Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blips on the Blogosphere 20- Post-Christian America?

There's been a lot of press and discussion lately about the United States as a "post-Christian" nation.

President Obama's phrase, "we are no longer just a Christian nation", spoken during a keynote address Obama gave in June 2006, later generated much controversy during his presidential campaign. Obama has frequently reiterated this view, including just 10 days ago in prepared remarks made during a diplomatic visit to Turkey. He said, "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

Newsweek's cover story this month by editor Jon Meacham is ominously titled The End of Christian America. Meacham notes troubling statistics about the state of American Christianity. According to the article, recent surveys by the American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS] and the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Study have found that:
  • the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent;
  • the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent;
  • the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008;
  • the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Southern Baptist Seminary President and conservative blogger Al Mohler played a prominent role in the Newsweek essay. In a thoughtful analysis of the Newsweek piece, Mr. Mohler complements "the care, respect, and insight that mark the essay", and notes that the article "is elegant in form and serious in tone."

He agrees that Newsweek is right to designate, at least certain sections of America, as "post-Christian". But in his analysis Mohler highlights that the Newsweek story is primarily concerned with Christianity's waning political influence. Mohler notes that while this is hardly a "non-issue",

... my greater concern is not with political influence and what secularization means for the political sphere, but with what secularization means for the souls of men and women who are now considerably more distant from Christianity -- and perhaps even with any contact with Christianity -- than ever before. My main concern is evangelism, not cultural influence.

Mohler agrees in part with Meacham's argument that "what binds America together is not 'a specific faith' but instead 'a commitment to freedom' and, in particular, freedom of conscience. The founding generation did not establish the young republic on any religious creed or theological doctrine." But Mohler points out "there is something missing from this argument, and that is the recognition that
freedom, and freedom of conscience in particular, requires some prior understanding of human dignity and the origins of conscience itself. Though the founders included those who rejected the Christian Gospel and Christianity itself, Christianity had provided the necessary underpinnings for the founders' claims."

Mohler, as usual, hits the nail on the head-- the incredible freedoms and prosperity this nation has enjoyed to date were built upon a Christian foundation, without which they would not have been possible. So when the President says that we are a nation of citizens "bound by ideals and a set of values", his argument is that there is some set of values that transcends any particular religion and which all may somehow come to recognize and embrace. But Obama's argument raises many questions.

Is it really accurate to say that a certain set of values is going to be universally recognizable and agreeable to all? If not, who gets to define which are the set of values acceptable to be promoted in schools and enacted in public policy? Does government have the authority to play the role of deciding which values are the right ones to be promoted? Are values to be decided by majority vote? And shouldn't religious views be allowed to enter the public debate about values? Even if really it could be, why should values discussion and public policy-making be a "religion-free" zone?

Mohler closed his analysis with these fine words:

This much I know -- Jesus Christ is Lord, and His kingdom is forever. Our proper Christian response to this new challenge is not gloom, but concern. And our first concern must be to see that the Gospel is preached as Good News to the perishing -- including all those in post-Christian America.

Now a few of the questions I raised above are touched upon-- albeit briefly-- by writer/pastor Tim Keller, speaking on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe" last week on a special Good Friday edition. Keller sat next to Jon Meacham and participated in the short but interesting discussion on issues raised by Meacham's article. You can watch a video of the discussion below.

Keller agrees with Meacham that there is danger when the Church becomes overly concerned with grasping for political power and worldly influence. "If the Church tries to turn the world into the Church it turns out that the Church becomes more like the world." But Keller points to the rise of a new generation of college-educated evangelicals that is seeing these issues differently and with more clarity and depth than did their parents, who were more of a "blue-collar generation" of evangelicals:

All public policies are based on views of human flourishing that are basically based on faith, they are not scientific, they are not empirical, they're based on faith. And therefore everything that happens in the public sphere is based on a kind of religiousness, a kind of "faith" view of human flourishing, human nature, the ultimate sense of what reality is about. And therefore Christians wouldn't want to say well, we're not going to bring our religion to the public sphere anymore because they actually see everything happening in the public sphere having essentially religious roots. And I think people that have gone to college see that a little better and they have a tendency to see that there's religious background to all the positions instead of looking at just certain hot-button issues, I think evangelicals in the future are going to have a more nuanced and comprehensive, you might say, public philosophy than they have in the past. So I think John's right, that the old approach is dying.

I agree with Mr. Keller's argument-- public policy is not and cannot be forged in some sort of metaphysical vacuum in which questions about meaning-- theological questions- are simply ignored. Inquiries dealing with profound questions such as the existence of God and the ultimate reality of life must be answered, and those who advocate secularism indeed have their own "faith-based" take on such questions but want to mandate that overtly religious and particularly, Christian answers to these questions cannot be entertained in the public sphere, citing so-called separation of church and state. But Keller's comments show the fallacious thinking behind this position. Additionally history proves that Christianity has had a most powerful role and influence, in policy-making discussions, in law-making, and in the adoption of various policies in the United States. Christian principles have been felt in the creation of American universities, hospitals, charities, and of course, in the creation of our unique form of democratic government. The positive outcome of all this Christian influence is well-documented. And if Keller is right, a new generation of smart evangelicals will continue to see the connection between faith and policy-making and insist that Christianity is allowed to continue to make its case in the public square.

HT: Alex Chediak

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Watchblogging Revisited

In a recent post titled Evil as Entertainment, Reformed blogger Tim Challies takes certain watchblogs to task for harping on evil so much that they neglect to point out what is good and true. He feels such blogs may be the equivalent of a "spiritualized form of YouTube", in that they present evil as a form of entertainment. Reading his piece, I found myself convicted that I have indeed sometimes read certain blog articles that way, perhaps finding a bit too much pleasure in the heresies reported. And I agreed with Challies' main point, that believers are to focus on the good and the true, and that we ought to examine our motives if we find ourselves consistently drawn to those who post about nothing but the evils other believers are doing.

But the chief weakness with the article is its non-specificity- Challies doesn't "name names" (probably because he's trying to be gracious and just point out principles to follow), but specific examples would have made it easier to know just what or whom he's critiquing. Also, I'm not entirely sure that Challies is not critiquing a strawman, for I've not personally encountered those watchblogs that only speak of error while never pointing to what is true. Moreover, saying that some watchblogs are posting such things for mere entertainment value is a rather serious charge, and by not being specific as to which blogs he's talking about, Challies' seems to imply that watchblogs by their very nature are guilty of this.

I do find more that is helpful in Phil Johnson's well-written critique of Challies' piece, titled "Turning a Blind Eye to Evil Is Evil, Too". Johnson writes,

"There's quite a lot to applaud in what Tim said, but I don't think he said everything about the subject that needed to be said. As a result, I thought his post was (quite uncharacteristically for Challies, of all people) lacking in balance".

Johnson goes on to make a number of good points, which have the effect of providing balance to the message of Challies' article.

1) Defending the faith is a necessary task for shepherds.
When someone on his blog comments that he thinks Phil "would rather spend his time building up believers and himself in the Word rather than calling people out for damnable heresies that are causing people to drift away from the true faith and send[ing] them to hell", Phil agrees with the assessment, but hastens to add that

"calling people out for damnable heresies that are causing people to drift away from the true faith" is a shepherd's duty, not an option— and it can be quite edifying if done well.

I heartily concur with Mr. Johnson's point here and it's one I've made frequently here on Jordan's View in previous posts (see below):

Christian Watchbloggers- Good or Bad?
Discerning What Is Truth (Part 2)
Discerning What Is Truth (Part 1)
The Age of Tolerance Calls for Bold Proclamation of Truth

But returning to Phil's article:

2) Blogs are an appropriate forum for calling out doctrinal error publicly.
When preaching a sermon, Johnson states his main concern is to "explain the meaning of specific texts of Scripture and exhort people to apply the truth to their lives in obedience to God." However, when writing a blog, Johnson employs both "humor and criticism" to make certain points. The issue of whether this is appropriate is often debated, but certainly Paul and even our Lord both used humor and even sarcasm in ministry.

Of course, godly satire is challenging for sinners like us to pull off. As people who struggle with sin, Christians must check their hearts (motives) while engaged in any kind of ministry. Steve Camp chimes in on the discussion with an excellent, biblically saturated article, Blogging, Watchblogging, and Ministry, which both challenged and convicted me with these helpful questions to ask oneself:
1. How does my post glorify God and exalt Christ? Or am I seeking to only expand my daily readership by addressing controversial issues just for controversy's sake? (1 Cor. 10:31)

2. How does it equip the body of Christ biblically to be better Bereans on any issue they face? (Acts 17:11)

3. How does it convict and challenge me in my own life before I turn its truths on another? IOW, what do I need to learn, model, obey and repent of first before calling others to do the same? (Psalm 119:10-17)

4. How does it bring truth and foster change to the one I am disagreeing with? (Eph. 4:13-16)

5. How does it edify and encourage - not just exhort? (Eph. 4:1-3; 26-32)

6. How does it communicate real biblical resolve? (Roms. 12:1-2)

7. How does it enable others to live more like Jesus as salt and light in their communities, ready to serve their church and world? (Matt. 5-7)

8. Am I filled with the Holy Spirit as I write and unfold God's Word, or am I only giving knee-jerk reactions to what is the hot potato of the moment? (Eph. 5:17-21)

9. And lastly, in what I have just written and confronted caused me to focus more clearly on the person of our Lord Jesus Christ and something He would find pleasure, delight and honor in? (Heb. 12:1-3)

Camp offers gracious critique of Challies' article, and at the same time complements Tim for his writing and blog ministry. Camp writes about Challies, "He is thoughtful, circumspect, kind and generous. He is obviously very well read, reformed, insightful, and we are all the better for his contribution on many issues he addresses in the blogosphere."

I would like to stop at this point and also commend Tim Challies for his consistent promotion of reformed teaching and his steadfast output of helpful, well-written articles. As a fellow blogger I appreciate (and envy, in a good way) Challies' prodigious flow of writing. I know that hard work and discipline is involved in this and is probably a big reason his blog has become a great resource to so many.

So my chief concern with Challies' post is the fact that, because it doesn't also point out the value of the watchblogger's task, some may try to use it to justify writing off completely those who engage in the kind of ministry/critique watchbloggers do. But as Phil Johnson and Steve Camp point out in their articles and even I have also tried to do here on my blog, the defense of sound doctrine, together with rebuke of erroneous teaching, is an absolutely vital aspect of Christian ministry (1 Tim 1:3, 8, Titus 1:9, 2 Peter 3:16-18). And good watchblogs are doing this, not as a replacement for pastoral teaching but in response to the marketplace of ideas. And perhaps this task has become more necessary than ever in an age when false ideologies and aberrant teachings proliferate so readily via the Internet, and so may turn to the INternet for information. As Challies suggests, some watchblogs and ministries need more balance as they perform this vital task, but again I have not encountered the kind of watchblogs Tim is writing about. For example, he says:

But if a pastor of a church in Kalamazoo preaches a sermon in which he says something scandalous, it has no effect on my life and, beyond its draw as entertainment, I can think of few good reasons for me to even know about it. Multiply this by hundreds of new stories a week (or even just tens of stories a week) and I end up with a huge amount of negative information that stays in my head and heart, but which has no bearing on my life.
But those blogs I personally follow which write about bad teachings (or even this blog) are not singling out the errors of obscure pastors, but rather, pointing out false teachings infiltrating the evangelical church at large by persons whose names are well-known. So again it would have been helpful to know precisely what/whom Challies was criticizing.

Again, returning to Phil Johnson's article:

3) The role of the critic is just as necessary as the role of the encourager.

Phil writes:
I think what Tim Challies is saying is that it's unhealthy to fix one's attention on error full time rather than spending most of our time dwelling on things that edify. If that's all he is saying, I say (as heartily as possible) AMEN! (Philippians 4:8). But if someone wants to seize that point in order to suggest that it's always better to be an encourager than a critic, my reply is: That very attitude is largely responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.
And again:
I understand Challies' central concern. There is a vocal segment of the fundamentalist/evangelical community for whom an obsession with sensational exposés and nattering negativity has proved seriously unhealthy. It has given them a sour attitude, a perpetually angry tone, and a really bad reputation. I don't enjoy reading what they write, either, and I don't hang around their blogs.

But the mentality that dominates the evangelical culture today— and the far greater problem, in my judgment— is exactly the opposite. The overwhelming majority of today's evangelical sophisticates would clearly prefer it if no one ever criticized evangelical Golden Calves. Rampant error doesn't unsettle them in the least. They are quite happy to live with it and even actively make peace with it.

But let someone dare to voice an objection to a troubling doctrine in the latest best-seller making the rounds on campus—even a denial of the Trinity or some other soul-destroying soteriological or Christological novelty—and the very people who profess to hate criticism (and who work so hard to seem agreeable in their dealings with with the unorthodox) will heap the nastiest kinds of vituperation on the soul of the one who has dared to criticize unorthodoxy and thereby threaten the "unity" evangelicals think their timid silence has won them.

Exactly-- the real danger in evangelicalism these days is not the relatively few unbalanced heresy-hunters but rather the many for whom heresy seems to be a non-issue, and who, in the name of a unity that is misguided and unbiblical, ignore the biblical injunction of defending sound doctrine and rebuking false teaching.

[Defending the above rather strong statement would require another post, but those of you who regularly read such blogs as Pyromaniacs know what I'm referring to].

And we so badly need truth to be boldly proclaimed by strong leaders who are also godly men, men who have applied the truth first to themselves, as Steve Camp helpfully reminds us.

Of course, we are all at different points in our walk with God and each of us struggles with particular sins (1 John 1:9, Romans 7:14-25). Owning up to this ongoing battle with the flesh does not (necessarily) disqualify us from service, but we need ongoing accountability and confessing of our sins to one another (Proverbs 7:17, Hebrews 10:25, James 5:16). This of course necessitates humility and submission and relationships with others in the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:22, 1 Peter 5:5-6, Phil 2:1-8).

I am truly grateful for men like Tim Challies, Phil Johnson, Steve Camp and others who are blogging about great reformed truths passionately, consistently and intelligently, and more important, trying to live out these truths by the grace of God in their own lives. I am glad too that, as Scripture says, "iron sharpens iron" and that some key biblical truths were shared by others that helped to balance out the point of the article by Mr. Challies.

Happy Resurrection Sunday and may the truth of Jesus Christ and His resurrection fill us with all joy, power and boldness! Let us live and proclaim His truth.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I Was Wrong, Mr. Charismatic!

Those who visit this blog regularly probably have noticed that I have become a staunch advocate of reformed theology here on Jordan's View. The transition was gradual-- I went from being charismatically-inclined to calling myself a reformed charismatic, but for the past year or more I have preferred to think of myself as simply a Christian who believes in reformed doctrine.

This has all suddenly changed.

You see, last night I had a very strange and vivid dream. I was attending a church service already in progress at my old church in New York City, Trinity Baptist, and as I walked in I noticed people of every color and tribe and nationality filling up every seat in the pews. Many were colorfully dressed in the garb of their native cultures. Everyone seemed very happy and there were smiles all around. The atmosphere felt full of kindness and warmth.

Upon noticing me, a kind, elderly usher whispered in my ear that there was a seat available at the front and would I like to be taken there. I nodded my head and he led the way slowly. As I got closer to the front I was amazed to see gold dust falling down like a mist around all around me. Then when I got up to the front I noticed a woman in a pink running outfit drenched in sweat, her baggy clothes soaked. She was lifting her hands and praising God, and her friend told me that when she had come into the service she was 300 pounds, but that God had touched her miraculously and she had lost 150 lbs of water weight in an instant. She smelled rather badly but no one seemed to care.

The preacher up front was getting very excited and kept on shouting "Boom!" and "Bam!". Taking my seat I looked up and noticed that the speaker was a shirtless Todd Bentley! Needless to say I was rather startled since not only was he shirtless but his torso, neck and arms were covered with tattoos. He was pacing back and forth on the platform, preaching a message about "reaching up for your miracle" and saying he could see "in the spirit" countless angels hovering over the audience, just ready to pour out miracles.

The next thing I witnessed shocked me even more-- R.C. Sproul, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, Phil Johnson and other guys I recognized from the reformed camp were all down on the floor, some prostrate and others kneeling. Most were weeping. C. Peter Wagner was coming behind them and seemed to be praying for each one in turn.

Then suddenly Bentley was shouting, "Look, the glory, the glory!" as a golden light seemed to fill the room. I asked a man next to me what was happening (I later learned this was Tommy Tenney), and he explained:

"Well my friend, you are seeing what happens when God comes in his shekinah glory and just takes over -- you see all these reformed guys are repenting that they spoke out against God's gifts for today, miracles are happening left and right, and God is just blowing our minds away!"

Then I asked him if he could prove this from the Bible. He looked at me sternly and replied, "The Bible is still being written man, it's happening right here in front of you. Now open your eyes and see His handwriting!" A dreadful fear came upon me and there was something like thick black smoke suddenly pouring into the sanctuary, but it wasn't smoke from a fire. And suddenly a thunderous voice spoke and said, "Just believe!!"

I was at that point I woke up and found that I was drenched in sweat. I was scared and I asked God what it all meant. I felt as if God spoke to my spirit and said, "My child, you need to stop thinking so much and trust my Spirit. You are being made whole."

So it seemed to me that God was saying to me that I should immediately stop being reformed, quit writing this long-winded series on theology and start praying and fasting for new marching orders. So, as of today, I will cease writing my series on "Arminian vs Reformed theology" and obey this prompting. I apologize to those who have been following the series and perhaps were looking forward to reading the updated version.

It seems I was plain wrong, about everything...

April Fools!!!