Please, Call Me “Christian”: In Defense of Our First and Best Team Name

As we took pains to establish in our last session together, we do not like the word Christian.  Our summary went like this:

“Many who consider themselves *true* Christians [as distinguished from *sham* Christians, I suppose] do not like the word Christian because it has been abused by insincere, nominal ‘Christians’ and has therefore become inadequate to express *actual* Christianity.”

Apparently Edward Cullen is a "Proud Christian." Maybe THAT'S why so many of us don't like the word?

As a result of this distaste for the traditional term, a great number of believers prefer using alternative designations in order to avoid being identified with folks who claim Christianity but, by our estimation, do not represent it adequately.

Before launching into a full-blown explanation of why I think this is a rather bad idea, I decided to turn the proverbial microphone over to my readers and asked for your thoughts.  These you delivered, and I was blessed by your thoughtfulness and articulation in affirming the nature of the problem and offering your evaluations of our increasingly prevalent response.  I believe I’ve gotten enough ducks in a row at this point to present a solid argument for an altogether different solution, but if any of you finds it to be less than compelling, then I encourage you to continue the conversation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am firmly convinced that we should consider ourselves immensely honored to bear the name Christian.  It may take a little time to build up to that point, so let’s start here:

Shirking the name Christian is a selfish, fruitless, and naïve endeavor.

If I ask you a question, do you promise to answer it truthfully?  Not out loud, or to me, or to anybody else.  Just answer this question to yourself, and be honest: “Are my efforts to distinguish myself from false Christians more about God, or are they more about me?  Whose reputation am I really concerned about–His or mine?”

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

My great fear is that our purpose in adding or substituting our own personalized expressions for Christian is to make ourselves look special.  And in whose eyes are we seeking this special status?  I don’t think it’s God–though that would at least be understandable for someone who doesn’t realize that he could never look any more lovely to God than he already does clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ.  Some of us are probably concerned about our reputation among unbelievers, afraid that we’ll be unfairly judged and condemned because of what some lousy “Christians” have said or done (not realizing, I suppose, that embodying true Christianity and proclaiming the grand offense of the gospel will only lead to more severe judgment and condemnation).  However, I think that probably even more of us are working to engineer our reputations among believers, trying to use cool and novel expressions of our faith to score points with our friends and gain/maintain our social status as veritable super-Christians, the great and wise leaders of our Christian social circles.

I’m not trying to insult anyone.  But if you feel like I just insulted you, then maybe you’re the person who needed to hear it.

“When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites.  For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Perhaps even more fundamentally, I think many of us use these alternative expressions in order to make ourselves look special in our own eyes–that is, to help ourselves feel like we’re special Christians.  And when you think about it, who wouldn’t want to feel that way?  Isn’t it exciting and self-validating to think that my personal relationship with Jesus Christ is something truly extraordinary and unique–not just compared to unbelievers, but to other believers as well?  So when an opportunity arises to express to others and to myself how especially understanding or especially passionate about God I am, why shouldn’t I take it?

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I think a lot of us see these people we’ve identified as fake Christians and set about trying to prove that we’re not like them–that we’re better than them.  And this proving isn’t just something we do to the people around us; it’s something we do within ourselves, because we need to feel better than them.  We must prove to ourselves–by some good word or deed–that we are not fake Christians.  If we must implicitly discredit others’ Christianity in order to do this, then so be it.

But let me ask you another question:  Do you deserve to be counted in the special group of true and faithful Christians?  Are you really so loving and obedient that you never dishonor the God who has entrusted you to represent His holy name?  And when did we start thinking that anyone could do anything to merit extra favor from God?  That is the polar opposite of the gospel message.

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

“By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight….  But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith….  Then what becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.”

I’m going to leave the issue of motives aside now, for there is a good deal more to be said, but if the Holy Spirit is working you over at all right now, I suggest you take a break from reading Jordan’s Fallible Uninspired Blog and go stew over these things some more.  Seriously, don’t just keep reading until it “wears off.”  Step away from the computer.

——————————————————

Now in addition to carrying the very real danger of self-promotion, our practice of moving away from the Christian name is also self-defeating.  It simply will not do what we say we want it to do–at least not for very long.  See, if all the “cool Christians” start calling themselves something other than Christian, then eventually most of the “lame Christians” are going to catch on and start doing it too.  And then we just have the same problem all over again, either with whatever becomes the most popular new title or, perhaps even worse, with a sea of personal expressions that lack any real cohesion.  I suspect it would go in cycles:

SHARED TITLE → cool xns unhappy → cool xns diversify → lame xns follow → CRAZY PLURALITY → cool xns unhappy → cool xns find solidarity in new term → lame xns follow → SHARED TITLE → repeat ad inifinitum

Now the reason this might sound so implausible to some of you is because it has never happened before.  But why is that?  We’ve had the same title since about ten years after the birth of the Church at Pentecost (see Acts 11:26), and in the two millennia since then, no generation of Christians has made a stink about their name.  Do not miss this point here.  I know that history is something we modern churches don’t really consider much anymore, but let me repeat:  The name Christian has been with us from the beginning, and until now nobody has suggested that we switch to something else.  (Well, unless you count a couple heretics here and there, but even among the heterodox you’d be surprised at how few.)  Now let’s take off our Present Goggles for a second and clarify something: the problems we face as a Church today are not new, and in most cases, their intensity is nothing compared to the struggles our predecessors endured.  So when we look around and see our problem of insincere, nominal Christians, do not make the mistake of assuming that we are the first generation to deal with this problem, or that it’s never been this bad before.  In fact, when you take a look at the history books, you’ll find that it has ALWAYS been this way.  But neither the apostles nor the church fathers nor the bishops nor the ecumenical councils nor Augustine nor the Reformers nor the Puritans responded to this problem by saying, “You know what we should do is DITCH THE FAKERS by CHANGING OUR NAME!  Yeah!  Instead of patiently discipling them or exercising church discipline, let’s just passive-aggressively demonstrate that we don’t care for them!”  You see my point.

“I do not ask for these [the disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly oneso that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Jesus clearly has a strong desire that the Church be unified.  Furthermore, He connects the Church’s unity to the strength of its testimony; we must be one “so that the world may believe.”  When was the last time we thought about our unity as an integral part of our witness to the world?  It makes sense though, doesn’t it?  Imagine that you are a non-Christian.  When you look at the Church, what do you see?  You see a bunch of people who seem way more interested in their “personal relationships” with Jesus than they are in building one another up or reaching out to others with the Good News they have received.  You see people who want to separate themselves from one another rather than stand together.  You see people who would rather avoid the folks they don’t think are “good enough” instead of coming alongside them or even confronting them directly.

As it turns out, intentional disunity among Christians is just damaging to our witness as the missteps of struggling or even insincere Christians.

“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

We have covered much ground today, yet one key issue remains.  We see that we have logical, historical, and theological reasons to keep the title handed down to us.  But are there any reasons that have to do with the name itself rather than the “historical accident” of its being the one we received?  Is there anything significant about the word Christian in and of itself?

In short, yes.  Very much yes.

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.  Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”

Do you see what Peter does here linguistically?  He connects suffering for “the name of Christ” with suffering “as a Christian.”  Of course, we all see that the word Christ is the root of the word Christian; it therefore stands that the significance of the name Christ for understanding and identifying the Son of God parallels the significance of the name Christian for understanding and identifying the people of God.  So just how important is the name Christ?  Many blogs could be filled in answering this question, but for the present, consider the following.  First, Christ is the Greek equivalent of Messiah, which, if you care much about God’s covenants and promises all throughout the Old Testament (and you should!), is hugely significant: the Christ is the great fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption.  Furthermore, the title Christ encapsulates both aspects of Jesus as Savior and Lord, which we see clearly in the prophets.  Additionally, the first generation of the Church gave the title such prominence that by the time of the Apostles’ letters, we already see it used very frequently as a name for Jesus.  The name Christ became so identified with Jesus that, as mentioned before, Jesus’ followers earned the nickname Christians within scarcely a decade of their ministry.

Christian is, simply, the very best title a follower of Christ can hope for, because it implies that our identity, our very being, is in Him.  We do not just follow Him; we do not just worship Him; we are in Him.  We are His.

So what do we do about the name Christian?  We embrace it.  We defend it.  We take the time to define it for people.  We do not ignore or excuse the misdeeds done under its banner, but we point always to the grace that is greater than all our sin.  We never forget that the Church is a hospital for recovering sinners rather than a country club for the purportedly perfect.

And what do we do about phony Christians?  We get involved.  Think of someone you know who claims Christianity but whose sincerity you doubt.  (If you don’t know anyone like this, then you yourself may be doing Christianity wrong.)  Go to that person and tell him that you are concerned for him, that you do not see the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his daily walk, that you don’t think he understands the totality of Christ’s claim on his life.  Exhort him to consider anew his total depravity, Christ’s offer of full redemption, and His command to put off the old self.  Who knows what might happen?

Just please, don’t try to have these conversations on facebook.

Advertisements

“What’s in a Name?”: Facebook, Religion, and the Disappearing Christian

I find myself in an odd position today as I intend to speak seriously about the ultra-popular social networking website called facebook.  I myself am an [over-] active facebook user, and as those of you to whom I am there connected can attest, my activity on the site is in most cases about as far from serious as you can imagine.  Of course, many folks do see facebook as a platform for interactions they would deem serious, meaningful, or even important; but in my experience, I have found that facebook–and perhaps bite-sized online interaction more generally–is simply ill-suited for grappling with issues of much gravitas, especially next to the disappearing art forms of the face-to-face conversation and the thoughtful composition (a.k.a. letter). That being said, I found something fascinating on facebook that I wanted to share with you.  And yes, it has very much to do with the Lord Jesus and His covenant people.  It may even be important.

My buddy Manny’s profile.  He doesn’t have much info on there–he can be a real stiff–but you get the picture.

Every facebook user has a page about himself, called a profile, which displays the user’s activity across the site and is outfitted with various categories of information about the person (work history, education, favorite quotes, favorite music and movies, contact info, etc.) to be displayed at his choosing.  One such category is titled Religious Views.  As I was filling in my profile info for the first time back in 2008, I assumed that they were looking for something along the lines of “Christian” or “Jew” or “Rastafarian” or “atheist”–you know, the name Joe Citizen would use to identify your religious affiliation.  So I dubbed myself “Christian,” assuming that other professing believers in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did the same.  However, eventually I noticed that there is an enormous variety of Religious Views among Christians on facebook.

I am “friends” (i.e. connected) with 344 other facebook users, the vast majority of whom consider themselves Christians.  Recently, I visited each of my friends’ profiles and recorded his Religious Views, comparing it with the others and categorizing them in hopes of discovering common themes and expressions.  I also reached out to a number of my friends (twenty-nine, to be precise) for explanations of their choices;* twenty-six responded, and their comments have greatly aided me in putting all the pieces together.  I’ll share some of those momentarily (with names changed to preserve the privacy implicit in such personal correspondence).

So, let us now attempt to answer the question: What are Christians calling themselves on facebook, and why?

The first and largest category (124 friends) is composed of those who indeed use the term “Christian” in their Religious Views.  Interestingly, almost a third of these do not only say “Christian” but go on to elaborate in various ways; some indicating their denominations, some including Scripture references, and others using various expressions to denote their particular understanding or passion:

Full out CHRISTIAN

Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ = Christian

Christian – A Generous Orthodoxy

Christianity – Passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples

Christian – Christ in me, the hope of glory!

Christian – My heart is restless until it rests in You.

Christian – living for Jesus!

This last expression comes from my friend Sylvia, whom I asked about her reasons for putting more than simply “Christian.”  She replied,

“‘Christian’ has a negative connotation to some people. And to others, it is very generic and vanilla. I wanted it to not just be a label, but a lifestyle.”

My friend Charlie responded similarly, saying,

“One, a whole lot of people who put that as their religion aren’t actually Christians, and that kinda irks me…. Two, I think it’s an individuality thing – I’m putting up something that I think speaks directly to me at that time. It makes me think more about that thing and may have the same effect on others.”

The next largest group (76) does not have the Religious Views item displayed on their profiles at all.  Before you start thinking these folks are less than devout, however, note that a great many of them indicate elsewhere in their profiles that they are “Christianically inclined,” whether by including Scripture passages among their Favourite Quotes, listing the Bible among their Favourite Books, or using the About Me section to express their belief instead.  Others have simply chosen to put as little personal information on their profiles as necessary, and there is certainly no shame (and probably a good bit of wisdom) in that.

The next few categories of Religious Views, I believe, can rightly be seen together: Bible or hymn quotations [which lack the word Christian or the name of Christ] (25), denomination identifications without the word Christian (33), and what I simply call “religious language”–that is, personal expressions of belief and/or piety that are not explicitly Christian.  These three categories all employ biblical or “Christianese” language, but secular Joe Citizen would not necessarily be able to identify this language as Christian.  Examples include:

Living a Kingdom Lifestyle

I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God

A sinner saved by Grace

He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Love God Back

because He lives…

Love God, Love People

I was particularly interested in hearing from these folks, and their thorough explanations did not disappoint.  Says Amber, who put “Living a Kingdom Lifestyle”:

“First of all, I think the term Christian has lost it’s meaning. There are a lot of people who say they are Christians and live like the devil, or, on the other extreme, are pious beyond all belief and yet are ‘resounding gongs’ as Paul says. Also, to a lot of people, being Christian just means going to church on Sunday, maybe helping an old lady across the street when it’s convenient, and trying to ‘be a good person’ but otherwise living life according to the world’s standards. Jesus calls us to live a much more radical lifestyle, a Kingdom lifestyle…. So to say my religious views are ‘Christian’ is too general, too tame, too easily misunderstood. My religious views are more than just views, they are my lifestyle. I want to BE a Christian, not DO Christianity; I want to be known as a Christian b/c of my lifestyle, not because my facebook says I am a Christian.”

Robin, whose Religious Views read “Unashamed of the Gospel,” writes,

“When it came time to filling in that slot in my profile, I wanted to put a particular phrase from Scripture that had always meant a great deal to me. It doesn’t mean that I’m ashamed of the term Christian, or that I’m trying to make myself sound more ‘authentic’ – because sometimes I think it does appear that way…. The simplest answer is, I suppose, that I just like the phrase, and that it speaks to me personally.”

On the other hand, Martin (“Follower of Yeshua”) confesses,

“I was just going through a time then when I didn’t really like the label Christian, I don’t even remember why, and that sounded more classy. Now that I look back on it, it was something that I did because I was immature in my faith and wanted people to think I was cool/different.”

Finally, Leo (“Isaiah 53:5”) traces his choice to a problem he discovered:

“When I first got an account, I noticed that every single person and their mother that wasn’t Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist identifies themselves as ‘Christian’ on their profile. Rather than simply putting the words, I wanted to point people in the direction of Christ with the how/why I’m a Christian with a Bible verse.”

Curious as I was about the religious language crowd, the most fascinating to me was the last group: those who use the name Jesus and/or Christ in their Religious Views but not the term Christian (64).  Examples include:

Jesus paid it all

All I have is Christ

I know Jesus, and He knows me.

To live is Christ.

Jesus Christ is my Savior.

Jesus is my one true love ❤

Follower of Jesus Christ

With the name Christ nestled right there in Christian, I was perplexed as to why these folks would choose something other than the standard expression/title.  Of special note is the phrase “Follower of Jesus / Christ,” which itself accounts for 17 of the 64 people in this category.  Christian most literally means “follower of Christ,” so I definitely hoped to hear from a number of people who use the follower expression.

What I found is this: The biggest reason for choosing against the term Christian, as we have already seen above and will now see in full force, is that many who consider themselves *true* Christians [as distinguished from *sham* Christians, I suppose] do not like the word Christian because it has been abused by insincere, nominal “Christians” and has therefore become inadequate to express *actual* Christianity.  The evidence is overwhelming:

Logan (“a follower of Christ”):

“I think when I put that in, ‘Christian’ conjured up negative connotations in my head, whereas follower of Christ seemed to not.”

Allison (“Follower of Christ”):

“I feel like so many people say they are Christians and it means nothing. So Follower of Christ is more powerful and has more meaning. It also is a way of saying you are putting your faith into action. You know! I am actively following Christ!”

Marvin (“Jesus Christ is my Savior”):

“I didn’t put Christian because I was (and still am) tired and frustrated with the term. At least currently, I am surrounded by people who use the term Christian to describe themselves and a lot of people use the phrase ‘the Christian thing to do.’ People don’t really realize what being a Christian means.”

Wilford (“I’ve been washed in the blood of Christ”):

“I’ve got quite a few facebook friends who have their religious views as ‘Christian’ that I wouldn’t want to be religiously associated with if you know what I mean…. ‘Christian’ can mean a whole bunch of things and I wanted mine to be a little more clear.”

Ronnie (“Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe.”):

“I thought it was a little more indicative of my ‘religious’ views than the word ‘Christian’ (which one cannot deny has been perverted by various inaccurate portrayals and inadequate examples of true Christians in today’s society).”

Harley (“Freedom in Christ”):

“My faith doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to a lot of people who put ‘Christian’… I hate to say it, but I think the term has lost its potency.”

Aaron (“Saved through grace by Jesus”):

“I want there to be no doubt that I understand what being a Christian is and that I didn’t just put that there by default rather than by conviction.”

Ariel (“Jesus is my life”):

“So many people back home put ‘Christian’ simply because they want to have something, even though they are not living for Him. I don’t want people to think that I am just claiming to be a Christian, I want them to know that I am sold out living my life for Christ.”

Ginger (“Follower of Jesus – I love my Lord and Savior with all of my heart”):

“I have found in the real world that the term ‘Christian’ has become synonymous with judgmental hypocrite…. When someone asks me my religious view, I tend to say that I want to be a Follower, or Disciple of Christ.  When I say this, it always opens up an amazing conversation about what Christianity is really about.”

I will conclude the beating now, confident that the horse in question is indeed quite dead; and as its whinnies fade into memory, we are left with a clear picture of our situation.  We do not like the word Christian.  We do not like it because the world does not like it, because bad Christians have sullied the title’s reputation in the eyes of outsiders.  Therefore we avoid the word Christian when possible, so that people don’t mistake us good Christians for those who aren’t living lives worthy of the call.

I do not think this is a good solution.  Do you?

Maybe a punny Christian T-shirt is the answer?

_______________________________________________

*The exact question I asked them (via facebook message, appropriately) was, “Why not simply ‘Christian’?”  My intent was for the question to be pertinent but not restricting–and perhaps somewhat indicative of my concern, but by no means condemning.

Disturbed

I have heard it said that the Lord often works in the lives of men to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  (Look no further than the earthly ministry of Jesus for abundant examples of this principle in action.)  A few years ago, I assembled a list of ten truths to declare to myself every morning–facts about the Lord, myself, and our relationship, drawn from the Scriptures, that might complement my Bible reading in properly orienting my mind and heart for the day ahead.  One of those ten reminders says, “God has not called you to a life of ease or external comfort, but He does offer genuine peace, joy, and contentment through life in Him.”  It seems that no matter how long you have followed Christ, His words are still easy to forget or to rationalize away: that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it” (Matt 16:25).

In the sixteenth century, famous English sea captain and politician Sir Francis Drake composed a beautiful and poignant prayer that has been passed down to us for good reason.  Drake understood both the importance of trading the perishable for the imperishable and the utter impossibility of such a task without the strength and guidance of God, and he prayed thus:

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

Such a prayer is certainly a “dangerous” one in that the Lord seems positively delighted to answer it.  The Christian who dares pray that the Lord “do whatever it takes” to effect growth in his life will probably soon find himself completely overwhelmed–or, to use Drake’s word, “disturbed.”  Growth is change.  Change is motion.  And motion not only involves drawing toward something (or in this case, some One), it also involves coming away from something (in this case, our fleshly desires and, more specifically, our tendency to settle into the shallow complacency of a world that is not our home).  And since the Lord is not one to abandon his works-in-progress [see Philippians 1], we had better ready ourselves for a heapin’ helpin’ of sanctification, whether invited or not.

Of course, there are those days–far too many, I must admit–when I could hardly care less what God wants for me, because I’m comfortable.  Not joyful, no; merely self-indulgent in a childishly amusing way.  And I get to the ends of those days, and the Spirit within me, firm but gentle, says, “You do not deserve Me.  But you are still Mine.”

Even with those days, when God practically drags me kicking and screaming toward His kingdom, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.  For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).

Resistance is futile.  The storms are coming wherein His mastery will be shown and our godliness built.  May we welcome them with the spirit of obedient sons sprinting headlong toward our Heavenly Father, and may we never settle for anything less than Him.

Living and Active

Over the years, I have no doubt earned a reputation for being a stickler about words.  When I was younger–say, middle school [before the Lord redeemed my personality]–my insistence on constantly correcting others’ conversational grammar and syntax was probably the result of equal parts unbridled perfectionism and acrimonious priggishness.  As I have aged–and coincidentally (inexplicably) matured–my ear for noticing and cataloging verbal missteps has only sharpened, but as my experience with infinite Love has similarly grown, I believe I have become more gracious and self-controlled in such instances of language abuse.  In most cases, it seems, the potential benefit of a spontaneous Jordan-led “teaching moment” is ultimately eclipsed by the more concrete benefit of uninterrupted harmonious relations.

However, sometimes the stakes are higher.

Because sometimes, our words reveal a problem much more dangerous and significant than a lack of linguistic precision.

According to the Imaginary Rhetorical Institute for Making Obvious Points Facetiously, approximately 100% of corporate gatherings wherein Christians read or discuss the Bible (i.e. sermons, study groups, etc.) are preceded by prayers requesting that the Lord bless their investigations of the Scriptures.  This is wholly appropriate and most welcome.  If the person who offers the prayer (usually a pastor or teacher) is called upon to do so with much frequency, he is likely to draw from a surprisingly standardized memory bank of pithy phrases and word pictures in making this request.  [I speak from experience here.]  Unless he is uncommonly attentive to his own speaking patterns, your pastor–who is human and therefore no doubt a “preacher of habit”–will eventually gravitate, naturally and subconsciously, to a select few of his favorites.  Maybe he will pray that “our eyes are opened to the truths of the Word,” or that “this passage will speak to our hearts,” or that “the Scriptures will come alive to us in a new way today”–all lovely sentiments that I have heard numerous times.

The problem is that the last example I gave just now is covertly unbiblical.

Now I could launch into an indictment of the modern church’s dangerous obsession with novelty, as indicated by the “new ways” in which we are frequently asking God to speak through Scripture (as if it might one day have something to say that is hasn’t before), but that’s actually not what I’m focusing on here today.  [You can chew on that one yourself; now that I’ve gotten you started, I’m confident you can follow the argument the rest of the way on your own.]  No, the affront of which I speak can be found in the expression “come alive to us.”

The writer of Hebrews says that “the word of God is living and active” (4:12); he does not say that “the word of God is potentially living and awaiting activation.”  It is already living, and it is always living; as the psalmist attests, “Your word, O LORD, is eternal” (119:89).  There is no ebb or flow to the infinite vitality of Scripture or its message for us, meaning that the Word of God is always “ready” for you to receive it!  Its purpose for existence is to be received as often and as deeply as we will have it.

Of course, if the only problem here were the unnecessary nature of the request, then all my fussing probably wouldn’t be warranted.  But there’s more.

See, asking the Scriptures to “come alive to us” betrays a skewed understanding of our relationship to the divine Word.  When it comes right down to it, we seem to be implying that we are more alive than the Scriptures.  The thought process can be spelled out like this:

I know the Bible is God’s Word, but honestly, a lot of this stuff in here just doesn’t really seem to apply to reality–you know, the thoughts and feelings and struggles and circumstances of my life right now.  A lot of times, when I read the Bible, I don’t get anything out of it, because it either doesn’t seem relevant (like the Old Testament) or it’s stuff I’ve already heard plenty of times before (that isn’t always very helpful, really).  As a living, feeling person, I wish that God would do something to the Bible today so that I can find something in what we read that can actually make a difference in my real life.

Before we all have a good chuckle over this clearly ridiculous caricature, stop.  Is this you?  Do you approach your church services, Bible studies, and personal devotions as one trying to salvage “living” truths from the otherwise stale, mundane, “lifeless” Scriptures?  Does your understanding of what is Most Real come from your weak fickle heart and subjective experiences, or from the Grand Story of God’s Word?

Are we making demands on the Bible and asking it to align itself to our desires, or are we submitting our desires and aligning ourselves to the demands of the Bible?

I am convinced that the Bible is more alive than we are, and if we intend to receive this life as our own–and indeed we must–then our posture must be one of humble submission to the living Truth of the Scriptures.

When our time spent with the Word feels “dead” or detached from reality, it’s not the Bible that’s lacking in vitality.  It’s us.  We have to come alive to it.

And that’s something worth praying for.  Every time.

The Fabulous Bentley Brothers

According to Christ, the kingdom of heaven belongs to two groups of people: little children, and those few crazy adults who are willing to “turn and become like children” (Matt 18:1ff).  Everyone agrees that children need to spend time with adults, but do we as adults understand how much we need to spend time with children?  We have much to learn–and in our quest to grow younger, why not consult the experts?

Unfortunately, for college and graduate students (and especially us single folk), it’s all too easy to forget about children.  It’s not every day you see kids scamper across campus or through the library, and if you aren’t an education major, you just aren’t going to be seeing or even thinking about them with any notable frequency.  Though my life is abundantly rich in many regards, I am yet a penniless pauper when it comes to time spent interacting with children.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the book of Proverbs, it is that children’s ministry is an indispensable and inestimably valuable aspect of the work of God’s people.  While perhaps not every Christian is called to serve extensively in this regard outside of their respective homes (a ministry not to be underestimated!), I am always gladdened to find people who are both gifted and passionate in bringing the Word of God to children.  The other day, I was linked to a video clip from a project called What’s in the Bible?, a delightful new Christian education series for kids.  From the website:

In 1990, 24-year-old computer-animator Phil Vischer sat down to create a group of characters that could teach Christian values to kids in a delightfully different way.  A tomato named Bob and a cucumber named Larry were born.  VeggieTales would go on to revolutionize Christian filmmaking, selling more than 50 million videos and placing Phil’s faith-filled stories in one in every three American households with young children.  Phil continues to pursue innovative new ways to integrate faith and storytelling through his new company, Jellyfish Labs.  His projects include Jelly Telly, which provides faith-based daily programming via the internet at JellyTelly.com.

…What’s in the Bible? is a new DVD series from VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer designed to walk kids and families through the entire Bible. DVDs 1-5 (Genesis – 2 Samuel) are available now, with more releasing soon!

To get a flavor for the series, here are a couple videos of The Fabulous Bentley Brothers, a musical duo who sing songs about books of the Old Testament.  Played by YouTube-turned-television sensations Rhett and Link, the brothers combine biblical history with a charming goofiness that both entertains viewers and encourages them to investigate the Scriptures themselves.

So without further ado, enjoy the musical stylings of the Fabulous Bentley Brothers!

If you want to see even more musical merriment, simply search YouTube for the Fabulous Bentley Brothers!  You may even learn a thing or two!

What Makes Me What I Am

The other day I stumbled across a copy of the essay I had to write for my seminary application.  Part of that essay prompted me to give a “comprehensive account” of my “relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Given the size constraints of the essay, I was not allowed to mail them a Bible for my answer.  (I think that might also have been considered plagiarism.)  So, instead, I scratched out the paragraph below.  When I found this the other day, I was stirred anew by the truths I had been asked to recount, and I thought maybe we might enjoy being truth-stirred together.  I think maybe that’s what the Church is all about.

I believe that Jesus is the promised Christ, the Son of God, and I trust him as my Savior and Lord.  Though I share in the guilt of Adam, my original representative, and though my natural self is totally depraved such that I would never have chosen to embrace God by my own will, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ (who is the second Adam and my new representative) has paid the full penalty for all my sins, satisfied the wrath of God toward me, drawn me to repentance from my sins, given me newness of life through the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, and reconciled me to the Father through adoption into his family.  Furthermore, Christ is the sovereign Lord over all things as their Creator and their rightful object of worship and service.  In his goodness, he has crafted man in such a manner that submission to his will and obedience to his commands are the only path to fulfillment in life as they better fit us to enjoy him.  The good works achieved through me are not my own, but rather the work of Christ in me, performed as a thankful response to his abundant love.  Indeed, every aspect of my relationship to Jesus–my regeneration, justification, adoption, and ongoing sanctification–is a gift of grace from the hand of God, received solely by faith in Christ Jesus the Savior and Lord.  Because of these gifts, the way has been opened for me to partake in genuine fellowship with God and with his body, the church, which is a constitutive part of my life in Christ and is my true family in this world.

One Nation Under Gosh

I think I watched more golf in one sitting this past Sunday than ever before.*  During the final round of the 2011 U.S. Open, sports fans everywhere were on the edges of their seats (well, as much as possible for watching golf, anyway) as 22-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy shattered the all-time U.S. Open score record by four strokes and secured his first major PGA title victory.  It was a pretty exciting day for professional sports and for the good people of the Emerald Isle, but many red-blooded patriotic Christian Americans were outraged by the 2011 U.S. Open, for a reason that will eventually validate this paragraph’s existence on a blog about Jesus and the Church.

At the start of Sunday’s coverage of the event, NBC played a feature that was essentially meant to highlight a bunch of awesome famous American stuff and generally show how sweet America is.  While I presumably did have the TV on when this feature aired, it completely escaped my notice–probably because I was too busy listening to my uncle joke about the newly-popularized use of therapeutic BOTOX injections to treat hemorrhoid problems.**  (It’s real, I promise.)  Anyway, a few hours later commentator Dan Hicks took a break from the action to say something that wasn’t about golf at all, and this time I was paying attention.  (Check out this classy video-camera-pointed-at-a-TV footage!)

Before his statement was over I could already guess what had been so offensively omitted from the pledge of allegiance.  Here’s the original feature:

As you can see, somebody at NBC decided that the full pledge of allegiance would not appear in the feature (either time it was recited), and the phrase “under God” was one of the few portions of the pledge that did not make the final cut.  Though the specific source and purpose of this decision are unknown, many viewers were outraged by the omission and immediately began tweeting and blogging about their indignation over the purported travesty.  Before long, NBC became aware of the outcry, realized their faux pas, and issued an on-air apology to minimize backlash.  Nevertheless, the feature and subsequent apology have been a popular talking point since then, due no doubt to the endless potential for disagreement and controversy over whether the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge in the first place.

Now I think most of us can agree that NBC made a mistake–if not by violating some moral principle, then at the very least by inviting negative publicity and unnecessarily offending viewers.  I figure those people who are offended by the God-phrase being in the pledge are at least used to it being there and wouldn’t have fussed about it to NBC had they run the full pledge in the feature.  Whoever thought they’d make more people happy by taking “under God” out of the feature sorely underestimated the passion of those who feel it important for America to formally and officially acknowledge the sovereignty of God over the nation.  While NBC certainly has the right to edit the pledge however they choose for their broadcast, it is not their place to decide what should or should not actually be in the pledge, and if it is in fact true that the omission was meant to advance an anti-God-phrase agenda (as many have taken the liberty of assuming without any evidence), the U.S. Open was probably not the ideal front from which to launch an ideological attack on a well-established, traditional, and official government articulation.

But, of course, the real question is whether the phrase “under God” really does belong in the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.  The common assumption is that most Christians like it there, and most non-Christians don’t–but stating people’s feelings about the God-phrase doesn’t really answer the question of whether it is indeed right or fitting.

Personally, I love God, I love America, and I do not think the phrase “under God” should be in the pledge of allegiance.

A few years ago, I read an article by Christianity Today senior writer Rodney Clapp that opened my eyes to some very serious theological problems the God-phrase causes for Christians.  Much of the issue turns on the fact that we don’t get to decide what the word God means in the pledge; the authors (i.e. our governing officials) do.  For instance, a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow) dealt with the constitutionality of the God-phrase given the disestablishment clause in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).  Though the case was eventually dismissed on technical grounds, several of the justices realized the dilemma on their hands–a reference to a deity in an official national pledge–and decided to write opinions anyway.  For instance, in defending the existence of the God-phrase, former Chief Justice Bill Rehnquist wrote:

The phrase “under God” is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion, but a simple recognition of the fact noted in H. R. Rep. No. 1693, at 2: “From the time of our earliest history our peoples and our institutions have reflected the traditional concept that our Nation was founded on a fundamental belief in God.”  Reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church.

In her Opinion, Justice Sandra O’Connor took a similar stance:

It [the pledge] does not refer to a nation “under Jesus” or “under Vishnu,” but instead acknowledges religion in a general way: a simple reference to a generic “God.”…  The phrase “under God,” conceived and added at a time when our national religious diversity was neither as robust nor as well recognized as it is now, represents a tolerable attempt to acknowledge religion and to invoke its solemnizing power without favoring any individual religious sect or belief system.

I hope some pretty big red flags popped up in your mind just now as you read these explanations of what “God” must be like in order to be allowed into an official national statement.  Clapp argues in response to Rehnquist and O’Connor’s remarks that “to cite or refer to a ‘God’ who is not the subject or object of ‘any religion,’ who is not the ‘particular God’ of any given faith or church, is to introduce a ‘God’ additional to and apart from the ‘particular’ living God of the Christian church.”

I don’t expect you to be convinced yet, but if you’re interested in the full scoop, you really should read Clapp’s article, which you will find here.  Please, I implore you.  Read it.

And if, like myself, you find the discussion of the pledge of allegiance leading you to inquire about the other references to and invocations of “God” in official government documents and national proclamations (i.e. the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, many patriotic songs, almost every presidential inaugural address), I offer to you my undergraduate capstone research project on the existence and implications of America’s civil religion.

One Nation Under Gosh

Cheers.

* In the interest of full disclosure, I was channel-flipping back and forth between the Open and The Empire Strikes Back for a good part of the time.  In this regard, I have no regrets and apologize for nothing.
** “They should call it BUTTOX!” he quipped jocularly.