Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rene Padilla on the Cape Town Lausanne Congress

Rene Padilla blogged about the Cape Town Lausanne Congress, appraising the future of the movement and offering significant critiques. Very helpful analysis. (The original post is in Spanish, so here's a Google-translated English version.)

The future of the Lausanne Movement

C. Rene Padilla

The figures relating to the Third International Congress on World Evangelization held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 17 to 24 October under the theme "In Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19) are impressive. There were more than 4,000 participants from 198 countries. In addition, there were about 650 Web sites connected with the Congress in 91 countries and 100,000 "hits" from 185 countries. This means that many thousands of people around the world were able to attend meetings via the Internet. Doug Birdsall, Executive Chairman of the Lausanne Movement, probably right in saying that Cape Town 2010 was "the most representative global evangelical meeting in history." Without doubt, this achievement was largely the result of his long effort to make that happen.

Equally impressive were the many practical arrangements were made before Congress. Besides the difficult process of selecting the speakers for the plenary and for "multiplexes" (elective seminar) and the dialogue sessions, translators and participants from each country represented, there were two tasks that must have involved a lot of work before Congress : The Global Conversation Lausanne to enable people around the world make their comments and interact with others taking advantage of contemporary technological advances, and the drafting of the first part (the theological) of Cape Town Commitment prepared by the Working Group Lausanne Theological directed by Christopher Wright.

A positive assessment of Lausanne III
The best way to check the value of a conference like Lausanne III to analyze the concrete results it produces later in connection with the life and mission of the church. For this reason, this assessment of the conference just held in Cape Town has to be considered merely as a preliminary assessment.
Each of the six-day program (with one day off between the third and fourth) had a theme:
1) Monday: Truth: check the truth of Christ in a pluralistic world of globalization.
2) Tuesday: Reconciliation: Building Peace of Christ in our broken and divided world.
3) Wednesday: World Religions: bearing witness to the love of Christ to people of other religions.
4) Friday: Priorities: discerning the will of God for evangelizing in our century.
5) Saturday: Integrity, call the church to return to humility, integrity and simplicity.
6) Sunday: Partnership: co-participation in the Body of Christ for a new global balance.

Each of these key issues, described as "the greatest challenges to the church in the next decade," was the theme of Bible study and theological reflection each day in the morning. The biblical text that was used in the series entitled "Celebrating the Bible" was the letter to the Ephesians. One of the most positive aspects of the program was the inductive study of the passage of the day in groups, each consisting of six members sitting around a table. This provided the group members the opportunity to learn together and pray for each other, develop new friendships and build alliances for the future. Bible study group was followed by exposure of the Ephesians passage selected for that day. Without minimizing the importance of music, drama, visual arts, stories and performances of "multimedia", a high percentage of participants felt that the time devoted to "Celebrating the Arts" could have been reduced to allow more time "Celebrating the Bible", an activity greatly appreciated.

Special mention should be made of several of the witnesses who gave the plenary sessions in the morning some people whose life experience clearly illustrated the theme of the day. Who that has been there will ever forget, for example, the young Palestinian and Jewish youth who spoke together about the meaning of reconciliation in Christ above racial barriers? Or the American missionary who spoke of witnessing the love of Christ with people of other religions, and told how many Christians, including her husband, a doctor, were killed by Muslims, while returning from a remote village where they had been moved to serve by Christian compassion in Afghanistan?

In the multiplexes and the dialogue sessions each day in the afternoon were explored in depth the practical implications of Bible study and biblical reflection in the morning. Indeed, the most important debate on the various topics are not necessarily carried out within the limits of time allocated in the program but in informal discussions outside the formal agenda. Anyway, the fact that much of the rich reflection on issues related to contemporary global problems occurred in the afternoon sessions. These participatory sessions, which were taken into account the understanding of the diversity of perspectives represented, the contextualization of ideas, models, contacts and materials, and commitment to joint action plans, will be the basis for the second part of Commitment Cape Town. The plan is to publish the document in two parts (the theological and practical) with a study guide at the end of November.

Of the twenty multiplexes that were offered during the Congress, was especially focused three issues that could be considered as the most critical for the Southern Hemisphere: globalization, environmental crisis, and the richness vs. poverty. These three factors are closely linked together and, given the enormous impact they have on millions of people in the world of big majorities, they deserve much more attention than they have received so far by the evangelical movement.

Serious deficiencies
The official definition of its mission, the Lausanne Movement exists to "strengthen, inspire and equip the Church to world evangelization in our generation, and encourage Christians to their duty to participate in public affairs and social." A careful analysis of this definition reflects the dichotomy that has influenced a large segment of the evangelical movement especially in the western world: the dichotomy between evangelism and social responsibility. Because of this dichotomy, closely related to the dichotomy between secular and sacred, the Lausanne Movement aims to "strengthen, inspire and equip the Church for evangelization" but only "encourage Christians" about their social responsibility . The implicit assumption is that the primary mission of the church is evangelism conceived in terms of oral communication of the Gospel, while participation in matters of public interest and social good works by which Christians fulfill their vocation as "Light of the World" for the glory of God (Matthew 5:16) - is a secondary duty for which Christians do not need to be strengthened, inspired and equipped, but only encouraged.

In biblical exposition on Tuesday based on Ephesians 2 (the second day of the Congress) became clear, from the biblical text, that Jesus Christ is our peace (v. 14), made our peace (v. 15) and preached peace (v . 17). In other words, in Christ, being, doing and proclaim peace (shalom, life in abundance) are inseparable. The church is faithful to God's purpose in so far as it extends the mission of Jesus Christ in history stating specifically the reality of the Gospel not only for what it says but also what is and what it does. The whole mission of the church is rooted in the mission of God in Christ, a mission that involves the whole person in community, to all creation and every aspect of life.

Bible exposition based on Ephesians 3 the next day put in relief the urgent need for the Lausanne Movement to clarify theologically the content of the mission of God's people. In contrast to what was said yesterday, the designated speaker for Wednesday said that while the church is concerned about all forms of human suffering, she is particularly concerned with eternal suffering and thus is called to give priority to evangelize the lost.

A serious deficiency of Lausanne III was not giving time for serious reflection on the commitment God expects of its people regarding their mission. Unfortunately, no time to discuss the commitment of Cape Town, on which the Theological Task Force led by Christopher Wright had worked for one year with the intention to circulate at the beginning of Congress. The document was distributed only on Friday night and no action was taken for participants to at least write their personal comments on it before the close of the conference in response to specific questions. According to the Executive Committee, had no time for that! The negative stance taken by the organizers of the program on the recommendation of a group of elderly participants interested in ensuring that all participants see the document as his own not only works against this purpose. It is also a sign that the Lausanne Movement is still very far from achieving the partnership, without which no basis to be considered a global movement.

In contrast to the treatment she received the document produced by the Theological Task Force on Wednesday devoted a full plenary session on the strategy for world evangelization in this generation, a strategy developed in the United States on the basis of a list of "unreached people groups" prepared by the Strategic Working Group in Lausanne. This strategy reflected the obsession with numbers, typical of the market mentality that characterizes a sector of the evangelical movement in the United States. Moreover, according to many participants of the Congress who know first hand the needs of their countries in relation to evangelism, the list of unreached people groups did not do justice to the real situation. Interestingly, the list contained no people group in the United States!

Another shortcoming of Lausanne III was that, as noted by the Special Interest Group on Reconciliation and towards the end of Congress, there was no official mention of the fact that he was performing in a country that until recently was dominated by apartheid and still suffer social injustice resulting from this policy. Indeed, Congress was held at the International Convention Centre was built on land that is claimed to sea with the debris of the Southern District of Cape Town where, in 1950, the district was declared for whites only area. Consequently, about 60,000 black residents were expelled from the area by force and their homes were completely destroyed. However, the organizers of Cape Town 2010 turned a deaf ear to the request of the Special Interest Group on Reconciliation Congress officially rejected "theological heresies that supported the apartheid" and lamented "the socio-economic suffering is this legacy of apartheid. " One wonders how serious the Lausanne Movement leaders in their commitment to the Lausanne Covenant, which stipulates that "the salvation message also contains the message of trial of any form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not fear denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist "(paragraph 5).

The partnership in mission and future of the Lausanne Movement
A fact now recognized and often mentioned those interested in the life and mission of the church globally is that in recent decades the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted from the North and the South West and the East. Despite that, all too often Christian leaders in North and West, especially in the United States, continue taking it for granted that they are responsible for designing the strategy for the evangelization of the world. As stated on the page about the "Day Six - Partnership" of the book containing the detailed description of the Congress program, "the basis of organizational leadership, control of financial resources and decision-making power of the strategy tends to remain in the north and west. "

Sadly, the biggest obstacle to implementing a true partnership in mission is the wealth of the North and West, the wealth that Jonathan Bonk, in his important book on Missions and Money (Misiones and money) has described as "a Western missionary problem ". If this is so, and if the Lausanne Movement is to contribute significantly to fulfilling the mission of God through his people, it is time that the missionary force connected with this movement, including his strategists, renounce power Money and model of missionary life in the incarnation, earthly ministry and the cross of Jesus Christ.

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Facebook statuses from Cape Town 2010

I was a delegate at the Cape Town 2010 Lausanne Congress. Here are my compiled Facebook statuses from the Congress from Oct. 16-26:

After 27+ hours of travel time (including 16 hours sitting next to Ron Sider), I'm finally in Cape Town. Whew.

worshipped at St. George's Cathedral, where Desmond Tutu was Archbishop and the site of the 1989 Peace March. A beautiful service in English, isiXhosa and Afrikaans.

heard that part of the reason the Chinese government restricted the Lausanne delegates is because of the Nobel Prize being given to a Chinese dissident. But about 30 Chinese delegates made it to Cape Town, mostly by traveling through other countries.

just experienced the opening ceremonies for the Cape Town Congress, with a welcome from the African church, letters from Billy Graham and John Stott, a celebration of the history of Christianity, singing "Crown Him with Many Crowns" in commemoration of the Edinburgh 1910 conference. A bit overwhelmed at all of this - it feels like a combination of Urbana and the Olympics.

My small group, which includes folks from Malaysia, India, Ethiopia and the UK, has one Al and two Alans.

Singing "King of Kings and Lord of Lords" in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Urdu and Zulu.

Ajith Fernando on Ephesians 1: "The gospel is cosmic in scope and involves everything, the whole universe. Most people come to Christ to meet a personal need, but they stay with Christ when they know that he is the truth. Our challenge is to present God not just as a god who meets needs, but who has a cosmic plan for all of creation."

From US delegates gathering: The gospel has always been spread by exiles, refugees, slaves and immigrants. The dramatic numbers of predominantly Christian immigrants coming to the US may well be God's way of bringing renewal to the North American church.

Tonight's plenary focus: Asia and the persecuted church. Moved to tears by prayers for our Chinese delegates and the testimony of an 18-year-old Korean student who lost her mother to leukemia and her father to imprisonment but still wants to return to bring the gospel and human rights to North Korea.

Ruth Padilla DeBorst on Ephesians 2: Where does God live? God's dwelling place is the church, the transnational, transethnic community woven together into a new humanity.

Hearing from Robert Duncan, archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America, on how the Anglicans of the global south brought renewal to North American Anglicanism.
"We're learning how to plant churches the way Nigerians and Ugandans do."
‎"Ours is not an American triumph. It is a story of the global church at its best."

Evening regional focus: The Middle East. In Saudi Arabia 100 years ago, there were 50 known Christians; today there are over a million. In Iran, when Christians are imprisoned, other prisoners become Christians.

Evening topical focus: brokenness, trafficking, HIV/AIDS. Testimony given by my author Princess Kasune Zulu, author of Warrior Princess. Her prayer: that the church would erase stigma, advocate for the HIV-positive, eliminate newborn infection and give hope, love and life to the dying.

John Piper on Ephesians 3: If God had people on other planets, they would have been invited to Lausanne. Because we are not just a global congress on world evangelization - we are a global congress for the cosmic manifestation of the glory of God.

Libby Little, widow of medical worker Tom Little killed in Afghanistan two months ago, shared Tom's last devotional thoughts retrieved from his blood-stained notes: Eph. 2:8-10, we are God's workmanship, created to do good works, and 2 Cor. 2:15, we are the aroma of Christ.

Report from an Indian Christian: 50 members of his family have become Christian and now follow Jesus as their guru. "Jesus died for our karma."

Benjamin Kwashi, archbishop in Jos, Nigeria, repeatedly threatened with death threats, mobs: "Some day I will die. But until then, I have a gospel worth living for, and I have a gospel worth dying for."

Testimony from a Muslim background believer about their contextualized church: "My brother is not the pastor; he is the imam of the church. Muslims come to church thinking it's a mosque, and they stayed."

Re: Islam: Christians can talk about Jesus without arguing against Islam. Muslim background believers respond to Jesus in various ways; some call themselves Christians, others self-identify as Muslim followers of Jesus. Some renounce Muslim identity; others say following Jesus was how they became true Muslims.

Many Muslims come to believe in Jesus through dreams and visions; one man had a dream of Jesus and traveled 1000 km by camel to find someone who could tell him about Jesus.

Lausanne Congress videos are available here, and more are on the way:

Just chatted with Samuel Escobar, a living legend who was one of the key forces at the original '74 Lausanne Congress.

Evening session on megacities (Tim Keller: "So let's go"), diaspora (as 200 million people move around the globe, the gospel moves with them and unreached peoples become reachable) and Latin America (with Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar giving history and their hopes for the future).

at the Wheaton alumni reception - big crowd here, hearing about Wheaton's influence on Lausanne from Billy Graham to Doug Birdsall. Litfin is talking about Wheaton's plans for a new center on global and experiential learning.

glad to have a day off to rest and do some sightseeing.

had a fantastic adventure all over the Cape Peninsula, from Table Mountain all the way down to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Complete with wild ostriches and baboons in the road. Thanks so much to my local host guides Gabriel and Deborah Kory Fabule!

at the reception for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. So grateful that InterVarsity/USA is part of the larger global family of IFES.
Lindsay Brown: About half of the Lausanne speakers are the fruit of IFES.

Random realization: Holding evangelism and social action together simply affirms what much of the global church already knows - that there is not a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical.

Vaughan Roberts on Ephesians 4: Love for those like us is ordinary. Love for those unlike us is extraordinary. Love for those who dislike us is revolutionary.

Vaughan Roberts: When we freeze water, we make ice cubes - all the same. When God freezes water, he makes snowflakes - each one different.

Tonight's focus: Africa. Today's growth of the African church is more from its own evangelism than from foreign mission. Africa is no longer just a missionary-receiving continent; it is a missionary-sending continent, to Europe, the US, elsewhere.

headed to an IJM reception featuring a coffeehouse with music artist Sara Groves.

Calisto Odede on Ephesians 5: If we are not walking in the light, we are blowing vuvuzelas but not playing in the game.

was photographed by an official Lausanne photographer who thought I was reading the Bible on my iPod. I was checking Facebook.

Femi Adeleye: The prosperity gospel is a distortion because instead of giving as an act of worship to God, it becomes an act of investment with an expected return.

Yes, it's true: flushing toilets swirl in the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere.
several of us here were discussing this and verifying it with both convention centre toilets and hotel toilets. Most here seem to flush counterclockwise, and we thought most in the US flush clockwise. But it's disputed as to whether this has as much to do with the hemisphere and more to do with the design of the toilets and how the water jets out.

Tonight's focus: the Western world and Eurasia. Heard from Nicky Gumbel on the rationality, power and urgency of the gospel and the balance of word and deed. Also released: part 1 of the Cape Town Commitment.

Ramez Atallah on Ephesians 6: In spiritual warfare with the cosmic powers, we must use God's equipment, not the weapons of the world.

Leslie and Chad Neal Seagraves on men and women in partnership: An Indian couple was trained in outreach; the husband brought 35 to Christ, and the wife brought 315. 1200 women have been trained as church planters and have started over 4100 house churches.

Patrick Fung quoting Chris Wright: The world is in a holistic mess that needs a holistic gospel.

found out that Sara Groves's husband, Troy, is from my hometown of Bloomington, MN, and that we were a year apart at our elementary school and high school.

had a fantastic time at the closing ceremonies of the Cape Town Lausanne Congress. Celebrated communion with members of the global church. Start the long trip home tomorrow.

made it back home to Chicago after 28+ hours of travel. And note to airlines: When you say, "If you have changed seats, please return to your original ticketed seating assignment," we hear that as "We just want to be able to identify your body if we crash."

Monday, August 02, 2010

Evangelical Tribalism: The Big Sort or The Breakfast Club? is running a series on the Future of Evangelicalism with a variety of contributors. Here's my essay.

Evangelical Tribalism: The Big Sort or The Breakfast Club?

by Al Hsu

Journalist Bill Bishop and sociologist Robert Cushing's 2008 book The Big Sort describes how people organize themselves geographically to live near politically like-minded people. Conservatives tend to live near other conservatives, and liberals near other liberals. These generally homogeneous communities provide social networks and plausibility structures that reinforce certain worldview perspectives and not others. This self-sorting results in echo chambers where conservatives become more conservative and liberals more liberal, since neither side receives the moderating influence of the other.

Evangelicals may be experiencing a "big sort" of their own, if not geographically then theologically, sociologically, and psychographically, as they gather with like-minded tribes at specific conferences. In April 2010, evangelical Christian institutions or organizations sponsored six separate national conferences: Together for the Gospel, the Wheaton Theology Conference, Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing, North Park University's 4 Days 4 Justice, the new church conference Exponential 10 in Orlando, and the Fermi Project's Q Gathering in Chicago. These six conferences provide a window into how contemporary evangelical Christianity is fragmented and tribalized into distinct subcultures.

Finding Our Tribe
Like-minded people and structures reinforce our subcultural identity. The more we read certain blogs or books by certain authors in a certain community, the more radically invested we become in that tribal identity. Attending conferences with like-minded individuals is a powerful reinforcer of tribal commitments. Since travel and conference costs are a significant investment, conferences serve as external markers of one's dedication to the community. The attendees are not casual dilettantes; they are the true believers. Such conferences reinforce the message: You are not alone in your convictions and your identity. This is your tribe.

The aforementioned six conferences were not the only options available that spring, or even that month. Every year, dozens of conferences are scattered across the evangelical landscape. Some have been held for decades, such as Urbana or the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA); others are relatively new, like Catalyst, Story, or Origins. Most have a particular focus, like Renovare's emphasis on spiritual formation or Passion's focus on worship. A distinctive "brand identity" sets each conference apart from the others.

When individual evangelicals attend conferences such as the ones held in April 2010, they see a larger corporate vision of Christian community. But are such conferences truly a comprehensive picture of the kingdom of God, or only a narrow picture of a particular tribal subculture?

Parallel Universes
Consider the speakers at each of these conferences, the most visible "heroes" and spokespeople for each tribe. Together for the Gospel's speakers included John Piper, Mark Dever, R. C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, and Joshua Harris. The Wheaton Theology Conference featured N. T. Wright (whose work was the focus of the conference), Kevin Vanhoozer, Jeremy Begbie, Edith Humphrey, Richard Hays, and Markus Bockmuehl. The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing highlighted Mary Karr, Eugene Peterson, Kate DiCamillo, Stephen Carter, Parker Palmer, Luci Shaw, and Sara Miles. Headlining 4 Days 4 Justice were Soong-Chan Rah, Lisa Sharon Harper, Richard Twiss, Mimi Haddad, Terry LeBlanc, Andrea Smith, and Peter Heltzel. Exponential's speakers included Dave Ferguson, Ken Blanchard, Alan Hirsch, Efrem Smith, Shane Claiborne, Brenda Salter-McNeil, and Francis Chan. On the platform at Q were Tim Keller, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Scot McKnight, Richard Florida, Soledad O'Brien, and David Aikman.

Between these six conferences, at least 209 speakers were featured. Only one person spoke at multiple conferences -- social media consultant Charles Lee, at both Exponential and Q. There tends to be little overlap between the various conference subcultures, and attendees of one are unlikely to hear speakers from others.

Depending on the tribe, a conference might communicate that evangelical Christianity is theologically rigorous and intellectually respectable, or literary and creative, or committed to social justice. No one of these conferences covers everything that the Christian life is all about, but each provides a slice of the overall portrait.

While conferences are helpful for defining each tribe's subcultural identity, they may also have the unintended consequence of fragmenting evangelicalism into competing communities that no longer recognize one another as full brothers and sisters in Christ. If conference attendees self-segregate and develop relationships only within their particular tribe, then people find themselves in largely homogeneous communities where their vision is limited to their tribal emphases. We might find others who are like-minded, but we may not hear countervailing perspectives or alternate voices that could serve to correct imbalances.

In fact, it is possible that the tribalizing impulse within evangelicalism creates a situation where people only feel at home within their own particular subculture and do not feel comfortable in evangelicalism or Christianity at large, let alone other tribal subcultures. Fragmentation creates an environment in which the mere presence of people from other contexts makes people suspicious of more trans-cultural, broadly evangelical, or "ecumenical" settings.

An informal survey of April conference-goers found that many attendees were unaware of conferences other than the one they attended. And those who knew of the other conferences described them in ways that were not always positive. One Wheaton Theology attendee's perception of Together for the Gospel was "very conservative, hyper-Calvinist, negative toward women." A Q attendee described Wheaton Theology attendees as "too smart for normal people." A Together for the Gospel attendee perceived the Calvin Festival as "spiritually devoid of theology" and critiqued 4 Days 4 Justice as having "confusion over the Gospel." A Calvin attendee thought Q participants were "elitist."

A More Excellent Way
Yet fragmentation is not the only possible destiny for evangelicals. What may be needed are more pan-evangelical or pan-Christian contexts where people from multiple tribes can rub shoulders and learn from one another. Evangelicalism needs to recover what some have called the "village green," where the members of different tribes can find common ground. This could involve interdenominational movements and events such as the Lausanne Movement and the Cape Town 2010 Congress, or it could be as small as local churches joining together for a shared VBS. In the early 1990s, churches in my college town held a community-wide concert of prayer, and I was amazed and encouraged to see Presbyterians and Pentecostals, mainliners and evangelicals, high-church and low-church Christians alike, all praying together for our city.

Rather than segregate ourselves in the Big Sort, we could pursue the way of The Breakfast Club. The iconic 1984 John Hughes movie featured five teens spending a Saturday in detention in their school library. The five represent high school archetypes: an athlete, a princess, a brain, a druggie, and a countercultural "basket case." Over the course of the day, they get to know each other, and discover out that each is more complex than the stereotype. They have more in common than they realized. As New York Times film critic A. O. Scott put it, "the great, paradoxical insight of The Breakfast Club is that alienation is the norm, that nerds, jocks, stoners, popular girls and weirdos are all, in their own ways, outsiders."

Similarly, members of various evangelical subcultures may feel alienated from mainstream Christianity as a whole. But there is space within evangelicalism to hold together the dialectical tension between particularity and commonality. Within a larger 1 Corinthians 12 ecclesiology, we can discover that the different tribes are not enemy combatants, but rather different parts of the same body -- one body, one faith, one Lord Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that if participants from each of the six April 2010 conferences were put together in a high school library for a day, they might reprise the Breakfast Club experience. They might discover that despite their differences and tribal subcultures, they could indeed build relationships based on a common identity in Christ that transcends their subcultural distinctives. And perhaps they would discover that the future of the church is one in which the Reformed Calvinist, the academic theologian, the literary writer, the social activist, the church planter, and the culture maker all join together as interconnected citizens of the kingdom of God.

Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press, where he acquires and develops books in church and mission, cultural issues, spiritual formation, and global justice issues. He is the author of several books, including The Suburban Christian and Grieving a Suicide. He will be a delegate at the upcoming Cape Town 2010 Lausanne Congress in October. He and his family live in the Chicago suburbs.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

What 'Lost' Taught Us about Dying Well

[My take on the Lost finale and the whole series was posted online at Christianity Today's website.]

What 'Lost' Taught Us about Dying Well
The meaning behind "live together, die alone."
Al Hsu | posted 5/26/2010 12:08PM

Three episodes before the series finale of Lost, after witnessing the deaths of three beloved main characters, I thought to myself, "Oh, no—they're all going to die." At this point, so few original survivors of Oceanic 815 remained that the hope of anybody leaving the island alive seemed implausible.

I was glad that the finale didn't play out quite the way I had feared. But I was still sort of right: Everybody was going to die. Sometime, whether we saw it on screen or not.

I'm realizing that the entire series can be seen as a six-year meditation on how human beings approach death. In the pilot, death struck unexpectedly with a plane crash on a Pacific island. And every episode to follow dealt in some way with desperate efforts to live and avoid death.

At the beginning, the primary needs were survival. Food, water, shelter. Jack, Kate, Locke, Sawyer, and all the rest worked together to take care of the wounded and to help one another survive the island's threats. The goal was to avoid death and to get home.

Even though many unnamed redshirts and minor characters died in season 1, it wasn't until the first main cast death that viewers realized that not all of these survivors were going to make it off the island. And the Grim Reaper has steadily cut his way through the cast members each season. Some deaths were foreshadowed, like a looming terminal illness. But others came suddenly, without warning. Death is unpredictable.

As the series progressed, we as viewers reacted with all of the common responses of grief. I often found myself in denial. After the heart-wrenching season three finale, I kept hoping, "Maybe he isn't really dead. He survived somehow. We'll find out next season that he's okay." Many fans bargained with the directors to bring back beloved characters (which they did, in post-mortem appearances and flash-sideways).

As the death toll rose, a sense of resignation and inevitability came. The funerals on the beach happened more frequently. Again we'd see someone digging a grave, and again we'd see Hurley's downcast face. At first, there were brief ceremonies of remembrance, a few words spoken. After a while, not many remaining survivors were even left to pay tribute to those who had died.

By the end, all of us, characters and viewers alike, came to some degree of resignation and acceptance. One of the key lines in the finale that made sense of the whole series was "Everybody dies sometime." Death is inevitable. And while we can fight it and stave it off as long as we can, at some point, we recognize that there is nothing we can do to avoid it.

Rob Moll's new book The Art of Dying argues that over the last century or so, Christians have lost the practice of dying well. Christians used to have intentional ways to prepare for one's death, to number one's days. Christians approached death purposefully, making things right between them and God and others. These days, death has been medicalized and partitioned off from everyday life, leaving most of us without the resources to prepare adequately for death, whether one's own or a loved one's. We don't know what to do when death comes.

So a show like Lost can actually help us grapple with the reality of death. The characters' stories have often centered around "unfinished business" from their pre-island lives that needed to be resolved in some way. Moll notes that when Christians practice the art of dying, we learn to reconcile ourselves to God and others before death, saying important things like "Please forgive me," "I forgive you," "Thank you," and "I love you." Some of these very phrases were used in Lost (before and after characters' deaths), as a model to us for our own relationships. Some bloggers commented after the finale that the show had prompted them to cherish their own loved ones now, in this life, before it's too late.

Jack's goal from the beginning of the show was to get his people off the island. He wanted to get everybody home. As more and more people died along the way, it became increasingly clear that this was not going to happen. So I find it entirely appropriate that the series finale demonstrated that if characters could not get off the island literally, they did so spiritually.

Many fans were disappointed that the show did not resolve its vast mysteries and mythology. But at the end, the characters didn't really care about the origin of the island or the nature of the electromagnetic properties of the glowing light or whatever. What mattered most was the community they had formed and the relationships they had built during their time on the island.

At the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, we're not going to care if we understood how the Dharma Initiative fit into the epic confrontation between Jacob and the Man in Black. But we're going to want assurance that we will see our loved ones again, and that our eternal destiny is secure.

C. S. Lewis talked about Sehnsucht as a sense of longing for the eternal. We can view Lost through the lens of Sehnsucht, that deep within each character's heart was an eschatological longing for redemption. If the characters couldn't find that in this life, they would do so in the next life.

Evangelicals naturally critiqued the universalist nature of the finale. But we can also affirm that the show was headed in the right direction. This life is not all there is. Death is not the end.

It's almost certainly intentional that Jack Shephard's number in Lost was 23, evoking Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd." (And the finale aired on May 23.) Jack's father, Christian Shephard, helped him find his way home.

Christian viewers of Lost can have confidence that we too have a Great Shepherd who finds the lost and leads us home. And we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press. He has written more about facing death in his book Grieving a Suicide. Hsu is a former columnist for Christianity Today.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Attention Christian conference-goers: Looking for survey respondents

I just finished a class on sociology of religion, and I'm now working on a final paper about evangelical Christian conferences. Looking for people's impressions of several specific conferences held in April 2010. If you attended last month's Wheaton Theology Conference, Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing, Together for the Gospel, 4 Days 4 Justice, Exponential 10 or Q Conference, please take this survey!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The God Who Recycles

This morning I took out our recycling and set it out on the curb. Last week our pastor mentioned that taking out the garbage each week can be an analogy for confessing our sin and trash, which is particularly appropriate during this season of Lent. That reminded me of this devotional I wrote a few years ago for My Heart--Christ's Home Through the Year:

The God Who Recycles

He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Revelation 21:5

Every Wednesday morning, I take trash cans and recycling bins out to the curb. I feel like I'm purging my home of all its impurities, and I come away feeling cleansed.

There's a lot of garbage in our lives. I'm grateful that God will take away my trash if only I am willing to bring it to him. He forgives my sins, no questions asked, and the trash is taken away as far as the east is from the west.

But I'm even more excited about the recycling. It's somehow thrilling to think about cans, bottles, cereal boxes and newspapers being remade and finding new use. God is the Great Recycler. There are times when I feel used up and worn out. I feel useless, like I'm good for nothing. But God can renew me and restore me and use me for service in surprising ways.

Pray: Spend some time in confession the next time you take out the garbage. And when you take out the recycling, give thanks for the opportunity to begin again.

Al Hsu

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Philip Yancey on Christian writing

Some thoughts from Philip Yancey in his book Open Windows (1982), in an essay called "Pitfalls of Christian Writing":

. . . Christian authors tend to give only the ideas and thoughts, without tracing the personalities involved and the context of how those thoughts developed. Too often religious books are organized and written like sermons, with an outlined structure superimposed on the content.

Many successful evangelical authors are not authors at all; they are speakers who make their living by speaking at churches and conferences. One can hardly blame them for organizing their written material in the same way as their spoken material, and often it sells well. But speakers who write books in the same style defy the basic rules of communication. Writers cannot merely list facts and hope to penetrate readers’ brains. They must take readers on an emotional journey to hold their attention. People do not read the same way they listen, and a book-speech is effective only among an audience previously committed to agree with the material. It cannot reach out to a noncaptive audience such as a world skeptical of Christian ideas. That requires books created according to the rules of written communication.

An author cannot captivate an audience with his or her own personal magnetism as a speaker can. Authors must use such techniques as a gripping narrative style, well-placed anecdotes, suspense, and a structure that compels a reader to follow the train of thought. To a diverse audience, ideas come across best when they are embodied and live within a visual, imaginable context.