Friday, December 28, 2007

Everything Must Change: How big is the gospel?

This week I finished reading Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. It's an ambitious book, with forays into global poverty and economics, war and security, systemic injustice, international debt, arms dealing, religious conflict, environmental issues and all the rest. It's a bit overwhelming, but McLaren audaciously brings these issues into the light of the way of Jesus and the kingdom. He argues that because sin and evil are so big and ubiquitous, "any gospel capable of confronting today's global crises must be correspondingly expansive." Here's an excerpt:
"Sadly, in too many quarters we continue to reduce the scope of the gospel to the individual soul and the nuclear family, framing it in a comfortable, personalized format--it's all about personal devotions, personal holiness, and a personal Savior. This domesticated gospel will neither rock any boats nor step out of them into stormy waters. We have in many ways responded to the big global crises of our day with an incredible, shrinking gospel. The world has said, 'No thanks.'"
McLaren says that a more global, non-individualistic gospel requires a more robust understanding of the kingdom of God, where the "new heavens and new earth" is best understood as a new way of living within the present space-time universe (rather than a different universe or an abstract "heaven" or "eternity"). Hope for the world is not that the world will be obliterated but that it will be renewed and transformed so that "the forces of injustice are defeated and justice reshapes and transforms the world for the common good."

I resonate with this holistic, more cosmic understanding of the gospel, but I also struggle with it precisely because it's so big. In many ways, it's easier to think of "saving souls" and individuals crossing a bridge to heaven. It's harder to imagine what it means that Jesus came to deliver and redeem the whole world, especially since different kinds of Christians have such divergent views of what Jesus would have us do to transform society. Maybe the way to not be overwhelmed is to keep the big picture in mind, but then to try to figure out on a local level what our particular part of the drama will be.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I'm headed out now and won't be blogging for at least a week. Not that anybody is really waiting for these blog posts, but I just wanted to mark my Christmas wishes here for everybody.

One quick thought. The early church and New Testament writers didn't seem to make a big deal about what we now commemorate as Christmas. Obviously far more time and attention is spent on the crucifixion and resurrection. But historically Christmas came to be celebrated in the early centuries of church history because of heresies that denied the full humanity of Jesus in the Incarnation. And celebrating Christmas became a practical way that the church could remember that Jesus was in fact physically born of a woman, that he indeed took on our flesh and blood. If he had not truly become one of us, he could not truly save us. Christmas is at its heart a Christological proclamation that the Word truly became flesh and dwelt among us.

In the midst of all the gifts and holiday hustle and bustle, may you find space to affirm and proclaim the truth that God is indeed with us! Glory to God in the highest, and glory to the newborn king.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ancient Evangelical Future conference: Scot McKnight on stories of the Story

It's been a few weeks now since the Ancient Evangelical Future conference, and I've been distracted by various things like putting together our Christmas letter and sending out Christmas cards. But I wanted to post a little more about the conference before it got too far out. As it is, I'm working off of my notes, so forgive me if the following is a little fuzzy.

The second plenary speaker was Scot McKnight, who first talked about various approaches to reading Scripture; some project onto the Bible whatever they already think, like a Rorschach inkblot, while others view Scripture as a collection of decontextualized laws or blessings. He argued instead for an ancient-future model of understanding the Bible as a "Wikistory," in which there is "ongoing reworking of the biblical story by new authors who each tell the story in their own way." While there is one main Story, that Story is expressed in multiple ways, as is seen in the four different Gospels as well as in Paul's preaching and epistles and the other New Testament writers. John and Paul are different stories of the Story. McKnight said, "None is exhaustive, comprehensive or absolute," and that we need all of them together. He called this an exercise in "epistemic promiscuity."

In explicating this, McKnight took some shots at systematic theology as a discipline. He argued that "no one in the Bible is doing systematics." There's a freedom within the various biblical writers to use different "linguistic visions," like Jesus' use of "kingdom/basilea" in contrast to Paul's use of "church/ekklesia." McKnight posed a scenario asking, "Is it okay if Paul is a Calvinist and the author of Hebrews is Arminian?" He said that most systematicians work hard to resolve these kinds of seeming contradictions. But if we understand Paul and Hebrews to be different stories of the Story, we don't have to harmonize them or try to reconcile them. They are just doing their own versions of the Story, and each has a place in the larger picture.

During the panel discussion, systematic theologian Vince Bacote challenged McKnight's portrayal of systematics, saying that McKnight is unfairly painting a particular kind of systematic theology that many/most systematic theologians wouldn't hold to. Yes, some theologians construct so strict a system that any kind of perceived contradiction is explained away. But other theologians have room in their systematics for paradox and mystery. (It's probably significant that McKnight's lenses are that of biblical studies rather than systematic theology; the different disciplines have their own methodologies and tendencies.)

Another thing that came up during the panel discussion was whether McKnight was identifying the kingdom too closely with the church. McKnight said that he was responding in part to folks in the emergent conversation who (he says) "want to talk about what God is doing in the kingdom but don't want to talk about the church, as if the kingdom is something other than the church." McKnight was arguing that when Jesus talks about kingdom (especially in the synoptic Gospels), he's talking about his followers and his people. Panelist Howard Snyder, who has written extensively about church and kingdom, pushed back on McKnight and said that there are two equal and opposite errors here; one is to completely separate church and kingdom, and the other is to too closely equate the two. Snyder suggested that McKnight was reacting too much against one extreme and falling into the other.

I happened to find a copy of McKnight's The Story of the Christ at a thrift shop last weekend, and there he describes what Jesus meant by kingdom as God's "society." I think that's an interesting move, in that "society" both points to a personal community as well as a wider sociological phenomenon, like "culture." Talking about the kingdom of God as God's "society" feels better to me than merely equating kingdom with church, which feels too limiting. I want to hold a bit of a both/and here and affirm that God's kingdom encompasses the church and is surely closely tied to what God's people are doing as the church but also acknowledge that the kingdom is larger than what the church is doing and being. Surely the church itself awaits a fuller manifestation of the kingdom that comes as an inbreaking external to the church's own identity. Otherwise, what's the point of praying "thy kingdom come"?

At any rate, McKnight gave the conference much grist for discussion. He's certainly one of the leading voices in current conversations about the gospel, narrative, atonement and all the rest, and it was good to hear his take on the Story.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

I was feeling blah and "bah, humbug" yesterday. But the kids' bedtime story happened to be the angels visiting the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. As I was reading the story, I told Josiah, "This is the part of the Christmas story that Linus said in A Charlie Brown Christmas." The storybook paraphrased it, but I did my best to recite it as Linus had, from the King James: "Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."

Josiah smiled and said, "Say the Linus part again, Papa."

We did, and then Ellen and I started singing "Gloria in excelsis Deo." All this dispelled my mild case of the holiday blues, and it struck me that the passage is ingrained in my memory because of the Peanuts special.

I've been reading David Michaelis's biography Schulz and Peanuts, and in the chapter "Gospel," he tells the story behind the Charlie Brown Christmas TV special. During development, Schulz "proudly announced" that there would be "one whole minute" of Linus reciting the Gospel. The producer tried to talk him out of it. But Schulz insisted, "We can't avoid it--we have to get the passage of St. Luke in there somehow. Bill, if we don't do it, who will?"

Of course, the biblical text was preserved in the show, and it made television history. It's still one of the most transcendent moments ever on broadcast TV. A Charlie Brown Christmas went on to win a Peabody Award and an Emmy, and at the Emmy awards, Schulz said, "Charlie Brown is not used to winning, so we thank you."

What's interesting is that Schulz had something of an enigmatic faith. During certain periods of his life he was an active Christian; other times he confessed to "not being an orthodox believer." Christianity Today claimed Schulz as "a devout evangelical," but he later reacted against conservative Christianity and seems to have become a universalist. Despite all the biblical and religious references in Peanuts, Schulz said that "It's not an evangelistic strip. In fact, I'm anti-evangelistic."

Regardless of Schulz's ambivalence and characteristic Charlie Brownish wishy-washiness, I'm so grateful for whatever Christian commitment motivated him to write the Charlie Brown Christmas special as he did. Through this simple narration by a kid with a blanket, literally millions have heard the story of the birth of Jesus and the Christological affirmation that Christ is Lord.

Lights, please?
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Colson cites The Suburban Christian on creating vs. consuming

I just found out that Chuck Colson's BreakPoint radio commentary for today cites my book The Suburban Christian. Here's an excerpt:

’Tis the season of consumption! At Christmastime, it is hard to escape the steady drumbeat of advertisements urging you to buy, buy, buy, buy. Not to mention the dreadful sense of guilt until you have covered everyone on your shopping list. But Christmas is also the perfect time to put the reins on over-rampant consumerism and buck the trend: Do it by creating something.

In his book, The Suburban Christian, author Al Hsu explains how Christians have condemned culture, avoided culture, critiqued culture, and copied culture. “Mostly,” he says, “we consume culture. But all of this is a far cry from God’s intent, that we fulfill the [creation or cultural] mandate and exercise our energies to create culture.” I could not agree more.

I'm glad for the reference, but I have to give credit to Andy Crouch for the ideas that Colson is quoting. The radio commentary makes it sound like I came up with it, but in the book I make it clear that this is Andy's thinking. His forthcoming book Culture Making develops these ideas more fully and will be out next summer.

Colson's commentary applies the idea of creating rather than consuming as a way to counter the consumerism of the holiday season. He says that Christmas is the perfect opportunity to be creative, to start family traditions, to make gifts rather than purchase them. We try to do this. Ellen makes and hand-stamps all of our Christmas cards, and our gifts to our coworkers this year are likewise homemade. And creating doesn't necessarily need to be making stuff; one of BreakPoint's bloggers writes a Christmas poem each year for her friends and family. As Colson puts it, "And whether you are tossing a ball or sanding a board, you are creating something—not only something in the physical realm, but also a space for intangible things like relationships and critical thinking and memories to be built."

So may this Advent season be a time not of frenzied consumerism, but of creative generation and eager anticipation. As the Christ child was birthed in an act of redemptive new creation, so too may God birth new things through us.

Monday, December 10, 2007

End-of-year best-of-2007 book lists

'Tis the season for "best of 2007" lists. The New York Times has its ten best books of 2007 list (of which I've read none) as well as its 100 notable books of the year list (of which I've read four and a half). I fare a little better with Publishers Weekly's best books of the year list; I've read eight of the top graphic novels (Laika by Nick Abadzis is a fascinating chronicle about the Soviet space program and the first dog in space), four of the religion books, one of the religious fiction, nine of the children's picture books and two in children's fiction (yay for Harry Potter!). I can't imagine that anybody actually reads all, most or even a significant percentage of the books on all of these lists - there's just no way anybody has time to get to everything.

These lists typically come out every December to recap the year, and it strikes me that not only do these lists give us a sense of what's culturally significant each year, they also double as Christmas shopping lists. Cultural literacy and consumerism, hand-in-hand. Oh, well. At any rate, Ellen and I also compile a list of what we enjoyed reading in our annual Christmas letter. (Last year's letter is here.) Here's what dominated our nightstands this past year. (Links below are to our blog reviews or commentary of selected titles.)

In fiction: We both appreciated A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants was an engaging historical read about life with a traveling circus. Ellen (who has been identified as a “warrior princess”) resonated with the soccer-mom-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings fantasies The Restorer and The Restorer’s Son by Sharon Hinck. She also read several Anita Shreve novels. Al was entranced with the “new” J. R. R. Tolkien book The Children of Hurin and got a kick out of superhero homage novel Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. And of course we were both up into the wee hours of the morning to finish reading J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

In non-fiction: Microtrends by Mark Penn identifies fascinating new subcultures and cultural shifts. Al got into economic issues via The Small-Mart Revolution by Michael Shuman, The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli and The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg. The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman explores what the planet would look like if people disappeared. One Red Paperclip is Kyle Macdonald’s amazing journey trading his way up from a paperclip to a house. Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath shows why some ideas are sticky and others aren’t. The Myth of the Perfect Mother by Carla Barnhill is a healthy corrective to evangelical assumptions about motherhood, and Gary Thomas’s Sacred Marriage is likewise a helpful resource. Gifts: Mothers Reflect on How Children with Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives is a moving compendium of real-life portraits. And The Making of Star Wars by J. W. Rinzler is a terrific behind-the-scenes look at the original film.

Most notable of this year’s religion books is D. Michael Lindsay’s Faith in the Halls of Power, an amazingly well-researched and comprehensive study of how evangelicals have become influential in elite circles of government, academia, arts/media and business. Kevin Vanhoozer’s Everyday Theology provides an introduction to cultural studies and theology of culture. Hanna Rosin’s God’s Harvard gives an inside look at Patrick Henry College’s conservative Christian subculture. David Kinnaman’s unChristian is a revealing portrait of negative perceptions of evangelical Christians. The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs is a laugh-out-loud funny chronicle of one man’s attempt to follow the Bible as literally as possible. John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion is a pastoral reconsideration of suffering and evil. While not likely to appear on any bestseller lists, Theology and Down Syndrome by Amos Yong is a landmark contribution to disability studies and theology of disability. And two IVP books received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly – Tim Stafford’s Shaking the System on social reform movements and Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well on the history of Christian spirituality.

Our favorite children’s book this year is The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones; it’s a very thoughtful, kid-friendly narrative theology that’s engaging for parents as well. We were happy with Mo Willems’s new Elephant and Piggie series as well as his sequel Knuffle Bunny Too. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis and 365 Penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental were clever and fun. The Giant Leaf by Davy Liu is a surprising retelling of a familiar Bible narrative. Sometimes Smart Is Good by Dena Luchsinger is a bilingual story of disability and inclusion. And Josiah could not stop laughing when he first read the Sesame Street classic The Monster at the End of This Book.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

I picked up the Mother Teresa book Come Be My Light from the library. I had seen the media coverage some months ago about this book disclosing Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul; the book chronicles her own spiritual struggles and sense of God's absence. So I had assumed that the title reflected her own petition to God, a prayer for God to be light in her darkness. Thus I was surprised to read that the title actually refers to God's invitation to Mother Teresa. Early on in her ministry, in September 1946, she heard Jesus' voice speaking to her, and she described the Voice as pleading, "Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light."

This is particularly significant given the fact that the image of light is applied to both Jesus and his followers. In John 8:12, Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." And in Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus says, "You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." These two passages surely go together - Jesus is our light, and we are likewise light to illumine others' darkness.

Mother Teresa later wrote in a letter in 1962, "If I ever become a Saint - I will surely be one of 'darkness.' I will continually be absent from Heaven - to light the light of those in darkness on earth." What's interesting about reading her letters is that even though she says she feels forsaken and that God is absent, her letters are infused with devotion to God. She takes for granted that God is present and living and active, yet she personally experiences a painful loneliness and yearning for God. The book's editor notes, "The most difficult aspect of her continuing interior darkness was her unquenchable thirst for God."

The irony is that she seems to have thought about God on a day-to-day basis far more than most of us Western Christians do! It is perhaps a sign of her saintliness that even in what she perceives to be her spiritual darkness, she was closer to God than most of us ever are. It's a paradox of the spiritual life that the times when God seems most distant may well be the times that we are actually closest to God.

[I've written about this in my book Grieving a Suicide in the chapter on "Where Is God When It Hurts?" The Gospel of Luke is bookended by two parallel stories of pilgrims on a road. At the beginning of Luke, Mary and Joseph are coming home from the Passover, and they think that Jesus is with them, but he isn't. At the end of Luke, coming home from another Passover are the disciples on the Emmaus road (most likely a husband and wife). They think that Jesus isn't with them, but he really is. The parallelism is surely intentional.]

Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa continues to be an inspiration to legions. (IVP is publishing a book next year, Finding Calcutta, about how Mother Teresa helped a university professor find her sense of calling, and Andy Crouch's forthcoming Culture Makers spends part of a chapter looking at Mother Teresa's cultural influence.) Even though she felt like she was dwelling in darkness, she is still one of the greatest contemporary examples of Christian service and devotion. We would do well to pray with her this prayer from Cardinal John Henry Newman that Mother Teresa used in a retreat in 1959:
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Keep thou my feet I do not ask to see
The distant scene - one step enough for me.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Ancient Evangelical Future conference: Kevin Vanhoozer on narrative and drama

Last weekend I was at the 2nd annual Ancient Evangelical Future conference hosted by Northern Seminary (and cosponsored by IVP). The focus this year was "on the primacy of the biblical narrative," which is the first major clause of the Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future. In that document, Bob Webber asked, "Who gets to narrate the world?" (which incidentally is the title of his forthcoming posthumous book from IVP) and called for the evangelical church to recover the narrative story of the Triune God's Creation, Incarnation and Re-creation.

The first speaker was Kevin Vanhoozer, whose talk on "The Drama of the Christ" was something of a Cliffs Notes version of his landmark The Drama of Doctrine. His premise is that while narrative is something that is understood, drama is something to be enacted, and as such is a better metaphor for the gospel, doctrine and doing theology. In recent years evangelicals have championed narrative theology as a healthy alternative or corrective to strictly propositional formulations of the faith. Vanhoozer pointed out some limitations of narrative and argued for drama as a call to participate in the Christian story. While narrative tells, drama shows. Drama thus goes beyond narrative. It is not just something to be believed, but to follow, as in a script.

I like this metaphor partly because I was in theatre in high school and appreciate the connections between living the Christian faith and performing a play. It's not merely that a story is read or understood, but instead a script is embodied and enacted. And while the Christian drama provides a normative script for all Christians, every performance is distinctive based on every local church and Christian's context and social location. I remember seeing a performance of Hamlet in modern-day garb, and I once saw a production of Death of a Salesman with an African American cast, which added another whole layer of dynamics and meaning while still being a faithful interpretation of the original text. Likewise, understanding the Christian story as a dramatic narrative means that every one of us participates in the drama, not just in the liturgical experience of corporate worship but also in the praxis of Christian living, discipleship, ministry and mission.

During the panel discussion, Edith Humphrey pushed back on Vanhoozer's theodramatic model a bit because she felt that it was too activist. She said she was reacting out of her activist background in the Salvation Army. This suggested to me that different parts of evangelicalism need different correctives. Some of us who are too propositional need more narrative and some who are too theoretical could stand to be more activist, while those who are perhaps over-activist might need the pendulum swung a different way.

One of my IVP colleagues reacted similarly to Humphrey and said that Vanhoozer emphasized action too much and didn't give enough room for theology of God apart from divine or human action. My response was that properly understood, drama is not just about "plot development" (action/activism) but also focuses on the characters of the drama. Thus we have room in a dramatic model for theology proper - character study of the Triune God and ontological issues of his attributes. My wife, who has her master's in worship, has long had a working definition of worship as praising God both for who he is and for what he has done. Who he is is the character of the drama; what he has done is the plot. And the Christian drama explores both, in our worship and theology. (And literary/theatrical criticism also includes aspects like setting, genre, style, mood and theme, giving room for all sorts of categories of theodramatic study and method.)

Vanhoozer said that just as silence is an integral part of music, rest is an integral part of drama. So drama doesn't merely focus on activism - both reflection and action are necessary components of the drama. Vanhoozer's larger concern is that too many evangelicals focus too much on the propositions, and he said that "reading for the propositions is like listening to music just for the melody." Sure, we can single out the melody when we listen to a piece of composition, but there's often so much more going on than just that major melodic theme. Likewise, when we read Scripture or do theology, sure, we can lift out certain propositions, but there's so much more going on than that.

Another point raised in the Q&A was whether historical-critical methods of exegesis and expository preaching do violence to the text by superimposing an alien narrative upon the Christian story. Panelist David Fitch asked, "Is expository preaching heretical?" Vanhoozer said no, that all exegetical and expository methods are subject to the Christian narrative/theodrama. I think he could have said more on this point - seeing the narrative drama of the Christian story means that we can utilize all sorts of methods and tools for enacting the drama. So there is a place for expository sermons, but there are also places for dramatic interpretations of biblical stories, personal monologues, artistic reimaginings and what Vanhoozer called "world-for-world" translations of the text. I think a dramatic understanding of the Christian story opens us up (especially preachers and worship leaders) to all sorts of cultural creativity in performing the gospel for our contemporary contexts.

One last comment: Vanhoozer pointed out that all of us are already participants in some drama or another. Whereas Bob Webber would say that there are different narratives of the world competing for our allegiance, Vanhoozer noted that we are already enacting dramas whether we realize it or not. Every time we drink a Coke, we are participating in a particular consumerist drama. We have a choice of either living out a narrative of "the Good Life according to the American Dream," as many suburban Christians do, or we can enact a counterdrama that challenges the rival dramas of our culture.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Suburbia is "where the action is"

I was tickled to see this picture posted on suburban pastor Joe Thorn's blog:

The magazine article "Is It Time to Move to the Burbs?" is from Details magazine, and it chronicles a trend of city residents relocating to suburbia because of suburbia's growing attractiveness. The article notes that older categories of "city" and "suburb" are blurring, and that since 1950, over 90% of metropolitan growth has taken place in suburbia. One author is cited as saying, "From a cultural standpoint, cities are becoming less interesting and the suburbs are increasingly where the action is."

Suburban contexts are becoming more culturally, socioeconomically and religiously diverse, which of course has implications for suburban mission and ministry. I suspect that as more urban professionals migrate to suburbs, we will see the need for more culturally creative and intellectually engaged churches doing in suburbia what Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church is doing in Manhattan, as they put it, renewing the city socially, spiritually and culturally. New suburban communities are actually recovering some of the original urban ideals that many cities started out as, with more of a sense of place, village identity and local community interdependence.

In many ways, the challenge for suburban churches cuts at least two ways. On the one hand, we need to contextualize our ministries in ways that connect with indigenous suburban residents. On the other, we also need to keep in mind all the new arrivals who may be relocating from either urban or rural contexts, with perhaps entirely different sets of expectations. The better we can help our new suburban neighbors navigate the suburban environment - and bring to suburbia all the gifts and expertise gained from other contexts - the better off both our churches and our suburbs will be.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Faith in the Halls of Power: Cosmopolitan vs. populist Christianity

Every year our family Christmas letter lists off notable books that we've read in the past year. One book that's certain to make this year's list is Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. Lindsay, a sociologist, conducted 360 personal interviews with an amazing array of evangelicals in significant positions of influence and leadership in government, the academy, arts and media, and the business world. The appendix gives a staggering list of who's who, with former presidents and senators, billionaire executives and philanthropists, media moguls and celebrities, parachurch and seminary leaders, culture makers and influencers of every kind - Jimmy Carter, Kathie Lee Gifford, Pat Robertson, Phil Vischer, Kenneth Starr, C. Everett Koop, Francis Collins, Mark Noll, John Ortberg, Jim Wallis, Cal Thomas, Karen Hughes, George Gallup . . . the list goes on and on. The book shows how evangelical Christians have become prominent movers and shakers across all spheres of American society. These are people who have learned to navigate and wield power.

One of the most interesting points of analysis is Lindsay's description of these new evangelical elites as "cosmopolitan evangelicals," in contrast with what he calls "populist evangelicals." Cosmopolitan evangelicals distance themselves to some degree from the populist evangelical subculture; Lindsay reports that his interviewees went out of their way to say that they had never read Left Behind or purchased a Thomas Kincade painting. Cosmopolitan evangelicals attend invitation-only gatherings with other influential professionals, not populist mass rallies like Promise Keepers.

In politics, populist evangelicals are more likely to mobilize the rank and file to push for legislation and campaign against certain issues. But cosmopolitan evangelicals are more likely to sponsor year-long internships on Capitol Hill for future political leaders. It's a difference in strategy that focuses more on becoming full participants and insiders within cultural institutions and the corridors of power, rather than attempting to combat them or wield cultural influence from the outside.

This makes me wonder a bit about my own social location as an editor in an evangelical publishing house with some degree of cultural influence. Am I a populist who's really a cosmopolitan wannabe? As a Christian professional in the parachurch, am I a cosmopolitan who's distanced from populist issues and concerns? Is my role in publishing to speak to cosmopolitan Christians and influence the influencers, or is it to somehow bridge the cultural gap between populists and cosmopolitans?

I don't know that I have any answers to this. But it also occurs to me that the suburban context is one where we see this interface between the populist and the cosmopolitan. This is a vast overgeneralization, but rural areas may tend to be more populist, and urban metropolises may tend to be more cosmopolitan, especially in terms of contexts like where Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church are ministering in Manhattan. But suburbia is a mix between the two, with multiple, overlapping subcultures. Neighbors and church members may be as likely to gravitate to NPR as NASCAR, country or opera, Joel Osteen or Joan Didion.

I think Lindsay's book is important for anybody working in or ministering among contexts of influence and power, whether in government, media, business or the academy. The people profiled in Lindsay's study give us keen insights for how society and culture can be transformed from within, by savvy Christians wielding their own power and influence wisely.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

If Christ is King: Encountering the Sovereign

We Americans don’t have much experience with the concept of royalty. Maybe the closest we get is if we watch movies like The Queen or The Princess Diaries. If you’ve seen The Queen, you know that one major theme of the plot is how distanced the queen and the royal family are from the British people, in contrast with Princess Diana, who was viewed as “the people’s princess.” There’s a tension between being sovereign, over the people, and being incarnational, among the people. It was a big deal at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration for him to get out of the limo and walk the streets among the people. Which wasn’t done by Bush for his second inaugural because of security reasons.

My junior year of college, our choir tour went to Washington, DC. We had a few days to visit the museums and monuments. One morning a group of us were walking down the Mall, and at one street, traffic was stopped. We stood there on the curb for a few minutes, and soon a big motorcade of black limousines came through, passing by right in front of us. We found out later that it was President Clinton on his way to the opening of the new Holocaust Museum.

A few years later, I was in DC again for a grad school summer journalism trip, visiting various media organizations in DC. One of my classmates happened to be friends with a Secret Service agent, and the agent was able to get us in for a behind-the-scenes tour of the White House. We got to see stuff that wasn’t on the public tour. We stood at the doorway of the Oval Office and looked in. Saw the Cabinet Room. Went into the private presidential movie theatre, where the President and his family watch new movies with Hollywood actors and directors. I sat down in one of the front row seats, very comfy, and the Secret Service agent told us that Tom Hanks had just been there to watch a screening of one of his movies with the President.

We got to see the White House Press Room. It’s not a very big room. At the time it had just six rows of seats, eight chairs per row. The room was recently remodeled last year, but at the time of my visit, each chair had a little brass label on it: Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post. I have a picture of me standing at the podium. We actually sat in on an actual press briefing, with White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. I was standing two feet away from George Stephanopoulos. Could have reached out and touched him. And would have been carted off by security.

That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to presidential power, to a head of state. And it occurs to me that maybe the best modern day analogy to Jesus as king is Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa. Here was a man who was imprisoned for decades, raised from the depths to bring reconciliation and healing to his land. Mandela might be the closest we have to a picture of a servant king.

The picture we have of Jesus as Christ the King is the crucified God, the king on a cross. If we look at the Colossians passage, we see that this crucified king is now the exalted Lord of all creation. He’s the image of the invisible God. He shows us what we cannot see. What is God? He looks like this, like Jesus. That’s what God looks like. Don’t imagine that God is some abstract philosophical concept and try to fit Jesus into that mold. Flip it around. Look at Jesus – his compassion, his love, his power, his mercy, his sacrifice – that’s what God is like. Christ the King is both sovereign and incarnational. Above us and yet among us.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

If Christ is King (continued)

[Another snippet from my Christ the King sermon.]

We usually don't focus much on the idea of God as king. Other themes get more play, especially in evangelical circles. We actually tend to hear a lot more about God as deliverer, God as savior, God as rescuer. Who is God? He is the deliverer who saves us from our sins. God is the liberator who frees us from slavery in Egypt. This is what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the gospel of rescue and deliverance, salvation for the have-nots, the people in peril and crisis. It’s part of the biblical narrative about who God is.

But it’s only part of the picture. What does salvation look like if you’re not in peril? If you’re not a slave in Egypt needing to be liberated or delivered? The other side of the coin, Brueggemann says, is the gospel of stewardship and blessing. And this is what we see in the kingship narratives. We see glimpses of it during the time of the united monarchy, and it’s also a major theme of the wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs. It’s the role of the wise king, the just ruler, who governs well, for the benefit of all in the land. At its best, the good king is a king of peace and harmony, bringing blessing to all under his rule so that all within the kingdom can thrive and flourish. The king is extending shalom, wholeness, well-being, the way life is supposed to be. That’s the other side of the gospel. God is not just deliverer and rescuer. Once we are rescued and delivered, we are to live wisely and well, under the governance of a good king.

What’s significant about this theme is that it’s creational. It predates the fall. After the fall, we needed a deliverer. We needed to be rescued. But before the fall, what were we called to? Tending the garden. Good governance, wise stewardship. Making sure that all was as God intended, that all creation experienced the shalom of God’s goodness.

For those of us who grew up in evangelical circles, we get a glimpse of this whenever we hear the formula of “accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord.” The Savior part is the deliverance theme. The Lord part is the kingship theme. Two sides of the same coin.

So it’s not just that we know Jesus as Savior. Jesus saves us from our sins, yes. Jesus rescues us from perishing, yes. But Jesus is not just on a mission to rescue people and ship us off to heaven. Just as important is that we live out our lives here and now, with Jesus as our king, that we live out our lives under the kingship, the lordship of Christ.

Monday, November 26, 2007

If Christ is King . . .

[I preached at my church this weekend, for Christ the King Saturday/Sunday. Here's an excerpt.]

This is Christ the King weekend, the end of the liturgical year. Once again we’ve come through the whole cycle, from Advent through Christmas, into Epiphany and then Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and Pentecost and Ordinary Time. And at the end of it all, the liturgical year makes this single, capstone declaration: Christ is King. We sing it in our liturgy: Alleluia, alleluia, Jesus is our King.

Over the last few weeks we’ve considered the Lord’s Prayer and looked at what it means that thy kingdom come, they will be done. For thine is the kingdom. Jesus’ prayer acknowledges that God our Father is our true king. But now we make a shift. It’s not just that God is king. Now the church proclaims that Jesus is king. Christ is King. And this move is absolutely astonishing. It’s one thing to proclaim the kingship of God, the creator, the Almighty. But to declare the kingship of this Galilean rabbi, executed on a Roman cross, it’s mindboggling. It’s counterintuitive. It’s radically countercultural. So what does it mean? If Christ is King, so what?

It’s unusual that the people of God would proclaim that they even have a king. What made the Israelites distinct for much of their history was that they had no king. Other nations had kings. There are references in Genesis to the king of Sodom or the king of Gomorrah, the king of the Philistines or the king of Edom. But Israel had no king. In fact, the most common reference to a king in Genesis and Exodus is the king of Egypt, otherwise known as Pharaoh. Not the best experience the Hebrew people had with a king.

At first Israel didn’t have a human king because the Lord God, Yahweh, was their true king. So Israel had judges instead of kings, and that was a mixed bag. Some were good, some were bad. The last of the judges was the prophet Samuel. And the people came to Samuel and said, “Give us a king.” This is in 1 Samuel chapter 8. They say, “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.” Here’s the geopolitical peer pressure. Everybody else has a king. Why don’t we have a king? Give us a king. We want a king.

Samuel consults with God, and God basically tells Samuel, “Don’t take it personally; it isn’t about you. They aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting me as their true king.” Just as they rejected God to serve other gods, the people rejected Samuel as judge and wanted to have a human king like other kings.

Samuel comes back to the people and says, “You think you want a king? You don’t want a king. Here’s what gonna happen if you get a king. He’ll take your sons as his soldiers. He’ll take your daughters as his servants (or worse). He’ll confiscate your land, your fields and vineyards. He’ll take your property, your livestock, your livelihoods. You want a king? You really don’t want a king.”

But the people refuse to listen, and they want a king anyway. If you’re a literature professor or an English major, this will jump out at you as Act 1 of the tragedy. At the beginning of every classical tragedy, there’s a prophecy, an oracle. The soothsayer tells Julius Caesar, “Beware the ides of March.” The ghost in Hamlet, the witches in Macbeth, the oracle in Oedipus. That’s what this scene with Samuel and the people is like. We want a king. You don’t want a king. If you get a king, this is what’s going to happen. And of course, it happens. Not just with the rise and fall of King Saul (whose story fits perfectly the literary archetype of tragedy). But also with King David. And King Solomon. And every king to follow, good or bad, mostly bad.

You would think that Israel would have learned. But it’s no different from the time in the wilderness when they wanted to go back to Egypt. This is how ironic their request for a king is. Imagine if they had said, “Give us a Pharaoh! We want a Pharaoh, like Egypt.” Samuel’s thinking, “Yeah, how’d that work out for you?”

So in light of all of this, why does God concede and let them have a king? Because the notion of a king, however corrupted and imperfect in human practice, still points to God’s own identity as king. God is sovereign. God is ruler. God takes a fallen human concept of king and purifies it and says, here’s what a king ought to be like.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Yet more microtrends

And here's one last batch of Microtrends.

- Soft drinks are the leading source of calories in the average American diet, accounting for almost 1 in every 10 calories consumed.

- A 12-ounce can of Coke has 34 milligrams of caffeine. Red Bull has 80. A child who drinks one can of caffeinated soda experiences the same effects as an adult who drinks four cups of coffee. Restaurants are now producing caffeinated donuts and bagels.

- In 2005, the bestselling books were on average more than 100 pages longer than they were in 1995, when they averaged 385 pages.

- One million households now employ nannies, and nannies with a college degree have an average annual salary of $43,000, well over the $22,000 that the average 18-24-year-old female makes coming out of school with a bachelor's degree.

- More Americans went bankrupt in 2005 than graduated from college. Bankruptcies have more than quintupled in the last two decades.

- Employment in the nonprofit sector has grown more than business and government. 12.5 million work at nonprofits, more than double what it was thirty years ago.

- More than 30 million Americans have tattoos - nearly 1 in 4 adults.

- Messy desks are linked to wisdom, experience and higher salaries.

- In the last decade, there has been a 444% increase in the number of cosmetic surgeries performed in the U.S. But the number of people having them has risen at a slower rate, meaning that more people are getting multiple procedures.

- Heavy technology users are more likely to be extroverts (nearly 60 percent) than introverts.

- Girls are more likely than boys to use cell phones (88 to 83 percent), digital cameras (54 to 50 percent) and satellite radios (24 to 18 percent). They use TVs, VCRs, DVD players and PCs about the same. Boys outpace girls on MP3 players and videogame consoles.

- Women are now the majority of college students, law school students, voters and car buyers.

- One in 4 videogame players is over age 50. The average player is 33 and has been playing for 12 years.

- 2.2 million kids are home-schooled, more than charter school and voucher students combined.

- While college enrollment rates are up, college graduation rates are about the same, meaning more students are dropping out (over 28 million in the past decade).

- New religious movements are becoming statistically more significant than many established religious traditions; 20 million Umbandans in Brazil outnumber the world's Jews by one and a half times and outnumber Unitarians by more than twenty times. The World Christian Encyclopedia chronicles 10,000 distinct and separate religions in the world and says that two or three new ones are being created every day.

Monday, November 19, 2007

More microtrends

More tidbits from the book Microtrends:

- The number of female clergy in America has more than tripled in the last two decades. In the last decade, the number of women majoring in religion or theology more than doubled, while among men it grew by barely half.

- Over 3 million marriages in America are interracial, ten times the number three decades ago.

- While people often assume that Latinos are Catholics, nearly a quarter of American Latinos identify themselves as Protestant. That's about 10 million Protestant Latinos - more than the total number of Jews, Muslims, Episcopalians or Presbyterians.

- 1 in 10 Americans have some hearing loss. Kids today can hear higher ring tones than adults and teachers, so they use "Mosquitotones" when they sneak their cell phones into class.

- Because of older childbearing and divorce/remarriage patterns, more children are being born to dads over age 40, meaning that more dads are working longer and retiring later to pay for college and later childrearing expenses.

- More people have pets than kids. Pet-owning households are double the percentage of households with children. Americans spend $40 billion on pets; pet products are a bigger industry than toys, candy or hardware.

- 69 percent of white evangelicals believe the state of Israel was given to the Jewish people by God. Less than 2 in 10 American Jews think this.

- Australia was founded by a total of about 165,000 criminals released from 19th-century British jails over eighty years or so of prisoner deportations. Four times that many convicts are released from U.S. prisons every year.

- Nearly 1 in 10 college students now seeks mental health counseling; 25 percent of these take psychotropic medicines (up from 9% in 1994).

- The fastest-growing group of people who knit are teens and twentysomethings, including 6 million junior highers and high schoolers.

- 8 percent of teens (1.6 million young people) make money on the Internet.

- 1.5 million children between 8 and 18 are vegetarians (up from virtually zero 50 years ago). Another 3 million pass up meat and another 3 million skip just chicken.

- In the early 1960s, the average man weighed 166 pounds, and the average woman weighed 140. Now the average man weighs 191 pounds and the average woman weighs 164.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Starbucked - some facts about Starbucks

Fast Company has some snippets from Taylor Clark's new book Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture:
  • Starbucks's closest competitor in the coffeehouse market, Caribou Coffee, is just one-twenty-fifth its size. Every 10 weeks, Starbucks opens as many stores as the total number of Caribou outlets.

  • Starbucks has had 14 straight years with at least 5% same-store sales growth.

  • Contrary to popular opinion, Starbucks increases sales at rival nearby coffeehouses. For example, when it blitzed Omaha with six stores, coffee sales at local joints went up as much as 25%, and more new ones opened shop.

  • According to Starbucks, the company pays more for insurance for its employees ($200 million) than it does for coffee beans, yet only 42% of its 125,000-plus workforce has company health insurance--a lower percentage than Wal-Mart (46%).

  • The average customer spends $4.05 per visit for coffee; the average fast-food-restaurant visitor spends $4.34 for an entire meal.

  • For a cup that costs $3.40, at least 40 cents is profit. When Starbucks bumped the 8-ounce cup off the menu, the 10-ounce "tall" (the new small) increased profits by 25 cents per cup for only 2 cents of added product.
  • More people would give up sex before they'd give up coffee.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Microtrends: Extreme commuting, at-home working and more

I just started reading the new book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes by Mark Penn. Penn is best known as the pollster who first identified soccer moms as a cultural entity back in the 1996 election cycle. This book describes dozens of new (and sometimes contradictory) cultural trends in American society today.

For example, Extreme Commuters are the 3.4 million people who commute 90 minutes or more each way to work. These folks are naturally very concerned about gas prices. They also have health issues because longer commutes are linked to obesity. A study found that every 30 minutes of driving increases your risk of becoming obese 3 percent. Why? One poll reports that 4 in 10 people say that when they're stuck in traffic, they eat. The person identified as "America's Longest Commuter" drives 372 miles round-trip each day, leaving his house every morning at 4:30 a.m. and getting home around 8:30 p.m.

Of course, many of us find extreme commuting unappealing and unsustainable. The flip side is the microtrend of the Stay-at-Home Workers, 4.2 million who work from home full-time, plus another 20 million who work from home part of the time with some sort of flexible schedule (like myself). This trend is being embraced by employers not only because they can save on office space and the environmental footprint of office workers, but also because working from home results in happier and more productive employees. 76% of full-time telecommuters report high job satisfaction (vs. just 56% of on-site workers), and at-home workers put in an average of 44.6 hours of work a week (vs. 42.2 in the office).

Other microtrends: Commuter Couples, the 3.5 million people who are living geographically apart from their spouse or partner for work or school reasons; technology is making long-distance relationships more doable. Office Romancers (60% of employees have been involved in an office romance) and Married Colleagues (like me and my wife), who can be assets to companies because "they are productive for the firm even in downtime, since they wrestle with work challenges even as they give their kids a bath." Working Retired - more folks are working longer and later, into their seventies and eighties; they do so partly because of the meaning and purpose they derive from their work, but also out of fears of not having health insurance. (The extra work and taxes also means that Social Security is not as likely to collapse.) And longer lifespans and workspans mean that people can raise kids in their twenties and thirties and then still have forty or fifty years of work (or ministry) afterward.

This is an eminently blogable book. I'm just a few chapters into it so far, and there's lots more that could be commented on. I'll continue to post thoughts and trends from it as I go. But what's most helpful is that Penn doesn't merely treat these trends as pieces of interesting societal phenomena. More importantly, he notes that each trend correlates with a particular community or subgroup of people, each of which has its own distinct issues and concerns. Christians should read this book with an eye to considering the ministry opportunities and challenges that each of these microtrends represents. After all, after Penn identified "soccer moms" as a distinct category, churches started reconsidering how their women's ministries connected (or didn't connect) with these women. Maybe this book will spur churches into thinking about Extreme Commuters ministries or supportive networks and community for at-home workers.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Happy birthday to me: 10/20/30 years meme

I turn 35 today, which means that I am now eligible to run for president. But I will take this opportunity to formally declare my non-candidacy. However, this seems like a good occasion to comment on a meme that has been circulating the blogosphere: Where were you 10 years, 20 years and 30 years ago?

Let's see . . . I don't recall specifically what I did for my birthday ten years ago when I turned 25. It would have been my first birthday married to Ellen. We were living in our first apartment in Westmont, IL, and I was then a promotional writer for IVP, working on catalogs and ads and such. My first book, Singles at the Crossroads, had just been published. (I can't believe it's been ten years already - I think I may have been the second youngest IVP author ever at the time.) It's possible that we may have been volunteering as small group leaders at an InterVarsity student conference in downstate Illinois that weekend, but I'm not sure.

Twenty years ago in 1987 when I turned 15, I was a sophomore at Jefferson Senior High in Bloomington, Minnesota. I had just been baptized the previous summer, and with the shift from junior high to senior high, I stopped going by "Albert" (too geeky) and instead went by "Al" (which I thought was cooler and more fun). I also had gotten contact lenses to replace my glasses, which contributed to my identity shift. I think that fall was also the time when I wrote a bunch of short stories starring my friends and classmates. In one of them our honors English class was locked in the school as one of our classmates went psycho and killed us off one by one; another was a paranormal story where five of us got superpowers like telekinesis and astral projection (very Heroes-like, now that I think about it); yet another alternated between a fantasy Dungeons & Dragons motif and a sci-fi Star Trek world. Okay, so I was still pretty geeky.

Thirty years ago in 1977, I turned 5 while in kindergarten at Cedarcrest Elementary School on the east side of Bloomington. (The school closed a few years later, a casualty of the generational baby bust at the time, and eventually became an Assemblies of God church.) The only thing I really remember about kindergarten was that I got in trouble for talking too much and not paying attention in class. My memory may be fuzzy on this, but I think there was a little girl in particular that I was always causing trouble with. So my teacher put me and the girl in the school play as the kindergarten representatives to keep us occupied.

That's the best I can come up with without digging out my journals. Where were you 10, 20 and 30 years ago?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

An announcement: I'm a CT columnist!

I'm pleased to announce that I've been asked to be one of Christianity Today's new columnists for 2008! The editors there said that it's public knowledge now, and I'll take that as meaning that I can blog about it. No, I'm not bumping Chuck Colson or Philip Yancey off of the last page. Those spots are pretty secure. Several of their other columnists are rotating off, and I've been invited to do a one-year stint of six columns, every other monthly issue, starting in February 2008.

At this point we have not yet determined an official name for the column. The exact theme and focus is still being developed, but my general sense at this point is that I'll be making observations about signs of the kingdom in culture and society. That's probably broad enough of an umbrella to include any number of topics I might want to do. I'm already mapping out possible columns that would be timely in August and October.

Upon seeing my Facebook status yesterday, one friend told me that he had subscribed to CT for several years but had let his subscription lapse. Then he saw that I would be writing for them, and he decided to re-subscribe. Hear that, CT editors? That's one new subscriber that you've gotten already because you made me a columnist!

Of course, I'm honored by the invitation and not a little daunted. I've been a CT reader since my college days in the early 1990s. One of the reasons I came to Wheaton for grad school was because of the proximity to CT as a possible employer. My original plan back in high school was journalism, and working in periodicals has always been one of my roads not taken. I ended up in book publishing rather than magazine publishing, though I've dabbled with freelance articles here and there over the years. I was just reminded this week that my first published piece was an article on Dilbert and a theology of work in Regeneration Quarterly issue 2.1, way back in 1996, long before the blogosphere existed to allow unknown grad students to find an audience. While the late, great RQ is no more, that article is now part of CT's archives.

At any rate, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to CT's pages next year. If anybody has any story ideas, send them my way!

Friday, November 02, 2007

What's your religious literacy?

The Quill Book Awards are a relatively new entry in book awards. They're the publishing industry's attempt to parallel the Oscars or Emmys. This year's Quills were recently awarded, and two that I was particularly happy to see were David Wiesner's Flotsam for Children's Picture Book and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale for Debut Author of the Year.

More immediately relevant to my work in Christian publishing was the award for Religion/Spirituality, which went to Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't. Prothero is the author of the excellent American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which came out a few years back. In Religous Literacy, Prothero argues that most people simply have very little understanding of the basics of most world religions and even the essentials of their own faith.

What's your religious literacy? Take Prothero's quiz:
  1. Name the four Gospels. List as many as you can.
  2. Name a sacred text of Hinduism.
  3. What is the name of the holy book of Islam?
  4. Where according to the Bible was Jesus born?
  5. President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking?
  6. What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?
  7. What is the Golden Rule?
  8. "God helps those who help themselves": Is this in the Bible? If so, where?
  9. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God": Does this appear in the Bible? If so, where?
  10. Name the Ten Commandments. List as many as you can.
  11. Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
  12. What are the seven sacraments of Catholicism? List as many as you can.
  13. The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own "clause." What are the two religious clauses of the First Amendment?
  14. What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated?
  15. Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear. Draw a line from the one to the other. Hint: Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa.
  16. Adam and Eve  Exodus
    Paul Binding of Isaac
    Moses Olive Branch
    Noah Garden of Eden
    Jesus Parting of the Red Sea
    Abraham Road to Damascus
    Serpent Garden of Gethsemane
See here for the answers. I got most of these right (enough to score an "A" on their grading), but the ones I didn't get related to non-Christian religions. I had a world religions course in college, but it's a bit convicting to me that I can't recall some of these very basic fundamentals. (See also this world religions quiz - I got 9 out of 10 on this one.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Eve of All Saints/Reformation Day

My Facebook status this morning: Al is wondering why churches have "Harvest Fests" when they could have Eve of All Saints or Reformation Day parties instead. Dress up as your favorite saint/reformer.

A comment on my Wall from Caryn Rivadeneira: "Good point about the saints/reformers. You could even add a spooky flair by dressing as your favorite martyr."

Oooh! That has all sorts of potential. You could have people who were crucified upside down, burned at the stake, beheaded . . . I just glanced on Wikipedia to look up how various martyrs were killed, and then it struck me that that's a little morbid, that these were real people who died for the faith, and I shouldn't be trivializing it.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about cultural practices surrounding Halloween. I'm not an extreme conservative type that thinks that Christians should all boycott Halloween, but I'm not enthused about the general creepiness of the occasion, or the sexualization of Halloween costumes, or the commercialization and candification. Our kids are young enough to still have cute/innocent costumes (like puppies and Care Bears), but Josiah is now getting old enough to be something more dramatic, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

From a community involvement standpoint, I think trick-or-treating is still one of the best ways that suburban Christians can interact with and get to know neighbors. When else do we have occasion to actually go to someone's door uninvited? Of course, if you don't have young kids, it might be a little creepy for you to go door-to-door. But then you can stay home and hand out treats and greet neighbors that come by. And handing out treats can actually be a form of Christian hospitality and welcome.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Down Syndrome Awareness Month

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and of course I forgot to mention it until the end of the month. Our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Elijah, has Down syndrome, and over the last few years we've been learning lots about Down syndrome. Basically the most important thing we've learned is that it's really not that scary or that big a deal. (See Ellen's post on Elijah's first birthday, and my Father's Day article for While Elijah has developmental delays and takes longer to do things, he's an active, healthy, happy kid, he loves Blue's Clues just like his older brother (and now points and says "ooo" when he sees a clue), and he has a good working vocabulary of signs so he can communicate with us and let us know what he wants.

Here's some info from the National Down Syndrome Society:

Did you know...

One in every 733 babies born in the U.S. has Down syndrome. The life expectancy of people with Down syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades - from 25 in 1983 to 56 today. In that same span of time, advancements in education, research and advocacy have had a tremendous impact on the opportunities that individuals with Down syndrome have to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Today, many people with Down syndrome:

  • Attend neighborhood schools and learn in typical classes alongside their peers without disabilities.
  • Graduate from high school and go to college.
  • Comprise a vibrant part of the American workforce.
  • Actively participate in the social and recreational aspects of their communities.
  • Live independently, make their own choices, and advocate for their rights.
I'm very grateful that today we have access to all sorts of early intervention programs and therapists, and that society is generally much more enlightened and people have better awareness and understanding of disability issues. It really was a different world just a few decades ago. If you've read The Memory Keeper's Daughter, you have a sense of what life was like for people with Down syndrome not that long ago, when they were frequently institutionalized and it was assumed that they could never live or function in society. Vanity Fair recently had a fascinating article about how playwright Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible) essentially denied the existence of his son Daniel because of Daniel's Down syndrome. Interestingly, after Daniel's birth, Miller's career never reached the heights of his earlier signature work - perhaps because in never accepting Daniel's Down syndrome, he was cutting himself off from the greatest dramas that could have been written.

A few months back Newsweek columnist George Will wrote about his son who has Down syndrome and how increased prenatal testing means that many people with genetic "abnormalities" like his son (and mine) will be terminated before birth. He mentioned that something like 85% of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome are aborted (I've heard 90%). While prenatal testing can be a helpful tool that can let parents prepare for challenging circumstances, in too many cases it is automatically assumed that such a life is not worth living, and babies are aborted just because they have an extra chromosome, not because of any life-threatening condition to the baby or the mother.

So part of Down Syndrome Awareness Month is helping people know that a diagnosis of Down syndrome should not be an automatic reason to terminate a pregnancy. There are actually a good number of parents willing and waiting to adopt a baby with Down syndrome. If you or someone you know is pregnant and gets a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, please bring the baby to term. Don't abort the baby because you think you can't take care of him or her. Whether you raise the child yourself or someone else adopts him or her, a life with Down syndrome is still a life that is fully human, fully created in the image of God, with full personhood and identity.

I've recently started doing some reading in the fields of disability studies and theology of disability, and I may blog about this further at some point. In the meantime, let me link to some interesting resources:

If People with Down Syndrome Ruled the World
The Body of Christ has Down’s Syndrome: Theological reflections on vulnerability, disability, and graceful communities
Encountering the Disabled God
Disabled Christianity blog
Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity by Amos Yong

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Commercial impact

Yesterday evening at the grocery store, Josiah was helping us shop. We told him that we needed raisins and pointed him to the raisin shelf. He glanced at the various options, selected a Sun-Maid raisins package to put in the cart, and said almost to himself, "Sun-Maid is proud to sponsor PBS Kids."

Aaauggghhh! Even supposedly non-commercial PBS is indoctrinating our five-year-old into corporate brand recognition and identity. He already makes a consumer choice to prefer Sun-Maid over other brands simply because they sponsor shows on PBS Kids. Sigh. Well, at least it's a healthy choice. Could be worse, I guess. At least he's not saying, "Budweiser is a proud sponsor of Sesame Street."

Ellen and I don't watch much TV, and one reason is that we don't want to put up with the commercials. If we follow a show, like Lost or Alias, we prefer to get the DVDs and watch them straight through, without commercial interruption. The only exception is Heroes. Sometimes we watch it live and mute the commercials; other times we tape it and watch it later, fast-forwarding through the commercials. It's disturbing how the ads tout their products as essential to human happiness and fulfillment - like anyone really needs a cell phone MP3 player or a luxury car that parks itself.

And sadly, product placement within the shows themselves makes advertising even more unavoidable. On Heroes, Claire's new car happened to be a Nissan, with the logo prominently visible (and was promptly followed up at the break with a Nissan commercial to reinforce it, in case you missed it in the show). New character Elle (played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame) holds her cell phone in such a way that the Sprint logo is clearly seen.

Cynical Gen Xers that we are, sometimes we will bust out laughing at the absurdity of the commercial messages. Like the one saying that you can get exclusive preview clips of Heroes sent to your phone - it's a commercial to get you to download more commercials! Or the Target ad that talks about how a percentage of your purchases goes back to community philanthropy - it's pitching shopping as virtuous and charitable. Help the community by buying more stuff! Feel good about your consumerism, because some tiny percentage is being donated to help people! Sad, really. Commercial messaging is so much the air we breathe in our consumer culture. We can do our best to unplug and avoid it all, but it's everywhere.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers

The latest issue of Christian Century has a review (by Brian McLaren) of sociologist Robert Wuthnow's new book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Here are some statistics and snippets from the review:

- "Young adults are marrying later, having fewer children and having them later, moving more often, going to college in higher numbers, living with more immigrant neighbors and therefore more ethnic and religious diversity, and living in the suburbs even more than their baby boomer parents." [The suburban note is interesting to me, as often we imagine that twentysomethings are all hanging out in the cities a la Friends, but sheer demographics of suburban majorities seem to bear out that young adults are likewise gravitating toward the suburbs. And the juxtaposition with immigrant neighbors is not a contradiction, as suburbia continues to diversify.]

- Wuthnow says, "The net result is fewer young adults contributing to the activities of local congregations or receiving support from these congregations."

- Being married or unmarried has a stronger effect on church attendance than anything else.

- The average adult age of mainline congregations is 52, and for evangelical congregations, it's 48. Both mainliners and evangelicals are losing young adults. The only groups for whom young adult retention has remained stable are Catholics, Jews and black Protestants.

- In 1970 the ratio of mainliners to evangelicals was five to four. In 2000 it was two to three.

- The more recent evangelical growth comes from Roman Catholics becoming evangelical - 9 percent of younger evangelicals were raised Catholic (compared to 4 percent in 1970).

- 46 percent of people in their early 40s attend church weekly, while only 29 percent of twentysomethings do.

- The proportion who talk about religion with their friends is highest among young adults in their twenties (despite higher percentages of being uninvolved with a church).

- Rates of orthodoxy are higher for those with a college education than for those without.

- About 38 percent of younger adults lean conservative religiously (with 20 percent being "staunchly conservative"), while 56 percent lean liberal religiously.

- 56 percent of young religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of young religious liberals do.

- Evangelicals are 1.7 times more likely to be "unwelcoming toward Asians and Hispanics" than nonevangelicals. "Evangelicals are a more likely source of mobilized resistance against newcomers than any other religious group."

One of McLaren's conclusions from Wuthnow's data is that "we should increase dialogue between church leaders and people working with young adults in Christian colleges and in ministries on secular college campuses. These are people who rub elbows with young adults day to day, and they have a lot of good advice to offer local churches, but hardly anybody asks."

From my location as an editor at InterVarsity Press, one of the best ways that the church can access the expertise of parachurch campus ministry leaders is through books they have written. A number of upcoming books are written by InterVarsity staff: Don Everts's One Guy's Head series of postmodern apologetics books, I Once Was Lost by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp about what they've learned about postmodern evangelism from two thousand recent converts, and narrative book True Story and companion giveaway booklet Based on a True Story by James Choung, who offers a fresh presentation of the gospel that's far more holistic, missional and justice-oriented than traditional summaries. (See this YouTube video for a three-minute version of his approach.) All of these are good resources to help the local church can understand today's twentysomethings and thirtysomethings and contextualize ministries in ways that resonate better with them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

Last night I finished reading The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs. I'd read Jacobs's previous book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, about his journey reading all the way through the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I thoroughly enjoyed The Know-It-All as a fascinating, geeky read, ideal for book geeks who enjoy spouting off random trivia. Both books also double as contemporary real-time memoirs, as you follow Jacobs through his year and get an inside look into his very amusing life.

The Year of Living Biblically is particularly interesting because Jacobs is a nonpracticing secular Jew. He has a vague sense of wanting to connect with his heritage but doesn't really believe in all the God stuff. But he reads through the Bible, makes a list of all the commands (both Old and New Testaments) and does his best to live them out over the course of a year. He grows out his beard, writes commandments on his doorframes, learns to pray and observe the Sabbath. His quest takes him on some journeys to visit communities that also hold strictly to the Bible, such as the Amish, Jerry Falwell's church, snake handlers and the remnant of Samaritans living in Israel.

While in Jerusalem, Jacobs finds himself on a busy street where he's encountering Hasidic Jews, hearing an Ave Maria as well as a Muslim call to prayer. And it occurs to him that his humble quest to live biblically is an entirely autonomous, individualistic enterprise. He feels utterly alone in his attempts to follow the commandments, precisely because he is not anchored in any faith community.

This made me think that the Christian life is not merely about privatized, pietistic attempts to live godly lives. Not that personal holiness is unimportant. But certainly the Christian life is meant to be embodied in community, that Christian living can only really be done with the support of fellow brothers and sisters on the journey. We are the people of God, not merely individuals of God.

At the end of his year, Jacobs is still unconvinced. But he is somehow more attuned to the possibility of the divine, and he has moments of encountering transcendence. His prayers have shown him the importance of thanksgiving, and his life is more virtuous. So his exercise has not been unfruitful, even if it is incomplete. I hope he continues on his spiritual journey, and that he really comes to know the God he has been praying to.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Desiring less

My favorite quote on the topic of simplicity is from G. K. Chesterton: “There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”

I first came across this quote during grad school while reading Richard Foster's lesser-known-but-still-classic book Freedom of Simplicity. It was a life-organizing principle for me then, and I try to come back to this notion of desiring less whenever I find myself wanting things I don't really need.

The other concept that helps me corral my acquisitiveness and materialism is the simple idea that we don't need to own something to enjoy it. I don't recall now when this first hit me, or if I came across it in a book or heard it in a sermon or something. But it rang true to me when I realized that I would purchase something and immediately have a sense of buyer's remorse - okay, I own it. Big whoop. Now what? In fact, it's a cultural lie that we need to own something to enjoy it.

My problem is that personality-wise, I'm a collector. When I was a kid, I collected coins, stamps, stickers, buttons, baseball cards, comic books, postcards, matchbooks, patches, pencils, keychains, magnets, rocks, shells, pop cans, action figures, Transformers . . . it never ended. Not surprisingly, my room was a mess. Over the years, I've found myself winnowing my collections down and limiting myself to certain things and not others. I'm currently maintaining a few ongoing collections (autographed IVP books, US Mint proof sets, Olympic pins, Justice League comics) and forgetting about the rest. In other words, I've been trying to practice the spiritual discipline of desiring less.

Of course, even when I try to desire less, stuff keeps on showing up, like T-shirts or coffee mugs from conferences. How many coffee mugs do any of us need, really? At least when we desire less, it's easier to let stuff go.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

From church competition to church collaboration

I had a good weekend in Minnesota at my alma mater's Homecoming. Got to see some old friends that I haven't seen for five or ten years or so, wandered around campus and looked at the new buildings and facilities. (When looking in some of the new housing units, I told current students, "Back in my day, we didn't have dishwashers! We had to wash our dishes by hand! And we didn't have pre-installed microwaves in the kitchens - we had to bring our own!" and so on.) My talk went well; I basically crammed an hour-and-a-half-long workshop into about 45 minutes. But people seemed to appreciate the whirlwind tour; a number of students came up to me afterward to thank me for the presentation, and a few asked me to sign copies of books. Kind of funny, because I remember when I was an undergrad there, I did the same thing with guest speakers sometimes.

Drove back to Chicagoland Saturday so I could continue guest teaching an adult education class Sunday morning. This week's topic was suburban church ministry, especially the tension between being contextualized and being countercultural. The class got into a discussion of church calling and "brand identity," what makes a church distinctive in a particular community to distinguish it from other area churches. Just as every radio station and TV channel tends to draw certain kinds of listeners or viewers, every church tends to attract certain kinds of people and not others. (The MTV show Beavis and Butthead was a "signature show" that not only attracted MTV's core demographic of males 18-25, it also repelled virtually everybody else, with the effect of purifying its audience for its advertisers.) Few churches, in actual practice, can really be all things to all people - but all churches can be some things to some people. So the challenge is in each church figuring out what they as a congregation are called in particular to be and do.

This led to a discussion of church competition, since in a suburban environment, the default setting is for people to shop for churches just as they shop for everything else. And it seems that churches compete with each other to have distinctive ministries. If I were to rewrite chapter 8 of my book today, I might revise it to frame this discussion less in terms of church competition and more in terms of church collaboration. Every individual local church needs to collaborate with other local churches because no one church can reach everybody in their community. But all the various churches working together can reach more people and more kinds of people than any one church can on their own.

At my college's Homecoming, one alum gave a presentation about what is going on in Rochester, Minnesota. A group of about twenty-five evangelical churches have gotten together as Team Rochester to work collaboratively. They do things like CareFest, a service project day where some 1700+ volunteers from all the churches combine to do practical service work around Rochester, painting public schools, helping with building and rehab projects for the park district and other community institutions. It's an amazing witness to the city of Rochester that could not have been done by one church on its own, but can be done with all of the churches working together, each contributing various gifts and emphases.

Too often we only apply 1 Corinthians 12 on an individual basis - each individual Christian is a part of the body, an eye, an ear, a hand, etc. But I think this applies on a congregational basis as well. The body of Christ is made up of many local congregations, each of which has their own distinctive callings and giftedness. And the more that churches get to know the other churches in their area, the less they'll think of one another in terms of "the competition" and instead they'll see how they can collaborate together to minister to and reach the whole community.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Back to college

I'm headed to Minnesota this weekend to go back to my undergraduate alma mater, Crossroads College. I've been invited to be one of the speakers for their Homecoming events. I graduated in the class of '94 and started there (at what was then named Minnesota Bible College) as a freshman in the fall of 1990, seventeen years ago. Which means that the current freshman class were just toddlers when I was starting college. That's a little freaky. Of course, another alum on the program graduated in the class of '49. So she was in college two dozen years before I was born.

It's been a while since I've been back, and I'm looking forward to seeing old friends. Being in Illinois, I'm a little out of the loop in keeping up with news of what's going on in Minnesota, since I don't get back there much anymore. A lot of my former professors have retired or moved on, but I hope to see at least a few familiar faces. I owe a lot of my faith and spiritual journey to Crossroads alumni, from a youth pastor who took me under his wing and showed me what it meant to be a Christian, to the pastor who baptized me and later officiated at my wedding. Not to mention all the faculty and classmates that helped me grapple with theological questions and personal crises in late night talks at two or three in the morning.

Many of my old classmates are now pastors or in some other form of church ministry. And that's an alternate life for me, the road not taken. I was a pastoral leadership major (along with a major in biblical studies & theology) and I appreciated the program very much. I was geeky enough to really enjoy second-year Greek and exegetical method (though Hebrew, not so much). But somewhere along the way I got a feeling that I could do church work if God really called me to it, but I didn't know that that was really what I was called to do. My original interest from high school was journalism and writing, and then I went through the common Christian college student phase of thinking that to really serve God I needed to be a pastor or missionary. It wasn't until the end of the college years that my eyes were opened to other possibilities, whether marketplace, parachurch or whatnot. So I was glad to be able to integrate my biblical/theological interests with my writing/publishing interests and get into Christian publishing.

So anyway, I'm deeply grateful for my undergrad education, especially how it trained me to think biblically, theologically and pastorally. I learned the importance of building a solid library (I graduated with over 200 IVP books on my shelves). And it's certainly shaped how I go about my own writing and editing. I'll occasionally get a thank-you note (especially for my Grieving a Suicide book) that mentions that they appreciate my perspective being "pastoral." Well, I think some of that comes from what I learned from my college days as a pastoral ministry major. And I'm glad that my current vocation allows me to help provide resources for students in the academy as well as ministry professionals in the church. It's my small way of giving back to all those who invested in me all those years ago.