Should Christians Retreat?

An argument can be made that the liberal democratic societies across the west are becoming more hostile to orthodox Christianity. If Christians believe this argument, they might wonder what they should do about it.

The response that most Christians in America have taken for granted is to use the levers of political power to try to turn the tide back toward an America that shares more of their values. I think this is the wrong thing to do.

Here’s another option: develop parallel, countercultural practices and institutions to serve as bulwarks within which we are strengthened, and with this strength engage the prevailing post-Christian culture in Christlike ways.

Rob Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a manifesto for this latter strategy. He gives room for political engagement, but argues pragmatically that using politics to advance Christian-friendly public policy has failed and should be minimized in favor of the BenOp. I think there are principled theological reasons for Christians to stay out of worldly politics, but despite that difference I see a lot of similarities between the BenOp and Anabaptism. Among them:

  • emphasis on separation
  • belief that worldly politics will not save us
  • emphasis on close Christian community

I do worry about a strategy that focuses so much on defense. Perhaps it will produce communities whose meaningful engagement with the outside world is overwhelmed by inward-looking programs. We must always keep in front of us Christ’s command to make disciples; this is a task that requires boldness and creativity not just safeguarding.

Still, many of the ideas in The Benedict Option provide needed correctives to the current American church. We can’t go along and get along culturally, we can’t do the work of Jesus using worldly weapons, we can’t absorb false assumptions about sexual autonomy and ethics – we can’t do these things and expect to successfully transmit our faith to the next generation, let alone expand the borders of Christ’s kingdom beyond our families.

One final thought: I’m struck by how the recently founded Sattler College,along with older Mennonite schools like Faith Builders, align with many of the strategies of the Benedict Option. They provide retreat as well as training and development for Christian students and, as far as I can tell, equip students to go and do, not just hunker down.

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2019 Book List

This year I’m shooting for nine books.

1. The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person by Judith Beck. This year, I asked Amy to choose a book for me to read. She got me interested in Beck’s cognitive behavioral approach to weight loss and control, so here we are.

2. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith by Rosario Butterfield. This author keeps coming up, along with her emphasis on Christian hospitality.

3. Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries by Werner Elert. I want to learn more about how the early church did Communion.

4. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rob Dreher. An influential book, advocating more separation between the church and the world, written by someone who is part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

5. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False by Thomas Nagel. A secular philosopher calling into question certain materialist dogmas.

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. I should have read this book long ago.

7. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller. I’ve been wanting to read Keller and also to read about justice from a Christian perspective.

8. Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference: Religious Control of Statistical Paradigms by Andrew Hartley. Written by an online acquaintance, this book deals with the philosophy of statistics.

9. Bringing up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement for Those Shaping the Next Generation of Men by James Dobson. We’re trying to bring up some boys; this is a classic book on the subject.

I expect other books to pop up over the year, but here are a few others that I’d like to read, whether this year or in the future:

  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself by Corbett and Fikkert
  • Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity by David Bercot
  • Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James Lang
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The 2018 Book List: A Look Back

A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to read more books, so I posted a modest reading goal to my blog. Now, it’s becoming a yearly routine I anticipate: look back on the books I read in the past year, and look forward to the year ahead.

In 2018, my goal was to read six books. I can enthusiastically report that I read eight. Here is the list of the books I read in 2018:

1. Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence. I posted an essay inspired by this book.
2. The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. And some thoughts of mine.
3. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Still hope to gather and share my thoughts on this provocative book.
4. 1913 to 2013 in 13 Miles: The Hamilton, Ohio 1913 Flood Then and Now.
5. Life of Pi. A neat piece of fiction with an ending that makes you go, “Wait a minute, now what is going on here?!?”
6. Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Really helpful input on grace-infused child-training.
7. Station Eleven. A post-apocalyptic novel that was the One City One Book choice for Hamilton, OH (my town) this year.
8. King Jesus Claims His Church. Finny Kuruvilla has many keen insights in this book. Though I don’t agree in all details I wish all Christians would read it, for it is a compelling, clear-eyed, uncompromising Kingdom vision of Christianity rooted in Scripture and the practices of the historical suffering church. It offers many contrasts to the most well-known versions of Christianity in the United States (e.g. Catholicism, high Protestant churches, evangelicalism, etc.).

The first six books comprised my list as it was at the beginning of 2018; the last two were late additions. My goal is to write at least a little piece that is inspired by each book, so I have something compact to remember them by. But if I fail at that goal, I won’t mind too much. I’m just happy to be reading and thinking through interesting books.

If things go as planned, my shiny new 2019 book list will post tomorrow.

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Not with this world’s weapons

In the 4th century, the Christian church became an institution joined with the state. In some ways, the alliance made sense – with this newfound money and might the Gospel could be spread much further and wider. And looking back, a tremendous amount of good resulted. For a large part of the world, the ambient culture became strongly infused with Christian mores. In fact, Judeo-Christian ethics became the default in many places, and it is likely that many of the artistic and technological advances made in the next 1600 years were made possible by this connection between society and Christianity.

But did the ends justify the means? I don’t think so.

The price for the power and influence of Christendom was to distort Jesus’ gospel message. Instead of mimicking the humility of Christ and his message of restoration for the powerless, the poor, the sick (see Luke 4:16-21 and Luke 6:17-26) – instead of that, the church became powerful and rich and corrupt and actually forcibly coerced people to join it!

I believe that it’s the residue of this unholy alliance that infects modern American politics, and in particular the association of political power and the church. And just as in those early days of Christendom when believers were tempted to accept worldly power and methods in service of a greater good, American Christians today face the same temptation. Now especially, when years of dogged cultivation of conservative politicians and judges may have the U.S. on the cusp of overturning Roe v. Wade. But the moral compromise required to get there, the un-Christlikeness, the worldly tactics, the lack of comity – perfectly embodied by Donald Trump and plainly on display during Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation hearing – should stop us in our tracks.

I will say again: in Jesus’ kingdom, the ends don’t justify the means.

The Anabaptist movement – or at least the part with which I identify – seemed to clearly see this. They saw that to fight for Jesus’ kingdom required a different set of tools than those wielded by human governments.

You can’t help build a kingdom not of this world with this world’s weapons. If we could then, as Jesus said, we would fight. Instead, we seize the weapons of the Spirit and of the upside-down kingdom. We love and serve everyone, we do justice, we love mercy, and refuse to compromise His values even for the possibility of some “greater good”. Jesus is the greater good, and so we follow him.

Post inspired by The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray.
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Why I Believe: Jesus Rose from the Dead and Turned the World Upside-Down

Note: A version of this essay was presented on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at a Faculty Who Believe event at Miami University

When I was younger, I sang in an a cappella Gospel quartet with the very creative name of the A Cappella Harmony Quartet. We were better singers than talkers overall, but we sang enough that I developed a little speech to introduce one of the songs we sang. In this introduction, I talked about subjective reasons to believe along with objective reasons.

As I reflect back on that, and think again about articulating why I believe, I circle back to those same two basic categories.

So why do I follow Jesus? First, the objective part: because I believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Second, the subjective: because of the transcendent purpose and subversive splendor of Jesus’ call.

1. The resurrection of Jesus. The belief that Jesus rose bodily from the dead is a part of the most ancient expressions of the basic tenets of Christianity. In fact, Paul quotes an extremely early Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (NIV)

There is a strong case to be made for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. I won’t make the argument in detail here, but J.P. Moreland, in his book Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity, suggests three main lines of evidence that have been distilled into three statements, each of which have strong historical grounding:

a. “The tomb was discovered empty by a group of women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.”

b. “Jesus’ disciples had real experiences with Jesus after he was killed.”

c. “As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew.”

Regarding the empty tomb: Many explanations of the empty tomb have been put forward, but the best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead. One point: Jesus and his resurrection was likely being preached within weeks of the event itself, so a body is all that would have been needed to quell the movement.

Regarding Jesus’ postmortem appearances: In the early creed from I Corinthians 15, there are numerous references to real people observing Jesus, in ways that belie hallucination or madness.

Regarding the establishment of the Christian church: All but one of the disciples – those people that actually lived and walked and talked with Jesus – died for their faith in Jesus. Jesus’ associates wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But they wouldn’t have believed if Jesus’ body would have been produced.

If you’re skeptical, you may reject these arguments because you think the New Testament accounts are unreliable. But there are good reasons to believe that the Gospel accounts are uncorrupted, and that the content is historically reliable.

For one, we have more copies, and older copies, of the New Testament than any other ancient manuscript. Secondly, the NT accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are based on eyewitnesses who have no real incentive to lie. As I mentioned above, many of these eyewitnesses died for their belief in the resurrection. Furthermore, the accounts include details that would have made the account implausible or embarrassing to ancient sensibilities, like the disciples cowering in safety while women discover the empty tomb. As far as the claim that the accounts are legendary, the oldest creeds are dated to only a few years after the event, not enough time for legends to develop.

For more detail, I recommend the work of William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland. In particular, Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, provides an overview of evidence for Christianity including details on evidence for the Resurrection.

So I believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. Let’s assume from here on out that this is true.

As with any ultimate explanation of the world, Christianity must confront some hard questions. How could there be a God given all of the natural evil and suffering in the world? Didn’t the God of the Bible order genocide in the Old Testament account of Israel’s conquest of Canaan? What about all of the apparent contradictions and inaccuracies in the Bible? How do you reconcile the Biblical account of creation with scientific evidence for biological evolution?

But here’s the thing: If the resurrection is true, then these questions have good answers whether or not we know what they are. If Jesus rose from the dead, then it strongly suggests that God exists and Jesus is God as he claimed. If Jesus rose from the dead, there is an explanation for the suffering in the world and the violence apparently executed by the Israelite people upon their Canaanite enemies. The resurrection doesn’t directly address questions about the inerrancy of the Bible, but it provides a framework within which we can try to resolve these issues without every unanswered question being a potential defeater for our belief in Christianity.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes the reasonable point that if Jesus is not risen our faith is futile, and we are to be pitied. It is the piece of the Christian story upon which everything else hinges. This is the hill to die on if you’re a Christian.

But if Jesus did rise from the dead, it changes everything. As the song I used to introduce says, speaking of Christ’s resurrection: “Death had lost and life had won, for morning had come.”

So I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and this is the objective truth that sustains my Christian faith.

2. The transcendent purpose and subversive splendor of Jesus’ call.

I believe it is important to ground my belief in an objective reality. Otherwise, my subjective religious understanding is no more credible than that of anyone else with any other metaphysical worldview.

But once you believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, then attention turns to what he did for us and what he calls us to.

Theologian N.T. Wright says that the death of Jesus launched a revolution that broke the power of sin in our lives and returns us to live life as we were created to live. Jesus work on the cross on our behalf is our only hope. As the Heidelberg Catechism so beautifully puts it:

Q. What is your only comfort
in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Millenials desire purpose. Trust me, I know – I’m a millenial! (I was born in 1982 which is at the very front edge of the generation.) And though I often fail to live up to Jesus’ call on my life, I have no question what that call is.

So what is this call of Christ on my life, that provides such purpose and meaning?

Jesus calls us out of all the nations of the world to follow him. This call has profound implications. He calls us to forsake our political allegiances, our addictions to comfort, wealth, power, pleasure … he calls us to forsake our lives in order to follow King Jesus.

Perhaps you know the famous story about the rich young ruler. He came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said, you know the commandments. The young man said, I’ve kept all of them since I was a boy. Then Jesus made the devastating call: go and sell all that you have and follow me.

Sadly, the rich young ruler wouldn’t do it.

To seek after possessions and power and pleasure – these things are so natural that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” have been enshrined as unalienable rights in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

But Jesus turns those unalienable rights (and a whole lot more) on their head.

– Whereas the currency of worldly political systems is coercion, as the hymn says Christ’s law is love and His Gospel is peace;
– Whereas revenge is the natural response to aggrievement, Christ’s call is to forgive those who have wronged us;
– Whereas people hate their enemies, Christ requires us to love them and do good to them;
– Whereas humankind seeks power, Christ blesses the meek;
– Whereas the kingdoms of the world respond to force with force, Christ calls us to love all and to return good for evil;
– Whereas many people have made unwanted advances and sexually harassed and abused others in horrible ways, Christ says we should not even entertain sexual thoughts for anyone not our spouse.
– Whereas our judicial system requires an oath to make people tell the truth, Jesus asks us simply to let our yes be yes and our no, no;
– Whereas if someone wins a lawsuit against you and requires a payment one would naturally pay only the minimum required, Jesus says to pay them even more than they ask for.

If you embrace this call, it will change your life.

If you are a typical person, you are like the rich young ruler – you want to accrue power, prestige, pleasures, and riches for yourself.

But you can’t answer Christ’s call and still live for yourself. Answering the call means losing your life.

Jesus said (Matthew 16:25): Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

In Jesus’ kingdom, you win by losing. You win by suffering. This is just the opposite of what we are conditioned to strive for.

There is a famous story from my Anabaptist heritage, about a man named Dirk Willems in Holland. He lived in the middle of the 16th century when it was very dangerous to be an Anabaptist. Because Anabaptists required Christians to be rebaptized as adults, both the Catholics and the Reformers severely persecuted them. The story goes that Dirk was being chased by a thief-catcher and since it was cold he ran onto some ice in order to escape. The ice was thin enough that his pursuer broke through. Instead of thanking God for saving him from injustice, Dirk returned to the man and pulled him out thus saving his life. Though the thief-catcher wanted no part in Dirk’s arrest, the mayor of the town wouldn’t let him shirk from his Anabaptist-hunting duties. Dirk Willems was horrifically burned at the stake.

As this martyr demonstrated, the call of Jesus requires everything and affects all parts of our lives. That’s what makes it so hard, but also what makes it so compelling. It is a paradox of Christianity that the forgiveness of our sins is freely offered to us on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross, but that the call of Christ requires everything.

What this call will look like in your life, only God knows.

– Maybe it means taking the Gospel or a cup of cold water to a war-torn part of the world;
– Maybe it means eschewing the six-figure job out of college in favor of one that allows you to be a better father or mother;
– Maybe it means taking the six-figure job in order to support the kingdom in material ways;
– Maybe it means forgiving your father for his neglect, or your spouse for their unfaithfulness;
– Maybe it means doing right even when it would be easier not to and no one would ever know;
– Maybe it means doing what you said you would do, even when it is terribly costly.
– Maybe it means associating with and befriending people outside of your “tribe” (e.g. family, race, politics, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation)
– Maybe it means repudiating the American dream and ordering your life in a way that prioritizes the needs of others over your own comfort.

One way this plays out in my life is how I react to my own success and to the success of others. I have a natural desire to collect glory for myself, and that is wrong. This sin manifests itself when I am proud of myself for accomplishing something and when I resent the success of others. Jesus’ call is directly at odds with my natural inclination. Instead of focusing on myself, my call is to collect glory for Christ and to work for the flourishing of others.

If you talk to people who have lost faith, they will tell you that one of the hardest things to get a handle on is the sudden lack of a larger purpose in their lives.

A Jesus-follower does not lack such a transcendent purpose. The purpose, the call, is clear: to give your life to Christ in service of his kingdom, and to love people in ways that confound our human intuitions.

John Lennon wrote a famous song that starts: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try; no hell below us, above us only sky.” So far, a nice-sounding secular fantasy. But then he says something horrifying:

“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

Having nothing to die for. This may be Lennon’s utopia, but to me it’s a nightmare of purposeless existence. You don’t want that, nobody wants a life with that little meaning.

I think I had it right 15 years ago when I was singing tenor and thought about reasons to believe in terms of the objective and subjective.

Make no mistake, there are many possible transcendent purposes that one could construct. Such a purpose is ultimately subjective … unless it is built upon a man who gave his life on our behalf and then became alive again.

That, my friends, is King Jesus.

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Three Exhortations from William Lane Craig to Christian Academics

Gold here from William Lane Craig, addressing Christian academics at N.C. State. Three exhortations to Christians who are in academia:

1. Know the Christian faith – theology, apologetics – well enough to be able to give a reason for the hope that is in you.  After all, you’ve staked your life on it.

2. Strive to integrate your disciplinary work with your Christian faith. Understand the philosophical foundations of your discipline and examine them in light of the Christian worldview.

3. Develop your personal relationship with God. Don’t neglect spiritual formation and don’t neglect your family. And don’t buy into the worldly idea that you should strive for academic glory.

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Christian nonviolence is near the heart of the Gospel

I have never really doubted that Christians should be nonresistant. Though there are some difficult texts to deal with, the balance of the Scriptural data–especially when viewed through the lens of Jesus–seems to my Mennonite-raised eyes as comfortably on the side of nonviolence*.

But it always seemed to be an auxiliary doctrine, important in its own right but certainly a secondary issue about which Christians could disagree.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand just how inextricably linked Christian nonviolence is to Jesus and the kingdom He proclaims. When I interact with strong proponents of this peaceful lifestyle, inevitably it includes a declaration and delineation of the kingdom.

The character of this kingdom, this nation, is fundamentally different from all the nations of the world. Their currency, at bottom, is coercion; but His law is love and His Gospel is peace.

Most modern Christians–though perhaps not many of the Reformers nor even some reformed Christian theocrats today–would agree with this idea in theory. Of course Christianity should be advanced noncoercively. Of course the world’s nations will use force.

But if, as NT Wright argues, the crucifixion of Christ launched a revolution, it matters how the revolution on behalf of this kingdom should be fought. And how it should be fought is made clear when you look at the narrative arc of Scripture and in particular the teachings of Jesus: with love and peace and forgiveness, conquering through suffering instead of force.

But then if Jesus is our king, how can his ethos not permeate the entirety of our lives? How is it that we can carve out areas and exceptions that allow us to employ coercive methods in service to worldly systems? If He is our King mustn’t he be King over all of us?

Christian nonviolence is close to the heart of the Gospel because it is so bound up in the good news Christ proclaims. Jesus’ atoning death on the cross provides the impulse, but His radical, upside-down, non-coercive ethic is the means through which the Kingdom is implemented.

If you are a Christian and not given to nonviolence, you may be thinking of objections. Preston Sprinkle, in his book Fight, lays out a case for Christian nonviolence and addresses many possible arguments. It’s worth a read. Many Christians, I’m afraid, have been shaped more by American nationalism than Jesus on this issue.

* Preston Sprinkle defines violence as “a physical act that is intended to destroy (i.e. injure) a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent”, so nonviolence would be not doing those kinds of acts.

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