We’re All Liberal Christians Now

I decided to make a follow up to my conversation with Paul VanderKlay from last week. If you haven’t watched it, you can do that HERE.

I was talking about liberal theology, but I realized I didn’t define it very well. If you’re fuzzy about what I mean by that, here’s a video where I explain some of the markers and origins of liberal theology and give some examples of how that plays out.

Feel free to leave your comments, pushback, or questions below. If you like what you’re reading and watching, be sure to share it!

 

 

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Jordan Peterson and Liberal Theology

I was privileged to talk with Paul VanderKlay on his Youtube channel/podcast. We discussed Jordan Peterson and how his thinking (dare I say, theological method?) bears strong resemblance to classic liberal theology.

For a more detailed description of what we mean by “liberal” theology, see my short blog post HERE.

This was a great conversation. Paul is the pastor of Living Stones, a small Christian Reformed Church, in Sacramento California. His Youtube channel and podcast on Jordan Peterson and Christianity has earned him the title of “Pastor of the Intellectual Dark Web.”

Journey Through Hell

At a local used book sale a couple weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Inferno, not the Dan Brown novel, but Dante’s. I started reading it this weekend and have found myself hooked. Ever since visiting Florence last fall, I’ve had Dante on my reading list, so I was pretty excited to find a hard copy for a dollar at this book sale.

hell

Inferno is one part of Dante’s grand three-part poem The Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century. For those who don’t know, it recounts a guided first person journey through hell, purgatory, and finally into paradise. Inferno, which is the most popular of the three parts, has Dante being guided through Hell by the ghost of the Roman poet, Virgil.

One of the things that is most fascinating to me about this poem is the glimpse it gives into medieval Christian ideas about Hell.  Modern people, even if we believe in Hell, likely will approach Dante’s poem more as a work of fantasy than theology but I think we need to remember that it’s the product of a very real medieval metaphysic (philosophical term basically meaning basic structure of all reality). That is, for Dante and his contemporaries, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory were just as much a part of the universe as galaxies and atoms are for modern people today.

One of the things the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent scientific revolution did was deconstruct many of the medieval ideas about the world.  The medieval church rested on the understanding of the world that Dante lived in, and to question that structure was to question the authority of the church, and by proxy, the authority of God. The radical changes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries made a restructuring of the way we see the world and the spiritual, possible.

I’ve heard people who study this refer to the medieval world as “enchanted” and the modern world as “disenchanted.” They simply mean that for the medieval person, what we call the “spiritual” or “supernatural” wasn’t so separate from the day to day. Demonic and angelic forces were very real and very active. It took the Protestant Reformation and the  emergence of science to separate the spiritual from the ordinary.

Think of it this way. If we believe in heaven or hell, we likely think of them as realities that are separate from our observable universe. We might use the language of separate “dimensions” or separate realities. If God, angels, or demons are at work in the world, we tend to regard it as an “intrusion” into our “natural” world. My guess is most of us think about miracles as God actively interrupting the natural processes of nature in order to do something. The separation of the spiritual and physical is just taken for granted, but, for Dante and his contemporaries, interaction between the spiritual and physical was not an intrusion at all; it was just the way things were.

Thoughts?

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Spiritual Gifts and Personality Assessments?

I’ve been off the blog for the last month because I’ve been really busy. I’m working on a couple larger writing projects that will hopefully be revealed in the near-(ish) future. One of them is, by far, the largest one I’ve ever undertaken. More info to come!

This morning I was reading 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul offers the Corinthian church some corrective advice on how they are approaching spiritual gifts. It looks like the Corinthians were looking at spiritual gifts as something that could move them up or down a spiritual hierarchy. Many of them seemed to especially want the gift of tongues for the reason that it is a very showy gift. Paul had to remind them that love is primary, and that gifts that encourage the whole church body (prophecy) are more useful than one that has the possibility of inflating the ego of the one exercising the gift.

Reading this got me thinking about what Paul might say to churches today about spiritual gifts. I know this is a very dangerous and controversial thing to speculate on, and I know that we can’t know for sure what Paul would think. But, I wonder what Paul would think about the way many churches are now relying on personality assessments to determine spiritual gifting and where one fits in the church.

I’ve noticed that a lot of churches today seem to put a lot of weight on different spiritual gifts “tests” and tools such as the Myers-briggs, DISC, Strengths Finder, the Enneagram, etc. Some of these, like Myers Briggs, DISC, and Strengths Finder have some psychological legitimacy and are used in the corporate world. Others, like the Enneagram, are pseudo-scientific quackery, as far as I can tell. Yet, I can’t tell you how many Christians I know treat this last one as if it is virtually divine revelation on human personality.

The spiritual gifts test assessment is, if I had to guess, not scientifically valid on a purely materialist level. Surely, we shouldn’t think we can cram God into a personality assessment. After all it’s purporting to deal with gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to believers for the purpose of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). When we’re dealing with God, we’re not dealing with an object that can be measured and crammed into our assessments and metrics. If we think we can determine how the Spirit has gifted an individual by giving them a personality assessment, we are not dealing with the transcendent God, but with an idol.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a scientifically accurate personality assessment to increase one’s self knowledge and awareness. I’m a big believer in the scientific method and for the integration of psychology with spirituality. God has given us the gift of science that has allowed us to learn so much about the human mind and we should utilize it. What I am objecting to is how Christians can sometimes put so much faith in personality assessments that are not scientifically valid, and then box people in based on their results.

I’ve seen it happen to a lot of people and have even had it happen to me.  Well-meaning leaders aim to help people discover how the Spirit has gifted them and then give them a test to take to determine what their spiritual gifts are. The leaders then use the results to determine where to “place” the test takers in various church ministries. The problem is people often end up getting relegated to certain areas and limited to certain roles based on the results of these highly subjective tests. This is a highly impersonal way of discerning how the Spirit has gifted an individual. Simply administering a test is a fast, efficient way to get a lot of volunteers convinced that they are supposed to be somewhere in ministry. It works great in a church environment that prizes growing its numbers of volunteers and making its programs bigger.

Yet, that’s not how spiritual gifts were discovered and utilized in the two millennia of Christian history before this became the way in American evangelicalism. Spiritual gifts are best discerned and discovered, I believe, through discernment and experimentation within a Christian community. It requires a willingness to try and fail at some things. It requires leaders in the community to take people under their wing, so to speak, and help them discover where God is calling them by trying different things. Naturally, some areas will just “click” for people. They will discover they find a sense of real meaning out of serving in a particular area. They will try something and then find out that’s not their sweet spot.

This is the way I really discovered my spiritual gifts. I had mentors around me who would suggest I help out in a specific area or try something new. They gave me opportunities at the risk that I would fail. I learned to pay attention to where I found I was functioning best and to pursue more deeply the areas I found meaningful. I’ve learned, for example, that youth or kids’ ministry is not my sweet spot. It doesn’t come naturally to me. But, teaching does. I get a lot of joy out of helping people think deeply about their faith, and I’ve gotten a lot of affirmation from people in that area. But, both of those things I learned through experimentation and risk of failure.

Personality assessments and spiritual gifts tests typically are well-intentioned, but they all too often be used to control and simplify human beings who are actually really complex. I think maybe we need to lay off the assessments and spend a little more time in spiritual direction and experimentation.

What do you think? Am I crazy? Am I on to something?

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An Ancient Sermon for Easter

In the late fourth century, an important church father, St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), preached a powerful sermon on the death, resurrection, and victory of Jesus. Chrysostom, whose name means “golden tongue,” was such an eloquent preacher that churches in the eastern Orthodox tradition still read his sermon every Easter. Of course, for the Orthodox, Easter will be celebrated next weekend, since they follow the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian, as western churches do (Catholic and Protestant). However, Chrysostom lived long before the church radically split into the different branches we have today. cross

I love this sermon because it powerfully emphasizes the cosmic victory of the resurrection. As you can see, it presupposes Christ’s descent into the place of the dead, which the translation below calls Hell. Through the descent to the dead, the divine and human Jesus breaks the power of sin and death and opens up the doors of salvation for humankind.

As you read it, you see that God is for us, pursuing us, loving us, and liberating us. It’s an ancient sermon, and it’s very short, but it’s still powerful today. I’ve printed it below:

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

Lent: Ransom

In continuation of my Lenten series of posts, this week’s theme is ransom. 

harrowingThe dictionary defines ransom as “a sum of money or other payment demanded or paid for the release of a prisoner.” For some reason, I actually remember the first time I heard this word. I was a little kid and watching The Swiss Family Robinson, and the father said something about the pirates wanting to capture them to hold them for ransom. Whenever I hear that word, now, I always think of it in terms of piracy and kidnapping. And I think that’s a very good way to think of it.

In the gospels, Jesus defines his mission in terms of a ransom. In Mark 10:45 and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This is a powerful description from Jesus’ own mouth of what the cross (the crucifixion, descent to the dead, and resurrection) accomplishes. Human beings are being held captive by something or someone and are unable to rescue themselves. The mission of Jesus is to offer his own life as a payment for the freedom of those captives.

But who is he paying with his life? There is a view of the cross that has been very common in Protestant, especially evangelical, communities for the last couple hundred years which says that Jesus’ death assuages God’s wrath against sin with his life. That is, God’s perfect holiness cannot stand sin to be in his presence, and his justice demands that someone be punished for sin. In this view of the cross, God punishes Jesus in our place. He pours out all of his wrath against sin on God the Son to satisfy his sense of justice. After doing this, he transfers the perfection of Jesus to us, so that when he sees us, he sees Jesus instead of us in our sinfulness.

This view is so ensconced in much of our theology that even some of our most popular songs, express this view. I’m thinking of the great song In Christ Alone, which says “until on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied.” This view of the cross sees the main problems as human sin and God’s wrath. God’s wrath needs to be satisfied in order for their to be peace between people and God.

There’s some major problems with this view, in my opinion. Books have been written about it, and I can’t cover everything in a blog post, but suffice it to say the Bible never claims that God satisfied his wrath by actively punishing Jesus in our place. Jesus, when speaking about his own death, never speaks about it as a way to divert or pay off God’s wrath. This particular view of the atonement really didn’t exist until the Reformation era and it is more of an inference from a few biblical texts read under the assumptions that governed the medieval European sense of justice.

In fact, I would argue that the above view of the cross makes Jesus’ words about giving his life as a ransom unintelligible. Who is he ransoming us from? God? That view doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Jesus understood his mission and identity as the one sent from God for the purpose of reconciling the world back to God: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Jesus, who perfectly reveals who God is and what God is like (John 14:9; Hebrews 1:3), says things like God is a shepherd who lost one of his ninety-nine sheep and goes to great lengths to find it (Luke 15: 4-7). God the Father is love, and God the Father sends his Son, in love, to find and reconcile the people who are being held captive by sin and death.

That view of the cross makes sense of Jesus’ words about being a ransom. Sin, the devil and death held humanity captive, and Jesus, the perfect man who is fully divine gives his life as a way to free the captives and break the powers that hold humanity captive.

This view of the cross is actually the most ancient. It was what the early church fathers in the generations after Jesus believed. They never spoke about the cross as a way to satisfy God’s wrath. They saw the Father and Son working together.

Here’s what the early Christian leader Irenaeus (who was mentored by Polycarp, who was mentored by the Apostle John) had to say about the cross:

“The powerful Word (Jesus), and true man, redeeming (ransoming) us by his own blood in a reasonable way, gave himself as a ransom for those who have been led into captivity. And since the Apostasy (the rebellious spirit, Satan) held sway over us, and though we were by nature (the possession) of Almighty God, estranged us against nature, making us his own disciples; Therefore the Word of God, mighty in all things and not lacking in his own justice, acted justly even in the encounter with the Apostasy itself, ransoming from it that which was his own…By his own blood then the Lord redeemed us, and gave his life for our life, his flesh for our flesh; and he poured out the Spirit of the Father to bring about the union and communion of God and man, ringing down God to men through the Spirit while raising man to God through his incarnation, and in his advent surely and truly giving us incorruption through the communion we have with God” (Documents of the Christian Church, 4th edition, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, pp. 32-33).

This more ancient way of understanding the cross is, in my opinion, really good news. It says, you are originally God’s, but were enslaved. God loves you and wants you so much he goes to the length of giving his own Son to rescue you so that you can be who you were truly meant to be. That’s ransom.

Lent: Kingdom

Every week during Lent, I’m going to publish a short reflection on a theme or a topic that relates to this season. This week’s theme is kingdom.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15king

Last week, I reflected on Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and what that can teach us about where we find our identity.  Lent can be a time where we refocus our attention on who we are as a result of our baptism into the body of Christ. This week, I want to explore one of the most important themes of Jesus’ teaching, the kingdom.

In the passage above, Jesus has just emerged from his temptation in the desert, and Mark tells us he goes into Galilee, proclaiming the good news/gospel. And what is that gospel? It is that the kingdom of God has come near. It is present and available to each and every person and calls us to make a change in our lives so that we can live in this new reality.

The concept of “kingdom” can be hard for many of us to grasp or accept, especially as Americans. We are democratic, after all. Our culture was founded on rebellion against a king. For us, the concept of a “kingdom” can sound a little authoritarian and repressive. Because of this, some Christians have proposed replacing the word “kingdom” with “kin-dom,” in an effort to sound less hierarchical and authoritarian. I understand what they are trying to do and how that can be a helpful concept, but I think that a better route is to explain what “kingdom” means in the way Jesus uses it.

Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy  gives a very helpful definition of what a kingdom is. “Our ‘kingdom’ is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we genuinely have the say over is in our kingdom” (24).  The kingdom of God, then, is simply wherever his will is done. The good news/gospel of Jesus is that God’s effective will is available to us in every aspect of our lives; our jobs, our marriages, our friendships, our hobbies, our creative endeavors.

Jesus brought the reign of God in a way that was not previously available. As the man who was also fully God, the effective rule/reign of God was always fully present and part of who Jesus was. But since Jesus was fully human, he also effectively showed us how that rule of God is available to each and every one of us.

The major implication of this is that the gospel is not primarily about going to heaven when you die. Life with God after death is an important part of the Christian message, but it’s not the main thing. Jesus’ preaching of the gospel of the kingdom is something for right here and right now. It’s about God making his eternal life available to us in the day to day grind. It’s not just getting a ticket to heaven, but learning to live as if Jesus was living his life in our families, jobs, and communities.

What would Christianity look like if we started emphasizing this aspect of the good news? I think we would find it to be much more joyous and meaningful than we do when it becomes primarily about life after death. When I read the gospels, it seems that people found something in the life of Jesus that was deeply attractive, and I want that.

 

 

 

 

 

Lent: Identity

Every week during Lent, I’m going to publish a short reflection on a theme or a topic that relates to this season. This week’s theme is identity.

temptation of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Mark 1:9-13

The forty days of Lent, a somber time typically devoted to fasting and contemplation, are based on Jesus’ forty day experience of temptation in the wilderness. His desert experience is itself a symbolic reenactment of Israel’s forty years in the desert where they were tempted. The major difference, of course, is that the Israelites typically succumbed to temptation, but Jesus overcame it. He is the new Adam, the man who offers to God the perfect obedience that nobody else can.

Mark’s version of the story of Jesus is generally believed by scholars to be the earliest written account of his life that we have. It is the oldest and the shortest gospel. His style is short and pithy. Mark doesn’t waste words or spend much time explaining details that we would really like to know.  Mark wants to move the story along, and if it leaves us with unanswered questions about various details (why was Jesus with the wild beasts?), Mark is fine with that. If we want more details, there are three other gospels we can go to.

In the passage above, Mark recounts Jesus’ baptism and desert experience in four short verses. Jesus approaches John the Baptizer (who barely receives any screen time in this account), is baptized, and the Spirit descends on him as a voice from heaven declares Jesus’ identity as the Father’s beloved son.  After this dramatic scene, Mark tells us that Jesus was immediately driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by Satan.

It is no coincidence that Mark, Matthew, and Luke found it important to tell us that Jesus’ desert experience occurred immediately after his baptism. In his baptism, Jesus’ identity as the Son was affirmed in the presence of all who were there. It was a public event.  But in the desert, Jesus was alone.

The desert temptation of Jesus was, I believe, a question of identity. Matthew and Luke give us more detail about the kinds of temptations Satan offered to Jesus. Satan begins his temptation by saying, “if you are the Son of God…” Satan questions what God has proclaimed over Jesus and then raises the question of what kind of Messiah was he going to be? They can be summed up as basically the temptation to have the identity of Messiah, but to achieve it taking the easy route. Satan offered Jesus a way to be king by using his power to impress the crowds, rather than to suffer.

I believe that to make it trough the whole desert experience, Jesus had to cling to the words that he had heard the Father pronounce over him at his baptism. In the face of temptation, hunger, loneliness, and wild beasts who likely were not friendly, Jesus had little else but the knowledge that he was the Father’s beloved Son. That was who he was and that was all that mattered.

Sometimes we find ourselves facing a crisis where the identity we have built for ourselves is stripped away or lost, and we feel like we’re lost and wandering in a desert. Maybe we lose (or leave) a job or career that gave us a real sense of identity. Maybe we lose a ministry. Maybe a sickness or age makes it difficult or impossible to do the things we once loved to do. There are any number of things that can cause us to have a crisis of identity.

What can sustain us? When the have such a crisis, or period of disillusionment, I think that is a period where we are driven by the Spirit into a desert experience that will ultimately show us who we really are. Like a farmer burning his field so that the dead plants will make room for new growth, the Spirit sometimes has to burn off the stuff  that we have built our own sense of identity around. It’s through doing this that we learn the core of who we are: when we were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we too were declared to be God’s beloved sons and daughters.

When the dead material of our own efforts and making is being burned away, we learn to draw on the identity of who God has declared us to be. It’s a word that speaks louder than any other words we might here. It’s the core of who we are and it is something that can never be taken away or changed. It’s what sustains us in the desert.

 

The Story of God

Over the last couple days, I’ve been watching The Story of God on Netflix, and enjoying it immensely. The series is hosted by Morgan Freeman, who travels around the world to speak with representatives of different religions in order to find out what they think about things like the soul, creation, the end of the world, the nature of God, and how we as humans relate to God. He explores the world’s major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.), but he also features ancient faiths that no longer exist (e.g. Egyptian, Druid, Mayan, Aboriginal, Aztec). He puts them all in dialogue with one another and explores their relevance to contemporary discoveries in fields such as neuroscience and artificial intelligence. He does a marvelous job of treating every religion fairly, asking good questions, and allowing his interlocutors to simply speak on their own terms.story of God

One of the things I really love about this series is that it highlights both the similarities and stark differences between the world’s major (and minor) faiths. As you watch this, it is made abundantly clear that deep within human beings and their respective cultures there is a longing for an encounter with the Divine and the hope that things can be better than they are.  At the same time, when you watch this program, you see that the religions of the world really are not all the same. There are some very common similarities, yes, but you can’t say they’re all saying the same thing without doing serious damage to each faith’s particularities.

As I’ve been watching this show, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how Christians can dialogue with all these different faiths in a constructive way. Unfortunately, I think when we talk about other religions in some Christian circles, we often tend to caricature them or talk about how we can “disprove” them. We want to evangelize, which is a good thing, but we sometimes approach these encounters as if they are a war, rather than a conversation about good news.

I think Christians can sometimes be afraid to appreciate the truth or beauty in other faiths. This is understandable. After all, we believe in one God who exists in three persons, and that Jesus is the perfect revelation of who God is. We hear Jesus’ words that nobody comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6), and we see that the Bible has plenty of negative things to say about idolatry and the false gods of the ancient world. Since we believe in the truth of our faith, we see other faiths as either deceptions or seriously misguided. To appreciate their beauty or the insights that they may have, could run the risk of falling into deception, which is something we rightly want to avoid.

However, I think that it is a very good thing for Christians to have an accurate picture, not a caricature, of other faiths. That is something that only comes by listening to a faith’s adherents speak on their own terms. This is something that every good missionary knows. You cannot effectively speak to people about Jesus, if you do not know the questions they are asking, the problems they are facing, and what they already think about God.

Furthermore, it is not a bad thing to recognize and appreciate the beauty and truths that other religions can grasp. In fact, I think this is a very biblical idea. One of my favorite passages to illustrate this is Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17: 24-31).

Notice how well Paul balances his conviction about the exclusive revelation of God in Jesus with appreciation for the Athenians attempts to find God. He does not tell them they are wicked idolaters or try to disprove Zeus’s existence. He commends them for their efforts and says, “God has made us inherently religious. We’re all looking and groping in the darkness to find God. Now here is what you have been looking for.” He even cites one of their poets for discovering the profound truth that in God we “live and move and have our being.”

This morning I was thinking about this as I was reading my Bible, and I happened to be in John 12. Jesus has come into Jerusalem and is being very clear about his mission and impending death. He tells everyone, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32). This means that the cross is the judgment of the world whereby Jesus conquers the power of the evil one, and through this, will be drawing everyone to himself.

This got me thinking, are we aware of the ways Jesus is drawing people to himself? Could it be that in the some of the truths that the world’s religions share, those can function as avenues that Jesus is using to draw people to himself? Can we see other faiths, not as mere caricatures, but as expressions of the universal human longing to know God, which is met and fulfilled in Christ?

This documentary has been challenging me to see and appreciate the beauty in the different religions of the world. As a Christian, I’m committed to the belief that Jesus Christ alone is the perfect revelation of who God is, and the world’s exclusive savior, but at the same time, I have been challenges to appreciate the best of how human cultures have attempted to find God. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.

Identity Politics is the Legalism of Progressive Evangelicals

I am not the first person to draw the conclusion that identity politics functions as a form of religious orthodoxy, but it is something I have been noticing more and more in progressive evangelical circles. I believe this is a serious problem because, while identity politics on its surface appears to be highly compatible with Christian values such as compassion and mercy, underneath it is nothing but resentment and scapegoating of people regardless of their individual guilt. All one has to do is read some of the work that this ideology’s evangelical adherents write to see that they have simply been enslaved by the legalism, guilt, and shame of evangelical fundamentalism, but in the clothes of being “woke.”  obey

Yesterday, I came across an article published on Missio Alliance, a Christian writing collective I have published with. In their earlier years, I really appreciated their emphasis on mission and their broad, evangelical convictions; they really felt like my tribe. However, over the last couple years, I have noticed that the material coming out from them has become increasingly dominated by identity politics. I have submitted some of my own theological critiques of it such as this article, which I wrote in response to a piece critiquing “white privilege.” Sadly, it seems that the religion of identity politics continues to hold sway, and I’ve been finding much of what comes out to be both  misguided and uninteresting.

Yesterday’s article, “What the Collision Between Covington Catholic School Boys and Nathan Phillips Reveals About White Supremacy,” was, once again, a predictable exercise in sharing the gospel of being “woke.” For some reason, I read it, and as I thought about it yesterday, I was struck by how much this ideology is truly a legalistic religious message dressed up as gospel. I encourage you to read the whole article to get the full picture of what the author is saying, but I want to draw some attention to the specifically religious elements of this way of thinking.

The author of this article, gives her version of the now notoriously mis-reported conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and Nathan Philips. It is clear that the schoolboys, who are white and male and wearing MAGA hats (itself, undoubtedly a stupid choice for them) are the bad guys due to their race and sex. The Black Hebrew Israelites and Nathan Phillips, in her narrative, are likewise due to their race, the sympathetic characters.

Throughout the article, she clearly reveals this bais. For example, she describes the Black Hebrew Israelites as “a religious sect that rejects a European Christianity that does not affirm their black identity or connection to Old Testament Israel,” as opposed to a radical, potentially violent fringe group that has raised the eyebrows of the Southern Poverty Law Center, hardly an organization committed to white supremacy. According to her, when they saw the Covington boys in their MAGA hats, this is what happened: “To many people of color, the MAGA message affirms a gospel of white supremacy and an allegiance to an oppressive empire. The Black Hebrew Israelites verbalized this understanding to their historical oppressors.”  By “verbalizing this understanding,” she apparently means calling the boys names like “faggots,” “incest kids,” and harrassing one of their black classmates.

Nathan Philips then comes in, drumming, because he “perceives a threat.” She informs us, “his actions communicated that white people are a “perceived threat” to many people of color.” She then recalls a trip she took to the site of a terrible massacre of Native Americans in the 1800s and how it became occasion to highlight the inherent problems of white males. She then concludes with a list of things white males can do to atone for the sins of the past and find redemption, because, “white men do not get to shortcut their way to justice or reconciliation.”

Her path to redemption is the following:

  1. Repenting of the lie of white supremacy and the idolatry of the American empire in all of its forms.
  2. Listening to the voices and stories of people of color when they tell the truth with their words, bodies, acts of protest, and worship.
  3. Submitting to the leadership of people of color, and supporting organizations that are led by people of color.
  4. Purchasing the books and resources provided by people of color who are committed this work.
  5. As part of their spiritual formation and God’s redemptive work in them, white men must be willing to sacrifice, to lose something, to count the cost of their discipleship.

The Gospel of Being Woke

This is a pretty typical piece to come out of the corners of evangelicalism that are allying themselves with identity politics and the broader progressive social justice movement. Like most ideologies, it contains certain amounts of truth. Of course, history is full of horrible examples of bigotry, racism, and violence. So is the present. Yes, men who are from white countries have committed many of those atrocities. Yes, and most importantly, being a disciple of Jesus involves humbling ourselves and submitting to one another out of love (though it seems this article requires it out of guilt).

Yet, at the same time, show me any culture or ethnic group of people who do not have blood on their hands. Show many any system or culture that does not, in some way, unintentionally or not, privilege some people over others. Women have also done their fair share of oppressing others.

I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that western culture, while far from perfect, is the most egalitarian culture that has ever existed. We have a long way to go, but at least by aiming at equal treatment and opportunity for all, we have come a long way. Yet, when you read this sort of material, you get the impression that we are the most oppressive culture that has ever existed.

I’m not saying that there are not problems with the way things are, or that racism is not a problem. What I am saying, is that the way of identity politics does more harm than good because it functions in the same way as the most fanatical religion. It’s not even a Christian religion because it seeks again to divide (by race, gender, sexual preference, etc.) what Christ has abolished. Furthermore, it scapegoats as especially sinful certain groups of people based on those things. The only way out of guilt is by following a carefully lined out path of redemption, by which you might at least hope to gain partial atonement for your sins.

The Christian gospel says all people are guilty of sin. No race or gender has the market on being wicked or righteous. All are in need of grace which has come to us in the life and resurrection of Jesus. In response to grace, we are transformed and taught to forgive and to see all people everywhere as deeply loved by God who gave his son for them.

This is the gospel of identity politics:

  1. Original sin lies in one’s race, gender, sexuality, and some are more guilty than others.
  2. Western culture is especially oppressive because it was founded to benefit white, straight, Christian males.
  3. The sinfulness of “whiteness” and “maleness”/patriarchy is so ingrained in us that it is unconscious, but fear not, we have a path of redemption.
  4. Acknowledge your guilt and complicity in the system, whether or not any of your ancestors actually committed any crimes, much less yourself.
  5. Once you are born again (“woke”), live in a perpetual state of shame for your complicity in the oppressive system. Vigilantly police your thoughts and your speech, or you will be cast out and beyond redemption.

Progressive evangelicals are in serious danger of letting this form of legalism derail us from the gospel. Just as fundamentalism operates on constantly changing rules, neurotically policing one’s thoughts/ideas, and imposes guilt and shame on certain people whose sins are worse than others, identity politics does the exact same thing! It does not offer forgiveness or the grace of Jesus in any meaningful sense. It simply teaches people to cover up their own sins and come down especially hard on those of others.