when people were learning to live without religion.

The events of the last few years tell a different story: the remarkable controversy over Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ; the unflagging popularity of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, based on an old notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and they had a child together, and that Mary and the child escaped to France and became the centre of a vast secret cult; the incredible success of the Left Behind stories, that have sold more than 40,000,000 copies and helped set the stage for what some journalists are calling the “rapture mentality” of right-wing America.

What happened? The power and creativity of the Christian faith obviously aren’t dead. They’re enjoying one of the most remarkable resurgences  imagined. Why? What’s the secret of Christianity’s enduring dynamism?

Perhaps it goes back to something the Gospel of John says occurred in the upper room in Jerusalem. The disciples gathered there after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst, even though the doors were locked. He greeted them with the customary greeting “Shalom” and showed them the wounds in his hands and side. He told them he was sending them out just as his Father had sent him. And then he did a very odd thing. He breathed on them.

Our word “inspiration” comes from the Latin words in spirare, “to breathe into.” Jesus was inspiring the disciples by breathing his own breath into them. It’s a wonder this didn’t become a sacrament of the church, because it set into motion one of the most powerful forces the human spirit has ever known. Jesus breathed on the disciples and started a revolution of creativity that has never stopped.

It formed the early church, which by the fourth century was the most powerful influence in the world. It shaped the art and thought of the Middle Ages. It led to the founding of the great universities. Our culture in North America grew out of the Christian Reformation. Even when the world began to look more secular, the basic driving force of art, education, medicine and philanthropy all came from Christianity. The creativity Jesus released in that little room in Jerusalem when he breathed on his disciples shaped and reshaped the world for centuries.

We can’t imagine our culture without it. The great cathedrals, our legal and judicial systems, our whole understanding of morality, our arts, Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Mozart, the modern university system, the healing professions, social services, the idea of a United Nations, world service organizations – none of them would have happened without the enduring breath of Christ.

That heritage keeps being renewed. This is why there’s a resurgence of religious interest in the present time. The creative power is still there. It’s still at work in our lives and culture.

The phrase “Caesar’s breath” is science’s way of reminding us that energy never dies or disappears. The molecules of Caesar’s breath, 2,000 years ago, are still in our atmosphere today. They have scattered around the globe and we are breathing them with every breath we take. Similarly, Christ’s breath is still alive. The breath he breathed into the disciples that day in the upper room – the spirit and power of God – is still circulating. And it is far more powerful than Caesar’s breath. It’s the reminder that God, whose spirit hovered over the face of the deep at creation, was still making the world through Christ and is still working on it today.

Where is that spirit operating now? What will its new manifestations be? The challenge is to try to see it, to anticipate it, before it happens, to guess which way the power of God is going.

If the past is any guide, the Spirit of God will manifest itself in creative ways that will completely surprise us. It will be something we probably never guessed or expected.

Perhaps, with the new globalism produced by electronic communications and modern travel and the erosion of old economic and political barriers, a  hundred years from now we shall see a Christianity vastly transformed by its openness to other religions and its desire to relate to them in the quest for a new and higher form of spirituality.

That may be threatening to some people. That’s why fundamentalism has become so strong. People are afraid of the unknown. They cling desperately to what they regard as the great pillars of their own faith and believe the world will come to an end if those pillars are threatened in any way. That’s why the Left Behind  books are so popular. They convince frightened believers that the world is about to come to an end because their old religious culture is under siege.

And it isn’t happening just in North America. There’s a brand of fundamentalism in almost every religion in the world right now. That’s why Islamic fundamentalists have been so successful in rallying Muslim fanatics.  They too are afraid of the collapse of the only culture they have known.

This frightening time we are in is a great creative opportunity, and the inspiration breathed into the apostles all those centuries ago is still alive today, and it will respond to the opportunity by forging a new Christianity for a new age. It will produce new understandings of the world, and new theologies and ethics, and new forms of worship and devotion, and new societies for advancing all of these.

Henry Kissinger, who has become one of the world’s leading oracles, said recently in The Washington Post that we are all too shortsighted. While we are focusing our attention on the Middle East, al Qaida and the terrorists, something of much greater significance is occurring. It has to do with Asia, which Kissinger says is becoming the next great focus of manufacturing and economic power in the world, and which will soon rearrange all our perspectives of who we are and what it means to be members of the world order.

Suppose he is right. Buddhism and Hinduism and other Asian religions are already becoming popular in the West. What will the ascendancy of the East do to alter the playing field for Christianity? I believe that Christianity is up to it – that the creative power that has been there from the beginning, since that day when Jesus breathed on the disciples, will prove itself as strong as ever. Nothing will look the same after the revolution. But the spirit of Christ will still be there, shaping a new world for our children and their children and their children after them.

A faithful churchgoer well into her eighties was asked how she felt about all the change taking place in the world around us. “Oh, I don’t worry about it at all,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “You know, God has always managed to bring the best out of the worst, and somehow I don’t think God will fail us now!”

Where Have All the Young People Gone? (part 4 of 4)

The last three blogs introduced information from Adam Hamilton’s book, When Christians Get it Wrong. Hamilton studied why young people have rejected Christianity. Most object to Christianity because of beliefs, attitudes and actions of Christians they experienced. Their criticism was based on one or more of the following five elements:1.    The unchristian ways some Christians act
2.    The anti-intellectual, anti-science stance of some Christians
3.    Christianity’s views of other world religions
4.    Questions related to the role of God in human suffering
5.    The way Christians view homosexuality

The first four issues have been covered in the last three commentaries. The fifth criticism is about dealing with homosexuality. This is a controversial subject where people of sincere and honest conviction differ in their thinking about it. Three things need to be kept in mind as we consider this subject. First, not all young adults agree on whether homosexuality is a valid form of sexual expression. Second, most young adults seem to agree that gay and lesbian persons deserve compassion and respect, and that too many Christians fail to show it to them.

The 2007 Barna study found that 91% of young adults labelled Christianity “anti-homosexual,” which led them to turn away from the church. A 2010 Pew Forum study noted that young adults see homosexuality very differently from those who came before them. Hamilton is not suggesting that Christians should determine morality by survey. Young adults see this issue differently than their parents and grandparents do. For young people, this issue is about excluding and hurting people they know and care about. They are much more likely to see homosexuality  not as a willful decision to act in sinful, immoral, or perverted ways, but as a natural way that a small percentage of the population is either biologically or psychologically “wired.” They do not consider it offensive, immoral, or sinful when two people of the same gender love each other deeply.

Mainline churches are terribly divided over this issue. This is an important issue for both sides in the divide. For “traditionalists” – Christians who support the traditional views that sexual intimacy and marriage are morally appropriate only between a man and a woman – the issue is not about just homosexuality but about the authority and role of Scripture in the life of Christians. Some who are conservative on this issue, are great advocates for social justice in other areas of life. Many are compassionate and welcome homosexuals into their churches. Where they struggle is with the idea of setting aside the Bible’s handful of clear prohibitions against homosexual sexual intimacy and passages pointing toward marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

It is difficult to see how one can set aside these scriptures and still maintain that the Bible has authority to speak in other areas of our lives. Why should we take seriously the scriptures on helping the poor, or loving our enemies when we have set aside scriptures indicating that God’s will for marriage to be between a man and woman? A great battle rages withing the most compassionate persons between the desire to show compassion and fairness toward homosexuals and their believe that the Bible is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

When it comes to the debate over homosexuality within the Christian faith, the underlying issue is not homosexuality but the nature of Scripture and its authority for our lives. How can we set aside the handful of scriptures that teach that same-sex intimacy is wrong without setting aside the whole of Scripture? It’s unsettling to say that a particular moral teaching in the Scriptures is no longer applicable to us.

For many Christians, their view of the Bible is  simplistic: Scripture is the Word of God. All Scripture was on an equal plane, and every word was chosen by God. The Bible was inerrant and infallible. “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.”

The Bible is more complicated than simplistic slogans. We don’t simply follow each word and apply it literally to our lives. For example, most Christians eat pork, crab, shrimp, and lobster – all of which are forbidden by God in the Bible. Most Christians take their Sabbath rest and day of worship on the first day of the week – Sunday – rather than on Saturday when God commanded its observation. We think nothing of mowing the yard or cleaning the house on our day off. When Jesus tells us to cut off our hands if they cause us to sin, we don’t take him literally – we interpret his words. Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth yet most of us have retirement plans. Is this not a violation of the actual words of Jesus?

Peter says to women “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing.” Despite these clear instructions from the Bible, many Christians do not take these teachings literally.

Beyond these teachings, passages in the Bible attribute to God actions and attitudes that seem wholly out of character with the way Jesus portrays God. The Bible commands the community to stone to death sons who are disrespectful to their parents. Those who work on the Sabbath are also to be put to death. If a priest’s daughter becomes a prostitute, he is to burn her to death. How do we reconcile that with Jesus, who was a friend to prostitutes. And when God asks Saul to lead the armies of Israel against the Amalekites, saying, “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” is this really right? Did God really command that Saul destroy the Amalekites because 375 years earlier their ancestors had treated the Israelites with disrespect? Contrast this view of God with that portrayed in Luke when Jesus (God the Son) is hanging on the cross and looks upon the Romans and the Pharisees who crucified him and prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?” Is God vindictive, destroying a people 375 years after an offense, or is God one who shows mercy even to the people who torture, humiliate, and hang him on a cross?

The question then is: Did God change, or did human understanding of God change?

Biblical scholars speak of “progressive revelation.” This is the idea that the promptings of God’s Spirit were understood in the light of the concepts, ideas, and presuppositions of the times in which the biblical authors lived. Christians speak of the Bible as the “Word of God” but it was not dictated by God. Rather, it was written by people who were reflecting upon God, God’s will, and God’s promptings in their hearts. The authors were speaking to the people of their times, addressing current issues, needs, and challenges. Unlike any words about God in the Scripture, Jesus is the pure and complete Word of God. Thus we read all Scripture in the light of what Jesus said and did.

We seek to live according to the Bible. But we also need to recognize that the word of God is found in the midst of the words of humans, and these words may not adequately capture the timeless Word of God. The Bible captures God’s word as it was given in specific historical circumstances, understood, and recorded by authors who were shaped by and addressed their own cultures. Christians need to understand the Bible’s teachings in the light of Jesus’ own life and teachings. This is particularly true when the words of the Bible are used to exclude particular groups of people.

Consider the example of Peter – a Christian leader coming to understand that a particular teaching of Scripture is not God’s timeless word, and it is time to set this teaching aside as no longer applicable. Peter is a follower of Jesus and a Jew. His Bible is the writings of the Old Testament. Peter is still striving to live according to its 613 laws because the Bible says it. Peter is in the town of Joppa and is hungry. While his meal is being prepared, he is in prayer. As he prays, he enters into something like a trance and sees a vision. A large sheet is let down in front of him by its four corners, and inside it are all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds that God clearly commands not to be eaten. God’s commands prohibit even touching such animals. To touch them is to become defiled. Then Peter heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

In Peter’s vision, he hears God telling him to do something expressly forbidden by Scripture. Peter is told to set aside a clear teaching of Scriptures, and he is given permission to eat what had formerly been unclean. This passage is the beginning of something huge that God is doing.

Following this vision, Peter accepts an invitation from Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter goes to his home. A good Jew would not have entered this home because Gentiles were considered unclean. But Peter has an epiphany. He suddenly understands: The rules are changing! He explains, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane of unclean.”

Peter’s world is changing, and he must move beyond the mind-set that says, “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” Instead he says, “The Bible says it, but I think God is up to something new, so I will listen to and follow God.”

None of this sets aside the bible’s teaching on homosexuality, but it does give us permission to ask questions: “When Leviticus teaches that same-sex intimacy is an abomination and that those who participate in it should be put to death, does this capture the heart, character, and eternal will of God or do the verses capture the values and reflections of a people who lived 3,200 years ago and who had little understanding of homosexuality?” Does God really want us to put homosexuals to death? When Paul writes about women and men committing shameless acts with one another by giving up the “natural” form of sexual intimacy for the unnatural, was that God speaking and declaring homosexuality to be shameless and unnatural, or was it Paul describing first-century Jewish understandings of what was natural and unnatural?

 So, do we set aside every scripture we don’t like and find a rationalization for setting it aside? No, but we do engage in serious study and reflection when we are faced with serious issues, and we don’t simply quote a verse or two and consider the matter settled.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, understood Scripture is the primary basis for our faith and practice. It contains all that is necessary for our salvation. But he also believed that rightly interpreting and applying Scripture in life requires the benefit of the church’s theological, ethical, and biblical reflections of the last 2,000 years – including the work of scholars, commentators, ethicists, and theologians. He also emphasized the role of our rational minds and scientific knowledge in our reading of Scripture. Finally, he called us to bring our life experience and the witness of the Spirit to bear upon our study, interpretation, and application of Scripture in our lives.

This is the essential work of rightly handling the Scriptures. This is the process that allowed us to conclude that though slavery is allowed in the Bible, it is inconsistent with the broader message of Scripture concerning the dignity of humankind and of justice. All this leads us to be open to the possibility that God’s perspective on homosexuality may be different from what we read in Leviticus and in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. It may be that heterosexuality is God’s ideal and intention for humanity; our bodies bear witness to this as does the Bible’s teaching about God creating male and female. But God’s compassion and understanding toward persons who don’t fit these norms – whose fundamental wiring seems to be oriented toward same-sex attraction – are undoubtedly greater than the Scriptures indicate.

Many questions about homosexuality are yet to be answered. But one of the things we need to remember about Jesus and his life example is that he consistently put people before rules. He had a heart for people whom others deemed sinful. He went our of his way to touch those who were unclean, and in him they found hope and love. The Pharisees were incensed that Jesus met and ate with “sinners and tax collectors.” Even the disciples were surprised by some of the people Jesus associated with. For Jesus, however, people came before rules.

Not all Christians see the issue of homosexuality in the same way. The church is divided on this issue. But even in a divided church, we can agree that we wish to be the kind of church in which men and women who are gay find the warmth and welcome and love of Jesus Christ. Christians get it wrong when they speak in ways that bring harm and alienation to God’s gay children; we get it right when even in our uncertainty, we express the love and welcome of the one who offered living water to the woman at the well.