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Author Topic: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019  (Read 1952 times)

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #13 on: November 19, 2019, 08:06:14 pm »


Is Life Unsatisfying? Augustine Says, ‘You Are Not Alone.’

James K. A. Smith accompanies the church father on a journey through the human heart.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is an American classic. It is easily (and often) parodied for its freewheeling style, but it is also full of magical sentences and encapsulations of life in postwar America. At its heart, the book is about longing: for transcendence, for love, for experience, for a sense of place and belonging. And, more deeply, for a sense of self.

In one revelatory scene, Kerouac writes, “I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the **** high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

That sense of hauntedness permeates Kerouac’s writing. For most of his life, he was a wanderer. A sometimes-Catholic, sometimes-Buddhist. A chronic alcoholic. A restless soul crisscrossing America in search of a sense of self. And that hauntedness makes him a kindred spirit with Augustine of Hippo, the early Christian theologian who penned that time-honored phrase, “Our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.”

This affirmation is at the heart of James K.A. Smith’s new book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. “In a way,” Smith writes, “it’s a book Augustine has written about you. It’s a journey with Augustine as a journey into oneself.” Later he adds, “If he jackhammers his way into the secret corners of our hearts, unearthing our hungers and fears, it’s only because it’s familiar territory: he’s seen it all in his own soul. Augustine isn’t a judge; he’s more like an AA sponsor.” But unlike Dean Moriarty, the thrill-seeking adventurer who leads Kerouac’s character out onto the road, Augustine has found his way home.

The Geography of Grace
Although Smith tells us much of Augustine’s story, On the Road with Saint Augustine isn’t a biography. Likewise, while we get to know a good deal about Augustine’s theology, the book isn’t quite a theological work either.

Smith, for his part, calls it “a travelogue of the heart.” He uses Augustine to survey the human heart and its multitude of longings, exploring themes like freedom, ambition, mothers and fathers, friendship, and death. The underlying message? You are not alone. Whatever you may feel—whether it’s conflict over ambition, complicated feelings towards your parents, or the desire to live a more meaningful life—your feelings are perfectly normal. Augustine and Smith (who shares candidly from his own story) make for wise and generous guides.

Smith’s books, most notably his three-volume Cultural Liturgies series, tend to lean heavily on his expertise as a philosopher. On the Road with Saint Augustine is no exception—readers can expect a good bit of Martin Heidigger, for instance—but the manner of writing is more personal and devotional. There are profound depths here, but there are also ladders that help you reach them with ease.

As his Kerouac-invoking title suggests, Smith uses “the road” as the book’s unifying theme: specifically, the road taken by the Prodigal Son. Augustine’s work, he argues, is deeply indebted to that story—a story Smith believes we desperately need to hear today. Given the many dead-ends and wrong turns in our world, it’s easy to conclude, as Kerouac seemingly did, that life is about the journey itself rather than the destination. To that, Augustine would issue a clear dissent. “Oh the twisted roads I walked!” he writes in his Confessions—before praising God for “freeing us from our unhappy wandering, setting us firmly on your track, comforting us and saying, ‘Run the race! I’ll carry you! I’ll carry you clear to the end, and even at the end, I’ll carry you!”

Commenting on this passage, Smith writes, “To map our roamings like that of the prodigal is not a cartography of despair or self-loathing and shame; to the contrary, it is a geography of grace that is meant to help us imagine being welcomed home.”

Smith is willing to argue with Augustine at times, as he does in his chapter on sex. But the debate reads like a charitable conversation between friends. “At times,” Smith writes, “the vision of healthy sexuality that Augustine extols—prioritizing celibacy—simply looks like the inversion of promiscuity and suggests his failure to imagine a sexual hunger that runs with the good grain of creation.” (This, I suspect, could be said of much early Christian writing on sexuality, not to mention a good deal of evangelical teaching on “purity.”) Yet he credits Augustine with helping him appreciate “the gift of chastity,” which “trains us not to need; it grants us an integrity and independence and agency in the face of various drives and hungers.”

This points to another of the book’s prominent themes: that life after the Fall has a certain amount of dissatisfaction baked in. Our hearts are restless because there is nothing in creation or experience—apart from communion with God—that can make us feel whole. I’m reminded of a scene from Midnight in Paris where Gil, the time-traveling protagonist, warns his love interest Adriana that she can’t inhabit the golden age she longs for without it coming to seem as dull and unsatisfying as her present circumstances. “That’s what the present is,” he says. “It’s a little unsatisfying because life’s a little unsatisfying.”

So much of On the Road with Saint Augustine echoes this insight. Sex, achievement, and justice cannot offer enough satisfaction to cure our restlessness. Smith’s chapters on mothers and fathers are especially poignant in this regard. So many of us bear wounds because of the failures, absences, unrealistic expectations, or apathy of our parents. We long for an all-accepting embrace that we can never get—that is, until we go home, where a Father awaits us and will come running down the road to meet us.

In many ways, the book reads like Ecclesiastes. Smith turns over a variety of ideas and asks, “Is there meaning here?” And there is meaning, but it is limited. Augustine chimes in either to expose those limits or deconstruct the very impulses that lead us to ask the question.

For example, in a chapter titled “Enlightenment,” there’s a wonderful section on the way Augustine debated the Manicheans. Their trust in the power of reason calls to mind many of our celebrated thinkers today. (Smith cites Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker as two examples.) Augustine saw the foolishness of enthroning reason, recognizing that it was just a case of swapping out idols on the shrines where we worship. In keeping with his previous book, You Are What You Love, Smith reminds us that “everyone believes. Everyone submits to some authority. And all these people priding themselves on enlightenment have decided to simply trade belief in one set of authorities with belief in another.” He later concludes, “If anything is irrational, it’s the notion that we are our own best hope.” The question then isn’t whether we’ll believe in something but “who to entrust yourself to.”

Observations like this help reveal how a book ostensibly about Augustine is really about God the Father, who chases down prodigals and welcomes them home. With each idea Smith explores, we see—in ways that are never trite—that our restlessness is meant to lead us back to God, that the answer to our soul’s aches is the divine embrace, and that grace is our only sure hope.

‘Am I Crazy?’
One of my favorite Jack Kerouac quotes comes from a different book, The Vanity of Duluoz, which recalls his college years. He went to Columbia and played football. He discovered his vocation as a writer. He had his first twinges of longing for the road. And perhaps most importantly, he began to suspect that the rest of the world didn’t see things the way he did: “I realized either I was crazy or the world was crazy; and I picked on the world. And of course I was right.”

At some point in our lives, we have to look at the world around us and decide, “Am I crazy, or is the world crazy?” It’s a strange thing to worship a crucified God. It is strange to eat his body and drink his blood.

Augustine picked on the world, embarking on a journey that led him, finally, to his home. For the remainder of his life, his work was geared toward pointing the way home for the rest of us. Smith has made that work wonderfully accessible. His exploration of the various beats of Augustine’s life and thought makes a grace-saturated faith plausible for those who, like me, still wonder if we’re crazy from time to time. The gap of 16 centuries separating Augustine’s era from ours only goes to show how human desires, ambitions, and anxieties remain stubbornly similar across worlds and ages. Indeed, you are not alone.

We need the testimonies of saints like Augustine to help remind us that we’re never alone because we’re never apart from the God who wants to bring us home. As Smith puts it, “Grace isn’t high-speed transport all the way to the end but the gift of his presence the rest of the way.”

Mike Cosper is the founder of Harbor Media and the host of Cultivated: A Podcast About Faith and Work. He is the author of Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World (InterVarsity Press).

Is this Augustines writings of someones interp of them.

1 Cor 15:3-4.."For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:"

Acts 17:11.."These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so."
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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #14 on: November 21, 2019, 12:26:38 pm »


'Religion Poisons Everything'

Three things not to say when responding to severe criticisms of Christianity

A commenter going enigmatically by “notme” once responded to my rundown of a controversy over Scripture classes in schools:

What has religion got to offer but War, Intolerance/hatred (of other religions and minority groups),and poverty? religion should not only be banned from classrooms but from the whole planet
I faithfully reproduce the comment as is, grammatical warts and all, keyed in, I imagine, in the first flush of a righteous indignation.

They’re common accusations, straight out of the New Atheist playbook. Religious belief is irrational, snarling, psychologically and socially stunting. In the enduring formulation of Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great (2007): “Religion poisons everything.”

But underneath the cynicism, the absolutism, sometimes the smugness, I wonder if what I’m really hearing, often, is: pain. The pain of someone who sought grace in a church community and instead found judgment and guilt. The pain, perhaps, of someone who invested their trust in a Christian group or friend only to meet with hypocrisy or cruelty. If I listened with more imagination and humility, what I might hear is the lashing out of the wounded.

Both have a terrible legitimacy. Christians have, after all, tortured heretics, burned witches, hoarded wealth, propped up slavery, rubber-stamped colonialism, expelled or massacred entire Jewish communities, silenced women, persecuted gay people, and moved known child molesters from parish to parish. These are not accusations; they are history.

And not only history. You don’t have to look far – probably not much further than the murky corners of our own hearts – to see the same old uglinesses cropping up today: the self-righteousness, the love of respectability and comfort, the inertia and cowardice, the militant certitude, the blindness to inconvenient truths, the fear of difference, the fear of losing power, the fear of change or challenge.

On the Other Hand...
And yet, if the gospel is true, it is nothing less than the master story of life on this planet; the reconnection of fallen, broken creatures to their Creator and his purposes for them. If it is true, won’t it work? Even allowing for the tenacity of sin and the bumpy work of sanctification, won’t it change things, for the better, and observably – not just for the reconnected, but with ripples travelling far beyond them?

There’s plenty of evidence that this is exactly what’s happened in our world over the last two thousand years. That as followers of Jesus did love their neighbours as themselves, turn the other cheek, care for the least of these, forgive as God forgave them, and let their light shine before others, the world changed dramatically.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas insists that the egalitarianism underpinning all our freedoms and democratic ideals is the direct and exclusive legacy of the Judeo-Christian ethic.
It’s a tangled tale, but one corroborated by various high-profile atheists. “In my morals and ethics,” writes popular ancient history writer Tom Holland, “I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.” Philosopher Jürgen Habermas insists that the egalitarianism underpinning all our freedoms and democratic ideals is the direct and exclusive legacy of the Judeo-Christian ethic: “Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

David Bentley Hart fleshes out the content of this debt in his book Atheist Delusions:

Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity … It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.

If both are true-if Christians gave the West things we all rather like, such as inalienable human value, democracy, charity, and humility, and also gave us the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials and South African apartheid – what then? How do we make sense of the disjunction?

Coping Strategies
There are quite a few coping strategies out there. Frankly, I’ve found them mostly inadequate. So, for the intrepid fellow traveller along the tangled byways of Christian history, here are a few friendly “Dead End” signs to mark roads not, after all, worth taking – and some suggestions for alternative routes.

1. “They weren’t really Christian”
This one certainly looks inviting. In most Western societies for most of the last millennium, it’s been at least advantageous to identify with orthodox Christianity. Where Christian identity is default, plenty of things will happen under the banner of faith that bear little resemblance to the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.

But we can’t get ourselves off the hook anything like this easily. Partly this is because disentangling the motivations of a medieval crusader or heresy inquisitor from the Bible is not straightforward. It’s entirely possible to make arguments from Scripture – in some cases, uncomfortably coherent arguments – in support of “holy” war, the auto-da-fé, racial hierarchies, anti-Semitism, environmental despoliation, and more.

Would practically all Christians today agree that those are gross abuses of the text? Yes. Are we so confident that our own interpretative frameworks are unimpeachable – our exegetical manoeuvres so free from the slant of self-interest--that we feel able to dismiss the faith of such misreaders as pure sham? Hmm.

Our engagement with history is so often superficial and incredibly supercilious. We fail to acknowledge how indebted we are to these blinkered, striving men and women who came before for the very weapons we level against them. And we forget our own blinkers, the contempt and disbelief that future generations will no doubt reserve for us and our blind spots. As T. S. Eliot wrote in another context: “Some one said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Miroslav Volf offers a more subtle version of “they weren’t real Christians” in his description of “thin” and “thick” religion.
The uncomfortable truth is, no one comes out of history with clean hands. The law of unintended consequences is too potent, the feet of even our most cherished heroes too clayey. This is not to abdicate the responsibility either to act justly or to repent of the sins of the past. But it is to advocate for a measure of historical humility, an appreciation for how difficult it is to draw straight lines in a **** and crooked world as **** and crooked people.

Miroslav Volf offers a more subtle version of “they weren’t real Christians” in his description of “thin” and “thick” religion. A “thin” religious commitment may well be genuine, but is not given primacy in an adherent’s life. It therefore easily becomes “thinned out”, instrumentalized, serving as a justification for actions which spring from far different sources.

“Thick” faith, on the other hand, will be content-rich and potentially transformative. In the case of Christianity, it will prick and nudge those who hold it towards things like enemy-love, self-sacrifice, generosity to strangers, and forgiveness. This does not absolve Christians from violence done in the name of Christ; but it does suggest, as Volf puts it, that in response to religious violence, what is needed is not less religion but more religion – of the “thick” kind.

2. “It’s not so bad in context”
Again, this pathway isn’t impassable, it just probably won’t take you where you want to go. It’s true that most people would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of almost any historical episode you care to name. It’s true that our sense of many periods and events is so reductive and so selective as to be tantamount to myth.

When critics accuse the church of hypocrisy, violence, misogyny, and the like, can we not concede that what they say has all too often been true?
As a first or primary response to the wounded or the outraged, though, the history lessons seem less appropriate – and much less Christian – than a wholehearted and heartbroken admission of guilt. When critics accuse the church of hypocrisy, violence, misogyny, and the like, can we not concede that what they say has all too often been true? Defensiveness is a very human reaction; repentance is (or ought to be) a very Christian one.

My colleagues and I have been immersed in making a documentary (and more recently, writing a book) called For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined.Making it has been both a bruising and – for me – perhaps surprisingly – a mightily heartening experience. One of the gratifying/depressing reactions we’ve had has been the number of secular viewers and critics who’ve found themselves pleasantly surprised by our candidness. “You are acknowledging all sorts of bad behaviour in the name of Christianity over the centuries!” exclaimed one interviewer in disbelief.

This should not be extraordinary. If anyone should be fluent in the language of confession, it’s a group of people who meet together week in and week out to admit that we have left undone what we ought to have done, and we have done what we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.

To openly and without reservation own the wrongs of the past is the road less travelled, but alongside the advantage of honesty, it can also open up the possibility of a more engaged and fruitful conversation about the contributions as well as the failures of the church.

3. “The good outweighs the bad”
Once more, it’s not that I don’t think the argument is valid. To the extent that it’s a meaningful thing to say, I sincerely believe that the overall contribution of Christianity has been a positive one. But the wrongs are incontrovertible, and however much we might want to haggle over the scorecard, good deeds don’t cancel out evil ones.

In grappling with the most shameful and the most shining moments of Christian action in the world, my colleagues and I have been using a governing metaphor that audiences have loved. It rests on the distinction between a musical composition and its performance.

Take a sublime piece of music like Bach’s celebrated Cello Suites, and have a complete novice sit down to play them. The result will be far from sublime – but it shouldn’t affect your understanding of the genius of Bach as a composer. We know to distinguish between a good and a bad performance of the same composition. For believers and for sceptics alike, going back to Jesus and measuring the deeds of his followers against his teaching and example offers a solid way forward through the labyrinthine complexity of a very mixed history.

Jesus wrote a beautiful tune. Christians claim that it has never been bettered. When those who claim to follow Jesus have played in tune with him, that has been of great and unique benefit to the world. When they’ve played the tune atrociously, it’s caused harm untold. But the tune itself continues to sound down the arches of the years, calling each of us to our appointed place in the orchestra.

The Church’s ‘Double Consciousness’
In the course of making the film, we had a conversation with novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. When asked about the widespread suspicion of the institutional church, she spoke movingly of people’s reaction to John Ames, the small-town pastor who narrates her novel Gilead.

“I do book signings,” Robinson says, “and people come up and talk to me and often they say, ‘I just love John Ames, he’s just like my pastor.’”

Yet what she calls a “double consciousness” of the church is operative here – the contrast between a sort of “televised religion” and people’s actual experience of the church. “When you write about somebody and they say, he’s just like my pastor, he’s just like my uncle who’s a priest, they’re having a very deep recognition … But if you sat them down to describe a priest, a church, they would come up with the conventions that are everywhere now.”

There is something in this that’s profoundly characteristic of our cultural moment. In 2017, an Ipsos poll conducted across 23 countries found that 49 percent of adults agree that religion does more harm than good in the world. In the US it was lower, at 39 percent; in my own country, Australia, it was significantly higher: fully 63 percent of Aussies are apparently convinced that overall, we would be better off without religion. Yet, intriguingly, 60 percent of the population ticked a box in the most recent census declaring an affiliation to one religion or another. And another survey found that 88 percent of non-churchgoers in Australia like the idea of having a church in their neighbourhood.

Apart from the observation that most polls would be considerably enhanced by a few well-chosen follow-up questions, what the disparity suggests is that for many people, our personal experience does not tally with certain powerful ideas that come to us via the cultural ether.

This is not only a religious phenomenon; as The Atlantic has reported, while in 2016 only 36 percent of Americans thought the country as a whole was headed in the right direction, 85 percent declared themselves “very or somewhat satisfied with their general position in life and their ability to pursue the American dream.” “What explains the gulf between most Americans’ hopeful outlook on areas and institutions they know directly and their despair about the country they know only through the news?” asked James Fallows.

Whatever the answer, it’s worth remembering that however bitter and cynical our public discourse may seem or become, bubbling beneath the surface is something both more interesting and less predictable. With all its quirks, frustrations, and serious failings, the case for the gospel message is nowhere more irrepressible than in the tangible experience of disciple-love to be found in the church visible just down the road.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity in Sydney. She is author of For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined, which is also a documentary.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #15 on: November 22, 2019, 03:20:58 am »


What Research Tells Us About the ‘Seal’ of Believer’s Baptism

A new study suggests that the rite doesn’t bind young Christians to a certain level of faith commitment, but to a faith community.

Most researchers studying religious trends among young people tend to focus on what’s making younger Americans walk away from religion. Some have emphasized life course transitions such as leaving home, going to college, or becoming sexually active. Others have examined frustration with politics. And still others have rightly pointed out that younger Americans are increasingly raised him homes where they’re no longer exposed to religious faith in the first place.

In a recent study, we decided to explore one factor that might contribute to young people staying in their faith: undergoing a traditional religious “initiation rite” like believer’s baptism, first communion, or bar mitzvah.

Scholars of religion have always been fascinated with rites of passage and particularly what they accomplish for the group itself. The collective benefits are obvious. When we celebrate the entrance of new members into our community of faith, we’re collectively reminded about our common heritage, our core doctrines, and our eternal bond with one another.

The possibility that these rites of passage might have a long-term impact on the individuals themselves can seem so self-evident that it often goes unquestioned. We decided to test how powerful that impact might actually be.

Using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, a nationally representative panel study of young Americans, our study looked at participants at two points in time: when they were ages 13–17 and one decade later when they were ages 23–28. Depending on their religious affiliation as teens, the survey asked if they had been confirmed or baptized, not including infant baptism (if Protestant); had a bar/bat mitzvah (if Jewish); had taken First Communion (if Catholic); or if they had undergone another religious rite of passage or public affirmation of their religious faith.

We compared American teenagers who had undergone any of these religious rites of passage with those who had not in order to see whether those who had undergone a rite of passage were (1) more or less religious and (2) more or less likely to remain affiliated with their religious faith by the time they were in their mid-twenties.

Our study showed that participants who had undergone any religious rite of passage during or before their teenage years did not necessarily turn out more religious than those who had not undergone a rite of passage. However, they were 30 percent more likely to stay in their religious faith.

Though the pattern was the same across all religious rites and groups, the figure below shows the trend when we focus on believer’s baptism and disaffiliation among Protestant youth.

Image: Samuel Perry
Notice first, most young people in the sample maintained their initial Christian affiliation whether or not they were baptized. But even after we accounted for teens’ initial religious commitment along with that of their parents and friends and other relevant factors, those who had undergone believer’s baptism before or during their teenage years were less likely to indicate they were “unaffiliated” in their mid-twenties.

So how does this work? The Westminster Confession calls baptism (applied to infants or adults) the “sign and seal of the covenant of grace.” What might grant believer’s baptism its “sealing” potential for young Americans?

We think the fact that baptism didn’t predict how religiously committed someone would be in their mid-twenties provides a clue. The experience of baptism doesn’t seem to have a lasting influence on one’s day-to-day religious practice, likely because that sort of influence requires a more consistent infusion of religious energy (or “grace”) from rites like regular worship attendance, or other sacraments, like The Lord’s Supper. Typically a one-time event, believer’s baptism doesn’t bind us to a certain level of faith commitment, but to a faith community. It’s about belonging and identity.

Much like the common finding that couples who are formally married are more likely to stay together than cohabiting couples who remain unmarried, for young Americans there is something binding about commitment that is declarative, formal, and public.

Consider baptism at my own church in Norman, Oklahoma. Our baptisms do not happen spontaneously without some sort of vetting on the part of parents and church leaders. There is often a formal process that includes a waiting period. The baptism ceremony is not only preceded by the affirmation of important questions, but for years now, those who are baptized provide a public reading of their personal testimony. Nervousness and tears are the norm here.

And the ceremony itself—though beautiful, given what it signifies—is messy, unnatural, and awkward. People have to change their clothes afterwards. Emerging from the water, one is greeted with thunderous applause and yells that border on the hysterical. One’s baptism, in other words is memorable. And it is social. And it is memorable because it is social.

Protestants have had long theological debates about the “efficacy” of believer’s baptism and what exactly God accomplishes through it as a “means of grace.” From what we can observe in the data, believer’s baptism accomplishes a durable social identity for young Americans. It may not make them more committed to their faith as young adults (participation of other kinds will be necessary for that), but it may help them weather some of the assaults of young adulthood such that they emerge on the other side with their faith intact.

Samuel Perry is an assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. His books include Growing God’s Family, Addicted to Lust, and Taking America Back for God. Follow him on Twitter at @socofthesacred.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #16 on: November 26, 2019, 11:33:49 pm »


Impeachment, Impatience, and Our Call to Follow Christ

As you watch the impeachment hearings, think through whether remaining silent is going to hinder your gospel witness.

So we are well into the third impeachment proceedings of the United States in over a century. Regardless of your perspective, this is a momentous period in American history. Yet this brings with us, perhaps, an uncertainty about what to think or how to respond to it.

With impeccable timing, the initial round of public hearings ended just as Americans prepare to sit across the dinner table from friends and family for Thanksgiving, thereby ensuring that everyone will be sufficiently stocked with divisive political hot takes.

Yet more importantly, this issue is not going away anytime soon. If history is a judge, impeachment battles may stretch out for several months as hearings continue and it eventually moves to the Senate.

In other words, impeachment will continue to be a topic of conversation both in our homes and on social media for the weeks and months ahead. Given this timeframe and the stakes involved, you may be more than tempted to dive into the discussion whether in person or online.

Yet before you click post or let loose on your rant this Thanksgiving season or over the next few months, I think it’s a good time for a refresher course for how we should think about such divisive, controversial, and, most importantly, complex conversations. In these situations, I’d ask you to consider these two questions:

First, will this response hinder my gospel witness?

Oftentimes, we don’t notice when our neighbor defriends us on social media soon after that super political post. More common than we might think, Christians frequently don’t realize just how we close doors with their friends and neighbors because of how we unthinkingly engage on controversial subjects.

This doesn’t mean becoming a hermit or not engaging. Rather we need to constantly be thinking through our purpose and how it might be received by those outside the faith.

Even if we might not recognize it, through this behavior we can implicitly suggest that the gateway to Christ demands conformity to a particular political party or even specific politician.

Now don’t hear this wrong: at many points the gospel is offensive. People will defriend on social media and in real life because of our proclamation of the gospel. But don’t mistake the gospel for some sub-identity like politics. When we do, we let our witness be obscured and ultimately belittled for the sake of some earthly kingdom rather than for our Kingdom identity.

So as you are responding to the impeachment hearings, always consider whether this statement, this discussion, or this post will hinder your gospel witness.

Second, will silence hinder my gospel witness?

Sometimes silence isn’t an option. When we see injustice, our faith calls us to step out and stand up. This naturally is difficult and comes at a cost. In Galatians 2:11-21, we read that Paul confronted Peter over his fear and hypocrisy. Paul tells us that he did so because failure to speak out would have been to undercut the gospel itself, to “nullify the grace of God” through preaching the law instead of grace.

A new apostle standing up to Peter of all people, this was likely exceedingly difficult, yet Paul recognized what was at stake.

Over the past year I’ve spoken up regularly online and at conferences in defense of immigrants and refugees. That has won me a steady stream of hate mail and death threats. I’ve likewise defended religious liberty only to be labeled a bigot. Many others have spoken out bravely on far more costly subjects and encountered more hostility than I have.

In other words, Christians are not called to uncontroversial. Rather, the difference is the reasonwhy these believers have spoken is that to refrain from doing so would betray the gospel we testify to.

Again, don’t hear me wrong: social media is not the be-all-end-all of speaking. It is a sad but increasing reality that our world too often values what we post over what we say and do in real life as evidence of speaking up.

In reality, the most meaningful and impactful conversations occur in real life. In person we can respond to others’ emotions, avoid miscommunication or misinterpretation, and, most importantly, truly practice listening.

So just as with the first question, as you watch the impeachment hearings, think through whether remaining silent is going to hinder your gospel witness.


So what can we do? Granted this feels like a momentous time in American history and with that comes the feeling that we should be participating. Let me suggest two critical responses believers can and should have to these hearings and in the weeks ahead.

First, watch and listen. Part of our civic duty as Americans, and a way in which way we can let our reasonableness be known as Christians, is to watch the hearings with patience.

When we rush to label it a “witch hunt” or to call for the President to be carted off to Azkaban, without exercising this patience we only contribute to the politicization we often lament.

As we’ve already seen, impeachments tend to be dull hearings filled with complicated lines of questioning that can go over many of our heads. Rarely is there the “gotcha” moment we have come to expect from movies like A Few Good Men, and even if there is, few of us are equipped to recognize such moments.

As such, it can be tempting to check out and watch through the lens of your favorite media personality or social media feed. I’d encourage you to fight this urge and instead watch as much as you can. If that’s not possible, strive to listen broadly to experts with a wide range of perspectives and affiliations.

This can help us escape the media bubble we too frequently confine ourselves to. We too frequently buy into the lie that every media outlet is “fake news” except mine.

Second, pray.Often maligned by a society that sees prayers as worthless, Christians recognize that prayer is one our most powerful tools.

Consider how much time you’ve spent watching cable news, scrolling through social media, or even arguing in person about the impeachment against the time spent in prayer.

From our habits, we reveal where we believe the power to enact change resides. So, before getting into arguments at thanksgiving or diving into a social media spat, consider how often you have spent time praying for this season of political turmoil. Let me suggest four points to pray through with a spirit of charity and thanksgiving:

Pray for the leaders of our country…in both parties. Consider praying that our leaders would be discerning in how they engage this season, resisting the temptation to cheap rhetoric by recognizing the incredible burden of leadership. Pray that they would be courageous for the truth with an eye towards justice and unity above partisanship.
Pray for the witnesses, those who have already testified and those who will in future hearings. Pray that they would speak truthfully and courageously about their experience, regardless of whatever narrative it serves.
Pray for the nation. No matter what happens, the very fact that we are in the midst of impeachment hearings speaks to the depth of polarization in our culture. This makes it inevitably harder to arrive at the truth or even to know who to listen to.
Pray for the truth to the Church. I opened with pointing us to the important of our witness and how times of intense political or social controversy can hurt how we proclaim and live out the gospel of Jesus. Ultimately, Christians need to navigate this season with our eyes set on glorifying God, not a political party or person. This means caring for the truth, even when it’s scary or embarrassing. Yet we should take courage in the fact that scripture reminds us that our hope isn’t in political figures or even countries, but in Christ.
As followers of Christ, we must always remember that our speech, in whatever medium it comes, needs to be seasoned with salt, with the intent to encourage and edify others. Let’s leave polarization at the door this Thanksgiving season.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism atWheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of theBilly Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources throughMission Group.

Andrew MacDonald is the Associate Director of the Billy Graham Center Institute.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #17 on: November 29, 2019, 10:58:49 am »


Thankful for the Bad: Upside Down Gratitude This Thanksgiving

Upside down gratitude is the ability to give thanks even for the parts of our lives which lead us to sadness and struggle and suffer.

Arguably the oldest book in the Bible, the Book of Job has become, for many of us, a guidebook on how to suffer well (if there is such a thing). It is worth wondering why Moses (or another) chose to document the life of Job as one of the first entries of God’s faithfulness to humanity.

The book begins with a descriptive of Job’s character: “In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.”

In a seemingly senseless act, God allows Satan to, one by one, take away the blessings God has bestowed upon him—his livestock, his servants, his children. At this last measure, Job gets up, tears his robe, shaves his head, and falls to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:20-21).

Job’s first recorded act in such loss is worship.

This would not be mine, I will be honest.

Nor has it been mine when pain and hurt and sickness have come upon me.

And yet my mind immediately goes to the suffering church around the world, who often, in one accord, cry, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord!”

Now we must not idolize Job. His responses (and his friends’ responses) over the course of the loss ebb and flow like the ocean’s tides. This is because Job, like us, was human. He could neither ignore the fears and anger and loss that gripped his heart any more than we can ignore ours today. But read where he lands the proverbial plane:

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25-27)

His suffering lifts his eyes to his redeemer, and to a picture of the future that nearly (if not fully) leads him into a spirit of Thanksgiving. When all has been stripped away, still he has his Lord.

This Thanksgiving, we have already begun the practice of offering gratitude for all the good things in our lives—we thank God for our families, our friends, our health, our jobs. We thank him for food and shelter and his presence. We thank him for warm days and Christmas lights and soft candlelight.

Gratitude for the bad, too?

But in the practice of Job, what if we were to thank him for the suffering as well? If we are truly to be Kingdom people, we must push ourselves outside the norms of gratitude. Scripture says it is easy to be kind to our friends—but how much harder to our enemies. Scripture reminds us that when someone hurts us, we are not to hurt back, but to offer the other cheek. When someone takes our coat, Scripture nudges, we can give our shoes as well.

This is upside down thinking!

If our actions are to be countercultural, how much more are our thoughts and character?

This Thanksgiving, how can we practice upside down gratitude? At the Last Supper, we find Jesus giving thanks to the Father even while holding up the cup which would be a precursor to the suffering he was to endure.

Upside down gratitude, I believe, is the ability to give thanks even for the parts of our lives which lead us to sadness and struggle and suffer. Upside down gratitude allows God to turn our ashes into beauty, our mourning to gladness, our despair to praise. Here’s my short list (knowing that those who have experienced similar things may have the opposite reaction to their experiences, and that is okay):

I am thankful for a past that includes being violated sexually, for only in that can I better understand so many wounded around me and seek to love them from a healed heart. (I will write more on this in the days to come.)
I am thankful to be a woman even when I still feel like a second-class citizen, for only in this can I have a mothering heart that seeks to offer compassion and care to those feeling marginalized.
I am thankful for an eating disorder that almost took my life, for only in that did God reveal his deep love for me through the sacrificial love of my family.
I am thankful for my terrible eye condition, for only in this can I (literally) see the extraordinary power of humanity to create tools of modern technology to bless us in ways previously unknown.
I am thankful for my fears and self-doubt that frequently seek to overwhelm me, for only in these can I continually see how God over and over grips my heart of his glory and faithfulness.
The list can, and does, go on and on.

What’s your upside down list this Thanksgiving? How will you take the ashes and turn them into something beautiful?

Job’s suffering is real just like ours is today. But it doesn’t end there. In Job 42 we read that, “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.” Let’s be truthful: we cannot say this will happen to us in tangible ways.

The richest people on earth are sometimes those without much money or housing or food or health. The wealthiest people are sometimes poor and weak and suffering deeply. What makes them as a beacon upon a hill in the darkness is that they are able to embrace an upside down gratitude that transcends anything this world has to offer.

This Thanksgiving, is it possible to be thankful for sadness and struggles and suffering? I believe it is. And I believe this spirit of gratitude can change our world—yours and mine.[/size]

Laurie Nichols is Director of Communications and Marketing for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, creator of the Our Gospel Story curriculum, co-host of the new podcast Living in the Land of Oz, and she blogs at Not All Those Who Wander. She formerly served as Managing Editor for Evangelical Missions Quarterly. Laurie is involved in anti-exploitation efforts when she is not spending time with her husband and two kids.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #18 on: November 29, 2019, 11:05:20 am »


When the Shepherds Spy on the Sheep

In communist East Germany, the church was supposed to be a refuge from the government’s godlike gaze. But the secret police managed to bribe and flatter their way in.

Among the many plans for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the augmented reality MauAR app offers users a glimpse into both the sudden and gradual accretions of that sprawling built environment of political control over the 28 contentious years it stood (1961-1989). Through the application’s lens, the Wall rises again, along with guard towers, barbed wire, and the raked sand of the death strip. For a forgetful world, it provides a sobering virtual glimpse into what life was like.

Far harder to see are the moral forms of control built up by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the four decades during which the communist regime held power. In a timely way, Elisabeth Braw’s God’s Spies: The Stasi’s Cold War Espionage Campaign Inside the Church, searches this more hidden dimension. A former journalist and now director of the Modern Deterrence project at RUSI, a London-based defense and security think tank, Braw analyzes why so many East German pastors, bishops, and theologians worked as Stasi unofficial collaborators (Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, or IMs).

From ground-breaking interviews and careful record-combing, Braw offers up new material for students of the GDR era. But she also treads soberly upon the old, familiar, yet easily forgotten paths of the mealy moral middle of human beings in systems that reward duplicity and corruption.

The Price of Betrayal

The Stasi, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security (or MfS), existed to protect the regime, securing and consolidating power through godlike knowledge, and ever-alert for signs of subversion. Of course, the only way to achieve that kind of atmospheric knowing—that pervasive and intimate level of surveillance—was through ordinary people everywhere snooping on almost everyone else. What drives people, even clergy, to such widespread human betrayal is the puzzle at the heart of Braw’s study.

In a landscape of repression, as Braw observes, the church was “East Germany’s only semi-free space,” the only area where one could get some distance from the regime’s omnipresence. Churches drew in the “opposition-minded” as well as the religious. It seemed to be a space beyond the government’s godlike gaze and grip.

But it was not. The potential threat that the churches posed to the regime necessitated their infiltration and monitoring. Enter Department XX/4, the Stasi’s ecclesiastical office, and its extensive web of unofficial agents (IMs). Braw’s book recounts shocking levels of cooperation within the church, just as there was outside of the church. One small example: Two-thirds of the professors in Humboldt University’s theology department worked as IMs. A not-insignificant number of students did too. No matter where they were, East Germans assumed that someone was always listening and reporting.

While there have been and still are more physically brutal regimes than the GDR, the Stasi’s skill at preying on human corruptibility in its brief yet powerful tenure continues to command attention. “Like any good espionage novel,” Braw writes, “the story of the Stasi’s pastor spies involves betrayal, career advancement, even sex.” Her book reveals an assortment of pathetic details, including how pastors were willing to spy and surrender information on others in exchange for things like lamps and cigars.

The East German method often relied on a softer approach, catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. Recruitment, Braw observes, was achieved with “some porcelain, some stollen [a German sweet bread], and a friendly Christmas visit.” Once in the net, IMs offered up reports which their handlers passed to the department. Handlers offered agents something too, sometimes merely a listening ear into which IMs could air their personal grievances and play out possible vendettas. IMs often sought and found beyond-the-bureaucracy solutions for the degradations and inconveniences of life under Communism. A few betrayed information out of ideological purity, but most had a price.

Throughout the book, Braw introduces key IMs, detailing their exploits, their ambitions, and the effects of their compromises. She weaves their fascinating and, at times, plodding stories together, and the name changes can make the narrative challenging to follow. But mercifully her book features lists of abbreviations and agents and their code names. Eventually, the characters take on flesh.

Certain key figures prove critical to her account. Among them, Colonel Joachim Wiegand stands out. As head of the Stasi’s Department XX/4, Wiegand sat for many interviews with Braw, even inviting her into his home. Curiously, though willing to reveal much, he refused to divulge information about any living Stasi agents. For a man who built his career on testing and exploiting human weaknesses, Wiegand’s commitment to his own code of honor fascinates Braw, as do his worldly insights on human nature.

Braw also interviews Jürgen Kapiske (code name: IM Walter), one of the few pastor agents willing to talk with her. Now exposed and defrocked, Kapiske worked as a Stasi agent out of a sense of duty to his country, swiftly gaining a strong reputation. But Braw discovers how some aspects of his memory fail to match her research. She writes that former IMs are not allowed to read their own files, which were opened to the public in late 1991, denying them access to the knowledge they once helped to collect. Moreover, the Stasi eventually recruited Kapiske’s wife (now ex-wife), a fact that Kapiske did not seem to know when Braw raised it.

Braw’s insights into these complicit individuals during her fact-finding missions add poignancy to her research. She credits Wiegand, Kapiske, and others for helping her peer into a historical and moral abyss. These narrators fill a moral knowledge gap in the midst of the mountains of records and files, since, as Braw notes, “the world knows very little of how the Stasi’s officers operated, how they thought, what motivated them.” Besides the petty compensations, Braw notes that some IMs found “clandestine action and gaining power over innocent people . . . an addiction.” She manages to honor the complicated humanity of these figures without losing her wits. In doing so, she also demonstrates the worth of wrestling with history without clear heroes.

The Truth Exposed
That ambiguous terrain emerges clearly in her chapters on Bible- and literature-smuggling. Many, like me, who grew up in American churches during the latter years of the Cold War heard heroic stories of Bible-smuggling. We pitied those behind the Iron Curtain, rightly mourning their lack of religious, political, and intellectual freedom. But in Braw’s account, it’s clear that smuggling groups, along with their Western financial supporters, were susceptible to forms of moral ignorance as well. The deeper that IM agents penetrated into smuggling routes, the more Bibles and literature the Stasi and KGB collected into storage. Western organizations reported these unknown losses as proof of success to donors eager to pledge more. Without facile equivocation, Braw demonstrates how the work of knowing and not knowing always comes with moral complications.

Yet in making soul-shackling deals with the Stasi, the IMs were also played for fools. As Braw shows, they too believed in the Stasi’s godlike nature and naively assumed that both the GDR’s future and their own were secure. To illustrate this point, she introduces the “frustrated spy,” Aleksander Radler (code name: IM Thomas), who was desperate to secure a university position back in East Germany from his Stasi-imposed exile in Sweden.

But the godlike have limits, and can die sudden deaths. Despite its awesome power, the Stasi failed to anticipate the upheaval that came in 1989. When the regime collapsed, more of the truth came out. Exposed, the church that proved midwife to the 1989 revolution was also revealed to be complicit and, sadly, more reluctant than other civic institutions to deal in those plain facts. In a landscape of lies and willfully obscured truths, sifting facts and writing a more truthful account of history is difficult but also critical to the faithful work of remembrance. Braw’s work helps us see and remember more truthfully.

“It was all futile,” Wiegand told her in one of their interviews. But through Braw’s lens, we see that his assessment is far from accurate. Besides giving political protection to an increasingly fragile and evil regime, Department XX/4 managed to salt the spiritual earth with the church’s help. Yet Braw reports that as his department was shuttered in 1990, this same atheistic Stasi official arranged to have 30,000 confiscated Bibles still languishing in the department’s basement shipped to the then-Soviet Union. He told her it felt wrong to destroy them.

The mysterious terrain of the human heart persists, no matter how hard we look.

Laura M. Fabrycky is an American writer and spouse to a U.S. Foreign Service officer. She lived in Berlin with her family from 2016-2019, and now resides in Brussels. Her book, Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Fortress Press), releases in March 2020.

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Re: Christianity Today Magazine - November 2019
« Reply #19 on: September 25, 2020, 10:48:06 am »

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