Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Decline and Fall of Christian America

Last month the cover article of Newsweek was titled "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." It cited recent polls which indicate that the number of professing Christians is on the rapid decline. In less than 20 years the number of those who profess to have no religious affiliation has doubled from 8 to 15 percent. From a Christian perspective, this may not be all bad news. Such a sharp decline is at least as much reflective of a growing sense that it is socially acceptable to be an unbeliever as it is that true believers are abandoning their faith. This, I think, is a good thing. For quite some time in America it has been, and still is in much of our country, socially advantageous to identify oneself as a Christian. As such, the church has always been filled with those who simply "go to church" because that's what you're supposed to do. Such "Christians" are quintessentially nominal--in name only. But being a true follower of Jesus means nothing less than reorienting the entirety of one's life around the reality of his lordship over all of creation. As such, if the church is losing the nominal, we might see it as a welcome foreshadowing of God's separation of the wheat and the tares. Moreover, nothing is more damaging to evangelistic efforts than those who acknowledge Jesus with their lips but deny Him with their lifestyles. My prayer is of course that those who have left the church will return, but now not as those seeking social status but as those who genuinely desire to seek God.

Unfortunately, I doubt the decline is due simply to the loss of the nominal. But the picture of Christianity that Newsweek paints leads me to suspect one central reason as to why many true seekers have turned away from the faith--they simply don't understand what Christianity is really about. This is not surprising. The uniqueness of Christianity is so counter-intuitive that historically its essence has often been distorted. Many people say that all religions are the same--and based on the picture of Christianity painted in this article--I would agree. But simply put, you can sum up the difference between Christianity and all other religions as Tim Keller does. Religion says, "I obey, therefore I am accepted." But authentic Christianity says "I am accepted, therefore I obey." These two statements are polar opposites. It is Christianity's uniqueness that reveals how it is that all religions except for Christianity really are essentially the same and directly contradict the Christian worldview. However, it is our human nature to resort to the religious worldview and so historically Christianity itself has often had a tendency to lose its flavor and become like every other religion. The Christianity portrayed in Newsweek would certainly be guilty of this. The article's author, Jon Meacham, shows that he too has bought in to this misconception in this summary statement:

"Roughly put, the Christian narrative is the story of humankind as chronicled in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—the drama of creation, fall and redemption. The orthodox tend to try to live their lives in accordance with the general behavioral principles of the Bible (or at least the principles they find there of which they approve) and anticipate the ultimate judgment of God—a judgment that could well determine whether they spend eternity in heaven or in hell."

Meacham starts off his summary right on target. Christianity is fundamentally about creation, fall, and redemption. But his further analysis betrays a complete misunderstanding of this. Creation, fall, redemption is not about "trying to live their lives in accordance with the general behavioral principles of the Bible." This is exactly the kind of moralism that is at the heart of mere religion. But creation, fall, and redemption is about what God has done precisely because we have failed to live in accordance with the aforementioned biblical principles. As God brings about redemption, his followers do in fact begin to follow these principles, but it isn't by one's own efforts but by the power of God working in the life of the believer. One adheres to biblical principles not because they have to in order to be accepted by God but because they are already accepted and are empowered by God to live in such a way---a way that is in fact the best way to live. And here's where the rubber meets the road. Christians should not depend on the government to enforce morality but on the working of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the redeemed. Forcing a person to act like a Christian no more makes them a Christian than throwing them in the ocean makes them a fish. I agree with Charles Finney who says as quoted in the article that "the great business of the church is to reform the world—to put away every kind of sin" but we must be very careful with his conclusion that Christians are "bound to exert their influence to secure a legislation that is in accordance with the law of God." I do not wish to delve into the complex issue of how a Christian is to live in a democracy, but suffice it to say that true Christian reform is accomplished when God writes the law not on stone tablets but on the heart. A nation that relies on the government to enforce biblical principles is not a Christian nation but a religious one, and those who look to the government in this manner misunderstand the primary means by which redemption is to take place. If those who have turned away from Christianity have done so because they understand it as it is portrayed by Newsweek--primarily about enforcing a moral way of life--they have put the cart before the horse and rejected not Christianity but religion.

Play It Twice And Call It Jazz

"Play it twice and call it jazz" is an expression for how to make a wrong note sound like it was intentional. It's a joke that us non-jazzers find amusing because of our musical insecurities. It has been said of poetry and of music that you must know the rules before you can break them. The greatest poets sometimes use poor grammar, punctuation or speling. :) They bend the rules in order to create a beauty not possible within the confines of proper structure.

One of the problems with much of Christianity today is that we are too worried about playing a wrong note or misspelling a word. When we make rules that say Christians shouldn't watch R-rated movies, go to bars, drink alcohol, listen to "secular" music, or have tattoos, we are playing music in such a way as to be certain that we don't play a wrong note. We are sticking to the 3 chords that make up "Christian" music (ok, maybe it's 5, sometimes we get creative and throw in a 2 or a 6 chord but the 3 pretty much warms the bench.) Such a parallel between the simple state of Christian music and Christian living is perhaps telling.

This is not to say that simple music or simple living cannot be beautiful. To the contrary some, if not most, of the greatest works of art are the most simple (and there is some great "Christian" music.) Similarly, I have many friends who follow the Christian "rules" to a T and whose living writes a song of simple beauty before God. Many of us could learn a lesson or two about getting back to the basics. But forcing all musicians into the same mold is what makes cookie cutter CCM. Not only does it result in a plethora of bad art, but even what is truly beautiful only connects with those who like the same cookies. Similarly, if Christianity is to reach an increasingly diverse society, we must be willing to take the risk of using what the Apostle Paul calls Christian freedom in our living as well as our music.

This is not to suggest that we are to be governed by no rules at all. For the poet such an approach results in gibberish, for the musician in noise, and for the Christian in unholy living. As Paul says, we are not to use our freedom to indulge the sinful nature, but to serve one another in love. (Gal 5:13) But we must not be afraid of wrong notes. The simple truth of "Amazing Grace" reminds us that we get a second take. Moreover, it might not be wrong at all. It might be jazz.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why, God?

"My God My God, Why have you forsaken me?" As we close in on Good Friday it is comforting to know that even Jesus felt abandoned. Have you ever had a day when you've been all around people, even people you know and love, and yet you still feel alone? That's been me today. God doesn't promise me that I won't feel this way-- but at least he's been there Himself.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


If you have the chance. Take Saturday and do nothing. It's one day of the year when it can be good to reflect upon what it would be like if Jesus had not risen from the Dead. Imagine how the disciples must have been feeling-- that everything they'd put their hope in had been a farce. That they were, as Paul would suggest later in imagining the same thing, to be pitied the most of all people.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Basketball With Jesus

I didn't get to go play basketball yesterday. The other guys at church forgot about me and scheduled it when I was busy. Actually, I think it was intentional. They are all afraid of me. But in reality, I'm glad I didn't go. I haven't played in a long time and if I'd played I would have been that guy. You know the guy I'm talking about. The guy who shakes his head every time he misses a shot. The guy who wants everyone to believe that he's better than the way he's playing. "It's been a while." "Boy am I rusty." "My allergies are kicking in." "Is that rim regulation?" You know the excuses. But I think it's a microcosm of what we are all trying to do in life. We are all trying to show everybody that we are better than what it looks like. Isn't that what self pity is? When we walk around moping about how bad we are, aren't we really just trying to convince everyone (including ourselves) that we are better than we really are? That's why I'm thankful that Jesus calls me out on this every time I read the Bible. It's frustrating. Reading the Bible is a little like if your friend turned to you in the middle of the game and said, "why are you shaking your head? You've never been able to make that shot." I think that's why we shy away from Jesus, he calls us out. But then he says the most amazing thing. "It's ok. Really, it's ok. It's ok that you can't make a layup to save your soul (everything's always so spiritual with Jesus). Come follow me and I'll show you how. But it's going to start with you realizing how bad you really are."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Love Your Enemies Do Your Laundry

The other day I hadn't done laundry in a while and found myself in a pinch. So I went to the store and bought a package of underwear. I wonder if that is reflective of a general American attitude? Rather than take the time to work with what you already have (washing clothes for instance) it's much easier to just get a new one. In relationships, rather than working through things, it's easier to get a new one. Rather than making your job work, it's easier to get a new one. But when Jesus says that we are called to love our enemies I think he means that when conflict arises with our friends we should work it out rather than cutting ties and looking for new ones. Which I guess also means that I should have just done my laundry.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Worship With Wooten

I can't wait to worship God tonight. I know, it seems strange. Worship God on a Tuesday? Who does that? Is there a special event at church? No. Is Chris Tomlin coming to town? No. Is there a Rick Warren special on ABC? No. So what's going on? Victor Wooten is coming to Rams Head Onstage at 7pm tonight and I'm expecting him to draw me into the presence of God. Is Wooten a Christian? I have no idea. But he, like everyone, was created in the image of God and when he plays bass it shows. When building the Temple, which was of course designed for the sole purpose of Worshiping Yahweh, King Solomon hired workers from the city of Tyre who themselves did not profess faith in Israel's God. (1 Kings 5) Yet because of their skill he knew that their work would bring glory to God. If I were making a worship album and Victor was available to play on it I'd hire him in a second!!
So if you can worship God at Rams Head why go to church at all? Because my weekly time in corporate worship and study of the Scriptures helps me keep my thinking straight concerning the full scope of who and what He and His plan is and allows me to more fully appreciate and worship Him at a concert or wherever I am. The beauty of music alone is powerful and can do much to lift one's spirits. But as the handmaiden of theology (to steal from Luther) music can truly heal the soul. As Wooten lays down some fat grooves tonight I will enter into the presence of God through the door of God's beauty. From there I will be reminded of His other attributes--His love, that he cares about me and is committed to me; HIs patience, that his love continues even when I don't return the sentiment; His omniscience and wisdom, that He knows my situation and how to best love me; His sovereignty, He has the power to do it; and His grace, that He will do it no matter the cost.